History teaches us that the past is never forgotten
Some modern airguns with their roots in the 19th century
By Dennis Adler
As a handgun owner, long before I began writing about handguns as an occasional columnistforGuns & Ammo over 20 years ago, back when Garry James was editor, my interests were mainly historic firearms, (same as Garry), and that is what I wrote about in G&A, as well as in my first gun book, published in 1998, on the history of Colt’s 2nd and 3rd generation black powder guns. A dozen gun books later, on subjects as varied as Winchester shotguns, guns of the Civil War, guns of the American West, cartridge conversions of Civil War era black powder guns, and the history of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co., my interests have never changed; so in my mind, modern handguns are essential to modern times, but historic guns are quintessential to handgun history, and to a great extent, American history.read more
The other day a friend asked what got me into collecting replica air pistols? I thought the answer was obvious from my recent Retrospect articles on the Umarex Walther CP99, but as it turns out that really isn’t the case. At the time, 2001, when the First Edition Blue Book of Airguns was published, I wasn’t an airgun collector, I had a few but I was a gun collector; air pistols were not something I had developed an interest in acquiring; remember, this is almost 20 years ago.
The First Edition Blue Book of Airguns was simply an editorial project for me as Special Projects Editor for Blue Book Publications. The book was, in fact, a collaborative effort between me, publisher Steve Fjestad, and the inspiration for the book in the first place, Dr. Robert D. Beeman. So to honestly answer the question, “What got me into collecting replica air pistols? I would have to look back at the actual centerfire guns I was collecting 20 years ago.read more
You would think that if all these 1911 CO2 models share the same parts internally andvariations of the same parts externally, and use the same CO2 BB magazines, that they would all shoot the same and have average velocities that are very close. But there are differences from the sights to the trigger designs and trigger pull weights. All of these can lead to differences in accuracy, as they should, that’s why 1911 sights, triggers, recoil springs, and slide and frame interfaces, have been improved upon over the years for centerfire models. A gun that is based on an early design, like the Tanfoglio Witness, Swiss Arms 1911 A-1, and John Wayne 1911 A-1 WWII commemorative have the oldest design features and those will have an effect on accuracy for most shooters. (I say most because there are some people who can pick up any gun and instinctively hit their target.)
Swiss Arms doesn’t make a .45 ACP 1911 and both the Colt Commander and John Wayne are more or less made up guns, while the Springfield Armory MIL-SPEC and the Sig Sauer WTP are based on existing centerfire models. That doesn’t necessarily make them better guns but certainly more interesting to those who may have the centerfire counterparts.
Internally the same basic parts are used for the CO2 firing systems because they are all using the same CO2 BB magazine designs, but there can be subtle differences in the air nozzles, air nozzle restrictors, magazine valve releases, and other parts. Technically, they should all be about equal. In my comparative tests of the five models shown in this series of articles, however, the average velocity has not been the same, close, but not consistent between guns.
The John Wayne averaged 303 to 309 fps. The Umarex Colt Commanders average is 300 to 312 fps and average velocity for the Swiss Arms TRS is 304 to 309 fps, all pretty close but under advertised “up to” 314 to 320 fps claims (the TRS is listed as 314 fps). Currently the Sig Sauer WTP has consistently shot steel BBs at between 329 and 338 fps making it the highest velocity 1911 CO2 model with a factory claimed “up to” velocity of 340 fps. The new Springfield Armory has a factory rating of 320 fps and tested at an average of 314 fps, but is about the most consistent gun I have shot with 10 rounds clocking 314, 313, 313, 317, 315, 314, 314, 314, 313, and 314 fps, which puts it in second place.
Parts isn’t parts…because there are different combinations of parts that, while all looking the same, may have different levels of quality or construction and perform a little better. The emphasis is really on items like the air nozzles, air nozzle restrictors and magazine valve releases. I can’t say which ones are made differently without going to the manufacturers, but I can say through empirical evidence which ones work better, generate higher velocities, have better triggers, and are more accurate. And price isn’t always the reason.
