Additional images courtesy of Webley Archives, Nigel Allen and Chester Purllant
Part Two of John Atkins’ study of pre-war Webley Seniors. This time, it’s the ‘slant grip’
In the past, I’ve often played with the idea of getting some contemporary Webley revolvers to securely display alongside my Webley ‘Senior’ pistols because both cartridge firearms and air pistols are related by their similar stirrup latch fastenings and superb firearms quality construction. I’m now relieved that I never got around to this because I’d have been devastated to have had to hand expensive and prized revolvers in to the authorities following the handgun ban. Deactivated 1930s Webley revolvers could be substituted in a display, of course, but castrated guns deprived of power hold no appeal to me, whatsoever.
So, I have to be content with displaying my pre- WWII Webley ‘Seniors’ alone, although they have my old tins of Webley ‘Special’ pellets for company as seen in
Figure 1. My photo features Webley new frame ‘Senior’ models from December 1935 bearing the serial numbers: S7097; S7272; S11781; S11327; S12899; S15184; S15447 and S16616. Only one of the Webley .22 ‘Special’ rectangular full pellet tins shown here is known to be prewar and contemporary with the later serial number pistols. The rest are post- war and mainly after 1958 with the Weaman Street, Birmingham address dropped from the lid markings following Webley & Scott Ltd.’s removal to the suburb of Handsworth.
There were four variations of cocking linkage during the life of the old and new model Senior air pistols (June 1930 to 1964), rather than three, as I’d previously thought. The first of the old model vertical grip Seniors from June, 1930 had a semicircular shoe above the cocking slider (small link) which covered the hole in the top of the cylinder, later changed to an improved wedge shape. This was the first attempt to stop the linkage folding over itself as it was inclined to do. Not surprisingly, a couple of the old pistols in the photograph have replacements of their second pattern, patent double joint cocking linkages and these appear radially at ‘6’ and ‘9’ o’clock’ in the photograph; no longer having the teardrop/wedge- shaped small link obscuring and protecting the large oil port in the cylinder top.
Webley suggested in their post- war spares advice that as the patterns had been changed, when ordering the linkage components for pre- war Senior air pistols it was necessary to purchase Parts S26 (small link); S27 (intermediate link) and S29 (small link pin) as an assembly for 3/6d (17.5p). However, an old Senior with later linkage just isn’t ‘right’ to a serious collector and it’s a shame to replace one of the old linkages with a later sprung type, so I recommend you to take worn examples
of early linkages to a specialist who could replace the pins with slightly oversize ones, drilling offset holes to make the linkage fractionally shorter. This way you don’t destroy too much of the pistol’s originality. There’s not much I can do about my two, as the parts were already replaced long before I bought them and the chances of finding old- style correct links like these is remote.
The reason for the more complex linkage was that it made the Senior nearly twice as easy to cock compared to the earlier and simpler Mk. I pistol and the Mk. II Target Model De Luxe. It also made the ‘ throw’ of the cocking stoke about 25 per cent longer, thus making the action take place over a longer arc. The patent no. 326703 for the Senior was applied for on May 3, 1929 and it was accepted on March 20 the following year. This Patent covered the improved barrel linkage designed to make the pistol easier to cock by the use of double- jointed cocking levers, which serve as a fulcrum to help the effective pull during the last part of the cocking movement.
In the large borrowed box of old Webley archive material that included artwork for the pistol boxes, 1930s catalogues, original photos, engravers’ proofs and old advert. layouts, I found the mid-1930s photo for the new model Senior components with the part numbers all individually cut out and pasted onto an overlay. Also Webley’s surviving repro pull from the original artwork plate so I scanned it as Figure 2 in the hope that it would print more clearly here, than is usually seen as a coarse screen, printed spares sheet sent out with old Webley pistols.
In pre- war days, the ‘whited- in’ cylinder markings were for photographic purposes only. Despite all the skilled handwork heightening the components with process white paint, they have failed to update Part S26, which still appears to illustrate the original patent, semi- circular external pattern of small link/cocking slider. Part S5, the cyanide hardened, vertically acting Senior trigger sear was a component that was altered during the life of the ‘Senior’.
