Tanfoglio Witness Series Pistols

The Italian Tanfoglio pistols are well known among European shooters for solid design, caliber interchangeability, and reasonable prices.  The designs of the pistols are a refinement on the tried and true Czech CZ-75.  Originally developed during the Cold War, the CZ-75 was known as the “best 9mm military sidearm that never was”.  Rejected by the Communist Block and simply copied in the west, the CZ-75 has met with modest success on the market; primarily used by European security firms and law enforcement agencies.  The various iterations of the Tanfoglio pistols, however, have ended up being produced in more calibers and more countries than probably had been imagined by the Czechs.

The current US importer of the pistols is European American Armory of Florida.   That company imports a number of product lines to the US and Canadian market.   Identical guns are sold by a number of distributors throughout the rest of the world.

The Witness series pistols are one of the most popular alternatives to the 1911 design in competition shooting outside the US.  Given a fairly wide array of configurations and compatible accessories offered by the manufacturer and a fairly low base price, the Witness pistols prove popular with shooters who face difficult and costly registration processes and financial challenges of getting into an equipment intensive sport.   In most European countries that allow “civilian” handgun ownership, registration and permit processes make it very difficult for one to own several handguns even if the person could afford the actual cost of the gun.   That is what makes caliber conversion kits in those countries so popular.   A shooter who wishes to experiment with another caliber pistol can own one Witness pistol and multiple caliber conversion kits.   The marketing successes of the Tanfoglio adaptations of the CZ design lies in the ease with which the owner can change calibers in the pistols.   The lineup includes nearly all automatic handgun cartridges in current production including the uncommon 9X23 and 10mm automatic.   Most recently, I have been able to have caliber conversions made for these pistols in the potent .357 Sig, although this is not anticipated to be a factory option any time soon.   Because of the variety and interchangeability of components, experimentation with custom chambering has been fairly easy.

Fine tuning of individual guns to work in such calibers is not a widely mastered skill.   What the guns lack is much in the line of third party aftermarket parts and accessories available in the US.   Fortunately, a good selection of upgrade parts and accessories are available from the importer and through some vendors (including me).   A small number of gunsmiths are learning the ins and outs of tuning these pistols to bring out their true potential, and a small but enthusiastic number of shooters have supported a growing market for custom guns based on the EAA Witness.   The big appeal of the guns is that they can be set up to bridge the gap between a custom gun, and a practical service type carry gun.

The guns come in several sizes but all follow essentially the same core design.  They also come in two basic material types – Steel and Polymer molded over a steel skeleton.   I personally prefer the steel frame pistols, but the polymer frame pistols offer some interesting options.  Here is an example of the full size polymer frame that has been engineered for the more powerful calibers like .45, 38 super and 10mm.  By far, the most popular caliber in this configuration is .45 ACP.   This modular interchangeability on the large frame guns makes caliber conversions as easy as swapping out a slide assembly on normal disassembly without special tools.   Sometimes, changing calibers is simple as only changing the barrel.

Here you can see how a single polymer frame can be configured with a compact (8 shots in .45) magazine and in a hand filling full size with a 10 shot magazine.   This enables a shooter to carry the pistol in a compact mode while changing to a larger capacity magazine and more grip area when a situation warrants.    There are also two available lengths in the slide.   The full size (shown) and a compact model.  Although I ended up with the full size slide, I would generally advise someone to get the compact slide.   Factory options on both configurations include compensators and ported models.   Having the chance to pick out a model again, I would prefer to get the shorter slide model since it seems to balance better in my grip.   On the steel frame guns I prefer the straight full size.  One thing to note,  high velocity cartridges like the 10mm, 9mm and .38 super will suffer significant velocity loss with shorter barrels and you may not have any significant advantage with these calibers when using them with the short barrel pistols.  Example; chronograph results showed us that the 10mm compact was giving no significant velocity increase over the same bullets fired from a long slide Glock .40.

Here you can see how the Witness Polymer compares to the USP full size pistol in the same hard hitting .45 ACP.   Note that although the guns share nearly identical features, performance and are made from the same or similar materials, the USP costs nearly twice as much with less than half the available configurations and none of the caliber interchangeability.   Of course the USP does have an accessory rail molded into the frame that is engineered to be compatible with a factory endorsed flashlight (the UTL made by Insight technologies) which costs from $180 to $250.   Balance and handling on the guns is largely a matter of opinion.   The USP is top heavy and blocky, but the Witness short frame with the rest of the grip being on the magazine can take some getting used to for those unfamiliar with the system.  Both guns are engineered around the use of metal magazines which is an improvement over the Glock.

