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Villar Perosa submachine gun

Villar Perosa

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 exclusively as an observer's gun for aircraft, and was only later adapted for infantry. This is an almost ubiquitous myth - ground use was taken into consideration from the very beginning, particularly for 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.

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:

Technical description

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 triggers.

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.

Villar Perosa disassembled
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 the 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 hole.

Villar Perosa sighting
The circular sighting unit of the Villar Perosa, designed as a mount for the shield.
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.

Villar Perosa shield
The shield mount - the original intended firing mount for the Villar Perosa.

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.

The Villar Perosa in World War I

Villar Perosa 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 Mitragliatrice", 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.

Arditi walking fire
An unusual method of "walking fire" with the Villar Perosa, demonstrated by two
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 Automatico Revelli-Beretta" (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.

Beretta 1918
The Revelli-Beretta automatic carbine of 1918, adopted by the Italian Army.

The single-barreled O.V.P. submachine gun, developed by Revelli in the 1920s.

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.

The Austro-Hungarian response

Austrian Villar Perosa
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 extra magazines.
(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.

The Villar Perosa in Britain

.455 Villar Perosa
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.

The Swiss Villar Perosa

Furrer Doppelpistole

In about 1919, after the end of World War I, Col. Adolf Furrer of the Swiss Army - who held a senior position at the state arsenal Waffenfabrik Bern - developed a conceptual equivalent of the Villar Perosa which he called the "Fliegerbeobachter-Doppelpistole". This was a highly unusual twin-barreled submachine gun operating on an inverted Luger toggle-lock mechanism in which the toggle arms were placed on the underside of the receiver and ejected straight downward. Two 40-round magazines, taking the 7.65mm Parabellum cartridge, were inserted into overhead magazine feeds. The Doppelpistole did not have two separate barrels for each trigger but instead one central trigger, which operated both firing mechanisms, but not simultaneously. The gun could not fire both barrels at once and the active half of the gun was determined through a fire selector switch on the side of the receiver.

The Doppelpistole seems to have been intended for aerial use but it was not produced outside of prototype samples. Col. Furrer also developed several single-barreled variations on the design with side-facing toggles. Essentially these guns acted as very early prototypes for the later MP41/44 submachine gun, which was taken into Swiss service in World War II.


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