The Carcano rifle was developed at Fabbrica d'Armi de Torino in 1890 on the request of the Italian Army, who had recently decided on adopting the 6.5×52mm cartridge. The Army originally commissioned a rifle based on the Mannlicher action, although the final model incorporated elements from Mauser rifles. The Carcano rifle was tested in 1891 and officially adopted on the 29th of March 1892. A cavalry carbine version with a folding bayonet was later adopted on the 9th of June 1893.
It took until March 1894 for the rifle to reach the hands of Italian troops, although the first production batches immediately became obsolete in 1896 due to the issue of a new smokeless version of the 6.5mm cartridge which required a stronger bolt head to fire. The necessary modifications were quickly applied to the Carcano design. Other menial improvements were made in 1905 and 1907, including a new extractor.
The Carcano first saw combat use during the First Italo-Ethiopian War of 1895, but was not in general issue at that time. In the succeeding decades, production was hastened and by 1913, about 2,500 Carcanos were being manufactured per month. By the summer of 1914, the Italian Army had no shortage of Carcano rifles and entered World War I with over 700,000. It was the primary infantry arm of the Italian troops during the war and was considered to be reliable and accurate. When the war ended in 1918, in excess of 3.5 million M1891 Carcano rifles had been produced across the various state armories.
Production of the rifle continued after the war, with the introduction in 1924 of a new shortened model, the M1891/24. It saw application during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935. By now the Italian Army was considering the adoption of a more powerful cartridge, in response to criticisms that the 6.5mm round was too weak, and thus production of the Carcano was stopped in 1937 upon the adoption of the new 7.35×51mm cartridge. The Italian Army requested a new version of the M1891/24 in 7.35mm chambering and this was completed in 1938 with the adoption of the Carcano M1891/38.
The M1891/38 was planned to completely phase out the standard M1891 as the standard Italian infantry rifle, however the adoption of the new cartridge did not go as planned and the old 6.5mm round still remained in widespread use. Consequently, many of the M1891/38s that were produced retained the 6.5mm chambering, rendering them almost identical to the M1891/24. The M1891/38 was thus issued to the Italian Army in both 7.35mm and 6.5mm, which caused some logistical confusion. In both calibers, it was the gun primarily used by Italian troops during World War II.
Production of the M1891/38 ceased upon the end of the war and it was replaced in Italian service by a Beretta-made copy of the American M1 Garand. Since millions of Carcano rifles had been produced over the course of about 50 years, a significant amount were sold as surplus on the civilian market, especially in the United States, where it proved a popular sporting gun. The Carcano garnered some notoriety in 1963 when a M1891/38 rifle outfitted with a sniper scope was used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate US President John F. Kennedy.
The Carcano is a bolt-action rifle with a six-round internal magazine. The rifle is not fed by stripper clips; it is instead fed by an en-bloc clip. The en-bloc clip does not pop out of the weapon when all ammunition is expended; it has to be manually pulled out from the bottom of the weapon.