Original research: Dennis Commins Photos: David Swan and Tony Williams
John Atkins goes back in time and tells us of the first-ever springer, believed to be operated by a rubber-band spring!
In the days prior to BSA’s involvement, the first experimental ‘ Lincoln’ underlever air rifles from Lincoln Jeffries would have been appearing on the airgun shooting scene at the time when The Sporting Goods Review ran a feature page titled: ‘ The Development of Spring Air Guns’ in their December 1904 issue, illustrating an English spring airgun patent of 1849. The accompanying text said it was generally considered that the credit of the invention for the spring air gun belonged to Germany, but the magazine didn’t wish to imply that the illustrated airgun was the first of its type, and they were quite open to any claimant to produce evidence of prior invention - but this was the first spring air gun they knew of, patented in England and the principle - apart from the operational method, identical with that then so widely adopted. One hundred and thirteen years on from that TSGR article, nothing has come to light that takes away the English origin of the first spring airgun of 1849, and the only thing I’d alter with the 1904 article would be to credit the invention of most other spring guns prior to that period, to America - rather than Germany. Time has proved that the mass produced German spring airguns to the ‘Gem’ and ‘ Millita’ patterns, both originated with Haviland & Gunn of Hudson, Columbia and Ilion, Herkimer, New York and were thus American inspired - rather than actual German inventions - as assumed in the TSGR article. Apart from that, it’s well written and the magazine probably caused a minor revelation by revealing in their typically jingoistic way, that the earliest spring air gun of which they then had any record in 1904 was English, the patent number 12,728 being entered on August 1st 1849 and granted on January 30th, 1850. The quaintly worded front page of John Shaw’s Patent specification for ‘Certain Improvements in Airguns’ is shown as Figure 1. A few examples exist, varying from the patent specification, including one in the Royal Armouries, Tower of London collection - although having a side plate engraved ‘ Shaw’s patent India Rubber Air Gun’ it’s operated by an ordinary wire coil spring and appears
to have been produced as this, with another in the Milwaukee Museum, in the USA believed to be operated by rubber-band spring - a photograph appearing in Eldon G. Wolff’s book Air Guns page 135.
Common to many compressed air guns of 1849, the gun was made with two barrels in one. The lower barrel previously serving as an air reservoir here was utilised to contain a spring. The inventor, John Shaw of Glossop, Derby, a Musical Instrument
Maker claimed: ‘ the novel combination and arrangement of a condensing syringe or pump, and a spring attached to and forming parts of the gun, whereby I am enabled to procure instantly, at the pull of the trigger, sufficient pressure of air for one discharge, without any previous pumping or condensation of air as hitherto required in ordinary air guns.’ This wording does seem to mark this patent positively as the first for spring operation, and the starting point of modern springpiston air rifles internationally. There is further stated at the end of the application: ‘ That I claim as my invention the condensing of the air in air guns at the instant of discharge by one stroke of an air pump or syringe, actuated by a previously extended or compressed spring or other suitable elastic means’.
Figure 2 shows the left hand side of the late David Swan’s photograph of his Shaw elastic powered air gun. The gun is 44¾” (113.7cm approx.) long overall with a 10½” (26.7cm approx.) barrel of .29” (7.37mm) smooth bore. ‘ Special SG’ shot at .298” /7.57mm might just fit. Figure 3 shows this specimen is stamped No. 92 on a brass plate signed H. Holland MAKER OF J. SHAW’S PATENT INDIA RUBBER AIR GUN. David contacted the famous gun makers Holland and Holland regarding this gun, hoping that perhaps Harris Holland and/or maybe Henry Holland might have been involved in its construction before they became ‘ Holland and Holland’, but unfortunately they had no record of it, which was a pity really, as that would have given it a very nice provenance.
Earlier J. Shaw Accounts
After stepping down from the now sadly discontinued Guns Review magazine after many years of contributions, the late Dennis Commins, the ‘Airgun Scene’ writer, wrote to me ‘out of the blue’ on 4th September 1994 following a serious heart attack some five years before, to most generously give me his blanket approval to use or publish anything that he had ever written or published. Dennis had been fascinated by the Shaw as the first spring airgun and wrote no less than three articles about it.
