The Vatican's Rifles

A good friend and long time reader sent along a link to this information several months ago, and I’ve been incredibly remiss in not doing the research to put up this post sooner. However, as I did the research over the last few weeks, I found it very much worth the time. I hope you will too.

It was through a friend in the Catholic blogsphere that I was introduced to the pleasures of studying, collecting and shooting military rifles. The most common and available military rifles are the bolt action rifles carried by the major powers (other than the US, which fielded the semi-automatic M1 Garand) during World War II, in most cases little modified from the versions carried thirty years before in the Great War. This was the last great age of battle rifles with wooden stocks and large cartridges, before the high tech “ugly guns” of the modern world took over.

There are, however, significantly more rare rifles to be found of an earlier vintage, the early cartridge rifles used form the 1860s through 1900, and of these one of the rarest is the M1868 Pontificio, the only modern rifle ever manufactured specifically for the Vatican.

The Pontificio was based on the 1867 Remington rolling block design, and was chambered for the 12.7 x 45 cartridge, one unique to the military of the Papal States, but based closely on the American .50-70 caliber.

It was a single shot rifle built with the very latest mid-19th-century military technology and had the Vatican crest stamped on the receiver.


In our modern world, it seems strange to think of the pope placing an order for the newest military technology. Vatican City today is an independent nation state, but modern popes use their position as heads of state to try to bring a moral voice to the world stage, not to field armies. The M1868 Pontificio comes from the last time when princes of the Church were princes in the worldly sense as well, trying to stand against the tide of secularism and nationalism sweeping across Europe.

To understand the context of the Vatican’s last major arms order, one should look back to the beginning of the reign of Blessed Pope Pius IX. Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was elected pope in 1846 and was hailed throughout Europe as a liberal reformer. At the time, the papal states, of which the pope was the secular ruler, comprised a significant portion of central Italy, and Pius IX made a number of political reforms to their administration, freed all political prisoners, and began a program of modernization, building railways and having street lights installed in Rome. Many nationalists and modernizers who dreamed of a unified Italy hoped that Pius IX might to open to supporting their cause. Nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, who would eventually be key to destroying the papal states and aiding the unification of Italy under the kings of Sardinia, wrote to Pius:

If these hands, used to fighting, would be acceptable to His Holiness, we most thankfully dedicate them to the service of him who deserves so well of the Church and of the fatherland. Joyful indeed shall we and our companions in whose name we speak be, if we may be allowed to shed our blood in defence of Pio Nono’s work of redemption” (October 12, 1847)


However, liberal optimism soon gave way to violent revolution as the 1848 revolutions, sparked by the Paris revolution which brought down the Orleans monarchy and resulted in the Second Republic, swept Europe. Revolutions in the northern areas of Italy brought about minor wars of revolution against Austria, the Catholic monarchy which exerted direct or indirect control over much of Northern Italy. In November 1848, revolution in Rome forced Pius IX to flee from Rome in disguise, taking refuge in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and a Republic of Rome was declared by the revolutionaries in February of 1849. French President Louis Napoleon and the Austrian monarchy sent troops to put down the revolution in Rome, and after fighting throughout the summer and fall of 1849, Pius IX was able to return in April 1850. French troops remained in Rome and the Papal States for the next twenty years, providing the pope with military protection.

However, the protection of French troops began to appear an increasingly mixed blessing in 1859, when the French (not strangers to nationalism and liberalism themselves) joined forces with the nationalist Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to fight the Austrians in the Second War of Italian Independence. The war was brief (April to July 1859) and the armistice theoretically left the various states of north central Italy independent, but by 1860 the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had occupied all of Northern Italy, putting a powerful, nationalist country (which was a sometime ally of the Vatican’s protector, France) right on the Papal States’ northern border. That same year, Garibaldi led his expedition to Sicily (without any state approval) and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (not wanting to leave Garibaldi unsupervised in control of Sicily, lest he declare a republic and threaten their own power) sent troops down into southern Italy through the eastern two-thirds the Papal States and annexed them in the process. (The section annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia is shown in purple in the above map.) In March 1861, the first Italian Parliament met in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, and declared Rome to be the capital of the Kingdom of Italy — despite the fact that Rome was not under their control. The Savoy dynasty under Victor Emmanuel II, which had ruled Piedmont-Sardinia, now clearly intended to rule all Italy from Rome, and in their way stood the pope.

Pius IX, understandably, felt increasingly threatened by these developments and had reason to doubt whether his French protectors would in fact stand up to the Victor Emmanuel and the nationalist forces. In 1860 the Zuavi Pontifici or Papal Zouaves were formed as a military force of volunteers from throughout the world reporting directly to the Vatican.

