This was the first submachine gun to be
used by any military, adopted by the Italian Army in 1915 and used by them
on a large scale throughout World War I. The original patent was filed in
April 1914 by Abiel Bethel Revelli, an aristocratic Piedmontese officer
who was active in designing most of the Italian Army's automatic weapons
around the early 20th century. This patent depicted a weapon unlike any
seen before - a twin-barreled, magazine-fed automatic gun in a pistol
caliber, lighter than a machine gun and shorter than a rifle. Revelli's
invention marked the beginning of the submachine gun as a concept.
It is often said that this weapon was originally designed as an observer's
gun for aircraft. This is an almost ubiquitous myth - it was first and
foremost intended as a compact machine gun for light infantry,
particularly the Bersaglieri's cyclist battalions. At the time the Italian
Army was very interested in experimenting with adapting the machine-gun to
be carried or fired from a bicycle. Obviously there were some obstacles in
being able to mount a medium machine gun onto a bicycle for transport,
despite some eccentric efforts including a special folding bicycle that
carried a Fiat-Revelli machine-gun underneath the seat. Before the war
years, the Bersaglieri were supplied by a small factory near Pinerolo,
just outside of Turin, known as Officine di Villar Perosa (O.V.P.). This
company was operated by Roberto Incerti and was in turn a subsidiary of
FIAT. O.V.P. was primarily contracted by the Bersaglieri to manufacture
bicycles, but later the Bersaglieri commissioned them to produce automatic
weapons designed by Abiel Revelli. Initially they placed an order of some
6,000 Genovesi-Revelli automatic rifles in 1910, but this weapon
underperformed and was cancelled after only 150 were produced. The Villar
Perosa submachine gun was developed by Revelli in the following years, and
it would seem to have offered a solution to the Bersaglieri's problem - a
light, compact automatic weapon, easy to transport by foot or by bicycle.
In fact there even exist photographs of a Villar Perosa experimentally
(and precariously) mounted to the handlebars of a Bersaglieri bicycle!
In early 1915, O.V.P. produced a trial batch of Villar Perosas and
submitted them to the Army for testing. The weapon was quickly accepted
into service and an immediate order was placed. In fact, when Italy
entered World War I that year, the Army found itself desperately short of
machine-guns and only a few were in service - obsolescent hand-cranked
Gardner guns from 1886, about 150 Perino machine guns, and a few Maxims.
The Fiat-Revelli and the Villar Perosa were the only domestically-produced
machine guns available and the therefore the demand ramped up
significantly. In both cases, production in the first year fell short of
projections, with only about 200 - 400 Fiat-Revellis being turned out, and
about 350 Villar Perosas. The Italian Air Force (then a wing of the Army)
had virtually no machine-guns at the time and thus a few hundred of the
first Villar Perosas were issued to them - giving rise to the myth that it
was designed specifically as an aircraft gun. However, no aircraft mount
for the Villar Perosa was actually developed until 1916.
The factory name of the Villar Perosa was the "Revelli Automatic Machine
Gun", after its designer Abiel Revelli. In Italian service, however, the
official designation was Fiat Mod.15, as FIAT were the primary
manufacturers of the gun. The now-ubiquitous name, "Villar Perosa", is
derived from the town in which the O.V.P. factory was situated ("Officine
di Villar Perosa"
literally meaning "Office of Villar Perosa", in
reference to it being a local branch of the RIV company). The weapon was
first referred to as the "Villar Perosa" in a British 1915 trial report,
which will be described later.