The one really enviable feature the USP retains is a frame mounted decocker that is integrated into the safety.   Decocking a Witness involves carefully pulling the trigger while holding the hammer from slamming onto the firing pin and then resting the hammer in the “down” position.   Fumbling this process on a Witness can result in an accidental discharge.  Reliability, durability and accuracy are very comparable in the two pistols.   One way some competition shooters will bypass the issue of the double action and lack of a hammer drop safety or decocker is to install the single action trigger on the Witness.   This disables double action function on the pistol and makes it function much like a 1911 minus the grip safety.   I personally don’t recommend this modification for any survival or carry purposes since carrying a pistol with the hammer down is almost always going to be safer than carrying it with the hammer cocked, even if the safety is engaged.   That said, I do not know of any double action only conversions done on the pistols, but in theory, it would not be overly difficult to perform, albeit also not recommended.

Custom parts and configurations on the Witness pistols are not available from a lot of sources, but they are available and not too costly.   One thing that is not yet available on the open market is a rail mount that rides under the frame, but I found that one was not particularly difficult to make from basic scope mount stock and then it can be attached by welding, screws or both.   Most other parts or accessories a person would want are available, but there is not a terribly wide selection.   That is still better than the situation with many other of the better European imports where you cannot even get basic things like ambidextrous safeties or thinner grips.

The Witness pistols are not without their faults and challenges.  Warranty work can be slow and spare magazines are not always cheap or easy to get, but they are fairly reasonable compared to what you will pay for other European hardware.   EAA, the American importer for the guns, does offer a fairly good limited lifetime warranty on guns, but not accessories.  Very few holster makers in the US make holsters specifically for the Witness series but fortunately, there are enough decent holsters available to serve the bare minimum needs of Witness shooters.   In a pinch, you will probably find that holsters fit for a similar size Beretta will fit a Witness.  A big part of this is due to the lack of significant US law enforcement or military utilization of the Witness pistols.   The number of American gunsmiths who specialize in work on these pistols is small, but growing.   Several people have recommended some very competent pistol smiths for work on these pistols, but until I personally see the results of their work on the Tanfoglio product line, I will not pass on those recommendations.

US pricing on the guns tends to start in the $290 range on the wholesale side, with promotional prices going as low as $260 on volume purchases.  The cheaper models usually have the polymer frame and matte blue steel slide.  The costlier models wholesale in the low to mid $350 range and will have a chrome like coating on the major steel components called Wonder Finish.   A further premium price goes on models with compensators, caliber conversion kits and other custom features.   Note that the cost of semi-custom and limited production run Witness pistols is usually a bargain compared to buying a base gun and adding the features.

Note that the easy interchangeability of parts on the steel frame Witness pistols means some guns can end up in an entirely different caliber than what they started out with.   Switching calibers on the guns is quick and easy to the point it has been dubbed the “Italian combat Lego” concept.  Note that the while the interchangeability is easy on the steel frame guns, it is limited when going to and from the steel to polymer frame guns, which take a different slide profile.   Interchanging top and bottom halves of the pistols between a standard dull matte finish gun and the Wonderfinish version can make for some very attractive custom pistols.   To the right is what used to be a ported 10mm target model in wonderfinish, and my semi-custom .45.   Interestingly with the slight variance of fit between slides and frames, both guns ended up tighter and more accurate after the interchange than before.   The upper gun then carries a resemblance of the D&D Bren Ten, and the lower pistol carries the stylish color scheme of the Kimber CDP.

EAA does have some high grade competition models which are not always available, but represent very good value in the realm of IPSC ready target pistols priced around $1,0000.   Their very best “gold team” models approaching $1800.  Retail prices will likely range from around $330 to $450 on most models with the average gunshop prices running around $390 for a standard model new in the box.   A decent used Witness would be priced around $300 with one magazine and further adjustments made from there (add for accessories and more mags, subtract for damage or poor condition).    Several of the main distributors in the US will have the importer (EAA) give them exclusive rights to various limited production semi-custom models lik the Carry Comp model shown at right.   These guns can represent a tremendous cost savings over getting a standard Witness and customizing it with the ad-on parts.    I scored this used carry comp .45 for less money than it would cost to get a carry comp top end even at dealer prices.   Retail on the gun would likely be only $50 more than a standard model, but finding one is the hard part.   Certain models like the 10mm are not any more costly on the wholesale side, but rarity often dictates a small premium on guns in that chambering because wholesalers do not always have them in stock.   Current US import on them is around 30 per month and demand consistently outpaces supply.

There are also a number of OEM and aftermarket “preban” mags in most calibers available for the Witness series.  One of the most coveted is the .38 Super which will hold as many as 18 shots in several calibers including 9mm and 9X23.    The cost on “preban” Witness mags varies according to the model and caliber but usually runs in the $50 price range with the 10mm and .38 super mags running $75 to $120 .   Interestingly, there are extension baseplates available for several models, including the 10 shot .45 magazines and as such, the 10 shot preban and postban witness magazines are virtually indistinguishable from each other.   Brownells carries extension pads for magazines without the capacity blocking detents which will add two to three rounds per mag.   My personal experience with the Brownells extended basepads is that they are a pain in the ass to fit on any of the factory magazines.   What’s worse, the “factory” aluminum baseplates that just add weight but not magazine capacity that are available from EAA fit the magazines even worse.

