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Lookalike airguns: Part One

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

History of airguns

This report covers:

What is a lookalike?
A typical lookalike
Colt held back
They got better
Military or civilian?
I could go on

Today we begin a series on lookalike airguns. I don’t know exactly how long this could be, but I suspect it could be large. I also know that this subject is a favorite for many of you.

What is a lookalike?

A lookalike airgun is one that resembles an iconic firearm. It gives the owner the chance to experience the feeling of ownership and operation while remaining in the safer, less litigious world of airguns.

A typical lookalike

In a moment I will discuss the difference between a military lookalike and a purely civilian one, but let’s begin with a look at a gun that exists in both camps — the iconic Colt Single Action Army revolver! The SAA, as it is called, was brought out by Colt as the next step in revolvers from their famous black powder cap and ball handguns. While it wasn’t the last in the line, the Colt 1860 Army is perhaps the best example of an evolved single-action cap and ball revolver. It certainly is the best example of a Colt revolver from that time.

1860 Army
Colt’s 1860 Army revolver was highly advanced for a cap and ball black powder handgun.

When Smith & Wesson patented the revolver cylinder that was through-bored (open all the way through the cylinder) in the 1850s, they allowed the use of cartridge ammunition for the first time. Their first firearm on that patent was the model 1 that was initially chambered for .22 rimfire. It came to market in 1857 — just in time for the American Civil War. The cartridge it was chambered for was just called a .22 rimfire, but as that cartridge line evolved in the latter 1800s, it became known as the .22 short.

S&W mod 1
Smith & Wesson’s model 1 came out in 1857 and lasted until 1882. It was chambered for what we now call the .22 short cartridge.

The model 1 was very popular as a backup gun by Northern troops in the Civil War. It didn’t have much power — perhaps 25 foot-pounds or so, but it was better than nothing.

Colt held back

The bored-through cylinder was patented by a former Colt employee, Rollin White. Why he didn’t try to sell the idea to Colt first we may never know, and maybe he did. Smith & Wesson pounced on it and paid White a royalty of 25 cents per gun, which was a huge sum for the day. But they also agreed he would defend the patent and doing that eventually ruined him, financially.

Colt couldn’t make cartridge revolvers as a result of the S&W patent, so they made variations on their 1860 model until the patent on the bored-through cylinder ran out in 1872. Then they brought out their ubiquitous 1873 SAA that is still in production by many manufacturers today.

Colt SAA
Colt Single Action Army. This one was a gift to BB from the readers of this blog, following his 3.5-month hospital stay in 2010. It was not made by Colt, but it is a very accurate copy of that firearm and is chambered in .45 Colt. Reader Kevin was the focal point for this gift!

If you grew up in the 1950s and the early ’60s like BB, you watched westerns on television. Two of my cats were named Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, after two western stars of the time. Their real names were Leonard Franklin Slye and Frances Octavia Smith.

I idolized all things cowboy and so when Crosman brought out the .22-caliber  SA-6 (single action six) pellet revolver in 1959, I bought one with my paper route money. 

Crosman SA-6
Crosman-SA-6.

I didn’t have a holster for that revolver and, since holsters cost money, I carried the SA-6 in my right front pants pocket — a practice that was common in my day and also one that I do not recommend. I loved that .22 caliber pellet pistol. One day while “hunting” in the woods around the Cuyahoga River in Stow, Ohio, a rabbit jumped out of the weeds and frightened me. When my “cool” returned several seconds later I calmly drew my pellet pistol and fanned off 6 quick shots into the weeds where the rabbit had gone 5 seconds before, earning the nickname, “Fanner 50” from my friend who was with me. For readers less than 60 years old, a Fanner 50 was a very popular cap gun of the day.

They got better

So the SA-6 was an early attempt at a lookalike SAA. The CO2 cartridge hid beneath the barrel, covered by a black plastic sheath that camouflaged it very well. But things would get better.

