Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Short History of the Air Rifle


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Plymouth, Michigan, was a sleepy little town on the Rouge River 25 miles from Detroit. Settled in 1825 by descendants of the Pilgrims, the town in took its name from the landing place in Massachusetts, where their forefathers had first set foot in America.

But Plymouth, Michigan, can claim a few firsts of its own. For one thing, it was the birthplace of the toy air rifle. Credit for the invention of the first successful BB gun is usually given to William F. Markham--although some authorities claim that the original design may have been created by one George H. Sage, whose background is otherwise lost in the mists of history.

Built in a small, two-story structure, Markham's Challenger was a clumsy, brass-barreled gun that resembled a club more than a rifle. A truly American invention, it was manufactured and sold in 1886, a year before patent applications were first filed on it. This is not to say that Markham's toy air rifle was the very first air- or spring-powered weapon, however.

The true identity of the inventor of the air gun is unknown. In 250 B.C., Ctesibius of Alexandria wrote of a double-catapult gun that may have worked on the principle of compression. Forgotten until the Renaissance, air guns quickly enjoyed a revival of interest. Curiously, these early air guns, used the same general principle as a modern BB gun: as a spring drove a tight-fitting plunger forward, this compressed the air behind the projectile and drove it up and out of the barrel at speed.

But no gun developing its air compression from the action of a released spring, could be a powerful weapon. Another way of creating air pressure was needed--a pump to compress the air and an airtight magazine in which to store the compressed air would be the answer. One of the earliest authenticated pump air guns--a German crank gun--dates from about A.D. 1560. Marin le Bourgeoys, a French gun maker of Lisieux in Normandy, is credited with developing an air gun with a double-walled barrel, the space between the walls acting as a reservoir for the air under compression.

Guns with detachable ball air-reservoirs screwed to the barrel and those whose hollow butts served as air flasks were relatively common in the eighteenth century. In these years, a wide variety of air guns could be found, often with dummy wheel-locks, flintlocks or percussion locks. Some were even made to resemble canes or umbrellas.

During Napoleon's campaigns against the Austrians, an air gun--the model 1799--was used against French troops. Invented by gunsmith Bartolomeo Girandoni, an Italian who had lost a hand in a gun accident, this repeating weapon carried a magazine of twenty .52 caliber (13mm) lead balls. The magazine could be discharged in about 30 seconds, an amazing rate of fire compared to the slow-loading muskets of the period. It took two thousand strokes of a pump to charge the reservoir in the gun's butt; this produced a muzzle velocity of 975 feet per second on the first shot. The gun must have been quite effective, for Napoleon issued an order calling for the execution of all enemy soldiers found with air guns.

On the famous Lewis and Clark exploring expedition to the Pacific between 1804 and 1806, Capt. Merriwether Lewis carried a .31 caliber flintlock-style air rifle made by gunsmith Isaiah Lukens of Philadelphia. It was from this long and distinguished tradition that the modern toy air rifle sprang.

William Markham's Challenger was followed by other models from the company he formed--the Chicago (1888), the King (1890), the Prince (1900) and the Sentintel Repeater (1908). The Chicago air rifle was so named because it was sold in the Chicago area by a distributor, Thorson & Cassady. By 1910, Markham had added a lever-action gun to his line.

But Markham's guns were not without competitors. In 1882, a company had been formed in Plymouth, Michigan, to manufacture windmills so necessary to prairie farmers for the pumping of water. The company's product would be no ordinary wooden windmill but, as patented by Clarence J. Hamilton, would be made of iron. After an initially encouraging start, sales dropped off. Lewis Cass Hough, general manager of the company, began to look around for another product to manufacture. One day in 1888, Hough's face lit up with pleasure when Clarence J. Hamilton showed him an all-metal air rifle with a skeleton wire stock that he had constructed in his spare time.

After testing Hamilton's air rifle, Hough told him, "Clarence, it's a Daisy!" using a slang expression current at the time, thus giving spontaneous birth to a trade name known throughout the world to this day. When sales of BB guns soared to three times those of windmills, the future of the windmill-and-rifle company seemed assured.

The Daisy enterprise prospered right from the start. New models were introduced regularly. The Plymouth Iron Windmill Company formally changed its name to the Daisy Manufacturing Company in 1895. A 500-shot lever-action rifle was introduced in 1901 (predating Markham's by nine years), and special guns were even built to shoot streams of water at Masonic initiations. Perhaps the most famous model was the Little Daisy, Model 20, which was made continuously with only three model changes between 1908 and 1937. At times, this gun sold for less than fifty cents.

The stories of the Daisy Company and the Markham Company are a study in contrasts. Whereas Markham did little or no advertising, Daisy consistently poured a large portion of its revenues into advertising. By 1900, 15 percent of sales was being spent on posters and magazines space. The net result of such intensive promotion was to make Daisy virtually at household word. In 1916, the Markham management gave up competing with its neighboring company--the two factories were on either side of the Chesapeake & Ohio tracks--and quietly sold out to Daisy, who continued to manufacture the Markham King Model air rifle until 1935.

