Camelot’s Carcano Curse


by Jerry Organ

About the time Lee Harvey Oswald was away in the Soviet Union from October 1959 to June 1962, an unique event occurred which would eventually unite two "poor shots" (one man, one object) on a sunny November day in Texas to make both famous. Towards the end of the 1950s, the Italian Ministry of Defense (Ministero della Difesa) sought to liquidate its stock of all variants of the M91 Carcano, some 570,745 weapons usable and otherwise.(1) An American company, Adam Consolidated, won the bidding in 1959 with a total of $1,776,659.54, presenting a third in advance in the form of guarantees of $592,000 from the Banco di Roma.(2)

Italy to America

Prior to the Ministero’s final liquidation, hundreds of thousands of earlier-surplused Carcanos had been bought by the pound by the International Firearms Company of Montreal.(3) The Adam deal was more specific, paying $1.12/unit for older models, and $3.60/unit for newer models, like the Oswald rifle, a Carcano M91/38 that came off the line in Terni in 1940.(4) Even new, the Carcano of 1940 was roughly assembled with ill-fitting brackets and plain wood stocks, but the bolt-assembly was a gem of precision, featuring "a split bridge Mannlicher design that is well machined from a special high quality Czech steel."(5)

To recondition the rifles--or shorten the barrel of the long rifles--for the American market, Adam contracted with Italian gunsmith Luciano Riva at a flat unit price of $1.72.(6) Operating out of a factory in Storo, near Brescia (home of arms manufacturers Beretta and Breda), Riva would pick up quantities of rifles from the military warehouse in Terni (about 65 mi/100 km north of Rome) and truck them under police escort 280 mi/460 km north to Storo. By the end of October, 1960, Riva had completed 12 bulk shipments, for a total of 44,490 reconditioned guns sent to America.(7)

C2766 was among the rifles refurbished by Riva, ending up among the last of the shipments Riva sent to Adam. 520 crates--each of which contained 10 rifles each sealed in Cosmoline gel--left his factory for Genoa on Sept. 28, 1960.(8) By Oct. 24, the Riva shipment was signed into a bonded warehouse, Harborside Terminal in New Jersey.(9)

Like the Carcano he was to order, Oswald and his Russian-born family undertook a similar ocean voyage to the New World. On June 2, 1962, the Dutch ship SS Maadam sailed from Rotterdam bound for New York. As the ship proceeded to dock at Hoboken, New Jersey on June 13th, Lee Oswald may have passed within a mile of C2766.(10) Nine months and half a continent separated the two cast-offs.

New York to Chicago

To handle domestic distribution of the rifles, Adam Consolidated set up a separate firm, Crescent Firearms.(11) Crescent handled wholesale distribution of the Carcanos and the preparatory work needed to recondition the rifles. Fred Rupp was one of Crescent’s restorers, picking up quantities of Carcanos at the Harborside Terminal against the account of Adam Consolidated. Rupp unwrapped the rifles, removed the film of Cosmoline from each, inspected and test-fired them.(12) Rupp would then ship restored Carcanos from his shop in Perkasie, Pennsylvania to customers designated by Crescent. C2766 was among the 100 rifles in ten cases sent by Rupp to Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago on Feb. 12, 1963.(13)

Klein’s Sporting Goods, established in 1885, operated six retail outlets in the Chicago area and maintained a substantial mail-order business.(14) In January, 1962, Klein’s ordered 400 Carcano 91TS carbines (these are 36") from Crescent Firearms.(15) Their ads for such carbines (order no. C20-T749 for $11.88) began running in the American Rifleman from March to June 1962. A version (cat. no. C20-T750) with a 4-power scope could be had for $19.95. Apparently, Klein’s didn’t bother to photograph the 36" TS rifle, instead retaining the image of the "Suprema" rifle it had previously sold through mail-order. So basically, the only indication in the ad that they're selling a specific Carcano (the TS) is the 36" and the term "carbine".(16)

Which Carcano Model was in the Feb. 1963 Ad?


