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Web Blast: Lightning Strikes Twice AWA Style

Lightning Strikes Twice AWA Style

John Taffin

Reproduced from the February 2009 issue of GUNS Magazine.

Lighting 1

Shooting the AWA Ultimate .44 was an undeniable pleasure to John.

Replicas of the Colt Lightning are offered by at least two manufacturers and four importers. They go by various names and price levels. However, American Western Arms was the first to actually bring a Lightning to market. All of AWA’s firearms are assembled and finished in this country using Pietta parts. This gives Russell Simpson, president and head gunsmith, total control over the quality of the assembly and final finish and the results are obvious.

The test Lightning furnished by AWA was one of their top grade Lightnings with special wood, custom finish, and custom chambering. This rifle belongs to Jim Martin and he graciously allowed me testing time before sending it on to him. Martin is a well-known sixgunsmith and pistolero par excellence and in fact was the gunsmith who brought the pair of Great Western sixguns featured on the cover of the first GUNS in January 1955 and written up by me in the 50th anniversary issue in January 2005 to shooting perfection. Being two of the first guns out of the Great Western plant in 1954, they never were right until Martin performed his magic. Now they are.

Martin’s AWA Lightning features a buttstock of fancy walnut with a steel crescent buttplate, case-hardened receiver, and a chamber held to minimum dimensions for the .44-40 cartridge. In fact, the chamber is so tight, none of the factory cowboy loads would chamber without difficulty except one and the only factory loads usable were Winchester’s 200-grain JHP and 240-grain Cowboy load. However, all of my reloads entered the chamber with no difficulty whatsoever. I always full-length resize every round I load even when starting with brand-new brass and the .44-40 is no exception. This is a good example of exactly why I do this — chambers come in all assorted sizes and factory-new brass is often oversized.

This AWA Lightning in one of the most beautiful rifles to be found. Wood to metal fit is perfect, bluing is deep with metal properly prepared and polished before being finished. The action performed perfectly with no malfunctions whatsoever when using properly sized ammunition. The Lightning action is much simpler to work than a lever action.

With a lever action, the offhand holds the rifle into the shoulder while the shooting hand works both trigger and lever often requiring the trigger finger to move some distance away from the trigger. With the slide or pump action, it is the shooting hand holding it into the shoulder and the offhand working the action. The rifle never leaves the shoulder and the trigger finger is always in the right place. With pistol-length cartridges the forearm only moves 2″ backwards and forward to eject the fired case and chamber a new round.

Lighting 2


It doesn’t get much better than this, at least in Taffin’s hands, the AWA Ultimate with .44 Special loads.

Everything about the functioning of the AWA Lightning was smooth and it shot well for me with its buckhorn sights and 2-1/2-pound trigger pull. My most used .44-40 loading, which so happens to be Martin’s also, is a roundnose, flatpoint bullet over 8.0 grains of Unique. In the 20″ barrel of the Lightning, this load clocked out just under 1,200 fps with 9-shot groups at 30 yards and 5-shot groups at 50 yards both right at 2″.

The second lightning strike from AWA is an abbreviated version of the Lightning known as the Lightning Bolt. In the 1950s, a then unknown actor by the name of Steve McQueen was given the starring role of Josh Randall in the TV Western series Wanted Dead Or Alive. It may be difficult for the younger generation to believe now, but in the late 1950s all three networks had Westerns every night.

There were so many Westerns, in fact, many of the heroes had some kind of memorable gimmick. Josh Randall’s was the Mare’s Leg, a cut down lever-action rifle, in this case the first replica of the Winchester 1892 — a South American El Tigre. The buttstock was chopped off just behind the operating lever, which had been enlarged to resemble one used by John Wayne on his lever action rifle beginning in the 1939 Stagecoach. The barrel length of the rifle was cut back to 12″ and the whole thing carried by McQueen in a special holster with a hook at the top for the saddle ring and a spring clip at the bottom to accept the barrel. It really looked effective on television.

