Carcano Needlefire Rifle Conversion on Forgotten Weapons
Russ Chastain 04.15.19
Salvatore Carcano — same name, different rifle — came up with his first significant contribution to the world of firearms when he invented a way to convert old muzzleloading rifles to needle fire, providing as many as 8 shots per minute via paper cartridges rather than cramming separate components down the barrel (muzzleloading).
Gun tech was changing in the late 1860s and European armies were hustling to upgrade, lest they become easy prey for better-armed neighbors. It was time to ditch muzzleloaders… but with technology rapidly changing for just about everything around that time, the Italians didn’t want to rush into a huge purchase of a system that would likely become obsolete within a few years.
In short, they needed something better than what they had, to tide them over until a better and more modern system came along. And that’s how they settled on converting their existing rifles from muzzleloaders into bolt-action needle-fire rifles.
The gun looks heavy, but the barrel wall is actually fairly thin so there’s not as much steel there as you might expect. The bore is a whopping 17.5 millimeters. That’s pretty much .40 inch LARGER than the .30-cal/7.62mm that later came to dominate most military small arms.
Just to put in in perspective, this rifle is about .70 caliber, which is really close to 12 gauge.
Back to the action. It has a bolt much like a turnbolt action, but it’s a bit different. And instead of a receiver made separate from the barrel, the bolt rides in and locks in the barrel itself! They simply whittled out part of the barrel, welded up the old spot where the nipple used to go and used it as a safety lug, and fitted in the bolt.
The bolt is fairly simple, but it’s cleverly-designed and the rifle is actually pretty safe and user-friendly.
Interestingly, each cartridge had a rubber seal on it to prevent gases from venting too heavily at the rear. This job (sealing) is done in modern firearms by the metal cartridge case fitting closely in the chamber.
This 1844/67 Carcano Needle Fire gun is for sale at Morphy Auctions, and as I write this it has one bid at $750 with 8 days left to go.
I wouldn’t want to tote one of these guns into battle, but it would surely be a great improvement over carrying a muzzleloader afield. Check it out and see what you think.