May 14, 2020
By David M. Fortier
Developed by Beretta for the Italian Army, the BM 59 is a classic looking 7.62mm battle rifle. Of interest to shooters, collectors and history buffs the BM 59 is an interesting contemporary of the FN FAL, G3, MAS Mle 1949/56, M14 and Soviet AKM. Before we dive into the rifle itself though, let’s look at how it came into being and the rifle Italian troops fought the Red Army with.
It’s important to remember the BM 59 was designed at a time when the Russian Bear menaced Western Europe. As such it followed in the footsteps of not the post-war US supplied M1 rifles but rather the veteran of the savage fighting on the Eastern Front, the 6.5x52mm Carcano. Unlike the other great NATO powers such as England, the United States or France the Italians had recent combat experience fighting the Red Army. Mussolini had sent an army of 235,000 soldiers to the Eastern Front in support of their German allies. Their fate was to be a grim one. 114,520 were killed, captured or wounded and the Italian 8th Army was virtually destroyed beneath the treads of the unstoppable Soviet juggernaut. Having stood toe to toe with the Soviets gave the Italians an enlightened view on what features a future combat rifle should possess.
One of my favorite memoirs was written by Sergeant Major Mario Rigoni Stern. From his opening line, “I still have the odor in my nose that the grease made on the red-hot machine gun” he leaves an intense expression of his experience fighting the Red Army. His 1953 memoir “Il sergente nella neve” translated a year later into English as “The Sergeant in the Snow” is a grim foxhole view of the ill-fated Italian Eighth Army’s destruction on the Eastern Front. A gifted and stalwart NCO, Rigoni was part of a heavy weapons platoon in the Tridentina Division when the Soviet’s launched Operation Little Saturn in December 1942. After this Soviet offensive smashed the Romanians to their right, and then the Hungarians to their left over 100,000 Italian soldiers found themselves encircled and facing destruction. Their only escape “out of the bag” was to slog westward over 150 miles on foot in the middle of winter with temperatures hitting -40 F while battling the Soviets. His constant companions during this horrific ordeal were his Carcano rifle and Breda 37 HMG.
The 6.5x52mm Carcano series of rifles and carbines served Italy through both World Wars as well as some colonial escapades. The first in the line was a long rifle designated the Modello 91 which was developed by Salvatore Carcano of the Turin Army Arsenal in 1890. A manually operated bolt-action repeater, it has two horizontally opposed locking lugs and a simple hook extractor. The bolt design is extremely simple and very easy to take-down and maintain in the field. While the strength of the Carcano action has long been called into question, they are actually very robust, safe and made of high quality steel. Loading is simple as it feeds from six-round en bloc clips rather than Mauser style stripper clips. It fires a 162 grain jacketed round nose projectile 0.267 inch in diameter at approximately 2,300 fps from its 30.7 inch long barrel. The ballistic coefficient for this projectile is approximately 0.275 and the M91 featured a 300 meter battle sight setting. While not blessed with any outstanding features, the M91 was simple to operate, fairly reliable and saw heavy combat in brutal conditions during World War I. A host of carbines and short rifles soon followed its adoption.
Combat after-action reports during fighting in Italian North Africa (1924-1934) and later in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-1936) indicated inadequate performance of the standard 6.5x52mm ball cartridge. Rather than taking the logical route and designing a modern spitzer projectile to improve both the exterior and terminal ballistics the Italians instead decided on a drastic change. They developed a new 7.35x51mm cartridge with a modern 128 grain 0.299-0.300-inch diameter spitzer FMJ bullet which featured an aluminum core in the nose. The lightweight nose, similar to a .303 MK VII, gave it a very early yaw cycle to enhance terminal performance. With a muzzle velocity of 2,480 fps the 7.35x51mm was very forward thinking for its time and did indeed work as intended. But plans to replace the 6.5x52mm with it were cancelled in 1940 due to the logistics. So the 6.5x52mm with its outdated 19th century style round nose FMJ bullet soldiered on through World War II.
On paper the World War II vintage 6.5x52mm M41 Carcano would appear to be a good match for the Soviet 7.62x54mmR M1891/30 Mosin-Nagant. In practice the Carcano is much easier to load, recoils less, holds one additional round and the action is at least as fast. It features a 200 meter battle sight setting which allows easy hits on a man-sized target at practical infantry engagement distances. However, the sights on the M1891/30 are better, the Mosin proved more reliable under extremely harsh conditions and it tended to be more accurate. Plus the 7.62x54mmR proved a more effective cartridge as the long round nose Carcano projectile was very stable and tended to punch straight through without yawing unless bone was struck.
The real issue though wasn’t how the M41 Carcano stacked up against the M1891/30, but rather the lack of automatic weapons available to the Italian infantry. Early in the war the Soviet infantry was equipped with self-loading SVT-40 rifles. Later in the war they were lavishly equipped with PPSh-41 and PPS-43 submachine guns. Italian industry simply could not meet the automatic weapon needs of its Army. It was very difficult for the largely rifle equipped Italian infantry to gain, and keep, fire superiority over the Soviets. The short range firepower of masses of Red Army infantry equipped with submachine guns was simply overbearing. This was especially true when they were supported by T-34 or KV tanks.
In the post-war years after the Italian Kingdom was replaced by a Republic in 1946, the Royal Army became simply the Italian Army. As the Royal Army faded into the history books so too did the Carcano series of rifles. Initially British Lee Enfield rifles replaced them before the adoption of American .30 caliber M1 rifles. The United States was awash in M1 rifles and sprinkled them liberally across Europe, including Italy. Designated the Model 1952 in Italian service, the semi-automatic M1 was a definite improvement over the 19th century bolt-action Carcano.