The Lightning Bolt from AWA is the slide action version of the Mare’s Leg. The rifle/pistol used by Steve McQueen was illegal by then federal standards, as it was a cut-down rifle. The Lightning Bolt is built from scratch as a handgun and legal under federal law. The action works exactly the same as the Lightning and this first Lightning Bolt was actually a special gift for Jim Martin from Russell Simpson in return for all of the help he had given AWA. It was Martin’s Lightning Bolt, however, I got to shoot it first. In fact he didn’t even know about it until I sent it to him. It was also chambered in Martin’s favorite caliber — .44-40.

Although the Lightning Bolt comes equipped with sights this is actually a shoot from the hip fun gun. Since Martin has always been a point shooter, the sights will definitely not be used. With a little practice it becomes fairly easy to bust rocks shooting the same way Josh Randall did. As with the big brother Lightning, the Lightning Bolt performed flawlessly and was easy to shoot with its 3-1/2-pound trigger pull. The Josh Randall-style special holster for the Lightning Bolt was crafted by Bob Kelly with the accompanying knife being made by Bob Huddleston one of the gunsmiths at AWA. Although both of these Lightnings were chambered in .44-40, the standard offering is .45 Colt with .44-40 being one of many custom options.

AWA also offers the Ultimate revolver and sent along two for testing. Both of the .44s have octagon barrels, one 7-1/2″ and the other 10″ in length, and two cylinders in .44-40 and .44 Special. They are also beautifully finished with case-colored frame and hammer and the balance deeply blued. Grips are one-piece mesquite crafted by Jim Martin and follow the specifications he set down many years ago for single action stocks.

Most single action grips are made with the outside of the grip shorter than the grip frame and tapered into the butt, and others are made with the grips the same length as the grip frame with no taper but rather cut straight across the bottom. Martin does it differently than either style. He actually makes the grips longer than the grip frame and then tapers them on the bottom up to the grip frame. This then gives the shooter with larger hands, or fat stubby fingers like mine, more grip to hold onto with the size somewhere in between the standard Colt Single Action Army and the 1860 Army.

Whether using the .44-40 or .44 Special cylinder both AWA Ultimates shot exceptionally well with the edge going to the .44 Special with both sixguns. This is quite all right with me. Although the .44-40 is one of my favorite cartridges in both sixguns and long guns, the .44 Special is, well, just special. A man can never have too many .44 Specials and I now have two more — the Ultimates did not go back.

Lightning 3

The AWA Lightning in all its splendid glory next to its little brother, the Lightning Bolt

WEB BLAST EXTRA

You say you don’t believe in miracles? If so, you have obviously not heard of AWA! It is not unusual for a relatively new gun company to survive some adversity, however it is doubtful any firearms company has never had to go down the path followed by AWA and not be run off the road. American Western Arms, like any new company, had growing pains and in fact had several changes of ownership and management. Adversity #1.

If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck…

Most of the cartridge firing replicas in the last quarter of the 20th century came from Italy and two manufacturers Armi San Marco and Uberti. In the past Armi San Marco supplied replicas to various importers, however, AWA signed an agreement with ASM to supply parts to American Western Arms, and also all Armi San Marco sixguns were to be marketed exclusively through AWA. AWA did not import completed sixguns under the AWA label but rather brought in the parts which were assembled in this country and then the firearms were finished all resulting in as beautiful a Single Action Army replica as one was ever going to find anywhere. AWA eventually planned to bring all the machinery to this country with the results being completely American-made single actions. If they could have offered a completely American-made single action sixgun of totally American-made parts, and if they kept the price level down they wouldn’t have able to make them fast enough; Armi San Marco went out of business, call that Adversity #2.

Lightning 4

John enjoys shooting the slide action AWA as much as he does leverguns. Maybe
more so, since a pump means his shooting hand never has to readjust.

