by B.B. Pelletier
Before I start, an announcement from Pyramyd Air. The dollar exchange rate is forcing a price increase on Air Arms guns, effective at the start of January. At this time, it isn’t clear whether this will be across the board or if certain models will remain where they are now. The amount of increase appears to be around five percent. If you have any plans to buy Air Arms products, please be advised of the proposed increase.
Now, to today’s gun. I love looking at these vintage and antique airguns, and today I have one that’s been on my radar for more than half my life. Decades ago, these BB guns made mostly of wood were surfacing at the gun shows I attended in the Kentucky-Indiana region. The asking price 30 years ago was around $75. I didn’t know whether that was worth it or not, so I hung back and missed out on a raft of wooden BB guns. In those days, I owned an FWB 124 and a Diana model 10 target pistol and thought of myself as a firearms guy who also shot airguns. There were few books and fewer magazines about airguns in those days, and what there was, wasn’t very good.
The Markham company, the inventor of the modern BB gun (not Daisy, as I will explain in a moment), started in 1886 with the Chicago model. Captain Markham, whose life story is quite interesting, began production of a spring-piston airgun made mostly of wood in Plymouth, Michigan. His plant was situated very near the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company that would soon start making an all-metal BB gun of their own, but Markham’s was first by two years.
The Blue Book of Airguns puts the start of the Markham presence in BB guns in 1887, but as you will learn, Daisy had a vested interest in the date this company began. And back in the early 20th century, they put the date at 1886.
The Chicago model was sold by Sears & Roebuck for 97 cents. It was the longest-lived model of the wooden BB guns and lasted until about 1910. It is by far the most commonly encountered wooden BB gun today.
The gun is made from hard rock maple with metal parts attached where needed, not that much different than modern polymer-framed handguns such as the Glock. It broke in the center, and a stiff wire pushed the piston and mainspring back until another bent and flattened wire formed into a trigger blade and sear caught it. The gun is unique in that there is no end to the compression chamber. The breech of the barrel serves that purpose!
The metal piston rides inside an open-ended iron liner that serves as the compression chamber.
The result of the piston slamming to a stop against the rear of the barrel thousands of times has cracked many of the existing specimens in the vicinity of the breech. This is the most common fault found in the gun.
The gun is 33″ long and weighs 1 lb., 14 oz. Of course the weight will vary a little with the wood. It feels light and toy-like and is proportioned for a child. There is no triggerguard (!) or safety, because this is the most rudimentary gun possible, yet it’s constructed well enough to have lasted more than a century. My gun has been rebuilt with a weaker mainspring and a fresh leather breech seal, not that I will ever shoot it.
To make the gun ready to shoot, the action is unlatched, then the barrel is broken down the same as with any breakbarrel. Once the sear catches the piston connecting rod, a BB is loaded into the breech. The barrel is closed and latched, making the gun ready to fire.
The sights are extremely fundamental and fixed. Any corrections are made by aim-off, also known as Kentucky windage.
From written reports of the period, I know that the Chicago was a weak shooter compared to the early Daisy. Both fired lead balls in the shotgun size known as BB, which is larger than size B and smaller than size BBB. Nominally, it is 0.180″ (4.57mm) in diameter and weighs around 9 grains. BB shot is available today, but it isn’t common. To get lead BB shot may take some doing, so collectors who still shoot their early BB guns often substitute .177 lead balls.
In 1895, Plymouth Iron Windmill changed its name to the Daisy Manufacturing Company. In 1916, they bought the Markham King company. That’s the source of their claim to have been in the BB gun business since 1886, when the first Iron Windmill guns weren’t made until the late 1887 and didn’t start selling until 1888. Daisy operated Markham King as a separate company for many years, even though they were in direct competition with them.
In 1890, the Markham company brought out the King single-shot, their first metal BB gun. The wooden Chicago continued to be made for another 15 years, and Daisy brought the name back in 1917 as the New Chicago, a metal gun bearing little resemblance to the original wood gun.
I think this model is a sleeper among today’s collectible BB guns. You can still buy quite a nice, all-original gun for under $500, and my rebuilt gun cost only $280. I have seen guns in need of cosmetic repair for a flat $200. A first-model Daisy that is contemporary to the Chicago starts at $3,500 and goes up quickly. I think the Chicago’s wooden construction holds the price down. While there are many collectors of cast iron BB guns, there are few specializing in wooden ones. Many of these old guns have cracks around the spot where the barrel breaks open, and old repairs are seen often.
In terms of numbers, there are certainly more wooden Chicagos still around than there are first-model Daisys, but not an overwhelming number because this gun was seen as more disposable than the Daisy. So, maybe there are 4 Chicagos for every first model Daisy, or something like that. That means it’s still easy to find one if you want to add this kind of airgun to your collection. There were probably 10 Chicagos and 5-6 first-model Daisys for sale at the recent Roanoke sirgun show.