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M1868 Papal States (Pontificio) Rolling Block

(Fucile Remington Mod. 1868)

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M1868 Papal States (Pontificio) Rolling Block , Photo Credit Michal

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M1868 Papal States (Pontificio) Rolling Block, Photo Credit Michal

GENERALLY

  In August, 1866, Rome solicited 2,000 Chasspot-type arms (needle fire rifles) from the Belgian Central Committee to modernize its long arms.  But it wasn’t until September of 1867 that Emile and Leon Nagant at Liège received an order to furnish these rifles.  By this time, Rome was having substantial doubts regarding the quality of arms utilizing paper cartridges, considering the effectiveness of newer metallic cartridges.  Pursuant to the intervention of a certain General Kanzler of the Zouaves, the Chasspot order was cancelled and replaced with an order for 5,000 Remington patent rifles to be built under license.  The Nagant brothers accepted this order notwithstanding the directive of the Belgian Central Committee and began production of the rifles, the first of which reached Rome on September 25, 1868.  An order for 5,000 additional Remington rifles was placed by French Catholics with the firm of Westley Richards of Birmingham which rifles also began arriving in 1868.  Unfortunately, the quality of the Birmingham rifles was considered by the Vatican’s military to be so poor that eight Belgian armorers were dispatched to Rome to bring the rifles to full functionality.  By the end of the year, sufficient additional Nagant Remington infantry rifles had arrived that the English models were thereafter distributed only to auxiliary units.

  After the unification of Italy following the defeat of the Papal States in the battle at Porta Pia in Rome and absorption of the Papal States into Italy in 1870, many of the captured rifles were re‑issued to the Italian Army.  The royal Italian Army seized practically all of the Papal Remingtons except for 150 rifles and 80 deluxe short rifles that were allowed to remain with the Vatican.  In 1871 the seized rifles were issued to the Bersaglieri as the remainder of the Italian Army adopted the M1870 Vetterli (q.v.).

  It seems that between 1883 and 1888 the Italian government sold or gave some 9,000 Remington Pontificios to Menelik II of Ethiopia.  Ironically the Italians faced these very rifles again during their Ethiopian colonial campaign in 1896 where, at the battle of Adua, some 4,500 Italians were killed.  Even more ironically, the Italians faced the Vatican rifles yet again during their much berated Ethiopian campaign of 1935!

  The last 230 Remington Pontificios remaining in the Vatican are occasionally still used ceremonially for the papal Palace guard and Honor guards and are, to the best of my knowledge, the only 19th Century military rifles still in official use today!

OPERATING MECHANISM

The rifle is substantially identical in operation to other Remington patent rifles of the era as described in detail under Spain:  M1870 Remington. 

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS

  The M1868 Papal States Remington rifle is very closely comparable to the contemporary m/1867 Swedish (q.v.) and M1867 Norwegian (q.v.) Remingtons of substantially similar caliber.  The Papal Remington is chambered in 12.7 x 45R centerfire, (actually, the American .50‑70 Government caliber, see discussion under Cartridge below) while the Scandinavians are chambered for the 12.17x44RF.  The Papal rifle is also close to the Scandinavian models dimensionally but is 50 mm (2 inches) shorter and fitted with a single barrel band and a more elaborate Belgian / French style nosecap, as is found on the French M1866 Chassepot needle rifle and its later brother the French M1874 Gras (q.v.) rifles. Sling swivels are provided below the single barrel band and on the underside of the buttstock.  The identity of this scarce rifle as well as distinguishing between the two contracts is most easily and readily confirmed by its various markings (see below).

Distinguishing the Nagant made and the Westley Richards made rifles

  The fastest, surest way to distinguish the two rifle production runs is via their markings, addressed below.  The sight base of the Westley-Richards is slightly longer than that of the Nagant, and its buttplate tang is slightly narrower, but these differences are negligible.   Otherwise they are nearly indistinguishable and markings are the surest way to differentiate them.

