Back to the 1950s part 2
Last month, I was reliving my youthful air- gunning exploits high up on the North Downs, by revisiting boyhood haunts during an enjoyable Downlands walk with Sam, a large dog belonging to a friend. There’s nothing like actually going back to an area to trigger memories of good times spent there because familiar landmarks bring it all flooding back.
Some favourite airgun shooting areas seemed unchanged, almost as if frozen in time, but other hillsides were far more wooded than I remembered over half a century ago. Boys in my ‘gang’ virtually lived on the North Downs and would take turns to ride Harry Fenton’s old BSA C11 motor cycle through puddles along the track in front of the hills. We were all very underage, so had to push it from its hiding place (middle of a bush in the local churchyard), to the private track that is now a motorway skirting the town.
Whilst the National Trust owns some beauty spots, much of the chalk grassland and woodland on the Downs is open-access, but that doesn’t mean you can take an airgun there! Over half a century ago, we got away with it, genuinely believing our 10/- (50p) gun licences covered us, and no one took any notice of lads carrying airguns anyway, on what we wrongly thought was ‘common ground’. All this is firmly in the past. For the benefit of any new young readers, any attempt at shooting on the Downs nowadays would incur very heavy penalties, as stressed in last month’s article.
During the walk, when reminiscing about the airguns owned in the 1950s – either by friends or me – I wrote my thoughts down, and the resulting notebook jottings formed the basis of last month’s article. At that time, the underlever/guard cocking ‘Abas Major’ and the hinged- grip cocking ‘ Thunderbolt Junior’ air pistols - probably both dating from c.1949 - as shown in
were already becoming obsolete and were unseen in shops, or in use during my 1950’s boyhood.
This month, I’m going to look at a few more airguns from the 1950s that were never encountered then, none being owned within my circle of friends, or by me. Some I knew about, like the ‘ Daisy’ owned by a boy at school, and then there was the rather rusty brown ‘Acvoke’ air pistol I spotted in the window of the ‘ Helping Hand Agency ’ - a second-hand shop opposite the town’s art school that I used to attend on Saturday mornings. Not realising it was a grip cocker, I puzzled for years on how it worked. Others, I had no clue about until years later, when I discovered them featured in Les Wesley’s ‘AirGuns and Air-Pistols’ book in my local library.
The same situation applied to pellets. I only knew about the brands sold in my local shops, and places I went on holiday, so I thought that was all there were. Pellet sales were probably regionalised to some extent and boys in other areas were seeing a different assortment than I was. It struck me, during my walk on the Downs, that whilst owning the larger Webley pistols, no boys I
knew in the ‘50s, actually owned a ‘Junior’ air pistol, but we all aspired to, having seen them in shops. Compared with push-in-barrel cocking types, they were always expensive, so maybe richer kids than us had the Webley Juniors ( Figure 2) whilst we had Harrington Gats and Diana No. 2 pistols.
DIANA 1950’S SIDELEVERS
As a gang of boys, we thought we were knowledgeable on the entire range of smaller Diana airguns and were familiar with the Models 1, 15, 16, 22, 23 and the fairground favourite, Model 25; although the mystery of why the then current Germanmade (Original) and British-made (Milbro) Dianas - appeared identical, yet originated from different countries and bore different names was a mystery to us. How surprised we’d have been to see the two lightweight Diana sidelever- cockers in Figure 3. Ludwig Mayer’s German Pat. no. 808205 of 25th June 1949 covered these 1950’s juvenile sidelever- cockers. Top: Mayer & Grammelspacher Diana Model No. 0 dual cork-and pellet-/dart firing airgun, with the heavier Model No. 10 stamped 6-50 (June 1950) airgun appearing below.
Forbidden by the Allies to produce firearms or airguns after the Second World War, until the production ban was lifted in 1950, any early No. 0 sidelevers possibly produced prior to this, in late ’49, M& G very likely ‘got away’ with it, due to the corkfiring aspect, without breaking regulations in the occupation zones. Whilst the No. 0 is more cork gun than pellet or dart firer, the No. 10 with its conventional shot tube seems more pellet gun than cork firer to me.
