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Arming God’s Battalions: a Papal States Rolling Block

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The Remington Rolling Block was a very popular rifle in the 1860s and 1870s, and probably would have been a better choice than the Trapdoor Springfield for the US military. But among the nations that did adopt is were the Papal States. While Vatican City is a tiny sovereign enclave today in Rome, in the 1800s the Pope directly controlled a much larger area, roughly the size of Switzerland early in the 1800s.

Three different models of Rolling Block were adopted by the Papal States in the effort to rebuild their military after a serious defeat in 1860 – rifles, carbines, and musketoons – the latter being what we have today. All three were made by the Nagant Brothers in Liege and can be identified by the Papal crest (the crossed keys of St Peter) on the top of the barrel. Westley Richards in the UK also produced 5,000 rolling block rifles, but these had serious quality problems.

The Nagant Brothers rifles began to arrive in the fall of 1868. They saw service for only a few years, as the departure of French forces in the fall of 1870 (to take part in the Franco-Prussian War) allowed the Italian Army to seize Vatican City without much difficulty. A few survived in the hands of the Pope’s personal guard, but most of these rolling blocks were taken into Italian Army service. They would serve until being replaced by Vetterli rifles, and were eventually sent to Ethiopia as military aid to Emperor Menelik II in the 1880s.

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