Of the various percussion sidearms produced by Colt during the mid-1800s, two of the most popular and prodigious were the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army. Only the Model 1849 Pocket revolver manufactured from 1850 through 1873 saw greater production. Although the 1851 and 1860 were similar-sized pistols, among their differences were the shape of their grips, with the Navy’s being, among other things, shorter in length by roughly one-third of an inch. When Colt produced its first revolver designed from the ground up to fire the then-relatively new self-contained metallic cartridge, the Model 1871/72 Open Top, it was offered with both the grip profile of the 1851 Navy as well as that of the 1860 Army because, apparently, both had their followings. Curiously, Colt chose the smaller grip shape of the 1851 Navy for use on what would become its most famous pistol, the Model 1873 Single Action Army, and the rest, they say, is history. To my knowledge, Colt has never offered the SAA fitted with a grip having the longer, more svelte dimensions of the 1860 Army.
When Ruger brought out his Single Six revolver in 1953, followed shortly thereafter by the Blackhawk in 1955, he wisely chose to put handles on them that mirrored the contour of the revered 1873. What the shooting public was beginning to discover, however, was that the Navy’s 1851 grip profile worked great until recoil reached a certain level, and then things got a little tight behind the triggerguard and that pinky finger curled up below the bottom of the grip strap got rapped a little harder than one expected. It was the abuse that the Colt-shaped alloy grip frame on the original 1957-released .44 Mag Blackhawk dealt out to new would-be “Magnumites” that eventually led Ruger to alter the grip shape on his revolvers to better accommodate this new level of recoil. Although this new grip style was admittedly more comfortable to shoot with hotter loads, most single-action aficionados lamented the passing of the Colt-shaped grip frame from the Ruger revolver line. So much so, in fact, that Ruger brought it back for us in 2004 in the form of their very Colt-like New Vaquero and subsequent reintroduction of their flat-topped .357 and .44 Mags, all sporting that original, coveted, Navy/SAA grip.
Still, even though the Colt has a cult-like following, there are those who, if given a choice between an 1851 Navy and 1860 Army, would choose the Army just because it felt better in the hand. Admittedly, Cowboy Action shooters today don’t have to deal with a great amount of recoil, but there are those who, because of their large paws or maybe just personal preference, would like to have a longer gripped Colt or Colt clone. I’ve run across more than one single-action whose grip straps have been swapped out with those cannibalized from an 1860 Army. Well, such drastic modifications are no longer necessary, thanks to EMF.
Several years ago EMF, in collaboration with F. LLI Pietta of Italy, set about to produce a “true-to-the-original” 1873 Colt clone. With attention to cosmetics and original contours, Pietta produced a clone that not only looked like an original 1st and/or 2nd Generation Colt, but whose parts would interchange with one as well. They called it the Great Western II. Custom models of the Great Western IIs can be had in three barrel lengths (4.75, 5.5 and 7.5 inches), and three calibers (.45 LC, .357 Mag and .44-40), and finished in either deep blue with genuine bone case hardening or in deluxe nickel, both wearing one-piece Ultra Ivory grips. An all-stainless steel model fitted with ultra ivory grips is also available.
A more moderately priced version called the “Californian” can also be had, having all the mechanical integrity of the custom guns but having a lesser grade of bluing and casehardening. This model comes wearing smooth one-piece walnut grips. The Californian is offered in all three barrel lengths and chamberings.
New, the “Alchimista” is a California-grade finished Great Western II revolver wearing the brass triggerguard and blued steel back strap of a Colt 1860 Army. This model is based on a gun designed and currently used by Alessandro Pietta, a son in the family-owned Pietta Firearms business, who is an active SASS shooter in Italy. Alessandro designed this pistol for its balance and to accommodate his rather large hands and, from his personal guns this model was born. “Alchimista” is, by the way, Alessandro’s SASS alias, hence the name for this pistol.
Since I regularly shoot .38 Specials in SASS competition, I requested an Alchimista in this chambering to evaluate. Guns chambered in .44-40 and .45 Colt are also available. Although I’ve examined a number of Colt clones over the years, this is the first Great Western II I’ve reviewed. My initial impressions when first handling this revolver were very positive.
Barrel length on this particular pistol is 5.5 inches and I’m told a 7.5-inch model is also available. Although I’m partial to the shorter 4.75-inch barreled Colt, this 5.5-incher balanced very well in the hand with its 0.75 of an inch longer tube. With my aging eyes I’m also learning to appreciate the slightly longer sighting radius that this barrel length affords. This pistol wears one of the finest front sights I’ve ever encountered on either a genuine Colt or clone. It’s properly profiled and has nice, parallel sides (no taper), and measures 0.097 of an inch wide. This provides an easy-to-see post-like blade that pairs up beautifully with the 0.105 of an inch extra-wide, .080 of an inch extra-deep notch that serves as this pistol’s rear sight. These are good sights for accurate, quick shooting. This front sight measures 0.344 of an inch in height and is probably taller than need be, but this is a good thing and will allow for later dialing in with one’s selected load. It’s always easier to file down a too-tall front sight than to somehow make a shorter one taller.
Bluing on the barrel, as well as the rest of this pistol, is nicely done and only a little more polishing prior to application could have made it better.
The ejector housing fit perfectly up against the barrel and its front end is radiused (like an early Colt) to lessen leather abrasion during holstering. The ejector rod button is crescent shaped, as is correct for this vintage gun.
