Down the Decades be­fore the Great War

Ad­di­tional im­ages cour­tesy of Dr. Trevor Adams and Bob Bris­ley L.R.P.S.

Air Gunner - - Airgun Collection -

by John Atkins

When I pick up old air­guns, it does no harm to pon­der over their his­to­ries, but whilst I’ve learnt a lot about their in­ven­tors, man­u­fac­tures and the pe­ri­ods over which they were made or sold, I will sel­dom know who ini­tially owned them. Maybe the ju­ve­nile or youths’ type air­guns were given as Christ­mas or birth­day presents by par­ents or other rel­a­tives – or saved up for over a long pe­riod by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing pocket money, or the dint of hard work by youth­ful own­ers with ‘pa­per rounds, car clean­ing and other paid-for odd jobs. Some would never have saved enough for the air­gun of their dreams and we can only share a ret­ro­spec­tive sad­ness in sym­pa­thy for th­ese un­known, but kin­dred spir­its.

A time­line ac­com­pa­nied by the pho­to­graphs of pre­vi­ous own­ers, with dates for all old air­guns we’ve won­dered about, would be fas­ci­nat­ing to see, but such prove­nance is very rare and might only ex­ist in an­cient fam­ily photo al­bums, pos­si­bly show­ing grand­fa­thers, fa­thers and sons pho­tographed at dif­fer­ent times, pos­ing with some ‘Gem’- type air­gun of great­grand­fa­thers, that had be­come a val­ued old ‘ fam­ily piece’.

Be­fore we get too sen­ti­men­tal, there were dark times when giv­ing an air­gun at Christ­mas might have been viewed as an un­suit­able present, be­cause there is a nat­u­ral an­tipa­thy to­wards guns at the end of a war. It’s 100 years since the end of the First World War in Novem­ber 1918, and whilst the war may have ended, some men who had been cap­tured were still fac­ing a Christ­mas in the pri­son camps be­fore evac­u­a­tion of in­tern­ment camps in Ger­many, when Bri­tish pris­on­ers of war could be repa­tri­ated.

A re­cent news­pa­per head­line said: ‘Why we should cel­e­brate the First World War as well as com­mem­o­rate it.’ I didn’t get a chance to read this, to see why. Whilst World War One should be com­mem­o­rated, it hardly seems a cause for cel­e­bra­tion. Cel­e­brate the end­ing of it and the peo­ple who all did their bit, but hardly the ac­tual war! The peo­ple were not only front line troops and sup­port, but also the Women’s Land Army, mu­ni­tions fac­tory work­ers and oth­ers rang­ing from the Women’s In­sti­tute to the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts guard­ing cul­verts, bridges, lines, tele­graphs and the coast right up to Scot­land. Very lit­tle was hap­pen­ing on the air­gun scene in De­cem­ber 1918 be­cause firms had been on war work, and as I said, the last thing most fam­i­lies wanted to give chil­dren that Christ­mas was a gun of any sort. As the Great War ended, a new hor­ror had al­ready emerged in the form of the 1918 in­fluenza pan­demic that killed 228,000 peo­ple in Bri­tain and 20- 40 mil­lion peo­ple around the world, with only Aus­tralia un­af­fected by the ‘flu. thanks to their strict quar­an­tine rules.

So, for this ar­ti­cle, in ad­di­tion to mark­ing the end of the Great War in 1918, I’m also look­ing at ear­lier and hap­pier Christ­mas pe­ri­ods of 1888, 1898 and 1908 and the Amer­i­can, Ger­man and Bri­tish air­guns that might have been Christ­mas presents in those ear­lier decades.


The first com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful toy BB gun was Wil­liam F. Markham’s wooden ‘Chicago’ hinged- bar­rel model of 1887 – a de­vel­op­ment of the 1886 ‘Chal­lenge’ mod­els – (usu­ally wrongly called

‘Chal­lengers’) in both break- bar­rel and underlever forms and prob­a­bly both ac­tu­ally de­signed by Ge­orge W. Sage. It was rather ‘plank like’ and made of maple, stained and var­nished to rep­re­sent dal­ber­gia (‘rose­wood’) with the air cham­ber and bar­rel of man­drel drawn brass.

Fig­ure 1 shows an ex­am­ple of Markham’s ‘Chicago’ with maple full-stock from Dr. Trevor Adams’ col­lec­tion. This gun, made from c.1887 to around 1910, with the pro­vi­sion of two side cock­ing rods was a big im­prove­ment on the 1887 patent model. One of Capt. Markham’s stock­ists for his ‘Chicago’ air­gun was The John Wilkin­son Co. Their ad­ver­tise­ment shown in Fig­ure 2 in­formed

po­ten­tial cus­tomers that the new Chicago would carry 40 rods and kill game at 50 feet.

