The Hobby Gunsmith

Product Test-

AWA Ultimate 1873

We In the world of Cowboy Action shooting sixguns, there are reasonably priced guns, there are heavy-duty utility guns, and there are guns that are well-built works of art that are true to the originals. We at The Hobby Gunsmith have had the pleasure of shooting heavy-duty utility guns like the Ruger Blackhawks and we have shot the reasonably priced guns like those made by Pietta and Uberti. We have never had an opportunity to shoot upper echelon handguns like the Genuine Colts or any of the really nice Colt reproductions like those from USFA and AWA.

   We finally broke down and invested in one of the finer Colt reproductions from American Western Arms to test for our readers. The nice thing about testing guns is that a new one is only as far away as the local gun store and credit card. Arrangements were quickly made to acquire an AWA Ultimate 1873 revolver in 45 Colt caliber.

The AWA Ultimate 1873 after being to the range three times.

   The gun arrived the next day, but I had to wait ten days before taking delivery. Viewing the gun while it was in the store affirmed my decision to purchase this model. The Doug Turnbull color case hardening is a work of art in itself, the bluing on the barrel and backstrap is very deep and rich, the one-piece walnut grips are just like those on the original Colt, but the pleasant surprise was the feel of the hammer and trigger that resembled those on guns with expensive custom action work done on them. One immediately realizes they are handling a gun made by a company that takes pride in their workmanship.

The Doug Turnbull color case hardening.  What appears to be flaws are actually reflections or impurities in the oil on the surface.  The work is flawless.

   We are familiar with color case hardened (CCH ) components from working with guns from a variety of makers who provide CCH parts. The random colors provide a pattern of subtle hues on the silver background of the casehardened steel. Most CCH finishes we have seen are dull steel with subtle color variations made mostly of smoked gray and pastel straw color hues. The AWA Ultimate came with a CCH that was simply stunning with its well defined and rich colors of blue, straw, and gray swirling on a background of light gray and browns.

The other side of the frame showing the two patent date lines.

   The surface is so shiny that I immediately wrote to AWA to ask if any special care is needed to preserve the lacquer finish that must be on the gun to provide the deep and glossy shine to the CCH finish. The response from AWA is that I was seeing the natural deep finish of Doug Turnbulls custom finish. That finish is truly a work of art and my hat is off to the artists at Doug Turnbull Restorations.

   The blued finish on the barrel, cylinder, and backstrap resemble the deep black finish found on the receivers of the AWA Lightning rifles. The deep black finish is perfect in every way and reflects the quality of work found on expensive firearms. The barrel is engraved down the left side with the words, “Ultimate 1873 45 Colt Cal.” The lettering is large script, but fine enough to avoid being gaudy. Some people may object to the script down the left side of the barrel, but I feel it represents the fine workmanship as if the maker had signed the gun. “American Western Arms,” is tastefully engraved on the top of the barrel using block letters that are unobtrusive.

The barrel markings. This photo was taken after shooting the gun and some imperfections on the surface were dust that did not get cleaned off for the photo.

   Moving to an examination of the walnut grips reveals more attention to detail. The grips are one-piece walnut wood grips that perfectly fit the grip frame. The finish is natural and dull, which provides a better gripping surface to reduce movement while in contact with the shooter’s hand. All joints seem to fit perfectly to the metal and there are no finishing marks anywhere on the wood. Just smooth wood with a perfect fit to the metal at all joints.


This photo illustrates the excellent fit between the metal and wood parts of this gun.  Excellent craftsmanship is evident throughout this gun.

   The sense of quality does not end with the finish on this gun. Cocking the hammer with the right thumb revealed a very light and consistent pull. The hammers on many guns will get progressively strong as the hammer reaches the full-cock notch. The AWA Ultimate remains smooth with no perceivable change in the pressure required to cock the hammer. This provides a light hammer at both the beginning and end of the arc. This is made possible on the AWA by the use of a coil spring with spring geometry that changes the angle of the movement as the coil spring becomes compressed. There is almost the impression that the spring is too light to consistently fire the primer, but the gun never failed to fire our ammunition during field tests or in a CAS match.

   One pint about the Ultimate 1872 revolver that should be mentioned is their use of a gas ring and cylinder bushing. Inspection of the front of the cylinder reveals a bushing that extends forward to the frame and is intended to divert combustion gasses around the cylinder pin to reduce fouling of the cylinder pin and improve reliability. Removing the cylinder from this gun also reveals that the bushing is part of an easily removable bushing between the cylinder and the cylinder pin. This provides two bearing surfaces, which can be very important to smooth cylinder turning.

This photo shows the cylinder with the bushing slid forward for cleaning.  It only requires a little pull with the thumbnail to remove the bushing.

   With a single surface cylinder pin, any fouling that becomes imbedded between the cylinder and pin will cause cylinder drag. When there is more than one surface, the accumulation of fouling in one of the surfaces allows the other to start turning. This allows the smoother of the two surfaces to always control the turning, which further improves reliability. I consider this to be a sign of a quality firearm.

