The Vetterli rifles were a series of Swiss army service rifles in use from 1869 to circa 1890, when they were replaced with Schmidt–Rubin rifles. Modified Vetterli rifles were also used by the Italian Army.
The Swiss Vetterli rifles combined the American Winchester Model 1866's tubular magazine with a regular bolt featuring for the first time two opposed rear locking lugs. This novel type of bolt was a major improvement over the simpler Dreyse and Chassepot bolt actions. The Vetterli was also the first repeating bolt-action rifle to feature a self-cocking action and a small caliber bore.
Due to the Swiss Federal Council's early 1866 decision to equip the army with a breechloading repeating rifle, the Vetterli rifles were, at the time of their introduction, the most advanced military rifles in Europe. The Vetterli was the replacement for the Eidgenössischer Stutzer 1851, an Amsler-Milbank metallic cartridge conversion from previous Swiss muzzle-loading rifles.
The model 1867 was the first iteration of Vetterli rifles. It was accepted into service in February 1868. The model 1867, like its successors, featured a 12-round under barrel tubular magazine and bolt action feed system. The primary distinguishing feature of the Model 1867 was the external hammer.
Before the Model 1867 was put into full production, the rifle designer, Friedrich Vetterli, updated the rifle by replacing the external hammer with an internal cocking bolt spring, rounded front barrel band and placing the cleaning rod on the left side of the rifle. It was discovered soon after that the cleaning rod in its current placement was easily damaged and was subsequently moved to the under-barrel position. The model was designated the Model 1869.
The 1869 Repetiergewehr Vetterli (English: repeating rifle, Vetterli) was the first iteration of Vetterli rifles to go into full mass production. It was designed by Johann-Friedrich Vetterli (1822–1882), a Swiss riflemaker, who worked in France and England before becoming director of the Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft's armament factory in Neuhausen Switzerland. He also adapted his rifle into a single-shot centerfire variant procured by the Italian Army. In 1871 the Model 1869 was updated by removing the loading gate and magazine cutoff switch. This change was designated the Model 1869/71
Even while manufacture of the M1869/71 was underway, a new 1871 model was put into production. It omitted some redundant parts and featured a modified sight as well as a stronger barrel and stronger iron hoops.
The Stutzer (carbine) variant of the 1871 rifle was used to equip the Scharfschützen (sniper) companies of the army. The Stutzer were equipped with a sensitive Stecher (double set trigger) action and featured a shorter barrel.
The Kavallerie-Repetierkarabiner (English: cavalry repeating carbine) was another shortened variant of the 1871 rifle for use by the cavalry, which at that time was still armed with percussion pistols.
To accelerate the sluggish production of the Vetterli rifles, the federal authorities built a new arms factory in Berne, the Eidgenössische Waffenfabrik (W+F), in 1875. That factory produced the 1878 variant of the Vetterli rifle. Its some 25 improvements included a new bayonet and lug, improved sights and a finger hook on the trigger cover. A Stutzer variant with a Stecher action, but otherwise identical to the rifle, was also produced.
The Italian Army adopted a modified Vetterli design, however as a single-shot, in 1870. Unlike the Swiss model, it was chambered for a centrefire cartridge, the 10.35×47mmR.
In 1887, the Italian military updated its single-shot Model 1870 Vetterli rifles with a four-round Vitali box magazine.
During World War I, like many nations Italy faced a shortage of modern infantry rifles. As a stop-gap measure, hundreds of thousands of Vetterli-Vitali rifles and a few carbines and musquetoons were converted in Rome and Gardone to fire the 6.5x52mm Carcano round, by adding a 6.5mm barrel liner and a Carcano-style magazine. These conversions were never meant for extended firing with standard 6.5x52mm loads, as the smokeless powder 6.5×52mm cartridge generates higher pressure than the black powder 10.35×47mmR, but have withstood modern CIP proofshooting without difficulty.