Recap of velocity from top to bottom:
Sig Sauer WTP 329 to 338 fps
Air Venturi Springfield Armory MIL-SPEC 313 to 317 fps
Umarex Colt Commanders 300 to 312 fps
Swiss Arms TRS 304 to 309 fps
Air Venturi John Wayne 303 to 309 fps
Now, the question is, do the magazines have anything to do with this? I put the new Springfield mag into the Swiss Arms TRS, which previously had shot a best 309 fps with the Swiss Arms magazine, and the gun delivered a velocity range of 313 fps to 318 fps with an average of, you guessed it, 314 fps, the same as the Springfield Armory MIL-SPEC. Now, what would the Sig Sauer WTP magazine (the gun with the highest velocity) do in a gun like the Swiss Arms TRS? Let’s find out. There’s a surprise. First, felt recoil on the Swiss Arms model increased by at least 10 percent over the Springfield and Swiss Arms magazines. Second, average velocity increased from 304 to 309 fps up to 310 to 314 fps; just a slight bump in velocity with a bigger bump in felt recoil. I put the WTP magazine (after 10 rounds through the Swiss Arms TRS) back in the Sig which broke its own previous record of 329 to 338 fps with a new high for a 1911 CO2 model of 338 to 348 fps. So, the best combination of magazine and gun delivers the highest velocity, and that appears to be the Sig Sauer 1911 WTP. But one last magazine swap, the WTP into the Springfield. The MIL-SPEC did the same 314 fps average as before, so the Sig magazine works best in the Sig, helps the others a bit, but it is not the magazine alone making a difference.
MSRP’s from the Colt to the WTP vary from $119.95 to $159.99 but actual selling prices tell the story. The Colt Commander sells for $109.95, the Sig Sauer WTP goes for an amazingly low $99.99, the John Wayne, with the highest MSRP (licensing rights to the John Wayne name and signature cost), actually has been reduced from $119.99 to a special discount of $79.99 (making it the best buy on a per dollar basis), while the Swiss Arms TRS sells for $109.95. The Springfield, which has not been officially released, will have to fall into that price range to be competitive between $99.99 and $119.95.
The same guns from the same design parts, when assembled to the specifications of their respective brands, are not the same guns in the end. Sig Sauer labored over the details of the WE THE PEOPLE to deliver a best in category gun against some pretty tough competition. The Springfield Armory MIL-SPEC, for its combination of features, comes in second overall for velocity. As a gun combining original Colt design, an upgrade in sights from military to white dot, and being a duplicate of a .45 ACP production gun (like the Sig Sauer WTP), it comes in a solid second to the Sig. It is a new contender but not a new champion until we see what happens downrange.
At the end of day three with the Springfield Armory 1911 MIL-SPEC, it has proven itself to be a solid competitor to the Sig Sauer WTP in terms of velocity, second best and better than the remaining three. It will now come down to handling and accuracy to pick a number 1 and number 2 between the MIL-SPEC and WTP.
In part 4 trigger comparisons and accuracy at 21 feet.read more
There are two types of blowback action 1911 CO2 models, those that follow the John Browning design and have fully functioning slide and barrel interfaces, removable (drop free) self-contained CO2 BB magazines, and true operating features such as thumb safeties, slide releases, grip safeties and correctly designed SAO triggers. And then there are those that don’t, and use what I call short, short-recoil designs, are not field strippable, have a separate CO2 compartment in the grip frame and load BBs with a stick magazine. However nice they may look from the outside, they are not in the same league with CO2 models like the new Springfield Armory 1911 A-1 MIL SPEC.
