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The Mateba Autorevolver: Too highly advanced, or too poorly marketed?
Just after the turn of the century, many individuals were born who would become world renowned for their abilities and accomplishments. 1901 was a banner year in this regard with the appearance of such iconic figures as actor Clark Gable, musician Louis Armstrong, animator Walt Disney. As well as these memorable names, a less well known name arrived, that of Webley-Fosbery. In 1895, Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery submitted a patent for a new revolver design that removed the indexing of the cylinder and cocking of the hammer from a traditional double action revolver’s trigger mechanism. The design was then put into production by the Webley & Scott Revolver and Arms Company. Thus in 1901, the Webley-Fosbery Self-Cocking Automatic revolver was produced for civilian use, with the ultimate goal of being adopted by the British military. However, despite becoming renowned as a great target shooting pistol due to light recoil and accurate rapid fire shooting, this innovative handgun design failed to capture military contracts and stopped production in 1918 with a total production of roughly 4750 auto-revolvers.
The innovative design of the Auto-revolver’s sliding action gave the new revolver a couple of really desirable features in a handgun, lower felt recoil and the ability for fast, accurate shooting. The revolvers were chambered initially in .455 Webley and later in .38 ACP, with capacities of six and eight respectively. Remember in that era, semi-automatic handguns were just emerging and were not considered reliable in feeding and ejecting, nor did they have any truly significant capacity improvements over the tried and trusted revolvers. The overall design of the Webley-Fosbery was very simple in concept; the upper half of the firearm would slide back due to recoil of a fired cartridge. The upper sliding portion contained the cylinder, barrel and a hinge style case ejection mechanism. The hammer was linked to the upper slide and would lock back in cocked position upon the slide recoiling back. An indexing pin, mounted in the lower frame fit into a zig-zag groove pattern on the cylinder. As the upper slide traveled the cylinder would index to the next chamber with the indexing pin being used to ensure chamber alignment with the barrel. A simple and robust system, initial cocking was accomplished by pressing the barrel end against a solid object, or via the standard means of pulling back the hammer. Both methods forced the slide to travel rearwards and then return with the hammer cocked. In the case of a failure to fire, the Webley-Fosbery was simply re-cocked as mentioned. Since it was meant to be carried “Cocked & Locked”, the firearm incorporated a manual safety, uncommon to revolvers, which disconnects the hammer from the sear.
Despite failing to win the official support of the military, many of these revolvers were purchased and worn on the hip of British officers at the onset of the Great War. However these firearms were not cheap, with a retail price of 9₤ ($43USD) the Webley-Fosbery was horrendously more expensive than an Iver Johnson Safety Hammerless revolver which retailed for 1.25₤ ($6USD) in 1904. Due to the increase in reliability and design characteristics of ever increasing semi-automatic handguns such as the now-iconic Colt 1911, the appeal of revolvers, let alone expensive hybrids continued to decline and the Webley-Fosbery Self Cocking Automatic revolver slowly faded away to history and progress.
Over eight decades later, an Italian engineer, Emilio Ghisoni, decided to recreate the concept of the historic auto-revolver. On March 24th, 1987, a patent was issued for a revolver design which was described as “a revolver with a reduced backlash moment and, more particularly, to a revolver whose firing point is lowered by comparison with earlier revolvers and which therefore manifests a reduced backlash moment upon firing.” Thus was born the next era of auto revolvers known as the Mateba Model 6-Unica or as more commonly called, the Mateba Auto-Revolver. The 6-Unica was manufactured by Macchine Termo-Balistiche, which was made into the acronym MA∙TE∙BA which has become the catch phrase for this interesting handgun. The remainder of this article will deal with the Mateba. The Mateba design, while borrowing some elements from the Webley-Fosbery, added in several updates and enhancements to solve all the historic shortcomings and increase the performance and capabilities of the design. The new Mateba is a sleek, massive, alloy framed revolver with a shrouded barrel typical of Dan Wesson revolvers. Unlike a typical revolver, the Mateba fires from the low chamber in the cylinder. As you shake your head in disbelief, recall the pistol’s patent description of reduced backlash. In this case, by firing from the lower chamber, the torque developed by the firing of a cartridge is much less than that of a typical revolver. Add to that a recoil operated upper slide and the Mateba’s bulk; the final result is an extremely soft shooting handgun for what was normally considered a potent cartridge.
