The Carcano Modello 1891 (Model 1891) was the standard Italian Army service rifle of both World Wars. The design emerged from an endeavor born from work conducted by Italian Army Colonel Paravicino - in charge of arms procurement - and Salvatore Carcano - then Chief Inspector at Real Fabricca d'Armi in Turin - between 1890 and 1891. Following the requisite evaluation period, the rifle was adopted by the Italian Army on March 29th, 1892 as the "Carcano Modello 1891" (or "M91"). Over its lengthy service life, the Model 1891 would give a good account of itself until outpaced by other service rifle developments worldwide.
NOTE: The Carcano Modello 1891 is often (and incorrectly) identified generically as the "Mannlicher-Carcano" rifle. This is in reference to the weapon's origin laying in a Mauser-based Austro-Hungarian rifle design by Ferdinand von Mannlicher (it is noteworthy that many bolt-action rifles of the period utilized the excellent German Mauser action). Another known generic designation for the Model 1891 is as the "Mannlicher-Paravicino-Carcano".
Having developed the new 6.5x52mm Mannlicher-Carcano cartridge, the Italians went to work on a rifle to support it. This led to Carcano modifying the basic Mannlicher design with reworked internals which included a turn-down bolt-handle that was set well-ahead along the receiver. Carcano developed a safety mechanism added to the bolt sleeve. One of the major qualities of the Mannlicher retained was the Mannlicher-patented clip-loaded internal magazine facility. Clip-loaded ammunition allowed the operator to quickly reload his weapon by way of prefabricated "chargers" containing cartridges set at their base along a "clip". While doing away with the need of having the operator load cartridges individually, the function suffered from not allowing the operator to "top off" a partially full magazine. However, the faster reloading process proved this fault negligible.
The base Modello 1891 pattern rifles issued to the Italian Army featured full-length wooden stocks with an integrated pistol grip, forend and butt while the metal components were inlaid in the typical fashion. The bolt handle was turned down over the right side of the body and iron sights were present along the top of the receiver (tangent type) and just aft of the muzzle in the usual way. Sling loops allowed for a shoulder strap to be utilized for marches and transport (these slings were located under the butt and along the forend). A short piece of wood was added over the forend to act as a handguard over the base of the barrel - the handguard affixed between the rear sight and the first barrel band. The remainder of the barrel was only slightly exposed ahead. The curved assembly sat within a trigger ring that was connected to the magazine ahead. The weapon was loaded by way of "charger" or "stripper clips" through a port along the top of the receiver - guided in and forced down by the thumb until clicked into place. The bolt-lever was then actuated in the traditional way to introduce a fresh cartridge into the chamber (the cartridge being "stripped" off of its clip) while ejecting any spent shell casing within. Solid and reliable, the Italian Modello 1891 was a fine addition to the bolt-action ranks of the time. The weapon was chambered for six rounds of 6.5x52mm Mannlicher-Carcano rimless cartridges - the cartridge having been specially designed for the new Italian service rifle. Like other service rifles around the globe, the Modello 1891 held the ability to mount a field bayonet under the muzzle for close-quarters work at a time when bayonet combat in-the-field was still an accepted part of warfare.
As was common practice of the period, the Modello 91 was quickly developed into a cavalry carbine form - essentially a shortened, handier version of the full-length service rifle. Despite carrying the "Moschetto da Cavalleria Modello 1891" (Model of 1891), the carbine was actually adopted some time later in 1893. Its arrangement was consistent with other carbines of the age featuring a half-stock (lacking the handguard) assembly and shortened barrel while largely retaining the function of the original. Additionally, the bayonet mounting (a sliding catch type) was on a swivel which allowed it to be folded back under the barrel when not in use. The result was a more compact, lighter offering suitable for mounted infantry. In 1903, the cavalry carbine was further revised by introducing a "push-button" bayonet release and a short piece of wood added to act as the handguard over the barrel.
The "Moschetto per Truppe Speciali Modello 1891" (M1891TS) variant was based on the cavalry carbine though completed with a full stock and a different nose cap along the forend for supporting the detachable bayonet system introduced on the cavalry carbine. With its full stock, the M1891TS was slightly heavier than the cavalry carbine but still lighter than the original Model 1891 rifle.