Having these rights to my friend Dennis’s work allows me to continue and expand on themes he started and this month with the help of another friend, the late David Swan - who donated photographs of the Shaw airgun from his collection, I’ll add a little to the account by continuing the theme of rubber power for airguns. Anyone who has watched the surprisingly long, silent flight of a well-made, large model aircraft with several hundred turns on board from the ‘stretch wound’ rubber motor - or seen superb catapult shots in action, as I have, will not doubt the motive power of rubber. However, harnessing it for powering an airgun isn’t so easy. You also need a lot of it to obtain any real shooting power.
Rubber bands act like springs in the main, but when relaxed don’t quite follow Robert Hooke’s law of elasticity that basically states ‘ the force needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance is proportional to that distance’. We probably all learned this at school, but in Shaw’s airgun they act exactly like a stretched metallic spring during the firing cycle, as far as I can establish.
Surprisingly, W.H.B. Smith’s book Gas, Air & Spring Guns of the World scarcely mentions John Shaw, saying the patent was: ‘for locks for airguns but nothing much came of it’. Maybe he misread the old patent. True Shaw’s system never became a success, but few were made so that makes them of more interest to collectors nowadays. On the other hand, Arne Hoff ‘s account on Page 17 of his book Airguns and other Pneumatic Arms is quite comprehensive. Hoff tells us there was an airgun on Shaw’s system shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Lead balls were flattened out completely after hitting an iron plate over 20 yards away, a score of strong vulcanised rubber bands pulling the piston forward. This force seems rather incredible to me and I’m also puzzled how that amount of even flat rubber could fit in the chamber, unless it was of much larger diameter than the patent drawing suggests.
The original patent drawings are reproduced in Figure 4. Rather rubbed and age-worn, I’ve had to clean them up in places although when reduced in size will still probably be far from clear. They show the air chamber with a block closing it at the front end, having two apertures, through one of which projects the steel piston rod, the other opening into the barrel. The piston is faced with leather and the trigger sear hooks into a recess at the rear of it. An endless, vulcanised India rubber band extended to act as a spring of considerable power.
On pulling the trigger, the piston is released, and under the influence of the rubber spring, shoots forward in the air chamber expelling the compressed air into the barrel and forcibly discharging the bullet. The shot had been muzzle-loaded and held by a slight contraction or restriction formed in the end of the shot barrel to prevent it from being rammed down into the pump, whilst suitable provision had been made for admitting air to the air chamber.
The lower patent drawing depicts the piston as just released by the trigger, whilst the three smaller drawings of components shown separately at lower right of the drawings represent a sectional view of the ‘ breech’ (i.e. trigger block) detached and turned quarter way round, to show the trigger slot; a sectional view of the block at the front of the cylinder turned quarter way around - the shaded parts are the steel bush for the piston rod to work through and a perspective view of the muzzle cap held in place by a screw pin. In the main, the Shaw was constructed of brass.
To get the gun cocked again, the underneath view of the barrel shows a slot through which was seen the piston rod, having soldered on it a projecting brass bead. The separate cocking piece shown in the drawings was introduced into the slot and fitted onto the piston rod between the hook and the bead, when the piston was pulled back by the finger hooks, until the trigger sear caught. Figure 5 shows the steel tool referred to, throughout the patent, as the ‘cocker’ fitted onto the piston rod (shown shortened for the drawing) with bead.
Some escape of the air by the side of the piston rod would occur, and the use of a rubber spring proved undesirable, it seems, from known examples of John Shaw’s 1849 patent air gun. But the inventor had thought of this when he expressly stated
that ‘ various formsf of construction of springs’ might be employed instead of the rubber band/s and that other modes of cocking could be adopted without departing from the spirit of his invention. Figure 6 shows the right side of the Shaw airgun No. 92 varying from the patent in several respects. David Swan’s photograph Figure 7 shows the brass work removed from the stock and the spring arrangement found on No. 92 with a closer view of the band power unit in Figure 8.