MARKINGS

  Markings relating to the Papal rolling block rifles can be disconcerting about which to make broad statements, as there are not that many examples to review, and of those, all are slightly different, with different combinations of markings.   No matter what the statement, it seems that an example exists which illustrates an exception to what should be the rule.  Thus, statements regarding Papal rifle markings apply in general only, and not without exception.  With this caveat in place, nearly all markings, on both Belgian and British production runs, are distinctive to this rifle and differ somewhat from each other.

  Nagant built rifles are marked, on the left side of the receiver "BREVET REMINGTON" (Remington’s patent), below which is the patent royalty or manufacturing serial number.[1]  The manufacturer’s markings, “E M & L Nagant A LIÈGE” is stamped along the lower edge of the left receiver flat.  The Papacy’s serial numbers appear along the upper left knoxform flat, top left of the receiver, and forward left flat of the trigger guard.  Liège proof marks are stamped on the left knoxform of the barrel.  Stamped into the left side and on the top of the knoxform are the wholly dispositive Papal States ownership markings consisting of St. Peter’s two "crossed keys" under the Papal tiara.[2]  No other rifle carries Papal markings.   Unsurprisingly, the rifle (like the short rifle and musketoon described below) also carries the standard compliment of the then current Liege proof markings including the “Peron” and the “E over LG” in an oval found on all Liege origin military rifles of that era.

 

The British-built rifles are marked “WESTLEY RICHARDS & Co BIRMINGHAM” along the top of the barrel between the receiver and rear sight, and “REMINGTON’S PATENT” stamped deeply into the upper tang.  Curiously, while the Remington patent declaration is read conventionally with the rifle facing to the left, the Westley Richards declaration is read with the rifle facing to the right.  There are also multiple British proof house markings on the upper barrel alongside and parallel to the Westley Richards markings.  The manufacturing serial numbers of the Westley Richards rifles appear on the left flat of the upper tang, where production numbers appear on virtually all Remington manufactured rolling blocks, although the buttstock must be removed for the numbers to be available.

In the case of the Papal Rolling Blocks, serial numbers were not applied by the manufacturers but rather were applied by the Papal armorers on receipt of the rifles {KDNOTE – confirm] and are stamped on the upper left barrel flat, across from this on the receiver, on the underside of the forearm just ahead of the receiver and the underside of the buttstock just back from the lower tang. 

The all-dispositive Papal “crossed keys” acceptance markings appear on the top of the knoxform on Nagant-built rifles, and a much more bare style, consisting of only two simple crossed keys, is punched into the upper left flat of the knoxform alongside the serial number of the British series rifles.

The Belgian made rifle buttstocks carry a roundel on the right side consisting of a circle in the center of which are St. Peter’s crossed keys below the papal tiara above the date 1868 surrounded by “ CATHOLIQUES BELGES”

British-made rifles may be embossed with a very slightly semi-oval roundel cartouche, also on the right side of the buttstock, consisting of highly elaborate crossed keys below a papal tiara and the date 1868 below and outside of the cartouche.

 

KDNOTE:  discuss Crown over “O” and Crown over “S” proofs.

 

Interestingly, not all Papal Rolling Block rifles are either serial numbered or carry the Papal Keys.  The breathtakingly short time during which they were in service to the Papal States, coupled with manufacturing delays and quality control problems left a number of these rifles, short rifles and carbines manufacturer-marked, but not necessarily Papal marked before the fall (and disarmament) of the political entity known as the Stato Pontificio, to the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi on September 20, 1870.

 

[1]   This is distinct from the rifle’s Papal serial number which was applied by the Papal armorers after delivery.  The patent number is used for determining royalties due Remington.  Such a system can also be clearly seen in all of the varieties of Comblain rifles (q.v.) manufactured in Liege which each carry two sets of serial numbers, patent, and service.

[2]   Insert fascinating information about St. Peter’s Keys here.  ;)