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Military Rifles in the Age of Transition
(Non-U.S.) Black Powder, Metallic Cartidge, Military Rifles
1865 to 1890
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(Fucile da Fanteria mod.1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali)
Fucile da Fanteria mod.1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Robert Wilsey with reviewing and correcting errors which inevitably occur in any venture of this sort. Our Vetterli pages are substantially better due to his kind and scholarly suggestions.
This rifle is the straightforward conversion of the M1870 Italian Vetterli, altered to a repeater by the addition of a four round Vitali box magazine designed by Italian Artillery Captain Giuseppe Vitali. Like most other nations with substantial stocks of single shot rifles, the conversions came after extensivel experiments and trials which saw the M1870 Vetterli experimentally converted using a number of magazine systems then available. The Vitali system eventually proved both functional and cost effective for converting the bolt action, and after Italy’s adoption the system was also adopted by the Netherlands in altering their M1871 Beaumont rifles to the M1871/88 Dutch Beaumont‑Vitali.
The Vitali system was adopted in 1887, and from then onward existing M1870 Vetterli rifles, and many of the Vetterli varieties, were converted to M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali box magazine models. All the while production of new Vetterlis continued, with new-built rifles being the M1870/87 pattern, until production finally ceased in 1892. During the period 1887 to 1892 nearly all of the approximately 1.3 million Vetterli rifles produced were converted to M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifles.
Twenty years later, in the first years of World War I, roughly 700,000 M1870/87 Vetterli infantry rifles were altered yet again, this time to utilize the 6.5mm Carcano cartridge and employing the Mannlicher designed magazine system of the M1891 Carcarno, becoming the Vetterli mod. 1870/87/15.
In order to make the Vitali system conversion, the floor of the receiver was cut out to accept the magazine and a metal reinforcing plate or magazine shroud was added to the bottom of the stock surrounding the magazine to strengthen the stock. (Note that not all Vetterli Vitalis were equipped with magazine shrouds as a relatively few early conversions were fitted with magazine reinforcing bolts and were called ‘Tipo P’ before the Italians realized that the stocks were cracking and changed production over to metallic shrouds (scudo)).
In addition to the magazine, the next most conspicuous modification is the addition of a bolt support rail immediately behind the receiver and below the bolt to keep it in line and to prevent the bolt from rocking and possibly jamming when fully opened. Other changes included deleting the dust cover and replacing it with a tabbed metal ring immediately to the rear of the loading port that serves to both lock the bolt retaining key in place and, when strategically rotated, act as a magazine cut‑off allowing the rifle to be used in single shot mode while maintaining a fully charged magazine. The Vetterli-Vitali infantryman could then employ the magazine when needed merely by rotating the tabbed ring slightly to the left.
The conversions also incorporated an improved safety, also designed by the industrious Captain Vitali, which held the bolt slightly out of battery keeping the firing pin off of any chambered cartridge. Similarly to the earlier Clavarino safety, merely lifting the bolt to allow the safety to spring back then allowed the rifle to be fully cocked and ready to fire.
Unlike the M1870, The M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali employs only the single bayonet lug and tenon to mount the bayonet. The small guide lug at the muzzle is removed.
Originally Vetterli rifles were produced finished in the white. Blueing was introduced as an upgrade via Army Order 50 in April, 1884, which ordered all new and existing rifles to be blued. So as part of the refurbishment program, those rifles which had not yet been blued were blued, although the receiver, safety lever and trigger guard were case hardened.
After 1890, with the approval of a smokeless powder loading of the 10.35x47R cartridge, the rear sight was again altered, this time to adjust ranging from 275 meters as marked on the top of the sight leaf near the sight walls and then 4 (for 400 m), 5.5 (for 550m) and then from 6 through 18 denoting 600 out to 1800 meters, all marked on the top edge of the right sight wall.
‘Tipo P’ Fucile mod.1870/87 manufactured at Torino, Early conversion with two Vitali magazine reinforcing bolts. This design was quickly replaced by the standard metal shroud. ©Robert Wilsey
Operation of the modified Vetterli-Vitali is substantially identical to the M1870 Italian Vetterli. The magazine is of the fixed type and loaded with the bolt open. The Vitali system was designed for packet loading with 4 rounds on an early string-equipped stripper clip, all of which is inserted into the magazine. When fully inserted, the stripper is withdrawn by pulling up on the string. The metal ring that replaces the dust cover of the M1870 rifle acts as a magazine cut-off by locking down the top cartridge in the magazine when rotated a quarter turn to the right. This allows the rifle to be used as a single shot while keeping the magazine in reserve. For repeater use, the cut-off ring is pivoted to the left side of the receiver, exposing a notch in the cut-off ring that allows cartridges to feed from the magazine.
