Reconsidering the Carcano

Carcano Operation

The Carcano rifle often evokes only two reactions in people.  First, most remember the Kennedy Assassination.  This is usually followed by a murmuring of how Oswald could have done the deed with such a sloppy, inaccurate, unreliable, rifle that has just as much a chance as blowing up in your face as firing properly.

While we did lose a president to a Carcano M38 short rifle, the rest is apparently a 50 year old game of telephone.  A letter to the editor in a national gun journal during the post war years made claim to a Carcano rifle simply blowing up and ejecting it’s bolt into the shooter’s face.  It warned that these guns should not be trusted and were made to inferior standards.  The story has never been confirmed and we’ve yet to see a documented failure with factory ammo, but the rumor keeps spreading down through the generations.

So let’s start over and do a very brief recap of the Carcano at the time of its adoption:

The Model 1891 Carcano was adopted as a long rifle in the 6.5x52mm smokeless, centerfire cartridge.  At the time, it was the first 6.5mm bullet in standard service.  Benefits included lighter carry weight, better penetration at long range, less recoil, and flatter trajectory resulting in a longer point-blank distance.  Japan, The Netherlands, Romania, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, and Greece followed with their own cartridges later.

Italian Rifle Carcano-M1891-Full 2k

The Carcano action is often written off as a weird copy of the Gewehr 1888 but it includes more than a few differences.  But first, yes, it does have a Mannlicher magazine licensed from Steyr in Austria.  This means a bidirectional enbloc clip with six cartridges was loaded whole into the magazine and when the last round was pressed into the chamber the clip would fall free from a hole in the bottom.  While the Italians were offered the additional rights to just produce a copy of the entire Steyr-Mannlicher rifle, they opted to use a better known native design by Salvatore Carcano.

Bolt comparison

 

In 1868 Carcano had designed a breech-loading conversion to refit the various obsolete muzzle-loading rifles in Italian service.  This 1868 Carcano used bolt body with milled bolt head and a unique safety tab that essentially decocked the firing pin spring.  Borrowing from the Gewehr 1888, the M1891 Carcano includes two forward locking lugs, cock-on-open milling on the bolt body, a tabbed cocking piece, and rear cap.  Unlike the Gew.88, the Carcano’s bolt head was milled directly into the bolt body, it’s cocking piece’s guide rib seats in the left side of the receiver, and it features the unique “decocking” Carcano safety that interrupts the line of sight when on “safe”.  It also uses a simplified bolt stop activated by the trigger and a single spring powers both the sear and a vertically set ejector under the bolt.

While none of this was truly revolutionary, the resulting action was as strong and capable as nearly infantry rifle of the day.  Remember, Italy’s traditional enemy had been Austria and at this point they had only just hit on the Mannlicher M1890.  Most of their army was still using wedge-locking Mannlicher 1888 and 1890 rifles with semi-smokeless cartridges of low pressure.  The Germans were still using the Gewehr 1888, the French the Lebel.  There was no Mauser 98 and the later schlegelmilch-improved Mannlichers had not appeared, heck the US had not even adopted the Krag-Jørgensen yet.

So what happened?  Well, for the Italians at least, the Carcano might have been too good.  There was never enough reason to spend their limited resources replacing these guns as the years went by.  Additionally, early Carcano rifles were constructed with a secret gain twist rifling pattern that helped reduce wear on the barrels and so meant that they could remain in service longer and many were updated beginning in 1924 by simply being shortened into carbines.  In 1938 an attempt was made to replace the aging 6.5mm cartridge, which was a greater problem than the action itself.  The Carcano was adapted to the rather nice 7.35x51mm cartridge but by then war loomed and the logistics for a swap were nightmarish, so production was switched back to 6.5mm.

With the end of Italian involvement in the war, Carcano production stopped and the rifle disappeared from the inventories of major powers. Although it went on serving, like many other designs, in the surplus markets of smaller countries.

So, compared to other milsurps available in the current collectors market, does the Carcano stand out as a shooter?  Well no, but neither do many other less disparaged designs.  But, these rifles aren’t as dangerous or misguided as people assume.  They are a fine collectable available in a number of configurations, often for rather low prices.

As always, we have a little extra on the M1891 Carcano over at C&Rsenal.