As a rod is 16½ feet ( 5.03 m) long, that’s 660 feet or 220 yards – a long way for a lead .180 BB to travel. Maybe it was fired down a very steep hill and grav­ity helped flight – rather than hin­dered. Capt. Markham’s ad­ver­tis­ing for the ‘Chicago’ air­gun em­pha­sised their close- fit­ting, lathe- turned brass pis­ton as su­pe­rior to com­peti­tors (like the Ply­mouth Iron Wind­mill Com­pany) who used one wound with beeswax- im­preg­nated can­dle wick­ing as a pis­ton seal. Trevor’s pho­to­graph of the suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can BB gun, the ‘Chicago Air Ri­fle’ shows the gun cocked in Fig­ure 3.

A ri­val BB gun was the 1889 Patent Daisy Hamil­ton over­lever cock­ing air­gun with drawn brass plunger hous­ing and slim bar­rel that fea­tures in Fig­ure 4. Pro­duc­tion had be­gun on a trial ba­sis in 1888 to see if, when of­fered as a premium with a Ply­mouth Iron Wind­mill, the gun would stim­u­late sales of the Wind­mill. Ini­tially, the gun had no strut or rib be­tween the two rear pro­tru­sions of the frame ac­com­mo­dat­ing the cast- in wire skele­ton stock, lead­ing to break­ages. The re­in­forc­ing sec­tion seen in this brass framed 4th vari­ant of the first model was added to the cast­ing to con­nect the two frame hous­ings and rem­edy this prob­lem.

Prob­a­bly the first thing any new BB gun col­lec­tor might spot is that (apart from Markham’s ‘Wooden Won­der’) the very early mod­els from the 1880s un­til the early 1900s were gen­er­ally not ‘ tin- plate’ mode of con­struc­tion, but made from iron or brass frame cast­ings, tubu­lar brass and other quite ex­pen­sive qual­ity ma­te­ri­als with noth­ing ‘cheap and nasty’ about them at all, mak­ing them highly desirable col­lec­tors’ items nowa­days.

How­ever, it’s not just the so­lid­ity of th­ese early BB guns that ap­peals to many, be­cause the later mod­els, us­ing the pi­o­neer­ing process of folded metal from as early as the 1890s, were of­ten very in­ge­nious and wor­thy of a place in any col­lec­tion. Even se­ri­ous firearms col­lec­tors will have to ad­mit that the use of press­work for some of the so- called ‘ tin- plate’ BB mod­els was half a cen­tury ahead of the firearms man­u­fac­tur­ers in pro­duc­tion tech­niques, and an­other case of air­gun mak­ers be­ing way ahead!

Not all patented Amer­i­can BB guns got to the man­u­fac­tur­ing stage, with hopes of fame and for­tunes dashed. The back­ground image in my head­ing this month shows part draw­ings of a patented de­sign for a re­peater from Alexan­der T. Brown of New York in 1888. A ‘poker rod’ on the front of the pis­ton head was later to be copied by other mak­ers of re­peat­ing air ri­fles.

An­other fact about early mod­els is, if you load a mod­ern .175 so- called ‘BB’ into an early .180 ‘true BB’ gun like the ear­lier mod­els, it will be too loose a fit in the smooth- bore bar­rel. Real BB size lead shot is .004 inches larger than the old air ri­fle shot (.176) and .005 inches larger than present day ‘BB’. I still like to shoot my old ‘At­las’ re­peater in the gar­den and have a small sup­ply of ‘big BB’ for th­ese oc­ca­sions, which also fit my sin­gle-shot At­las and many other early Amer­i­can mod­els.


Long be­fore the ‘Star’ name was used for An­son’s underlever air pis­tol, ‘The Star’ trade­mark was reg­is­tered by Ed­ward Har­ri­son, trad­ing as E. Har­ri­son & Co., and as Cogswell & Har­ri­son, 226, Strand and 142, New Bond Street, Lon­don, Gun­maker, as seen in Fig­ure 5. Ed­ward Har­ri­son had ap­plied for ‘The Star’ trade­mark on 29th Novem­ber, 1884. The class of the goods was listed as ‘Air­guns and pro­jec­tiles (non- ex­plo­sive) for air­guns’. Cen­tral within the sur­pris­ingly crudely- drawn and let­tered de­vice or sym­bol is a Star of David – sim­i­lar to the one I showed in Air Gun­ner March 2007 where it fea­tures in a later trade mark of Lane’s Ltd. of Lon­don who reg­is­tered it for pel­lets for air ri­fles on 19th Septem­ber 1932. The ‘Star’ name was ini­tially used for the walk­ing stick air­guns which were sold over Cogswell’s counter in 1884, and maybe for tins or wooden

boxes of suit­able pre- cast lead ammo to fit any canes not sup­plied with a bul­let mould. Cogswell & Har­ri­son were not above sell­ing the lowly ‘Gem’- type air­guns of the 1886 -1920 pe­riod as a ‘bread and but­ter’ line un­der the name of ‘Star’. Fig­ure 6 re­pro­duces an old ad­ver­tise­ment for ‘Star’ Air Guns sold by E. Har­ri­son & Co. 226, Strand, Lon­don. Th­ese ‘Gem’- types were avail­able there in three sizes, cost­ing a shilling ( 5p) to post as a par­cel, with none of the as­so­ci­ated postage prob­lems of to­day!

