Re­cently Auc­tioned Air­guns by John Atkins

Air Gunner - - AIRGUN COLLECTION - Photos by David Swan, Lau­rie Mole, JS Fine Art Auc­tion­eers and John Atkins

In two past ar­ti­cles about French­made air­guns, I’ve pointed out that they are not abun­dant. Sev­eral col­lec­tors I know have vis­ited France specif­i­cally to try to find French air­guns and air­gun pel­lets in the gun stores, an­tique shops and mar­kets, but apart from hav­ing a jolly day out, the time spent there, look­ing for, and try­ing to buy any old air­guns was un­pro­duc­tive. There­fore, I’m pleased to be able to fea­ture a fur­ther French air­gun this month, along with an im­por­tant Bri­tish air pis­tol. I’ve had pho­to­graphs of it for 30 years in my files, and yet not been al­lowed by its pre­vi­ous owner, the late Lau­rie Mole, to fea­ture it in my ar­ti­cles. He wanted no pub­lic­ity for his pis­tol dur­ing his own­er­ship, and I re­spected his wishes, but both these an­tique items have been sold this year in auc­tions and are now un­der the care of new cus­to­di­ans.

Fig­ure 1 shows the Clair Frères 6.5 mm bolt-ac­tion, pump-up gun that be­longed to the late David S. Swan, who de­scribed the piece to me as a ‘gallery gun’- mean­ing in­door sa­loon gal­leries and not rough, fair­ground ranges where such a now rare gun – be­ing in typ­i­cally French or­nate style – would have been out of place and soon dam­aged in the hands of rough pun­ters. The Clair Broth­ers may have fore­seen that Flobert guns would be eclipsed by air­guns for the pur­pose of in­door shoot­ing and hoped to cap­i­talise, but this didn’t re­ally hap­pen un­til the late 19th cen­tury.

Of­fered by Holt’s Auc­tion­eers on 22nd June last, this lot, no. 600, and ten other lots were for­merly part of David’s air­gun col­lec­tion and had pre­vi­ously been sold by An­der­son & Gar­land Auc­tion­eers, on 16th Septem­ber, 2015. Rather than re­quest the auc­tion­eers’ own pho­to­graphs that many will have seen in the on­line cat­a­logue, I’m pleased to be able to fea­ture David’s own pho­to­graphs of the French air­gun he’d supplied for my use. The pre-sales es­ti­mate was be­tween £1,000 and £1,500 and the ham­mer price on June 22nd was the lower end, at £1,000.

Fig­ure 2 re­veals the cylin­der and dou­ble trig­gers, the front cock­ing the valve and the rear for fir­ing. The gun dates from c.1870, with a round, nickel-plated 24½inch smooth­bore, 6.5mm cal­i­bre bar­rel. The nickel-plated, cylin­dri­cal breech bolt hous­ing has re­lief en­graved scroll­work on a gilt-washed mat­ted back­ground to the body, and gilt wash to the bolt, and is signed ‘CLAIR FRERES RES SGDG’, The at­trac­tive re­lief scroll en­graved heel-plate ap­pears as Fig­ure 3, the cen­tral sec­tion hav­ing a rope-twist bor­der en­cir­cling the in-line pump han­dle. The plate is nick­elled with the stip­pled ground gilded and far too dec­o­ra­tive to stand the gun on it!

Fig­ure 4 fea­tures the right-hand side of the multi-pump Clair Frères smooth­bore gallery air­gun, with the nick­elled bar­rel con­trast­ing with the fluted, che­quered and wire in­laid stock. The rear of the re­ceiver has a rope-twist en­graved bor­der and the three-quar­ter stock has a deluxe fin­ish of ebonised wood with che­quered and fluted butt, the cen­tre flutes of each side in­laid Fig­ure 1: Clair Broth­ers 6.5mm bolt-ac­tion, pneu­matic gun in typ­i­cally French or­nate style of c.1870. It fetched the lower es­ti­mate of £ 1,000 on 22nd of June this year when sell­ing at Holt’s Auc­tion­eers [Pho­to­graph cour­tesy of David Swan]

Fig­ure 2: Re­veal­ing the cylin­der and mech­a­nism of the rare Clair Frères pump- up gallery gun for­merly part of the late David Swan’s air­gun col­lec­tion [Pho­to­graph by David Swan]

