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A fellow member asked me in a PM the other day if the alleged assassination rifle, a 6.5 x 52mm Carcano M91/38 short rifle with the serial number C2766, had been re-chambered at some point in its life. I replied that it hadn't, as the Carcano was only ever manufactured in two calibres, and the other calibre, the 7.35 x 51mm, was obviously shooting a larger bullet; making re-boring of the barrel an impossibility.

I still see a great deal of mistaken information about C2766, and Carcanos in general, some of it honest mistakes and some of it outright and intentional disinformation. I would like to have another go at trying to explain this fascinating and often misunderstood rifle, and how its history might have affected the outcome of events in Dealey Plaza, should C2766 have actually fired any shots that day.

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One of the more discussed features of the 6.5 Carcano is its ability, or lack of, to effectively kill. Its nickname, "The Humanitarian Rifle", would lead a person to think that all Carcanos were poorly made, inaccurate rifles. However, the opposite is true in the majority of Carcanos, with a few ill conceived exceptions to the rule. The 6.5mm Carcano M91 long rifle, standard issue to Italian troops in the early part of the 20th Century, was no better or worse, accuracy-wise, than any of the other long barrelled rifles issued to troops of other European countries at that time. So, if it was not an inaccurate rifle, why was the Carcano unable to kill enemy soldiers?

If the majority of Carcano rifles were not inaccurate, their lack of lethality had to lie with the bullet the rifles fired. The M91 long rifle fired the same cartridge as all other Carcanos, including carbines and short rifles. Shot from the M91, this cartridge propelled a 162 grain bullet that achieved a muzzle velocity of just over 2400 fps (feet per second); well within the velocities of other military rifles at the time. While the Carcano bullet, with its calibre of 6.5 mm, was slightly smaller than, say, the 7.92mm Mauser or the .303 (7.7mm) Lee Enfield bullet, its longer length gave it a bullet weight or "mass" equal to other military bullets of that time. Example: Lee Enfield .303 Mark VII cartridge with a 174 grain bullet and a muzzle velocity of 2440 fps.

So, once again, if the 6.5mm Carcano bullet had roughly the same mass and muzzle velocity as other military cartridges, why did it not have the same stopping power?

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Modern 6.5mm bullet manufactured as precise copy of 6.5mm Carcano bullet

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.303 Mk. VII cartridge, cutaway showing bullet design

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7.92 x 57mm Mauser cartridge, cutaway showing bullet design

The above photos show three bullets in very common usage during the First World War. At a glance, one very important difference is obvious; the Carcano has a blunt rounded nose while the Mk. VII and the 7.92mm Mauser have a pointed "spitzer" nose or "spire point". While not only making these pointed bullets more aerodynamic (note the boat tail on the Mauser bullet - way ahead of its time), thus extending their range plus higher velocities at further ranges (thereby extending their killing power at these ranges), this design also encouraged these bullets to tumble in a wound. As you may or may not know, once a bullet begins tumbling in a wound, it tends to tear up a great deal more flesh and cause much more grievous wounds than a bullet that simply passes straight through. The pointed tip encourages tumbling in two ways. When it encounters bone, the small pointed tip is very easily turned by the bone it encounters, as opposed to a round blunt tip which tends to "punch" its way through smaller bones without deviation. Second, there is a distinct difference in mass between the smaller pointed end and the larger base end of the bullet. Anyone who has ever towed a heavy trailer with a small vehicle will understand what happens here. When the pointed bullet strikes a small bone, the pointed tip may only turn the bullet slightly. However, the higher mass in the rear of the bullet tends to exaggerate this deviation, making the bullet tumble.

As I said earlier, the 6.5mm Carcano bullet was smaller in diameter than other military bullets of the same period, but almost equal in mass. It achieved this through its unusually great length. This combination of long length and narrow diameter, plus its round nose which distributed its mass evenly over the entire length of the bullet, made the Carcano a very stable bullet in flight and in a wound.

To sum up, the 6.5mm Carcano bullet was the very epitomization of the humane principles and lofty ideals set out in the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, which basically wanted soldiers to wound each other with through and through wounds, thus humanely taking each other "out of the fight" without killing or grievously wounding each other. While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, the realities of war soon showed that it was much better to have a rifle that stopped an opponent with one shot.

Next, I will demonstrate one nation's solution that gave their bullet more stopping power while staying within the rules, and how the Italians, in desperation, briefly tried to emulate this cartridge in the design of a new Carcano bullet.

Edited by Robert Prudhomme
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This next part deals almost exclusively with the evolution of the cartridge for the .303 Lee Enfield rifle, the backbone of the British Army and British Commonwealth nations until the late 1950's. Chief in this discussion is the British attempt to increase the stopping power of this cartridge, and how their attempts ran afoul of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference. It might seem odd to discuss this rifle on this forum but, its history best shows the frustrations of using full metal jacket bullets when trying to kill people, and the ingenious methods dreamed up to overcome this obstacle.

This discussion is also relevant to the Carcano, as the Italians, in desperation, briefly came up with what was almost a carbon copy of the final product in the evolution of the .303 cartridge.

Next: Dum dums and hollow points

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The late 19th Century saw many advances in firearms and, in particular, military rifles. Before this, soldiers were equipped with large bore rifles that used black powder to propel their projectiles, although, by this point, the muzzle loading rifle had pretty much been replaced by breech loading rifles that accepted a cartridge loaded with gunpowder and a bullet. Muzzle velocities were quite low, due to the slow burning black powder, and most combat took place with combatants within 100 yards of each other. As I said, the bores of these rifles were quite large, and the bullets they fired were great lumps of lead. While they were slow moving, their large mass made them capable of inflicting horrendous wounds when they struck a bone, often necessitating amputation of the limb they struck.

