Issue 49 Carcano: Kennedy Assassination Rifle Ashley Hlebinsky 10 Comments, Join the Conversation Hidden History: The Carcano is the Rifle Used to Assassinate President John F. Kennedy Photos by Danny Michael Throughout history, firearms have been used by countless people for many different reasons. They were initially developed as a way to evolve warfare beyond confrontations of melee, but the technology quickly outpaced military strategy and opened the door to a growing market for sport. By the 1500s, firearms weren’t just cumbersome hand cannons or arquebuses that used a burning rope to operate, they could be rifled, shrunken down to handgun size, and operate with an ignition system that didn’t require a slow burning match. With those developments, the uses of firearms expanded even further. This expansion, however, instilled a concern by royalty for misuse and, more specifically, for assassination. KROGER CRAPS ON THE SECOND AMENDMENT! READ THE FULL STORY HERE. Prior to the introduction of the concealable firearm and the invention of rifling, an assassin armed with a firearm needed to be in close proximity to a public figure to cause harm. But new technology brought new concern. The first recorded public assassination with a firearm dates to 1570. James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, was assassinated in Scotland with an older technology — the matchlock carbine. Almost 15 years later, newer, more compact technology, the wheel-lock pistol, was used for an assassination in the Netherlands, killing William the Silent, Prince of Orange. This trend continues throughout history, often with smaller handguns. However, similar to the first assassination with a firearm, longer guns have allowed for tragedy at a distance. Fast-forward several centuries, and this trend continued with presidential assassinations in the United States. In November 1963, President Kennedy was riding through the streets of Texas in an open-top 1961 Lincoln Continental when he was murdered. While there are many theories disputing the official accounts of the event and debating ballistics, for the purposes of this article, I am focusing solely on the Carcano Model 1891/38 rifle housed in the National Archives collection and identified as “Mannlicher-Carcano Rifle Owned by Lee Harvey Oswald and Allegedly Used to Assassinate President John F. Kennedy.” Lee Harvey Oswald’s Firearm The firearm and related archival material are currently in the National Archives. Images and information about the case can be found online and are available for free. The “Carcano” rifle was originally designed around 1890 by Salvatore Carcano, who was the chief technician at Turin Army Arsenal. It was made until the end of World War II and used by Italian troops in World War I and Italians and Germans in World War II. It’s been used by other countries in conflicts as well. The original model was the 1891; it was an Italian bolt-action smokeless powder firearm. The Model 1891 has a sight that could range to 2,000 meters and a battle sight at 300 meters. The original barrel was long, which reflected a historic tradition that was effective for older military tactics. This type of warfare, however, was outdated by World War I. In response, many countries started developing the concept of a short rifle, including Italy. This is not the Carcano rifle owned by Oswald. However, it is the same model. Carcano Model 1891/38, 6.5x52mm cartridge, serial number AY6819, date: 1940. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA. Gift of Olin Corporation, Winchester Arms Collection, 1988.8.1738. In 1938, the Model 91 was modified and designated the Model 38. It has a shorter barrel of about 21 inches. The bolt handle was also turned down, and the rear sight was fixed with a 200 meter zero — a departure from the Model 91. Initially, it was chambered in 7.35x51mm, although after 1940, it was made in the original 6.5x52mm cartridge. This was the model owned by Oswald. But how did an Italian firearm made in 1940 end up in an American’s hands decades later — especially with tightening restrictions in Italy on guns following World War II? Postwar Surplus Rifle Throughout history, firearms have been used interchangeably for military and civilian purposes. Companies ramp up production during wartime, leaving large quantities of firearms available to be sold on the civilian market after the war ends. Oftentimes, these guns are sold at an inexpensive price. After the Civil War, for example, Springfield Rifled Muskets could be found for $6. That trend continued into the 20th century with Springfield Model 1903s and M1 Garands, to name a few, in the U.S. But this phenomenon happened around the world — and it included Carcano rifles. Some Carcano rifles were sold by the Italian Army through the New York-based Adam Consolidated Industries. They were advertised for purchase in places like American Rifleman. The original advertisement Oswald