With steel piston and brass shot tube seen removed in Figure 9, it’s clear that the Shaw gun numbered 92 - once part of David’s collection - deviates considerably from the original patent. In place of the bands, a long metal coil spring could have been substituted, to be stretched, like the rubber bands, on cocking. A similar system was used later on Markham’s American 1887 patent BB gun that I included in May 2014 with known examples, possibly being sold as the ‘Challenger’ or ‘Challenge’ with production of this wooden club-like gun having commenced earlier, elsewhere in 1886. After releasing a long wire latch along the outside of the barrel, it was broken down on a cabinet hinge, forcing the single, unsupported iron cocking link underneath, backwards to stretch rather than compress the mainspring.
The J. Shaw patent included a comment that it would be necessary occasionally to drop a small quantity of oil into the shot barrel, presumably to run down and lubricate the muzzle loader’s leather washer. This may have been the first advice to lubricate a spring airgun’s leather washer, just as we would do today.
Holland’s number 150
By the time of Dennis’s second article on the Shaw gun, an example in poor condition had surfaced, deviating from the patent with provision for ramrod and an attached cocking lever under the fore end, the separate ‘cocker’ having been dispensed with. Small photographs reproduced showed a Shaw with a very full pistol grip unknown on other examples. The barrel (around .25” calibre), butt plate, trigger guard and side plate bearing the number 150 are of brass
and engraved, with the steel trigger broken off. Dennis found it light to handle, lifting as though fitted and with a very high degree of craftsmanship. We don’t know if the ‘150’ number indicated John Shaw air guns produced, or guns of all kinds made by H. Holland at 9 King Street, Holborn between 1850 to 1877, when he merged with the famous Holland & Holland.
Number 150, when partially dismantled, revealed the action was by coil spring - this being judged a replacement. The cocking lever slides backwards, taking with it a skeletal piston to which it’s attached, and simply compressing the mainspring against the end of the cylinder. It was evident to Dennis from the design and dimensions that the gun couldn’t ever have been operated by India-rubber bands and being coil-spring operated, it reinforced his view of the Shaw as being the first spring airgun. The wording on the plate of the gun still referring to ‘ India Rubber Air Gun’ is confusing, although Shaw’s patent states: ‘Actuated by a previously extended or compressed spring or other suitable elastic means’. So the patent still clearly also covered an airgun operated by a coil spring.
Nowadays, the term ‘springer’ has been introduced and become commonplace with airgun writers and probably rather overused. I don’t normally use the modern term ‘springer’ in this column because, whilst appreciating it’s an accepted, recent christening and useful to distinguish modern, spring-piston-powered airguns from the pre- charged pneumatics, pump-ups and gas propelled guns, the term just seems less suitable for the older airguns for some odd reason - although I can’t think of an alternative I’d prefer.
To me, a ‘springer’ is an English spaniel dog, and as I’ve already pointed out, the Shaw airgun, in original form used a cocking tool referred to throughout the patent as the ‘cocker’ - so if I start using the modern term ‘springer’ as well, there’s a danger of this article taking on a canine theme, more in mind of spaniels like my friend ‘ Blue’ seen in Figure 10, the working dog who lives next- door to me. So I’ll stick to my long-winded ‘spring airguns’ or ‘springoperated piston airguns’, but to those under 50 - who, according to the ‘ Urban Directory’ are not officially ‘old fogeys’ like me, then this first part of my article has been about ‘ The First Springer’!
Dennis’ third article on the Shaw featured a fine reproduction of the rubber-powered airgun built of brass and hardwood by a Guns Review reader, Mr. R. W. Allsopp, using a small lathe in his garage, who had been inspired by the first article to make a reproduction, after much experimenting over two and a half years. The patent was followed as closely as possible in having the bands attached to the front end of the cylinder. A flaw was quickly found, in that to obtain sufficient power, several double thicknesses of quarter-inch rubber were needed and to accommodate these, the overall diameter needed to be larger than scaled from the Shaw patent.
Cocking was achieved by a lever that also incorporated the ramrod, the whole rod being detached and one end engaged in a slot under the cylinder. The weight and strength required to cock the piston proved enormous. Part of the cocking rod then became the ramrod to seat the .25” pellet or ball. It worked, but power was quite low considering the cocking effort. Shooting it was an odd experience because the action was dead quiet and, to use Mr. Allsopp’s own description, the recoil was like a ‘steamy push’.