Fig­ure 3: Re­lief scroll en­graved heel- plate, the cen­tral sec­tion hav­ing a rope- twist bor­der en­cir­cling the in-line pump han­dle. The plate is nick­elled with the stip­pled ground gilded for a very at­trac­tive con­trast [Pho­to­graph by David Swan]

Fig­ure 4: Right- hand side of the multi- pump Clair Frères smooth­bore gallery air­gun show­ing the nick­elled bar­rel con­trast­ing with the fluted, che­quered and wire in­laid ebonised wood stock [Pho­to­graph by David Swan]

Fig­ure 5: Patent model Lin­coln Jef­fries air pis­tol of 1910, for­merly in the col­lec­tion of the late Lau­rie Mole. This is the back­strap cock­ing and di­rect load­ing pi­lot piece cov­ered by the 1910 patent spec­i­fi­ca­tion with the bronze frame stamped accordingly: ‘ PATENT AP­PLIED FOR 10250’ [Pho­to­graph by Lau­rie Mole]

Fig­ure 6: Sheet 3 of the orig­i­nal 1910 Lin­coln Jef­fries’ Patent No. 10,250 draw­ings shows the di­rect breechload­ing pis­tol with the bore of the bar­rel con­tin­ued right through the frame- ex­ten­sion that sock­ets over the up­per end of the air cylin­der - as op­posed to the ro­tary load­ing plug ver­sion il­lus­trated on Sheets 1 and 2

Fig­ure 7: Var­i­ous de­tails of the all-metal bronze and steel Lin­coln Jef­fries prototype back­strap cock­ing air pis­tol, the sec­ond one down show­ing the pis­tol cocked [Images cour­tesy of Joe Smith, JS Fine Art Auc­tion­eers]

with white-metal wire scrolls. Fur­ther white metal wire scrolls to the fore- end tip, whilst the un­der­side fore- end screw is miss­ing its es­cutcheon. Two bar­rel keys fore and aft with white-metal (Con­ti­nen­tal sil­ver?) es­cutcheons and wire bor­ders with the dou­ble trig­gers pro­tected by a com­plex trig­ger-guard bow.

A Mat­ter of Taste

While it’s a rare and hand­some air­gun, the Con­ti­nen­tal style doesn’t per­son­ally ap­peal to me, and al­though I ap­pre­ci­ate the crafts­man­ship in a mag­nif­i­cent, cased pair of Boutet French gold- en­crusted tar­get pis­tols, I’d pre­fer to gaze at the plain and won­der­ful lines of a brace of c.1780 Robert Wog­don English du­elling pis­tols, af­ter sil­ver mounts went out of fashion, and whose sparse use of pre­cious metal might be for a sig­na­ture and to line the pans against cor­ro­sion in a prac­ti­cal way, rather than for any em­bel­lish­ment pur­pose.

Ac­cord­ing to Small Arms Mak­ers by Col. Robert E. Gard­ner, a ‘ B. Clair of St. Eti­enne, France was joint paten­tee with Vic­tor Clair of a ‘firearm with breech op­er­ated by the gases of ex­plo­sion,’ U. S. patent no. 483539 of Oc­to­ber 4, 1892.’ This was three years be­fore John Moses Brown­ing de­vel­oped his own de­vice. Else­where, I dis­cov­ered that Vic­tor and Benoît Clair’s mech­a­nism for au­to­matic weapons ap­pears ill fated be­cause it proved unim­pres­sive un­der mil­i­tary tests as a ser­vice weapon. As fore­run­ners in the au­to­matic weapons field, in Septem­ber 1888, an ear­lier ef­fort by broth­ers Jean-Bap­tiste and Benoît Clair to make re­peat­ing ri­fles au­to­matic by gas ac­tion had been promis­ing. The Clair Bros. busi­ness con­tin­ued at Sain­tÉ­ti­enne un­til around the time of the Great War, as far as I can as­cer­tain.

Jef­fries’ pre-WW1 air pis­tols

Any Lin­coln Jef­fries 1910 to 1914 air pis­tol is im­mensely rare. No ex­am­ples of the early drop bar­rel, 1911 patent ‘ Lin­coln’ pis­tol from those days, with the trig­ger unit car­ried un­der the bar­rel block, are known and only a hand­ful of the back­strap cock­ers that col­lec­tors call ‘ Big Bis­leys’ – to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween them and the smaller 1921 Patent ‘ Bis­leys’ – seem to ex­ist.

