Pedro Augustin Guest Post: Inside the Arms Room of the Swiss Guard

Care to step inside and see what's there?

Care to step inside and see what’s there?

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.

portal_and_swiss_flag

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.

Every unit has its anniversary. But what other unit has had a 500th Anniversary?

Every unit has its anniversary. But what other unit has had a 500th Anniversary?

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.

swiss_guard_interior_corridor

The courtyard is steeped in history — but still a living street.

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.

Uniforms ancient and modern... well, mostly ancient.

Uniforms ancient and modern… well, mostly ancient.

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.

A longer shot from about the same position as the last, showing some of the vintage edged weapons and armor.

A longer shot from about the same position as the last, showing some of the vintage edged weapons and armor.

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.

Helmet...check. Armor... check... Where's your reflective belt, Devil Dog?

Helmet…check. Armor… check… Where’s your reflective belt, Devil Dog? Each cuirass and helm has its place on the rack. Note the 19th and 20th Century helmets on the top shelf. This type of crested helmet is called a morion.

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.

Straigt-on view of the helmets and armor. As Augustin notes, this unit's been around a long time -- for about 1/4 as long as Christianity itself.

Straigt-on view of the helmets and armor. As Augustin notes, this unit’s been around a long time — for about 1/4 as long as Christianity itself. Far left helmet on the top shelf, set slightly apart, is the German’s who surrendered it, himself, and his MP.40 in 1944.

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.

In the foreground, you can see the MP.40 mentioned above. You can also see

In the foreground, you can see the MP.40 mentioned above. You can also see Hispano-Suiza Mp. 34 licensed copies of Finnish Suomi submachine guns (low left), Martini-Henry Remington-patent Pontifical Rolling Block rifles (top center), what look like Mauser 98s (below the Martinis), and on the right, in the light-colored birch stocks, the special run of 100 Schmidt-Rubin K31 Short Rifles made expressly for the Swiss Guard.

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.

This is the rack of SIG MKMO/MKPO submachine guns. Extremely rare, only 1,225 or so were made. Designed by Pál Király with his usual lever-delayed blowback design. (In fact, these guns could easily be mistaken for Hungarian Danuvia K-39, one of Kiraly's greatest successes).

This is the rack of SIG MKMO/MKPO submachine guns. Extremely rare, only 1,225 or so were made. Designed by Pál Király with his usual lever-delayed blowback design. (In fact, these guns could easily be mistaken for Hungarian Danuvia K-39, one of Kiraly’s greatest successes).

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:
http://www.guardiasvizzera.va/content/guardiasvizzera/en/storia/mercenari-svizzeri.html

A Guns.com story on the Swiss Guard armory:
http://www.guns.com/2014/04/13/guns-swiss-guard/

Update

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.

40 thoughts on “Pedro Augustin Guest Post: Inside the Arms Room of the Swiss Guard

    1. JT Coyote

      The rifles of note that seem to have been overlooked in the several photos and references in this article are the Swiss M-1864/67 Milbank-Amsler, and the M-1867 Swiss Peabody, the latter being the immediate predecessor to the British Martini-Henry which sprang from the hands of Swiss armorer Frederick von Martini. The other missing notables are the M-1869/70, 1871/78 and 1881 Swiss Vetterli Rifles which along with the late Milbank and the Peabody were chambered in 10,4x38Rmm Swiss rim-fire. These were pivotal Arms in the early development of breech-loading firearms not only for Switzerland, but the world.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Thanks for your comment. You sound very familiar with Swiss small arms history.

        Is it possible´that the Pontifical Swiss Guard fell behind these Swiss national developments? In the early 20th Century, they were playing catch-up, after neglecting military developments for years, according to the references.

        If the Vatican used the firearms you mention, it’s possible that the Swiss Guard does not keep representative samples in their arsenal, for whatever reason.

        1. JT Coyote

          It very well could be a lag behind situation given the fact that the Swiss Guard’s function has become over the centuries and remains largely ceremonial. Thus, keeping up with the “Armament Jones'” wouldn’t be necessary and changes would occur only during times of threat or possible turmoil.