In the late 1990s I was at the home of Wulf Pflaumer’s sister in Maryland. Wulf is one of the two founders of Umarex. We were discussing the lever action rifle he was about to bring out and I told him that a realistic SAA would also be a hit. He told me they wanted to make one but the revolver’s grip frame was too short to allow a 12-gram CO2 cartridge to fit inside. I told him to try the Colt 1860 Army grip frame. It is 1/2-inch longer and the outlaw, Dakota, at Frontier Village amusement park where I worked in college had put one on his SAA because the SAA grip was too short for him. The 1860 grip frame fit a 12-gram cartridge perfectly and almost no one notices the difference. The rest is history.

A couple years later Umarex brought out the Colt SAA in both pellet and BB gun versions and they have now produced almost every variation of that firearm except for some reason the 4-3/4-inch barrel version that many shooters have asked for. Bat Masterson carried a 4-3/4-inch SAA, as did many gunfighters, because it cleared the holster quicker and was therefore faster to draw.

Umarex SAA
The first Umarex SAA was very realistic, as have been all that followed.

Find a Hawke Scope

Military or civilian?

I said I would return to this topic. The Colt SAA we have been discussing is both. It was first purchased by the military, but civilian sales soon surged past what the military bought. The SAA is so ergonomic that, until the German P08 Luger pistol came around, it was the long pole in the tent. And it’s still one of the most desired, and most recognized handguns of all time.

There are things about military firearms that make them attractive to shooters. Strength, design and robustness are all main factors, but history trumps everything. No one who has ever held and fired an M1 Garand would think of it as an attractive weapon, but Japan, who was an enemy of the US during WW II, thought enough of it to create 250 close copies for study. Called the Type 4 rifle (and sometimes the type 5), it was homage to the American rifle that so dominated our military campaigns in the latter half of the war.

That addresses why we have military lookalike airguns, though I probably have more than one more report to do on just them, but what about civilian firearm lookalikes? Are there any of them? There certainly are. I won’t get into them deeply this late in today’s report, but for starters, don’t forget the Crosman 38C and 38T revolvers.

And this I will also say, though I call them civilian firearms, the military buys oneseys and twoseys of just about anything. Just because Sergeant So-And-So carried one on the flight line at Da Nang doesn’t make it a military firearm. I’m talking about firearms the military officially adopted — not something Private Ryan carried in his combat boot.

38-T
Crosman’s 38-T from the 1970s was a replica of S&W’s purely civilian (and law enforcement) revolvers.

I could go on

And I plan to. The world of airgun lookalike/replica guns is both a hot topic at any time and red-hot today. Even though this report is in the history section, we are still living in the heyday of lookalike airguns.

53 thoughts on “Lookalike airguns: Part One”

  1. B.B.,

    Civilian look alike pistols also include the Crosman Mark I and Mark II and the S&W 78G and 79G. A lot of airsoft models (mainly military) are being adapted to fire actual steel BBs instead of the 6mm plastic balls.

    Siraniko

  2. B.B.,

    Love the revolvers!
    We (Naval Aviators) were issued (late ’60-early ’70s) really clapped out S&W .38 (Victory?) but most replaced them with S&W M1917 in .45acp or Colt M1911 in various configurations carried in the LPA integrated holster. If I was going to spend anytime on/in the dirt I had a highly modified M14 and later M16 variant in a leg holster.

    shootski

  3. Darn! I thought I would be the first comment today. So are we getting closer to an M1 Garand pellet firing replica and just how close are we? Inquiring minds want to know!

    Brent

  4. BB
    Quite a coincidence, I’m watching ‘The Shootist’ and you start a history report on lookalike six shooters. I had a pair of the engraved Shootist editions but they turned out to be well below my expectations and regretfully I decided to return them. They would have been the stars of my collection but the gold enhanced engraved Colt SAA’s are outstanding too. Been a lull in the antique reproductions these days.

  5. BB,

    I am “one of those” who is not a big fan of lookalikes, but I will have to admit a revolver will come along every once in a while that tempts me.

    I would much rather have an air rifle or air pistol that incorporates its very uniqueness in its design. Form follows function. I do not wish to compromise performance for appearance.