In my investigations to the origins and history of this well crafted handgun, there were two prevailing opinions on the Mateba. It was considered a beautifully engineered and designed handgun by some individuals, including the author, while the remainders were of the opinion that it was freaking ugly. Many also say it was the answer to a question never asked. The Mateba, unfortunately fell victim to that statement. It was literally a firearm produced with no true demand by the market, and despite all the fine engineering and modernized design, the 6-Unica failed to breakthrough to the mainstream firearms market. With roughly two thousand units manufactured, the final Model 6-Unica was produced in 2005 which makes this handgun fairly rare to find and even harder to repair. Offered in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .454 Casull, with barrel lengths ranging from 76mm (3”) to 213mm (8 3/8”), the Mateba offered a wide variety of options to please all people who desired one. The later generation versions of the Mateba featured threaded barrel ends for mounting of compensators, pre-tapped lower frame for scope mounting, and offered alternative recoil spring sets for use with the cartridges that traditionally could be used in similar calibers. Examples of these spring sets allowed for .38 Special loads in the .357 Magnum, or .45 Long Colt to be fired in the .454 Casull chambering. There was even variation of this auto-revolver into a carbine which was the 6-Unica mated to a shoulder stock and a 458mm (18”) barrel, labeled Griffone. Despite all these variations, or perhaps because of them, the modern Auto-Revolver once again has become a footnote in the history books.
Many of the readers probably never heard of such an animal as a semi-auto revolver prior to this article, but they have frequented the screens of movie theatres across the ages. The Webley Fosbery was used in movies such as “The Maltese Falcon (1941)” and “Zardoz (1974)”. The Mateba 6-Unica, has also graced the movie screens but usually in science fiction movies and with additions to disguise the pistol. The Mateba has been spotted in the movie “Serenity (2005)”, and newer movies such as “The Gamer (2009)” and “Give ‘em hell (?Is hell capitalized?) Malone (2009)”. With a mission to find out as much about the Mateba 6-Unica usage in movies, the author’s efforts were finally rewarded with a phone interview with actor Thomas Jane; star of movies such as “The Punisher (2004)”, “The Mist (2007)” and “Give ‘em Hell Malone (2009)”; about his movie in which he uses a Mateba. As it turns out the main character’s 6-Unica was in fact the actor’s personal choice to use in the film Give ‘em Hell Malone. With a limited budget for firearms in the movie, Mister Jane had wanted something to stand out and make the character easily identifiable in the pulpy-dark film. Thomas Jane found the Mateba and purchased it himself to use for his character in the movie. It was visually striking and was “perfect” for the film. Describing the Mateba as being akin to fine Italian cars and fine Italian women, Jane commented that his .357 Mateba was expensive but when maintained and taken care of; it functions exceptionally well, is amazingly accurate and a great pleasure to shoot. Mister Jane in fact stated that he liked the firearm so much that he was considering having it as a signature sidearm for him in any upcoming movies. After being invited by Thomas Jane to talk about firearms again in the future and exchanging some information, the author’s opinion of actor Thomas Jane went up yet another notch. Hopefully that talk will happen again soon.
The Mateba 6-Unica’s upper slide and lower receiver are held together by a slide stop which is secured in place with a set screw. The use of a retaining screw means that field stripping of this firearm is not a quick task, but unlike modern self loading pistols such as a Glock, the Mateba does not have to worry about powder residue build up on the slide rails or into the trigger/release mechanisms. Akin to a revolver, the cylinder gap is the only place for any possible excess gases and residue to escape from, and the upper slide completely prevents its access into critical areas. The author took apart his Mateba once, to fully clean and lubricate the moving components in the trigger assembly and the indexing and lockup mechanism housed in the upper slide. Once! The trigger mechanics are complex, as are the crane indexing and cylinder locking mechanism. With less than supreme courage, the author decided to put the Mateba back together and vowed to never take it apart to such an extent ever again. It was far too stressful looking for the single misplaced snap ring. While the author has yet to try using the spring kits for .38 specials, the Mateba has gobbled up several hundred full power .357 Magnum loads. In this author’s personal opinion, the Mateba 6-Unica is an exemplary piece of engineering which despite being a different looking firearm, shoots softly and accurately and is an excellent addition to any firearm collection.
Now for the meat and potatoes portion of the article which, hopefully, very few readers skipped ahead to read. For the following review of the Mateba 6-Unica, the author’s opinions compared it to a modern “traditional’ revolver, the Ruger GP-100. The two firearms listed are both from the author’s personal collection, and both are chambered in .357 Magnum and are fashioned with a 152mm (6”) barrel.
