Frank Clarke’s Pis­tols and Pel­lets re­vis­ited

Air Gunner - - Contents - by John Atkins

John Atkins’ with more about Frank Clarke, pis­tol de­signer of Birm­ing­ham

Ad­di­tional im­ages cour­tesy of Pro­fes­sor John Grif­fiths and Bruce Stauff Jr.

This ar­ti­cle adds to my his­tory of air pis­tol de­signer and lead prod­ucts man­u­fac­turer, Frank Clarke, of Birm­ing­ham, es­tab­lished in 1875, more or less the same time Frank was born, the sixth child of James Clarke, a ri­fle sight maker and his wife Caro­line, with young Frank fol­low­ing his fa­ther and el­dest brother Fred­er­ick into the gun- mak­ing trade. The only known pho­to­graph of Frank R. Clarke ap­pears as Fig­ure 1 with my apolo­gies for the poor qual­ity but it’s blown up from a small com­pos­ite paste- up of 102 tiny minia­ture por­traits of mem­bers of The Gun­mak­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion taken in 1929.


I told the story for the first time, quite com­pre­hen­sively in the pages of

Air Gun­ner dur­ing three months in 1987, with a look at Frank Clarke’s pis­tols. In the first episode, I de­tailed the ma­chonamed ‘Ti­tan’ and ‘ War­rior’ air pis­tols and also the push- in barrel ‘ Whit­tall’ model named af­ter the firm’s lo­ca­tion then at Whit­tall Street, Birm­ing­ham, in the July ’87 issue, and also ar­ranged seven mod­els of Clarke’s ‘Ti­tan’ air pis­tols into the cor­rect or­der for the first time and how they seem­ingly evolved in shape to bridge the gap be­tween Amer­i­can ‘par­lor’ air pis­tols and the We­b­ley Mark I pis­tol.

There was no World Wide Web avail­able sim­ply to look things up on in those days, as there is now, when any­one can be a re­searcher by sit­ting in a chair in front of their com­put­ers, where many en­joy re­search­ing their fam­ily trees for var­i­ous in­quis­i­tive rea­sons. In the dim and murky past, one of my own dis­tant rel­a­tives was shot and killed on Deal beach by ‘pre­ven­tive of­fi­cers’ (cus­toms, nowa­days) for smug­gling silks, so the past crim­i­nal an­tics of the Atkins, Bing­ham and Up­ton clan don’t in­vite fur­ther re­search, for fear of what we might find!

Re­search called for se­ri­ously hard work in those pre- com­puter days. Go­ing back to source where pos­si­ble is al­ways the best way be­cause in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net is only as ac­cu­rate as the per­son putting it on there! With the invaluable help of airgun re­searcher, my late friend, Ray Hill, and oth­ers on the spot in Birm­ing­ham, the pic­ture built up to give a clearer pic­ture of Frank and his in­volve­ment with the now col­lectable air pis­tols and am­mu­ni­tion he pro­duced and mar­keted.


I have as­sem­bled some of the air pis­tols and pel­lets as­so­ci­ated with the Frank Clarke firm of gun fac­tors and pel­let man­u­fac­tur­ers in

Fig­ure 2. Old­est from the top is the c.1918 or slightly later ‘Ti­tan Mk. 3’ and con­tem­po­rary 1918/1919 large frame ‘ Whit­tall’ pis­tol; c.1925/1930 cast frame ‘Bri­ton’ pis­tols pro­duced plated or blued fin­ish with, and with­out trig­ger guards; c.1922 Ti­tan Mk. 6’s and 1923/1925 Ti­tan Mk. 7 with slant grip and grip safety and 1924 We­b­ley Mk.1 air pis­tol with which Clarke as­sisted de­sign. Re­plac­ing the heavy- cast Bri­ton model was the solidly made c.1931 ‘Britannia’ air pis­tol, and 1930s ‘tin-plate’ ‘Bri­ton’ and ‘Su­per Bri­ton’. Six War­riors Se­ries 1 and 2 pa­tented in 1930 by the in­trigu­ing com­bi­na­tion of Ed­win Ge­orge An­son and Frank Clarke, and two ‘Thun­der­bolt Ju­niors’ – patent ap­plied for in 1947, ten years af­ter Frank’s death, by Frank Clarke (Lead Prod­ucts) Ltd. and William John Walker of the Com­pany’s ad­dress.

