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Virtually every Old West aficionado is familiar with Buffalo Bill Cody’s popular Wild West shows, which traveled the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During Cody’s 1890 and 1906 European tours throngs of Italians in arenas from Rome to Bologna thrilled at the showmanship of Buffalo Bill and his revolving cast of characters. The 1906 tour was the last to Europe for Buffalo Bill, who a decade later teamed with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West but by then was too frail to travel overseas.

Within decades Americans huddled faithfully around TV sets in living rooms nationwide to indulge a seemingly insatiable fascination with Western lore and dramatized portrayals of real-life cowboys, Indians, cavalrymen and gunmen. Though few channels were on the air by the mid-1950s, dozens of Western series aired weekly, at least one or more nightly. Western junkies could also take in Saturday afternoon B reruns of black-and-white “oaters” on the small screen at home or the latest Technicolor weekend matinees on the big screens at local movie theaters.

Meanwhile, another American harboring a fascination with the Old West embarked on a tour of Europe, searching for a gunmaker who could replicate the Colt 1851 Navy per-cussion revolver, the weapon of choice of Wild Bill Hickok, among other Western gunfighters. Val J. Forgett Jr.—gun collector, Civil War re-enactor and owner of the New Jersey–based Service Armament Co.—ultimately found what he was looking for in Italy. In 1957 Forgett founded Navy Arms, a subsidiary cap-and-ball revolver line within Service Armament, and a year later rolled out his first Colt Navy replicas in unison with gunmakers Vittorio Gregorelli and a young, astute Aldo Uberti from the northern Italian firearms manufacturing center of Gardone Val Trompia. Forgett’s first imports didn’t bear the later obligatory Italian proof marks but were merely stamped GU, or G&U, for Gregorelli and Uberti. In 1959 Uberti began producing replica firearms under his own trade name. He and Forgett were the driving forces behind the enduring popularity of Italian-made replica Old West firearms. It took the American entrepreneur and the skilled Italian gunsmith to make many a would-be gunhand’s dream an affordable reality.

Uberti’s copy of the Winchester Model 1866
Uberti’s copy of the Winchester Model 1866 lever-action rifle remains popular among enthusiasts.
(Rock Island Auction)

Around the same time, with the centennial of the American Civil War fast approaching, the North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) found its ranks expanding. N-SSA’s competitive shooters (Forgett among them) were in dire need of usable guns, as the supply of wartime arms had begun to dry up. Blame the collector market, which had snapped up most original firearms of the era, in turn driving up prices on those remaining in circulation. Particularly scarce and expensive were Confederate firearms, which had been produced in far fewer numbers. Thus, in 1960 Navy Arms introduced a pair of percussion revolvers based on the Colt Navy and dubbed the “Yank” and the “Reb.” The steel-framed Yank adhered to the styling of the Colt Model 1851, while the brass-framed Reb faithfully recreated the Griswold & Gunnison, a Southern copy of the Colt Model 1860. Fine examples of either can reap well into the five figures today.

Aldo Uberti
Aldo Uberti
(Uberti S.P.A.)

Uberti’s and Forgett’s respective lines continued to expand, leading to a second generation of replicas of the “smoke wagons” of old. In 1973 Navy Arms introduced copies of the Winchester Models 1866 and 1873, the first of the company’s replica lever-action rifles. Over the decades at least a dozen different Italian gunmakers have entered the replica arms market, including Davide Pedersoli and Giuseppe Pietta, introducing everything from Colt Single Action Army “Peacemakers” to Spencer carbines. Uberti’s present-day line includes dozens of models.

Another Italian export that drove the popularity of Old West replica arms was the “spaghetti Western” film subgenre, a darker take on the traditional Western, whose productions were directed and scored by Italians, co-starred Italians and were filmed in both Italy and Spain. The heyday of these popular big-screen adventures (roughly 1964–78) brought to superstardom such American actors as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and featured full-screen closeups of the co-starring firearms.

Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars
In the 1950s heyday of Western films and TV series Navy Arms founder Val Forgett Jr. partnered with Italian gunmakers to produce copies of the Old West firearms depicted on-screen. Soon Italian directors were rolling out such “spaghetti Westerns” as Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood, above.
(FlixPix (Alamy Stock Photo))

Any sharp-eyed, gun-savvy viewer can quickly discern an Italian replica from an original. For example, many replica Colt Single Action Army revolvers are fitted with brass trigger guards—an option unavailable on original Peacemakers, though most percussion-era revolvers did have brass trigger guards. Colt 1851 Navy revolvers could be special-ordered with silver-plated guards, while the fluted 1861 Navy—another hard-to-find original Colt on the collector market—had blued-steel trigger guards. To their credit, Uberti and other Italian makers equipped later iterations of their replica Peacemakers with the correct steel trigger guards.

One thing is as sure as shooting, the Italian connection reverberates to this day in the ranks of such competitive shooting organizations as the N-SSA and the Single Action Shooting Society, not to mention on the big and small screen. Despite reports to the contrary, the decades-old transatlantic fascination with the Old West is alive and well. 


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