A Lin­coln Jef­fries prototype back-strap cock­ing air pis­tol is shown in Fig­ure 5 with my thanks to the pre­vi­ous owner, the late Lau­rie Mole for the use of his own pho­to­graph. The pis­tol’s only other ap­pear­ance in print was a large photo in Air­gun World April 1980, where the large and im­pres­sive pis­tol was shown clutched in the mitt of ‘ Har­vey’ who wrote the col­umn be­fore I did. There was zero in­for­ma­tion about the pis­tol - apart from a cap­tion, in­cor­rectly call­ing it a ‘ Lin­coln’ air pis­tol - just as the auc­tion­eers did when sell­ing it this year, in­stead of a ‘ Bis­ley’ model - one of the names used for both L. J. early pellet brands and back­strap cock­ing pis­tols. Lau­rie’s pis­tol was a ‘di­rect’ loader, as op­posed to the one known as a tap-load­ing spec­i­men. Clearly a prototype, as judged by the re­dun­dant pivot axis pin hole for the grip safety in the front strap of the han­dle, ini­tially bored in the wrong po­si­tion.

Lau­rie was a pri­vate man with sev­eral col­lec­tions who wanted no pub­lic­ity, and al­though his name wasn’t men­tioned in Air­gun World, he was very dis­pleased to see the pis­tol fea­tured there and com­plained be­cause it wasn’t meant to be pub­lished. Know­ing this, it was some years be­fore I dared ap­proach Lau­rie to see if he would supply photos of his pis­tol so I could compare it with my own tap-loader. Lau­rie was happy to oblige and on sup­ply­ing me with pic­tures, he said I could do as I wished with them, but only af­ter he no longer owned the pis­tol, hence its even­tual ap­pear­ance here af­ter years in my files with all the other ‘not to be pub­lished’ pic­tures of rar­i­ties that own­ers want kept pri­vate. Not be­ing al­lowed to dis­trib­ute the photos meant that it had to be

sadly missed out of the mar­vel­lous book: The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Spring Air Pis­tols and I was as dis­ap­pointed about this omis­sion as the au­thor, Prof. John Grif­fiths.

Sell­ing on 28th Jan­uary as Lot num­ber 2007 at JS Fine Arts Auc­tion, the auc­tion de­scrip­tion was: a ‘ Lin­coln’ type air pis­tol, the bronze and pol­ished steel frame marked ‘ PATENT AP­PLIED FOR 10250’ on the left side and ‘ PW6019 on the right. In .177 cal­i­bre, it was com­plete with a copy of the Lin­coln Jef­fries and Com­pany Lim­ited im­prove­ments in spring air pis­tols patent - ac­cepted 27th April 1911.’

The patent cov­ered a fixed-bar­rel air pis­tol, the im­proved cock­ing mech­a­nism with the em­ploy­ment of a link and back­strap lever im­me­di­ately be­hind the grip, and ful­crummed at the heel. Fol­low­ing his highly suc­cess­ful air ri­fle de­sign, Lin­coln Jef­fries then gave his at­ten­tion to pis­tols, ap­ply­ing his cock­ing mech­a­nism to the then longestab­lished air pis­tols with the pis­ton and cylin­der in the grip.

The ham­mer price was £ 3,000 mak­ing a to­tal, in­clu­sive of com­mis­sion and vat of £ 3,630. I may have been the un­der-bid­der here, as a col­lec­tor friend Bob, kindly bid­ding on my be­half, went up to £ 2,800 be­fore drop­ping out. I’d orig­i­nally planned to go to about £ 2,600, but as I’d said (to Bob’s sur­prise), I wasn’t op­ti­mistic about win­ning it - but gave Bob some dis­cre­tion be­cause it’s al­ways best to stretch your­self with that one last ex­tra bid – as long as it IS the last one! – con­sol­ing your­self with the thought that you can al­ways earn more money. It didn’t pay off on this oc­ca­sion be­cause the other bid­der showed no sign of stop­ping, so Bob pulled out be­fore it all got a bit silly. Dis­ap­point­ing, be­cause I wanted to re­unite it with my brass­framed ‘ Bis­ley’ tap-loader - but it’s all wa­ter off a duck’s back to me –some you win and some you lose.

