When I was a kid, I had a toy Colt 1911 (not that I knew what it was back then) which fired rubber-tipped darts. It was my favourite pistol. To my childish eyes, it looked just the way a gun should look- squat, no-nonsense, chunky and somehow menacing. I also liked my die-cast, cap-firing Luger, but despite the cachet of this being a “baddie” gun (which is of course wildly cool when you’re ten years old), my preferred sidearm was always the Colt, especially when I was fighting off the relentless attacks of Stormtrooper Action Man from the top of the stairs.
My replicas are a little more sophisticated now, and if I owned a Stormtrooper Action Man, it would be a collectible far too precious and expensive to be shot at. But the 1911 still looks to me like a “proper” semi-auto pistol – the standard against which others are judged. I wasn’t interested in airsoft pistols back in 2010 and though there were some .177 replicas of the 1911 around, none were fully functional. Until Cybergun announced the release of the Tanfoglio Witness in 2011. I can’t remember when I was last so excited about the release of a replica pistol. And then of course they sold out almost as soon as they were released, and I wasn’t able to find a new one. I ended up paying more than I should for a barely used second-hand example. And I loved it. In fact, I liked it so much that I ended up buying two more over the next twelve months.
So, you’ll understand that this isn’t an entirely dispassionate review. I had to sell my collection what I moved away from the UK, and those Witnesses are amongst the replicas I still miss most.
Real steel background
The Colt 1911 was created by legendary U.S. firearms designer John Moses Browning, and was an evolutionary development of previous pistols such as the Colt Model 1900. The pistol which became the M1911 was initially produced in 1905 in response to a US Army procurement exercise intended to replace the then current Colt M1892 revolver as the standard US Army sidearm. The army were looking for a gun which would chamber the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round and which would be simple, rugged and reliable enough for military use.
Combat reports had noted the poor performance of the .38 calibre round for which the M1892 was chambered. The .45 ACP cartridge
was designed by Browning in 1904 as an experimental round for semi-automatic pistols. It was significantly larger and heavier than any other contemporary pistol cartridge and promised to provide the stopping power which was lacking in the smaller .38. During the 1905 trials, pistols from several manufacturers were examined, including a Luger chambered for .45 ACP.
US Soldiers with 1911s, circa 1912
Photo: National Archives
The design of the 1911 was hugely influential and most semi-automatic pistols which followed used variations of the same basic approach. The principle of using expanding combustion gases to extract the used cartridge case and load the next round wasn’t new – the Mauser C96 and P.08 (Luger) pistols were both well established when Browning began his design. However, both used complex mechanisms to achieve self-loading and both were prone to jamming if they were not kept scrupulously clean. The 1911 was much simpler, and was one of the earliest pistols to use a moving slide. It’s an elegantly simple design which proved simple to manufacture and reliable in use.
World War One Colt M1911
An exhaustive series of field tests were carried out between 1906 and 1911 to determine which pistol best suited the needs of the army. The Colt was modified and improved during this time and trounced the opposition in later trials – at one test in late 1910, 6000 rounds were fired through one of the Colt test pistols over the course of two days. When it inevitably over-heated, the gun was simply plunged into cold water to cool it. Despite this brutal treatment the Colt suffered no stoppages during the test (its closest rival, the Savage pistol, had 37 stoppages). The Colt was formally adopted for service with the US Army on March 29th, 1911 as the M1911 pistol. Despite its success, Browning was never entirely happy with the pistol. He felt that some features (such as the grip safety) had been forced upon him by illogical Army requirements. Many of the features of the 1911 were re-visited in his final semi-automatic pistol design, the 9mm Browning Hi-Power which appeared after his death in the mid-1930s.
