The title of world’s first submachine gun is held by the distinctly odd-looking Villar Perosa. The weapon was designed and adopted into Italian service in 1914-15, and actually began life on Italian airplanes. In this configuration, an airplane gunner could use the Villar Perosa to shoot down other enemy aircraft.
The double-barreled Villar Perosa is essentially two submachine guns mounted side by side and controlled via a spade handle-style grip and a butterfly trigger. Both weapons are fed separately from dual twenty-five-round, top-loading magazines with an aperture-type sight mounted in between them.
Interestingly, the Villar Perosa was chambered in the 9mm Glisenti pistol round. The Glisenti is dimensionally identical to the ubiquitous 9x19mm pistol cartridge, though it has a slightly different and significantly less powerful power load, as it was intended for use in low-powered Italian blowback pistols.
In an attempt to make up for the weapon’s poor stopping power, even against the wood-and-canvas biplanes of the era, the Villar Perosa’s rate of fire was astonishingly high, at about 1,500 rounds per minute. Coupled with the Villar Perosa low magazine capacity, reloading would have been quite frequent, reducing the weapon’s effectiveness.
Perhaps in recognition of the weapon’s poor performance against enemy aircraft, the Villar Perosa’s role changed from shooting down biplanes to accompanying Italian troops on the ground as an infantry support weapon, sort of like an immobile Browning Automatic Rifle.
In this role, a large gun shield was fitted around the gun to afford the operator a degree of protection, from enemy fire, though the initial problems with the Villar Perosa remained. Accuracy was very poor due to high muzzle rise caused by the weapon’s absurdly high rate of fire: this video gives a good, slow-motion demonstration of just how inaccurate the weapon would have been. The weapon’s under-powered Glisenti pistol cartridge still lacked adequate stopping power and range, and the Villar Perosa was virtually immobile.
There is even photographic evidence of a Villar Perosa mounted to a bicycle’s handlebars, though if anyone was actually expected to both ride a bicycle and accurately fire the weapon is questionable.
During the waning days of the First World War, the Villar Perosa was more practically split up into two weapons and fitted with a stock and sling to fill a more traditional submachine gun role. Unfortunately for the Villar Perosa, these modifications came too late in the war to ensure its survival as a true submachine gun.
Though the Villar Perosa does hold a unique and special distinction as the world’s first true submachine gun, that is perhaps the only merit it deserves. Heavy, decidedly awkward, and definitely underpowered, the Villar Perosa was not an effective weapon. Still, it makes for an interesting piece of military history.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.