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Was the Carcano an Inaccurate Rifle?

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This question was asked of me on another forum, and the answer I gave to it ended up being quite lengthy.

"The reputation of the Carcanos as an inaccurate weapon goes back some time. Weren't they known as the 'Humanitarian Rifle' since they had hardly actually ended up killing many in any wars? Is this just some slur against the Italians as a military force in much the same way the Italians car makers get slagged off for their supposed dodgy electrical systems and vehicle reliability compared to the German car makers? Or is it based on objective evidence? Are all rifles much the same or are there distinct variations from brand to brand or even model to model?"

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The term "Humanitarian Rifle" was actually begun by Italian troops and the inspiration for this name had nothing to do with accuracy. It actually had more to do with the development of jacketed bullets in the 19th Century.

Jacketed bullets were introduced in the late 19th Century as rifles evolved from large bore, low velocity weapons into small bore, high velocity weapons. As the bores got smaller, and velocities higher, unjacketed lead bullets were found to quickly foul the riflings of the smaller bored barrels, and the copper alloy jackets prevented this. However, as the jackets were full metal jackets, it was quickly discovered that a jacketed bullet went straight through a person without inflicting a lot of damage, as opposed to the earlier large-bore unjacketed chunks of lead bullets that deformed and splattered easily in a wound and did LOTS of damage. The reason for these bullets being full metal jacketed seems to have been the lack of technology for bonding bullet to jacket and, in the case of partly jacketed bullets, bullet and jacket often became separated inside a rifle barrel, leaving the jacket inside of the barrel.

This problem was made even worse by the long narrow design of the 6.5mm Carcano bullet, making it into a "flying drill". Ideally, a bullet should tumble in a wound, making a big mess, but the Carcano FMJ bullet greatly resisted this. Short bullets destabilize and tumble in wounds MUCH better. Hence, the "Humanitarian Rifle" name.

To show just how great this problem was, and how they attempted to increase the stopping power of their bullets, the British Indian army, in sheer desperation, developed and issued the "dum dum" bullet. This was the .303 British Mk. III cartridge and was essentially the original round nosed bullet with the nose of the jacket removed, exposing the lead core. This was actually the first soft tipped bullet. Later developments in the Mk. IV and Mk. V were actually the same bullet but with a hollow point made into the bullet. As all of these designs were expanding bullets, they had far greater stopping power against native tribesmen than did the full metal jacket bullets.


These bullets were SO effective, and made such nasty wounds, they were outlawed at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference as being inhumane. The British were in a dilemma; they wanted to adhere to the rules but they also wanted a bullet that didn't require shooting an enemy four or five times with to knock him down.

The design they came up with and stayed with, through two world wars, is the MK. VII spitzer seen above. The first thing they changed was the round nose bullet; replacing it with a spitzer point. The reason for this is that, while the round nose tends to punch its way through bone and such, the spitzer point, when it hits bone, tends to get deflected easier. This makes the bullet begin tumbling in a wound and tearing up great amounts of tissue. This effect is enhanced in the Mk. VII bullet by making the forward section of the core from aluminum and the rear section from lead, as seen in the diagram above. As the mass of the bullet was disproportionate from nose to base, when the bullet struck bone the heavier base would try to pass the lighter nose and the bullet would tumble.

The long round nosed Carcano 6.5mm bullet was the exact opposite of the Mk. VII, and that is why the Carcano never seemed to kill anyone. When, in 1938, the Carcano was reborn in the 7.35x51mm short rifle, a serious attempt was made to imitate the .303 Mk. VII bullet, as we all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The 7.35mm bullet had a spitzer point, like the MK. VII, and had the same aluminum nose/lead base core as the Mk. VII. Unfortunately for the Italians, production of the 7.35mm Carcanos ended in 1939, and the non-lethal 6.5mm cartridge was brought back.

This is only one reason why the Carcanos received a bad reputation. I will explain a few more in the next post.

Edited by Robert Prudhomme
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The 6.5x52mm Model 91 Carcano long rifle was, as the model indicates, introduced in 1891. It was during a transition period in Europe that saw European armies abandoning the idea of a large calibre, low velocity black powder rifle in favor of a small calibre, high velocity rifle using smokeless powder. Many ideas were copied from rifle to rifle, such as the Mannlicher "en bloc" clip used in the Carcano and the Mauser type bolt that utilized two locking lugs. Suffice it to say that, with all of the sharing (and stealing) of ideas, the rifles that entered the First World War were all pretty much equal in design, and it would be difficult to claim that one was more accurate than the other.

The 6.5mm Carcano M91 long rifle design did incorporate two features that were not seen in very many other rifles, if at all, and the jury is still out on whether these features made the M91 more or less accurate than other rifles.

The first is the rifling grooves in the barrel. While maintaining the same 6.5 mm (.256") calibre (bore) as other 6.5mm rifles, the Carcano designers elected to make their rifling grooves deeper. This required a unique, wider bullet for the Carcano that measured .268" in diameter, as opposed to the standard bullet for other 6.5mm rifles that measured .264" in diameter.