Bad News Comes In Threes

American Western Arms offered two basic Colt replicas.  The standard model was the Longhorn with a case colored/hardened frame and hammer, blue finish, and one-piece walnut grips.  Both the front sight and hammer checkering were based upon those found on 19th-century Colt Single Action Armies. The top-of-the-line model was the Peacekeeper which added a factory tuned action, 11 degree forcing cone, 1st  Generation style cylinder flutes, and bone/charcoal case hardened frame. These were beautifully made single actions which at first glance looked much like original Colts. Here comes Adversity #3.

Colt sued AWA claiming shooters were buying AWA Peacekeepers thinking they were actually purchasing Colt Peacemakers. Now think about that for a while. When federal form 4473 is filled out by the purchaser the name of the company and the model of the sixgun being purchased is prominently displayed. For someone to buy a Peacekeeper thinking they were getting a Peacemaker would require a totally dishonest seller and an equally totally naïve buyer. AWA survived the suit, however it was the next two adversities which almost destroyed them.

Lightning 5

The diminutive AWA Lightning Bolt with leather by Bill Kelly and knife by Bob Huddleston.
For those who want something completely different.

Sometimes Bad News Comes in Fours and Fives

Adversity #4 and #5 were closely related and came very close to digging the grave, supplying the coffin, and shoveling the dirt on top. Two pieces of erroneous information were published, one in a national magazine, definitely not ours, and the other on the Internet with both claiming AWA was out of business. They certainly were not, however the misinformation almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overnight hundreds of orders for AWA were canceled. Once again American Western Arms survived and they are now known as AWA-USA, Inc.

Lightning 6

This is a typical 30-yard group fired by John with the AWA Lightning rifle.

Survival

AWA-USA is headed up by president Russell Simpson who also happens to be the head gunsmith and is also the man one talks to when contacting AWA. (How many gun companies can you call and talk to the president?) After spending the last couple months shooting several AWAs and also spending real money to keep two of them for my own use I can say AWA is alive and well and turning out excellent firearms both single action sixguns and rifles as well as a real surprise. Way back in the 1880s Colt offered the Lightning rifle in three frame sizes, .22, pistol cartridges, and rifle cartridges. It was a great idea having a repeating rifle operated by sliding a small forearm rather than working a lever. The Winchester and Marlin leverguns survived, the Colt Lightning did not. The reason was quite simple; the leverguns were dependable, the Colt slide action was not and did not hold up very well.

Lightning 7

Don’t you just a love a good shooting .44? These are typical groups fired with the 10” .44-40 AWA Ultimate.

Lightning Strikes

Fast forward to the present. Replicas of the Colt Lightning are offered by at least two manufacturers and four importers; they go by various names and they are also found at various price levels. One of the earliest Lightning replicas offered was by AWA and in fact Russell Simpson tells me American Western Arms was the first Lightning on the market.  I do know the first one I ever saw was an AWA used by one of our local CAS members several years ago.

All of AWA’s firearms are assembled and finished in this country using Pietta parts. This gives Simpson total control over the quality of the assembly and final finish and the results are obvious. The test AWA Lightning furnished to me by AWA was one of their top grade Lightnings with special wood, custom finish, and custom chambering. This rifle belongs to Jim Martin and he graciously allowed me testing time before sending it on to him. Martin is a well-known sixgunsmith and pistolero par excellence  and in fact was the gunsmith who brought the pair of Great Western sixguns featured on the cover of the first Guns in January 1955 and written up by me in the 50th anniversary issue in January 2005 to shooting perfection. Being two of the first guns out of the Great Western plant in 1954 they never were right until Martin performed his magic; now they are.

Martin’s AWA Lightning features a buttstock of fancy walnut with a steel crescent shaped butt plate, case hardened receiver, and a chamber held to minimum dimensions for the .44-40 or .44 Winchester Centerfire cartridge. In fact, the chamber is so tight none of the factory cowboy loads would chamber without difficulty except one and the only factory loads usable were Winchester’s 200 JHP and 240 Cowboy load; however, all of my reloads entered the chamber with no difficulty whatsoever. I always full-length re-size every round I load even when starting with brand-new brass and the .44-40 is no exception. This is a good example of exactly why I do this; chambers come in all assorted sizes and factory new brass is often oversized.