At the top of Figure 3 appears the onepiece sear and below, the composite type replacing it from 1955 when the trigger nose engaged an inset pin or thin bar presumably to act more as a roller bearing for a smoother discharge – although the pin did not actually rotate in the component. At this time, the trigger coil spring Part S16 measuring a little over half- an- inch long when new, fitting in a small hole in the top of the trigger, was replaced by a doubledover plate spring a quarter- inch wide. The longest arm of this tong- shaped part was about an inch long. There was then no necessity to drill a hole in the trigger top for the obsolete coil spring, and a boring operation was saved.
The reason a Senior can fail to cock is often put down to a worn sear that now fails to engage with the piston and sometimes, this is correct and a new sear solves the problem, but it can be very confusing to replace the sear and find that the pistol still won’t cock. The fault very often lies in the cocking linkage, which can stretch so the piston doesn’t travel far enough back to engage the sear.
The linkage is fairly small and fragile, and it only works because it’s made from excellent quality steel. Even so, the link pins wear over the years – especially if they aren’t lubricated. The pin holes become
elongated, making the linkage longer than it should be and preventing it doing its job properly. The answer is to replace the linkage or at least part of it. Before you do this, though, try to obtain another barrel with linkage attached to test the gun. If it will cock with this barrel, then there was nothing wrong with the sear.
The Senior’s linkage consists of a cocking slider, which Webley described as a short link, an intermediate link, a long link and three pins. Later pistols also have a small coil spring added to further prevent the linkage from folding over itself. After removing the barrel, I knock out the link pins to check for wear. If necessary, I replace them with new ones. This is sometimes enough to make a pistol cock, but you often have to replace the whole linkage.
Far more detailed than the broad illustration intended only for small scale reproduction, shown last month, was this highly detailed, early slant- grip model Senior artwork ( Figure 4) to be used in some of the future pistol publicity, pre- and postwar. Again, it’s hard to say if the master was a metal engraving or a scraperboard (scratchboard in USA, etc.) as only the original engraver’s proof seemed to exist among the factory material. Scraperboard is actually a form of engraving and was popular from the 1930s to 1950s, being one of the preferred techniques for illustrating products because it printed better on cheap newsprint than anything else at the time. Reproducing small photographs was often disappointing on the uncoated paper of newspapers in those days of using very course printing halftone screens – often only about 65 lpi (lines per inch) or even less – with the few dots per inch fudging up the pictures badly, rather than smoother, more photo- like tonal transitions whilst the fine lines of scraperboard work ( I did a lot of it in the ‘50s at junior art school and later) could be photographically reduced for reproduction without losing quality.
A rear view of Webley Senior serial no. S11781 is given in Figure 5. The cording added around the grip tangs to provide better grip, and the addition of a small, offcentre, keeper screw under the rear sight was an attempt to prevent unnecessary access by the inquisitively disobedient, attacking the coin slot of the rear bung with a big screwdriver, despite a stamped ‘NOT TO BE REMOVED’ warning – the Senior pistol was only meant to be stripped from the front end. Both these modifications happened around the same time in 1936.
Replacing the small locking screw for the ‘breech screw’/air cylinder rear plug shown in pistol no. S15184 (top Figure 6) was the non- removable Parker Kaylon drive peg – the position indicated by a blue pointer I’ve applied to s. no. S15447 (below). The peg was driven in, hidden out of the way, located at the top of the grip frame where it met the air cylinder, passing through the wall and into the breech screw making the locking screw obsolete. Further narrowing the change from top locking screw to non- removable drive peg is another pistol of mine, S15432 seen here in Nigel Allen’s photograph Figure 7, which clearly has the drive peg. So the change to the more secure rear bung retainer happened somewhere between serial numbers S15184 and S15432.
The water- stained lid label would once have been pale blue, like the one I showed last month on top of page 89. It demonstrates how the colour pigment of pistol and pellet box printed labels should be protected from insidious fading and eventual paper disintegration, due to ultraviolet radiation in daylight.