    I know there are many who do not feel as I do and there is nothing wrong with that. There are many companies that would not survive if they did not make lookalikes. Every once in a while they will bring out something that appeals to me.

    Even so, I am looking forward to further installments of this topic.

    Military or civilian?

    …it was homage to the American rifle that so dominated out (our) military campaigns in the latter half of the war.

    …though I probably have more than one more reports (report) to do on just them,

  6. B.B.,

    I have the Hahn version of the Crosman SA6, in .22, and despite the grip being much too small for my hands, it hits whatever I point it at from 25 feet or less. I also have a Crosman 38T which suits my hands better. I’ve always desired a 38C as well, but none has come up in the right condition, price, point in time, etc.

    All of these are incredible shooters. I am one of many (including you, perhaps) who consider these to be among the very best, the Golden Age, of Crosman’s CO2 models.

    Very good blog.

    Michael

  7. You’ve certainly peeled back the Curtain of Memory for FM today, B.B. Got into many a “gunfight” with the Fanner 50, and “took out” many a “Jap” and “Kraut” with a Maco Toys ’03 Springfield – still remember the bolt handle broke off at some point. It was made of pot metal and evidently couldn’t take much rough handling from rambunctious boys. There were other fun look-alikes in the arsenal back then, made by Mattel or Maco. The biggest arguments in our gang of wannabe warriors centered on who was KIA after an “engagement.”

    Looking forward to receiving the refurbished 38T from Precision Pellet. It is a good shooter, and a nice looker too, at least to the eye of this beholder.

  8. Nice one BB!

    Unfortunately our Honorable Prime Minister has tabled a bill that will make all these sort of airguns (and all airsoft and paintball pistols) illegal prohibited weapons in Canada. I understand that even long guns like Red Rider are affected.

    Last year, while our parliamentary system was (rightly) focused on Covid pandemic issues, Trudeau slipped Bill C-21 in under the radar and pushed it through first reading.

    I don’t know what our Honorable Prime Minister’s agenda is. He may be trying to garner election votes from the non-gun using public who are (rightly) alarmed by the increasing reports of gang gun fights and shootings. Or he may be frustrated because the government has been unsuccessful in controlling criminal handgun use in spite of them being tightly regulated for over 100 years.

    One way or the other, I don’t think it fair that honest, law abiding citizens are (again) subjected to ridiculous restrictions.

    IMHO, Bill C-21 is a half-baked mess that will severely compromise the rights of both gun owning and non gun owning citizens – everyone should be concerned and be talking with their MPs.

    For those who are interested, here is a link to a video on C-21 done by a Canadian Gun lawyer who translates “legalese” into common English (it is well worth the time to check out his other videos). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtjlD8v2SZc

    Replica, airsoft and paintball pistols have no interest to me personally but I am concerned with the trend that these laws are following. I think that everyone (every where) should be watching for laws like this even if it doesn’t affect your discipline/interest directly because it is only a matter of time before your hobby will be next on the addenda for the antis.

    Sorry to be gloomy on a Friday.

    Hank

    • You all need to grow a strong gun rights organization up there and start putting some serious heat on your politicians when they come up with nonsensical and/or literally insane legislation and projects. Realize this may be easier said than done, given cultural differences between our countries. It would be good to point out to the citizenry beware of politicians who make problems out of non-problems. This is usually for purposes of exercising yet more control over citizen’s lives just because the pols think they can, as we have seen during this pandemic. The more illogical and useless restrictions you allow them to put in place, the more likely eventually other things people like to do with their lives, such as owning vintage vehicles, property, having the freedom to travel (already as we have seen, under restriction in many places even if perhaps somewhat justified at this time), expressing themselves freely and so on may be curtailed or eliminated.

