Orig­i­nal re­search: Den­nis Com­mins Pho­tos: David Swan and Tony Wil­liams

Air Gunner - - Contents - by John Atkins

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...


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