Thanks to the effort of a guest poster for WeaponsMan.com, Internet arms and armor enthusiasts now have a rare look inside the armory of the famous Pontifical Swiss Guard, a five-hundred-year-old military unit tasked with guarding the Holy See in the Vatican. The unit is famous for its antiquated-looking formal dress and arms, but as we’ll see, they have access to much more modern weapons as their duties are not simply ceremonial. The full post is available over at WeaponsMan.com, but I have sample some of the most relevant bits for our readers. Still, I highly encourage you to follow the think and read the whole thing:
I recently returned from a trip to the Eternal City with my wife’s family and was able to make a tour that I thought you might enjoy hearing about. Being a Marine with a similar duty, I had a special interest in seeing the barracks of my counterparts in the Vatican — so when my brother-in-law said he could get us and a tour of the armory of the world’s oldest continuously operating army — I jumped at the chance.
The Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, or Pontifical Swiss Guard, has operated continuously for over 509 years. This reinforced company sized unit is composed of 110 men. They are led by a commandant and three officers, 1 SNCO and 25 NCO’s. The courtyard was draped with large flags representing the different states in Switzerland. Blonde children were running around the courtyard, in a quiet respite from Rome’s busy streets, just on the other side of the walls.
The army of Vatican City is perhaps best known for their ceremonial duties, but they also perform body-guard duties comparable to our U.S. Secret Service (they perform a blend of both uniform and special agent division duties). Personal security of the pope is split between the Vatican Police and Swiss Guard.
I was surprised that we were led into the armory, and without all the usual tell-tale signs of a leatherneck’s iteration. It was clear that this was not the storehouse of (all) their modern weapons, but it was a functioning armory nonetheless. Given the unit’s age, it is no small collection.
The armory had halberds, swords, bayonets the length of swords, two-handed swords, a blunderbuss that must have weighted 40 lbs, and bolt-, semi-, and automatic weapons used throughout their history. There were also the traditional medieval sets of armor that they are famous for, weighing close to 40lb each. These armor suits are still worn daily. It amazed me how far we have come in both personal protection and weapon technologies, and that one organization experienced these many developments first hand. Remarkable.
I was only able to identify two weapons from sight- the pair of Sig 550’s and an MP40. (We can plug those gaps for him — Ed.) The latter was surrendered at the end of WWII by a Nazi soldier whose unit besieged the Vatican during the war. Shortly before Rome was abandoned by the Germans, he turned himself over to the Swiss Guards. The unnamed soldier’s weapon and helmet are still kept there in pristine condition alongside the Swiss weapons. If the weapons in that room could talk, I can only imagine the tales they would tell.
There were SMGs, carbines, rifles, though there was a conspicuous lack of pistols from any time period. One carbine was short and looked slightly odd, though I didn’t quite know why at first. I later learned it was a SIG MKPO, with a unique folding magazine. Another reminded me of a Marlin .22 from my younger days, but was elaborately engraved. Some of side-mounted bayonets were shorter (not terribly, though) than the Marine NCO sword. Axes, clubs, and various poled-weapons also filled some space.
It’s highly unusual indeed to see an armory filled with early-Renaissance plate armor and 20th Century submachine guns and assault rifles alike, but the Swiss Guard is far from an ordinary unit. Existing for over 500 years (next year will be their 510th anniversary), the Swiss Guard is made up of Swiss Catholics who have completed Swiss military basic training. The Swiss guard purchases their own weapons with their own requirements, and this is reflected by the unusual mix of firearms housed in the armory. From SIG MKMO submachine guns, of which the Swiss Guard was one of the only adopters, to the extremely rare Papal State M1868 Remington Rolling Block rifles, the armory is both a working building and a time capsule, with weapons serving both as arms at the ready, and a historical record of the unit.