Object of the Month for May: Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87 Rifle

In this monthly blog series, our collections team will write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this month’s blog Lisa Traynor, Curator of Firearms, gives us a short history of PR.6375, Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87 Rifle and its fascinating journey from Naples, to Terni, to Larne, and finally how it arrived in the collection at Royal Armouries.

PR.6375 Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87 Rifle, complete with its distinct original red tompion.

One afternoon three years ago I took great pleasure in cataloguing PR. 6375, a centrefire Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87, bolt-action rifle. Obsessed with anything Italian I was in my element. Yet as I admired the large cartouche stamped on the right side of the butt, my attention was soon drawn to something more unexpected.

Centimetres away from the large Italian cartouche was another smaller cartouche containing what appeared to be the ‘Hand of Ulster’. On closer inspection, the ‘Hand’ appeared to be encircled by the inscription; ‘UVF, FOR GOD AND ULSTER.’ I was holding a late 19th-century Italian service rifle which had somehow made its way into the hands of the Ulster Volunteer Force during the early part of the 20th century.

The object itself had partly revealed its logistical history, however, what I was eager to discover were the reasons for this 1,585-mile migration to Ireland and furthermore how it found its way into the collection of the Royal Armouries.

From Naples to Terni

The earliest date marking on this rifle appears on the left side of the barrel flat. It simply reads ‘TORRE ANNUNZIATA 1880’. The Torre Annunziata Arsenal was established in 1758 in Naples and was the largest producer of weaponry and ammunition in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It was here that PR.6375 was originally manufactured.

cartouche
Marking denoting the rifle’s original place of manufacture was Torre Annunziata in 1880.

Another cartouche shows that PR.6375 was modified at the new Italian National Armoury in Terni, Umbria in 1888 following the decision to convert Italy’s existing stock of single shot Model 1870 rifles into four shot rifles utilising a box magazine system designed by Giuseppe Vitali. The decision to purchase a single shot rifle – although a prudent economic choice for Italy in 1870 – was by 1887 thought to have been a mistake.  Without the firepower generated by a repeating rifle, the Italian Army could have potentially left itself at a technological disadvantage.

cartouche
The Terni modification cartouche

Larne

So how did the firearm, produced in Naples and modified in Terni, find its way to Larne?

After their formation in 1912 the Ulster Volunteers (UV), later the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), began arming their partisans as a protest against Irish Home Rule Bills. The British government had promised to return Home Rule to Ireland after an interval of over 100 years. Although many in Ireland were delighted at this prospect, certain people, most notably Protestants in the province of Ulster, were opposed to the thought of a nominally Catholic Ireland.

The ‘Hand of Ulster’ encircled with the phrase ‘UVF, FOR GOD AND ULSTER.’

Stamped on the left side of the stock another ‘Hand of Ulster’ is surrounded by a shield with the letters ‘UPG’, the Ulster Provisional Government, which was set up in 1913. Its purpose was to take over the running of Ulster in the event of the Home Rule Bill being passed into law.  Shortly after the formation of the Irish Volunteers (IV), a nationalist group established in response to the formation of the UV, in 1913, the British Parliament banned the importation of weapons into Ireland.

Marking of the Ulster Provisional Government

Clearly, this rifle had been used not just by members of the UVF but also by those of the UPG.

Pádraig Pearse, executed in 1916 for his role as of one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, famously said: ‘The Orangeman with a gun is not as laughable as the Nationalist without one.’ This statement was a response to the 25,000 rifles smuggled into Larne, a seaport town in County Antrim, from 24th–25th April 1914 by the UVF.  Known as the ‘Larne Gun Running’, rifles smuggled aboard the SS Clyde Valley included the Austrian Mannlicher Model 1904, the German Mauser Model 1888, and the Italian Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87. Furthermore, around two million rounds of ammunition were also transported with these rifles.

In response to the UVF’s gun running, the IV obtained their firearms with similar methods.  The ‘Howth Gun Running’ which took place on the 26th July 1914, involved the delivery of two boatloads of the German Mauser Model 1871 rifles to the harbour at Howth, an outer suburb of Dublin.  The private yacht, Asgard, owned by Robert Erskine Childers (who also took part in the operation amongst others), was unloaded during daylight hours and attracted a crowd of volunteers. Although the authorities ordered the military and police to intervene, the volunteers managed to escape capture.

By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the Home Rule argument was temporarily put on hold, and many members of the UV and IV fought side by side for the British Army. However, a small number of IV refused to fight for the British, instead remaining at home in Ireland. In time this led to the Easter Rebellion of 1916, in which it is believed many of the Howth rifles were used by the IV.

The Italian Vetterli’s, which had been supplied to the outer counties before the onset of the First World War, had been collected by the British authorities by the 1920’s. This was to prevent seizure of these rifles by the IRA. The newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary was then issued standard British military weapons.

From Larne to Leeds

Through recent correspondence with Kenneth Smith-Christmas, former Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in Quantico, USA, and one of the major authorities on the subject of ‘Ireland’ during this period, I discovered that the rifle had not come directly from the British authorities.  It was, in fact, a family heirloom donated to the Pattern Room (acquired by the Royal Armouries in 2005) by its last custodian, and great authority on the subject of firearms, Herbert Woodend.

Ken also told me that:

‘Herb never actually told me whether his family’s UVF Vetterli was one of the guns acquired in the 1914 gun-running, but there could be no other plausible explanation for its presence in Northern Ireland.’

I am indeed in agreement with Ken that there appears to be no other reason why this rifle would have made it to Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the UVF and UPG markings for me confirm what it was doing there over 100 years ago.

If you look hard enough an object can tell a story. In the case of our wonderful PR.6375,  we are fortunate to have in our possession not only a beautifully constructed rifle but the truly fantastic 137-year-old history of its journey to our institution.

I would like to thank Kenneth Smith-Christmas for his advice, corrections and allowing me to make this story possible.

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