World War I
In April 1914, Col. Abiel Bethel Revelli, an Italian officer and prolific arms designer, patented his new idea for an ultra-light, twin-barreled, pistol-caliber machine gun. Later that year, the gun was put into production at the RIV company's Turin factory, Officine di Villar Perosa, and marketed as the Revelli Automatic Machine Gun. It is now more commonly known as the simply "Villar Perosa", stemming from the name attributed to the gun in the British Small Arms Committee report of 1915. When Italy entered World War I in 1915, they found themselves completely cut off from their Western Allies and woefully short of machine guns. To remedy this, they had to rely entirely on their domestic arsenals for weapons, and as a result the Villar Perosa gun was rushed into service alongside the heavier FIAT-Revelli Mod.1914. Mass production was allocated to FIAT, and the gun became known in Italian service as the FIAT Mod.1915.
A common myth is that this gun was intended as an observer's gun for aircraft. In fact, it was actually designed for the Bersaglieri, a mobile infantry unit who required a lightweight machine gun that could be transported easily. In the early 20th century, many European armies were experimenting with raising cyclist regiments to speedily transport men and equipment. A conventional machine gun was typically too heavy to practically carry on a bicycle or on a single man's back, so Revelli developed the Villar Perosa to meet this requirement. The Bersaglieri also experimented with mounting the gun to the handlebars of a bicycle, although this was probably quite awkward to operate in practice.
The Villar Perosa did see at least some use mounted on biplanes, however. A few hundred early production models were allocated to the Air Force and fitted to light coastal aircraft and flying boats. They may have been relatively effective during the early stages of aerial combat, but once proper machine guns were fitted to biplanes it would have been rendered ineffective in comparison. Most air service Villar Perosas were replaced by Lewis and Darne guns by 1917 - 1918.
It was also employed in a variety of other roles. Villar Perosas were fitted to patrol boats, anti-aircraft mounts, and stationary emplacements. However, it was primarily issued in an infantry role. A typical Villar Perosa section consisted of four men; one gunner and three loaders, who between them carried about 5,000 rounds of ammunition. The high rate of fire ensured that it needed frequent reloading and gunners were trained to get about three short bursts out of the two 25-round magazines. Sustained fire was not possible with such a small capacity.
The Arditi, Italy's commando units, were responsible for pioneering assault tactics with the Villar Perosa. One of the contraptions they invented for the gun was a wooden tray mount which hung around the user's neck, rather like a food vendor at a baseball game! This way the gun could be fired "from the hip" with some amount of ease. Rudimentary wooden stock mounts were also experimented with, but were never placed into service.
Although it is easy to look back at the Villar Perosa and damn it as utterly impractical and a design failure, this is not taking into context the Italian Front during World War I. Much of the combat took place in the Venetian Alps, harsh and unforgiving terrain upon which transporting heavy ordnance was a logistical nightmare. Under this environment, the Villar Perosa was perfectly suitable whereas heavy machine guns were not. A section of Villar Perosa gunners could harass Austro-Hungarian infantry with bursts of automatic fire at short ranges, without having to set up a stationary position. The Austro-Hungarians, in fact, attempted to copy the weapon three times. The Austrian "Doppelpistole" consisted of two Steyr M.12 machine-pistols fixed together, and the Hungarian Frommer M.17 was two Frommer Stop pistols converted to full-auto and mounted on a tripod. The Austrians eventually resorted to just outright cloning the Villar Perosa in the form of the Sturmpistole M.18, produced by Steyr, which was designed to be issued to Austrian stormtroopers in a fashion mimicking the Arditi method. However, not many Sturmpistoles were produced before the war ended. The Swiss also produced a conceptual clone in 1919, in the form of the twin-barreled Flieger-Doppelpistole machine gun by Adolf Furrer.
The Villar Perosa came to the end of its service life in 1918, with the introduction of both the SIA Mod.18 light machine gun and the Revelli-Beretta carbine. These new guns eliminated the requirement for the Villar Perosa; the SIA was a more effective portable MG and the Revelli-Beretta was a more practical assault weapon. The vast majority of Villar Perosas were scrapped for their parts, which were used in producing the Revelli-Beretta and the later O.V.P. submachine gun. Officine di Villar Perosa sold the production rights of the gun to Canadian General Electric in 1918, who marketed it for export with no success.