Othais

Othais is practically useless with modern firearms. That’s OK though, because he specializes in Curio and Relic military pieces and has agreed to decorate The Firearm Blog with a little history. He maintains his own site, C&Rsenal, with the help of his friends and the collector community.


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  • Jimmy

    Great article!

  • Halon330

    Excellent write-up. I picked up a short model Carcano a few months back at an estate auction for $120. I didn’t know anything about the rifles at the time. After doing some research and giving the rifle some much needed TLC, it wasn’t a bad shooter. 2-3 MOA at 100 yards. Bore and chamber looked good. After cleaning it up a guy at a local range was drooling all over it and offered me $250 for the rifle. Since all it would ever be at my house was a safe Queen I figured why not make a little cash and turn it over to someone who appreciated it for what it is. Given the right deal and opportunity, I would probably buy another.

    • Sulaco

      Halon where did you find the clips?

  • http://postmodernpulp.com/ Jack Badelaire

    I love reading about these old warhorse rifles. An incredible amount of thought and engineering goes into these designs, some of them rather ingenious. That they can be found for very reasonable prices still, so many years later, is wonderful.

    • iksnilol

      I don’t know if it is unique but I really like the en-block clip it uses. Just dropping out of the rifle when empty, looks so simple yet practical.

      • http://postmodernpulp.com/ Jack Badelaire

        Yeah, I dig that a lot.

      • wetcorps

        The French Berthier does that too.

      • dp

        Yes, courtesy of Ferdinand von Mannlicher, visionary Austrian designer. It is actually better way than enclosed magazine; it saves weight and makes contents visible.

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      How true! One of many such examples would be a nice surplus Swiss K-31 in 7.5mm x 55 GP11 — what a rifle. And there are so many others that fit your description still readily available, along with their irreplaceable and intrinsic historical value.

  • iksnilol

    Carcanos aren’t that bad but I prefer the Krag-Jørgensen. The Norwegian and the Danish versions, not the American version, mainly because they have two locking lugs while the American one has a single locking lug.

    I find most bad rep about guns being exagerated, stuff like AK accuracy, AR unreliability, Glock explodability (still doesn’t make me like them) or Mosin clunkiness.

    • Uncle Charlie

      I’ve got a slew of them because they’re so cheap. They are plenty accurate enough for deer out to 250 years with a 140 grain spitzer bullet. I even have a couple of 7.53 x 51 rifles which are adequate for elk at moderate ranges. I love old war surplus rifles and Carcano rifles are still about the cheapest.

    • Othais

      Come by CandRsenal.com after noon Eastern Thursday. You’ll be happy.

  • derfelcadarn

    The way Lee accomplished this feat is that he didn’t, if you still believe Lee killed anyone that day you need to do some research.

    • schizuki

      And here we go…

    • Guest

      See above:

    • dp

      Oh man, I was hoping to stay away from this… it is so catchy, obviously.

    • Tom

      I have done 40 years research. 60 + books. 30+ documentaries. The filmed interviews and documentaries over the past few years as well. There is only one conclusion any trained investigator would come up with that is not flogging some crazy book. No question, he did it. Period. Facts and modern science, not goofy theories that leave Colorado-sized holes.

    • clinton notestine

      ive seen 2 separate documentaries that demonstrated the shot was possible and both times they replicated it.

  • Geodkyt

    A bigger issue for the Carcano wasn’t so much the caliber, as teh fact that they never updated the bullet to a spitzer, so far as I know — all I’ve ever seen was the old style long round nose. Which has plenty of soft tissue penetration (think African hunting solids), but leaves an icepick of a wound channel on a thin skinned, relatively skinny primate like a human.

    I also wonder if teh stories of Carcanos blowing up weren’t because I know of at least some “training” rifles (basically, cast receiver blank firers) that Cletus and his yokel buddies cut new chambers for and fired with live ammo. (Just like some idiots – very few – who didn’t know teh difference between a Type 38 and a Type 99 Arisaka, and ran .30-06 reamers through Type 38s, while leaving the bores intact. Recoil and overpressure for the resulting “7.62mm to 6.5mm squeeze bores” was. . . impressive. . . Likewise, some idiots did the same thing to cast receiver Arisaka training rifles.)

    • Othais

      Definitely possible but I’m unsure if the youth Carcano could chamber a blank or not.

      • Geodkyt

        At leats one of the “youth” models could. I think there was also a totally “factory DEWAT” version, built from teh ground up as ONLY a “drill” rifle that couldn’t. . .