The deeper rifling grooves may have been the reason for the second unique design feature of the Carcano. Instead of the rifling grooves in the barrel being made at a standard rate of twist (ie. 1:8 or 1:9), as almost all rifles worldwide are made, the Carcano riflings were made with what is known as "progressive" or "gain" twist. The riflings began, at the breech (chamber) at a gentle rate of twist of 1:22.79 (one complete turn in every 22.79 inches of barrel length) and got progressively tighter towards the muzzle, ending with a rate of twist of 1:7.939. It was believed, and very well may be true, that this type of rifling enhanced accuracy and reduced barrel wear by giving the bullet a chance to build up its spin slowly and gently. Unfortunately, it was also complex and expensive to machine, compared to standard riflings, and led to critical supply shortages of Carcano rifles in WWI.

Now, as the M91 barrel was almost 31 inches long, which aided in muzzle velocity and accuracy, it soon became apparent that not all soldiers needed such a long rifle for bayonet charges, and that some troops would be far better off with a much shorter carbine version of the M91, such as cavalry, mounted infantry, artillery, scouts and support troops. Fighting against the Austrians in steep mountainous country in WWI also proved the disadvantages of an extremely long rifle.

In 1893, the first carbine was introduced, the M91 Cavalry carbine or Moschetto Modello 91 da Cavalleria. While many of these were manufactured as new rifles, a practice began in the 1890's of simply cutting the 31 inch barrel of a long rifle down to the 17 inch carbine length. The next carbine was the Model 1891 T.S. (Truppe Speciali or Special Troops), begun in 1898. These were all manufactured as new rifles, evidenced by their stocks. Many of the cavalry carbine stocks were plainly cut off long rifle stocks.

These two carbines were the standard through WWI, and nothing much changed until 1924, with the introduction of the Model 91/24 carbine. This one model of carbine alone likely did far more to tarnish the reputation of Carcano rifles in general than any other factor. The 1920's were not the best of economic times for Italy and Italian arms makers, ever seeking corners to cut, expanded on the bad idea started with the Cavalry carbine.

From 1924 to 1929, approximately 260,000 M1891 long rifles with worn out barrels were converted into T.S. pattern carbines. As with the conversions in the 1890's, long rifle barrels were cut from 31 inches to 17 inches and the muzzles re-crowned. If this were done to rifles with standard riflings, performance, muzzle velocity and accuracy may have suffered somewhat but, in a rifle with progressive twist rifling, this practice was an absolute disaster. Believe it or not, this was seen as a move to modernize the Italian army, by converting from the long cumbersome and heavy long rifle to the much handier and more compact carbine.

As I stated earlier, the riflings in a M91 long rifle begin, at the breech, at a gentle rate of twist of 1:22.79 (one complete turn in 22.79 inches of barrel length), and progressively get tighter until the rate of twist, at the muzzle, is 1:7.939. In other words, the designers of the Carcano bullet believed a final rate of twist of at least 1:8 was needed to impart enough spin to the bullet in order to maintain gyroscopic stability on its way to the target. By removing 14 inches of the tightest riflings from a 31 inch barrel, the bullets simply were not spinning fast enough. My calculations, depending on a uniform progression in rifling toward the muzzle, show that, by their removal of 45% of the M91 barrel, the maximum rate of twist left at the "new" muzzle would be 1:14; and this is being quite generous. This rate of spin is totally inadequate for stabilizing the heavy (for its calibre) 162 grain Carcano bullet. Suffice it to say, the M91/24 carbine couldn't hit a barn from the inside.

Speaking of bullets, Italian military issue rifle cartridges for the Carcanos had some serious problems, too, and their contribution to the reputation for inaccuracy is next.

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Robert, could the barrel of the Japanese version of the Carcano be swapped out with the Italian Carcano? In one of the WFAA-TV Dallas broadcasts on 22 Nov 1963, one of Jay Watson's announcers reported DPD had found a Japanese rifle in the TSBD. Did the Japanese Carcano have 'Made Italy' stamped on the barrel? Did the Japanese Carcano have the same serial numbers as their Italian counterparts?

Let's say DPD found a Japanese Carcano on the roof of the TSBD that had fired bullets from it. Could the barrel be exchanged with the 'Oswald Carcano', making it appear to be the murder weapon when it wasn't? Is that possible?

An amateur photographer's film of DPD allegedly finding a rifle on the roof of the TSBD exists.

When you get to the ammo specifics, could you kindly explain to non-hunters (like myself) just how bullets designed to act as 'flying drills' exploded in JFK's skull when he was (according to official investigations, their conclusions & released reports) impacted by a Carcano FMJ round & did not explode when JFK was hit in the back? Why would a 'flying drill' bullet produce a shallow back wound? Was the round that was chambered a FMJ or frangible bullet?

Shouldn't a FMJ Carcano round have gone completely through JFK's head? Shouldn't a FMJ Carcano round hitting JFK in the back have either lodged or exited in the vicinity of JFK's heart or stomach (if fired from the angle of the TSBD 'sniper's nest')?

Giving the evidence the benefit of the doubt, do you believe a frangible Carcano round was mixed in with the other two FMJ bullets, that being the one that struck President Kennedy in the head & killed him?

For those of us following your educational posts, I've saved the best questions for last. Based on your experience with small arms & subsequent ammo variations, do you find the SBT, JFK's fatal headshot, John Connally's wounds, James Tague's cheek wound plausible, possible or impossible for the 'Oswald carcano" & the ammo attributed to it that allegedly killed JFK, wounded John Connally & bystander James Tague?


Edited by Brad Milch
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