Chiappa Rhino Part 1
Once Upon a Time in Italy
By Dennis Adler
This is a year when new CO2 models are in short supply, so any new gun is welcome, but when something as unique and attention-grabbing as the Chiappa Rhino arrives as a CO2 model, you know that things are about to start looking up! There are roughly 55 different centerfire Rhino variations combining barrel lengths, finishes and calibers, so it is no surprise that the company would begin with four CO2 models representing two standard finishes and two custom models, including the Limited Edition 50DS shown (1 of 500).
The Chiappa Rhino CO2 models are 1:1 reproductions of the equally unusual centerfire pistols. As a modern handgun, the Rhino offers more distinctive features than almost any other revolver. Those of you that follow centerfire guns also know that Kimber uses a similar flat-sided cylinder on their handgun model, but that is the only feature it shares in common with the Rhino. The Chiappa is atypical in far more ways, with an unconventional appearance not only exemplified by its six-sided cylinder but by having the barrel aligned with the bottom cylinder chamber rather than the top, a design that reduces felt recoil and enhances accuracy by creating a much lower bore axis than a traditional revolver. Add the distinctive shape of the Rhino frame and grips on centerfire and CO2 models alike, and you have a revolver that stands almost alone in firearms history. But I did say “almost” because the Rhino’s design has an Italian heritage that dates back to the late 1990s, and a yet even more unconventional “semiautomatic revolver” known as the Mateba.
Once Upon a Time in Italy
The concept of a semiautomatic revolver dates back to the late 19th century at the same time self-loading semiautomatic pistols were emerging in Europe. The only successful semiautomatic revolver was the British Webley-Fosbery invented by Col. George Vincent Fosbery and manufactured by Webley & Scott. Developed just before the 20th century, the first military versions were produced in 1901 as England was in the thick of the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. Ironically, the gun made famous in that conflict was the German C96 Mauser Broomhandle which was carried by a number of prominent British officers, including a young Lieutenant and London Times war correspondent named Winston S. Churchill.
Col. Fosbery’s design relied on a “zig-zag” channel in the cylinder acted upon by a stationary stud that caused the cylinder to rotate to the next round as the upper portion of the frame rebounded from recoil. This also served to cock the hammer on the rearward movement. The forward motion of the frame driven by a recoil spring completed the rotation of the cylinder making the gun ready to fire again.
Although brilliantly innovative, the Webley-Fosbery was not particularly well received by the war board, which did not see any great advantage to a semi-automatic revolver other than its reduced “kick” taken up in part by the operation of the mechanism. Never officially adopted by the British armed forces, all of the Webley-Fosberys used in the Boer War and early in World War I were privately purchased.
Over a period spanning nearly a quarter of a century (1901-1924) Webley & Scott produced less than 5,000 examples chambered for the .455 cartridge. After 1924 the idea of a semi-automatic revolver was abandoned. Why? For two very significant reasons: first, compared to a self-loading pistol the semi-auto revolver offered no tactical advantage as it could only load six rounds, whereas a semi-auto pistol could hold from 8 to 20 rounds (plus one in the chamber) depending upon the design. Secondly, an auto-loading pistol, utilizing either a magazine clip or a stripper clip had a significant advantage in re-loading. The Webley-Fosbery, even with the use of full moon clips, took longer to reload. End of story.
Flash forward 73 years and the idea is born again in Italy. In 1997 Italian gunmaker Sergio Mateba and firearms designer Emilio Ghisoni began developmental production on the first successful semi-automatic revolver since the Webley-Fosbery. A year later, at the 1998 Shot Show, Mateba explained to me that the gun, which at the time was available only in .38/.357 magnum, operated on a principal quite different than its historic British predecessor. The first trigger pull is double action, which cocks the hammer and then releases it, firing the gun. Upon firing, the upper part of the frame recoils. This movement then cocks the hammer. When the frame has completely recoiled, it is pushed forward again by a spring, and as it returns to the locked position the cylinder is rotated to the next chamber and the gun is ready to fire, only this time as a single-action, just like a semi-auto pistol. While it still sounds a lot like the Webley-Fosbery, in operation, the design is quite different.
The Mateba’s construction involved two major parts: the lower and the upper frame assembly. The lower frame houses the trigger mechanism, a strong spring, and the grips. It also has a pair of rails upon which the upper frame assembly slid. The upper frame held the interchangeable barrel and shroud (oh, yes, like a Dan Wesson, you could change barrel lengths with the Mateba), the cylinder, and the safety mechanism. A spring and cross bolt prevented the assembly from moving off the lower frame.
What set the Mateba apart from any other revolver, semi-auto or otherwise, was that it fired the bottom chamber of the cylinder, the round in the 6-o’clock position! Sergio Mateba explained that, “This further reduces the felt recoil even with the powerful .357 magnum cartridge because more of the mass of the gun is above the chamber being fired than below it.”