Before further detailing the history of the Villar Perosa, a brief
technical description of the Villar Perosa will be given:
The construction of the Villar Perosa is relatively unsophisticated. It
consists of two tubular receivers, linked together side-by-side by a pair
of rear spade grips and a circular sighting unit in the center. (In some
models this circular unit was omitted in favour of a pintle mount.) The
magazines feed into the tops of the receivers, locked in by two magazine
catches that resemble long pegs. These pegs are pulled back to release the
magazine, which is then rocked out of position rather than pulled straight
out. Each receiver has a cocking slot and retractable knob-type handle on
the right side; to make the cocking process easier, two long levers are
fitted underneath each cocking handle which, when pulled back, scoop the
handles back with them. The triggers are a pair of stippled buttons which
are to be pushed forward by the user's thumbs while holding onto the spade
grips. A flip-switch safety, which engages the sear, is fitted between the
The bolts of the Villar Perosa are hollowed-out to house separate firing
pin units. The knob-type cocking handles are built directly onto the
bolts. The Villar Perosa operates on a delayed-blowback action. On the
forward part of the bolts is an extension housing a guided slot. These
slots are engaged by a lug which cause the bolts to rotate 45° upon
firing. The bolt's retraction is delayed by the inertia forced by the lug
as the bolt rotates. Both bolts ride on a spring-loaded guide rod.
An Austrian photo showing a captured Villar Perosa, complete with parts.
(Austrian National Library)
The central sighting unit of the Villar Perosa is a solid circular ring
with a single peep-hole sight at the top. The targeting post is actually
situated just behind
peep-hole, rather than in front of it - this is the inverse of the typical
iron sight arrangement in which the post is always far forward of a
peep-hole or notch. On the Villar Perosa, the targeting reticule is
actually a really unusually-shaped piece which consists of a series of
posts, of graduating height (marked 1 - 5), protruding in a row, with one
post aligned with the peep-hole. On the other end of this piece is a long
"tail" with a peg on the end of it, lined up with a series of holes at the
bottom of the circular ring. The sighting piece is screwed to the center
of the ring. When post "1", the lowest graduation, is aligned with the
peep-hole, the tail-peg slots into the first
hole at the bottom of the ring. To adjust the graduation of the
sight, the user removes the peg from the hole and rotates the tail to the
second, third, fourth, or fifth hole, which will align the respective post
to the peep-hole. The highest graduation is the fifth
post, which lines up with the fifth
The circular sighting unit of the Villar Perosa, designed as a mount for
The series of unusual peg-and-hole sight posts can be seen here.
The ring unit serves another purpose, however, which has been mostly
overlooked by experts. The reason it was shaped like this in the first
place was to mount a protective shield unit, which acted as the stand for
the gun. This system, described as a "sprocket-and-ball" by its inventor
Revelli, was protected by a patent and is unique to the Villar Perosa. The
ring was designed to slot into a circular guide-hole in the shield and
lock it in place. With the shield attached, the only opening visible to
the user was the peep-hole sight. This will have drastically reduced the
user's visibility but protected them from flying shrapnel or dirt. In some
photos, it can be seen that Villar Perosas with shields fitted were placed
in fortified positions on the Italian trench lines that rendered the firer
completely concealed. The shield mounts were produced by Ansaldo.
The shield mount - the original intended firing mount for the Villar
The shield mount did not last long, however, and was soon superseded by
more practical solutions. In 1917 the bipod mount, credited to Captain
(later Colonel) Giuseppe Bassi, was introduced. This mount was much
simpler and lighter, consisting of a basic pair of struts fitted by a
vice-like clamp onto the barrel muzzles. After the bipod was developed, it
was issued in place of the shield mount, which was phased out.
The Villar Perosa was, by standard, issued in a hinged wooden case, which
included a full kit consisting of 44 spare magazines (10 on some kits), a
set of spare barrels, a set of spare recoil springs, a set of spare
charging handles, a cleaning brush and rod, an extraction tool, an oiling
bottle, a wrench, and a shield mount. The manufacture of the spare barrels
was handled by Beretta.
Perosa in World War I
"From time to time I could hear the
bursting of our hand grenades, the crackling of our Fiats
and the 'farts' of our machine-pistols."
(Italian Risorgimento Institute)
When the Villar Perosa was first issued to the infantry in 1916, the
results were mixed. Although the weapon was light and easy to transport in
the harsh, rocky terrain that marked the Alpine Front, troops were
initially not given training with the gun and consequently the officer
corps had no idea how best to field it. As a consequence, it was used
almost exclusively in the role of a defensive machine-gun on Italian
trench lines and observation points for most of 1916. In this role it
would have almost certainly been inadequate, as it did not offer the
range, accuracy, or firepower of a medium machine gun, not to mention the
very small ammunition capacity that would be expended within about 2
seconds of continuous fire.
