In a rather nondescript office building in College Park, Maryland sits one of the most infamous weapons ever used in the history of the United States. In the inventory of the National Archives and Records Administration Building is a military surplus 6.5x52mm Carcano Model 38 infantry carbine, fitted with a four-power scope made by Ordnance Optics.
As a fairly common surplus firearm, fitted with the wrong scope; it would have little collector value today. It could be described as being as nondescript as the building that houses it.
When it was offered via mail order from Klein’s Sporting Goods in the early 1960s such a rifle was listed for just $19.99. To put that in perspective, a “brand new” M1 .30 caliber carbine was also offered for $78.88. Yet, the particular rifle in the National Archives is beyond priceless, as it is the firearm that was used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
The Gun of Infamy
To date, four American presidents have been assassinated, and that includes Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley; while unsuccessful assassination attempts were made against Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt (when he left office and was campaigning for a failed White House bid in 1912), Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
There have also been reported attempts made against George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, and Donald Trump.
Yet, what is especially notable is that even firearms buffs likely can’t readily name the weapons used in those various assassinations or attempts—at least apart from the Carcano.
For the record, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln with a derringer pistol, while Charles Guiteau killed Garfield with a British Bulldog pistol. McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgsz, an anarchist from New York, with a .32 caliber Iver Johnson Revolver.
A .38 caliber Colt Police Positive Special Revolver was also used against Theodore Roosevelt, who was shot but still managed to deliver his campaign speech! In fact, it is believed that the 50-page speech, which was tucked in his jacket, may have played no small part in saving his life.
Reagan was also struck by a .22 caliber round fired from John Hinkley’s RG Industries Model 14 revolver.
The Carcano certainly achieved infamy for its use in assassinating President Kennedy, but likely countless others were killed with the military model rifle and its variations—which saw use in more than a dozen conflicts.
Origin of the Carcano
The Carcano’s actual design dates back to 1887, decades before JFK was even born. It was that year that the Italian Government set up a committee chaired by General Gustavo Parravincino, who was interestingly an Italian Army artillery commander and oversaw the adoption of various large caliber weapons for his military.
The goal of that committee was to find a new weapon to replace the aging Vetterli-Vitali bolt action rifle, which had entered service a decade earlier.
The winning weapon was the result of a team headed by Italian arms designer Salvatore Carcano, which also incorporated ideas from various other sources—notably Mannlicher and Mauser. It was initially designated the Mannlicher-Carcano Model 1891 as it utilized the en bloc charger clips that were originally developed and patented by Austrian weapons maker Ferdinand Mannlicher. The actual shape of the weapon was actually closer to the German Model 1888 Commission Rifle, however.
The bolt action rifle, originally chambered for the 6.5x52mm Carcano round, was manufactured at Italian State Arsenals in Terni and Brescia beginning in early 1891. That is noteworthy as it was the same year that the Imperial Russian Army adopted its much more famous Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 rifle.
The Carcano Rifle Goes to War
The Italian Carcano had its baptism of fire in the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-96)—which proved to be an unmitigated disaster for Rome. It was subsequently used in the 1901 Boxer Rebellion in China and then in the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12).
In an almost ironic twist, more than a million Mannlicher-Carcano rifles were produced during the First World War and used against the Austrian Army in the fierce fighting on the Isonzo front. Of course, when the rifle was introduced into service, the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were officially allies. Had Vienna suspected that it would be fighting a brutal war with Italy, it is doubtful the en bloc magazine would have been licensed for use in the firearm.
During that terrible conflict, which was fought largely in the Alps, some 50,000 were captured by the Austrians, and those were converted to the 6.5×54mm Mannlicher–Schönauer cartridges. These models have found interest with collectors due to their rarity, as most were destroyed after the war.
Throughout the interwar era the design was periodically updated, with the most significant being in 1938 when there were fears that the 6.5x52mm cartridge was insufficiently powerful enough. That led to the development of the Model 1891/38, which was chambered for a new 7.35x52mm round. However, modifications to existing rifles had only begun when the Second World War broke out. As a result, it was decided not to modify the existing stockpiles, and to issue the 7.35mm models to militia units instead of front-line troops.
The weapon’s history during the Second World War is also interesting for other reasons.
The British captured vast quantities of the Carcano in North Africa and those were provided to the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.
A joke could be made about the rifles having never been fired and only dropped once as these were used in conflicts where Italy was often on the losing side. As a matter of fact, captured rifles from the Italo-Ethiopian War in the late 19th century reportedly remained in use with second-line troops of Ethiopia until the 1950s.
Despite the jokes, it was determined to be a well-made rifle.