All pis­tols be­ing .177 cal­i­bre - apart from a

cou­ple of the .22 War­riors.

Clarke’s air pis­tols sur­viv­ing in our col­lec­tions act as a per­ma­nent re­minder of the man who with his pel­lets and air pis­tol de­signs con­trib­uted a great deal to the airgun scene dur­ing the first half of the last cen­tury, prior to the firm’s con­tin­u­ance un­der the guid­ance of Messrs. Wil­son and Stan­ley af­ter Frank’s death in Fe­bru­ary, 1937.

Be­tween 1956 and ‘59 Clarke’s were listed sim­ply as ‘lead man­u­fac­tur­ers,’ and by 1960 they had dis­ap­peared – literally! Num­bers 37 to 38 and 42 to 43 Lower Love­day Street were listed in the di­rec­to­ries – but there was no men­tion of num­bers 39 to 41 where Clark had been based, so I was un­able to find out about the last years of the firm.

Hav­ing learned more, mean­while, I can tie- up loose ends in these ‘ fol­low- up’ ar­ti­cles by fin­ish­ing the Frank Clarke story as I know it, but ob­vi­ously many read­ers were not even born in 1987 when I first re­lated the ac­count, so be­fore go­ing on to ‘Part 6’, a re­cap. is called for by re­vis­it­ing a lit­tle of what has gone be­fore.


The first time I featured an ex­am­ple of the now rare ‘Bull Dog’ was way back in Jan­uary 1986, I didn’t know much about it, but as many will say, ‘That’s never stopped you writ­ing about things be­fore’. Graham Har­ris’s air pis­tol had no mark­ings to in­di­cate what it was, or where made, and the only other ex­am­ple I’d then seen, was in the late Dr. Joe Gil­bart’s huge col­lec­tion and marked ‘De­pose Pat’ on the frame.

From this, and the pis­tol’s gen­eral style, and with no patent or any­thing much else to go on, Joe reck­oned in his Guns Re­view ar­ti­cle that it was likely to have been made in France, prob­a­bly be­tween 1910 and 1914, but time has proved it to be ei­ther Ger­man or Bel­gian and rather ear­lier. I’d first han­dled the pis­tol at Phillips Auc­tion House, New Bond Street, Lon­don Fe­bru­ary 17th 1982 whilst help­ing sort out Joe’s pis­tols for auc­tion af­ter his death. It was a cu­ri­ous lit­tle item, re­mind­ing me of an early Amer­i­can cig­a­rette roller com­bined with a can- opener key as a cock­ing rod, but af­ter a while ex­am­in­ing the tiny air pis­tol I re­alised it had a cer­tain charm of its own.

Part 4 of the Clarke ac­count of the next year in Oc­to­ber 1988 saw me cov­er­ing the tin- plate ‘Bri­ton’ and the smaller, yet heav­ier ‘Su­per Bri­ton’ air pis­tols of the early 1930s, but it wasn’t un­til a fifth part, pub­lished Oc­to­ber 1991, that thanks to John Grif­fiths, I was able to link the mys­tery minia­ture pis­tol to Clarke. Fig­ures 3 and 4 show John Grif­fiths’ pho­tos of his im­ported ‘Bull Dog’ air pis­tol sold by Frank Clarke, along with an un­dated, orig­i­nal typed memo giv­ing in­struc­tions for use.