The black powder rifles with their large bore barrels did not shoot a jacketed bullet, and the idea of encasing a lead bullet with a copper alloy or other harder metal jacket did not come about until bores and bullets became smaller and muzzle velocities began increasing with the new smokeless gunpowders. It was found that a smaller bullet could do the same damage as a large bullet, if propelled at a high enough velocity, and it was also found these smaller faster bullets could do this damage at far greater ranges, and with accuracies undreamed of with black powder rifles.

However, as accuracy at distance became possible, it was also discovered that unjacketed lead bullets could easily destroy this accuracy. The problem was that the lead was so soft, each bullet would deposit a certain amount of lead in the barrel's rifling grooves. Within a few shots, the rifling grooves would be filled with lead, and unable to impart a good gyroscopic spin to the bullet, so necessary for the accuracy of the bullet. The solution was to totally encase the lead bullet in a copper alloy jacket, as the harder alloy tended to not leave anywhere near as much metal in the rifling grooves.

The copper jacket solved the fouling problem but, it soon became apparent to troops in combat that the smaller copper jacketed bullets did not perform nearly the same as the much larger unjacketed lead bullets. With the unjacketed bullets, soldiers had been accustomed to seeing great grievous wounds, and, often, one well placed shot usually stopped an enemy combatant in his tracks. The jacketed bullets, however, being cased in a much harder metal, had a tendency to pass straight through an enemy combatant, without deforming, expanding or causing a significant amount of damage. Because of this, the British Indian Army was close to mutiny in India, and a solution had to be found. Stories abounded about indigenous combatants being shot six times by .303 Mk. II bullets and walking away from the battle.

In 1896, at the Dum Dum Arsenal in Dum Dum, India, an enterprising young British officer by the name of Captain Bertie Clay came up with a simple but ingenious solution to this problem, and created the "dum dum" bullet.

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.303 British Mk. II full metal jacket cartridge. Note the round nose, popular before it was realized how much better pointed bullets tumble in a wound.

Taking the .303 Mk. II cartridge seen above, a full metal jacket bullet with a round nose, Capt. Clay simply removed 1 mm of the nose of the jacket, exposing the soft lead core beneath.

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.303 Mk. II "dum dum" bullet seen on left.

What Capt. Clay had done was to create the world's first soft point jacketed bullet. These bullets, unlike the FMJ Mk. II, expanded very well in a wound, causng horrific wounds.

At almost the same time as Capt. Clay developed the dum dum bullet, research was going on at the British Army's Woolwich Arsenal in Great Britain. A slightly different approach was taken to the problem. Not only did they remove the nose of the jacket, they also opened up a cavity in the nose of the bullet, creating the world's first "hollow point" bullet.

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.303 British Mk. V hollow point seen on right.

The hollow point bullet was introduced as the Mk. III cartridge, and quickly evolved into the Mk. IV and finally the Mk. V cartridge. These hollow point bullets were as superior in stopping power to the dum dum as the dum dum was to the FMJ Mk. II, and were used with great success in combat from 1897-99, and would have continued in use if not for the Hague Peace Conference of 1899.

The attending nations of the Hague Peace Conference determined that expanding bullets, such as the dum dum and the hollow point, were far too inhumane, and that the use of expanding bullets in combat, by civilized nations, should be outlawed. The British were back at square one with their inefficient round nosed full metal jacket bullets. Luckily, for the British, the attendees of the conference lacked imagination, and only banned bullets that were not fully jacketed. The British went back to the drawing board, coming up with a brilliant solution that stayed within the rules, although this design was not introduced until 1910.

In the years between the outlawing of the expanding bullets and the introduction of the ultimate British design, an attempt was made to increase he stopping power of the original round nosed FMJ Mk. II bullet, simply by making the copper jacket thinner in the hope it would facilitate easier deformation of the bullet in a wound. It was introduced in 1904 and designated the Mk. VI cartridge, but did not perform as designed.

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.303 British Mk. VII cartridge

Following the development in France in 1898 of the pointed "spitzer" bullet, the British followed suit and incorporated this idea into their new bullet. As you will recall, it was found that pointed bullets can be induced to tumble in a wound much easier than round nosed bullets, and that the difference in mass between the two ends of the bullet added to this phenomenon. With this weight imbalance in mind, the British researchers went one step further, creating the Mk. VII bullet seen below:

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Drawing of the original 160 grain Mk. VII bullet, replaced soon after introduction by the improved 174 gr. Mk. VII bullet.

As seen above, the Mk. VII is a full metal jacket bullet with a spitzer nose. Inside the jacket, though, is the secret to this bullet's success. While the rear half of the bullet core is a 98/2 mixture of lead and antimony, the forward section of the bullet core is made from aluminum, a metal with only 1/4 the density of lead. Needless to say, there was a much greater imbalance in weight distribution between the front and rear of this bullet than seen in a standard spitzer point bullet, causing the Mk. VII bullet to tumble in wounds and do far more damage.

The design was so successful, the British kept it through two world wars, and only abandoned it following the discontinuation of the .303 in the late 1950's.

Up next: "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery" or "The 7.35 x 51mm Carcano - Better Late than Never"

Edited by Robert Prudhomme
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