MARKINGS of the Mod. 1870/87
Vetterli rifles which were originally built as M1870 single-shot rifles bear the breech markings of their M1870 parent as do their buttstocks. Purpose-built M1870/87 rifles (produced in 1887 to 1892) bear similar markings but will not evidence conversion stock cartouches. The buttstocks of previous M1870 arms will sometimes be additionally marked by the armory doing the conversion along with the conversion date. Because many Italian Vetterlis have been rebuilt several times, occasionally the serial number on the stock has been over stamped or lined out to rematch during Vitali conversion (in the case of the later mod.1870/87/15 conversions the stock over-stamping is usual).
Fucile mod.1870/87 manufactured at Terni late in 1892. One of the last of 1.8 million production Italian Vetterlis (‘BK’ prefix was last recorded batch of Terni Vetterli rifles). ©Robert Wilsey
An early original unmodified M1870 Vetterli rifle
A good view of all of the major modifications of the M1870 to the M1870/87 configuration: Vecci-pattern rear sight, the addition of the box magazine, addition of a lower stock reinforcing plate, addition of the bolt support/guiderail behind the bolt, substitution of the magazine cut‑off ring for the dust cover, and the re‑designed safety lever. What is not visible is the cut-out of the receiver floor to accommodate the cartridges in the magazine.
The Vitali box magazine follower is driven by a unique large round coil spring which, along with the bottle shape of the cartridges, gives the magazine its very distinctive shape, only seen on this rifle and the M1871/8 Dutch Beaumont. The bolt guide rail is also distinctive and together with the clunky box magazine confirms this rifle. Additionally noteworthy is that the magazine is set into an 8 ¾-inch (223 mm) floor plate that reinforces the stock. The dust cover is replaced with a simple magazine cut-off ring at the rear of the action as described above. The caliber, however, remains the same as the M1870 at 10.35mm.
Specifications, Statistics & Data of the Mod 1870/87
Fucile da Fanteria mod. 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali:
Overall Length: 1360mm (53 in) (Pagani) 1349mm Wilsey
Barrel Length: 870mm (33.5 in) (Pagani) 862 Wilsey
Weight, empty: 4.3k (9.08 lbs) (Pagain, 4.382 Wilsey
Rifling: 4-groove; RH, concentric
Sight: Quadrant graduated from 2300 to 1,000m (1,095 yds).
Later Vecci quadrant sights graduated from 275100 m to 1,600 m
Same as the M1870 Vetterli infantry rifle bayonet, above. See: M1870 Vetterli Infantry Rifle Bayonet.
SHORT RIFLES, CARBINES & SPECIAL VERSIONS OF THE MOD 1870/87
Model 1870/87 TS short rifle (Moschetto da Truppe Speciali mod. 1870/87)
Moschetto da TS mod.1870/87 - dated Brescia 1887 ©Robert Wilsey
Beginning in 1887 and extending over several years, many surviving M1870TS rifles, like the infantry rifles, were fitted with four-round Vitali box magazines (mod. 1870/87). The 1890 introduction of 10.35mm cartridges loaded with smokeless propellant allowed sights to be graduated to 1400m (1530 yds). A limited number of mod.1870/87 Truppe Speciali rifles were subsequently converted during World War I to accept the 6.5mm Carcano cartridge by re-chambering and by replacing the Vitali magazine with the Mannlicher magazine.
Moschetto per Truppe Speciali mod. 1870/87
Overall Length: 1097mm ( inches)
Barrel Length: 23 7/8 in (606mm) (610mm Wilsey)
Weight, empty: 7 lbs 13oz (3.55 k) (3.83k Wilsey)
Rifling: 4-groove; RH, concentric
Sight: Quadrant graduated from 100 to 800 m (1,095 yds).
Later Vecci pattern sights were graduated identically to that of the rifle.
Moschetto da TS mod.1870/87/15 dated Glisenti 1875 ©Robert Wilsey
No M1870 Moschetto da Carabinieri was ever officially converted to M1870/87 nor adopted. All remained in their original mod. 1870 configuration until the 20th century.
When some Moschetto da Carabinieri mod.1870s were converted to mod.1870/87/15 (the official Italian nomenclature despite that there was never a mod.1870/87) they were fitted with an extended bolt support rail (longer than that of the rifle and TS conversions) which fitted into a specially machined shoe at the bottom of the bolt to help prevent binding. They could do this because they were not converting the carbine from a Vitali magazine so could incorporate ‘lessons learned’ when installing a brand new Mannlicher-style magazine. This version was equipped with a shorter socket bayonet than the original mod. 1870 because of the interference of the magazine when the bayonet was stowed reversed.
