FOR 14 seasons television viewers tuned in to see the fiery opening of Bonanza. When that blazing map of the Ponderosa burned away to reveal Lorne Green, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and former Teenage Werewolf Michael Landon, we knew we were in for an hour of family entertainment. I know it was “family” fare, for two reasons: A) My parents allowed me to watch it, and B) the Cartwrights (Johnny Carson called them “a 40-year-old father and his three 30-year-old sons”) didn’t have ammunition loops on their finely tooled gun belts. That was the tip off they would be mostly solving their problems with words and not bullets.
Every time I saw rancher Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright wearing his ornately tooled rig carrying that fine 7.5-inch Colt Single Action Army, I realized that this was befitting a wealthy landowner with fine taste. Of course, I jumped on the opportunity to equip myself with the equivalent guns and leather — only I would take advantage of a century of metallurgical advances and update the “gun iron” to stainless steel.
When my old friend, John Fasano obtained the two stainless guns and the ornately carved leather, Bonanza was foremost in his mind. He knew that I too spent many a Sunday night in front of the flickering Philco television set in my parents’ living room. John also knew that I had actually visited the Ponderosa, and even sat on Ben Cartwright’s leather chair.
Years ago I traveled to Lake Tahoe, Nevada and took the tour of the house that was the standing set for Bonanza’s Ponderosa. Now discontinued, the tour of the “Ponderosa” main house was curiously exciting. The famous hats were there when you walked in the door, and you felt the presence of Ben and the boys. It wasn’t long before we began to expect one or more of them to appear. As we looked around we realize that there were no two- dimensional props here — this place was real. However it must be said that the majestic staircase went…nowhere. There is no “upstairs.” On the tour we learned that all second floor scenes were shot in a studio, although “Hop-sing’s” kitchen was intact.
A short stroll from the house and barn we came upon an area that afforded a great view of Lake Tahoe. Standing there, it was easy to orient yourself into a position that displayed the lake without any power lines or other evidence of the 21st century. It’s then we realized that we’ve seen this view in the background of dozens of scenes where one of the Cartwright boys was romancing some pretty young thing in a too tight dress. Never to marry, of course. All I needed to make that experience complete was a beautiful rig like the one provided by Alfonso’s of Hollywood and a bright SAA on my hip.
The EMF Great Western II and 1892 Hartford Rifle are true to the originals in size and design, but are of course crafted in stainless steel. While traditionalists may balk at the idea, it has plenty going for it. First off, it would be easier to clean, especially with the black powder loads some shooters use. Also, it will stand up to the elements better than a nickel or blued gun. Whether you have it riding in a holster while you hunt or round up your livestock, you’d quickly come to appreciate the modern steel from which these guns are constructed.
The stainless steel Great Western II is a fine shooting revolver that harkens back to the television era of the late 1950’s. When real Colt revolvers (then out of production) were in short supply and every TV show was a western, the EMF Company stepped in and manufactured the revolvers that filled those quick draw holsters. Many of the hog legs we saw pulled on the streets of Dodge were not Colts, they were “Great Western Revolvers” EMF’s version of the SAA.
This new Great West-ern “II” model is made for EMF by the Italian firm F.lli Pietta. This is the third Great Western II I’ve had the chance to test, and while I prefer faux Ivory grips or Stag on my SAAs, the finely checkered one-piece walnut grips set off the stainless steel nicely. With a 4.75-inch barrel, it balances like my original Pre-War Colts. With the crossbar pin for cylinder removal that replaced the black powder frame screw in 1896, half moon ejector and beveled edge on the cylinder front to aid holstering.
The EMF Hartford 1892 lever action rifle was imported from Amadeo Rossi in Brazil and is as fine a gun as the blue steel “Puma” marked rifle from Rossi I used for years in Cowboy Action Shooting. I never missed a plate with that rifle — never came in first place, either, but that was not the gun’s fault. The stainless steel version handles and shoots like its twin, and the action is smooth, functioned flawlessly and locked up securely. It has the distinction of a longer octagonal barrel, a semi buckhorn rear sight, a curved stainless buttplate, and simple but beautiful wood. It handles and points with instinctive speed.
I know you’re thinking that any “Bonanza” fan knows that Ben, Adam, Hoss and “Little Joe” carried Henry lever rifles but we also know they would’ve been better armed with a Winchester Model ‘92 similar to the one seen here. And what finish would Ben choose? Well probably one that would complement his nickel 7.5-inch SAA, right? After all, this would make it as special as his holster. It would also be as unique to Virginia City as it would be to the TV westerns of the era.
The Great Western was perfectly timed with a fine trigger pull — just under 4 pounds on my RCBS scale with no creep — and I’m fussy about these things. Timing, like my other Great Westerns, was perfect, no dragline around the cylinder. It easily shot to SASS accuracy standards with 250-grain Winchester “Cowboy” loads chronographing at 760 feet per second (fps) and printing 3-inch groups at 25 yards.
The Hartford 1892, using Black Hills 250-grain round nose flat points, the chronograph topped out at 840 fps — over a hundred fps faster than the same loads out of the Great Western II pistol. The lighter bullet 165-grain Cowboy loads from Ten-X came screaming out of the 20-inch barrel at nearly 1,000 fps and clustered in 2-inch groups at 50 yards.
Both these fine weapons needed equally fine protection on the range. When I brought them to Omar Pineda of Alfonso’s of Hollywood Gunleather, he produced a tooled gun belt and scabbard whose color matched perfectly. That is no small feat as the texture and variations in the leather and the dyes usually make exact matches between two different rigs very difficult, but it was no surprise since Alfonso’s has been supplying the highest quality leatherwork since the early 1960’s. Omar’s father Alfonso Pineda started the company after making many of the belts and fast draw holsters designed by Arvo Ojala for famous Television and movie western characters from Gunsmoke to Have Gun — Will Travel.
The holster, Alfonso’s A2 fast draw rig, is the same design embraced by the top fast draw competitors in the 1960’s, with a muzzle forward rake and a fully carved holster and belt. With a single gun price of under $500 for a piece of Hollywood history, it’s a steel-lined wonder that would make old Ben Cartwright smile. The accompanying tooled rifle scabbard is a custom item from Alfonso’s shop, but matches the color, style and carving of the A2 rig, as I said, perfectly.
Whether you’re a Bonanza fan or not, these EMF guns are offered as timeless classics — examples of the best of 19th century gun design, combined with the advantages of 21st century materials. The way we present day “cowboys” see it, after the next shootout we can return to our own “Ponderosa” and wait till the round up is over before cleaning the shootin’ irons — without guilt. Ben and the boys would approve. ✪