      Mexicans have a saying which, loosely translated states “effective suffrage means no re-election.” Maybe we need to start working on term limits for all politicians, at all levels – one term is sufficient in my non-scientific opinion. Sorry to be so off-topic and yes, somewhat gloomy on a Friday as well. Guess FM is a little tired of negative politics, politicians, control-freaks and the people who enable them. 🙁

      • FM,

        As a side, I went down to see the elderly parents today and was reading their newspaper. It stated that 20,000 undocumented workers were in Columbus, Ohio (and) that they made up 12% of essential (low pay) workers. Just stating what I read. Interpret from there.

        Chris

        • Know many adult American citizens who would do landscaping, hod-carrying or ditch digging in the hot summer sun in Columbus, OH for $7.25 an hour or less? :^)

          But I love this song by The Association!

          Hello life, goodbye Columbus
          I’ve got a feelin’ that you’re gonna hear from us . . .

          It’s a lucky day, goodbye Columbus
          I’ve got a feelin’ that you’re gonna hear from us . . .

          Goodbye, goodbye Columbus
          Goodbye, goodbye Columbus

          8^D

          Michael

    • Vana2,

      I hope Canada just votes all the bums out! And gets lucky with the NEW bunch.
      Unfortunately when you have term limits imposed on the politcians their Un-Elected STAFF and bureaucracy take over ruling the country! Most of the time that is even worse.

      shootski

    • Hank,
      I watched the video with my wife; her comment (regarding C-21) was “That’s insane!”
      The Emergency Protection Order provision is downright frightening.
      I truly hope this piece of trash does not pass!
      Cheers,
      dave

  9. The Crosman 38C was a replica of the S&W M15 .38” revolver then issued to the USAF, and was developed as a training tool for them. So it is a genuine military replica.

    The Smith .38”s were also the near-standard law enforcement revolver of the 50s-80s, of course.

    • Geezer,

      CAUTION, CAUTION!!! inter-sevice rivalry ALERT!!!!

      “…the S&W M15 .38” revolver then issued to the USAF, and was developed as a training tool for them.” So that explains it. I always wondered why the USAF pilots never used them…they were just for training?

      Wings of GOLD,

      shootski

      • They were for USAF MPs, mostly, is my understanding. They were also issued M1/M2 carbines rather than M1 or M14 rifles. Their wish to replace the carbines led to the first regular US military adoption of the AR-15/M16.

        • Geezer,

          What little I know the USAF issued S&W .38 Specials to pilots during the ‘Nam police action. I have no idea if the AF pilots ever carried the Baretta M9 and only recently started issuing SIG’s M18 because the M17 was considered dangerous (too big) during ejections. The last thing I carried while on active duty was the SIG M11A1.
          I do remember the SPs carrying Stoner Rifles in the late ’60-70s that guarded the ramp areas that had the “Red Line of Death” for our special mission aircaft; at least three times I got to do a facedown on the AF Ramp concrete for forgetting (US Navy didn’t do that RLofD stuff) to go tell them I was going to my aircraft.

          shootski

          shootski

  10. B.B.,
    What a great idea for a set of reports; I’m all about it, and hope you stretch it out for a good long while.
    It was a previous set of reports by The Great Enabler that allowed my wife to get me the Colt SAA for which I’ve been hankering for a good long spell. While “Dave’s Peacemaker” is not the firearm version, it is marked “Colt” and “NRA” on the sides, as Umarex did get their sanction for this replica. And kudos to Umarex for making an accurate pistol – in both looks and shootability. The sights are dead on at 5 meters (and I was able to cut that off-hand group in half when I used a cat perch for a rest, LOL), and the gun has good accuracy. I love it!
    (hint: any time your wife buys you a gun, shoot it a lot, and tell her how much you love it…you’ll get more! =>)
    Keep up the great work,
    take care & God bless,
    dave

    • Dave,

      Your picture prompted me to respond.

      I’m not an expert on replicas but can’t help but see the similarities between your NRA Colt SAA and the John Wayne SAA. Like B.B. I’m steeped in old cowboy western folklore. The replicas that are attributed to John Wayne are numerous including his Winchester 94 with the hoop cocking lever made famous in El Dorado and subsequent movies.