This was the first attempt to adapt the Villar Perosa into an infantry carbine and it was also probably the first "proper" submachine gun. Col. Revelli designed it in 1916 after certain officers investigated employing the Villar Perosa in an assault role. Development of the gun took place at both Officine di Villar Perosa and FIAT and the prototype was basically one half of a Villar Perosa encased in a wooden stock with a reworked trigger and a fire selector. It was demonstrated to the Army Test Commission the same year and impressed the committee enough for them to order further development of the concept. An open commission was sent out and various other firms produced rival prototypes designed along the same lines as the FIAT-Revelli. Official military trials were arranged in the following years and the FIAT-Revelli was tried against the Crocetti SMG from Ansaldo and the Beretta carbine. The Beretta gun won out and was adopted in 1918, after which development of the FIAT-Revelli ceased. However, it was later used as a control sample during tests in the early 1920s to develop an intermediate-caliber automatic rifle, and it was also conceptually revived in the form of Revelli's post-war O.V.P. submachine gun.
This is arguably the first true production SMG, designed on request of the Italian High Command in 1916. It was developed by Tullio Marengoni and was essentially a Villar Perosa receiver encased inside a Vetterli stock and fitted with a Carcano folding bayonet. It was submitted to testing by the Italian Test Commission in 1917 and won out against the rival designs from FIAT and Ansaldo, being officially taken into service in early 1918 as the Moschetto Automatico Revelli-Beretta (Revelli-Beretta Automatic Musket). It came into issue before the German MP18.I, albeit never in the same numbers. Typically the Revelli-Beretta was issued only to one or two specially-picked men per company, although it probably saw most use with the Arditi, who used it to replace their existing stocks of Villar Perosas. It almost certainly was used in some capacity during the battles at the Piave River and Vittorio Veneto.
The original run of these guns were full-auto only. After the war, the Italian Army ran further tests comparing their submachine guns to a new batch of experimental intermediate-cartridge rifles, as the 9mm Glisenti cartridge had rapidly fallen out of favor and a more powerful (but still small) caliber was sought. Had all gone according to plan, then an intermediate self-loading rifle developed by the state arms factory at Terni would have completely replaced the Revelli-Beretta. However, the funding was pulled and the project was cancelled. As a compromise, it seems that many of the existing Beretta guns were fitted with trigger disconnectors to convert them into semi-automatic carbines.
Production of the standard Revelli-Beretta carbine ended in about 1920. During the 1930s, many of the existing Revelli-Beretta submachine guns were dismantled by Beretta and rebuilt as self-loading carbines with conventional magazine feeds placed on the underside of the receiver, based on a patent filed by Beretta in late 1918. These guns were adopted by the Italian police and also sold to Argentina, who produced them as the HAFDASA C1. Beretta also seems to have briefly marketed a twin-trigger version of the Revelli-Beretta, which was a sort of embryonic Mod.38A, but this was not successful and not many were made. It was known as the Mod.918 or "Bigrillo" model.
The Revelli-Beretta remained in service through the Abyssinian Crisis and the Spanish Civil War. By the time of World War II, few were left, but they still cropped up during the early stages of the North African campaign. It seems that the gun was never really officially retracted from service, but rather it just petered out over time.
Capt. Amerigo Cei-Rigotti, previously known for developing his innovative self-loading rifle, also designed an SMG adapted from the Villar Perosa. It was patented in February 1918 and had a fire rate of 800 rounds per minute. However, whether it was ever actually developed is not known.
The Crocetti carbine was the Gio. Ansaldo company's entrant into the late-war Italian SMG trials. It was designed by Enrico Crocetti and was probably another adaptation of the Villar Perosa, but otherwise nothing is known of the gun. It was trialed again in the early 1920s but was never taken into service.
The Interwar Years
Unlike in Germany, submachine gun development somewhat stagnated in Italy after World War I, as there was largely no official requirement from the Army for a new SMG. Italy fought two wars during this time, with Ethiopia in 1935 and Republican Spain in 1936, largely using old stocks of Revelli-Berettas and OVPs.
