By Todd Burgreen
It is said imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The classic CZ 75 design is a case in point with numerous “clones” in existence. The soundness of the CZ 75 design is gauged by the number of manufacturers borrowing heavily on the CZ 75. The Swiss made Sabre, Israeli Jericho, and ArmaLite AR-24 are examples. A European American Armory (EAA) imported Tanfoglia Witness model is another example of a CZ 75 based handgun. Specifically, an EAA Witness Elite chambered in .38 Super is the subject of this article. There is a lot to respect with the CZ 75 typified by steel frame, Browning recoil operated locked breech, DA/SA trigger with “cocked and locked” capability, internal frame rails for slide travel, and 16+ round capacity with even larger capacity magazine available. The CZ 75 is often championed as the European heir of the Browning Hi Power. Certain characteristics are common to both, but the CZ 75 should be thought of more as an evolution of the Hi-Power as the next generation of high capacity 9mm. Truth be told, many arrive at the CZ 75 in the contemplation of purchasing a Hi Power. Yes, features are comparable, but many of John Browning’s pistol design elements are found in various handguns around the world.
Perhaps apocryphal, the story goes when the CZ 75 was introduced the design was deemed “secret” by the Soviet Union, so the designers were unable to secure a patent on the design. This allowed for replicas made by a numerous companies across Europe. One of those replicas was the Tanfoglio Force, which quickly gained a solid reputation. This spurred Tanfoglio on to produce numerous variants. Eventually, in 1999, the Tanfoglio product line was imported to the United States by the EAA and marketed under the model name “Witness.” The end of the Cold War combined with rescinding of the ridiculous and misguided U.S. legislation related to high capacity magazine ban led to the rebirth/re-emergence of the “Wonder Nine.” Most will admit to the proclivity for carrying eight rounds of .45 ACP in the classic 1911 frame over ten rounds of 9mm. This opinion changes for many once the 9mm count get to 15+ rounds, especially as case studies and growing experience derived from Force-on-Force training drive data. Consideration of handguns chambered in calibers other than .45 ACP becomes more feasible as capacity increases.
EAA imports numerous versions of the Tanfoglio Witness series including steel and polymer models chambered in various calibers ranging from 9mm, .38 Super, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 ACP, and others. The specific model evaluated herein is the Witness Elite Stock 1 chambered in .38 Super. The CZ 75 must be given its due as the poster child for the “Wonder Nine” with its steel frame DA/SA design that is also capable of Condition One “cocked and locked” carry with a pedigree dating back to the mid-1970s. None other than the late Jeff Cooper heralded the CZ 75 as the finest 9mm service pistol made. Few original CZ 75 pistols made their way to the U.S. during the Cold War; with the handful available from whatever means held onto tightly by the fortunate individuals so blessed as the CZ 75 commanded an artificially exorbitant price tag due to import restrictions. Another several degrees of separation connection with the Tanfoglio handgun and Mr. Cooper is that many also consider the Tanfoglio an heir to the ill fated Bren Ten 10mm. The Tanfoglio Witness is slightly, almost imperceptibly, larger than the original CZ design. Tanfoglio made this change in order to accommodate cartridges other than 9mm by only having to change out the “upper” slide area without having to resort to different frame sizes to handle the larger .40/10mm or .45 ACP cartridge. This gives the EAA/Tanfoglio Witness the capability of handling several more chamberings versus the original CZ 75.
Other modifications made by Tanfoglio consists of firing pin block function. The firing pin block is kept in an upwards position, thus blocking the firing pin until the trigger is pulled. This causes the pin to fall, allowing the firing pin to move. As a result, the overall trigger operation is improved by the Tanfoglio block method. The Browning style safety is improved to allow operation with hammer cocked or down compared to the CZ safety. The Tanfoglio frame is simplified by omitting the magazine brake, thus reducing complexity as well as simplifying machining. In general terms, the EAA/Tanfoglio is a more innovative gun compared to the original CZ 75. Many contend that most of the design advances in the basic CZ 75 design have come in response to Tanfoglio modifications. EAA/Tanfoglio offers a wider variety of accessories and options such as ambidextrous safeties, finishes, sights, and grips. Tanfoglio has advanced the Witness model to the point where it's no longer an exact copy of the CZ. The frame size is an example of this as is the Witness’s trigger shape with its increased curve and placement farther back in the trigger guard. This often provokes comment that the Witness series is easier to operate and has a better “feel” even though the frame is larger.