      • Kevin,
        I love all John Wayne items, including his Westerns, his guns from his Westerns, and all replicas of them.
        Yes, my NRA Colt SAA is very similar to the John Wayne SAA; and mine also came from Umarex (by way of PyramydAir); I told my wife I wanted the 7-1/2″ barreled model as I had read great reviews on its accuracy, and I was not disappointed. These CO2 SAA replicas are the next best thing to the firearms, with the added benefit that you can shoot them in the house…as understanding as she is, I don’t see my wife being OK with me setting up an indoor range to shoot the Colt .45 SAA in the house! =)~
        Take care,
        dave

  11. Still in shock over the fact Mrs. FM actually encouraged her Worst Half to pony up for a Keltec PMR-30 about four years ago. Granted, it was being bought with my side job wages, which is probably why – so far – there has been no objection to other goodies purchased since then. She’s even been asking about the 38T. Methinks she wants to try it out…who knows, she may outshoot Fawlty Man. 🙂

    • FawltyManuel,
      I think that would be great if Mrs. FM shot the 38T, as she might be way into it, and then you could shoot together. Years ago, in Florida, I shot in muzzle loader matches at a club near our house; after the muzzle loader match, there would be a longbow match (and even a tomahawk throwing match…fun! =>).
      Since we owned the two (swampy) lots beyond our fence, I was able to set up a nice safe 25-yard range to practice with my bow. My wife would sit outside and watch me shoot, yet one day confided that she had always wanted a crossbow. Hence, I got her a really nice 90-pound-pull target crossbow (from Excalibur in Canada…great company!). After that, we shot together in the backyard. As they say,
      “The family that prays together, and shoots together, stays together!”
      I pray you and Mrs. FM get to do much shooting together. =>
      Take care,
      dave

  12. Think about it.
    Modern day firearms have constantly been improved for function and ergonomics. They are successful because they work and are dependable and accurate.. Why wouldn’t you want to copy them?
    The only changes would obviously be to accommodate air power and it should be in the least intrusive form that interferes with a firearm design while still being convenient for use. So far, So good. I could not be happier with todays airguns myself.
    Bob M

  13. BB

    I have hoped Ruger or Umarex would offer a Ruger GP100 in pellet, BB or even airsoft in 4.20 inch barrel. It has been in production for decades so there should be a market for a look alike. Maybe others have interest also.

    Deck

    • Deck
      I think the market is too saturated with revolvers to come up with new tooling for the Ruger frame and if they did It would probably use a generic one, only with the unique Ruger two tone grip.
      They tried it with the Dan Wesson until they finally came out with the 715 that had the cylinder release in the right place, in front of it.
      I have a nice close copy of the Semi Auto Ruger MkII Target Pistol Hatsan called the TAC-BOSS Mod25XT CO2 Air Pistol but it was reported to have possibly been picky with BB’s and CO2 cartridge leakage and it may be history now?

      • Bob M

        I just picked up lots of .38 Special brass at a range. I’ll make mild loads for the .357 GP100 and get my practice going that way. Probably save money to boot.

        Thanks and stay safe.

        Deck

  14. Since they’ve not had a mention yet, I thought I’d raise the Saxby-Palmer / Brocock air cartridge guns – I’ve no experience of them myself, but I imagine they were rather more common in the UK than the US.

    The initial concept, in the early 1980s, was the Ensign Elite bolt-action rifle which used a fairly large cartridge – filled with compressed air, a pellet in the front end and the internal valving actuated to release the air by being struck in the centre of the base, as per a centrefire cartridge.

    That then led to the brass-bodied air cartridges, the two smaller sizes again used conventional airgun pellets but a larger rifle sized one relied on a particular pellet with a reduced diameter tail that fitted into the nose of the cartridge.

    Of the two other sizes, by far the more common was about .38″ special size and used in a variety of revolvers and some lever-action rifles. The smallest size was used in what looked like a semi-automatic pistol, but in fact the slide had to be racked for each shot to eject and reload. (I think there may have been a similar system that did actually operate the pistol, but used something like 8mm rubber bullets.)