After the end of World War I, RIV developed a new SMG based on the Villar Perosa. This again was designed by Revelli and was probably the best attempt at converting the Villar Perosa into a conventional SMG. The internal delayed-blowback action and upward-facing magazine feed were retained from the original gun but practically everything else was redesigned. The method of cocking was unusual, utilizing a retracting cylindrical sleeve rather than a conventional slot and handle, and it was cocked in a sort of pump-action fashion. The Italian Army took this new gun into service in 1921, NOT 1918 as is commonly claimed. It was also marketed internationally, including to Britain in 1928, but was not bought by any other country. It was probably discontinued in about 1930 and only around 500 are thought to have been ever made. These guns were still in limited service by the time of World War II, and were mainly used during the North African campaign before being replaced in totality by the Beretta Mod.38A.
The newly-established Armaguerra firm of Genoa employed Gino Revelli (the son of Abiel Revelli), who was probably responsible for this rare design. It was developed in 1935 and appears to have never made it to full production. Not much is known, but from what can be extrapolated, it would seem to feed magazines horizontally, as there is no obvious magazine port underneath the receiver. Feeding mags from the side was actually a rare feature on an Italian SMG design. It also seems that the wooden handguard features a hollow recess to house a folding bayonet, a feature almost certainly lifted from the Beretta 18/30 carbine. Reports say this gun fired full-auto only and was chambered for 9x19mm Parabellum.
Soley Model 2
Not really an Italian SMG as such, but an usual British-made conversion of Beretta's 18/30 carbine, placing the trigger forward of the magazine in a quasi-bullpup format. The reasons for which this gun was made are totally unknown, although the Soley company was known to modify existing designs for commercial purposes. It may have been an idea put forward by a potential investor, or simply the pet project of an imaginative engineer. Whatever the case, it was never put into production, and it seems likely that only one example was ever made before the idea was scrapped. It's not exactly hard to see why - the ergonomics are extremely poor, with both the grip and stock feeling incredibly uncomfortable.
Beretta Model 38
Under Tullio Marengoni, Beretta continued to work with 9mm carbines throughout the 1930s and this culminated in the design of a 1935 model that was eventually converted into a selective-fire submachine gun. Marengoni saw potential in this gun and, after further development, it was perfected and produced as the Beretta Mod.38. The initial model, like the self-loading carbine it was derived from, ejected straight upward and had a long barrel jacket with rectangular vents. The Italian colonial police (PAI) became interested in the Mod.38 and placed an order with some special modifications; the barrel vents were changed to rectangular and the ejection port was placed on the left side of the receiver, presumably because the rapid upward ejection of cartridges would disrupt the user's line of sight. The PAI model was also fitted with a folding bayonet, a feature that was dropped when the Italian Army adopted the gun shortly afterward.
Originally developed at Armaguerra in 1942, production of this gun was outsourced to the Fabbrica Nazionale d'Armi factory in Brescia (FNA-B).
The FNA-B Mod.43 was issued to RSI blackshirts and German occupation troops; both thought highly of the weapon and it was considered one of the best SMGs available at the time. However, the high quality was contrasted by a slow production rate due to the expense of building the gun. By the end of the war, only about 7,000 units had been turned out over a three-year period.
The Ortolani was a prototype SMG developed during the 1940s by two brothers, Michele and Bartolomeo Ortolani, which has the distinction of being one of the first guns to use a roller-delayed blowback system. This system was probably developed independently of the German MG42V and Gerat 06(H) projects. Some prototypes of the Ortolani were apparently made, but were clearly not successful.
The LF-57 submachine gun was designed and produced at Luigi Franchi SpA in 1957 as part of their brief foray into the military market during the 1950s. This gun was likely influenced by the earlier Beretta prototypes designed by Salza, utilizing the L-shaped bolt design with an extended section riding over the barrel. The LF-57, in turn, was obviously the basis for the Walther MPL/MPK submachine guns that came into production in the early 1960s. The Italian Navy adopted the LF-57, but the military declined. Some limited export sales were also achieved, and a semi-automatic carbine version was offered for the civilian market, but was largely unsuccessful. Production of the LF-57 ended in about the late 1970s or early 1980s.