Società Metallurgica Italiana (SMI)
Manufacturer of ammunition for the Italian Army and Navy By Richard Henry
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
Date: 20 June 2019
When documenting the large calibre ammunition collection, curator Richard Henry came across many headstamps showing the Italian manufacturer SMI. Being naturally curious and interested in the detail he researched the history of this well-known Italian ammunition manufacturer.
History of the company
SMI was founded in 1886 with the aid of French and Italian capital. The main copper processing plant was opened at Livorno on the northern west coast of Italy in 1887. In 1889 further expansion was undertaken when the mill at Mammiano and the pin and nail factory at Limestre in the province of Pistoia were purchased. One of the oldest industrial dynasties in Italy, the Orlando family, with interests in ship-building, steel-making and communications, took control of the three SMI factories in 1902.
The new plant at Campo Tizzoro
In 1910, SMI secured a large public contract which required that they set up a new factory to manufacture pistol, rifle and small calibre artillery ammunition. SMI already had much experience producing semi-finished products in copper, nickel and related alloys. The Italian government wanted to end its reliance on foreign ammunition. The area north, north-west and north-east of Pistoia in Tuscany was blessed with an abundance of streams and forests on the mountain slopes. Coal was also mined in the area. The locals had a history of working with metals. This made it ideal to set up a new factory in the mountains. The site chosen was situated at 44⁰ 2’19” North and 10⁰ 51’49” East, at the confluence of the Reno and Maresca Rivers and 18km North-North-West of Pistoia by road.
Unbeknown to them at first, it was the exact site where, in 62 BC, the Roman legions had defeated a rebel force. A Roman politician, Catilina, attempted a coup in Rome in 63 BC, but it had failed. He fled to the countryside where an ex- centurion commander, Gaius Manlius, had started a peasant revolt. They joined forces and could muster up to 12 000 men. When help from Gaul (France) was not forthcoming, many men deserted, leaving 3 000 men to fight two Roman armies who blocked their escape. Catilina attacked the army and his men were slaughtered to a man on this site.
Roman Senator Catilina
When the first excavations were dug in 1910, relics from the battle were found and the site researched. The name Campo Tizzoro is believed to come from the Latin Camus Thesauri meaning treasure field. The name Tizzoro could also have come from the Latin Tizzidue to fire and the burning of the bodies left on the battlefield. The factory was opened for production in July 1911, with a workforce of 300. At this time the Italians were talking and preparing to invade Libya (part of the Ottoman Empire). The invasion started on 10 October 1911 and by 5 November 1911 the Italians decreed Italian Libya. The invasion required SMI to produce ammunition in quantity. The first shots of the First World War 1914-1918 were fired in August 1914. Italy was still neutral but could see the war escalating. Italy entered the war in April 1915 on the side of the Allies (Triple Entente). The production of ammunition was stepped up. More orders were received and the company decided to build a new factory in Fornaci dei Barga (44⁰ 3’ North and 10⁰ 28’ East), near Lucca, in 1915, employing thousands of people. Ammunition production at the Fornaci plant started in 1916.
The majority of the ammunition made at the two factories were:
- 65mm x 17 mm for the early Beretta Model 1915 service pistol
- 9 x 19mm Glisenti short for later versions of the Beretta Model 1915 service pistol, the 1918 Model ‘Villa Perosa’ sub-machine gun, Fiat- Revelli ‘Villa Perosa’ Light machine gun and the Glisenti Modello 1910 semi-automatic pistol
- 4 x 22mm rimmed Italian Revolver cartridge for Modello 1889 ‘Bodeo’ Service Revolver
- 4 x 47mm rimmed cartridge for the Modello 1870 Vetterli Rifle
- 5 x52mm (Mannlicher-Carcano) cartridge for the standard Carcano Modello 1891 rifle, the Fiat-Revelli Modello 1915 medium machine gun and up-graded versions of the Modello 1870 Vetterli rifle. This cartridge was the mainstay of the Italian Army.
By 1917 the Campo Tizzoro factory employed 3 750 people and specialised in making tracer, armour piercing and incendiary cartridges. The Fornaci plant continued to concentrate on making the standard ball cartridges. During the First World War most of the cartridges (two thousand million) used by the Italian Army were made by the two SMI factories.
