The Italian Vetterli-Vitali Rifle
May 13, 2019
Photography by Jill Marlow
A half century or so ago, I was engaged in a number of commercial enterprises to help put myself through college. One of my most successful was a turn as a bargain-basement arms merchant.
At that time, a sundry assortment of surplus firearms including Mannlicher-Berthiers, wire-wrapped Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mk. III grenade-throwing rifles, Carcanos and Mausers of indeterminate provenance could be had in reasonable quantities for around a 10-spot apiece. Granted, condition was oft times lacking, but I could always spiff them up a bit. As long as the guns had appeal, they fit into my scheme perfectly.
After proving myself a viable risk, the local gun store owner agreed to give me generous credit terms. So, I’d make a circuit around the San Fernando Valley to various antique and curio stores and put these armory rejects on consignment as decorator pieces for about double their original cost. Some, based simply on looks, did considerably better than others. The star player in my line o’ goods was, fortuitously, one of the cheapest of the batch — the imposing Italian Vetterli-Vitali.
A local handyman who turned the rifles into aesthetically ambivalent floor lamps was my only rival. When a new load came in, and as long as I could get to the gun shop before he did to avoid a bidding war, I could fill up my Chevy’s trunk with Vetterli-Vitali rifles for $10 to $15 apiece. After a quick clean-up, they were fast sellers at $25 to $30 a pop. That gave me a reasonable return of 150 to 250 percent in 1960s dollars, even after the antiquarian’s commission. Ah, how times have changed.
Even with the subsequent rise in the cost of quality surplus firearms, the Vetterli-Vitali remained something of an also-ran. Lately, however, this interesting piece of hardware is garnering new respect and prices for good specimens are still within the budget of a fledgling collector.
The Vetterli-Vitali is an ingenious arm and one with a long and varied history. It was obvious by the end of the 1860s that the self-contained metallic cartridge was going to be the future. Every major nation began gearing up for a new general-issue rifle and cartridge. Many systems were tested and adopted including falling blocks, rising blocks, bolt actions and trapdoors. Politics, too, influenced many design decisions.
The early 1800s were tumultuous times for Italy, and the country had only become unified in 1871 under King Victor Emmanuel II. At the time, many states were issued muzzleloaders. A plan devised by Salvatore Carcano to convert a number of them to a needle-fire system was undertaken, but it was recognized by the authorities that Italy needed a small arm that would put her on par with other countries.
In the late 1860s, Switzerland experimented with a sophisticated tubular-magazine bolt-action rifle designed by Swiss, Johann-Friedrich Vetterli. After a few growing pains, the perfected version chambered a 10.4x38mm rimfire cartridge. Adopted in 1869, this was the most sophisticated military rifle extant. What the cartridge lacked in power, the rifle made up for with its 11-shot magazine. The action, while nowhere near as strong as others that would follow, was adequate to the task.
Italy took a look at the Vetterli and liked it. A variation on the basic theme was decided upon, though it was felt that an easier-to-use and manufacture single-shot version would be sufficient, as most major nations also felt the same way. Officially accepted in 1870, production began apace at national and private factories.
The Italian version was chambered in a slightly more potent 10.35x47Rmm centerfire round, making the Fucile mod. 1870 the first centerfire military bolt-action rifle to be adopted in any numbers by a major power as a primary arm.
The bolt followed the Swiss pattern very closely, but there were some changes. It was a relatively simple arrangement involving a tubular bolt body, long firing pin, rear coil spring, separate slip-on bolt handle, long, spring-style extractor, a knurled retaining nut and sheet-metal spring cover. Locking was affected by means of a single, rear circular lug. The bolt was held in place in the action by a wedge, which passed transversely through the top of the receiver ring. This wedge was prevented from being completely removed (and lost) by a small retaining screw.
One major deviation from the Swiss design involved an unusual safety lever situated at the right side of the bolt at the rear of the action. Devised by artillery Captain Antonio Clavarino, while clever, it had its drawbacks.
Putting the lever on safe and closing the bolt relaxed the sear and moved the lever rearward. Though now on safe, one could recock the rifle by simply lifting up and then lowering the bolt handle. When properly manipulated, it functioned just fine. If the handle was not worked correctly, an accidental discharge resulted.
Surprisingly, the Clavarino safety remained a standard feature on the Vetterli for 14 years before it was finally replaced by a more refined, S-shaped lever designed by Captain Giuseppi Vitali.
The primary platform for the Vetterli action was the infantry Fucile Modello 1870, a long-barreled, full-length infantry rifle that appeared in several versions involving minor design and sighting variations, all of which were ultimately superseded by the perfected regulation (i.e., Tipi Regolamentare) piece.
Four carbine versions of varying configurations were issued to the cavalry, specialty units such as mountain troops, artillery and engineers. The Italian military police (the Carabinieri) and the king’s guards also used the carbines.
For the purposess of space, I’ll turn attention to the Fucile. However, if you wish to learn more about the fascinating carbines and other variants, ammo details and impedimenta of the Vetterli/Vetterli-Vitali, you can do no better than get a copy of Robert Wilsey’s excellent “The Italian Vetterli Rifle” available through Mobray Publishers (800-999-4697, manatarmsbooks.com, 168 pages, $50).
