Italian Renditions of Frontier Firearms

Italian renditions of frontier firearms revive top U.S. designs with an old-time fit and finish — affordably!

Italian Renditions of Frontier Firearms

Sergio Leone gets the credit. It was he who, in the 1960s, pioneered profitable “Westerns” filmed in Europe (not just Italy) and produced and directed by Italians. Spanish journalist Alfonso Sanchez may have coined the term “spaghetti Western” to describe these films. (For what it’s worth, the Japanese know the subgenre as “macaroni Western.”) Actors and languages in these films represented many nations; subtitles were common. Filming took place on various sites, but the landform and vegetation of the American Southwest, where many tales were set, had a near match in the Tabernas Desert of southeastern Spain. 

Popular use of the term “spaghetti Western” and the popularity of the films themselves has faded in recent decades, but the Italian connection to firearms of our frontier West has grown stronger on a wave of enthusiasm for period rifles and revolvers. 

Arid, perilous and unforgiving, the frontier took a heavy toll on pilgrims — and on their firearms. 

Pristine specimens of the rifles and sidearms used in the West during the 1870s and ’80s are now scarce, and they fetch steep prices from collectors. Italian reproductions fill a market niche for period arms of new manufacture, strong enough to fire smokeless loads but true to traditional designs and even markings. 

You could trace this renaissance to Leonard Frank Allen, who founded Replica Arms in 1962, in El Paso. His 1847 Colt was produced by Armi San Marco. Selling out in 1965, Allen moved to Santa Fe and started Western Arms — soon to become Allen Arms after a lawsuit by Winchester. Just over a decade later, back in Houston, Mike Harvey opened a sporting goods shop weighted heavily to muzzleloading rifles. This enterprise struggled in the ’80s as oil prices sank. To bolster sales, Harvey joined Allen Arms in a venture to import revolvers from Italy’s Uberti, gunmaker since 1959, and other respected Italian firms.

The first shipments of sidearms disappointed Harvey, a stickler for original form and detailing. He contacted Uberti with specific finishing instructions and insisted on moving required proof marks to less conspicuous places. Antique finishes and period engraving followed. Harvey’s Cimarron Firearms has since expanded its offerings to include not only Colt revolvers, but Remingtons, Smith & Wessons and others. In rifles, it lists faithful reproductions of Sharps, Spencers, Henrys and Winchesters. 

Besides a strong showing at Cowboy Action events, Cimarron rifles and revolvers have appeared in myriad films, including Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove, The Lone Ranger and The Quick and the Dead. Harvey has also commissioned and imported guns made famous on-screen, like Eastwood’s revolvers in Man With No Name and Russell Crowe’s character in 3:10 to Yuma. Cimarron was first with a clone of Tom Selleck’s Sharps rifle from Quigley Down Under.

Cimarron reproduction firearms are suitable for use with modern mid-level smokeless loads, and many are more reliable and shoot more accurately than the originals, thanks to better steel and close-tolerance CNC machining, as well as tweaks to internal design.

Italy is home to the world’s oldest gunmaker. Beretta began producing arquebus barrels in 1526. In 1815, after supplying arms to Napoleon’s army, Pietro Beretta turned the company’s focus to sporting arms. Beretta has owned Benelli Armi SpA (founded 1967) since 2000. Benelli rifles and shotguns come stateside in Accokeek, Maryland, via Stoeger, for Benelli USA. That shingle covers Franchi and Chapuis brands too, as well as reproductions by Uberti. 

Aldo Uberti was born near Gardone Val Trompia, next to Brescia, Italy’s gun-making center. The area had been mined for iron ore since the Roman Empire. Aldo was working as a stock polisher at age 9, and by 14 had enrolled in the Zanardelli gun-making school. He apprenticed at Beretta. 

In WWII, Aldo joined the Italian resistance movement, the Partigiani. Captured by the Nazis, he survived a German concentration camp. After armistice, he returned to the gunmaking trade, later setting up his own shop, Aldo Uberti Srl., to manufacture parts for the industry. In time, he was asked by a couple of U.S. businessmen to make functioning, affordable replicas of Civil War-era firearms, as originals had become scarce and costly. A new market was emerging, fueled by interest in battle re-enactments and in shooting and hunting with firearms of the 1860s to 1880s. Like many Europeans, Aldo was enamored of the Old West. He took on the project.

