Frank Clarke’s Pistols and Pellets revisited
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.
‘BULL DOG’ PISTOL
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.
VEST POCKET PISTOL
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]