It could be ei­ther muz­zle- loaded with a slug or ball us­ing a wire ram­rod, or breech loaded with a dart via the screw at the back. A small gnome- like fig­ure of a miner with pick and lantern or can­dle crudely marked on the trig­ger sheaf, iden­ti­fied it to be a prod­uct of Bergmann’s In­dus­triew­erke. This air pis­tol would have been im­ported by Frank Clarke for sale c.1902 on­wards as the ‘Bull Dog’ pis­tol. It was also of­fered in The Arms and Am­mu­ni­tion Man­u­fac­tur­ing Co., Ltd. cat­a­logue of 1904 is­sued from 140, South­wark Street, Lon­don, S.E. that listed the same die- cast alu­minium al­loy pis­tol, but un­der the name ‘Lit­tle Nip­per’, prov­ing that Frank Clarke wasn’t the sole im­porter of the tiny air pis­tol. The Sport­ing Goods Re­view De­cem­ber 1901 re­ported that the same firm had ap­plied for the reg­is­tra­tion of the word ‘Nip­per’ to be ap­plied to firearms and am­mu­ni­tion. This was granted by Fe­bru­ary 1902.

Much more re­cently, col­lec­tor Bruce Stauff Jr. in the United States spot­ted this Frank Clarke Bull Dog vest pocket pis­tol ad­ver­tise­ment in The Strand mag­a­zine 2nd Fe­bru­ary 1902 shown as Fig­ure 5 that puts his ad­dress at Gothic Ar­cade, Snow Hill, Birm­ing­ham at this time. By co­in­ci­dence, a very sim­i­lar ad­vert. also from Fe­bru­ary 1902, but with slightly dif­fer­ent word­ing at the bot­tom was found and kindly sent in by a reader Mr. Peter Thompson and for­warded to me by Terry Doe.

It reads: ‘A per­fect Air Pis­tol pro­duced at last, guar­an­teed to be the light­est, small­est, most handsome and strong­est shoot­ing Air Pis­tol on earth. Made of solid Alu­minum,

beau­ti­fully pol­ished and en­graved; weighs only a few ounces, and can be put into vest pocket eas­ily. Packed in neat box, to­gether with a sup­ply of Darts and Slugs. Postage 3d ex­tra. Rush in your or­ders: first come, first served. Re­mem­ber, this is no spring pis­tol and mea­sures only 4in. in all. En­tirely new sys­tem. All who are dis­sat­is­fied af­ter three days’ trial may re­turn the Pis­tol and have their cash back in full. FRANK CLARKE, Gun Man­u­fac­turer, Gothic Ar­cade, Snow Hill, BIRM­ING­HAM.’

The odd de­scrip­tion of ‘ not a spring pis­tol’ shown made Terry suspect it’s a pump- up of some sort, but it’s not a pneu­matic – a spring air pis­tol. Clarke is cor­rect in one way, of course, in that he says: ‘not a spring pis­tol’ – clearly not wish­ing pun­ters to think it shoots by spring im­pact alone – and that it is a spring- pis­ton air gun. The han­dle at the front is pulled out to cock. At 3/9d (4 shillings posted), it was rel­a­tively pricey at the time.

The term ‘vest pocket’ was prob­a­bly bor­rowed from Rem­ing­ton be­cause their slim, der­ringer- types in .22 and up­ward were truly ‘vest pocket’ sized, whilst the Bull Dog is rather too fat around the cylin­der re­ally to be thus de­scribed! Clarke was a good sales­man, though, so it didn’t stop him say­ing this, or that the pis­tol was the ‘most handsome and strong­est shoot­ing air pis­tol on earth ...’ Still, when you think about it, there were not that many air pis­tols around in 1902 – no English spring air pis­tols – just other Flürscheim and Bergmann, Gagge­nau­made pis­tols im­ported, like the ‘Air Pis­tol M.F’., and var­i­ous cast iron, push- in barrel types, plus the rather shape­less ‘MGR’ from Mayer & Gram­melspacher, so maybe it was con­sid­ered ‘handsome’ in those days. Fig­ure 6 gives size com­par­i­son of the two small­est spring air pis­tols; the Bergmann ‘Bull Dog’ shown top, is slightly smaller than the Tell 2 be­low.