Such was the fire rate of the Villar Perosa (1,200rpm from each barrel,
about 2,400 combined) that the sound of it firing was likened by Italian
troops to "blowing a raspberry" or a passing wind. As such, it was
colloquially nicknamed the "Pernacchia"
which literally means "raspberry" but in context is perhaps more
equivalent to "fart gun". The most common name for the Villar Perosa,
however, was the self-descriptive "Pistola
, or "Machine-Pistol". This became the standard
Italian term for all submachine guns and the Villar Perosa was the first
weapon to earn this name.
As the war progressed, the potential of the Villar Perosa began to be
realized. Training for the gun was eventually introduced and infantrymen
trained on the Villar Perosa were issued a special shoulder patch to
signify that they had experience with the weapon, in accordance with a
practice among the Italian Army to issue patches that illustrated the
machine-gun that any given gunner was trained with. By 1917 the
newly-formed Arditi Corps (Italy's shock troops), under the guidance of
Captain Giuseppe Bassi, pioneered assault tactics with the Villar Perosa.
Bassi was a big champion of the gun and designed a wooden tray mount for
it which was designed to hang around the user's neck, in a fashion similar
to a hotdog vendor at a baseball game. This allowed the user to
essentially carry the weapon hands-free whilst being able to fire it from
the hip for "walking fire". A Villar Perosa gunner - often known as a
"gunslinger" - was trained to fire off about 3 bursts from each barrel,
alternating barrels; in the heat of battle, however, such discipline was
probably rarely adhered to.
An unusual method of "walking fire" with the Villar Perosa, demonstrated
Arditi in training.
(Italian Risorgimento Institute)
In the Arditi, the Villar Perosa was fielded by a crew of four - the
gunner, the loader, and two additional ammunition carriers. Between them,
they carried some 3,000 rounds of ammunition. An Arditi company fielded
six Villar Perosa "machine-pistols" and two Fiat-Revelli medium
machine-guns. As the Villar Perosa crews were significantly more mobile
than the Fiat-Revellis, they often sent forward to soften up and harass an
enemy position, firing off a few bursts from their guns at close range,
before retreating to allow the main group to attack. Wearing the Villar
Perosa on the wooden tray mount also allowed the gunners to throw
grenades, an integral part of the Arditi's arsenal. Thus the Villar Perosa
gunner became a versatile assault troop armed with a weapon unlike any
other on the battlefield.
Also in 1917, a bipod mount - described earlier - was introduced to
replace the obsolete shield mount, for which the gun was originally
designed. A tripod mount was also developed, which could be fitted to the
flexible pintle seen on the aerial service Villar Perosas. Strangely
enough, the Italian government contracted the Canadian General Electric
company of Toronto to produce the tripod-mounted Villar Perosas; why
Canada was approached is not entirely known. This version of the Villar
Perosa lacked the central sighting ring, and instead used an elevated
fore-sight fixed onto the barrels, with a circular rear-sight above the
spade grips. These Villar Perosas were probably used for defensive
fixtures and vehicular mounting.
The end of the Villar Perosa came in the second half of 1918. Although it
had just began to find its niche among the Italian assault troops, newer,
more practical weapons soon emerged. 1918 marked the year that the Italian
Army introduced two new weapons into service that rendered the Villar
Perosa obsolete - the S.I.A. 6.5mm machine gun, which filled the
requirement for an ultra-light, portable machine gun whilst
retaining a rifle caliber; and the Beretta Model 1918 automatic carbine,
which will be described below, a weapon that satisfied the need for a
pistol-caliber assault weapon. The Villar Perosa was retracted from
service after the end of the war, with many of the existing weapons being
converted into Beretta carbines, and despite attempts to market the Villar
Perosa for export sale, the weapon was already outdated by the 1920s, with
superior designs such as the Bergmann M.P.18,I now in circulation.