Zouave refers to the style of uniform worn by the papal soldiers, one based on those of the French North African regiments which became quite popular in the mid-19th century. (One of the few histories of this force to be written in English was published last year: The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican)
It was for the Papal Zouaves that the Remington Pontificio was manufactured in 1868. The pictures below show Zouaves with their Pontificio rifles:


In 1868 there were just under 5,000 Papal Zouaves, with the largest contingents from the Netherlands (1,900) and France (1,300). 130 Canadians and 100 Irish were members, as were a few Americans, Scots, English and volunteers from as far away as Africa and China.Unfortunately, this small army would not be enough to hold off the tide of nationalism for long.

In June 1868, Pius IX convoked the First Vatican Council. The final vote on the topic of papal infallibility took place on July 18th. The next day, the Franco-Prussian war was declared, and the council was temporarily suspended so that the bishops could return to their home sees. In early August, Louis Napoleon (now Emperor Napoleon III) withdrew his French troops from Rome because they were needed elsewhere. (France would lose the Franco-Prussian war, and the Second Empire would be replaced by the Third Republic.) Almost immediately, the Kingdom of Italy made moves to seize Rome. On September 10th, King Victor Emmanuel II sent Count Ponza di San Martino to Pius IX with a letter offering to send troops into Rome to protect the pope, clearly a pretext for annexing Rome and the remainder of the Papal States. Pius IX refused, and on September 11th, the Italian army crossed the border in the Papal States. The Italian army reached Rome on September 19th, and the pope, seeing that the cause was hopeless, ordered the Zouaves to put up only a token resistance, enough to make it clear that the city was taken against its will, but brief enough to minimize loss of life. 19 Papal Zouaves died defending Rome, and 49 Italian soldiers and four officers were killed while attacking it. The city was captured on September 20th, and was officially annexed to the Kingdom of Italy and made its capital by popular vote in October.

Pius IX indefinitely adjourned the Vatican Council in September, after Rome was captured, and refused to recognize the Kingdom of Italy as the legitimate ruler of Rome, turning down an offer by Victor Emmanuel to grant him sovereignty over the Leonine City but Pius refused the offer since accepting it would have suggested the the sovereignty was Victor Emmanuel’s to give. He remained “the prisoner of the Vatican” until his death in 1878. Pius IX forbade Catholics from being members of the Italian parliament or voting in Italian elections, a breech that would not be wholly healed until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 when Vatican City was established as a sovereign nation and the Vatican recognized Italy’s existence.

The Zouaves were disbanded and their rifles were confiscated by the Italian army, which reissued them for their own use, in many cases re-machining them to fire other cartridges. Few remain in their original condition. Many of the men who had served in the Zouaves went on to fight for the French in the remainder of the Franco-Prussian War. Others returned home.

Today, the only military associated with the Vatican is the Swiss Guard, whose standard issue weapons are the same as those of the Swiss army, though modern guns are now not carried in public (though present in the armory).

28 Responses to The Vatican's Rifles

  • Very interesting story–thank you for posting.

  • I like that the Swiss Guard are armed halberds (even if just ceremonially), but I’ve never had a great interest in ancient weaponry. But how cool would it be to have a rifle with the Vatican seal stamped on the receiver!

  • The papacy has a long and colorful military history, and this article is a fine look at an often overlooked chapter in that history.

  • Very interesting. Good post.

  • Fidei Defensor would really enjoy reading this article.

  • I’m surprised that this, and some other recent posts, haven’t brought forth a string of obscenities from a certain regular commenter. Perhaps those comments are getting deleted, of course.

  • S.B.

    I was wondering that myself. Anyway, another fascinating historical column. I wonder what would have happened if they had managed to beat off the Italians? Ah, the ifs of history.

  • S.B./Michael D.,

    As far as I know, no comments have been deleted on this thread.

  • “I wonder what would have happened if they had managed to beat off the Italians?”

    Paging Harry Turtledove!

    Sadly, I think the Papal States would have been crushed by some form of Italian state eventually. The PS simply was not viable as a political entity by this point, not in an era of consolidation (e.g., Germany) and rising nationalism.

    I definitely agree that this was a fine article.

  • I’m surprised that this, and some other recent posts, haven’t brought forth a string of obscenities from a certain regular commenter. Perhaps those comments are getting deleted, of course.

    Or perhaps I have been busy, away, or just have better things to do than to point out the obvious pathologies and obsessions of this group of Catholic manly men?

  • Dale,

    I used to be a big Harry Turtledove fan myself.