Frank was listed as a ‘gun fac­tor’, 11, Union Pas­sage in 1900. By 1903, he called him­self a Whole­sale Arms and Am­mu­ni­tion Fac­tor. Di­rect im­porter from Con­ti­nen­tal and Amer­i­can gun mak­ers’ his new ad­dress be­ing 10, Gothic Ar­cade, Snow Hill. It was from this ad­dress that his first patent No. 24432 for a spin­ning slug was taken out. Draw­ings from Frank Clarke’s 1903 Patent 24432 are re­pro­duced as Fig­ure 7 show­ing Clarke’s attempt at mak­ing a slug spin from a smooth­bore barrel by giv­ing it spi­rally formed vanes or flutes in the nose. The idea was that the spi­ral nose flutes would attempt to pro­vide a ro­tary mo­tion to the slug as it met air re­sis­tance in for­ward flight, like a child’s windmill. De­spite years of hunt­ing for these pel­lets in col­lec­tions and my past ap­peals for a sur­viv­ing box or even a sam­ple pel­let in this mag­a­zine, I’ve had a zero re­sponse. This, and the lack of any found ad­ver­tis­ing, points to the like­li­hood that Clarke’s spi­ral-nosed pel­lets were never com­mer­cially pro­duced.

Prob­a­bly, on see­ing the suc­cess­ful sales of ri­val Lane’s patent 1902 ‘Ro­tary’ slugs, Frank Clarke ap­praised the sit­u­a­tion and de­cided against pro­ceed­ing with full pro­duc­tion of his own self- ro­tat­ing slug. Ob­vi­ously, if any sur­viv­ing pel­lets to this patent are ever un­earthed, I will stand cor­rected and re­vise my present opin­ion. Would they have worked? Maybe some tech­ni­cal ex­per­i­menter with a suit­able frame rate cam­era might like to make a re­pro­duc­tion of Clarke’s spi­rally- vaned nose slug and write about the re­sults when fired – from a smooth­bore airgun, of course – to add to the story. In these early days, prior to the event of waisted air ri­fle pel­lets in 1904, ammo was round shot, par­al­lel slugs made ei­ther solid or hol­low, or darts. An early tin of Clarke’s spe­cial round shot for air­guns features a ‘Gem’- style airgun on the now much rubbed lid shown as Fig­ure 8.

Clarke was at 66, Great Charles Street, Birm­ing­ham in 1910 so I won­der if he still had any Bull Dog Pis­tols left at this date to sell from there. He moved to 6, Whit­tall Street in 1911, us­ing the strangely un­busi­nesslike tele­graphic ad­dress: ‘Havoc’ for most of his trad­ing ca­reer! His ‘Ti­tan Mark I’ 1916 is shown in Fig­ure 9. The grip plates fea­ture his en­twined ‘F’ and ‘C’ ini­tials and ‘B’ for Birm­ing­ham. Cocked by a for­ward pull of the plunger knob and loaded by slid­ing for­ward the su­per­im­posed barrel to ex­pose the barrel breech af­ter the re­lease of a lock­ing bolt.


The Britannia waisted air ri­fle pel­lets seen in Fig­ure 10 were orig­i­nally from C. G. Bone­hill, whose pel­let- mak­ing ma­chin­ery was taken over by Frank Clarke in 1916. The ab­sorp­tion of a very large part of the re­sources of the trade in Gov­ern­ment work at that time, made it nec­es­sary for some firms to sus­pend the pro­duc­tion of some of their spe­cial­i­ties en­tirely. BSA, for in­stance, had sus­pended the pro­duc­tion of their air ri­fle, and traders who still had stocks were in a for­tu­nate po­si­tion be­cause there was still a fair amount of air ri­fle shoot­ing go­ing on.