   One thing to clarify before moving to the field tests is that this is a production gun with excellent tolerances and quality, and not a gun with a custom action job. Guns that are tuned for competition will have additional features intended to keep them running under the strenuous conditions of competition. These features might include cylinder timing intended to prevent cylinder lockup during normal cocking action. These actions are intended to be thrown into place by a fast shooter and avoid the problem of overturning during competition. These kinds of features would make the gun less reliable under normal conditions and are not found on these fine production guns.

   We took the gun to the range for some field-testing and to break it in. We found the gun to be a pleasure to shoot, but experienced a very minor bit of drag on some of our brass casings that were slightly thicker than normally found, or that had primers that were higher than normal. We attribute this to the tight tolerances found on this gun and didn’t cause any problems while shooting single handed with the weak hand as might be found when shooting in the SASS Duelist or Gunfighter categories.

   A note about gun tolerances is probably in order. When guns are shipped from the factory, the company must provide a firearm that will shoot reliably for many years under all conditions. This is why many guns are shipped with heavy springs and tight tolerances. When a competent gunsmith rebuilds a gun for competition, they will essentially put many years of wear into the gun to make it perform smoothly.  If a writer compares the fit and feel of a new gun to one that has either aged or been artificially aged by a gunsmith, the comparison would be unfair.

   Despite the fact that this gun can be compared to some of the top guns with custom action jobs, it is still a production firearm designed for perhaps over a hundred years of normal service. Expecting to purchase one of these guns and winning a major competition would be unrealistic in any category where exceptionally fast cocking action will be done. This gun might be ready to go in the less stressful category such as Duelist or Gunfighter. This is because SASS gunfighters will be cocking one gun while shooting the other, which places fewer demands on the inner parts of the guns.

   The AWA Ultimate 1873 is pure pleasure to shoot on the range. In slow practice it drew attention and some onlookers as though it was a custom Colt. The gun shot about a two-inch group at ten meters on a windy day. The pattern in the photograph is a bit deceptive, because we fired the first three using the red bullseye as the target and the final two shots were done with a correction factor to compensate for the fact that the gun shoots about an inch or two low at ten meters. Had we not adjusted by shooting an inch or so higher, I suspect the group would have been less than an inch across.

The Ultimate 1873 sits on the target.  The first group was low and we made an adjustment to bring the point of impact up into the bullseye for the last two shots.

   We found the recoil on this .45 Long Colt to be comfortable while shooting 160 grain round nose flat point bullets with five grains of Hodgdon Tightgroup powder. Bullets were loaded using a Lee Factory Crimp Die with a very firm crimp.

   We took the AWA Ultimate 1873 to two cowboy action matches to test its effectiveness and use in competition. The gun performed better than I can shoot and drew a lot of attention among the local shooters. The color case hardening drew some admiration.

   The gun handled very well out of the holster and the 4-¾ inch barrel made it easier to smoothly clear my holster that rides a bit high on my hip. For the first match, I shot the strong side with a Uberti 75 Remington revolver with an action job and used the AWA in the weak hand. The reason was to have the lighter gun with the slightly smoother action in the weak hand to help with the handling. I shot in the Gunfighter category, which allowed me to feel the two guns side-by-side.

   The smooth action of the AWA felt good and the two guns provided a nice balance for shooting with each hand. I found the natural walnut grip of the AWA Ultimate to be a bit more controllable in the hand compared to the more slippery varnish finish of the Uberti. It might be tempting to credit the better controllability to the shorter barrel and lightness of the AWA, but I don’t think that is the case.

   The AWA was very stable while aiming, which would be expected from a lighter gun with a shorter barrel, but it also recovered more quickly from the recoil, which was not expected. The improved traction of the natural wood grips allowed me to return the gun from the recoil much more quickly than with the Uberti Remington. The gun also felt more stable in the left hand while cocking the hammer with a one-hand hold.

   Using this combination of guns gave me my best finish of a match while shooting in the Gunfighter, and I attribute the sudden improvement to the fact that I was shooting two excellent guns. I need to again state that the guns felt almost identical even though the AWA Ultimate was stock out of the box and the Uberti Remington had a complete action job with lightened springs. I thought the hammer pull of the AWA was slightly smoother all the way to the rear of the pull, but the comparison was not fair considering that I was using different hands.

   The second match was a week later and everything was the same except I shot in the Traditional Category using a cross-draw holster for the Ultimate and I was shooting the AWA lightning rifle in .45 Colt caliber. Shooting both guns in the same modified Weaver stance with the same hands revealed some interesting differences. I could clearly feel a difference between the two guns and the AWA felt more comfortable and seemed to return to target more quickly.

At competition speed the AWA Ultimate responded much more quickly and I had fewer misses. The Uberti felt a little sluggish with its slightly more cumbersome hammer pull. The crisp break of the AWA trigger seemed to be an advantage at speed.  The shorter barrel handled much better between targets and through transitions in and out of the holster. The combination of the excellent handling of both pistols and the recovery speed of the AWA Lightning rifle gave me my best finish in a match.

   The AWA Ultimate will become my main match gun for shooting in all categories except when I feel the need to shoot the Blackhawks in the Modern Category. The lighter weight of this gun combined with the excellent balance makes it the best gun in my collection. It will be pampered and treated with care because I think it will represent an excellent investment for my firearms collection. I only wish it had a .45 ACP cylinder available to increase its versatility in ammunition. This gun definitely belongs in the top tier of Colt style single action revolvers.