 Long Rifle “A-D-E” should read “A-B-E”

Klein’s Ads in the American Rifleman

Ad Ran: Apr to June 58
Rifle Description: Mannlicher High Power Rifle
Particulars: 7.35mm; $12.95-$16.95
Cat. No.: n/a

Ad Ran: Oct 60 to Feb 62
Rifle Description: Custom Sporterized Model
Particulars: 6.5mm; $19.98?
Cat. No.: n/a

June 1962 Ad.
 American Rifleman adbox, June 1962

Ad Ran: March to June 62
Carcano Model: M91TS 36" Carbine
Rifle Description: 6.5 Italian Carbine; 36"; 5 ½ lb; $11.88
Cat. No.: C20-T749; C20-T750 (with scope: $19.95)

August 1962 Ad.
 American Rifleman adbox, July 1962

Ad ran: July 1962 This ad was transitional, reflecting the pending change-over from
the 36" Carcano to the 40" Carcanos. Only the "packaged deal"
(Cat No. C20-T750) was offered.

August 1962 Ad.
 American Rifleman adbox, August 1962

Ad Ran: Aug 62 to February 63
Carcano Model: M91/38 40" Short Rifle
Rifle Description: 6.5 Italian Carbine; 36"; 5 ½ lb; $12.88
Cat. No.: C20-T1196; C20-T750 (with scope: $19.95)
Changed: Price and cat. no. of base rifle

(No ad run March 63)

Ad Ran: April to May 63
Carcano Model: M91/38 40" Short Rifle
Rifle Description: 6.5 Italian Carbine; 40"; 5 ½ lb; $12.88
Cat. No.: C20-T1196; C20-750 (with scope: $19.95)
Changed: Length of rifle and cat. no. for scoped version

Ad Ran: July to Oct 63
Carcano Model: M91/38 40" Short Rifle
Rifle Description: 6.5 Italian Carbine; 40"; 5 ½ lb; $12.78
Cat. No.: C20-T1196; C20-750 (with scope: $19.95)
Changed: Price of base rifle

(No ad ran Nov to Dec 63)
_____

(Below is the table version of the data above)

Klein’s Ads in the American Rifleman

Ad Desc. of Rifle Cat. No. Text Desc. Price Month Ad Pub.
Mannlicher High Power Rifle n/a 7.35mm  $12.95-$16.95 Apr to June 58
Custom Sporterized Model n/a 6.5mm $19.98 Oct 60 to Feb 62
 
Carcano Model Cat. No. Text Desc. Price Month Ad Pub.
M91TS 36" Carbine C20-T749  6.5mm 36" $11.88 March to July 62
     Above with scope C20-T750   $19.95  
M91/38 40" Short Rifle  C20-T1196  6.5mm 36"  $12.88  Aug 62 to Feb 63
     Above with scope C20-T750   $19.95 As above
No ad   March 63
M91/38 40" Short Rifle C20-T1196 6.5mm  40"  $12.88 April to May 63
     Above with scope  C20-750   
M91/38 40" Short Rifle C20-T1196 6.5mm 40"  $12.78  July to Oct 63
No ad   Nov to Dec 63

The "Suprema" rifle was a shortened version of the war-surplused M91 50" Long Rifle for resell to the sporting market outside of Italy. The "Suprema" was sold as a "Custom Sporterized Model" by Klein’s from late 1960 to early 1962. It would seem the illustration used in Klein’s American Rifleman "Carcano" ads from 1960 to 1963 showed the "Suprema" M91-mod rifle.

 American Rifleman adbox, February 1963

By time Oswald sent for his rifle using a Klein’s ad in the February 1963 issue of American Rifleman, Klein’s had exhausted its supply of 400 Carcano 36" 91TS carbines (order no. C20-T749 for $11.88). They were selling their new "Carcano" stock of M91/38 40" Short Rifles which the wholesaler now sold to them for a dollar more per unit. The new order no. (C20-T1196) and higher price ($12.88) had been running in Klein’s American Rifleman ads since August, 1962.