The Fiat of 1916 - the first single-barreled Villar Perosa.
In 1916, a new weapon, derived from the Villar Perosa, was demonstrated to
the Italian Test Commission. This gun was again designed by Abiel Revelli
and was development jointly by O.V.P. and FIAT. It was known in the trial
reports as the Fiat and was, essentially, half of a Villar Perosa encased
in a wooden rifle stock and fitted with a conventional trigger. It also
featured a fire selector for automatic and single fire. This was perhaps
the very first shoulder-fired submachine gun.
No immediate action was taken in regards to the Fiat SMG but the Italian
High Command considered the concept worth developing further and the three
factories involved in the manufacture of the Villar Perosa - FIAT,
Ansaldo, and Beretta - were asked to produce their own similar weapons for
further trials in 1918. FIAT's entrant was the weapon described above.
Ansaldo's weapon was designed by Enrico Crocetti, but otherwise nothing
about it is known. Beretta's entrant, designed by Tullio Marengoni, is
well-known and consisted of a single Villar Perosa receiver fitted to a
Vetterli stock, with a folding Carcano bayonet. An additional prototype
was privately developed by Amerigo Cei-Rigotti.
Competitive trials took place and Beretta's submission won the contract.
It was officially adopted in 1918 as the "Moschetto
(Revelli-Beretta Automatic Rifle)
and 25,000 units were ordered. Contrary to popular belief, the Beretta
1918 was not a true submachine gun, but was in fact a self-loading carbine
capable only of single-fire - however a rarer, selective-fire twin-trigger
variant was also made. The Beretta is said to have seen limited service
towards the end of World War I, being issued to the best shots of a given
company - this might seem confusing for a short-ranged, pistol-caliber
weapon but this practice was likely designed to ensure that it would be
issued only to skilled marksmen who would be capable of landing rapid
follow-up shots upon firing. Production continued until 1920, upon which
the contract was cancelled with only about 5,000 units having been
delivered. These guns were built from converted Villar Perosas.
The Revelli-Beretta automatic carbine of 1918, adopted by the Italian
The single-barreled O.V.P. submachine gun, developed by Revelli in the
In the 1920s, Officine di Villar Perosa - now independent from FIAT -
produced a single-barreled, shoulder-fired version of the Villar Perosa.
This is sometimes erroneously said to have been developed during World War
I, due to confusion over the "Fiat" SMG described in the 1916 - 1918 trial
reports. The O.V.P. submachine gun - as it is often called - was
selective-fire with twin triggers. Internally it operated like the Villar
Perosa but the cocking was redesigned from a basic slot-and-handle to a
tubular sleeve that enveloped the receiver which, when pumped back, would
push the bolt to the cocked position. The O.V.P. submachine gun was
adopted by the Italian Army in very limited numbers and saw use in the
Ethiopian War of 1935 - 1936 and also during the North African theater in
World War II. It was also offered for export as the "Revelli Automatic
Rifle" and was demonstrated by Revelli himself in Britain and France. Only
about 500 of these guns are said to have been produced. Both the Beretta
and O.V.P. submachine guns fed from standard 25-round Villar Perosa magazines.
Austrian Sturmtruppen training with a captured Villar Perosa, early 1917.
(Austrian National Library)
Contrary to being the impractical and obscure weapon that many authors
have claimed, there is much evidence that the Villar Perosa made an
impression on Italy's foe, Austria-Hungary, and that the use of these guns
went far from unnoticed. In 1916, an equivalent weapon was rather
hurriedly developed at the Steyr plant - simply an automatic conversion of
the standard M.12 service pistol, a literal "machine pistol". It is known
that the Austrians did attempt to develop a double-mount for this gun,
which would conceptually mimic the Villar Perosa, but whether it was
actually fielded in this role is not known. As it was, only about 900
M.12/P16 machine-pistols were ever produced, and these few guns were
fielded on the Italian Front.