    I’m sure Mr. Turtledove would have turned the Papal States into a ceasaro-papal empire a la the Byzantine’s but with the ruthlessness of the Ottoman Empire.

  • “…this group of Catholic manly men”

    Why thank-you Michael.

  • Tito:

    Oh, not necessarily. As between Orthodoxy and Catholicism Turtledove clearly favors the former, and I think he bought into the Hitler’s Pope nonsense from his handling of the papacy in the World War series, but I don’t know that he’d go that far overboard. Basically, I picked HT because he’s the alt-hist master right now.

  • Yeah, I tried to read a Turtledove book (it involved Racists going back in time and giving machine guns to the Confederacy, all the while the Cofnederates being puzzled by how racist they were. It got to be a bit of a stretch for me and I put it down.

    But for now I will rejoice in the recognition of my status as a “Catholic manly man.”

  • Michael,

    Turtledove’s problem is his tendency to be verbose where he shouldn’t be. Plus the sex scenes were unnecessary and didn’t contribute to the storyline at all. In addition, his characters were highly flawed and amoral with no redeeming value (most of them).

    The book you mentioned is actually one of his most popular.

    It’s called alternate history for a reason!

  • I’m happy to report Turtledove has stopped putting sex scenes in his recent work. I agree–that was a pretty offputting phase.

    As to verbosity–well, the man writes 2,500 words a day. He’s living proof that a Ph.D. in Byzantine history can really take you places. ;)

  • Dale,

    I agree with you on Mr. Turtledove.

    By verbose I meant he would describe a scene to the umpteenth detail. And do it again throughout the book since he revisits the same characters each chapter.

    I like his work, but I stopped reading with all the redundancy wearing me down.

    Yeah, I should’ve switched to History in college.

  • Tito:

    Oh, I hear you–he also had a habit of repetitively describing habits and behaviors of characters in his series. That’s why I think his standalones and lesser known shorter series should get more attention. I’d like to get my hands on his straight historical novel about the Ft. Pillow massacre in the Civil War, for example. It’s supposed to be quite good and show a deft historian’s touch for the sources.

  • By verbose I meant he would describe a scene to the umpteenth detail. And do it again throughout the book since he revisits the same characters each chapter.

    I feel like I’ve read some Turtledove, only at the time he must have been going by the pen name Tom Clancy.

  • Ah, yes, Tom Clancy. I’d love to be his editor: immediately forwarding the raw text to the printer after getting it e-mailed from the author has to be a great gig.

  • Tito:

    I know it was one of his most popular. I found out about him b/c I was working at a bookstore and came across it and tried it. I liked the alt-history, and I didn’t think the time travel would bother me too much, but it did as well the verbosity you describe so that eventually interest lost me. I hadn’t gotten to any sex scenes yet. I may try again, but alas it joins an unfortunately hefty list of books I’ve stopped in the middle of.

  • I have read a lot of Turtledove. In his alternate Civil War series there is a rib-shack and I counted over a dozen references to mouths watering as characters entered the rib shack over the course of the novels. I sometimes wondered if he paid assistants to pad some of his series books. The man is a decent writer, his Legion of Videssos series was first rate, but you wouldn’t know it from some of the later multi-volume series. As to Turtledove and sex scenes, there were quite a few sex scenes, unfortunately, in his recent After the Downfall. I stopped reading it as a result. Too vulgar and too boring.

  • I read Guns of the South and enjoyed it moderately well, and a few other Turtledove novels, but I pretty much lost patience with him after reading the first book in his series on aliens that invade during WW2. Haven’t really bothered since.

    Though that’s partly just because that’s around when I drastically cut down on reading genre stuff…

  • I loved the portrayals of Lee and Forrest in Guns of the South. The victorious Confederates learning about how the Civil War originally turned out by getting their hands on a copy of the American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War was a hoot for me since reading that book in Grade School sparked my life long interest in the Civil War.

  • Yeah, Lee in Guns of the South was one of the few Turtledove characters that I found genuinely likable. Though of course, Lee did a lot of the work there himself…

  • Darwin I Love the ALIEN invades in WWII books. I thin they are his best:) THough I have to admit he could have shaved off a book and got to the conclusion faster

  • DC,

    a little trivia, you may not be aware of. The brave Zouaves who died to protect the sovereignty of the Holy Father are buried at the Capuchin Crypt below Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, off of Piazza Barberini. Their they lie in honored glory along with the remains of 4000 monks arrayed in various displays.

    “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capuchin_Crypt

    When in Rome it’s a great site to stop by when you have a few minutes.

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