This narrowing down of changes helps explain to readers who’ve asked why I need so many examples of similar models (and why can’t I send a spare one to them!) It’s because they are for comparisons to be made, rather than any desire to corner the market. The more examples I can see – if not own – the more details I get and the more I learn. It’s also not really possible to write an article of any depth after seeing only one example of an old airgun; you need to see several to get more idea of what was going on over the production years.
Figures 8 and 9 show the .177 pistol no. S15432 out of the cardboard box. It would be one of the first Seniors to be fitted with the non- removable drive peg to prevent the breech screw being removed. The right side showing the unmarked brown Bakelite stocksides and three international patents for Britain, U.S. A. and Canada on the right side of the cylinder instead of the long list of 11 patents that had been stamped before.
A CLEAR CASE
Webley collectors will have seen the old catalogue pistol case photo ( Figure 10) reproduced in books, etc. but appearing badly ‘ fudged up’ due to the ‘screen clash’ of old and new printing ‘dots’, but this is the first time it’s seen only ‘1st generation’ away from the original continuous tone photo., because I’ve scanned directly from Webley’s original surviving 1930s photograph used in compiling their catalogues to advertise the brown drill canvas on wood, lockable air pistol box with leather corners, available for a short period. Depending on the size it prints, the large amount of skilled brushwork involved with white paint highlighting and
defining the pistol, trade label lettering and retouching of the left- hand Cheney lock, with patent 1936 sprung- hinged fastening hasp, etc., can be appreciated. Priced at 12/6d (62.5p) in Webley’s orange air pistol catalogue ‘C67-June 1938’, the pistol case remained the same price in the C67-July, 1939 catalogue. In an earlier, green printed version marked just ‘C67’ (with no date) on the back page, the pistol case does not appear. Unmentioned too, on the pasted-in ‘Revised Prices - June 1937’ where only the canvas rifle soft covering case features at 5/- (25p) as illustrated in the catalogue, for the Mark II Service air rifle .177 or .22 listed at 84/- (£4.20) or 90/- (£4.50) in .25.
QUALITY & RARITY
It seems most likely, the Webley air pistol cases in the photos were made by Brady of Walsall, then makers of high- quality gun cases, and would have been made at the Shadwell Street premises close to Webley & Scott within the Birmingham gun quarter at around the time Mr. Ernest Brady, son of John, one of the firms co-founders, would also have been busy at this address in producing the famous fishing bags named after English rivers that were a mainstay of the firm. I’m hoping to learn more from the present Brady Bags Company if their records stretch back that far.
Of all vintage airguns and accessories, the 1930s Webley air pistol and air rifle cases have probably appreciated more in value than anything else, with stories reaching me of £1,000 being paid for an empty pistol case! Clearly, these air pistol cases are now worth several times the value of the fine pistols they house to some collectors, which has led to some wellmade modern reproductions appearing.
A cased Senior is shown in Figure 11 with accoutrements, including spare piston rings; patent 1925 brass bushed leather breech seals and two inserter tools ( Part 36); Webley ‘Valvespout’ oil tin still half-full of No. 2 Oil; pellets; spare unused Webley Senior mainspring of the correct period and barrel cleaning brush. A closer view of some unused Webley Senior spare piston rings ( Part S4) made of phosphor- bronze is shown in Figure 12. If correctly lubricated they seldom need replacing, but should be inspected from time to time. You don’t need special break-in oil when breaking in a newly fitted Webley compression ring. Just use SAE30 motor oil and keep them regularly oiled when and while shooting. Grease just seems to scrape off, whilst oil seems to get more into the pores of the metal.
Two further pre- war, brown canvas and leather cases with childproof, single- locking clasps and keys appear as Figures 13 and
14, the interior lid and three compartments lined in green baize, Printed gold and dark blue, foil trade labels on the insides of the lids stating ‘WEBLEY & SCOTT LTD, ESTABLISHED 1790, PREMIER WORKS, BIRMINGHAM’. Both showing a little wear to the trade label in the usual area, caused by contact with the thumb piece of the stirrup latch, the cases containing compartments for an oil tin and a rectangular pellet tin of ‘ Webley Special Pellets’.