An added nuance to the EAA Witness Elite reviewed herein is that it is chambered in .38 Super showing the EAA/Tanfoglio versatility and adaptation. The .38 Super was derived from the .38 ACP and shares its dimensions, though loaded to higher pressures for a boost in velocity. The .38 Super was designed to fire a 130 grain bullet at the 1,300 fps threshold while the .38 ACP was in the 1,100 fps range. Due to similar case dimensions between the .38 Super and the .38 ACP, in 1974 SAAMI added a +P headstamp to the .38 Super to help distinguish it from the lower powered .38 ACP. A .38 Super fired in a .38 ACP could prove disastrous with the higher pressures associated with the .38 Super. Colt designed the .38 Super with its Government 1911 platform in mind; Colt’s intent was a cartridge capable of penetrating the body armor and automobile sheet metal of the 1920s-30s. It may surprise many to learn that the .38 Super cartridge has a lineage dating back to the late 1920’s and was not that uncommon of a chambering during the heyday of organized crime and professional criminals fostered by the Depression along with the lawmen assigned to stop them. From its inception, the .38 Super cartridge attracted savvy aficionados to it; a characteristic that continues to this day.
The .38 Super experienced resurgence in the 1970s due to its “discovery” by IPSC competitors with its ability to make “Major” in terms of cartridge classification due to its high velocity and mild recoil especially when combined with a muzzle brake. The .38 Super combined in a “Match” gun became and still is a favorite platform for competitors. This is for a variety of reasons such as flat shooting, tame recoil, and the extra capacity offered by the .38 Super. It is reported that the longer case length of the .38 Super (22.86mm) facilitates its feeding from magazines than the shorter 9mm (19mm) cartridge. Considering Colt designed the .38 Super with its 1911 in mind, it is not surprising that the .38 Super has almost the identical overall length of the .45 ACP.
The .38 Super is a more regularly featured chambering in Europe, Central and South American due to gun laws limiting access to military caliber such as .45 ACP and 9mm. This is probably the main reason why Tanfoglio chamber the Witness series in .38 Super combined with its use in the competition arena. Here in the U.S. the .38 Super has more of a cult following with limited sales numbers. Ammunition is still carried by multiple manufacturers with reloading a popular option. The .38 Super’s performance benefits greatly by the increased sophistication of bullets and powders that wring the most out of its capability compared to when it first appeared in 1929. The original .38 Super headspaced off of the cartridges semi-rim and led to early reports of inaccuracy. More modern manufactured .38 Supers headspace off of the case mouth similar to the .45 ACP with accuracy on par with any pistol cartridge. Let’s face it; professional shooters would not have embraced it if it was not accurate.
The EAA/Tanfoglio Witness Elite Stock 1 is a steel framed short recoil operated locked breech pistol ala Browning’s system with camming-cut below the barrel. This serves to unlock and lower the barrel during the recoil cycle. The barrel locks into the slide via lugs in front of the ejection port. The slide moves along internal rails machined inside the frame. The SIG 210 was an early design featuring this frame to slide interface. Proponents point to benefits derived from this such as smoother cycling and finer tolerances translating into better accuracy potential. The Elite Witness 1 has an exposed heart shaped hammer and extended manual safety on its left side that is configured to allow for Condition One carry even though it is Double/Single action semiautomatic. The EAA Witness Elite Stock has 4.5 inch barrel contributing an overall length of 8 inches, weighs 2.4 pounds and comes equipped with adjustable sights. The Witness series of handguns has a grip design that seems to fit everyone’s hand. This combined with manageable double action trigger and light, short reset, single action pull with minimal creep creates a handgun that is easy to shoot well. Double action trigger pull measured over 10 pounds with the single action showing 4 pounds on the gauge. The extended frame safety is placed where anyone familiar with the 1911 will find familiar. The Elite features a safety that is more substantial than a standard type of frame safety. The Witness Elite’s safety enables you to press check the chamber without taking off the thumb safety. Many thumb safety style guns require you to take the safety off if you want to pull the slide slightly back and check to be sure that a round is chambered. The Witness Elite can also chamber or unload a round while leaving the thumb safety on making for a safer process.