Lightning 8

The 7-1/2” AWA Ultimate .44.

Lightning’s Form and Function—Beautiful

This AWA Lightning in one of the most beautiful rifles to be found. Wood to metal fit is perfect, bluing is deep with metal properly prepared and polished before being finished. The action performed perfectly with no malfunctions whatsoever when using properly sized ammunition. The only problem surfacing was shooter error in which I allowed my finger to get in between the back of the forearm and the front of the receiver when working the action. By the time I did this twice I learned my lesson and my fingers stayed on the forearm where they belonged.

The Lightning action is much simpler to work than a lever action. With a lever action the offhand holds the rifle into the shoulder while the shooting hand works both trigger and lever often requiring the trigger finger to move some distance away from the trigger. It always bothers me to see anyone working a lever action, or a bolt action rifle for that matter, by removing it from the shoulder and holding it down closer to waist level. This is both wasted motion and time. With the slide or pump action it is the shooting hand holding it into the shoulder and the offhand working the action. The rifle never leaves the shoulder and the trigger finger is always in the right place. With pistol length cartridges the forearm only moves two-inches backwards to open the action and eject the fired case and then two inches forward to chamber a new round. Properly tuned and correctly functioning a slide action should be much faster than a lever action, which is why so many Cowboy Action Shooters are seriously looking at the Lightning.

Everything about the functioning of the AWA Lightning was smooth and it shot well for me with its buckhorn sights and 2 1/2# trigger pull. My most used .44-40 loading, which so happens to be Martin’s also, is a RNFP (round-nosed, flat-point) bullet over 8.0 grains of Unique. In the 20” barrel of the Lightning this load clocked out just under 1,200 fps with nine-shot groups at 30 yards and five-shot groups at 50 yards both right at two-inches.

Lightning 9

The forearm of the Lightning only moves two-inches to operate the action.

Lightning Strikes Again

The second lightning strike from AWA is an abbreviated version of the Lightning known as the Lightning Bolt. In the 1950s, a then unknown actor by the name of Steve McQueen was given the starring role of Josh Randall in the TV Western series Wanted Dead Or Alive. It may be difficult for the younger generation to believe now but in the late 1950s all three networks had westerns every night. There were so many westerns in fact many of the heroes had some kind of memorable gimmick. Josh Randall’s was the Mare’s Leg, a cut down lever action rifle, in this case the first replica of the Winchester 1892, a South American produced El Tigre. The butt stock was chopped off just behind the operating lever, which had been enlarged to resemble that used by John Wayne on his lever action rifle beginning in the 1939 production of Stagecoach. The barrel length of the rifle was cut back to 12” and the whole thing was carried by McQueen in a special holster with a hook at the top for the saddle ring and a spring clip at the bottom to accept the barrel. It really looked effective on television.

The Lightning Bolt from AWA is the slide action version of the Mare’s Leg. The rifle/pistol used by Steve McQueen was illegal by then federal standards as it was a cut down rifle. The Lightning Bolt is not a cut down rifle but is built from scratch as a handgun and legal under federal law. The action works exactly the same as the Lightning and this first Lightning Bolt was actually a special gift for Jim Martin from Russell Simpson in return for all of the help he had given AWA. It was Martin’s Lightning Bolt, however I got to shoot it first; in fact he didn’t even know about it until I returned it to him. It was also chambered in Martin’s favorite caliber, which is .44-40.