His first effort was a replica of Colt’s 1851 revolver. Others followed. Aldo’s keen eye for detail and insistence on faithfully reproducing the look, fit and function of originals brought him early success. His 1873 Colt SAA revolvers and Winchester lever rifles got the attention of film director Sergio Leone, and Uberti replicas were soon on the silver screen. His Colt Walker appeared in 1969’s True Grit with John Wayne, and later in the hands of Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales. The 1990 film Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, boasted an all-Uberti cast of firearms. In 1993, Ubertis blasted their way into Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. 

A year after Aldo Uberti died in 1988, the Beretta family bought his company and soon grew the product line. Investments in CNC machines sped manufacture. Capable management under Beretta Holdings has since has increased sales of Uberti-built firearms in the U.S. They’re now imported by Cimarron and Taylor’s (which deal directly with Uberti in Italy), as well as by Benelli USA, whose five-year warranty and dealer-direct sales draw customers. Benelli USA also offers exclusive models, like the English “stalking rifle” in .303 British, designed in-house with input from product manager and history buff Tom Leoni.

Old West Rifles and Reproductions

Two types of “Old West guns” have unmatched pick-me-up appeal: Winchester lever rifles and Colt revolvers. Their origins date to the mid-1800s. Lever-actions evolved from Walter Hunt’s Volitional Repeater of 1849. Cycled by one finger, this rifle fed bullets from an under-barrel tube. Powder in each bullet’s base was fired by external priming. Twice sold, the prototype was improved by Lewis Jennings. After Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson gave it a primed cartridge, 40 investors bought it and established Volcanic Repeating Arms. It failed. One of the group, Oliver Winchester, paid $40,000 for all assets. An 1860 patent by Benjamin Tyler Henry followed. “Fifteen shots in 10 seconds!” crowed Winchester.

The Henry saw limited action in the Civil War, but its fearsome rate of fire spurred developments in repeating rifles. Mass production of interchangeable parts gave both the North and the South great stocks of muzzleloading rifles. Their heavy balls were lethal, but the barrels were slow to recharge. And in the heat of battle, soldiers unwittingly rendered them useless. A report of 27,574 rifles collected after battle noted that 24,000 were charged, half with two loads each, a quarter with “from three to 10 loads.” One rifle had 23! “In some, the ball [was] at the bottom of the bore with the charge of powder on top….” 

The Henry begat the first rifle to wear Winchester’s name: the Model 1866. On its heels came the Model 1873 in .44-40 (.44 W.C.F.), Winchester’s first centerfire cartridge. Sales of this rifle jumped in 1878, when Colt offered its Single-Action Army revolver in .44-40. With one type of ammunition, a man could feed rifle or sidearm, down to his last cartridge. 

Still, as Winchester ’73s sold to the walls, the Army issued 1873 “trapdoor” Springfields, converted with Eskine Allin’s .45-70 breech from muzzleloaders. 

Buffalo hunters also preferred single-shot rifles and their powerful cartridges. William F. Cody became Buffalo Bill with a 50-caliber trapdoor Springfield he called Lucretia Borgia, after the femme fatale in a Victor Hugo play. Shooting for the Army and railroad in 1867 and ’68, he reported killing 4,282 buffalo. Cody liked the ‘73 repeater for “general hunting and Indian fighting,” and used it throughout the 30-year run of his Wild West Show. (When bullets from the Show broke greenhouse glass far from a New York arena, however, he ordered smoothbore ’73s and .44-40 loads with a quarter-ounce of No. 7 shot!) 

Meanwhile, Winchester vice president Thomas Bennett sought a rifle with the power to compete with Remington and Sharps single-shots. In Utah in 1883, he paid young John Browning $8,000 for all rights to a rifle he’d designed and built without blueprints. It became Winchester’s Model 1885. Over the next 17 years, Bennett bought every Browning design, to keep his genius in-house. Browning adapted his single-shot’s vertical-lug lock-up to Winchester’s Model 1886 and short-action 1892. The ’92 became an international hit, selling more than a million copies before the last shipped in 1941. 

The Browning-designed Model 1894, first in .32-40 and .38-55, was soon barreled to .25-35 and .30-30, our first smokeless hunting rounds. The Model 94 would top a production total of seven million before the New Haven plant closed in 2006. Browning’s last rifle for Winchester had a box magazine that permitted safe use of pointed bullets. The Model 1895 could also bottle pressures of powerful smokeless rounds like the .30-06 and .405 Winchester, beloved of Theodore Roosevelt.   