[These are smokeless powder carbines and thus beyond the scope of this website.]
Moschetto da Carabinieri mod.1870/87/15 - Note the extra-long bolt support rail ©Robert Wilsey
M1870/87 Colonial Cavalry Carbine (Moschetto da Cavalleria mod 1870/87 Coloniale)
Moschetto da Cavalleria mod.1870/87 Coloniale ©Robert Wilsey
500 of this special issue cavalry carbine were produced for Eritrean Cavalry units and paid for by the Italian Colonial Office (Fondo Eritreo; a Colonial office budget for Eritrea). They are therefore a quasi-official military rifle as they were not used by Italian troops but rather used by Colonial Italian Askari troops and are referenced in the Cavalry museum in Pinerolo.
It appears from surviving examples that this it was not a conversion of the Moschetto da Cavalleria but rather a carbine produced using various Vetterli parts. For instance the stock is unique and quite different from, longer and wider than, the Cavalry stock.
No M1870 Cavalry Carbine (Moschetto da Cavalleria mod. 1870) were ever converted to the 6.5mm cartridge or Mannlicher magazine.
Comparison between the Vetterli standard socket bayonet for the Moschetto da Cavalleria and Carabinieri (lower) and the shorter bayonet of the rare Moschetto da Cavalleria mod.1870/87 Coloniale, so as not to interfere with the magazine when reversed. ©Robert Wilsey
10.35x47 Italian Vetterli was originally adapted for the single shot M1870 Vetterli and its usage was continued with the Vitali conversion box magazine.
M1890 10.35x47R Vetterli smokeless powder cartridge. The Italians continued to load for the 10.4mm Vetterli after the 1890 introduction of smokeless powder using Nobel "ballistite" and copper/zinc (brass) plated bullets.
This information is historical. If reloading, do not use this data, use modern sources of reloading data only.
Case: Brass, rimmed, bottlenecked
Bullet diameter: 10.922 mm
Neck diameter: 11.09 mm
Base diameter: 13.71 mm
Rim diameter: 16.1 mm
Case length: 47.49 mm
Total length: 62.48 mm
Total weight: 40.2 grams
MANUFACTORING DATA (UPGRADING & MARKINGS)
Between the first ‘Prima’ mod 1870 single-shot Vetterli rifle and the last ‘Ultima’ Vetterli lie more than 1.8 million production Italian Vetterlis of all types and models. Manufacturing information for the pre-1887 single-shot versions appear in the page M1870 Italian Vetterli. In addition to the four major armories both converting M1870 rifles to M1870/87 and building new-made m1870/87s, conversions of single-shot Vetterlis were also undertaken at Genoa By the end of the century nearly every Vetterli infantry rifle, and many of the short rifles and carbines had been converted to a version of the mod. 1870/87.
Utilization of the Mod. 1870/87 Vetterlis by Other Countries
Italy is not known to have sold the black-powder M1870/87 rifles on the international market while they were in current use, but after they became obsolete they did seem to have found their way around. Of course they were significantly used in Italy’s few colonies, principally Italian East Africa, Eritria, Ethiopia and Somaliland, but never sold abroad.
However, a significant number of mod.1870/87 Italian Vetterli-Vitali rifles in 10.35mm caliber were sent to Russia during World War I. With substantial help from the British, between November 1915 and January 1916, some 300,000 Vetterlis (and 14 million rounds of ammunition) were shipped to Russia in exchange for the Russians providing the Allies with 250,000 extra troops to the Romanian front. In total, it is estimated that 400,000 Vetterlies were eventually delivered to the Russians, but it is unknown whether the rifles were ever employed on the front lines. More likely they would have been issued to rear echelon troops to free up newer arms (principally the Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant, a rifle chambering the widely employed Russian 7.62x54 cartridge) for use by front line troops. With the Russian Revolution in 1917 no further shipments of arms to Russia were undertaken.
Wilsey reports that the Russian communists later shipped no fewer than 13,000 and as many as 20,000+ foreign and outdated rifles of all types to the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, including a significant number of Italian Vetterli-Vitali rifles. They may have seen only limited service in Spain since they arrived with only a small supply of ammunition.* Wilsey indicates 2.5 million rounds were shipped, but for 20,000 rifles that is insufficient. As the Italian 10.35mm cartridge was long obsolete, and Italy was allied with their enemies, even the desperate Spanish Republicans could make little use of their. One Italian Brigade of the Nationalist forces was briefly equipped with the Vetterli mod.1870/87 before it was replaced by the m1891 and a small number of M1870/87/15s were also used.