Among the top 1911 CO2 models today are the Swiss Arms lines, represented here by the top of the line TRS tactical Rail Gun model (top left) with ambidextrous extended thumb safeties, flat mainspring housing, Delta-style skeletonized hammer, skeletonized trigger, front and rear slide serrations, palmswell beavertail grip safety, and white dot combat sights. Facing that model is the Air Venturi John Wayne 1911 A-1 WWII commemorative signature model, which is the basic Tanfoglio (and Swiss Arms) design based on the early c.1924-1925 updates to the original J.M. Browning design, with spur hammer, short trigger, early short thumb safety, and military sights. The accented weathered finish is the final touch. But, like the Umarex Colt Commander (lower left) it uses the (use your own terms, mine is distracting and unnecessary) S F arrow on the safety, which is my personal vexation. Getting to the Colt Commander, this gun has combat sights similar to the Swiss Arms TRS, a Delta-style skeletonized hammer and skeletonized trigger, and in case you missed it, the same lanyard lop at the base of the grip frame. What it doesn’t have is an equally updated ambidextrous safety (instead using an old pre-WWII design), the flat mainspring housing, and palmswell beavertail safety. At lower right is the best built of the group, the Sig Sauer WTP 1911, which is based on Sig’s centerfire model of the same unique design. While some of the features seem to be taken from the Swiss Arms and Umarex models, Sig has put its own stamp on this gun with unique ambidextrous safeties, the unusual external extractor used on the centerfire models, a specific skeletonized hammer and trigger design matching the .45 ACP model, a more pronounced palmswell beavertail grip safety, and white dot combat sights that are larger than those used on other CO2 models. Like the exterior finish and markings, the WTP is the perfect example of how far a manufacturer can go to create a unique design while still working from the same platform. That brings us to the new Springfield Armory MIL SPEC, which, if you compare it to the others is closest to the Air Venturi John Wayne and the Tanfoglio Witness (not shown) models, and it has the S F arrow small thumb safety. What helps set it apart are the white dot sights, special grips, and plated barrel bushing. The question is what level of internal parts upgrades, accuracy, and overall quality will the Springfield bring to the table?
This Springfield MIL SPEC, however, is not unique, but rather the latest in a series of 1911 CO2 models dating back to 2014, that share nearly identical internal designs, CO2 operation, and the same design self-contained CO2 BB magazines (so yes, the magazines are all interchangeable between guns). The only things that separate the guns are exterior aesthetics, meaning the design of the trigger, hammer, thumb safeties, sights, and grips. Otherwise, they are all the same gun underneath. Rather than relate each of the guns and their features in the body of this article, I am going to show the differences and expand the photo captions to cover all the bases.
Everyone uses the same self-contained CO2 BB magazine. But, not all of the magazines are built the same way for each manufacturer! Swiss Arms, Umarex and Springfield Armory magazines have a slightly different design.
The best magazines for ease of loading BBS come from Swiss Arms, Umarex and Springfield, which all use a magazine with a locking follower. If you shoot a lot you know the value of that little catch.
Time and change
As I have noted in the past, Umarex was the first to introduce a Colt Model 1911 with blowback action and self-contained CO2 BB magazine. A Colt licensed product, Umarex named the full-size Government Model air pistol the Colt Commander, which was actually the name Colt gave to its post WWII design fitted with a shorter slide and 4.25 inch barrel. So it wasn’t exactly the right name for the air pistol. They also went with a more modern design for the hammer, trigger, and white dot sights, making it this CO2 offering more of an upgraded 1911 version. The finish was (and remains) a light gloss black. This gun, however, is the literal foundation for all the 1911 CO2 models that have come, and you will see parts of this gun in other CO2 models, as well as newer and older WWII era versions all based on the same platform and essentially made by the same manufacturers in Taiwan for Umarex, Sig Sauer, Swiss Arms, Tanfoglio, Remington, and other brand names, including the new Springfield Armory 1911 MIL SPEC.
This is where a lot of difference between guns becomes evident. From left to right, your basic design as used for the Air Venturi John Wayne, as well as the Tanfoglio Witness and Swiss Arms 1911 A-1 models, with traditional checkered arched mainspring housing, original grip safety, and military sights. To the right, is the new Springfield Armory model which has the same grip frame design, spur hammer, and grip safety, but is fitted with white dot sights, which will unquestionably improve accuracy. The Umarex Colt Commander in the middle is the same basic grip frame but with a later style grip safety, smaller Delta-style skeletonized hammer, and larger white dot combat sights. The Umarex is well known for its accuracy. Upgrade the design with the more popular flat mainspring housing, palmswell grip safety, ambidextrous extended thumb safeties, and white dot sights that are again unique to this model, compared to the Springfield or Umarex, and you have the Swiss Arms TRS. Last, kick everything up another notch with even better white dot combat sights, unique ambidextrous thumb safeties, flat mainspring housing and a more aggressive palmswell grip safety, and you have the Sig Sauer WE THE PEOPLE. They all start with the same platforms yet each is unique in its final design.