Model: Mateba 6 Unica
Finish: Nickel Alloy
Calibre: .357 Remington Magnum
Capacity: Six (6)
Barrel: 152mm (6”)
Mass (Empty): 1250g (42oz)
Grips: Target Grips, Walnut
Options (not used): Compensator, Spring Kits
Model: Ruger GP-100
Finish: Stainless Steel (Polished)
Calibre: .357 Remington Magnum
Capacity: Six (6)
Barrel: 152mm (6”) with full underlug
Mass (Empty): 1330g (45oz)
Grips: Rubber with rosewood inserts
At first glance the Mateba appears to be a very bulky firearm with very little in the way of blended surfaces and curved lines in the metal components. The grip is very large and thick like many target style grips on many revolvers and requires fairly large hands to hold firmly. Inspecting the author’s Mateba, the pre-tapped holes on the lower frame are easily visible and are present for optionally installing a scope mount akin to those used on many IPSC Open class pistols. Looking at the upper slide; the shrouded barrel assembly is similar to a Dan Wesson barrel system, which equates to simple barrel length interchangeability and simplification of setting proper cylinder gaps. The Mateba also incorporates ambidextrous cylinder release levers located behind the cylinder but higher up than in conventional revolvers. Sights are of a three dot design, with the rear sight fixed and the front being adjustable for windage and elevation. The trigger also incorporates an over travel limiting screw.
Physical Size & Handling:
Compared to a GP-100 with a full underlug barrel, the Mateba appears to be a massive hunk of metal, with a thick barrel shroud, tall upper slide assembly, and oversized grips. However, as with many things, appearances can be deceiving. To the author, the Autorevolver is well balanced when held and the ample grip allows for comfortable and secure holds, both one handed and two handed. The GP-100 is much thinner both in barrel and frame and the factory grips yet feels more barrel heavy. Surprisingly the GP-100 was slightly heavier than the Mateba, which goes to show what a difference the use of alloys makes in actual firearm construction.
The author has to agree with the comments by actor Thomas Jane. If maintained and fed quality ammunition, the Mateba performs flawlessly and reliably. There were significant differences in felt recoil and muzzle jump between the compared handguns. The author was able to repeatedly fire all six rounds in both the Ruger and the Mateba into the center zone of a standard CDP target at 20m. The difference? The Ruger was with two hands and done in roughly 10 seconds, while the Mateba was done in the same time but with one hand. Mr. Emilo Ghisoni’s design accomplished exactly what it set out to do. The Mateba makes full power factory loads feel like you are shooting a 9mm. The author has yet to try out the Mateba with the lighter recoil springs for .38 Special loads and wonders how much more manageable the recoil would be once the screw on compensator is added. Also, the author discovered that the speedloaders used for the Ruger GP-100, also work on the Mateba. Did I mention that there is an adjustable screw in the hammer to allow for increasing and decreasing the force with which the hammer will strike?
Like every firearm there are usually one or two items or issues that stick out as a negative aspect of the designs. The Mateba is a well designed piece of firearms’ technology, but it has some issues that the author would have liked addressed. The first and foremost is that the cylinder can only be opened when the hammer is not cocked. To most it probably doesn’t seem like much of an actual problem and it was most likely a safety feature built into the firearm. Yet if used in competition where reloads are required, the extra time required remembering and pulling the trigger through onto a spent round could be the half second or more that gets added to your times. Finally, the Mateba’s mechanisms are overly complex. The firearm uses C-rings and snap pins as well as many small components that are completely unfamiliar to the innards of most modern revolvers. This makes full disassembly and reassembly a daunting task, and should only be done by experienced gunsmiths and in a clean open space so as to not loose anything.
The Mateba is as fine a specimen of ingenuity and design excellence as any handgun in existence. It is unfortunate that this piece of firearms history was either not marketed well enough, or did not have a market to sell to. The Mateba 6-Unica is a joy to shoot, a great conversation starter, a triumph of engineering and pretty fine looking handgun in the author’s heavily biased opinion. One can only hope that Mr. Thomas Jane, the author, and the several hundred other Autorevolver owners will continue to be able to shoot their prized handgun for many decades to come. Freaking ugly or beautiful, the Mateba 6-Unica is indeed a rare find and should any reader come across one, maybe you will think seriously about acquiring one.