Following suit with other militaries after World War 1, the Italian Army decided to shorten their stock of Modello 1891 guns in 1924. This was done to relieving the need of having to field both a long gun and carbine concurrently, thusly simplifying logistics and providing infantry with a more manageable long gun in-the-field. The initiative produced the "Modello 1891/24" designation that came complete with a 17.7-inch long barrel. While similar to the aforementioned carbine developments, the Modello 1891/24 was given a rifle-style rear sighting device which was an improvement over the previous type. The Modello 1891/24 was then adopted as the standard Italian Army infantry service rifle in the lead-up to World War 2. A specialized cavalry carbine version was also issued to special troops as the "Moschetto Modello 91 Per Cavalleria" and these featured a folding bayonet function.
The biggest change to the Carcano Model 1891 rifle family line came in its shift to the 7.35x51mm Carcano cartridge, a slightly shorter round than the German 7.92mm Mauser with a tapered neck and a conical bullet. Its length was roughly that of the less powerful 6.5mm cartridge it intended to replace, these given a more rounded bullet. The move to the 7.35mm cartridge was essentially forced upon the Italian Army when it was found that their 6.5mm Carcanos failed to provide the stopping power at range in actions across Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). To make the most beneficial use of available 6.5mm rifle stocks, the Italians decided to simply rechamber the rifles to the new 7.35mm specification. The new internals would be mated to a longer 21-inch barrel for increased accuracy and the culmination of the project would produce the "Carcano Model 1938 Short Rifle" introduced in 1938. The only other drastic refinement of the original Model 1891 lay in the rear sight which was now fixed to 300 meters. As can be surmised, the shift to the 7.35mm cartridge also produced the standard M1891/38TS and M1891/38 Para (short carbine) forms in 7.35mm chambering.
Despite the move to the 7.35mm cartridge, the primary Italian rifle stock going into World War 2 remained the 6.5mm version as retooling never reached the expected levels and the more powerful 7.35mm cartridge was never fully suitable for the internal stresses of the aged Model 1891 rifle. This naturally placed Italian infantry at a major tactical disadvantage when compared to her contemporaries in the conflict - the Italians lacking a true strong service rifle at either short, medium or long ranges. As such, Italian authorities ordered the stop to production of 7.35mm rifles and shifted back to the proven 6.5mm rifles for the remainder of the 1930s and much World War 2 (these becoming the "Fucile di Fanteria Modello 1891/38" and the slightly revised "Fucile di Fanteria Modello 1891/41"). As such, this produced a logistical nightmare and managed to worsen an already unfavorable situation. The shift in production during wartime meant that the two versions saw concurrent use in World War 2. In some cases, frontline 7.35mm rifles were being returned home and replaced with proven, but less effective, stock of 6.5mm rifle.
The Model 38 Short Rifle naturally spawned the requisite carbine form in the "Carcano Model 1938 Calvary Carbine". Like other carbines before it, the type featured the folding bayonet and a fixed rear sight ranged out to 200 meters. Model 1938 Cavalry Carbines were produced from nothing more than existing stocks of prior issued carbines being simply rechambered for the newer 7.35mm cartridge.
The evolution of the Model 1891 was not complete for, in an interesting move brought about by wartime stresses, the Model 1938 Carbine was further modified to accept the German Mauser 7.92mm rifle cartridge in 1944. By 1944, the war had taken a turn for the worse regarding Axis aspirations. The shift to the larger round was required to keep Italian forces loyal to the Axis in play. Only a single Italian factory took part in the rechambering process that saw the internal workings of the Model 1938 Carbine revised to accept the new cartridge. The alteration did, however, manage to nullify use of charger-loaded ammunition and force the operator to manually reload his rifle one cartridge at a time. Additionally, the larger German cartridge produced a noticeable increase in recoil and undue stresses to the action. The program became nothing more than a desperate attempt to arm Italians continuing to fight alongside the Germans after September of 1943 (the official Italian surrender).
The Modello 1891 was only ever officially adopted by the Italian Army. However, did this not restrict its unofficial use elsewhere around the globe. Operators included Albania, Bulgaria and Finland (in its Winter War with the Soviet Union). Due to their wartime relationship, it was not unheard of for German soldiers to take on stocks of Carcano rifles during World War 2 when standard-issue supplies proved limited. In 1905, the Japanese Empire received Carcano rifles from Italy and these were appropriately modified to fire the local 6.5x50mm Arisaka cartridge. Some 60,000 were believed produced.
The Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was in constant production from 1892 through 1945 and served as the standard Italian long gun of both World Wars and lesser conflicts in between. Many private hands sought to obtain the rifle for sport hunting. In this way, the rifle has been featured in the hands of rebel fighters as recently as the 2011 Libyan Civil War.
The Carcano Model 1891 rifle holds an aside in American history as being the rifle Lee Harvey Oswald used (a Fucile di Fanteria Modello 1891/38 purchased via mail order under an alias) to assassinate US President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963.