That being the facts, there are specific exceptions to everything I have just written because individual retailers, companies like Sig Sauer, Colt, Swiss Arms, Tanfoglio, Springfield Armory and others have their own set of standards and features for their guns, so they are different not only in finishes and features, but sometimes in how well they perform. This is also true in the centerfire market where certain manufacturers of frames, slides, barrels and other components that make up a 1911 offer different levels of quality and features to meet a specific price range.
Is it window dressing or is there a tangible difference in how the guns work. Except for the Swiss Arms TRS (second from left) these CO2 models use the same frame, the Swiss Arms and Sig Sauer with flat mainspring housings. The rest are 1911 A-1 versions with the arched mainspring housings. They all have identical blowback actions that lock back on an empty magazine and all have some style of white lettering for safety warnings and manufacturer’s marks. Swiss Arms, Umarex and Springfield use polished and plated external barrels with the .177 caliber steel CO2 barrel recessed from the muzzle. The aesthetics of the individual guns are what make them different; one more or less desirable than another. For a basic WWII-era gun, the Air Venturi John Wayne as well as the Tanfoglio Witness, Swiss Arms 1911 A-1 and Remington 1911RAC (not shown) are the closest to a military style but all have distracting graphics. Except for bands and markings all three are the exact same gun made from the same parts. The most highly detailed of the group is the Sig Sauer WTP followed by the new Air Venturi Springfield Armory MIL SPEC. The details of fit, finish and construction are what separate these guns and some have proven to be more accurate and easier to handle than the others. Where the Springfield fits into this group is what we will explore in the next articles. But you can tell a lot from the pictures when you begin doing visual comparisons.
Inside out the CO2 models all fieldstrip the same as a centerfire pistol (though with a lot less effort against the recoil spring’s resistance. Rather than utilizing the original J.M. Browning designed toggle link to anchor the barrel to the frame with the slide release pin, the pin passes through a fixed barrel lug hole that is screwed to the barrel.
Some 1911 CO2 brands, and we will use Tanfoglio and Swiss Arms as an example, want early-style 1911 designs as well as updated 1911 A-1 versions, and completely updated 21st century Rail Gun variations, while others, like Umarex, tend to stay with one model plus an occasional Limited Edition version. This is truer of companies that are licensed to produce a brand name like Colt. But the 1911 design is not protected by any patent today, just the Colt name, so anyone can build a 1911-style model. And just about everyone does, whether it is a centerfire gun or a blowback action air pistol.
Authenticity to a point; can you use actual 1911 grips on the CO2 models? The answer is no. This pair of Colt 1911 A-1 diamond pattern grips line up perfectly with the frame and screw holes but cannot fit flush to the grip frame because of the added contour to fit the CO2.
There is a bowed shape to the lower third of the grip frame to accommodate the round CO2 cylinder. This is easily disguised by the plastic grips that come with the guns that are molded to fit over the rise up the center. Depending upon the wood grips chosen, it is possible to reshape the inside of the wood panel to fit over the rise and onto the grip frame. Everything else is the same as a centerfire model and the panels will fit the CO2 model once modified.
The number of 1911 manufacturers today is too long to list here, but suffice to say you can find a 1911 from almost every American armsmaker covering original 1911-era designs, 1911 A-1 designs, models that combine 1911 and 1911 A-1 features, as well as more modern Rail Guns and tactical models. Today it is the same with the CO2 models and, like the centerfire semi-autos, they all begin with a common platform.
As the latest addition to the group, the Springfield Armory MIL SPEC is one of the best looking with an extremely well done slide, and modest white letter warnings on the frame. Well copied from the .45 ACP MIL SPEC model, the grips are a standout feature. And since the centerfire model has the same Parkerized finish, the matte black look on the CO2 model is as right as can be, and the same for the white dot sights. Overall, it is a very authentic looking airgun.
Next week, we’ll get into the performance and handing of the Springfield Armory model.