The Diana Models 0 and 10 may not have been sold in this country, although the operating instructions for the cheaper Model 0 airgun/cork firer are all typeset in English, as shown when I documented the Model 0 in detail in Air Gunner, April 2003. At the time, I said I’d cover the heavier Model 10 in this column ‘soon’. I hadn’t forgotten this, but had hoped to find a better example to show and somehow, 14 years slipped by… Rare in this country, no better example has materialised for me, so I’m showing my rather battered example, minus rear sight, that John McCrossen spotted in a boot fair. I said I’d like it, and John went back, only to find it had been sold. So he tracked down the buyer and wrested it from him for me!
The main differences in the No. 0 shown top of Figure 4, and No.10 ( below) are in the front ends. The Model 0 has angled indents, which act as a screw fitting on the spiral pressings on the pellet tube. These form a simple fast ‘ thread’ for the quick removal or insertion of the twist on/off tube for loading ball, dart or slug. Without the tube, it fires corks. Diana emphasised that the gun must be cocked first, before attaching the tube because the presence of the loaded tube would prevent the necessary air from being ‘sucked back’ into the cylinder – presumably to avoid a vacuum being caused.
The heavier Model 10 has a more conventional arrangement, with the foresight on the front of the false barrel, giving a longer sight base. The shot tube, with knurled muzzle cap, unscrews from here, like a Diana Junior Model I. It’s then withdrawn from the surrounding front end, as seen lower Figure 5, and breech loaded as normal with guns of this type.
Reusable countless times, the British Milbro Plastic Pellets for indoor use or practice were popular from early 1952, as I mentioned last month, and would have been ideal for use in these low-powered German sidelevers. The ammunition compartments of this 1959 British Diana No. 2 Pistol Display Pack, shown in Figure 6, contained a 100 packet of Milbro Plastic Pellets, along with Milbro Darts and 100 waisted Caledonian pellets. The earliest packet (centre front) had only ‘ MILBRO’ on the label with ‘-Diana’ added later. Loose Plastic Pellets can possibly be made out on the corner of the Milbro target card.
Having gathered these thoughts about 1950s guns I never saw at the time, I descended to lower ground. As Sam’s owner had said, after allowing him a good run, he’d return on hearing his name called. Although only a spot in the distance, he returned directly on hearing my shout, running up expectantly because, as an added incentive, I’d waved a rustling bag of Baker’s ‘Allsorts’ in the air. He’d already had a couple of treats from the bag before I let him loose. I poured out water from the bottle into his bowl that I’d bought, and whilst he was eating the maximum number of treats recommended for a very large dog and lapping up his water, I clipped the lead back on for the walk home without him protesting. I believe the well-trained dog has known me long enough to return to me without the bribery, but there’s no harm in giving him an incentive!
Whilst working on one of my older ‘ black guard’ Fender Telecasters, world-renowned guitar maker Andy Crockett, unexpectedly volunteered the information that his brother had owned a Falke air rifle when they were boys. I wanted to know all about it, of course, but all Andy could tell me, was the usual, ‘ It was very powerful’ reminiscence, but boyhood recollections of airguns often credit their power aas higher than they probably really were. With no accurate measuring devices available then, the shooting power, penetration and range of airguns grows in the mind of the owners down the years, and often becomes legendary.
I sent old Falke catalogue copies, showing the range, to Andy’s guitar workshops, but on seeing him again later when picking up my old Tele., it seemed they had failed to jog any memories about the model, or it’s present whereabouts. So, although I was unable to determine the model once owned by Andy’s brother, it was interesting to know that Falke rifles were around in UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Apart from in German and Dutch catalogues, I’ve seen no old advertising for the Falke range here. I asked collector Danny Garvin – who knows more about Falke models than I probably ever will – if he had, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing any UK advertising of Falkes, either. I’m indebted to Danny for the use of his photograph of a fine 1950’s Falke Model 33 air pistol from Albert Föhrenbach GmbH of Hanover, Germany in
Figure 7. Whilst the Haenel pistols came in stout cardboard cartons, many other German pistol boxes are of quite fragile card, so it’s good to see a Falke Model 33 still contained in its surviving original thinner carton.