Footnotes

1 Wheeler, Keith. ‘Cursed Gun’—The Track of C2766. Life magazine, Aug. 27, 1965, p. 62.
2 Wheeler, p. 63.
Italy to America
3 Bloomgarden, Henry. The Gun. A “Biography” of the Gun That Killed John F. Kennedy. (NY: Bantam paperback 1976; originally published in hardcover by Viking 1975), p. 38. Oswald’s revolver entered the US in a wholesale shipment from Empire Wholesale Sporting Goods, Ltd. of Montreal on Jan. 3, 1963.
4 Wheeler, p. 62. The Carcano first appeared as a frontline bolt-action Long Rifle in 1891, being called M91s (for Model 1891) and using the newly-adopted 6.5x52mm rimless bottle-necked rifle cartridge. Several carbine variants soon followed. All used 6.5x52mm ammunition. Italy wasn’t alone in the use of 6.5mm ammunition, with Romania, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Luxembourg, Japan, Greece, and Portugal adopting the 6.5mm caliber as well. From 1937-38, Italy made some 60,000 Type I 6.5x50mm Carcanos for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The Carcano M91/38 Short Rifle was introduced in 1938 and was chambered for 7.35x51mm ammunition. But ammunition shortages with the onset of WWII forced Italian arms manufacturers to revert back to 6.5mm for new production (no 7.35mm rifles were rebarreled). The last model change for the Carcano occurred in 1941 with the introduction of the M91/41 Long Rifle. The Carcano rifle Oswald received was a M91/38 Short Rifle for 6.5x52mm made in 1940 in Terni.
5 Bodinson, Holt. Surplus Locker: The Overlooked Carcanos. Guns Magazine, April 2004. As one writer put it, unlike automobiles, firearms do not suffer from built-in obsolescence. (Bloomgarden, p. 49)
6 Wheeler, p. 63. Adam Consolidated and Riva would have a falling out, resulting in legal action. Adam found a new refurbisher, allowing Adam to import another 80,835 Carcanos, up until Oct. 1963.
7 Bloomgarden, p.83. In 1960—near the height of the postwar importation boom—some 315,000 foreign-made military surplus rifles—valued under $5 each—entered the US. (Bloomgarden, p. 48) Interarms bought most of the remaining surpluses, shipping them to England to be reconditioned and “sporterized”, mostly for export markets. Interarms was later taken over by Century Arms.
8 Crescent Shipping Slip Number 3620 included Crate 3376, a corrugated cardboard container of ten with serials numbers listed on the outside. Listed third was C2766. From the port of Genoa, the cargo ship SS Elettra Fassio—a clipper-bowed 447' diesel-powered ship built in Geoa in 1957—left on Sept. 29 with the shipment for New York, docking at Jersey City about Oct. 15-17 (sources vary). Bill of Lading No. 18 dated Sept. 29 refers to cartons 3305/3436, containing “Obsolete Rifles.” The rifles totaled 5200, of which 1700 were M91/38s and 3500 were M91s. (Bloomgarden, p. 85)
9 Claiming the imports were undervalued to warrant a lower duty, US Customs initially impounded the lot. Warehouse Entry Form No. 52737, dated Oct. 24, 1960, from the custom brokerage firm of Freedman & Slater records: “Five Hundred & Twenty Cts. Cont’g. Rifles Valued Not Over $5.00 Each As Surplus Italian Arms, As Sporting Goods.” Customs duty came to $8494.50, or about $1.63 per Carcano. (Bloomgarden, p. 87)
10 Adam used the Harborside Terminal as a storage facility, being charged a monthly storage fee based upon cubic feet. As orders came in, the size of their stored items diminished. The Pennsylvania Railroad built the large freight warehouse to the north of its “Exchange Place” passenger terminal (abandoned in Nov. 1961). The Harborside Terminal site on the Hudson waterfront was incorporated into the showcase Harborside Financial Center, which began development in 1963 with the demolition of the PRR buildings.
New York to Chicago
11 Bloomgarden, p. 39. Crescent Firearms, Inc. was chartered under New York state law on Dec. 29, 1959. Crescent’s legal address was West 37th St, Adams was at 404 Fifth Ave. The two were separate entrances to the same building; on the sixth floor, they shared a receptionist. Adam Consolidated became Vanderbilt Tire & Rubber and later VTR, Inc. (Wheeler, p. 63)