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      Excellent points —- also, it would seem that many, many other “idiots” have, over time, come to perpetrate a false impression of the Carcano, Arisaka and other rifles because of similar screw-ups and biases on their part. It should be remembered that, in this context, the saying that “a bad workman blames his tools ” frequently holds true.

    • Agitator

      I don’t know if if military spitzer ammo was ever made for the 6.5, but I’ve personally used aftermarket 6.5 spitzer (PRVI IIRC) rounds in a gain-twist Carcano… with exceptionally poor results. Maybe they knew what they were doing sticking to those torpedo-shaped projectiles.

      • Geodkyt

        Accuracy, or terminal ballistics? What grain? What was the length-to-weight-ratio? Did THAT rifle perform well with milspec round nose ball, but poorly with the aftermarket spitzers?

        All of tehse questions would need to be answered to definitively state that the spitzer bullets were to blame – contrawise, pretty much every other nation found improvements from going to spitzers, including nations that issued other 6.5mm chamberings.

    • http://www.pontifex.roma.it/ Kwisatz Haderach

      They did. Italy developed a 7.35mm spitzer ammunition, with the same case of the 6.5, in 1938.

      Legend says the oddball 7.35 was chosen because it was the biggest that could be “dug” inside the barrels of the 6.5 rifles without having to make a new barrel.

  • schizuki

    Lee-Enfields, Mausers and Springfields get worshipped, Mosins, Carcanos and Arisakas get dissed, and Lebels and Berthiers get “huh?” Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone offer an opinion on a French rifle, good or bad. Just really stupid jokes.

    • 1leggeddog

      The french have a hit or miss history with firearms.

      The Lebel Model 1886 for example was a throwback to the tube fed guns of the “wild west”. But obvious problems with having rounds touch end-on-primer…

      But still, at the time, it put them ahead of the competition… for a short time.

      Even the semi-auto 7mm Meunier was to shake up things priore to WW2 but i don’t think it ever happened…

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      That’s because there was ( and, still is, to a certain extent ) an unfounded biase, often based on absurd wartime propaganda from OUR side, about the enemy’s ( and even other allies’ ) weapons of choice that has gotten perpetrated over time as so-called “truth”. You will see it everywhere in on-line posts and in publications, even to this day, although, thankfully, this ridiculous nationalistic state of affairs is gradually changing in favor of hard truths and facts. Cases in point : Mosin-Nagants in actual good condition with barrels that are not excessively worn are as accurate as any other contemporary military rifle ; Carcanos, when set up correctly , have proven to be the same way ; and Arisakas, which have turned out to be as accurate or more accurate than the equivalent sacred cows of Western manufacture ( if you still have doubts about this, most USMC veterans who had to face Arisaka-equipped Japanese snipers in the Pacific will tell you otherwise ), have also been proven through destructive testing to have the strongest bolt actions of any such rifle ever made. The only bolt-action rifle of that vintage that I have ever seen that was able to come close to an Arisaka for sheer durability and strength of the action in the face of utmost abuse has been the Mosin-Nagant M91/30.

      • dp

        Well written DE, I concur. And just to perhaps add – it is the user who counts most. In case of Carcanos it was both of my grand-fathers who were facing their muzzles and one of them was seriously wounded by one of them. They were definitely shabby rifles, neither were the users.

        • dp

          …typo happened: They were definitely NOT shabby rifles….

        • DiverEngrSL17K

          Thanks, Dp. I’m glad to hear your grandfather survived his wounds. Anyone who owns a surplus Carcano in good condition will testify that it is a well-made, reliable rifle with good balance and a more than acceptable degree of accuracy. Speaking of both Carcano’s and Arisaka’s, I was lucky enough some time ago to obtain a Type I Carcano made specifically for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1930’s, when Japan was still purchasing foreign-made rifles to supplement domestic Arisaka production because the latter could not keep up with demand. This particular Carcano is chambered in 6.5mm x 50 Arisaka and is a very good rifle with plenty of firepower and is highly-accurate to boot while still having comparatively low recoil. As I understand it, the IJN purchased only 60,000 examples between 1937-1939, which is a relatively low number for a standardized military-issue rifle.

          • Kivaari

            The Japanese-Italian built rifles were pretty well crafted. I wish I had kept at least one that came and went.