The poor results of the First World War on Italy
Italy lost 600 000 men killed and a further 1 million men injured in the First World War; her reasons for joining the war were unpopular and ill-defined. Military morale was very low due to poor leadership, troops mutinied and political upheaval and division were barely contained. People were disgusted by the cost of the war. Italy experienced serious economic problems after the war. Revolution appeared imminent with strikes and looting daily occurrences. Fascist and Socialists were involved in street battles. Eventually Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Fascists marched on Rome with 250 000 supporters on 26 October 1922. On 29 October the King, Victor Emmanuel III, asked Mussolini to form a government. Foreign policy became more expansionist. The Fascist economy was designed to boost prestige and military strength.
Economic downscaling after war and the expansion under Fascism
From the end of the First World War to 1923, the two SMI factories drastically cut back on ammunition production and staff. With the Fascist government, orders increased. There was a small increase in production for the Italian forces who had invaded Somalia in 1924, but Italy was in such a mess that production remained low. The SMI engineers tried to increase the scope of the work undertaken at the plants. In 1929 the Great Depression affected SMI as well. Staff numbers in 1930 at the Campo Tizzoro was 130. Italian expansionist policies from 1924 and the political stand-off between Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Italy from 1932 continued. Italy prepared for war. The most modern lathes and machinery were installed and the factory was one of the best in the world. SMI purchased a licence from the German firm Westfälisch-Anhaltische Sprengstoff Actien- Gesellschaft (WASSAG) to manufacture tracer cartridges.
In 1935, SMI completed a study of the 8 x 59mm RB Breda ammunition for the Fiat-Revelli Modello 1935 machine gun. This was an upgrade of the 6,5mm Model 1915 machine gun. They also continued to research techniques for the treatment of steel ammunition cases with anti-corrosion phenolic paint. In 1935, SMI bought the majority shares of Società Mettallurgica Bresciana. Italy invaded Abyssinia on 3 October 1935 and SMI again upped production. The 6.5 x 52mm Mannlicher-Carcano round was known to be under-powered, and this was again shown in the Italian North African campaign (1924-1934) and in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935 -1937). SMI therefore developed a 7.35 x 51mm rimless bottleneck cartridge, with a spritzer-type bullet the head of which was filled with aluminium to create a tumbling effect. It was to be used in the Modello 1891/1938 (91/38) rifle. It was not the success hoped for. In 1936, 75 000 Italian troops and 320 million small arm cartridges were sent as part of Italy’s contribution to help General Franco in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.
The Fascist Government passed laws, which forced private companies to use their profits for public works and for the betterment of the people. Large companies employed people from the area and built facilities for their workforce. The company became a big family, looking after all the needs of its workforce.
At the Campo Tizzoro factory, a hotel was built in 1912. To ease workers getting to work a railway station was built in 1925. From 1930 to 1935 new houses for the employees were built. This was followed by a post office in 1932 and a school for the employee’s children built in 1935. Other community facilities such as a hospital, sporting facilities, a workforce canteen, shops, a kindergarten, a trade school, and a church dedicated to Santa Barbara were built.
At the Fornaci dei Barga good relations were fostered with the staff. The company had houses, company canteens, grocery stores, recreational and cultural facilities, a library and schools built. The Giovanni Pascoli School for mentally handicapped children was also built as well as a beautiful parish church in 1933.
With the possibility of war again, SMI increased their research to include 20mm Breda cartridges as well as 40mm ammunition.
With the threat of war growing and SMI fearing the possible bombing of its strategic factory at Campo Tizzoro, underground bomb shelters were started in 1939. Two kilometres of tunnels surrounding the factory were dug to a depth of between 15 and 30 metres into solid rock. These concrete-lined passages could be accessed by nine ogival-shaped reinforced concrete domes scattered throughout the factory and the town. These were designed to be as blast proof as possible. Two staircases with one hundred steps in each were built into each dome. One staircase was for descending when an air raid started, the other for ascending after the raid. The two stair cases never met. Evacuation drills conducted proved that 6 000 people could be brought into the tunnels in three minutes. In the tunnels were dressing rooms, bathrooms, toilets, kitchens and rooms to accommodate several hundred people. A well-stocked medical post was available for anyone injured. Good electrical lighting was installed as well as telephone facilities. Seating along the walls could accommodate at least 6 000 people. A well for fresh water was available and it had a close-sealing cover to ensure any gas attack would not pollute the water supply. The air in the tunnels could also filter out toxic gases. Protecting the tunnels and town were anti-aircraft guns.