A number of the Italian Vetterlis sold on the American surplus market in the 1960s came from this source, these particular rifles being crudely stamped “Made In Italy” on the top flat of their receivers and the Cyrillic letter П (“P”) engraved in the stock .**
I have seen several examples of the M1870/87 Italian Vetterli rifles marked with the “Made In Italy” marking but don’t have a ready photo. such markings look substantially similar to the marks here which have been applied to three different French M1866-74 Gras rifles, which almost certainly share similar histories as that of the Vetterli-Vitali “Russo-Spanish” rifles.
* Howson, Gerald, Arms for Spain; The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War, St. Martin's Press, N.Y., 1998.
** Brogan, Patrick & Albert Zarca, Deadly Business: Sam Cummings, Interarms & the Arms Trade, Norton, 1983.
There was also a significant effort on the part of the Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF) in the early 20th century, especially in 1914, to smuggle into Ireland rifles of several varieties, including Italian Vetterli-Vitali infantry rifles and M1871 German Mausers, which had been secretly acquired from a German arms dealer, for the use by the UVF in Northern Ireland. In April, 1914, some 24,600 rifles of several models were smuggled in. More than 7,000 Vetterli-Vitalis had been unofficially imported by 1917, as well as a smaller number smuggled to the nationalists. (for additional information on the UVF, see: https://www.historyireland.com/the-ulster-volunteers-1913-1914-force-or-farce/
For a bit more Historical Context to China's acquisition of modern arms during the 1880s and into the 1920's see China / Arms of the Boxer Rebellionlinked at the MAIN Page.
During the period of multiple civil wars and struggles which China experienced between 1916 and when Chiang Kai-shek finally subdued or co-opted the various Chinese warlords by 1928, many of the major Western Powers sold great numbers of arms to China.
These civil wars were dominated by a number of powerful warlords, each of which commanded his own private army. The Chinese warlord forces were armed with weapons from wherever they could be obtained, and thus nearly every Western small arm of the period eventually found their way to China. During the years between about 1880 and 1928 most of the major powers, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia (newly created in 1918 from the rubble of the defeated and dismemberd Austria-Hungary) and Japan, sold off all of the obsolete arms they could to the multitude of warring Chinese factions.
During this period Italy exported more than 4,000 tons of arms including no fewer than, 143,000 Italian rifles which would have almost certainly been M1870/87 Vetterlis.
The M1870/87 also saw service at various times in places as far afield as Ethiopia, Germany and Austro Hungary.
Notes on the M1870/87/15 Vetterli
The modification of the M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifles to utilize the 6.5x52R rimless Carcano cartridge was accomplished by sleeving the barrel and by replacing the Vitali box magazine with a box magazine system designed by Ferdinand von Mannlicher, originally incorporated into the M1886 Austrian Mannlicher rifle. This variant is commonly designated the M1870/87/15. The same stock was re‑used by adding wood to the magazine channel and routing out a bit under and ahead of the receiver. Some stocks show cartouches from the M1870, conversion to the M1870/87 and subsequent conversion to M1870/87/15
During World War I, partly as a result of substantial losses of the Italians’ then modern M1891 Mannlicher-Carcano rifles, large numbers of M1870/87 rifles (themselves already conversions of single shot rifles to repeaters) were altered a second time, to the Carcano. These were issued to rear echelon troops to free up supplies of the Mannlicher-Carcano for front line use.
The majority of 6.5 mm conversions were carried out in Rome at the Officine di Riparazione di Roma which changed its title to the ‘Officina di Costruzione d’Artiglieria’ in September 1916. Some were also converted by Provvisorio Artiglieria Gardone VT.
The conversion was accomplished by Re-tubing the barrel using the ‘Salerno process’,
installing a new rear sight with shorter leaf, and replacing the Vitali magazine with a Mannlicher suitable for the then current cartridge. This new rifle is most readily visually distinguished from its black powder parent by the longer, thinner and shorter box magazine, smaller rear sight and its much smaller bore.
The 6.5 mm conversion stamp is the ROMA stamp with a date between 1915-17.
For a deeper dive into the Italian Vetterli’s history, development, varieties and usage, see: Wilsey, Robert, The Italian Vetterli Rifle: Development, Variants and History in Service, Mowbray , 2016.
Page first built: February 3, 1999
Revised December 11, 1999
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Updated: Feb 8th 2022