By the 1950s though, the M1 rifle had already fallen behind the times. Long, heavy and laborious to manufacture, the M1 rifle with its eight-round en bloc clip was a relic of pre-war thinking. The new threat facing Italy and Western Europe was the Soviet Red Army. The Soviet’s had not only run roughshod over the best units the Italians had, but they had single-handedly accounted for 80% of all the casualties the Germans had suffered. Italian veterans of the Eastern Front knew the challenges involved with fighting the Soviets. Plus, in the post-war years the Russians had begun to rapidly re-equip with modern designs developed from lessons learned during the war. This included not only modern planes and tanks, but also a new generation of small arms. Soviet units soon began to receive the latest 7.62x39mm AK47 assault rifles and RPD squad automatics.
While the British were very forward thinking regarding rifle and cartridge designs in the post-war years they were a power in decline. It was the Americans who would dictate what new caliber the members of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would field. Rather than looking forward, like the British did with their 7mm MK 1Z cartridge US Army Ordnance simply rebottled their existing .30 caliber cartridge shortening the case from 63mm to 51mm. The new 7.62x51mm cartridge drove a 147 grain lead core 0.308-inch FMJ-BT at approximately 2,750 fps. NATO would have a traditional power battle rifle cartridge whether they wanted it or not. While the English initially went their own way and adopted their 7mm MK 1Z they soon knuckled under. And so the die was cast on what new rifle cartridge the Italian Army and NATO would field. Only the French, with their very similar 7.5x54mm cartridge ignored the Americans and eventually pulled their forces out from NATO.
The quest for a modern 7.62x51mm rifle to replace the aging .30 caliber M1 rifles led to Breda developing their unsuccessful Model 39 which resembled a sporting rifle rather than a military arm. Beretta on the other hand took the easy route and simply modified the M1 rifle to meet the needs of the Italian Army. Beretta was already producing M1 rifles and parts at their factory in Brescia, plus there were large quantities of American built rifles and parts so it made some economic sense. Keep in mind, Italy was still recovering from the devastation of World War II.
What Beretta came up with was basically a modified M1 rechambered to 7.62x51mm and converted to selective fire. The en bloc clip, long a staple of Italian military rifles was finally replaced with a 20-round detachable box magazine. The rifle was fitted with a 19.3 inch barrel and the barreled action was dropped into a wood stock with a handguard. Sights were the typical M1 Garand full adjustable rear aperture, which was converted to meters, and the protected front blade.
What makes the BM 59 interesting is how the Italians chose to outfit it. It features a folding bipod mounted to the gas cylinder. This provided a useful support for firing prone or off anything available. Combined with the full automatic capability it allowed any rifleman to act as a quasi-squad automatic. Fitted to the muzzle is a long tri-compensator which, as its name suggests, performs three functions. It acts as a compensator to reduce recoil, it can launch standard 22mm NATO rifle grenades and it reduces the flash signature. A gas shut-off valve is also fitted along with a grenade launching sight. When the grenade launching sight is flipped up into position gas is shut off from the action. As to be expected a bayonet lug is also standard. The front sling swivel is mounted on the left side of the rifle and the rear sling swivel can rotate 90 degrees from 6 to 9 O’clock. A rubber buttpad is fitted and there is a trap in the butt for cleaning equipment.
Some difference between an M1 and BM 59 are obvious, others are more subtle. Almost everything though is modified. You’ll note extensive milling is required to convert a standard M1 receiver to accept a box magazine. The floorplate of an M1 trigger housing is modified to accept a magazine and a paddle style magazine catch is fitted. In addition a “winter” or grenade launching trigger lever is fitted to the trigger housing. This is rotated out of the way when not required. A standard M1 bolt requires machining to clear the feed lips of the box magazine. The stock is modified for the selector and magazine. Rotate the rifle over and you’ll see a stripper clip guide is affixed to the receiver bridge. On the left side of the receiver is a new bolt catch activated by the magazine. Plus a shorter operating rod and spring along with a new full length spring guide are fitted. A new gas cylinder and plug are also installed. This should give you an idea that the BM 59 ended up being more than just a Garand with a magazine stuffed into.
With empty magazine and sling the BM 59 weighs in 10.8 pounds and it measured 43 inches in length. Certainly not a lightweight thanks to the bipod and grenade launcher. Even so it’s an eye-catching rifle which feels better than it should in the hands. A traditional “old school” battle rifle, the BM 59 has a certain appeal to it. I find them more interesting than either a Garand or M1A, but perhaps that’s simply due to how uncommon they have been here in the US.
Like an old horse put out to pasture, the BM 59 was replaced in Italian service by Beretta’s 5.56x45mm AR-70/90 assault rifle.
BM 59 Specs
- Caliber: 7.62x51mm NATO
- Operation: Rotating bolt, short stroke gas
- Barrel Length: 19.3 inches
- Front Sight: Protected blade
- Rear Sight: Fully adjustable protected aperture
- Feed: 20-round detachable box magazine
- Cyclic Rate of Fire: 800 rpm
- Trigger: Two-stage
- Weight: 10.8 pounds with empty magazine and sling
- Overall Length: 43 inches
- Mission Essential Equipment: Bipod, 22mm NATO grenade launcher with gas cut-off, compensator/flash suppressor, Winter trigger