The Second World War 1939 -1945
The war started and SMI again increased its production. In 1940 the first block of 46 workers’ houses as well as a second church were constructed. A second block of 20 houses, called the ‘Orlando Village’, was completed in 1942. The range of ammunition made in addition to the types made in the First World War was:
- 9 x 17 mm Cortofor the Beretta Modello 1934 semi-automatic pistol
- 7,65 x 17 mm Browning SR cartridge for the Beretta Modello 1935 semi- automatic pistol
- 9 x 19 mm Parabellum for the Beretta sub-machine guns model 38/ 38A/ 42/ 43/44
- 9 x 19 mm Cartuccia Modello 38 A for the Beretta Modello 38 A sub-machine gun
- 8 x 59 mm RB Breda cartridge for the Breda Modello 1937 Heavy Machine Gun
- 35 x 51mm cartridge as discussed above
- 7 x 81mm SR for the Breda-SAFAT aircraft machine gun. Types: Ball, Tracer, High-explosive-incendiary-tracer ( HEIT) and armour piercing (AP)
- 2 x 99 mm Hotchkiss for the Breda Modello 31 machine gun, a copy of the French Hotchkiss Model 1929 built under licence in Italy for the Italian Navy
- 20 x 138mm belted for the 20 mm Cannone Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 35 anti –aircraft gun and the 20mm Scotti
- 40mm ammunition for Bofors?
- Larger calibre ammunition still to be researched.
In May 1943 the American Air Force bombed and heavily damaged the SMI factory at Livorno on the coast. Many of the workforce were transferred to the other SMI factories. In September1943 the Italians signed an armistice agreement with the Allies. The German forces in Italy, with the assistance of the Black Shirts (Fascists) immediately took control of all war production in Italy. The factory at Fornaci dei Barga was also bombed in August 1944 but suffered little damage but production decreased as the Allies advanced.
The 6 South African Armoured Division (6 SAAD) was fighting in the area in September 1944. The 12 South African Infantry Brigade‘s axis of advance was along Route 64. The British Guards Brigade, attached to the division, was ordered to advance up Route 66. On 27 September they were very close to Campo Tizzoro when heavy rain started, which continued for several days, making the roads unpassable. 6 SAAD was then ordered to change its axis of advance to along Route 6620. The 6 SAAD winter headquarters at Castiglione dei Pépoli was only 25 km North-East of Campo Tizzoro. The site was ‘liberated’ by the United States Army.
After the Second World War 1939-1945
Although SMI continued to make metal products and ammunition after the Second World War, up until the 1980s, there were many mergers and changes of names from the 1950s. The factory at Campo Tizzoro was finally closed in 2006. The economy of the area suffered.
The architect Gianluca Iori, in collaboration with owners KME Itali Spa came up with a plan to re-open the tunnels and show some of the workings of the SMI factory at Campo Tizzoro, as a museum. This was greatly appreciated by the local community. A historical researcher Rachele Lenzi published a book E La Società Metallurgica Italiana.
The Museum was opened in 2010 and has various rooms which depict aspects of the ammunition production at this site. There are displays of:
- The ammunition room showing the Frizt Wenner loading machines
- Ammunition control room
- A map and production planning room
- The research section and laboratory where explosives were tested and evaluated
- The tunnels for use during an air raid
- The overall layout of the town and factory as well as the anti-aircraft positions.
- Photographic displays of people working in the factory
- The social and home life of the community.
- Videos showing archival material.
The Museum and tunnels are open to the public. There are guided tours of the tunnels lasting an hour and a half, daily. The tunnels can only be viewed on an official guided tour.
From noting the manufacturer’s marking on examples of Italian ammunition in the collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, the author discovered an unexpected history stretching back to the Roman era.
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