The Swiss Guard are the elite guard force of Vatican City. Familiar to tourists for their colorful uniforms, they’re also a modern guard and defense force — and the last vestige of a lost Swiss tradition of providing mercenaries to foreign sovereigns.
A WeaponsMan.com reader who prefers to be pseudonymous, and who happens to have two qualifications the Swiss Guard respect — he’s a practicing Catholic, as they are, and a US Marine Embassy Guard, a protective duty much like theirs — was invited to visit their arms room. It may be the only working arms room in the world where weapons from several centuries are maintained in constant readiness, whether for a routine ceremonial guard mount or to respond to a terrorist attack.
Without further ado, here is the report from “Pedro Augustin” (pseud). –Ed.
I recently returned from a trip to the Eternal City with my wife’s family and was able to make a tour that I thought you might enjoy hearing about. Being a Marine with a similar duty, I had a special interest in seeing the barracks of my counterparts in the Vatican — so when my brother-in-law said he could get us and a tour of the armory of the world’s oldest continuously operating army — I jumped at the chance.
We met a Vice Corporal at the gate on a busy Roman street. Walking through, I watched eager tourists obviously interested in our entrance into the gate. Vatican City’s Porta Sant’Anna is not a public gate, after all. We were ushered past the crowds, guard at the front desk office, surrounded by unknown flags and colorful uniforms.
We entered a courtyard, where water flowed into an ancient Roman sarcophagus which pre-dated Constantine. While my home state of Virginia possesses some of America’s first artifacts, the age of this courtyard’s residents and history was visible in every way.
The Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, or Pontifical Swiss Guard, has operated continuously for over 509 years. This reinforced company sized unit is composed of 110 men. They are led by a commandant and three officers, 1 SNCO and 25 NCO’s. The courtyard was draped with large flags representing the different states in Switzerland. Blonde children were running around the courtyard, in a quiet respite from Rome’s busy streets, just on the other side of the walls.
The army of Vatican City is perhaps best known for their ceremonial duties, but they also perform body-guard duties comparable to our U.S. Secret Service (they perform a blend of both uniform and special agent division duties). Personal security of the pope is split between the Vatican Police and Swiss Guard.
We crossed the courtyard into a building and were led down a short staircase. Inside the barracks, the Swiss Guards have their own tailor shop to fabricate the soldiers’ entire repertoire of uniforms. Their famous “Gala Uniforms” take 40 hours per solider to create. I saw two different uniforms in service that day, which we learned both have summer and winter-weight versions. They also wear suits, depending on the post. I thought Marines had a lot of uniforms until seeing their uniform list, both ceremonial and utility. No fatigues or camouflage, but quite a number of service and dress variations. They also have their own music corps of talented musicians.
I was surprised that we were led into the armory, and without all the usual tell-tale signs of a leatherneck’s iteration. It was clear that this was not the storehouse of (all) their modern weapons, but it was a functioning armory nonetheless. Given the unit’s age, it is no small collection.
The armory had halberds, swords, bayonets the length of swords, two-handed swords, a blunderbuss that must have weighted 40 lbs, and bolt-, semi-, and automatic weapons used throughout their history. There were also the traditional medieval sets of armor that they are famous for, weighing close to 40lb each. These armor suits are still worn daily. It amazed me how far we have come in both personal protection and weapon technologies, and that one organization experienced these many developments first hand. Remarkable.
I was only able to identify two weapons from sight- the pair of Sig 550’s and an MP40. (We can plug those gaps for him — Ed.) The latter was surrendered at the end of WWII by a Nazi soldier whose unit besieged the Vatican during the war. Shortly before Rome was abandoned by the Germans, he turned himself over to the Swiss Guards. The unnamed soldier’s weapon and helmet are still kept there in pristine condition alongside the Swiss weapons. If the weapons in that room could talk, I can only imagine the tales they would tell.
There were SMGs, carbines, rifles, though there was a conspicuous lack of pistols from any time period. One carbine was short and looked slightly odd, though I didn’t quite know why at first. I later learned it was a SIG MKPO, with a unique folding magazine. Another reminded me of a Marlin .22 from my younger days, but was elaborately engraved. Some of side-mounted bayonets were shorter (not terribly, though) than the Marine NCO sword. Axes, clubs, and various poled-weapons also filled some space.
The armory was a beauty that readers of Weaponsman would appreciate- the orderly presentation of such beautifully preserved weapons from bygone eras. I was also struck at how well everything was kept- there wasn’t a spot of rust to be seen anywhere. Edged weapons, armor, firearms were all in pristine condition, including the beautiful engravings on the many wood-stocked firearms. It certainly was a different place than a Marine armory.
Requirements to join the Swiss Guards are strict: one must be of Swiss nationality, Catholic, of good character, and already a member of the Swiss army. The Vice Corporal noted that Pope Francis has used the Swiss Guards more than his predecessors, and their increased operational tempo reflects this. While they are recruiting to add to their ranks, my brother-in-law (at 10 years old, Catholic, not Swiss and not a member of any army) was denied an application.
New members take their oath on 6 May, to commemorate the fighting when Rome was sacked in 1527. With the city under siege and attack, the Swiss Guards fought a delaying action to grant the pope time to travel via tunnel from Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo, about one kilometer. Of 189 Swiss Guards, only 42 survived. They succeeded in getting Pope Clement VII to safety, and commemorate this each year with the swearing-in ceremony. There were some peculiarities of the unit- they are not allowed to marry until they reach a certain time in service, possess the proper rank, and an apartment is available inside Vatican City, where residence there is a requirement. The entire Guard must be fluent in Italian and Swiss German (distinctly different from German, which I did not know), and English lessons are highly encouraged. Others spoke French and/or Spanish. The Vice Corporal who led us was conversant in half a dozen languages. I’m sure Hognose had a different experience than I did, but I couldn’t imagine a Marine unit with that much linguistic skill and depth.
(To answer the implied question here — SF units have linguistic skills, but they tend to be regionally focused, unlike the Swiss Pontifical Guard which has a global mission. Any grunt company in the Army — and probably the Marines as well — can give you speakers of English, Spanish, and a couple other languages. But it’s pot luck what languages you get in the conventional forces, because it’s just a result of immigrants or first-generation American-born kids of immigrants enlisting. SF’s language training is more systematic, but then, theirs is more of a face-to-face than shoot-em-in-the-face mission. –Ed).
After the armory, we went back to the courtyard for the conclusion and return trip to the hotel. It was quite interesting to see how different and similar their military is to my experience in the Marines. Some things never change for soldiers, no matter the time or place. The visit certainly gave me much to reflect on, for my time in Marines, the Swiss Guards, and other militaries before us.
For More Information
The Swiss Guard official page: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/swiss_guard/swissguard/divisa_en.htm
Another (official or not? We don’t know) Vatican page:
A Guns.com story on the Swiss Guard armory:
This post has been corrected. An erroneous reference to Martini-Henry rifles in the second to last photo caption has been altered to show that they are special rifles made on the Remington Rolling Block patent for the Pontifical Guard in the late 1800s. Thanks to the several commenters who pointed this out (and provided links to some great photographs of these rifles.