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            Hi, Kivaari :

            Don’t give up hope yet — the Type I Carcano in 6.5mm Arisaka still occasionally shows up on various collector-specific web sites such as Simpson’s ( http://www.simpsonltd.com ) and Rock Island Auction ( http://www.rockislandauction.com ) if you are still interested. Please be aware ( if you are not already familiar with this ) that RIA and other similar auction sites may offer the firearm you want as a single item, or sometimes as part of a bundle that cannot be parted out. Simpson’s has no such caveats as they always offer the items they are selling as individual purchases. I have found that the best way to search for the vintage firearm of choice is to constantly and consistently keep track of the offerings from various vendors since there is no guarantee when an example might suddenly become available, and you will definitely want to be in a position to make the buy before someone else does.

      • Phil Hsueh

        You make a very good point to which I would like to add that it’s also possible that, in some cases, these “truths” are based on late war models which were nothing like their early to mid war predecessors. Towards the end of WWII I know that both the Germans and the Japanese were taking a lot of shortcuts with the production of their rifles due to shortages in materials and/or ability to meet demand. From examples I’ve seen in pictures the build quality of these were terrible, to say the least, and given how poorly constructed the exteriors were I can’t imagine that their inner workings were mad any better and probably helped to contribute to the myth of bad weapons.

        • DiverEngrSL17K

          Excellent point, Phil — thank you! To that, I might add that the apparent quality ( or lack thereof ) of the late-war models would also depend on the individual type of weapon involved. In some cases, overall quality ( mechanical tolerances, metallurgical quality, fit, finish, etc. ) went downhill, resulting in truly poor weapons ; on the other hand, there were also other examples where the general fit and finish, as well as secondary components ( such as sling mounts, sights and buttstocks ) were sacrificed to maintain ease of production and a high standard of mechanical integrity, resulting in weapons that looked rather rough, but which functioned properly on the battlefield and exactly as designed where it mattered.

    • kivaari

      French rifles with no safety devices and crude sights earn disrespect. A M36 with a Mauser style safety would be an improvement.

  • Raoul O’Shaugnnessy

    Being in the business for 20 years now, the only people I have known to own Carcano rifles are people who bought them solely for one reason: to see if they could do what Oswald (allegedly) did. Not one customer ever bought them for project guns, truck guns, cabin guns, or any other reason…they were all bought pretty much just for that reason. And no discussion of the Carcano would be complete without mentioning the fixed sights.

    • dp

      So revealing of essence of human inner simplicity, isn’t it. All what is left is to chuckle at it.

    • Geodkyt

      Hell, that’s the main reason I want one. {chuckle}.

  • dan citizen

    great article, thanks.

  • dan citizen

    The sectional density of the 6.5 makes for impressive penetration. I remember as a teenager encountering a rancher who used an old carcano for pretty much every ranch use. He had gotten it many years before along with a ton of milsurp ammo. He was pretty happy with it’s ability to reliably drill a whole through an errant bull or bear.

  • hkryan

    That animation is awesome and so is this article!

    • Othais

      Thanks!

    • dp

      It is awesome but, unfortunately to fast to follow. I have noticed this at some other similar animations. Just wonder, if it could be adjusted. Thanks.

  • dp

    Well, these guns were basis for Arisaka, in some mixture from Mauser element. In addition, the Italian armouries were making initial batches of rifles for Japan’s Imperial military. So there is plenty to behold in Carcano.

    I have not paid enough attention until couple of years ago to bolt action rifles and trying to catch up lately. As I do so I come to realization they were on level of perfection by 1900 and that was not (part of materials and finishes) surpassed to this day. Good write up and thanks!

    • Kivaari

      Some were built in Italy. That Type-I. Not a bad rifle at all. The Mauser magazine on those was smoother working than the embloc clip.

  • SNNN

    “No question, he did it. Period. Facts and modern science, not goofy theories that leave Colorado-sized holes.”

    Sorry…not likely. I’m owned Carcono’s in better condition and it cannot be done. This
    is not even about politics. I draw your attention to the dimples on the “spent casings”
    if there are any further questions here to answer.

    Mods…painfully understand your need to keep politics out…delete if needed.

    • schizuki

      “I’m owned Carcono’s in better condition and it cannot be done.”

      By you.

      • SNNN

        And I’m a better shot, and I don’t have a tree in the way, or try
        to load a carcano without the clip….I could go on. Still waiting

        on an explanation for the dimpled casing….