With minor external changes in 1924 to become the M1911A1, the Colt remained the principal sidearm of the US army until 1986 when it was replaced by the Beretta M9, though derivatives of the original 1911 are still used by some US military units. Original 1911s were supplied in a blued finish, though many A1s have a “Parkerised” finish – a non-reflective, grey zinc phosphating process which provides good protection from corrosion. The 1911 is single action only (i.e. the hammer must be manually cocked or the slide racked before it can be fired) but the principal disadvantage of this pistol is that it holds relatively little ammo – it’s admirably slim, but only seven of the fat .45ACP rounds can be squeezed into the magazine.
World War Two Parkerised Colt M1911A1
In the wider world, copies and clones of the 1911 have been produced in many countries and these and originals have been used by a wide variety of military and law enforcement agencies around the world. Captured 1911s were even used by German Volkssturm units in World War Two as the P.660(a). In late 2004 the US Army Marksmanship Unit began work on the M1911A2 project, which is looking at whether an improved variant of the original 1911 may yet find large scale usage within the US military. No-one is entirely sure how many 1911s, copies and clones have been produced, though over 2.5 million were provided to US armed forces alone.
This handgun is almost unique in terms of longevity. The only other pistol I can think of that comes close is another Colt product – the Single Action Army. However, although that gun is still manufactured, the current third generation SAA models are significantly different to the 1873 original. Although there are many variations on the 1911 theme, it’s still possible to buy a pistol which is essentially identical to the original. Outside the gun world, I think you’d be hard pressed to find another piece of relatively modern technology that has remained in use virtually unchanged for over 100 years. For this reason alone the 1911 is worthy of interest.
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness 1911
Cybergun S.A. is a French distribution and marketing company which sells branded airsoft and replica air pistols manufactured in Asia. In 2011 (to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1911) the company introduced the Tanfoglio Witness, a 4.5mm replica manufactured by Taiwanese company KWC. Fratelli Tanfoglio Snc (Tanfoglio Brothers) is an Italian company which produces a range of semi-automatic handguns including the Witness, a copy of the 1911. The Witness is a copy of the 1911A1 with a finish similar to the Parkerised finish of the original. So, this is a French distributed, Taiwan manufactured replica of an Italian copy of an American pistol. Simple really, though it seems surprising that Cybergun didn’t go for a straight 1911 replica as they have extensive licensing agreements with Colt.
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness 1911
Picture from Cybergun.com
When it was first released, the Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness sold very well. Probably unsurprising as it was the first accurate Colt 1911 replica in 4.5mm and was relatively inexpensive. In fact it was so popular that many retailers quickly sold out and even second-hand examples became hard to find. The Tanfoglio Witness is still listed as a current model on the Cybergun website, but supply seems to be sporadic with many retailers reporting the pistol sold out and on back order for long periods.
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness is a CO2 powered, blowback 4.5mm BB replica with a 4.3 inch smoothbore barrel. It’s all metal (zinc alloy) and the matt grey finish is visually a good match for Parkerisation. CO2 is contained in a full-size drop-out magazine, though in order to fit a standard CO2 cartridge in the slim magazine the sides are cut away. The sights are fixed and, like the original, this is single action only.
Capacity: 18 round magazine
Barrel length: 4.3″
Weight: 2 pounds
Action: SA only
Packaging and presentation 3/5
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a an expanded polystyrene insert cut-out to fit the pistol and accessories. The pistol comes with a magazine, a ¼” allen key for tightening/piercing the CO2 and a small box of Cybergun steel BBs.
Oddly, the box and instruction sheet claim that the Witness has Spin-Up, the Cybergun proprietary hop-up adjustment. This is incorrect – no hop up is provided on this or any other 4.5mm BB shooting replica as it’s not possible to impart the required spin to the heavier steel BBs. The instruction sheet also notes that the Witness shoots 6mm plastic BBs, which is also obviously incorrect.