A word about safety
Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.read more
Back in the 1970s and 1980s Crosman was already building some authentic looking CO2 air pistols based on the then very popular Colt Python models. While long before air pistols with swing out cylinders and BB or pellet loading cartridges, these early CO2 models helped set the wheels into motion for the impressive CO2 wheelguns and semi-autos we have today. (Photo courtesy Blue Book Publications)
It is a nice August afternoon, sunny but not abusively hot, a light breeze and the perfect day to set up some paper targets in the backyard and have some fun shooting an air pistol. If that sounds far and away from my usual “this is a must have training gun” style, it’s because some days you just want to have some fun with no agenda, in fact, this is what air pistols (and air rifles) were meant for. Thanks to a very industrious airgun industry that begins with some very intriguing CO2 air pistols developed in the 1970s and 1980s by Crosman, which were copies of Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Walther models, (with a really heavy emphasis on Colt), the wheels of industry were already in motion for what we see today from Umarex, ASG, Sig Sauer, and others, who build air pistols that not only look and feel authentic, but work in much the same way as the actual centerfire pistols they are based upon.
One of the longest lived semi-auto handguns in the world, (as in still being manufactured after more than 100 years) is the Colt Model 1911, offered today in its many versions as a CO2 model. This example, based on the pre WWII 1911A1 design introduced in 1925, is sold under the Swiss Arms and Tanfoglio names. The custom weathered blued finish was done by the author. (Western 1911 holster by Garcia Bros. Spain)
We have the best of the best today in blowback action semi-autos, and while authenticity is a driving force, most of these air pistols are just plain fun to shoot. On a day like today I can say I have five, what I call “default” air pistols to pick up and shoot just for fun, to target shoot and kick some soup cans around. Some of you may have the very same air pistols, (and even for the very same reason), so here are my top five, right up to the minute.
New isn’t always number 1
Among the earliest blowback action models developed was the Colt Model 1911A1. Umarex was first out of the chute with the Commander model, which is probably a staple of almost every contemporary airgun collection, but it is an updated combat design, and as most of you who have read Airgun Experience the last few years know, I lean toward older gun designs from the early to mid 20th century, and of course, Colt and other single action revolvers from the 19th century.
Crosman was among the first airgun manufacturers to have a CO2 model based on the Colt Peacemaker, but these 21st century models from Umarex, with custom hand engraving by Adams & Adams for Pyramyd Air, are truly as authentic as an air pistol can be. The standard nickel finished 5-1/2 inch models are readily available; while the hand engraved guns are a special order.
This may limit my appeal among some readers, but to diehard old gun enthusiasts like myself, the new stuff is interesting but there’s nothing like a classic old gun that has style, character and a look that is all its own. Yeah, you can tell a Glock from a Sig, and an H&K, but they are all variations on the same formula. The same can be said for old guns, too, I suppose, but it was a lot easier to tell a Colt Peacemaker from a Smith & Wesson No. 3 American, or an 1875 Remington, and when you hit the 20th century, even a Colt double action from an S&W, and certainly a Luger or Mauser Broomhandle from anything else (other than copies of Lugers or Mausers by other gunmakers).
Not by any small coincidence, all of the guns I am talking about exist today as CO2 models. Classics inspire, because they become timeless. If that were not true, Colt (and other armsmakers) wouldn’t still be manufacturing Single Action Army pistols and 1911 semi-auto models, S&W would have shelved its revolver designs decades ago. It is not surprising then that my number one and number two “default” airguns are the Umarex Colt Peacemaker and a Colt-based 1911. I didn’t say Umarex Colt Commander because it’s too modern, instead my 1911 go-to pistol is the Swiss Arms/Tanfoglio branded model of the c.1925 Colt 1911A1.