        Reality sucks…..

        As always mods…..I don’t like to feed tolls …delete as needed.

  • schizuki

    I was surprised to learn recently that it’s pronounced “Kar-KAHN-o”, not “Kar-SAHN-o.”

  • clinton notestine

    I got a calvalry carbine from my dad thats dated from 1938 and it shot well until the tip of the front sight snapped off. Havent bought a new sight for it since I dont really shoot it that often since ammo isnt cheap nor plentiful.

  • Yellow Devil

    Out of curiosity does the enbloc clip design allow topping off or ejection of a partially full clip? Or does it suffer from the same reloading issues as the M1 Garand?

    • Othais

      You may not top off but there is a button in the trigger guard that will release the lever holding the enbloc down against the spring, thereby releasing it upwards for removal. You can actually see it just ahead of the trigger in the animation.

  • EthanP

    The only real knocks on the M/C 91 are the clip loading and the difficulty in mounting a scope. And we should not forget that the 6.5×54 M/S round, a more than adequate sporting round is only a slightly modified Italian 6.5×52.

  • peaceofficer

    The only Cancaro I have any knowledge of failing was with hand loads by an idiot. He filled the case to the mouth with pistol powder, and the inevitable happened. From that day forward though, he who survived his folly with some minor facial scars, and his brother went out of their way to tell everyone how weak and dangerous the action was on the Cancaro, and how dangerous hand loading was. The moral of this story is that you can’t fix stupid.

  • walter12

    Compared to any Mauser, Enfield, Springfield, the Carcano is trash. The Italian Army was pathetic in WWII. They could not do a thing right and the German Army, stretched to its limits already, had to come to the aid of the silly Italians, every time. However, at first, the Italian navy was pretty good.

  • Hyok Kim

    I thank you for the article. Now, I am really tempted to pick one up.

  • John Double

    I hear they shoot bad because the bullet’s dimensions are wrong,and if you reload with the bullet they shoot all dandy. That and bubba chops the barrels which have a special progressive rifling.

    • Kivaari

      At one time I believe Hornady made the .268 diameter bullets for this rifle. Many of the ~6.5mm had a wide variety in bore diameters. It’s one reason really fine M-S rifles would either shoot well, or spray bullets all around. It’s the only caliber rifle I found that really needed to have proper diameter bullets, just for a particular rifle.

  • Kivaari

    The 6.5mm Italian round is a failure — BUT, it is just about perfect if it were loaded with a spritzer boat tail bullet of around 130 gr. The 6.5mm is only under performing when used with the long 160 FMJ-RN bullet. The Army tested this cartridge, under Dr. Fackler’s guidance, and found it was the deepest penetrating bullet tested by the US Army. Like all the 1890-1910 era cartidges using the heavy for caliber FMJRN bullets they penetrate and often leave minor wounds. Wounds that in the pre-anti-biotic era could heal within 2 weeks.
    If the bore were reduced to .264 from .268 and using conventional rifling, this is a great cartridge. Even the M91 rifles and carbines were not bad guns. Crude, but serviceable.

  • Claudio-50

    About the Carcano rifle; The considerations in the article are very true and balanced, but a couple of things should be enfatized:
    the 7,35×51 cartridge was very similar to 7,62 nato:
    the M1938 short rifle had a fixed rear sight that was inended to be used at 100 or 300 metres depending if You aimed at the bottom of the U shaped sight or leveling the front post with the top of it:
    After Italy surrendered in 1943, Carcano M38 where supplied to the Wermacht in 8×57 caliber with no recorded failures, the only reinforcement reputed useful was the addition of a cross bolt to reinforce the stock:
    In 1968 one Carcano 1891 was salvaged from the bottom of the Isonzo river after being submerged from 1917, it was possible to open the Bolt with a mallet a recover the live round still in the chamber.
    Of course it was an obsolete rifle even in 193x, but the Italians that concurred in freeing the legations in Peking were better armed with their Carcanos than the US marines with the Krag rifles not to mention the fact that most of the US troops where still armed with Trapdors!
    I don’t particularly like the carcano for many reasons, but for sure it was a good rifle in 1891.

  • Claudio-50

    as for the french “inferior” Lebels, they rendered obsolete all the armaments of Europe in 1886 when they developed the 8mm Lebel cartridge with “White” powder and small caliber bullets.