Sheet 3 of the orig­i­nal 1910 Lin­coln Jef­fries’ Patent No. 10,250 draw­ings re­pro­duced as

Fig­ure 6 shows the di­rect breech-load­ing pis­tol with the bore of the bar­rel con­tin­ued right through the frame ex­ten­sion that sock­ets over the up­per end of the air cylin­der – as op­posed to the ro­tary load­ing plug ver­sion il­lus­trated on sheets 1 and 2. In this al­ter­na­tive con­struc­tion, the bar­rel’s rear end is thus open to the back of the pis­tol form­ing the breech cham­ber into which the pellet is in­serted. The up­per end of the cock­ing lever, when se­cured by the plate spring clasp or stir­rup latch, serves as the breech clo­sure when the pis­tol is ready for fir­ing.

The stir­rup shown in the draw­ing has a rounded back, yet Lau­rie’s pis­tol is an­gu­lar, prob­a­bly mak­ing it eas­ier to ‘thumb off’. It ap­pears Lau­rie had pol­ished the pis­tol af­ter buy­ing it at the BSA clear-out sale at Weller & Dufty, Birm­ing­ham held long ago, just be­fore I started col­lect­ing. I won­der what else was there? The stir­rup latch also looked a bit ‘new’, so I won­dered if Lau­rie had re­made it, but re­gret­tably, I never got around to ask­ing him about that.

Why was the pis­tol among old, for­got­ten BSA fac­tory items, rather than re­tained by Lin­coln Jef­fries? I can only guess that the ar­range­ment was, BSA would also eval­u­ate it along with the more ex­pen­sive to pro­duce a tap-load­ing ver­sion, with a view to re­peat­ing the suc­cess of the air ri­fle and masspro­duc­ing the ‘ Bis­ley’ back­strap cock­ing large pis­tols them­selves. Who knows? Very few large mod­els are known. One, rather dif­fer­ent with the se­rial num­ber ‘3’ I have shown in past ar­ti­cles - and another ap­pear­ing iden­ti­cal and also a di­rect-loader, but with no se­rial num­ber.

The event of World War 1 ap­pears to have put paid to se­ri­ous pro­duc­tion un­til 1921, when the back­strap cocker patent was re­peated by Lin­coln Jef­fries Ju­nior along with the drop-down bar­rel ‘ Lin­coln’ model with some lim­ited pro­duc­tion of a smaller back­strap, di­rect-load­ing ‘ Bis­ley’ model with the ‘ Lin­coln’ con­tin­u­ing for many years, but never as a very prof­itable line.

Pho­to­graphs, cour­tesy of Joe Smith, JS Fine Art Auc­tion­eers, show more de­tails of the all-metal bronze and steel Lin­coln Jef­fries prototype back­strap air pis­tol; the sec­ond one down in Fig­ure 7 show­ing the pis­tol cocked. The bronze is prob­a­bly gun­metal - of higher tin con­tent with a small amount of zinc and lead added, but it’s im­pos­si­ble to say be­cause there are many dif­fer­ent bronzes.

Fig­ure 8 re­pro­duces Sheet 2 of the 1910 Lin­coln Jef­fries’ Patent No. 10,250 il­lus­trat­ing at lower left, how an al­ter­na­tive

con­struc­tion in lieu of the ro­tary load­ing plug may be adopted. Cen­tral in the draw­ings is the load­ing plug shown with a large ex­ter­nal but­ton or knurled wheel for turn­ing, in­stead of a tap lever.

Turn­ing to ‘ Lin­coln’ air ri­fles for a mo­ment, it’s pos­si­ble that the idea of a lever-less tap may have been in­flu­enced by one of Lin­coln Jef­fries’ ear­lier ideas. Fig­ure 9 is a copy of a 1906 pho­to­graph from BSA ar­chives show­ing an as­sem­bled load­ing plug block for a ri­fle, with off­set mounted rack and pin­ion mech­a­nism pre­vi­ously un­known to me. These were in a sheaf of pa­pers I ac­quired from the Birm­ing­ham area, once be­long­ing to Ge­orge Nor­man, As­sis­tant En­gi­neer and Mr. Au­gus­tus H. M, Driver, En­gi­neer of BSA.