Fig­ure 7 shows an early Ger­man ‘Gem’ No. 1 Heavy model stamped with the crossed pis­tols and EG mark of Flürscheim & Bergmann, trad­ing as Eisen­werke, Gagge­nau, Baden, Ger­many, and sold from one of two ad­dresses of Cogswell & Har­ri­son. It bears the se­rial num­ber 1030 and has an in­let stock medal­lion, seen en­larged in Fig­ures 8 and 9 held in flush to the sur­face of the wal­nut by a cen­tral wood­screw. The medal­lion show­ing it to have been re­tailed by Cogswell & Har­ri­son, Gun­mak­ers, Lon­don - then based at 226 Strand and 142 New Bond Street.


Fig­ure 10 is the Globe Spe­cial from c189799, show­ing the gun full length. This is a sin­gle– shot, slide- ac­tion model, me­chan­i­cally sim­i­lar to the Quack­en­bush where the bar­rel pushes back to cock. The top of the grip frame is pat­terned, as you can see from Fig­ure 11, with a di­a­mond de­sign, all help­ing to make the nick­elled gun non- slip and just pos­si­bly help­ing to cut down glare in strong sun­light whilst sight­ing the ‘Spe­cial’.

Fig­ures 12 and 13 show the name stamped boldly on each side of the sheet metal plunger hous­ing and the fur­ther che­quered pat­tern­ing on the cast iron, grip frame sides. There’s a se­vere drop to the roach bel­lied, wal­nut butt with its deep cres­cent heel. It’s stamped ‘J. A. DUBUAR MFG. CO. NORTHVILLE MICH. within an oval – now worn very faint.

This is a rare item and I haven’t lo­cated any ad­ver­tise­ment to con­firm if this ear­lier Globe ‘Spe­cial’ was ever sold in Bri­tain. The Globe ‘War­rior’ break- open model cer­tainly was, as it’s ad­ver­tised by Brown Bros. Ltd. of Lon­don and Manch­ester in The

Sports Trades Jour­nal of Jan­uary 1905 with an em­bossed flour­ish de­sign on the sides con­firm­ing it to be a 1901 model.


Banks’ ‘Pel­let Men’ ad­ver­tised the com­pany range of air­gun am­mu­ni­tion for prize shoot­ing in The Sports Trader, July 1908, where mer­chant Adolphe Ar­benz also pub­li­cised the new ‘Pre­ci­sion’ lever lock air ri­fle as seen in Fig­ure 14. This Ger­man ri­fle had been an­nounced in May and re­viewed in the June is­sue of the same mag­a­zine. Ad. Ar­benz would have been hop­ing to take sales away from the mar­ket- lead­ing BSA, with this cheaper ri­fle.

Ap­pear­ing later in The Sports Trader, Oc­to­ber 1908 was this sur­pris­ingly early ad­ver­tise­ment ( Fig­ure 15) for what ap­pears to be a Ger­man Diana No. 20, but at the time it was sim­ply known as ‘The Diana Air Ri­fle’, rather than as a ‘Model 20’. Ad. Ar­benz also sold this fore­run­ner to the Diana No. 20 model, call­ing it the ‘Boy’s Own Air Gun’ by Septem­ber 1910. The first ref­er­ence to the ‘No. 20’ des­ig­na­tion I can find in Ger­man cat­a­logues is in a 1913/14 Waf­fen­werke Mehlis Louis Bader Valt. Son list­ing, where the No. 20 is shown un­der­neath the now scarce un­der­lev­er­cock­ing ver­sion, the No. 2 Model.

In De­cem­ber 1908, NARA league sec­re­taries de­cided on pa­per tar­gets for their com­pe­ti­tions, with the ed­i­tor of The

Sports Trader urg­ing the trade to keep abreast of such de­vel­op­ments.

On De­cem­ber 28th 1908, my fa­ther was born; so if that event hadn’t hap­pened, you wouldn’t be read­ing this, but maybe read­ing an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ar­ti­cle by some other au­thor – or you might be do­ing some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent! Some might say learn­ing some­thing more use­ful!