In my series of articles on Defarbing a 1911, I showed all the steps I went through to take a standard Swiss Arms Model 1911A1 CO2 model and refinish it to look like a well worn WWII era pistol. While it is no more accurate than any other 1911 CO2 model of this design (they are all made in the same factories for different brand names like Swiss Arms, Tanfoglio and Air Venturi), refinishing makes it look so much more authentic than the standard matte look of CO2 versions, with the exception of more modern tactical models that have the look of a Cerakote finished gun. (1911 Tanker shoulder holster from World War Supply)
They are all made in the same factories in Taiwan (even the Umarex Commander and Air Venturi John Wayne 1911). Those who have been following Airgun Experience know I did a series of articles on defarbing the Swiss Arms model and refinishing it as a weathered, battlefield worn gun that looks much more like an actual old .45 ACP model than an air pistol. If you have the time and a little skill (and I have as little as possible), it is well worth the effort to do this with a 1911 because it will become a favorite just for the look of the gun.
The place to start is with one of the most authentically designed blowback action CO2 models, like the Tanfoglio Witness 1911, which has correct c.1925 1911A1 features including the small thumb safety, spur hammer, military sights, and arched mainspring housing. Getting that finish down to the bare metal is a lot of work but when you have it done and apply an aged, hand rubbed blued finish, the end result really is worth the time and effort.
The Swiss Arms/Tanfoglio 1911A1 models also have the correct older style hammer, trigger, small thumb safety, sights, and arched mainspring housing of the 1911A1, and are all about equally accurate out to 21 feet. This is also so for CO2 models based on later designs and tactical versions of the 1911. Older is still better, if you like old.
The Peacemaker goes without saying and you can still get one in a variety of models, including an entire John Wayne series, for BBs or pellets with 5-1/2 inch barrels, (I am hoping the 7-1/2 nickel models will be back in the pipeline some day), and as a 21 foot target gun, the old fixed sights and that light, single action trigger will still have you punching bullseyes and flipping over cans Old West style.
The Peacemaker is by far one air pistol on everyone’s short list and the variety of special John Wayne “Duke” models includes this weathered finish BB cartridge model. (The classic Duke Holster and cartridge belt is by John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather)
Even semi-autos are vintage guns when you look at their history. By the end of the 19th century German gunmakers were truly at the forefront of semiautomatic pistol design and one of the greatest semi-auto (and later select fire) pistols in history came from Mauser with the C96 Broomhandle (c.1896). There were multiple variations throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including the Model of 1932, or its more recognizable name, the Model 712, which offered an extended capacity (20-round) detachable magazine and a selective fire semi-auto/full auto switch. Of all the Broomhandle Mauser models produced, this was the gun Umarex chose to build as a CO2 powered blowback action (blowback bolt) air pistol in 2015, and since that time it has remained one of the most enjoyable airguns to shoot.
In the history of semiautomatic German firearms, which stretches back into the late 19th century, perhaps no handgun is better recognized the world over than the Broomhandle Mauser. The Umarex Legends Model 712 is one of the great modern blowback action CO2 models on the market with very authentic design, handling and operation.
While bullseye accuracy is not the 712’s strong suit, it is just pure fun to load and shoot at targets on semi-auto and with some degree of accuracy. On full auto, where you can send its total 18 rounds of .177 caliber BBs downrange in a little over a second if you don’t learn how to feather the trigger, accuracy suffers, but it is great fun to shoot. It is a masterful rework of an historic pistol and probably one of the best built CO2 pistols an enthusiast of vintage firearms could own. It will always be among my top five.
With a good hold on the magazine well you can get a sharp bead on the target and shoot some pretty tight groups with the M712 set to semi-auto. This remains my number 1 gun for summer fun target shooting outdoors. Might not be anywhere as accurate as modern-style CO2 semi-autos, but way more fun to shoot!
Revolvers have a way of making the best air pistols because they are fundamentally easier to build, can generate higher velocities, as all of the CO2 can be used for sending a BB or pellet downrange, while semi-autos have to proportion some of the CO2 for each shot to operate the slide’s blowback action; and revolvers fired single action, even if they are a double action/single action design, are inherently accurate target pistols.
Old guns, in my opinion, are more interesting to handle and shoot than modern ones, and considering that the original Webley & Scott MK VI (in .455 caliber) was designed in 1915 and remained in use through WWII, it is by far a British classic that really deserved to be made as a pellet cartridge firing CO2 model. It is also a darn accurate one at 10 meters!