By 1917 the Austrian Sturmbataillons, the assault troops, were being
trained with captured Villar Perosas. It seems the Austro-Hungarians felt
that the M.12/P16 was not a suitable counter for a submachine gun of the
Italian style and work began on designing SMGs that would give equivalent
performance to the Villar Perosa. The FEG factory in Budapest came out
with an unusual contraption consisting of two Frommer machine-pistols
mounted upside-down onto a fixed tripod mount, with remote trigger
mechanisms mounted to a pair of spade grips. It was tested, but not put
into production. Meanwhile Steyr developed a copy of the Villar Perosa in
9x23mm, christened the "Sturm-Pistole"
(Assault Pistol). Although this weapon was basically a straight copy of
the original Italian gun, the construction was different and the
components are not necessarily interchangeable. The Sturm-Pistole was, by
standard, built fitted to a wooden tray mount of a similar type said to be
used by the Arditi.
The first "Sturm-Pistolen" were delivered to the Austrian troops mere days
before they launched the devastating Caporetto offensive, which would push
the Italians back to the Piave river and undo two years of territory
gained by the Italian Army. It is known for a fact that the Sturm-Pistole
was used at Caporetto, because there exists a photograph from the second
day of the offensive depicting two of these guns being fielded by Austrian
machine-gun crews, with the caption "Sturm-Pistolen". But if Italian
intelligence is to be believed, the Sturm-Pistole was of greatly inferior
quality to the Villar Perosa - of a batch of ten Sturm-Pistoles delivered
to an Austrian machine-gun company, nine gave problems and only one was of
acceptable quality, indicating that these weapons may have been rushed
into service in time for the Caporetto offensive without adequate trialing.
The Austrian "Sturm-Pistole" at Caporetto, 1917. Note the pouches for
(Austrian National Library)
Although the Sturm-Pistole enjoyed some front-line use at Caporetto, its
usefulness would quickly evaporate. Although the offensive was massively
successful, it took until June 1918 for the Austrians to rebuild the
strength to launch a follow-up attack at the Piave river. It is likely
that the Sturm-Pistole saw its second baptism by fire during this
disastrous offensive, during which the Austro-Hungarian forces failed to
break through the Italian lines and suffered heavy losses for no gain.
After the battle of the Piave, the Austrian Army was left in disarray and
remained on the defense for the rest of the war. If the Sturm-Pistole did
see any further use, it was likely only as a poor man's defensive fixture
in bunkers and trench lines.
Perosa in Britain
The one-of-a-kind .455 Villar Perosa, demonstrated in Britain in 1916
but not adopted.
As can be seen, the magazine slits are on the side rather than the rear.
On the 7th of October 1915 a sales
representative from Officine di Villar Perosa, one Mr. Bernachi,
demonstrated a 9mm Villar Perosa at the School of Musketry in Hythe, UK. A
report on this gun, describing it as "two long-barreled automatic pistols
connected together", was forwarded to the Small Arms Committee, who
expressed an interest in this gun. Later that month, on the 18th, the SAC
tested the same Villar Perosa at Enfield. It performed rather well and was
considered, even at that time, to be an ideal gun for trench warfare. The
SAC described this gun in their report as the "Villar Perosa Machine Gun",
which is the first known coining of the now-ubiquitous name for the gun
(it must be remembered that in Italy, the Villar Perosa was known only as
the "Revelli" or the "Fiat").
However when approached by the SAC over the requirement of a submachine
gun by the British Army, the General Headquarters in France responded in
late January 1916 with a clear refusal. This would mark the beginning of
the British Army's notorious reluctance to engage with the submachine gun
concept until 1940, and certainly they were not impressed with any of the
SMGs developed during World War I.
Later in 1916, after O.V.P. had developed the pintle mount for the Villar
Perosa, they sent an experimental sample to Britain chambered in the .455
Webley Auto cartridge. Only one such example was ever made and survives
today in the National Firearms Center in Leeds. It can be seen that this
unique gun fed from straight magazines which are windowed across the sides
rather than the back. It was probably intended for aerial use, but there
appears to have been no interested from the Royal Flying Corps and no more
Villar Perosas were sent to Britain.