“Mr. Louis Feldsott, President, Crescent Firearms, Incorporated, 2 West 37th Street, New York, New York, advised his company was organized to handle importation of foreign surplus rifles, especially those of an Italian origin, and the purchases of these rifles were made by him personally in Italy from the Italian Ministry of Defense.” (CE 2562) Crescent sold Carcanos to such retailers as Sears Roebuck, sporting goods and discount stores, and the ubiquitous Army-and-Navy stores.
12 If feasible, Rupp repacked the same rifles in the same carton as received. If a new carton was needed, Rupp would fill it with the same rifles that were in the original carton. If a particular rifle had to be replaced, Rupp would indicate on the packing slip the serial no. of the removed rifle and the replacement rifle’s serial no. Packing slips—listing the serial nos.—went inside the carton and were pasted to the outside, with further copies mailed to Crescent in New York. (Bloomgarden, pp. 88-89)

According to the Warren Report: “agents of the FBI learned from small retail outlets in Dallas that Crescent Firearms, Inc., of New York City, was a distributor of surplus Italian 6.5-millimeter military rifles. During the evening of November 22, 1963, a review of the records of Crescent Firearms revealed that the firm had shipped an Italian carbine, serial number C2766, to Klein’s Sporting Goods Co., of Chicago, Ill.” (USGPO edition, p. 118) Klein’s produced microfilmed copies of the “Customers Invoice” packing slips that came with the crates they received Feb. 1963, including one that showed C2766 was in Carton No. 3376. (Waldman Exhibit No. 3)
13 It’s unclear, but C2766 may have been among a load Rupp picked up from Harborside in Oct. 1962. The order was shipped via North Penn Transfer through Lifschultz Fast Freight of Chicago. Lifschultz Delivery Receipt shows the shipment arrived at Klein’s on Feb. 21, 1963. (Waldman Exhibit No. 2) Crescent issued an invoice to Klein’s dated Feb. 7, 1963 for 100 “T 38” “6.5 It. Rifles” for $850.00. with a stamp showing payment made March 4th. (Waldman Exhibit No. 5) Near that date, Klein’s issued check No. 28966 for $850.00 to Crescent Firearms.
14 In 1963, firearms accounted for a quarter of Klein’s total sales volumes, with 60% of that generated through mail-order. Klein’s advertised in its own catalogues and in niche magazines, such as Field and Stream, Sports Afield and, most relevantly, American Rifleman. (Bloomgarden, p. 90) With undisguised contempt, Bloomgarden called the Klein’s enterprise a “major—and unregulated—arsenal.”

In early 1958, Klein’s advertised a “Mannlicher High Power Rifle”, a 40" 7.35 mm M91/38 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle for $12.95-$16.95 (depending on grade of condition ordered). In ads beginning Oct. 1960, Klein’s offered the “Custom Sporterized Model”, a 41.5" Carcano for $19.88. No official Carcano was ever 41.5", so this would seem to be a so-called “Suprema”-type sport-mod rifle, which generally was a M91 Carcano Long Rifle with its barrel and forestock shortened to make it similar in appearance to an American sporting rifle.
15 The order was placed on a Klein’s Purchase Order dated Jan. 15, 1962. (Waldman Exhibit No, 1)
16 Nivaggi, Gary. The Marketing of a Weapon. (1994) Excerpted information from this book was posted on the Internet. Where Klein’s got the 5 ½ lb. weight shown in its ads is a mystery (even the Cavalry carbine stripped of its bayonet wouldn’t weigh that).