    The initial revolvers were made by Weihrauch, originally in .177″, and had cylinders with a large section machined away so that when loaded the cartridges were partially exposed, rather like a speedloader for example. Remember, the cartridge itself is already containing the pressure inside it and does not need to be supported by the chamber walls. Later on, rather more .22″ guns became available, made by Uberti and Pietta as well, and to preserve the external appearance the cylinders were weakened by being cut away internally (this can be seen here)

    http://www.muzzle.de/N3/Druckluft/ME_Bull_Barrel/me_bull_barrel.html

    Steve Harper in the UK also used these cartridges I think in guns he made from scratch, air canes and some compact pocket pistols, but changes to UK firearms law have left both these and the other guns illegal now. Firearms disguised as another object are illegal in their own right, as is anything using a self-contained (i.e. gas and pellet) cartridge – that last definition has allowed some of Harper’s designs to continue as they use the body of a cartridge as a air reservoir, but not the nosecap that would otherwise contain a pellet.

    https://worap.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/the-rise-and-sudden-fall-of-the-self-contained-air-cartridge-system/

    iain

    • Iain,

      Quite fascinating. Thank you for sharing. I never knew about them. There was a rifle several years ago that had an air charge cylinder for each shot. The projectile was loaded in the conventional manner as I recall. It never did take off from what I recall.

      That would be some fiddly work with pumping each shell and loading the projectile in the end. No quick shooting there.

      Chris

    • Iain,
      I always thought those Saxby-Palmer / Brocock air cartridge guns were so cool!
      I was really sorry to see them outlawed…I mean did anyone actually make a firearm out of one of these things? Or was it simply the perception (fanned by news outlets with no gun knowledge) that that might be able to happen that led to their demise? They were classics, and I’m sorry to see them go.
      But thank you for the reminder about them. =>
      Take care,
      dave

      • Shootski,

        that article didn’t come up first when I was looking for something to refresh my memory and link to here, it’s interesting to see an American perspective on them. Bear in mind that in the UK, from when these were developed (mid 1980s) up to 1997 CO2 powered guns were restricted more than ‘air’guns, so even without the difference in quality between a Umarex Colt and an Uberti Colt, they did have a niche in the market.

        Dave – I thought one issue at least was the use of chamber adaptors to fire .22″ rimfire cartridges, which still provided enough strength irrespective of what was done to weaken the cylinders.

        One small mechanical point regarding Steve Harper’s pocket pistols that used these, although these cartridges are fired by being hit in the same way as a centrefire cartridge, in fact it is not a violent blow they need (as a primer does) but just the inwards movement of the ‘primer’. In the interest of compactness, some of his designs just used a simple pivoting trigger pressing directly on the cartridge base – pull the trigger back, its top end moves forward to fire.

        Iain

        • Iain, OK, I see how that would be an issue; I did see a clever Colt SAA clone in .22 caliber that used this system…and I only wish I’d have bought it before they were outlawed; thank you. =>

  15. Chris,

    There were a variety of pumps available for these, generally if you bought a set (revolver, one cylinder of cartridges and basic pump) that came with a hand-held multi-stroke pump, the ‘Slim Jim’, taking 7 or 8 strokes per cartridge. There may have been a larger bench-mounted pump as well, and eventually a single-stroke stirrup pump, and also adaptors to recharge them from an air bottle.

    One small point I seem to recall, a review in one of the magazines for a Colt SAA copy enthusing about how the gun could be fired like a gunslinger by fanning the hammer … only for a letter to appear the following month pointing out that yes, you can do that, but if the hammer drops with the cylinder slightly out of alignment it damages the base of the cartridge.

    Iain

  16. BB,

    great article. i collect as many lookalikes as possible, either in airsoft, pellet, or BB format. it’s like holding a piece of history for the fraction of the cost, not to mention far fewer legal hassles.

    btw, was that the Frontier Village in San Jose? i loved that place, especially the train ride.

    mike

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