Christo­pher G. Bone­hill of the Bel­mont Works who de­voted a great deal of time and in­ge­nu­ity to the perfecting of his ‘Im­proved Britannia’ air ri­fle had also had to put aside that branch of his trade, and had re­cently dis­posed of the re­main­der of his stock of

air ri­fles to Ga­m­age’s. The pel­let-mak­ing ma­chin­ery had been taken over by Frank Clarke of Whit­tall Street. As Kynoch’s and some other firms, on ac­count of the pres­sure of war work, had tem­po­rar­ily ceased to sup­ply air ri­fle pel­lets, so those like Frank Clarke who were in the po­si­tion to pro­duce them, found their ma­chin­ery fully em­ployed.

Much later in the 1930s, the Clarke ‘Britannia’ named pel­let de­volved into a cheaper model of the ‘Bull Dog’ waisted, while the ‘Bri­ton’ slug was in­tro­duced as a bud­get- priced ver­sion of the long es­tab­lished ‘Acme’ slug. Both Britannia waisted pel­let and Bri­ton par­al­lel slug were for use in the cheaper air­guns and pis­tols.

At the top of Fig­ure 11 is the very rare ‘Ti­tan Mark 3’ rear rod cock­ing pis­tol and be­low it, the ‘Whit­tall’ large-frame type, push-in barrel cocker with a brass cylin­der liner. It’s very likely the muz­zle nut se­cur­ing my Whit­tall’s ex­posed main­spring is on back to front. I left it like that be­cause I no­ticed when help­ing to sort out the Gil­bart col­lec­tion pre- auc­tion sale at Phillips, that my friend Joe Gil­bart’s small frame Whit­tall also has the muz­zle nut on this way around.


John Grif­fiths tell me he feels that the Whit­tall was the most prim­i­tive of Frank Clarke’s prod­ucts and he could eas­ily see them be­ing as­sem­bled by un­skilled labour on poorly paid piece­work, so a lit­tle mat­ter of which way round the muz­zle nut went would have been very low on the radar. John’s own smaller frame Whit­tall shown in Fig­ures 12 and 13 is re­ally quite badly made when you look at it more closely. The holes in the two halves of the grip do not line up properly, even though the cast­ing it­self lines up well. The holes ap­pear to have been drilled in­de­pen­dently and who­ever did it did not line up the jig properly.

As a re­sult, the screws have had to be forced into the threads and have been some­what dam­aged in the process. As with my own large-frame Whit­tall, there is also the drill- oblit­er­ated let­ter­ing on both sides of the gun. On the left-hand side of John’s, the ‘W’ of Whi­tall is ob­scured by the se­cur­ing screw, and on the right-hand side, the ‘N’ of IN is ob­scured by the same hole. Ir­re­spec­tive of the frame size, the mark­ings on both sides are a bit ob­scured by the po­si­tion­ing of the pin or screw holes, sug­gest­ing lack of for­ward plan­ning, but it’s in­ter­est­ing that there were two se­ries of the gun, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how rare they are.

Fig­ure 14 features a boxed, fi­nal ver­sion of the ‘Ti­tan’ air pis­tol 1923 to 1925 pe­riod. The pis­tol is still stamped with the first 1917 Clarke Ti­tan Patent, rather than the later 1922 Patent, which this pis­tol more ac­cu­rately rep­re­sents. This Mk 7 model was ad­ver­tised in Oc­to­ber 1923 by Abbey Sports, Lon­don. I should, as al­ways, stress that the ‘Mark’ Num­bers I put on these Ti­tan mod­els are not of­fi­cial, but ap­plied to pro­vide some sort of chrono­log­i­cal se­quence, orig­i­nally by me.

