Air canes! Part 1
by B.B. Pelletier
Air canes were produced and used throughout the British Isles from the beginning of the 19th century until around 1920. The guns spanned the price spectrum from affordable to nearly priceless cased guns with all the tools and equipment. Air canes were made in such profusion that hundreds or perhaps thousands have made their way to the U.S., into the hands of advanced collectors.
Handmade or factory?
Air canes fall into a transitional category of production. They were not made on automated machinery, and a lot of hand-filing was involved in the making of each one. Different makers did have more or less standard designs they followed. The parts were made by a collection of cottage industries. While a man might make a leaf spring, he wouldn't touch a reservoir - nor know much about how it was made. A few larger makers brought all the little parts-makers together into a confederation that produced canes of a certain type. The little guys made what the big guys asked for to keep their "employers" happy.
The bottom and top half of the cane are on the left, the barreled action is in the center, with the rifled insert barrel and the ramrod/cane tip on the right. Below the barreled action is the firing valve, removed from the reservoir that forms the top part of the cane.
A standard air cane
There is no standard air cane, but there is a type that's commonly encountered in this country. It's a straight cane with a smoothbore brass or bronze barrel of .42 or.43 caliber and a rifled brass insert barrel of .28 to .32 caliber. It's loaded at the muzzle, and the separate air reservoir unscrews from the action for filling. In its day it was filled with a hand pump, but today's collectors often fill their guns with CO2. Canes like this get around 20 powerful shots on a single charge of gas or air, though they get a few more lower-powered shots on CO2.
A ball is rammed all the way into either the smoothbore barrel or the smaller rifled insert. The cane is cocked by inserting what looks like a male clock key into a square female socket in the body of the cane and turning it clockwise. When the gun cocks, a steel button pops out of the side of the cane. This is a trigger.
In the photo, you can just barely see the action in the center, but it's impossible to make out the parts. Essentially, the cane's lock is similar to a percussion lock, except that the cane has a cam that holds the air valve open a relatively long time. That's how they get velocities in the 550 f.p.s. range with 140-grain lead balls.
Most canes have very small front and rear sights for aiming. The two I owned were accurate enough to hit a coke can at 20 yards - that's right, 60 feet! You hold the top of the cane next to your sighting eye and squint through the tiny open sights, then press the button trigger. The piece recoils about like a .32 Colt revolver with standard lead bullet loads, so use your hand to keep the cane from punching you in the cheek!
Tomorrow, I'll finish this report with some surprising air cane facts!