The frame also shows attention to detail, as all corners are sharp and all seams are tight. Screw holes are perfectly round and not dished out from poor polishing, like those found on certain clones of Colts. The loading gate is blended perfectly with the frame, and opens and closes with just the right amount of resistance.
The cylinder of the Alchimista sports a heavily beveled front edge that’s not only attractive but should prove easy on holsters. This well-pronounced bevel is reminiscent of that found on early 1st Generation Colts.
All six chambers were well polished, and cylinder throats measured a uniform .357, which should be perfect for cast bullets sized .358. A feeler gauge measured the Alchimista’s barrel/cylinder gap to be a tight 0.005 of an inch, just in the range I like, not too tight to cause cylinder drag due to fouling, but tight enough to prevent excessive blow-by.
The Alchimista’s hammer is of the high-profile type with an adequately checkered spur and, like its frame, is also case-colored. The trigger on the Alchimista is 0.320 of an inch wide, smooth-faced, and unlike a true Colt’s is centered within the triggerguard. It also appears to be set back within the guard a bit, leaving a little extra room for one’s trigger finger. Hammer and trigger have been mated to provide a release that’s relatively crisp with just a hint of creep present that averaged three pounds for six releases. Lighter springs have obviously been employed to give this pistol’s action a light, smooth, but positive feel.
Moving on down to what makes this pistol special, we find the brass triggerguard and steel backstrap of an 1860 Army Colt. Fit to the frame is almost perfect with just the right rear of the backstrap protruding a little too high. This grip assembly really does give this 1873 a different feel, and that longer grip easily accommodates my big paw, eliminating the need to curl my little finger up under its grip. Its profile toward the top is narrower than that found on a standard Colt, and its frontstrap gives it a slight “Bisley” feel, but not overly so. There’s even a shoulder stock notch in the bottom strap. The oil-finished European walnut grips on the Alchimista are nicely figured and fit the straps of this pistol exceptionally well. Rubbing my fingers all around failed to detect any overhang anywhere. These are of one-piece design and outstandingly well checkered.
This was an extremely well-tuned revolver that locked up tightly on all six chambers. The bolt dropped properly hitting in each bolt-stop approach, as appropriate, and there was just a tad of fore-and-aft cylinder movement present. When I first unboxed this gun, I loaded it up with snap caps and dry-fired it considerably over the past few days. Surprisingly, with all that cycling there is still no hint of a cylinder dragline present.
The Alchimista shot well with everything put through it, as these 20-yard groups attest. Groups did, however, form about 5” below the author’s point of aim and slightly to the left of center, but all this can be fixed with a front sight height reduction and a slight barrel turning.
I put together a selection of .38 caliber ammo assembled in both .38 Special and .357 Mag cases representing power levels from mild lead-bulleted Cowboy loadings to some pretty serious jacketed magnum offerings. One might wonder why ammo companies would bother producing sedate lead-bulleted loads in .357 Mag cases, and the answer to that is many .357 Mag chambered lever guns won’t function reliably with loads put together in the shorter .38 Special cases. I found this to be true with my .357-chambered Browning 92s, which required that I put up all my reloads, for both my rifle and two nickeled Colts, in the magnum case so I could use the same ammo in all three guns.
Anyway, an afternoon at the range with the Alchimista showed it to be a worthy Cowboy competition pistol. With my targets set out at 20 yards, this EMF “Special” produced groups averaging from a small of 1.59 inches to a large of 2.36 inches. Its preference in a commercial Cowboy load proved to be the 158-grain CNL-profiled load from Black Hills that was put up in .38 Special cases. Out of the Alchimista’s 5.5-inch barrel, velocities ran a mild 641 feet per second (fps). It also showed a preference for the 158-grain, lead-bulleted flat point produced by PMC for the Cowboy market. Put together in .357 Mag length cases, groups with this round averaged 1.69 inches with velocities hovering in the 790 fps range.
My hunch that the Alchimista’s front sight was too tall proved true with all groups impacting about 5 inches below my point-of-aim from the 20-yard mark. For comparison, I measured the front sight on one of my nickeled Colts in .357 Mag that shoots to point-of-aim at 20 yards and found it a full 0.090 of an inch shorter than the one on the EMF gun. Solution: Pick your favorite load and spend an afternoon at the range with a file until the Alchimista shoots where you point it.
All groups also formed from between an inch or two to the left of my hold and, were this my gun, I’d turn the barrel a tad until groups centered up. The Alchimista performed flawlessly throughout its range session and all fired cases, regardless of intensity, extracted easily from its cylinder.
A bonus to the Alchimista’s longer and more angled grip frame was that it positioned my oversize hand a little lower on the grip frame, allowing more clearance between its hammer spur and the web of my hand, when cocked. This has always been a problem for me with my Colts in that even when I managed a perfect grip their hammer spurs lightly touched the web of my hand. A poor grip often resulted in a missed cock, requiring a second go at the hammer and more seconds on the clock. After years of shooting Colts, I recently switched to a pair of 50th Anniversary Flat-topped Rugers, both modified extensively to shorten their hammer travel to avoid this problem.
A call to SASS confirmed that the Alchimista is perfectly legal for main match competition and was, in fact, the gun named “Best New Product of the Year for 2008” at SASS’s year-end convention held last December in Las Vegas.
With a current price of $590 the Alchimista just might be the “gold” you’re looking for. Check out all the other guns EMF offers. ✪
Of the various percussion sidearms produced by Colt during the mid-1800s, two of the most…
by John Fasano / Jul 7, 2006