Oddly enough, lever-rifle cartridges dating to blackpowder days remained popular well into the 20th century. Of the 16 most-named cartridges in a 1939 survey of 2,285 elk hunters in Washington state, only four were exclusive to bolt-actions. The rest served lever rifles, some only lever rifles! 

By WWII, all 19th-century Winchester lever rifles except the Model 94 had been discontinued.

(Marlin lever-actions, dating to the Model 1881, had taken a parallel track. The Model 36, progeny of the Model 1893 that battled Winchester’s 94 at market, came in 1937. Marlin’s 336 followed in ’48.)

Serviceable pre-war Winchester lever-actions, unmarred and unaltered, are now pricey. So I was blessed to cradle an original Winchester 1886 one frosty Dakota dawn, bellying through thin pines on a prairie rise. The big, shaggy beast ahead was quartering off, still as a stone, staring as if back into time. I elbowed within 50 yards and quietly thumbed the hammer. The bead settled. Report and impact came as one. I spilled the case and fired again. One more shot, and the animal sank gently to earth, releasing its hold on the past, when the prairie was dark with its kind. Remnant groups of bison thrive on prairie laced with wire, but the vast herds will not return — nor will I shoot another bull.

The .45-70 in hand that day was a very plain 1886, but pristine. My Blue Book of Gun Values prices it at $6,500. Hoo boy! No wonder the rush to imported reproductions!

Short months ago, I hunted with Uberti’s 1886 Hunter Lite reproduction of Winchester’s ’86. Its slender 22-inch barrel keeps weight to just over 7 pounds. The half magazine holds three .45-70 rounds. Uberti hewed closely to John Browning’s original action, refined by ace Winchester mechanic William Mason. Twin vertical bars engage slots to lock the bolt. No need to baby this rifle; Uberti’s ’86 action is stout enough for mid-grade .45-70 loads. The case-colored receiver and blued barrel and action components are well-shaped, polished and finished. The lever accepts my big fingers. Cycling is like spinning greased marbles in races. There’s no rattle in battery. Thumbing the hammer is easy. The trigger breaks cleanly at 4 pounds. 

The middle step of the elevator rib in the drift-adjustable semi-buckhorn rear sight gives me a 50-yard zero when the flat-faced 3/32 “gold” bead settles in the U notch. While I’d like a bit more beef in the comb, the rifle points well. After a few tosses to shoulder, the sights align naturally.

Hawked as “Select, A-grade American Walnut,” the well-fitted wood on my Hunter Lite is plain as a fencepost, if nicely matched in color fore and aft. The checkered pistol grip is open in its sweep, as I like. The smooth forend is pleasingly slim but substantial enough to control. It is properly not snugged to the barrel or tight between receiver and forend cap. A swivel stud on that cap mates with a two-screw QD stud in the buttstock. The black, crisply contoured, 3/4-inch recoil pad is handsome and comfy.

In range trials, the Hunter Lite gobbled loads with hollowpoint, flat-point and Hornady’s pointed FTX bullets. No hiccups. Three of four 300-grain Federal Fusion bullets cut a linear 1-inch group at 50 steps. At 100 yards, three 325-grain FTXs shot into 2¾ inches. More important than bench accuracy in a lever rifle is its handling. The Hunter Lite has a gunny, carnivorous feel, with baton-perfect balance. 

That Uberti followed me to Alberta. For most of a week, big black bears kept to themselves. Then one evening, an enormous rust-hued bear eased from the forest’s shadow, stood on its hind legs and rubbed its back on a naked spruce. I declined the chancy shot. Back on all fours, the animal was instantly gone. Daylight ebbed fast. Suddenly, the beast reappeared. Pale light from the west lit the bead. At the .45-70’s blast, the bear fell, recovered, and dashed off. After a minute’s listen, I moved carefully through the windfall. The bear lay dead a few yards on.

Uberti lists the 1886 Hunter Lite for $2,289.

Another fine Italian reproduction of Winchester’s ’86 crossed my path briefly a few years ago. It came from Taylor’s & Co, launched in 1988 by Sue Hawkins McFarland after she’d worked her way to a management post in Italy’s firearms industry. With daughter Tammy Loy, she keeps the legend alive with high-quality arms from Pietta, Uberti, Pedersoli and Chiappa. Besides Winchesters and Colt SAAs, Taylor’s catalogs reproductions of Henrys, Spencers and 1874 Sharps single-shots, also Colt’s Lightning pump. The 1886 I used had custom touches, including a half-octagon barrel and a Skinner sight on a rail. It tarried with me long enough to kill a whitetail buck.