I watched a 1999 film, ‘The Winslow Boy’, on TV re­cently be­cause I’d only pre­vi­ously seen a theatre pro­duc­tion of it, based on the Ter­ence Rat­ti­gan play. In the play, the ac­cused lad Ron­nie wanted a 15/6d postal order to send off to buy a model train cost­ing this amount in the Ed­war­dian era in which the play is set. How­ever, I note that in the most re­cent film, this has re­verted to an air pis­tol cost­ing the 15/6d. Won­der­ing if I’d mis­heard this, I’ve found the script and it’s clearly an air pis­tol in the film and I think in the orig­i­nal script. Why this was changed to a model train I can’t think. As this pro­duc­tion was in­spired by an ac­tual event in pre- WWI Eng­land, about a young­ster ex­pelled from a naval academy over a petty theft, with his par­ents rais­ing a po­lit­i­cal furore by de­mand­ing a trial, I’ve been won­der­ing what the air pis­tol was, from those years close to the start of WW1. Pre­sum­ably, the 15/6d (77½p) would have in­cluded postage to the lad’s naval col­lege or home.


In Au­gust 1918 an ar­ti­cle called ‘This Air­gun Busi­ness’ was pub­lished in The

Sports Trades Jour­nal rail­ing against the lu­di­crous wartime re­stric­tions on air­guns un­der D.O.R. A. (the De­fence of the Realm Act) and the cat­a­strophic ef­fect on sales. The lack of proper def­i­ni­tion of class with re­gard to air­guns didn’t help. The mag­a­zine was crit­i­cal of Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers in their per­sis­tent ef­forts to glo­rify their guns by the ti­tle of ‘air ri­fle’. Which was not only an in­ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion, but also then very mis­lead­ing un­der the rul­ings.

In De­cem­ber 1918, lit­tle had been out­wardly hap­pen­ing on the air­gun scene, apart from se­cond and third ver­sions of Frank Clarke’s ‘Ti­tan’ pis­tol. Frank must have been re­liev­ing the tedium of pro­duc­ing the shrap­nel ball for shells, etc. that was his main war work, with some Ti­tan de­vel­op­ment mak­ing a wel­come break.

The heavy, cast iron Ti­tan ‘Mark 3’

c.1918 shown in Fig­ure 16 is con­sid­ered to be the rarest of all the Ti­tan vari­ants, as no other ex­am­ples are yet known. It’s the first model to have a fixed bar­rel housed in pro­nounced ‘bar­rel bands’ which are cast in as part of the heavy iron, grip frame along with the chequering pan­els to the flared butt. The steel bar­rel is .177” smooth and 241 mm ( 9½ inches) long (3½ inch over­hang) with the fore­sight car­ried on the bar­rel. Over­all length is 10 ½ inches and the to­tal weight is over a kilo­gram (2¼ lbs.) The large screw head on the left- hand side rear is stamped cir­cu­larly: PATENT 110999/17.

The Ti­tan’s cock­ing rod is at­tached to a ro­tary air plug housed in a swiv­el­ling breech- block. In order to com­press the main­spring and cock the ac­tion, you swing the plunger rod up­ward un­til it aligns with the rear of the air cham­ber. Then you push the rod into the cham­ber from the rear through the hole in the breech- block, so that it acts di­rectly on the pis­ton head, forc­ing the pis­ton for­wards to­ward the front of the pis­tol un­til it is held by the sear. You can push the rod in with your hand, but it’s eas­ier to place the end of the rod against some­thing solid and then push the pis­tol against it with both hands un­til the sear clicks into bent with the pis­ton.

The breech- block is par­tially ro­tated anti- clock­wise and loaded with a dart or slug placed in a load­ing groove unique to this third model, be­fore push­ing the pro­jec­tile home in the bar­rel breech. Af­ter ro­tat­ing the block back clock­wise to seal the breech, you fold the rod down against the ‘back strap’ of the butt frame into the fir­ing po­si­tion and the Ti­tan’s pis­ton moves rear­wardly on dis­charge with the com­pressed air, do­ing a U- turn in the block to shoot the ammo.

Clarke’s Ti­tan ‘Mark 3’ is shown at the top of Fig­ure 17. The small stop screw lim­its clock­wise ro­ta­tion of the breech plug. Below it, is Clarke’s ‘ Whit­tall’ push- in bar­rel, long frame- type, air pis­tol pos­si­bly sold as early as Christ­mas 1918 al­though I doubt many air­guns were given as fes­tive presents that year. Whilst rarely ad­ver­tised, it is known the Whit­tall was still of­fered in a cat­a­logue for the 1925 sea­son.

SOURCES: The Sports Trader July, Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber 1908. The Sports Trades Jour­nal Jan­uary 1905 and Au­gust 1918.AC­KNOWL­EDGE­MENTS:My thanks to Dr. Trevor Adams and to Bob Bris­ley for in­put and im­ages.

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