There are quite a few popular models today but none as historic in its design and ease of handling and loading as the Webley MK VI, my fourth go-to gun for summer fun shooting outdoors. The Battlefield finish remains my number one choice with the Webley models for the best possible overall look of a real vintage WWI-era pistol.
And the fifth place belongs to a gun that has held a spot in my top five since it was introduced back in 2013, the CZ75 based Tanfoglio Gold Custom, which is not only still the most accurate blowback action CO2 pistol (it does require mounting optics but has the top rail included), but a remarkable bargain-priced air pistol with every possible feature, including a target trigger.
About as modern as it gets in my book for fun shooting is the best blowback action CO2 target pistol made, the Tanfoglio Gold Custom. You can go overboard with a holster for this one, as I did, getting the Safariland competition rig used with the 9mm versions (which costs more than the air pistol), but for some, a really fulfilling target shooting experience is worth it. The Center Point Optics reflex sight completes the package.
These are CO2 models that I will always own. Each has its unique characteristics, abilities, weaknesses (the Tanfoglio only because you have to invest in an optical sight to complete the gun), and historic significance. Their designs span nearly 150 years of firearms manufacturing and technology, yet remain popular even to this day, and all but the Broomhandle Mauser are still manufactured as centerfire models. These five represent timeless designs that have inspired some of the best air pistols you can own, especially if you love old guns.
These are my top 5 CO2 models for summer fun shooting. They are priced from $100 to $150, great value for great shooting.
At one point in history, firearms evolved from rudimentary, though often quite elegant, single and double shot pistols and long guns, to more affordable and efficient revolvers, revolving rifles and shotguns. It wasn’t until the Civil War that further developments came to the forefront, like the Henry and Spencer lever action rifles. War was a driving force, but in the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th, armsmakers made remarkable strides in the development of semi-automatic handguns and rifles. While the American West was still very much a dynamic in this country, from the mid west to the pacific coast, and along our borders with Canada and Mexico, firearms designs literally surpassed the needs of the times. Imagine the Texas Rangers, who had been created in an era of flintlock pistols and rifles moving into the new century armed with semiautomatic Colt Model 1911s. (The gun pictured is a customized Swiss Arms CO2 model along with a copy of an early 20th century western drop loop holster made for the Colt semi-auto.)
I can’t speak for everyone who likes western guns, I can only speak for myself and the handful of people I know who shoot CO2 powered Single Actions and Lever Action Rifles, and among that group there is a need for more new guns in this category. But what exactly is a western gun? And when did the Old West really come to an end? Certainly not when the calendar flipped over to January 1900; it might have been a new century but the wild and often untamed American West of the 1870s and 1880s held fast to its ways well into the early 1900s.
The latest guns of the early 20th century were overlapping with the end of the American West as automobiles slowly began to replace horses, the electric light illuminated city streets at night, and telephones allowed the fastest means of communication. As a firearm, the Colt Model 1911 was the embodiment of those modern advancements for lawmen, the military, and civilians alike. That it overlapped the last two decades of the American West (which most historians will agree was still recognizable well into the mid 1920s), is evident in how such commonplace items as holsters adapted to the new guns without sacrificing their Western heritage. The original design of this holster dates back to 1915 and R.T. Frazier Saddlery in Pueblo, Colorado. The reproduction was made in Spain by Garcia Bros.
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, and parts of California, still had their share of rough and tumble cow towns. New Mexico and Arizona were still territories until 1912, becoming the 47th and 48th states, respectively. It took territorial legislators and a band of heroic U.S. Marshals operating out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to bring law and order to the Oklahoma badlands before Oklahoma could achieve statehood. That took until 1907, and yet, the Oklahoma oil fields and surrounding towns were still as wild in the 1920s as they had been in 1880s and 1890s.
A similar design was worn by Texas Ranger Edwin DuBose around 1915. He was among the first Texas lawmen to begin carrying a Colt Model 1911.
Automobiles, telephones and electric lights brought conveniences, they didn’t bring civility or change the ways of men and women who had been born in the West of the late 19th century. Most of the senior lawmen of the day had honed their skills in the 1880s, and much the same could be said for the outlaws, ruffians, and miscreants of the era.
