Down the Decades before the Great War
Additional images courtesy of Dr. Trevor Adams and Bob Brisley L.R.P.S.
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.
1888 WILLIAM’S WOOD WONDER
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.
1898 RARE GLOBE SPECIAL
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.
1908 PRECISION AIR RIFLE
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.
1918 RELIEF FROM WAR WORK
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.