Handling and shooting the Witness pistols is much like combining some of the better aspects of the Beretta 92 F and the 1911 series pistols.   The steel frame models have a definite Beretta feel and the fast and positive safety of the 1911.  Moreover, you can keep the gun “cocked and locked” like a 1911 – something that cannot be safely done with a Beretta.    This has been one of the contributing factors to the popularity of this pistol with competition shooters.    The steel frame Witness in the smaller 9/40 frame feels very much like a Beretta 92 series pistol, but has less recoil due to a heavier steel frame.

Unique to the Witness/ CZ design is the slide in frame arrangement which allows for fairly high placement of the hand on the grip with little or no risk of “hammer bite” or “slide bite.   This is due to   large beavertail extension cast into the shape of the rear of the frame combined with a fairly short profile at the rear of the slide.  This combines to tame recoil quite well.   The safety is in roughly the same position as the safety on the 1911 pistols and is very easy to reach while giving the same “cocked and locked” carry option in addition to the option of a double action first shot.   Interestingly, the safety functions in both single action and double action so you can carry the gun with the hammer down and the safety engaged.   This can minimize the likelihood of the gun being fired in the midst of a struggle over the weapon.  The optional ambidextrous safety is of an altogether superior design than all ambi safeties made for the 1911 series pistols.  The right side lever is secured by a roll pin that goes through it and the pin of the main safety.  Thus once secured, there is no way the thing will lose its fit and jam up the system – an ailment common on even the best 1911 pattern pistols which use an interrupted pin in the ambi safeties.

I found that accuracy and reliability will vary a bit from gun to gun, but these things can (and sometimes must) be tuned before you would trust your life to the reliability of the average Witness pistol.   Some models will shoot quite well “out of the box” while others might require some fitting.  The Steel Frame .45 to the left is one of my project guns that shot quite well out of the box.  The checkered walnut grips are a factory accessory from EAA as is the ambidextrous safety.  Both accessories were easy to install.  The checkered wood grips take about 1/8″ off the grip profile, which brings it well within the range of many handguns with less magazine capacity or smaller calibers.  Being engineered around a ten shot .45 magazine, the .45 has a very ergonomic front strap compared to the blocky Para-Ordnance or HK  pistols.

This illustrates the grip profile of a large frame Witness compared to a standard 1911A1.  Note the factory custom wood grips are very thin.  This keeps the width of the gun very comparable to the 1911, with the curved frontstrap showing good ergonomics.   The factory hard rubber grips are wider and can be a quite a handful for those with short fingers.   The magazine catch can be reversed, but the process is difficult because it involves removing much of the trigger group to get at the magazine catch assembly.  The factory magazine catch is large and easy to push, so the average left-hander has little incentive to change the button over although it is designed so that a gunsmith can switch the magazine button over to the other side.

The accuracy of this particular pistol has been impressive and on a par with guns costing considerably more money.   This 25 yard group would have all been touching the 2″X2″ target center if I had not flinched on two of the shots.  Note that this was a ten shot string of fire and it is fairly common for me to shoot three shot strings where at least two of the three bullet holes are touching.  Even considering the “worst case” 4.5″ group, the out of the box accuracy on this gun exceeds the nominal handgun standards of a 5″ average group which is acceptable for most combat handguns.   A competent shooter can fully expect to consistently make “head shots” with this pistol at realistic ranges.   Lockup, and thus groups, can be improved through peening the slide to the barrel at the muzzle.

The Witness is one of only two standard current production guns chambered in 10mm.  Less common than the Glock 20 and its compact counterpart and more friendly to customization.  There is also a very rare compact model of the Witness 10mm  but they are not popular.   The power and range of the cartridge is favorably comparable to full power .357 magnum.  It outclasses .40 S&W and .45 ACP in range and power with a flatter trajectory than most handgun cartridges.   This makes 10mm pistols quite effective at ranges out to 50 yards.  It is also one of the very few automatic pistol cartridges approved for hunting in most states.   That makes the 10mm witness one of the very few semi-auto handguns that can effectively serve the role of both handgun and carbine in a survival situation where the handgun would also serve as a hunting tool.   Switching the 10mm barrel for a .40 conversion barrel (available from us at $85 shipped) gives the option of using cheaper and more readily available ammo in a 10mm Witness.