Old West Sidearms and Reproductions

While rifles had the greater utility, survival on our post-Civil War frontier often hinged on sidearms. James Butler Hickok is said to have shot a felon through the heart at 100 steps with one of his 1851 Colts. Better documented is the path of the .45 bullet that crashed through the back of Wild Bill’s skull as he played cards in Deadwood one August day in 1876. Jack McCall was hauled back to town and hung.

Colt’s SAA revolver roared into a new century, then limped through the Depression. In 1940, Colt dropped it. A second generation of SAAs would appear in 1956 and run until 1975.

Early Colts now come very dear. Blue Book value of a turn-of-the-century SAA in 95% condition: from $17,000! So Italy’s gunmakers are busy. Craftsmen and women who’ve yet to visit the Rockies are building revolvers used half a world away before they were born! In my view, reproductions by Uberti compare favorably in fit, feel and function with the Colts they mimic. In some respects, they’re mechanically superior. 

Italy can also deliver what Colt could not. Example: Uberti’s SAA in 9mm. The 9mm Luger (or 9mm Parabellum or 9x19, circa 1902) has fed service pistols since its adoption by the German Navy and Army in 1904 and ’08. While purists growl that it post-dates the Old West and earned much of its street cred in foreign autoloaders, the 9mm is hugely popular. Legions of loads from every major ammo-maker include some that rival bigger, more violent rounds in terminal effect. Bulk lots of 9mm hardball pull per-cartridge cost well below that of “practice” ammo in .45 Colt, .44-40 or .357 Magnum, even .38 Special.

My Uberti 9mm is of the Cimarron Cattleman series I’d first met in .45 Colt. The 9 boasts a brass grip-frame and guard, case-colored frame, blued cylinder and barrel, walnut stocks. The finely checkered hammer nixes slips without lacerating my thumb. The cylinder isn’t designed for clips. Its six chambers are precisely bored so the rimless 9mm cartridges headspace at the mouth. 

Easing the hammer through its three notches will impress anyone who’s used a range of six-guns. Parts move silkily, with crisp clicks. At the range, my first five sub-sonic Black Hills 147-grain bullets printed a 2½-inch group at 25 yards. As shots that don’t land where fixed sights line up annoy me, I was pleased these bullets struck within 2 inches of point of aim. Another group with the 147s cut a four-shot tear you could hide with a .38-55 hull. Then, on the last shot, I tugged the muzzle down. Arrggh! 

Uberti sells a dual-cylinder 9mm/.357 rendition of this single-action. Of course, you’ll find similar models in traditional chamberings, .45 Colt and .44-40 to the less common .38-40 and .32-20. As with rifles patterned after frontier models, you — or your customers — may find the romance of the Old West is as close as Italy.

Phony on Film?

Hollywood resurrected the post-Civil War frontier for movie-goers, not historians. In 1950, James Stewart and Shelley Winters headlined “Winchester ’73.” The story, directed by Anthony Mann, pivoted on a rifle match set in 1876. But the West wasn’t tamed by Winchesters alone. William Castle gave the 1873 trapdoor Springfield a well-deserved title nod in his 1955 film, “The Gun That Won The West,” starring Dennis Morgan and Paula Raymond. This single-shot rifle equipped the U.S. Army from 1873 to 1892. Its .45-70 bullets tumbled buffalo that shrugged off the anemic loads of early lever-actions. But in John Ford’s “Rio Grande” (also released in 1950), John Wayne fought natives firing rifles not yet invented in 1879. Then came television’s Chuck Connors as “The Rifleman,” jacking a stream of empties from the carbine chattering at his hip with never-miss accuracy. Wayne and Connors both wielded Winchesters introduced in 1892, well after the make-believe action on-screen. But complaints were few. Who wanted to watch heroes or villains fumble cartridges one at a time into a rifle that opened from the top?

Oddly enough, I can’t recall a film eulogy for Colt’s 1873 Single Action Army. Still, it rode the dusty hips of actors from Hopalong Cassidy and Henry Fonda to Clint Eastwood and Kurt Russell. 


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