Many will find the EAA Witness Elite’s all metal construction preferable to the multitude of polymer framed handguns on the market. One concern with any handgun type with levers and manual safeties is that shooters will need more training time to familiarize themselves. Ideally, handguns should not be complicated by required manipulations that take away from their primary roles such as self defense, competition etc. The Witness Elite offers the best of both worlds with its ability to be carried hammer down safety off employing the double action trigger when engaging a target. Do not underestimate the ability to configure the Witness Elite into Condition One carry and the resultant attraction this will have on many perspective purchasers. The 1911 charisma’s impact on the American shooter goes beyond what many can fathom.
.38 Super ammunition was assembled from Winchester, Federal, Wilson Combat and Corbon. Modern loads for the .38 Super list velocities at near 1,450 fps with 115 grain bullet out of 5-inch barrels. Chronographing of all loads took place to verify if the .38 Super lives up to its hype as the original .40 S&W/.357 SIG cartridge for semiautomatic handguns; it does with the Corbon loads being the “hottest.” The Corbon 100gr Pow’RBall clocking just over 1,500 fps with the 115gr JHP at 1,435 fps and 125gr DPX chronoing 1,320 fps. The range T&E of the EAA Witness Elite Stock 1 was conducted at Echo Valley Training Center (EVTC). A weapon like the Elite Witness chambered in .38 Super should be fired as it is designed to be used – from the hand while moving or only briefly pausing to engage targets. This is the true measure of accuracy combining trigger pull, grip, and sights. The EAA Witness Elite .38 Super was tested at the range first by verifying sight zero and then firing several magazines rapidly at various steel man targets. This quickly shows if any reliability issues exist. Further testing consisted of strings of fire against steel plate racks and steel popper targets at 7, 15, and 25 yards. An informal accuracy test was conducted from a rudimentary bench position. The Witness Elite Stock 1 delivered by constantly keeping a full magazine worth of ammunition at 3” or better at 25 yards.
The first range session consisted of over 200 rounds after only lightly lubrication. An assortment of bullet configurations were fired from the various ammunition manufactures mentioned above to verify reliability. The .38 Super was amazingly tame in the recoil department even when firing the hottest .38 Super loads. This shows why it was so favored by modern competitors and professionals on both sides of the law back in the 1930s. Over 550 total rounds were fired during multiple range visits and attendance in a Graham Combat course without issue.
Even though the EAA Witness Elite Stock 1 is more intended as a sporting or competition handgun from the manufacturer’s point of view – a Production Division entrant for sure – it is easy to envision it in a more basic role as personal defense weapon. The improvements offered by Tanfoglio were kept to a minimum in terms of accuracy enhancements through fit/finish, sights, trigger, and barrel; thus not compromising utility in the “real” world. It was not difficult to find holsters for use with the Witness Elite so it could be further evaluated during a Graham Combat shotgun course. The Witness Elite Stock 1 chambered in .38 Super held its own during the course during frequent transitions as the scenarios dictated. The 17 + 1 capacity mated to low recoil and capability to deploy from Condition One “cocked and locked” carry impressed other course attendees who were not familiar with either the EAA Witness Elite Stock 1 offering or the .38 Super chambering.
The basic CZ 75 design is too well known to attempt any new exposé story, however the EAA Witness Elite Stock 1 tested herein serves as a reminder as to why the CZ 75 design still holds a prominent place in the world. It represents a good balance of features for daily use as a duty or competition weapon. The .38 Super was designed specifically as a fighting cartridge combined with what many feel is the finest service pistol created with it later being adopted by the competition shooting community. The .38 Super chambering in the EAA Witness Elite Stock 1 is a sound combination functionally speaking while still allowing a user to indulge oneself by having something not so typical.
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