I would like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Kyle Barrett for the following research he has provided on the Rolling Block Rifle. It is a part of the living history of the papacy. Thank you, Mr. Barrett!
—Father Richard Kunst
Papal States Rolling Block Carbine, Serial Number MG 1689
The Papal States Rolling Block was the primary weapon of Blessed Pius IX’s forces in the last few years of the Papal States. Like the Rolling Blocks used by other countries, this fine example is a single shot rifle that is loaded from the breech. Breechloaders had a significant advantage in combat over the muzzle-loading rifles they replaced. The Papal variety fires the 12.7x45mmR Remington Pontificio cartridge, which is similar to the American .50-70 Remington.
By the end of the Papal States in September 1870, the Papal Army had nearly 16,000 Rolling Block rifles. Of those, 5,000 were manufactured by Westley Richards, a company in Birmingham, England. In November of 1867, he led the Papal Army to a decisive victory at the Battle of Mentana, where he witnessed a French contingent using new breechloading rifles, which could be loaded so quickly that they could fire many more shots per minute than muzzle-loaders.
The Fusil d’Infanterie, or Infantry Rifle, has a 35½” barrel and a ramped rear sight that can be adjusted to make shots out to 400 meters. The Mousqueton de Gendarmerie, or Militia Carbine, and the Mousqueton d’Artillerie, or Artillery Musketoon, have 30” and 24” barrels respectively, and they both have rear sights than can adjusted up to 350 meters. Each one of the Nagant rifles has a serial number that begins with FI, MG, or MA to denote its configuration.
Manufactured by Em. & L. Nagant, the Rolling Block in the Papal Artifacts Collection is one of the Militia Carbines, making it particularly rare, since only 2,094 of this type were made. It has beautiful nickeling on all of the steel components, which is unusual and may indicate that the rifle was used ceremonially at some point.
“CATHOLIQUES BELGES 1868” is stamped on the stock surrounding the keys of St. Peter and Papal tiara, which indicates that it was a gift from the Belgian Catholic Organization to the Papacy. Other markings include the same keys and tiara on the barrel and “EM & L NAGANT A LIÉGE” on the receiver, as well as various Belgian proof marks on each steel component. Also on the receiver is “BREVET REMINGTON”, which translates to “Remington’s Patent.” A royalty number, which is distinct from the serial number, is below it, and was used to track how much money Nagant owed Remington for using their patent.
For decades leading up to 1865, the Papal Army fielded a wide variety of rifles. Ammunition was not standardized, and many soldiers were using outdated firearms that had been made in the early 1800’s.
When Blessed Pius IX appointed General Hermann Kanzler to the position of acting war minister in 1865, Kanzler set out on a series of reforms to the Papal Army that included more modern field hospitals, additional training, and improved marksmanship. In November of 1867, he led the pontifical troops to a decisive victory at the Battle of Mentana, where he witnessed a French contingent using new breechloading rifles whose rate of fire far outpaced muzzle-loaders.
With this experience fresh in his mind, and aware of the globally popular Remington Rolling Block, Kanzler placed an initial order for 5,000 of the rifles with Em. & L. Nagant of Belgium, who were themselves well-to-do Catholics. These were paid for by the Belgian Catholic Organization. Soon after that, the French Catholic Organization ordered an additional 5,000 Rolling Block rifles from Westley Richards of England as well as 267 Artillery Musketoons from Belgium. Two million cartridges were manufactured at the expense of the Central Belgian Committee for the Defense of the Holy See, and German and other Catholic groups ordered 1,600 more rifles. The Papal States paid for an additional 2,500 Rolling Blocks themselves. The last major order was for 1,500 rifles and was paid for by the Belgian and Austrian Catholic Organizations.
–Blessed Pius IX and the Rolling Block–
On November 19, 1868, Pope Pius IX traveled to the Belvedere courtyard in the Vatican to inspect some of the heavy artillery that had been gifted to him by generous Catholics from all over the world. Standing guard duty that day were a company of Pontifical Zouaves armed with Rolling Blocks. This would have been the first time the Pope laid eyes on the new rifles.
Pope Pius IX was later gifted his own ornately decorated Rolling Block, which had been appropriately engraved “IN CRUCE DOMINI UNICA SALUS”, as part of a shipment of 80 Militia Carbines from 80 wealthy Belgian Catholic families. Another one was given to General Kanzler, who eventually received the Pope’s rifle from him as a gift for his service. The remaining 78 Militia Carbines, which had elaborately carved wood stocks, were used by the Noble Guard, one of the Pope’s bodyguard units.
Some sources say that the brothers Emile and Léon Nagant, who owned the company that manufactured the majority of these Rolling Blocks, gave twelve rifles to Pope Pius IX, each one engraved with the name of one of the twelve apostles. This would not be unusual, as Papal cannons each bore the name of a saint, but the twelve rifles have never been found.
–Use in the Papal States–
For the final two years of the Papal States, between 1868 and 1870, the Papal Army trained with their new Rolling Block rifles. In his book, Joseph Powell, a Pontifical Zouave from England, spoke highly of it: “The Remington rifle is very simple, light…and we are able to fire very rapidly with it.” Powell goes on to describe how the Zouaves spent three weeks learning to shoot their rifles, and how the best marksmen amongst them were promoted to corporal.
The Rolling Block served the Zouaves and other pontifical units admirably during the Capture of Rome on September 20, 1870. The Papal Army, despite being outnumbered and unable to strike preemptively due to Pope Pius IX’s orders to the contrary, were able to inflict a disproportionate number of casualties on the Italian army. When Italian cannons created a large gap in the wall near Porta Pia, a company of Zouaves stood in the breach and were able to hold off the attackers thanks to the high rate of fire of their Rolling Blocks. Eventually, General Kanzler surrendered on the Pope’s orders, and the Papal States were incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.
–After the Capture of Rome–
The story of these Rolling Blocks did not end with the Papal States. Italy captured most of the weapons used by Pope Pius IX’s army, and they armed parts of their bersaglieri companies with Papal Rolling Blocks. Non-commissioned officers received Artillery Musketoons, and the best sharpshooters in each company were given the standard Infantry Rifle. Eventually, all of the Rolling Blocks were replaced with domestically produced Italian rifles.
Per the terms of surrender in 1870, the Pope’s household guard was not required to give up their arms. The 78 elaborately carved Militia Carbines given to the Noble Guard were kept, as well as 150 additional Rolling Blocks that were hidden in the Vatican. Today, the Swiss Guard keeps 26 of those rifles in their historical armory.
Between 1883 and 1888, the Italians sold 5,000 Papal Rolling Blocks to Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. Years later, these Rolling Blocks saw action, this time in the hands of the Ethiopians against the Italians at the Battle of Adua in 1896. Again in 1935, Haile Selassie’s army used them against Mussolini’s. A few examples have been recovered by Italian troops from Ethiopia, and it appears as though they cut down the barrels on most of them to a shorter length in order to make them lighter and handier.
Papal States Rolling Blocks are now hard to come by, making this piece in the Papal Artifacts Collection a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the Vatican. It remains behind as a stark reminder of the lives lost defending Blessed Pius IX and the Holy Catholic Church.
Written by Kyle Barrett