Figure 8 shows two further Falke Model 33 examples from my own collection. Top: Cocked by the underlever. The safety works on the trigger and sear and, unlike an Abas Major, there’s no safety ratchet on the piston itself, so if the lever is accidentally released before the sear engages the piston during cocking, it will fly back to injure the fingers. Lower: Another example with paler stock. Neither carries a serial number. Markings are ‘ FALKE Mod. 33 DBP’ on cylinder top and ‘ MADE IN GERMANY’ under the barrel with KAL. 4.5 m/m gez. (rifled) atop the barrel.
The Falke 33 was a well-made air pistol with adequate power (m.v. is 340 f.p.s with RWS Match pellets) for six-yard target shooting and beyond, with well blued, allsteel mechanism mounted on a stained and varnished hardwood stock – believed beech, although walnut was available on request. It’s three- quarter stocked; the fore- end is longer than most conventional barrelcocking pistols of this type, extending further forward to hide the cocking linkage neatly, and the cam that opens and closes the breech. Overall length is 11¾ inches with a 5¼ inch, tip-up barrel rifled with 12- grooves and calibre 4.5m or .177 inch. Foresight is a tapered blade and the rearsight is a fully adjustable V-notch.
Curiously, one English language catalogue c.1957 that Danny has shown me, lists the Falke 33 as having an ‘excellent sidelever cocking mechanism’ but this is merely a translation error, as you can see from the photographs. It’s actually a 1953 patented, underlever cocker with a couple of novel features. To cock the pistol, the underlever is released from its spring-loaded catch at the base of the butt, The non-slip underlever has very shallow indentations for the fingers on the sides as you pull the lever forward to cock the mainspring. Simultaneously, a cam on the lever’s upper end is rotated to allow the tip-up barrel’s breech to rise automatically by the action of a small coil spring underneath it. See
When the sear engages, the lever can be released and a pellet breech-loaded. Returning the cocking lever to the closed
position rotates the cam and closes the breech firmly, pushing the leather washer on the face of the barrel breech up against the end of the cylinder to ensure an airtight seal. The double-pull, non-adjustable trigger has a very light positive pull- off of about 2lbs, due to the long sear.
A fine group of the heavier, taploading Falke models is shown courtesy of Danny Garvin’s collection in Figure 11. Interestingly, the Model 80 rifle featured elm for the stock, whilst the Model 90 used walnut. The Falcon trademark boldly appears on the large, fixed-barrel, tap-loading Falke models as seen in Figure 12. I regret not concentrating on collecting more of the Falke range earlier, but they were always difficult to locate.
If we saw Walther LP 53s in gun-shop windows, they might not have registered with us as airguns, looking more like firearms, so none were recollected. Another air pistol not personally seen at the time was the excellent German ‘Original’ Model 5 break-barrel air pistol with wooden butt and mid-1958 to early 1960s-style tapered barrel as seen in Figure 13.
Figure 14 shows the sides, noses and bases of the ammunition of the 1950s used during my boyhood. Left: Lane’s ‘Prince’ a cheap, lightweight cup slug for smoothbores, often misshaped and angled at the basal edge. Middle group: Lane’s ‘Cat’ Slugs appreciably longer and heavier than the Prince and Right: Lanes ‘Beatall’ domeheads. A trick of the light makes it look as if the hollow slug noses have a central pinhole, but it’s just thinner lead there. Just how well did cup slugs really shoot? They needed to be a good fit in a wellmade smoothbore, but even in rifled barrels, my old friend, the late Arthur Pickford, had surprisingly good accuracy results with Lane’s Cat Slugs in his 1970s pellet testing.
A very factual man, his extensive pellet tests were all documented in a notebook that he sent me. He knocked two tins down at 30 yards from the bathroom window, with two shots from a BSA Lincoln Jeffries Mod. D on August 5th, 1972, resulting in slight dents. His conclusion was that the Lane’s Cat Slugs were quite accurate, but rather short of hitting power – as expected with a lightweight slug. The rifling, of course, engraves the entire length of the slug, so friction plays a part, and faster shooting would possibly have been noticeable if he’d had (for comparison) an identical B.S. A./L. J., but smoothbored … which, unsurprisingly, he hadn’t, since none are known to exist.