saw didn’t specify the model of Carcano. Initially, they were meant to be sold as Model 1891 TS carbines, but in 1962, the company couldn’t acquire that model and swapped in Model 91/38s. In March 1963, an “Alek Hidell” purchased, through the mail, one of these Carcano Model 91/38 with an additional telescopic sight. Hidell was an alias for Oswald. The purchase took place on March 12 after Oswald had seen an ad in American Rifleman. He ordered it from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago and paid $19.95 plus postage and shipping. It was shipped to “Hidell’s” PO Box on March 20. This particular firearm, serial number C2766, was made at the Royal Arms Factory in Terni and was manufactured in 1940. It’s chambered in 6.5x52mm — a cartridge invented in the late 1800s. This firearm has been oddly designated “Mannlicher Carcano” because of some features similar to Mannlicher’s firearms. Oswald, who previously was a U.S. Marine with a checkered service record, had his wife take photographs of him with his rifle and a revolver he owned holding The Worker and The Militant newspapers. According to his widow, Oswald used the rifle first in an assassination attempt against retired U.S. Army General Edwin Walker at his home in Dallas, Texas. During this attempt, his shot struck a window frame, forcing Oswald to hide the rifle and flee. He returned for it later. Infamously however, he allegedly used this rifle to fire upon President Kennedy in November of the year he purchased the firearm. The Warren Commission discovered that Oswald kept the rifle wrapped in a blanket in the garage of a friend a few weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. They determined that he snuck the rifle into the Texas School Book Depository the morning of the assassination in a brown paper package. He allegedly told coworkers it was curtain rods. Oswald later disputed this and gave a conflicting report saying that he only brought a lunch box and did not own a rifle. The rifle was discovered on the sixth floor after the assassination. The firearm and surrounding brass cartridges were then examined in a series of tests that exchanged hands a number of times. Those tests have helped to fuel speculation regarding the theories that exist about other firearms, other shooters, etc. But for the purposes of this article — and yes, you can call me a wuss — I’m not going down that rabbit hole. Sullied History A phenomenon occurs when a firearm is used in a tragedy and/or crime. A gun used in one incident can forever brand it as associated primarily with that tragedy. For example, the Cody Firearms Museum constantly gets calls at the museum for the Lincoln assassination gun, which was a Henry Deringer pistol. That firearm, like the Carcano, has a much larger history beyond its use in an assassination, but because of that one instance, much of that history is lost or considered not relevant anymore. The Thompson submachine gun is another example. It’s considered a gangster gun because of a handful of notable uses by organized criminals. However, many who don’t study firearms are completely unaware of the larger quantity of Thompsons issued by the military during World War II, but they know of two used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre or one used by John Dillinger. Even today, the demonization of modern sporting rifles because of its infrequent, but notable use in some mass shootings has obfuscated the everyday uses of these guns by millions that aren’t marred by tragedy. But those few instances have led not only to public fear but a fear that has translated into federal and state enacted and proposed assault weapons bans across the country. While the use of firearms in a tragedy is an important history to tell, should it be so prominent that it completely erases a much larger history? Or can it be an important addition that neither eradicates nor glorifies its overall history? In traditional firearms scholarship, there has been a distinct discord between sterilizing the history and glorifying it, which has caused a rift in different audiences’ understandings of said object. Perhaps an acknowledgment of the bad, coupled with the overall history, could help open a dialogue for people to discuss whether one bad usage should condemn and sully the history forever. This is the actual rifle allegedly used to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Photos courtesy National Archives. Carcano Model 1891/38 Bolt Action Rifle Caliber: 6.5x52mm Serial Number: C2766 Overall length: 40.2 inches (CFM version) capacity: 6-round internal magazine Action: 600 M + Optics: Ordnance Optics 4×18 sight Explore RECOILweb:Grunt Life: Knuckle-dragging eZine Coming SoonRECOIL 30 - New ProductsHell's Club: one of the greatest gunfights in film history?Hatchets and Hawks and Colonial Scouts NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. 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