Clarke was not with­out com­pe­ti­tion in the air pis­tol mar­ket. Fig­ure 15 shows Clarke’s heavy- cast frame ‘Bri­tons’ from the mid ‘20s to c.1930. The later ver­sion Bri­ton fit­ted with a trig­ger guard as a safety pre­cau­tion. Third down is the ri­val Lin­coln Jef­fries ‘Scout’ c.1922 to 1926 and the ‘Fire­fly’ c. 1925 to 1933, com­plete with unique cap­tive in­serter pin/breech plug from Clarke’s friend, Ed­win An­son.


My thanks to Pro­fes­sor John Grif­fiths for pho­to­graphs and in­for­ma­tion on his pis­tols; to Bruce Stauff Jr. for in­put and to Holt’s Auc­tion­eers for the Ti­tan Mk. I pis­tol im­age and Ch­ester Purl­lant for his pho­to­graph of the Britannia pel­let packet. Thanks to the late Ray Hill, Tony Wil­liams and John Burton for past re­search.


The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Spring Air Pis­tols by John Grif­fiths.










[Fig­ure 7: Draw­ings from Frank Clarke’s 1903 Patent 24432. This was Clarke’s attempt at mak­ing a slug spin from a smooth- bore barrel by giv­ing it spi­ral­ly­formed vanes or flutes in the nose Fig­ure 8: Early tin of Clarke’s spe­cial round shot for air­guns features a ‘Gem’- style airgun on the now much rubbed lid Fig­ure 9: Frank Clarke’s ‘Ti­tan Mark I’ 1916. The grip plates fea­ture his en­twined ‘ F’ and ‘ C’ ini­tials and ‘ B’ for Birm­ing­ham. [Photo cour­tesy of Holt’s auc­tion­eers] Fig­ure 10: The ‘ Britannia’ waisted air ri­fle pel­lets orig­i­nally from C. G. Bone­hill, whose pel­let-mak­ing ma­chin­ery was taken over by Frank Clarke in 1916. [Photo cour­tesy of Ch­ester Purl­lant] Fig­ure 11: Top: Rare ‘Ti­tan Mark 3’ rear rod cock­ing pis­tol and lower: ‘ Whit­tall’ large frame type, push-in barrel cocker. [ Au­thor’s Col­lec­tion] Fig­ure 12: Small frame ver­sion of Clarke’s ‘ Whit­tall’. With the frame ex­tend­ing only half­way along the air cylin­der, the trig­ger ap­pears to be po­si­tioned di­rectly be­low the sear, rather than an inch and a half in front of it, as with the large-frame ver­sion. [Photo cour­tesy of John Grif­fiths] Fig­ure 13: Right- hand side of the small frame ‘ Whit­tall’. The ‘ Made in Eng­land’ on two lines, rather than on one, like the mark­ings on the large frame type ‘ Whit­tall’. [Photo cour­tesy of John Grif­fiths] Fig­ure 14: Fi­nal ver­sion of the ‘Ti­tan’ air pis­tol 1923 to 1925, as ad­ver­tised in Oc­to­ber, 1923 by Abbey Sports, Lon­don. The pis­tol is still stamped with the first 1917 Clarke Ti­tan Patent, rather than the later 1922 Patent, which this pis­tol more ac­cu­rately rep­re­sents. [ Au­thor’s col­lec­tion] Fig­ure 15: Clarke’s heavy cast frame ‘ Bri­tons’ from the mid 1920s to c.1930. The later ver­sion Bri­ton fit­ted with a trig­ger guard as a safety mea­sure. Third down is the ri­val Lin­coln Jef­fries’ ‘ Scout’ c.1922 to 1926; whilst fur­ther com­pe­ti­tion came in the odd shape of An­son’s ‘ Fire­fly’ c. 1925 to 1933 seen lower, com­plete with cap­tive in­serter pin/ breech plug. [ Au­thor’s col­lec­tion]





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