When you look at the gun that becomes quite evident, but after firing it one quickly understands Mateba’s theory in practice. A .357 Magnum round feels like a .38 Special when you fire the gun. Sight reacquisition is faster, the firing rate is nearly equivalent to that of a semi-auto pistol, and the gun is surprisingly well balanced, but is till only offers six shots. The Mateba had one distinct advantage over most semi-auto pistols, though, a fixed (rather than floating) barrel, which also contributed to its exceptional accuracy.
That said, the Mateba still begged the question, “Why?” Why make a modern-day Webley-Fosbery, an interesting, almost intriguing gun, which is as impractical today as it was in 1901. Mateba said it was an improvement on modern-day revolvers. Pretty much what we imagine Col. Fosbery claimed in 1899.
Back in 2004 when I reviewed the Mateba for Guns & Ammo everyone had to admit when the gun came out of the box we were just a bit smitten with its unusual looks. On the test range our early model with 6-inch barrel proved to be everything Sergio Mateba said it was. The cylinder opened and loaded just like a conventional S&W, Colt, Ruger, or other double action revolver. After that, however, all the rest can go home. The Mateba could be thumb cocked and fired single action, it could also be cocked by lightly depressing the barrel against a hard surface, like a table, which forced the upper slide rearward, or the slide could be racked to the rear like a semi-auto. The very short travel made this operation far easier than pulling the slide on a semi-auto. And of course, it could be fired double action.
Firing Winchester .357 magnum, 158 gr. semi-wadcutters at 10 meters and then at 25 yards back in the 2004 review, the groupings were well within expectations. Recoil, was as previously mentioned, no greater than a .38 special and the gun functioned without fail. The most common barrel length purchased was the 6-inch. There were also 4-inch and 8-inch models and special lengths were also available; a 12-inch barrel for hunting and silhouette shooting, and 16-inch and 20-inch barrels for carbine models.
There’s an old saying, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I don’t think Sergio Mateba had that in mind when his gun was being compared to the Webley-Fosbery, but rather he had intended to create a semiautomatic revolver that would be unmatched for its innovative design in the late 20th century. Perhaps it was, but sales were never brisk. In the U.S. the Mateba developed an almost cult following with sales averaging a little over 100 guns a year, not exactly earthshaking numbers. But the Mateba had an undeniable appeal. For hunting, the longer barrel models with scopes were extremely accurate. The same was true for silhouette and target shooting and they had an adjustable trigger that ranged from 2-1/2 to 3 pounds. The interchangeable barrels made it possible to have one frame with several different length barrels, like a Dan Wesson Model 715. The Mateba was definitely a niche market gun, but it sure got a lot of curious looks at the shooting range! They were originally manufactured from 1997 to 2005 and approximately 2,000 were built in all configurations. In 2019 the gun was brought back into limited production by Mateba Italia and may even once again be imported into the U.S.
Chiappa steps in
While the semiautomatic Mateba revolver was not an overwhelming success, the fundamentals of the design; the flat-sided cylinder and firing from the bottom chamber of the cylinder, would eventually be rekindled when Italian armsmaker Rino Chiappa turned it into the Rhino. Working with the original Mateba designer, Emilio Ghisoni (who passed away in 2008), and Antonio Cudazzo, they created a more traditional double action, single action revolver. I was going to say wheelgun, but it’s hard to call it a wheelgun since the wheel is now a hexagon!
Over the last 20 years I have had a working relationship with Chiappa as a gun writer and an occasional consultant for some of their western shotguns and 1892 lever action models. Chiappa also builds early 19th century percussion lock, single shot pistols, like the Napoleon Le Page, one of their most famous black powder models. That’s the gun that introduced me to Armi Sport Chiappa back in 1997 when I visited the factory in Brescia, Italy, to see how the Le Page and other Chiappa models were manufactured. That visit was the beginning of a long relationship with Rino Chiappa. Since the late 1980s Rino and his wife Susanna have been running the family business founded by Rino’s father Oscar, back in 1958 (who also made air pistols). While not one of the largest armsmakers in Italy, Chiappa is renowned for its quality and building stunningly authentic reproductions of centerfire Sharps, Spencer, and Winchester models. There is also the company’s lines of .22 LR pistols and airguns, like the famous FAS 6004, and their CO2 models including a pellet firing version of the Beretta 92FS. But the Rhino CO2 models are unlike the rest, because rather than being copies of famous firearms, the Rhino models, introduced in 2010, are uniquely a Chiappa design, as is the new CO2 version.
In Part 2 we will explore the evolution of centerfire Rhino pistols and development of the CO2 models.