The case without an oil tin contains a fine, plated Webley Senior once in the collection of Chester Purllant who kindly supplied the photograph. The blued pistol is no. S12877 with a genuine Webley oil tin, but wearing a reproduction label. Unlike the factory photograph showing a left- hand lock (hinged hasp to the right) all these cases have right- hand locks, i.e. the hasp to the left. Whilst I’ve put two full, hinged tins of Webley pellets in the ammo compartments to bring the lettering into focus for the photos., it’s advisable to carry only one full tin, lest the combined weight of two, plus the heavy pistol itself, puts unnecessary strain on the old leather case handle despite there being enough depth in the compartment to accept two tins.
My thanks to Webley Archives, Nigel Allen and Chester Purllant for photographs and input.
FIGURE 7 Figure 1: Webley new frame ‘ Senior’ models from December 1935. Serial nos. S7097; S7272; S11781; S11327; S12899; S15184; S15447 and S16616; all still excellent shooters. [ Author’s Collection]Figure 2: Pre-war components illustration for the new model ‘ Senior’ scanned from Webley’s surviving repro pull from the original artwork plate showing numbered parts. [Webley Archives]Figure 3: Part S5, the cyanide hardened, vertically acting ‘ Senior’ trigger sear was a component that was altered during the life of the pistol. Top: One- piece sear. Lower: composite type replacing it from 1955 when the trigger nose engaged an inset pinFigure 4: Far more detailed than the broad illustration intended only for small scale reproduction shown last month, was this highly detailed, early slant-grip model ‘Senior’ artwork to be used in some of the future pistol publicity, pre and post-war. [Webley Archives]Figure 5: Rear view of Webley ‘ Senior’ serial no. S11781. The cording added around the grip tangs to provide better grip and the addition of a small, off- centre, keeper screw was an attempt to prevent unnecessary accessFigure 6: Replacing the small locking screw for the ‘ breech screw’/air cylinder rear plug shown in pistol no. S15184 (top) was the non-removable Parker Kaylon drive peg (position indicated by blue pointer) in S15447Figure 7: Further narrowing down the change from locking screw to non- removeable drive peg is another pistol of mine, S15432, which clearly has the drive peg. [Photo courtesy of Nigel Allen]
FIGURE 12 Figure 8: Left side of .177 calibre, no. S15432, appearing to be one of the first ‘ Seniors’ to be fitted with the non- removable drive peg to prevent the breech screw being removed. [Author’s Collection. Photo courtesy of Nigel Allen]Figure 9: Right side of no. S15432 showing the unmarked brown Bakelite stock-sides and three international patents for Britain, U. S. A. and Canada. [ Author’s Collection. Photo courtesy of Nigel Allen]Figure 10: Scanned directly from Webley’s original surviving 1930s photograph used in their catalogues to advertise the brown drill canvas on wood, lockable air pistol box with leather corners available for a short periodFigure 11: Cased ‘ Senior’ with accoutrements including spare piston rings; patent 1925 brass bushed leather breech seals and their two inserter tools Part 36; Webley ‘ Valvespout’ oil tin still halffull of No. 2 Oil; pellets; spare unused Webley ‘ Senior’ mainspring of the correct period and barrel cleaning brushFigure 12: Webley ‘ Senior’ unused spare piston rings were Part S4 and made of phosphor bronze. If correctly lubricated they seldom need replacing but should be inspected from time to timeFigure 13: A fine- plated Webley ‘ Senior’ in canvascovered wooden carrying case. Wear to the trade label in the usual area is caused by contact with the thumb piece of the stirrup latch. [Photo. courtesy of Chester Purllant]Figure 14: Pre-war, lockable – and hence childproof case – housing .22 ‘ Senior’ no. S12877. Dark blue lettering on gold trade label with some wear; Webley’ Special’ pellet tins and genuine Webley oilcan wrapped with a reproduction label