Recently Auctioned Airguns by 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.
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.