The “natural” capacity of the magazines for this gun is fifteen shots.  US import models are physically limited to ten shots due to a modified magazine housing.   There are no known “LE only” high capacity magazines imported to the US, although European magazines will be full capacity.  I found that sloppy placement of the blocking dent in the magazines often means the mags will only hold nine rounds.  Some minor modification of the follower will remedy this and give you the ten shot legal capacity.    Interestingly, there are disputes over the existence of full capacity magazines prior to the enactment of the 1994 crime bill.   This is due to the on again / off again inclusion of the 10mm in the EAA lineup.  The 10mm pistol was a catalog item in 1994, but it is disputed as to whether or not the guns and or magazines were in the US prior to the effective date of the ban which was closer to the last quarter of 1994.  In either case, full capacity 10mm magazines are extremely rare in the US.   I managed to score a small number of these magazines and find them to be quite heavy when loaded.   The mags were originally slated for a .40 conversion on the .45 frame, but reliably fit and feed 10mm with no modification.

This pistol sports the EAA extended ambidextrous safety which was  a fairly easy “drop-in” installation, checkered dark walnut grip, adjustable night sights and a factory upgrade trigger with trigger stop.  Triggers are very tricky to install in these pistols due to a unique scissors like return spring.  Installation of the spring is so difficult that many gunsmiths are loathe to work on the trigger.  The trigger in original configuration has around 1/8″ of overtravel which degrades accuracy in rapid fire.  Installation of the trigger and proper setting of the overtravel stop will greatly enhance the effective accuracy performance of this gun.

Unfortunately, my first 10mm witness had proven problematic in the reliability department.  It has been necessary to reshape the feed ramp and chamfer all of the inside corners of the chamber to get what I consider a minimum acceptable reliability.  This seems to have solved most of the feeding problems and ejection problems were initially ammo related.  The available selection of 10mm ammo standards for overall length are not consistent from manufacture to manufacture.   This initially means that a shooter needs to find which loading will work in a particular 10mm pistol the best.  The cheapest ammo I have been able to buy in quantity is Federal 180 grain hard cast lead and cast lead semi-wad cutter ammo is traditionally problematic in a lot of semi-auto handguns.   I found it also relatively easy to negotiate with dealers who have old stocks of 10mm ammo collecting dust on the shelves due to very low demand.   Correcting reliability problems on Witness pistols usually needs to involve conventional feed ramp reshaping, polishing and chamber polishing, and polishing the fairly rough factory breechface.  The source of feeding problems seems to most commonly involve too much friction on the back of the case as it slips up into battery on the breechface.   The problem being that the rough machine marks from the steel breechface will dig into the soft brass of the case and with enough traction to cause the stoppage.   This seems to play a more critical factor in the longer cartridges and is also a determining factor in the reliability of problematic .38 super and 9X23 pistols.   Polish the breechface using lapping compound on a pointed polishing bit (made of a dense cloth like material) until it is very smooth.  Very rough breech faces may need some careful application of fine sandpaper.

Upgrade night sights are difficult to obtain for these guns.  Meprolight made sights for them a few years ago and new, old stock sights can be found often at a reasonable price since demand had been so low for them.   Due to the likely age of the sights,  they will not be quite as bright as fresh night sights on a brand new factory gun like the Kimber CDP.  Installing the front sight can be tricky, and I decided to eliminate the drilling and roll pin arrangement in favor of tack welding the front night sight blade over the old sight blade and then trimming down the weld and touching up the end product with some Birchwood Casey Super Blue.  Both the fixed and adjustable sights required height adjusting after installation, and this meant filing the front sight post on the gun that got the fixed sights.

In theory at least, a semi-custom Witness 10mm may be the ultimate survival handgun.  Powerful as a magnum revolver with the rapid fire and reload capability of an automatic.  The Witness packs all the power of a Desert Eagle .357 into the size of a conventional handgun and gives the bonus of potentially double the magazine capacity.   Ammunition can be difficult to find, but a simple change of the barrel and recoil spring (under $100 for the set) makes .40 S&W an option.  A reloader can also reload the 10mm cases with components designed for .40 S&W since the .40 is derived from the 10mm anyway.

Muzzle flash at night is fierce, but not as blinding as people might try to claim.   Also note that the gun has a fair amount of flash with or without the compensator and I find that the “blinding” effect of compensators in night shooting to be exaggerated almost to the level of urban legend.

In competition, the Witness 10mm easily classifies in for IDPA and IPSC major class.  Where other calibers and light loads can knock down plates and pepper poppers most of the time, a hit from the 10mm slams them down right away.  This can shave time off of a score when the lane includes timed shooting on reactive targets.  Higher velocity, heavier bullet and a fast single action trigger makes the gun a natural for competition although they are still not particularly popular.   Like the .45 ACP, standard ammo has sufficient stopping power that a shooter should not need to switch to a high performance hollow point ammo for defense.


Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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