Although the Lightning Bolt comes equipped with sights this is actually a shoot from the hip fun gun. Since Martin has always been a point shooter, the sights will definitely not be used. With a little practice it becomes fairly easy to bust rocks shooting the same way Josh Randall did. As with the big brother Lightning, the Lightning Bolt performed flawlessly and was easy to shoot with its 3 1/2# trigger pull; the Josh Randall-style special holster for the Lightning Bolt was crafted by Bob Kelly with the accompanying knife being made by Bob Huddleston one of the gunsmiths at AWA. Although both of these Lightnings were chambered in .44-40, the standard offering is .45 Colt with .44-40 being one of many custom options.

Lightning 10

The Lightning Bolt with action open.

Irresistible .44s

Speaking of custom options brings us to the pair of AWA test sixguns from AWA, the ones which cost me money. With the Lightnings Russell Simpson also sent a pair of custom Ultimates. The Ultimate is the standard single action revolver produced by AWA and is quite different from most replicas in that it has a coil mainspring. This pair were both .44-40s and both had extra cylinders chambered in .44 Special, fitted to each sixgun, and consecutively serial numbered. Regular readers will know of my passion for the .44 Special so it is obvious I could not resist this pair of sixguns. Simpson uses Dave Manson Precision Reamers for chambering cylinders and the results are a pair of good shooting .44 sixguns with both .44-40 and .44 Special cylinders used.

Both of the .44s have octagon barrels, one 7 1/2” and the other 10” in length. They are also beautifully finished with case colored frame and hammer and the balance deeply blued. Grips are one-piece mesquite crafted by Jim Martin and follow the specifications he sat down many years ago for single action stocks. Most single action grips are made with the outside of the grip shorter than the grip frame and tapered into the butt, and others are made with the grips the same length as the grip frame with no taper but rather cut straight across the bottom; Martin does it differently than either style. He actually makes the grips longer than the grip frame and then tapers them on the bottom up to the grip frame. This then gives the shooter with larger hands, or fat stubby fingers like mine, more grip to hold onto with the size somewhere in between the standard Colt Single Action Army and the 1860 Army.

Whether using the .44-40 or .44 Special cylinder both AWA Ultimates shot exceptionally well with the edge going to the .44 Special with both sixguns. This is quite all right with me as although the .44-40 is one of my favorite cartridges in both sixguns and long guns, the .44 Special is, well just Special. A man can never have too many .44 Specials and I now have two more.

Lightning 11

The 7-1/2” dual cylindered .44-40 and .44 Special AWA Ultimate.

Lightning 12

AWA’s version of Josh Randall’s Mare’s Leg, the Lightning Bolt holds only five rounds of ammunition.

Lightning 12

Lightning 14

The beautiful case coloring found on the receiver of the AWA Lightning.

Ultimate Single Action
Maker: AWAAWAAWA-USA
2280 West 80th St. #2
Hialeah FL 33016
(305) 828-1982
www.awaguns.com

Action type: Traditional single action
Caliber: .32-20, .357 Mag, .38-40, .44-40, .44 Special, .45 Colt
Capacity: 6
Barrel length: 4-3/4″, 5-1/2″, 7-1/2″
Overall length: 11″ (5-1/2″ barrel)
Weight: 37 ounces (5-1/2″ .45)
Finish: Blue, blue/bone case nickel, hard chrome
Sights: Traditional fixed single action
Grips: 1-piece walnut
Price: $600-$795

Lightning Bolt
Maker: AWAAWAAWA-USA
2280 West 80th St. #2
Hialeah FL 33016
(305) 828-1982
www.awaguns.com

Action type: Slide action
Caliber: .45 Colt, .38 Special, .38-40, .44-40 (tested)
Capacity: 5
Barrel length: 12″
Overall length: 21-1/2″
Weight: 4 pounds, 5 ounces.
Finish: Blue (blue/bone case,
nickel, hard chrome optional)
Sights: Post front, buckhorn rear
Grips: Walnut
Price: $1,000

Lightning Rifle
Maker: AWAAWAAWA-USA
2280 West 80th St. #2
Hialeah FL 33016
(305) 828-1982
www.awaguns.com

