During the Second World War, the Royal Italian Army became bogged down in every theater of war and generally dragged the limited resources and limited chances for the Axis to produce a conclusive victory. The lackluster Italian effort has been excused by historians for a number of reasons, particularly an Italian populace that was anti-war and an impulsiveness on the part of Benito Mussolini. Some have even gone as far to say that Italian materiel quality as a deciding factor. Their tanks, artillery, and even rifles (including Carcano 7.35×51) lagged behind the standards of their adversaries.
As a historian and a rifle shooter, I am more inclined to lay the blame at a top-heavy structure of the Army than the individual soldier and his small arms. By all accounts, the Italian soldiers placed under German command performed well. The primary long arm he entered combat with in 1940 was the M38 Carcano chambered in the 7.35x51mm cartridge. Long forgotten today, the 7.35 Carcano cartridge was Italy’s attempt at an intermediate cartridge–an attempt made decades before the rest of the world fully embraced the concept. Here is the history of the 7.35 Carcano cartridge and how it shoots!
World War I and the Ethiopian War: Lessons Learned
World War I was marked by the insanity of trying the same tactics in the hopes of a different result. The Royal Italian Army tried to break through enemy lines twelve times at twelve different battles along the Isonzo River over the course of a three-year stalemate in the Alps facing the Austro-Hungarian Army. Compared to the horizontal world of mud along the Western Front, the Italian front was a rocky, frozen vertical world where fighting often occurred straight down and straight up. The war produced 600,000 dead, countless wounded, hyper-inflation, and broken territorial promises. Instead of being pensioned off, the technologically backwards officer class was retained post-war, while experienced noncommissioned ranks disappeared. Even with this vaporization of talent, the costs of the war were too great to take no lessons from.
Like with many nations after many disastrous engagements, faults were found with the existing M1891 Carcano rifle. The Carcano was a rugged rifle that was within Italy’s means to produce, but it was a long rifle meant for line battles and indirect fire at over 1000 meters. It’s 6.5x51mm cartridge was flat-shooting and up to that task. But that was not the Italian experience in the Alps. Fighting took place on an individual level in tunnels and casemates. Even in the open, effective hits were often taken at three hundred meters or less. The M91 carbine models were lighter, handier, and much preferred by whomever could get them.
The Italian Army needed a new short rifle and it need not be in 6.5. But it took the Italian experience in the Ethiopian War (1935-36) to move the bureaucratic machine. After some complains about the stopping power of the 6.5, the Royal Italian Army wanted a bigger round. This led to the 7.35×51 Carcano and the new M38 Short Rifle adopted in 1938.
The Rise and Fall of the 7.35×51 Carcano
The Italian M38 was meant to be a universal short rifle to replace the M91 Long rifle and artillery and cavalry carbines in service. This new six-shot clip-loader was little different from the M91, but experiences from the First World War were incorporated. The 29-inch barrel was shortened to 21 inches and the adjustable ladder sight was replaced by a fixed sight regulated at a realistic 200 meters. The real game changer is the 7.35 cartridge.
Army designers took the existing 6.5x52mm cartridge case and simply expanded the neck to accept a .300-inch diameter bullet. It was loaded with a light-for-caliber 128 grain full metal jacket bullet at a moderate 2300 feet per second. The extra bullet diameter would equal a bigger hole in the target, but the heavier bullet that works great at long range simply was not necessary for most engagements. By comparison, the 6.5 used a long 160 grain torpedo at the same velocity. The new 7.35 Carcano round is ballistically identical to what the 7.62×39 Soviet round would become–a .30 caliber round with a light-for-caliber bullet at moderate velocity.
The M38 in 7.35×51 was introduced into Italian service to replace the M91 in 1938. As fate would have it, an isolated Mussolini made the transition from an adversary to ally of Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference that March. In September 1939, war broke out and with the Allies on the backfoot, Mussolini entered a war he thought was over in June 1940.
The Italian Army that entered the Second World War was large and in the midst of a reorganization effort to create smaller divisions and localize command and control. Mussolini’s declaration of war put these efforts on hold. The Army was also in the middle of issuing out 7.35 rifles but having two different calibers in simultaneous service was going to make Italy’s limited logistics worse. Italy retained the M38 but chambered it in the 6.5 round. The 7.35 Carcano rifles were removed from frontline service. Many were given to Finland, while some were ended up in the hands of Italian client states and the German Volkssturm towards the end of the war. These rifles would continue to pop up in various small wars, including the Libyan Civil War in 2011, but fall intents and purposes the 7.35×51, as ahead of the curve as it was, died on arrival.
7.35 Carcano Ammo Particulars
The great mechanic Scotty Kilmer often said that “Oil is cheap, engines are expensive.” In the case of the Carcano, Carcanos are cheap, ammo is expensive. For years, those who wanted to shoot 7.35 had to rely on elderly and scarce surplus ammo or handload. When I picked up my first M38 carbine, Graf & Sons produced commercial lots on occasion, but I found it easier to buy brass and reload.
Loaders can form 7.35 brass from 6.5 Mannlicher or 6.5 Carcano cases, but Privi Partizan produces excellent factory brass. You can use conventional .308-inch diameter bullets like you would in a .30-06 or a .308, but the added diameter of these rounds can cause excessive pressures and poor accuracy. True .300 diameter rounds can be had by swaging .308-inch diameter rounds through a sizing die for .300. Hornady also produces a jacketed .300-inch diameter soft-point bullet that is the basis for most of the handloads out there.
But if you don’t reload, there is some good news. Renewed interest in Italian rifles, particularly after staches of them were imported from Ethiopia in recent years, has given more light to 6.5 and 7.35 rounds. Graf & Son’s Bannerman line of vintage military loads includes a 7.35 Hornady 128 grain soft-point load. Steinel Ammunition of Twinsburg, Ohio produced a similar load and currently produces a cast 150 grain flat-point load.
Shooting the 7.35 Carcano
Whether you are shooting new factory loads or handloads, the 7.35 Carcano round is an easy shooting cartridge with minimal felt recoil and muzzle rise. In terms of recoil, I rate it between a modern 5.56 NATO and the .243 Winchester cartridge. But it still gets downrange with plenty of authority. The challenge is the rifle and how the sights are regulated.
Unmodified Italian rifles have a fixed rear sight a barleycorn front sight. The tip of the front sight is buried deep into the V-notch rear and you get a 200 meter battle sight when using a six o’clock hold. However, a large number of 7.35 Carcano rifles were given to Finland as war aid during the Winter War (1939-40). The Finns heightened the front sight for a 150-yard battle sight.
In any event, at close distances, the Carcano shoots noticeably high. My particular rifle was made in 1939 and is stamped with the Finnish SA acceptance mark. At one hundred yards, the rifle shoots eighteen inches high but I can generally coax six rounds of 7.35 into a four-inch group. 4 MOA is not impressive by today’s standards, but it was during the Second World War. The American M1 rifle with issue ammunition was expected to hold such a group.
The 7.35 truly shines further out. At two hundred and three hundred yards, I had little difficulty hitting steel silhouette targets. The thick front sight of the M38 Carcano would ordinarily cover up a 1/2 D28 steel torso at 300 yards but because this rifle is meant for a six o-clock hold, I could reliably see my target, aim for the belt buckle and send rounds into the chest portion of the target. Shooting this way quickly becomes instinctual and it soon becomes clear why the Italians went for a simplified sighting arrangement and the 7.35 cartridge.
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