Visual accuracy 7/10
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness is an extremely accurate visual replica of the Colt 1911A1. Surprisingly however, it’s not a particularly accurate replica of the Tanfoglio Witness 1911! The real Witness has a straight backstrap, rounded hammer, “double diamond” wood grips, an extended grip safety spur and an extended magazine base. So, although this is sold as a replica of the Tanfoglio Witness, it’s actually a very accurate visual replica of the Colt 1911A1. Confused? So am I. For the remainder of this review, I’ll compare this replica to the Colt 1911A1 rather than the real Tanfoglio Witness.
The real Tanfoglio Witness 1911
I really can’t fault this as a replica of the M1911A1, with the Parkerised finish seen from the late 1930s onwards. Every contour of the frame and slide and every detail of the trigger and hammer are accurately replicated – even small details like the checkering on the front of the trigger and on the top surface of the hammer are present. Overall, this is a very good visual replica indeed. Apart from the markings. The slide of the Witness is marred by bright, white lettering – on the left this reads “Tanfoglio Witness 1911” which is just about acceptable (though this marking isn’t used on the slide of the real Witness), but on the right of some examples is a whole paragraph of white safety text. To me, this really spoils the look of the right side of this pistol. However, this safety text doesn’t appear on every example – I have owned three Tanfoglio Witnesses. Two had the white safety lettering on the right of the slide while the third had just “Made in Taiwan Witness” on the right, though all three came in similar packaging.
Right side of one of my Witnesses with (inset) block of safety text seen on right side of slide on some examples.
Overall, this is a very good visual replica of the Colt 1911, though somewhat spoiled by garish and unnecessary markings.
Functional accuracy 14/15
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness faithfully replicates every aspect of the operation of the original. The slide operates and locks as it should. The safety, slide release and mag release all operate as per the original weapon and the Witness can be field stripped correctly. The Witness shoots in single action only and the weight of the replica is close to that of the original.
The Witness also replicates the function of the slightly quirky grip safety on the original 1911. The grip safety is a moveable section on the upper part of the backstrap. Regardless of the position of the manual safety, the pistol will not fire unless this is depressed, as it is naturally when you grip the pistol. On the original, this was included to prevent accidental discharge if the 1911 was dropped. Designer John Browning felt that this was superfluous and it certainly hasn’t appeared on many subsequent designs, but it’s nice to see this function accurately replicated here. One minor irritation is that this means you need two hands to de-cock the pistol – there is no de-cocker provided, and the only way to de-cock is to pull the trigger and gently lower the hammer. However, this can only be done while the grip safety is depressed.
This replica will even allow you to experience one of the nastier features of the real 1911 – a tendency to bite. Unless you hold a 1911 correctly, it’s possible to experience “hammer bite” – a very painful nipping of the web of skin that runs from the thumb to the forefinger and which can be caught between the hammer and grip safety spur as the recoiling slide cocks the hammer (this was a particular problem on early models, and was one reason why the A1 had a longer grip safety spur). The Tanfoglio Witness replicates this precisely. Perhaps not with quite the force of the original, but sufficient to draw blood if you’re unlucky.
Engaging the manual thumb safety on the left side of the frame locks the slide and disengages the trigger. Just as one the original, all controls are set up for right handed use only – no ambidextrous appeal here. However, I’m a lefty and I didn’t find this caused any major problems with shooting the 1911. Grips from a real 1911 can be fitted to the Witness with very little modification, making it simple to customise.
Overall, this is a very good functional replica of the Colt 1911.
CO2 is loaded into the magazine, and tightened and pierced using the ¼” allen key provided. Generally this is done cleanly and without major leaks, though one of my Witnesses leaked at the main CO2 seal from new. Up to 18 BBs can be loaded into the magazine, though many users have noted that loading all 18 can cause problems with misfeeds and jamming – generally it seems better to load 15 or less. The magazine follower does not lock down, so you have to hold it in place while loading.
With the magazine inserted, the slide must be racked to move the first BB into the chamber and to cock the hammer. On pulling the trigger, you’ll initially notice two things – the Witness is loud for an air pistol and the recoil is very strong. Both make this pistol seem more powerful than it really is – Cybergun claim 320fps for the Witness, but I found 290 – 310fps more realistic in the chilly North of Scotland.