These an­cient pho­to­graphs are of poor qual­ity, but shown taken apart in Fig­ure 10, it seems that the but­ton is pushed for­ward to ro­tate the plug and open the pellet aper­ture be­ing held there against spring pres­sure, whilst load­ing to self-close af­ter­wards. Oddly, the tap it­self ap­pears to be drilled with two cham­bers at right an­gles. I hardly think it’s to make it dual shot … so that’s a mys­tery. Read­ing be­tween the lines of these orig­i­nal pa­pers, con­tain­ing both par­ties’ sketches of mech­a­nisms, it ap­pears there was dishar­mony at times be­tween L. J. and B.S.A., but no doubt each was pro­tect­ing their own in­ter­ests and it was busi­ness, af­ter all.

Tap-load­ing Ver­sion

Af­ter I ac­quired my own brass-framed, ta­pload­ing ‘ Im­proved Bis­ley’ (as the late Mr. L.G. Jef­fries called it), col­lec­tors Alan Hamer and Colin McLach­lan, both friends of Lau­rie, told me that Lau­rie had one the same – not quite, as it turned out. Fig­ure 11 shows my tap-load­ing brass-framed pis­tol with wal­nut grips. It’s the best look­ing and most pow­er­ful and ac­cu­rate of any Lin­coln Jef­fries .177” air pis­tol I’ve tested. Mr. L. G. Jef­fries wrote in a let­ter to me, dated 17 April 1981, that while they had no in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing my pis­tol, they could only con­clude that this was an im­proved model of the ‘ Bis­ley’ air pis­tol, made by or un­der the in­struc­tions of their grand­fa­ther, Mr. Lin­coln Jef­fries at his premises at 121, Steel­house Lane, Birm­ing­ham. Un­like the few other known pre Great War ‘ Bis­leys’, there is no grip safety car­ried on the front strap.

I’ve pho­tographed the pis­tol on the more usu­ally seen, first sheet of the 1910 Lin­coln Jef­fries’ Patent draw­ings. This patent is ac­tu­ally the orig­i­nal copy ac­quired by We­b­ley & Scott at the time. So why would We­b­ley’s have had a copy of L.J.’s pis­tol patent with lit­tle con­nec­tion be­tween their firms? The ex­pla­na­tion is that We­b­ley ob­tained Patent copies of all pos­si­ble ri­vals in the field, and I have no doubt at all that this very patent copy would have been care­fully stud­ied by Wil­liam John Whit­ing, di­rec­tor of We­b­ley to see how the ri­val air pis­tol mea­sured up be­side his own up­wards-cock­ing model patent ap­plied for around two months ear­lier, on 21st Fe­bru­ary, 1910.

The top view of the .177” ‘ Im­proved Bis­ley’ in Fig­ure 12 shows the cast-in-brass rear­sight and load­ing aper­ture with tap closed. Fig­ure 13 shows the right side of the ‘ Im­proved Bis­ley’ pis­tol cocked by the com­pound levers, pulled out from a de­tent by the ‘re­volver spur’. With the back­strap lever still in the open and cocked po­si­tion, the tip of the sprung steel nee­dle can be seen in

Fig­ure 14 that en­gages with a trans­verse pin through the lever, form­ing a neat con­cealed lock-up with no ex­te­rior clasp or stir­rup. To al­low the cock­ing lever to be closed tightly against the back of the cylin­der to be­come part of the grip frame, its in­ner side is chan­nelled or re­cessed to form a clear­ance for the link. Also, note the amaz­ing way the wal­nut stock sides are beau­ti­fully in­let into tiny hous­ing grooves formed in the brass frame, to pos­i­tively pre­vent any ro­ta­tion of the grips.

AC­KNOWL­EDGE­MENTS: My thanks to the late col­lec­tors, David Swan and Lau­rie Mole, for their pho­to­graphs; also to Joe Smith at JS Fine Art Ltd. for kindly sup­ply­ing me with images. SOURCES: Bri­tish Patents 1910 to 1914 and per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence with Mr. L. G. Jef­fries.















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