Most U.S. shooters don’t recognize the BM59. Mine, which I’ve had at the range over the years, has been at a local gunshop—the owner wanted to compare it with a BM59 he had just taken in. I can only think of one instance when someone had come up and said, “Wow, a BM59!” Generally, observers think it’s either an M14 or, if they know M14s are Class III weapons, an M1A. Occasionally, someone thinks it’s a Garand converted to take a magazine, which isn’t all that far off.
The post–World War II Italian Army was equipped with the U.S. M1 Garand. In some cases, they were refurbished by Beretta. Later, Beretta actually produced them. Some consider Beretta-made Garands among the best. However, once NATO adopted the 7.62x51mm in the mid-1950s, other European armies were fielding more-modern battle rifles such as Heckler and Koch’s G3 and the FN FAL. To meet Italian demand for more-modern rifles, Beretta created the BM59 by making some modifications to the Garand while retaining as many of its parts as possible. Among those modifications were incorporating a magazine well to take a 20-round detachable box magazine, converting to select fire, building in a flash suppressor/grenade launcher (often designated a tri-compensator) and adding a grenade-launcher sight that, when raised, automatically cuts off the gas valve.
After its adoption in 1959, various models of the BM59 were created: the standard BM59 Mk I had a wooden stock similar to that of the Garand; the BM59 Mk II had a wooden stock that incorporated a pistol grip for better control when firing in full auto; the BM59 Mk III Alpini was designed for Alpine troops and incorporated a folding stock with a pistol grip (a paratrooper model had the same stock but a shorter barrel and shorter flash suppressor); and the BM59 Mk IV had a heavier barrel, polymer stock and was intended to serve as a squad automatic weapon. Many of these versions were equipped with a bipod.
In the early 1970s, I had a chance to fire a standard BM59 Mk I in Italy and liked it. The selector switch was on the left side of the receiver and allowed the shooter to select between semi- or full-auto fire. I had also fired a squad automatic versions in Nigeria and Indonesia, two places where BM59s were manufactured under license. The Alpini and Para models looked intriguing to me, so when I found out that the semi-auto versions had come to the U.S., I looked for them. I was unsuccessful, and then the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban went into effect. But along the way, I did pick up a BM62, and a couple of years ago, a friend who had been charged with selling his uncle’s firearms collection offered me the semi-auto BM59 Alpini—I jumped on it.
A limited number (an estimated 200) of Beretta-produced BM59 semi-autos were imported into the U.S. It’s believed that Springfield Armory also imported some unfinished Beretta semi-auto receivers and assembled some BM59s on them. (The Springfield BM59s should have serial numbers below 4,000.) The BM62, which lacked the tri-compensator but had a fancier stock, was designed as a semi-auto “sporter” for export. A BM69 was also designed as a semi-auto export model and retained most of the BM59 Mk I’s features.
Additionally, there are versions of the BM59 that were produced (using parts kits) in the U.S. as re-manufactured M1 Garands. Since Beretta military rifles were primarily re-manufactured Garands, this does not make the U.S.-produced Garands completely undesirable. However BM59s from different re-manufacturers vary quite a bit in quality. Those from Springfield are generally quite good, and my National Ordance re-manufactured BM59 Alpini has performed well, though it doesn’t take the BM59 bipod since it uses a Garand gas cylinder instead of the Beretta BM59’s. It does, however, have the true Beretta BM59 Mk III folding stock.