The Empire of Japan had purchased a number prior to the Second World War and used those on campaigns in China. Moreover, when the Fascist Italian government was overthrown in 1943, Nazi Germany also took the position of a vast number of Carcano rifles, which were issued to volunteers and second-line troops.
Following the Second World War, the rifle was used in the Lebanon crisis of the 1950s and the subsequent Lebanese Civil War. More recently, the Carcano has even been seen in the hands of insurgents in Kosovo and Libya. The longevity of the 19th-century firearm is a testament to its robust design and ease of operation.
The Rifle That Killed Kennedy
Had Oswald not opted to make that $20 purchase, the Carcano rifle would likely be a footnote of military rifles today overshadowed by the Mauser, Lee-Enfield, and Mosin-Nagant. Instead, it became infamous through Oswald’s actions, when he fired the rifle from the Texas School Book Depository at approximately 13:30 pm CST.
The particular rifle used to kill President Kennedy was manufactured at the Royal Arms Factory in Terni, (Regia fabbrica d’armi di Terni), Italy, in 1940. It is marked with the stamp of the royal crown and “Terni,” which identifies the location of its manufacture, and the serial number “C2766,” which was part of a block of surplus items sold by the Italian Army, through a tender, to the New York City-based Adam Consolidated Industries.
It had reportedly been refurbished in Storo, Trentino at the Riva Plant sometime prior to September 1960.
Oswald had placed the order for the rifle—the second firearm he purchased via mail order—in March 1963, after seeing an advertisement from Klein’s Sporting Goods of Chicago in the February 1963 issue of American Rifleman.
Yet, the ad was for the Carcano Model M91 TS carbine, which was actually unavailable. Instead, Oswald received the Carcano M91/38. This point is important as some conspiracy theorists have noted the rifle in the National Archives differs significantly from the rifle in the ad.
The Carcano was shipped to him at his post office in Dallas, while photos of Oswald holding the rifle in his backyard confirm his purchase.
Kennedy Assassination and the Carcano Rifle
Another notable fact about the rifle is that Kennedy wasn’t actually Oswald’s first target. On April 10, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to assassinate retired U.S. Army General Edwin Walker at his home in Dallas.
The bullet was deflected when it struck a window, but Oswald was able to make his escape.
The firearm was then kept hidden, wrapped in a blanket in the garage until Oswald smuggled it into the Texas School Book Depository on the morning of the assassination. It was wrapped in a brown paper package, and Oswald told a co-worker it contained curtain rods.
The rifle was found a half hour after the assassination, along with three 6.5x52mm brass cartridges. It was subjected to a number of forensic examinations. It was initially misidentified as a German-made Mauser rifle—likely due to its similarity to the aforementioned Model 1888 Commission Rifle.
There has been speculation that Oswald, who scored a rating of “sharpshooter” during his service in the United States Marine Corps, could not have made the necessary shots that hit President Kennedy, which was believed to be between 4.8 to 5.6 seconds. However, modern analysis of a digitally enhanced Zapruder film suggests that the time beyond the first and final shot may have taken as long as 8.3 seconds.
A Gun Collector Tried to Buy It
The rifle, serial number “C2766,” remained in the possession of the FBI from November 1963 to November 1966, except for brief periods in 1964 when it was loaned to the Warren Commission and tested by the U.S. Army’s Weapons Evaluation Branch.
During that time, Oswald’s widow, Marina, sold whatever right, interest, or title to the Carcano rifle—along with a pistol also owned by Oswald—for $5,000 to John J. King, a Denver firearms collector. An additional $35,000 was also contingent upon the buyer obtaining possession “free and clear” of the weapons. However, as Oswald had used a fictitious name when purchasing the firearms, in violation of the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, he had illegally obtained them. As a result, it was impossible for King to purchase them, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing it anyway.
An appellate court seemed to agree.
It ruled that there was “no provision in the Federal Firearms Act requiring a purchaser to use his true name when ordering weapons from a dealer licensed under the Act.” Yet, the U.S. Attorney General, acting under the authority provided by Public Law 89-318, published his determination that the various items considered by the Warren Commission, including the weapons—the subject of the forfeiture proceeding—should be acquired by the United States government.
King actually sued the U.S. for $5 million, but the claim was rejected by the court.
In 1969, a 12-person jury agreed with the government’s contention that Lee Harvey Oswald had “abandoned” the rifle in 1963. Therefore Marina Oswald had no claim to it, or any right of sale. King received no compensation for the Carcano rifle. However, he did receive $350 in compensation for the government’s taking of the pistol found on Oswald at his arrest, which King had also purchased from Marina Oswald.
Today, a similar rifle to the one used by Oswald is on display at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, while the rifle actually used to assassinate Kennedy remains in the National Archives.