Like me, many collectors will have fond memories of using Lane’s ‘ Beatall’ brand, waisted pellets. Figure 15 shows Lane’s Beatall in 200 and 500 boxes. They are full and previously unopened. Webley pistol expert, Jeff Hyder, was a resident of Mordaunt Road, in tough Harlesden during his boyhood, and whilst reminiscing about a favourite band, ‘Johnny Kidd and The Pirates’, he threw in this loosely connected story about a packet of Beatall he once bought and lost, so over to Jeff:
‘As for Johnny Kidd, he used to play a pinball machine in Mary’s Café situated in Winchelsea Avenue, at the junction at the top of my road when I lived in Harlesden as a kid. The word got around that he was in the café and he would pile up the old threepenny bits needed to play the machine. We kids would go and watch him, more interested in if he got a good score than that he played in a band – wins meant him generously giving us three threepenny bits so we could buy a 9d bottle of Pepsi- Cola. He was always with a group of three or four guys, all around the same age, smoking and chatting to the lady who ran the café. They were never nasty, or told us to ‘eff off’ and took no interest in us - apart from giving us the money for the bottle of Pepsi, and after drinking this we always left the café. ‘I only saw Johnny Kidd two or three times, and the last time I saw him must have been a couple of years later, when I was interested in airguns, in a sports shop, Actons, in Harlesden High Street, run by an Irishman who, on the whole, couldn’t give a damn how old you were and sold you pellets and probably airguns if you could afford them. He was showing Johnny a shotgun. That was the shop where I spent 2/6 on 500 .177” Beatall pellets, a small fortune in those days. I jumped on my bike and the box fell out of my pocket onto the road and promptly got flattened by following traffic. When I looked behind me only to see them get squashed, I could have cried.’
Jeff’s account about dropping his pellets in the road and them promptly getting run over, seems quite funny now, but at the time it was a disaster for a lad with no money and meant a loss of many hours of fun shooting. All accounts seem to recall Johnny Kidd – whose real name was Fred Heath – as a down-to-earth, much-liked and generous guy, although he had little in the early days, and that he did have a bit of a pinball and gambling addiction. I saw his dynamic live stage act many times, and his number one hit single, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ remains an unforgettable classic to this day. He lived, and sadly died on the road, aged 30 in a car accident in 1966.
My thanks to Alan Harvey for the loan of his Diana Model 0 sidelever; to Danny Garvin for contributing photographs and to Jeff Hyder for his Beatall pellet recollections.
Figure 1: Top: Late, underlever/guard cocking ‘Abas Major’ and the hinged grip cocking ‘Thunderbolt Junior’. Both probably dating from c.1949 were already becoming obsolete and were unknown during my 1950’s boyhood
Figure 2: Webley & Scott ‘Junior’ Air Pistols were always quite expensive. Strangely, they were not owned by any of the boys I knew - although the larger Webley ‘ Mark I’ and ‘ Senior models were
Figure 3: Ludwig Mayer’s German Pat. no. 808205 of 25th June 1949 covered these 1950’s juvenile sidelever- cockers. Top: M & G Diana Model No. 0 dual cork-and pellet-/dart-firing airgun, with the heavier Model No. 10 stamped 6-50 (June 1950) airgun shown below
Figure 4: The main difference in the Diana No. 0 (top) and the heavier No.10 (below) is in the front end. The Model 0 has angled indents, which act as a screw- fitting on the spiral pressings on the pellet tube, forming a ‘ thread’ for the quick removal or insertion of the twist on/off tube for loading ball, dart or slug
Figure 5: The Model 0 fires corks with the shot tube removed. The heavier Model 10 (below) has a more conventional arrangement, with the foresight on the front of the false barrel. The shot tube, with knurled muzzle cap, unscrews for loading like a Diana Junior Model 1
Figure 6: The ammunition compartments of this 1959 British Diana No. 2 Pistol Display Pack contain a 100 packet of Milbro Plastic Pellets, along with Milbro Darts and 100 waisted Caledonian pellets. Loose Plastic Pellets can be made out on the corner of the Milbro target card
Figure 7: A fine 1950’s Falke Model 33 air pistol from Albert Föhrenbach GmbH of Hanover, Germany, seen in its now rare, original cardboard box. [Photograph courtesy of Danny Garvin]