Not having seen No. 92 and considering the cocking difficulties Mr. Allsopp encountered making his reproduction. Dennis Commins left the subject doubting whether Holland ever produced an air rifle to the actual details of the patent operated by India-rubber bands, feeling that the coilspring operated Holland would have been the design adopted from the Shaw Patent by the gunsmith. However, it now appears that early versions were rubber powered with a switch to metal springs at some point after number 92, but without further specimens to study, the picture will remain unclear.
As for John Shaw himself, he seems to have been an inventive piano manufacturer. A later Patent of 1856 No. 2370 for certain improvements in pianofortes, organs, harmoniums, and other similar keyed musical instruments, gives the patentees as John Shaw, and Edwin Shaw, both of Glossop, Derbyshire. His most famous invention seems to have been the Shaw Cornopean with a patent valve system to add tubing length to the instrument that evolved into the modern cornet.
My invention that wasn’t!
I recall being impressed as small boy, by the 1953 Walt Disney animated film Peter Pan, in which two of ‘ The Lost Boys’ were armed with crude catapults; the prong of one being mounted on the fore end of a wooden rifle stock. Strict Walt Disney copyright laws prevent me from reproducing the image here, but this prompted me to start building catapult guns. Having stretched rubber cables dangerously close to the eyes never crossed my mind as a boy, but maybe a tough Perspex shield positioned behind the action to sight through, might have been sensible.
In the summer before I was allowed an air rifle, it struck me that I could convert a catapult gun into an airgun by removing the broomstick ‘ barrel’ and in it’s place mounting an old garden syringe and suitable shot tube up front, with the pump handle resting in the pouch previously used to launch old clay marbles, and round stones. As a schoolboy with no knowledge of Shaw’s and Quackenbush’s previously patented rubber-powered airguns, I set to work, thinking it was a fine invention on my part.
The pump and barrel were fixed to the stock with nailed copper bands - which I’ve left out of my drawing Figure 11 - because they added nothing to the already awful appearance of my ungainly gun. After sawing off the sprayer end of the syringe, a foreign coin with a hole in the middle was found to be the exact diameter to be soldered into the front opening of the pump to make my transfer port - a short loading tube with rubber tap washers glued at each end being pushed between this and the alloy tube barrel that was around .22” calibre, in the forlorn hope of making the joint airtight.
My airgun used even more rubber than others because the trigger was also rubberband controlled ( see detail Figure 11). A loop of strong catgut at the rear of the leather pouch engaged with my trigger sear. I readily admit this mechanism came from the practical book called: I Made it Myself by Arthur C. Horth, As well as catapult guns, this brilliant book shows how to make a deadly-looking crossbow, sections of Horth’s book being a sort- of 1940s forerunner of the Iggulden brothers’ excellent 2006 best seller: The Dangerous Book for Boys. It goes without saying, that I take no responsibility for paying for any panes of glass that younger readers might shoot out with homemade catapult guns inspired by my drawings.
H. M. Quackenbush in America had used a rubber band for his cheap ‘ Cap or Powder Pistol’ firing TT shot patented Dec. 2nd 1873 and 11 years later took up the idea again when in 1884 he patented his own variable power, rubber-band Model Zero or ‘ Lightning’ airgun with moveable cylinder and fixed piston - the patent drawings featuring in Figure 12. Pressing the trigger releases the buffered cylinder, which is then drawn forward by the bands compressing the air in the cylinder to shoot the .21” dart or slug. Only about half a dozen survivors of the Lightning appear to exist in collections from the 354 produced so, unsurprisingly, I have never seen one. The immensely rare ‘ Lightning’ is seen centre of Figure 13 among the display of Quackenbush airguns in Larry Hannusch’s great collection, Above them is a rare 1900 ‘ Crescent’, a fine array of ‘ Columbian’s’ and a ‘ Matchless’, photographed by Tony Williams when on a visit to America.
Figure 1: Front page of John Shaw’s Patent specification for ‘ Certain Improvements in Airguns’ entered on August 1st 1849 and granted on January 30th, 1850 Figure 2: The left- hand side of the Shaw elasticpowered airgun No. 92 [Photograph courtesy of...
Figure 7: The spring arrangement found on No. 92 [Photograph courtesy of David Swan] Figure 8: A closer view of the band power unit [Photograph courtesy of David Swan] Figure 9 With steel piston and brass shot tube removed it’s clear that the Shaw...