Daisy had an eye for talent. In 1912, they brought Charles Lefevre from St. Louis to Plymouth to work on the pump-action BB gun he had devised. It became the Model 25 of 1914. Lefevre remained with Daisy for 41 years and received more than 60 patents on air rifle designs. Interestingly, this model was manufactured until 1979.

The original bore size of air guns was .180 inch, which is close to the shotgun pellet size called BB, thus bestowing that name on the air gun. Daisy encouraged shot manufacturers to create a specially drop shot screened at 0.175 inch diameter and call it "air rifle shot." Designed to shoot the new shot, most air rifles could also shoot clods of dirt, small stones, wooden matches, water, or oil.

In the mid-1920s, air rifles with split barrels began to be returned to the Plymouth factory for repair. This damage turned out to have been caused by the use of steel ball bearings salvaged by enterprising youths from the scrap jettisoned by the American Ball Company plant in Minneapolis. Sensing that the market for steel shot might be bigger than that for ball bearings, the American Ball Company began to manufacture steel shot in a size close to air rifle shot. Daisy quickly became the exclusive sales agent for the steel shot and bought the entire company early in 1939.

Although Daisy had produced a Buck Jones Special and a Buzz Barton Special in 1934--both guns named after movie cowboy heroes--these models never achieved the popularity of a gun first made in 1940 and named after a mythical comic-strip character. In that year Daisy produced the first of what may very well be the most famous BB gun ever made, the Number 111, Model 40, the Red Rider Carbine, named for the hero of a popular newspaper cartoon strip drawn by artist Fred Harman. In 1958, the Daisy factory was moved to the town of Rogers, Arkansas.

Farm fields have been paved over into huge shopping center parking lots; woodlots on the edges of towns have disappeared under the onslaught of the bulldozer to reappear as monotonously regular cracker-box housing developments. Today's generation of boys have given up the delights of lone exploration of the wild neighborhood areas that remain, armed only with a trusty air rifle. Now it is more satisfying to watch TV while recumbent on a couch or to hunt down and kill opponents in ultrarealistic computer games.

Unlike so many aspects of the past, the BB gun is still very much with us in modern reincarnations. For anyone still interested in plinking at targets with one, the air rifle remains a very real yet inexpensive link with a time gone by. As anyone who has lived through the past will tell you, it may indeed have been both a better time and a better place, especially when seen across the span of the years and through the eyes of memory. It was a time when the girls were prettier, the boys handsomer and stronger, the grass greener, the sun warmer, and life much more pleasant. The next time someone says, "They don't make cars like they used to"--or construct houses or write books and plays--don't laugh. They're right.

What's in a Name?
In addition to Markham and Daisy air rifles, other toy air guns came and went. For the benefit of collectors and researchers, here are the names and dates of some of the other makes.

Atlas. Atlas Gun Company, Ilion, New York. 1890-1906. Purchased by Daisy.

Bijou. Decker Manufacturing Company, Detroit, Michigan. 1893-1903.

Bull's Eye. Bulls Eye Air Rifle Company, Chicago, Illinois. 1907-?

Columbia. Adams and Westlake Company, Chicago, Illinois. 1905?-1915?

Columbian. Heilprin Manufacturing Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1913-1918. Heaviest toy air rifle ever made.

Crescent. Crescent Gun Company, Saginaw, Michigan. 1899-1904?

Crossman. Crossman Arms Company, Fairport New York. This old-line firm introduced a spring air gun in 1961.

Cycloid. Rapid Rifle Company, Ltd. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1898-1901.

Cyclone. Rapid Rifle Company Ltd. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1898-1901.

Dewey. Crescent Gun Company, Saginaw, Michigan. 1899-1904?

Globe. J. A. Dunbar Manufacturing Co., Northville, Michigan. 1890-1908. Purchased by Daisy.

Herkimer. Henry M. Quackenbush, Herkimer, New York. 1903-?

Hexagon. Hexagon Air Rifle Company. Ltd., Detroit, Michigan. 1901-1903.

Magic. Plymouth Air Rifle Manufacturing Company, Plymouth, Michigan. 1891-1892?

Matchless. Henry C. Hart Manufacturing Co., Detroit, Michigan. 1890-1900.

New Rapid. Rapid Rifle Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1898-1901.

Oziehs. Japanese-made version of the Crescent.

Remington. Remington Arms Company, Ilion, New York. 1928-1930.

Shue. Shue Air Rifle Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1914?-?

Simplex. Chicago Rifle Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Illinois. 1900?-1910?

Sterling. American Tool Works, Chicago, Illinois. 1891-1929?

Upton. American Tool Works, St. Joseph, Michigan. 1912-1927.
Manufactured from 1927 to 1929 by All Metal Products Company, Wyandotte, Michigan.

Victor. Atlas Gun Company, Ilion, New York. ?-?

Wyandotte. All Metal Products Company, Wyandotte, Michigan. 1928-1929.

* * *

Readers with additional information about companies on this list can communicate additions or changes to:

Labels: , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?