One other thing had changed, not for everyone, but for most, the types of guns that were being used. So by the 1920s, what exactly was a Western gun? The lead photo for this article answers that question to some extent.
The idea was simply to allow a modern weapon to work within the confines of contemporary gunleather. Lawmen that carried the 1911 in the early part of the century often carried a Colt Single Action revolver as well as a lever action Winchester.
We consider Tom Horn a figure of the American West, yet when he escaped from the Laramie County, Wyoming, jail in 1902 (where he was being held on a murder charge), he took Deputy Sheriff Richard Proctor’s pistol, a .32 ACP FN Model 1900 semiautomatic, and found himself essentially unarmed against his pursuers, because Horn had no idea how to work the Browning pistol, which Proctor carried with the safety set.
On the subject of Winchester lever action rifles, we are fortunate enough to have a very accurate copy of the Model 1894 from Umarex to round out late 19th and early 20th century Western guns. The model pictured is a sample of a proposed special edition with a polished and hand engraved receiver, that would be in an edition of 100 in the tradition of the famous Winchester One of One Hundred models. If this piques your interest, please write a comment.
Due to the design and manufacturing of the Umarex Legends Cowboy Lever Action, the only part of the gun that can be worked on is the receiver and Adams & Adams have proposed a polished finish with period Winchester engraving and borders. You can find pictures of original guns with this very same design.
When legendary 19th century frontier lawman, Bill Tilghman, was shot and killed on November 1, 1924, while serving as City Marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma, a wild and almost lawless oil town, he was carrying a Colt Model 1908 semi-auto. His killer, Wiley Lynn, is reputed to have shot the Marshal at point blank range with a .25 ACP Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket Model semi-auto, while Tilghman was trying to arrest him. The times hadn’t changed, just the guns. Had Tilghman been carrying his Colt Peacemaker he probably would have buffaloed Lynn with the barrel of the gun, and things might have turned out differently.
This early 20th century Western lawman actually has a 9mm Luger strapped to his hip in a modified Mexican drop loop holster. Not exactly what you think of when you talk about Western guns, but sure enough, in the early 1900s lawmen were using them.
It is surprising how well a Luger fits in some types of soft leather holsters like this old style whip stitch design. The gun is an Umarex CO2 model.
By the early 1900s, even though the majority of lawmen and law breakers still carried Colt Single Actions, there were Colt and Smith & Wesson double action revolvers in use, and Colt and various European semi-autos being carried, either as a primary sidearm or a backup. One early 20th century lawman in the Southwest carried a new 9mm German Luger in a western-style holster; the Sheriff of Anadarko Oklahoma (still a territory) had among his guns a shoulder stocked Model 1896 Broomhandle Mauser semi-auto.
In the early 1900s, lawmen from Oklahoma to the Mexican border were arming themselves with the latest weaponry. Mingled with this posse’s lever action rifles and single action revolvers is a shoulder stocked Broomhandle Mauser. Look closely, it is between the top cartridge belt and one of the lever action rifles.
Like the drop loop holsters made to fit the Luger, holsters were also made to accommodate the shape of the Broomhandle Mauser. The Umarex models are so accurate in their dimensions that with the magazine removed, they will fit a holster made for a C96 model.
Of course, with the magazine removed the gun doesn’t work but it only takes a moment to insert it and make the Umarex Model 712 functional. (Pyramyd Air also sells a holster that fits the gun with the magazine attached).
And lest we forget the Single Actions that are available in CO2 like the deluxe Nimschke hand engraved model from Adams & Adams. These are much pricier than the standard 5-1/2 inch nickel models, but they make a handsome CO2 pistol.
Engraved versions of the Bear River Schofield are also offered by Pyramyd Air, making this one of the most original looking of all CO2 models.
So, when we say we need more western guns as CO2 models, we actually have a few more than we realize! This is not to say we still don’t need a couple of new Schofield designs from Bear River, or a 4-3/4 inch Peacemaker or 2-1/2 inch barrel Sheriff’s model from Umarex, but you might think about finding a western rig for an Umarex P.08 Luger or Model 712 Broomhandle. They, too, have histories well rooted in the American West.