Dawn of the Repeater
The Fucile M1870 was well-made and similar in dimension to many other military rifles of the period. The barrel measured 33.85 inches and the gun had an overall length of 53.95 inches. It weighed just over a well-balanced 10 pounds. The rear sight was a sophisticated quadrant with a rising V-leaf arrangement graduated on the sides of the sight from 100 to 1,000 meters in 100-meter increments. This was replaced in 1881 with a Vecchi sight with an altered V and numbered from 300 to 1,600 meters. It was again updated in 1890 following the introduction of a smokeless powder round with another type of V sight, which graduated from 275 to 1,800 meters. Finally, the sights of those Vetterli-Vitalis converted to fire 6.5 employed shorter V leafs to accommodate vastly different ballistics.
Though perfectly serviceable metallic-cartridge repeating arms had been available at least as early as the American Civil War and by the late 1860s and early 1870s, most nations were content to arm their troops with single shots of one type or another for matters of logistics, expense and general military conservatism. It soon became understood, however, that repeaters were the future.
While many countries had arms such as Rolling Blocks, Martini-Henrys and Trapdoors that would have been impossible to convert to multi-shot versions, other countries such as Germany, France and Italy employed bolt actions that would be suitable for conversion or alteration.
France opted to introduce a new revolutionary arm, the smokeless-powder Lebel Model 1886. Germany, using their Mauser Model 1871 as a platform, redesigned it into a tubular-magazine repeater, the Model 1871/84. Italy came up with a system that would allow the alteration of the Vetterli. As well as converting existing arms in inventory for compatibility, it was decided to also make entirely new versions. Hence, the Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali was born.
Redesigning involved the addition of a sheet-metal magazine invented by the aforementioned Captain Vitali. (A similar one was also used on the Dutch Beaumont.) This magazine was fitted to the stock beneath the action and secured by a heavy metal plate. Rotating cutoffs were added to receiver rings. Dust covers, which are present on many of the Vitalis, were removed. Those guns to which it had not already been done, had their safeties updated to the Vitali style. A sturdy rail was added to the rear of the action, which allowed the bolt more stability when withdrawn.
Confidence in the service rifle by the troops was apparently quite good. According to Fedore von Köppen in “The Armies of Europe” (1890), “The whole of the Italian Infantry is at this moment armed … with an excellent repeating rifle, the Vitali. Particular attention is paid to musketry instruction, and facilities for shooting are given and encouraged by the holding of National Rifle meetings at stated times. At these meetings, any soldier on furlough is allowed to compete with his service rifle.”
Loading the M1870/87 was simple. Five cartridges contained within a large clip composed of sheet steel with a wooden reinforcing block at the top were pushed into the magazine against the integral follower. The clip was then pulled free by means of a knotted cord, leaving the rounds in place. Though this would appear cumbersome to modern eyes, it was quick, positive and easy-to-use.
Initially, the bottleneck cases for the 10.35x47Rmm Vetterli rounds were constructed of tombak, a brass alloy with copper and zinc. The first propellant used was blackpowder, and primers were of the Boxer style. In 1880, cases began to be made of brass, and in 1890, Ballistite smokeless powder became the propellant of choice. Like other nations, ball ammo, blanks (for grenade throwing and otherwise), buckshot and dummy rounds were also produced.
Fucile bayonets were of the sword-style with 20¼-inch straight blades. Initially with brass French Chassepot-style hilts, these were later replaced with 1871 and 1871/87 styles featuring composition grips. Scabbards were leather with brass tips and chapes.
Officially, the Fucile Modello 1870/87 was superseded in the Italian service by the 6.5mm Model 1891 Carcano rifle, but Vetterli-Vitalis continued to be issued to second-line troops. Due to a lack of adequate numbers of ’91s in World War I, many thousands of Vetterli-Vitalis were converted to 6.5x52mm Carcano by sleeving the barrels, modifying the bolts and substituting Mannlicher-style magazines. As noted, all the major changes in ammo resulted in alterations of the guns’ rear sight to accommodate the different rounds’ ballistics.
Vetterlis and Vetterli-Vitalis were used by Italy throughout the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, most notably in the Italo-Ethiopian Wars of 1885 to 1896. They were made in prodigious numbers and quantities of them found their way to such places as Imperial Russia, Ireland, Turkey, Spain (during the Civil War) and China, among others. They remained in use, primarily in the 6.5mm configuration, through World War II.
Still A Shooter
For my shooting evaluation, I sourced a nice Fucile 1870/87, originally made as a Modello 1870 at the Royal Arsenal of Turin in Torino, which produced all manner of Vetterlis from 1873 to 1892. The butt is emblazoned with a decorative shield-shaped stamping denoting the Vitali conversion done at the Genoa factory in 1891. The bore was pristine, action as smooth as one of these things can be and the trigger, while not particularly light at 7 pounds, was crisp with no take-up.
Bob Shell of Shell Reloading (480-983-7078) put together some 10.35x47Rmm cartridges constructed from Winchester .348 brass, 310-grain .410/430 heeled lead bullets and 60 grains of FFg Hodgdon blackpowder.
The rifle was fired from a rest at 50 yards. Despite having an 1890 sight graduated for Ballistite smokeless, it shot surprisingly near point of aim. While not a tack driver, 50-yard, five-shot groups came in at an average of 8 inches. At 100 yards, we produced 11-inch groups. Recoil, as might be expected in a 10-plus-pound rifle, was relatively light and cases loaded and extracted beautifully.
The Fucile mod. 1870/87 is, as I believe, still a dark horse in the collecting and shooting field. Granted, some of the more arcane carbines and rifle variations bring good money, a standard Vetterli-Vitali infantry rifle can be had in very acceptable condition for $400 to $500. Alas, that’s not as happy a bargain as I was getting 50 years ago, but it’s still a good deal today.