Action type: Slide action
Caliber: .45 Colt, .38 Special, .38-40, .44-40 (tested)
Capacity: 10
Barrel length: 20″, 24″
Overall length: 38″, 42″
Weight: 6 pounds, 4 ounces (20″),
7 pounds (24″)
Finish: Blue (blue/bone case,
nickel, hard chrome optional)
Sights: Buckhorn rear, post front
Stock: Walnut
Price: $1,150

Test-Fire AWA .44-40 Lightning and Lightning Bolt
20” Lightning
Load Velocity Group Size
Black Hills 200 RNFP *** ***
Ten-X 200 RNFP *** ***
Ultramax 200 RNFP *** ***
Winchester 225 LFN 936 fps 1 1/2”
Winchester 200JFP 995 fps 1 5/8”
Oregon Trail 225/8.2 gr. Universal 1,184 fps 1 3/4”
Oregon Trail 225/8.2 gr. Unique 1,207 fps 1 3/8”
Oregon Trail 225/8.0 gr. Unique 1,178 fps 2”
Oregon Trail 200/8.0 gr. Unique 1,208 fps 2”
Notes: *** Factory Loads Will Not Chamber. 9 Shots/30 Yds
Test-Fire AWA Octagon Barreled Ultimates .44-40/.44 Special .44-40
.44-40 7 1/2” Barrel 10” Barrel
Load Velocity Group Size* Velocity Group Size*
Black Hills 200 RNFP (factory) 911 fps 1 1/8” 971 fps 1 1/2”
Oregon Trail 225/8.0 gr. Universal 938 fps 1” 980 fps 1 3/8”
Oregon Trail 225/8.0 gr. Unique 983 fps 2” 956 fps 1 1/2”
Oregon Trail 200/8.0 gr. Unique 903 fps 1 7/8” 963 fps 1”
.44 Special 7 1/2” Barrel 10” Barrel
Load Velocity Group Size* Velocity Group Size*
Black Hills 210 FPL (factory) 720 fps 5/8” 771 fps 5/8”
Winchester 240 LFN (factory) 740 fps 1 3/8” 731 fps 5/8”
Oregon Trail 200/6.0 gr. Trail Boss 819 fps 1 7/8” 825 fps 1 1/2”
Oregon Trail 240/4.8 gr. Trail Boss 728 fps 2” 710 fps 1 1/2”
#429421 (.429”)/7.5 gr. Unique 1,010 fps 1 1/8” 1,033 fps 7/8”
#429421 (.431”)/7.5 gr. Unique 1,049 fps 1 3/8” 1,079 fps 7/8”
Lyman #429383/5.0 gr. Bullseye 773 fps 1 1/8” 782 fps 1 3/4”
#429421(.431”)/7.5 gr. PowerPistol 954 fps 1 5/8” 946 fps 5/8”
#429421 (.431”)/11.5 gr. Blue Dot 1,101 fps 1 7/8” 1,130 fps 1 1/4”
Notes: *Groups are five shots at 20 yards.

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  1. Ioerger, Dave says:

    I paid in full for a Lightning-bolt back in May of 2010. I am order number 10, color case hardend, 45 colt with octagon barrel. I have never gotten my pistol. It is now 9/5/2011. What happened to AWA? I never get anything as far as a reply! Can you help me on this matter? 309-202-0003 (Only for you to call me)

  2. Edgar Figueroa says:

    I have a Rossi mares leg 45c.I like that mares leg holster with the knife.will my gun fit it if so how much for the holster.thank you

  3. Larry Adams says:

    BUYER BEWARE!
    I tried to get a part for may AWA Lighting. Russell Simpson cashed my check and i have never gotten the part or any response to my inquiries regarding such. If AWA is still in business it’s a SCAM and should not be. BUYER BEWARE! If i were you I would not have anything to do with AWA. By promoting his business you are putting honest, hardworking Gun enthusiasts at risk of losing their money and lining the pockets of a croak.

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