Avalanche Press Homepage Avalanche Press Online Store



Italy’s Elite Infantry:
The Bersaglieri

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2014

In 1836, the Piedmontese Army adopted light infantry formations similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers. These Bersaglieri, or ”sharpshooters,” wore distinctive black uniforms with peaked hats, each hat trailing a long feather. The brainchild of Alfonso della Marmora, these troops would train to a very high physical standard, and also a high standard of marksmanship.

La Marmora would later hold a series of high commands in the Crimean War and in the 1866 war with Austria. In his vision, the Bersaglieri would act as companies of snipers, as light infantry screening the slow-moving line formations, and as special shock troops for key moments in battle.

La Marmora unveiled his creation during a military parade on 1 July 1836, when his first company stormed through the capital of Turin with the rapid (130 paces per minute), high-stepping gait that still distinguishes the Italian Army’s Bersaglieri battalions today. They made an instant impression on King Carlo Alberto, and became an integral part of the Armata Sarda, the Piedmontese professional army.

When the Armata Sarda transformed into the Esercito Reale Italiano (Royal Italian Army) in 1860, the number of Bersaglieri regiments became fixed at 12. The Bersaglieri battalions at first served as light infantry components of brigades and divisions, but Army doctrine later in the century called for them to be held back as corps-level reserves.

During the First World War, the 12 regiments of Bersaglieri distinguished themselves, especially the four regiments grouped together in the 47th Infantry Division. Of the 210,000 men who served in Bersaglieri regiments, 32,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded.

After the war, Armando Diaz’s reforms reduced the number of Bersaglieri battalions to two per regiment, and envisioned a new role for the light infantry as part of Italy’s commitment to mobile warfare. They would now serve as bicycle troops alongside cavalry in the Celeri, or “fast,” divisions. Gen. Ottavio Zoppi, one of Italy’s forward-thinking theorists of the period between the wars, saw elite units with aggressive spirit as one way to break the tactical stalemate of the Great War. The Bersaglieri, he believed, gave Italy the perfect formations for such a doctrine and an excellent complement to tanks.

The connection between the Bersaglieri and modern warfare continued when Italy formed armored divisions in early 1939. Each division contained one Bersaglieri regiment, as did each of the motorized divisions. All of the mobile divisions were in northern Italy when Mussolini declared war in June 1940, and no Bersaglieri fought in the initial campaigns in Egypt and Libya.

Italy’s Bersaglieri regiments expanded to three battalions each during the Second World War, but the Army resisted temptations to water down their quality, and recruits had to be of above-average size and stamina. They endured intense physical training, just as their great-grandfathers had, and had to qualify as marksmen.

Bersaglieri carried a carbine version of the Italian Army’s standard 6.5mm 1891 model, a good marksman’s rifle but lacking the power of other nations’ weapons. Other equipment was standard except for the machine guns. Bersaglieri had the 8mm Breda M1937, a modern weapon but hampered by being clip- instead of belt-fed. The Breda left no “brass” lying around, as the spent cartridges were re-inserted in the clip as they were fired. Many line units still had the Fiat M1914/35, a modernized Great War veteran.

Bersaglieri fought the French and the Greeks in 1940, but the first Bersaglieri to see combat in North Africa, the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment, crossed to Libya in early 1941 and headed for the front. It met disaster before arriving there, when British tanks ambushed its truck convoys well inside what the regimental staff had been told was the secure rear area.


In all, six of the 12 regiments fought in North Africa, compiling an excellent combat record. More than once, Bersaglieri units fought to the last man to hold a position while German units ran away.

In the two Panzer Grenadier games set in the North African theater, Afrika Korps and Desert Rats, the Bersaglieri are easily the best Italian units depicted, with firepower and range equivalent to German units and usually superior morale. They also have trucks for mobility, but are hampered somewhat through use of the same inadequate 47mm anti-tank gun as other Italian formations. At least they usually have more of them.

There are three flavors of Bersaglieri. One battalion of each regiment rode into battle on motorcycles, much like truly motorized cavalry, and these pieces appear often in the two games’ 100+ scenarios. There are also Bersaglieri infantry and machine gun units. The machine gunners have better firepower than standard Italian pieces not only through their stricter weapons training but also for carrying a better weapon than the line units.

This piece originally appeared in March 2005. You can find an almost identical version (with no attribution to this piece) on another game company's website, but this is the original.

Click here to order Afrika Korps.

Click here to order Desert Rats.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.