          You might assume for the sake of national identity unless over ruled by the VC, that the arms used would be of Swiss issue .

          This article, as with any well done exploration opens up new avenues of inquiry and research.

          Thank you.

          JT

  1. Samuel Leoon Suggs

    I love how they repurposed the thunder mug (signaling device) in the lower left corner of this picture as a halberd holder.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Great link, and what a fine gift the padre’s readers gave the young trooper. I wasn’t aware that the guys had custom armor; I guess the stuff in the racks includes spares and loaners.

    2. Pedro Augustin

      Kerry,
      I didn’t see that, but was a neat gem after a quick search. Great eye, and use of the Guards old gear.
      Cheers,

  2. whomever

    Wasn’t Pope Francis recently reported to have said that gun manufacturers can’t be Christian? You’d think he’d want to get rid of all those heathen guns.

  3. Cattus Borealis

    On a side note,

    The Swiss Guard have a fitting monument in Lucerne.

    Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti

    Swiss Guard Monument in Switzerland.
    The Swiss Guard of King Louis XVI was massacred by the Parisians in 1792.

    1. Pedro Augustin

      Cattus,
      That’s a beautiful piece of art, I did not know of it. Thanks for posting.
      Cheers,

    2. Vincent Russo

      My girl friend Helen and I ( Vinny ) was at this place where this Lion was carved in the mountain. There is a story about the person who carved this lion not being paid and went on to carve this frame of a pig around the lion. You can see the ear, snout and the tail of the pig.

  4. TRX

    Years ago, one of the IT industry magazines mentioned that the Vatican had the world’s only ATM machine with Latin menus.

    My local pharmacy has a customer-side POS terminal with a dual-language selection button. I had used it a few times before I noticed that the selections weren’t English and Spanish.

    They were English and Esperanto…

    The clerk was curious about why I was amused, but I think I lost her while trying to explain what Esperanto is.

  5. Mike_C

    Thank you, Hognose, and especially thank you “Pedro” for the fascinating story and photos. Am I the only one who didn’t even notice the toddler in the stroller (in the photo with the two-handed greatswords and flamberges/Flammenschwert in the foreground) on the first viewing?

    1. Cap'n Mike

      I didn’t see him either.
      How could he sleep with all that weapon porn going on around him.

      Those guys sure understand the spirit of the bayonet.

      1. Sommerbiwak

        Spirit of the halberd. They are swiss after all. ;)

        I wonder if they still train drills with the old cold weapons?

        And thanks “Pedro” for reporting and hognose for publishing it.

    2. Pedro Augustin

      That would be Lil’ Augustin. He was overwhelmed by the trip and day, and his nap allowed me to take in more guns with fewer tears. The Guards do train with the halberds, but it sounded more ceremonial/drill than combatives. Similar to the Old Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, I wouldn’t want to horse around any unit that maintains edged weapons. Professionals, indeed.

    1. Kerry

      In his book, Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War 2, author Stephen Halbrook makes the very salient point that of all the countries in Europe, only Switzerland had no central authority figure who could surrender the country. It’s a terrific read. The General in charge of the defense repeated said if you hear ordered to surrender, they are false! “We will fight to the last man, and the last bullet”. It is, I believe, in the same book mention is made of our Founders awareness of the Swiss system on cantons.

      1. JT Coyote

        Kerry,

        Yes, a Swiss style system of defense was proposed and debated continually after the hot war with the globalists was over by 1783. The ideas and processes of liberty prevailed and were finally fashioned and ratified exactly 224 years ago today, December 15, 1791, with the following 27 words…

        A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

        The wording and punctuation above is exactly as ratified by the States and authenticated by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

        JT

  6. AuricTech

    “Helmet…check. Armor… check… Where’s your reflective belt, Devil Dog?”

    Who needs a reflective belt when you have reflective armor? ;-)

  7. staghounds

    Thank you for this tour, I envy your getting to meet and visit with the guardsmen. I had a similar look in with the Garde Republicaine a few years ago, something to see!

    I’d be interested to know what those (possibly) Mausers on the bottom of the carrousel are, and how they are marked.

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