Take-up on the trigger is short and light and the release point is clear and consistent. When you start shooting, the next thing you’ll probably notice is that your shots aren’t grouping particularly closely. Accuracy is variable – of my three Witnesses, one was notably more accurate than the others, and all seemed sensitive to BB selection. I found best accuracy was achieved with Blaster steel BBs. Generally, I was getting groups of around 2″ at six yards, though this reduced to less than 1½” with the best of my Witnesses. When the magazine is empty, the slide locks back.
CO2 consumption is reasonable for a blowback pistol – I generally got around 50 – 60 full power shots per CO2 cartridge. Be aware however that some examples have a tendency to fire full-auto bursts when the CO2 pressure gets low!
The loudness and strong recoil make this a very satisfying replica to shoot, though accuracy is no better than average for a BB pistol. The slim profile and good balance inherited from the original 1911 make this a natural pointer and a pistol which simply feels good in the hand.
Quality and reliability 11/15
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness looks and feels as if it’s very well made. The slide fits well without rattles and racks smoothly and cleanly – which is more than can be said for many real 1911s!. The finish is well applied and seems more durable than the finish on some Cybergun replicas – the GSG92, for example. However, it appears that quality control may be variable. Some Witnesses seem to go on shooting almost indefinitely without any problems. Others seem to give problems from the start. This doesn’t seem to be confined to a single batch or production run, it seems to be almost random. Of my three Witnesses, two performed very well indeed, shooting reliably and powerfully and without any issues. The third seemed to have a whole range of niggly problems with BB feeding, jamming, inconsistent power and variable accuracy. I don’t have figures to back this up, but anecdotally from talking to other owners, my impression is that most Witnesses are reliable and powerful with only a small number giving problems.
It’s also notable that filling the magazine to capacity does seem to cause problems with misfeeds and jamming – it seems better to load fewer than 18 BBs.
Overall Impression 14/15
I love the Colt 1911. It’s a testament to the longevity of basically sound design. It’s also a well balanced, slim and characterful pistol which is very satisfying to shoot. So, no surprise that I also like the Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness a great deal. In fact, I’d say that it’s about as close to the experience of shooting a real 1911 as it’s possible to get without using gunpowder. For me, this is how replicas should be – heavy, loud with strong recoil and tough to shoot consistently, but wonderfully satisfying when you do.
Modifying the Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness
The Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness has proved to be a very popular platform for modification. Partly this is due to low cost, but also because the metal used is of sufficient quality to facilitate stripping and re-coating, painting or polishing. Real 1911 grips can also be fitted with very little modification.
Stripped, mirror polished Witness with vented slide, nickel plated trigger, hammer, slide release and thumb safety and white resin grips. Stunning! Picture from Black Dog Pistols (see link at bottom)
It’s really very simple – if you have any interest in replicas of historic pistols, you need to have a Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness in your collection. The Colt 1911 is one of the most significant handguns ever made and this (in my opinion) is the best replica to date. It looks, weighs, handles and shoots just like a real 1911. It also appears to be generally well made, it shoots reasonably well and it’s inexpensive. There does seem to be a question mark over reliability however – there seem to be distinctly good and bad examples and if you are unlucky enough to get a bad one, it may take some fettling to get it right. However, that this replica is also a great basis for modification and customisation is an added bonus.
Cybergun have gone on to produce other variations on the 1911 theme with the Swiss Arms 1911 and the Blackwater BW1911, but for me none have the raw appeal of this original 1911 replica. So, if you don’t already own a Tanfoglio Witness – you need to get one now. If you already own one, why not get another, strip off the paint, polish it and fit pearl grips? You know it makes sense!
Total score: 81/100
You can buy this replica at Pyramid Air here.
Modifying the Tanfoglio Witness: