The Eisenwerke push-lever lock: Is this an early version of the now-common breakbarrel?
by B.B. Pelletier
A funny thing happened to me Saturday evening. I had a gallbladder attack. I was up from 9 p.m. Saturday evening until 4 a.m. Sunday morning with severe nausea and extreme pain. At 4 a.m. Sunday, I finally went to the emergency room, where they told me I had gallstones. They wanted to schedule surgery immediately, but I declined and was discharged.
The point is that, had I stayed in the hospital for the operation and recovery, I wouldn't have been able to do a blog for a couple days. Edith would have posted blog reports from past works for a few days, but I just wanted you to know that I would have been out of touch for a day or two.
I'm fine now and am making dietary changes. Pretty much everybody has gallstones, so this isn't a big deal. Now that I know I have a gallbladder issue, I can deal with it.
Paul Capello was kind enough to forward several photos from the next American Airgunner show, where we teach Crystal Ackley to shoot. I want to share them with you because of the high interest her shooting seems to have generated. We showed her how to operate several long guns safely so she can be a show host in the future. She was delighted to join our team, so you guys will be seeing her on the show for the rest of this season.
In the episode Crystal Learns to Shoot, Paul and I introduced her to a number of long guns. If she's going to be a host on the show, she'll have to know the basics of safe gun handling, plus how to handle each specific gun we have. She's a fast learner, and I think she'll be up to speed in no time.
For all who have asked, we will be working on getting video segments from the show posted to the website next. The show production has to take priority, of course, but we know that many of you do not receive the Sportsman Channel and would like to be able to see some of it on the internet.
Now, on to today's report:
Here's a blast from the past. I wrote this article for Airgun Revue #5, which was published in 1999.
This grand old airgun surfaced at the 1999 Maryland Arms Collectors' show in Timonium, Maryland. It was made by the Eisenwerke factory in Gaggenau, Germany, and sold by Tower & Lyons of New York, whose trademark is roll-stamped on the top barrel flat. The name Columbia is also stamped on the barrel along with the word patent. The crossed pistols trademark of Eisenwerke are also present to tell us who made the gun, as there is no other clue anywhere on the outside.
It was available at the show for a reasonable price, so I acquired it specifically to document for Airgun Revue #5. I've looked at these strange old breakbarrels, as I'm sure many of you have, and wondered just what sort of airguns they were. Were they like the Quackenbush push-barrel guns, or were they more like the buglespanner gallery guns from Europe? Or were they simply fragile copies of the earlier Pope and Bedford & Walker air pistols, grown to long gun size?
The gun--and it's a smoothbore, not a rifle--is 41.75" long and weighs 5.5 lbs. That puts it in the Diana model 27 category size-wise. It's finished two-tone--in bright nickel and deeply polished blue. The blue has turned about halfway to a plum brown, and the nickel, while quite prevalent on most surfaces, has gone satin from corrosion underneath.
The barrel is solid steel, 21.6875" long and bored smooth throughout. It's shaped in a square section at the breech, which transitions to an octagonal section a few inches forward, and then to completely round near the halfway point. You can tell by examination that this was not an easy barrel to make. Today, there would be shortcuts to save the costly machining operations it obviously required, but that's a great deal of its charm. It also serves to date the piece to a time when machines were capable of complex profiling, and labor had not yet become a big issue.
The breech face of the barrel is a straight cut on the square end of the barrel. When the barrel's closed, the flat breech is pushed against the front of the receiver through the action of the two link arms. The sides of the breech are cut on a taper from top to bottom, with the result that they're squeezed into position by corresponding shelves in the front of the receiver. A leather breech seal, now missing from its circular groove in the receiver, completes the air seal. In a moderately powered airgun, it does the job rather nicely, with no air loss during shooting.
The trigger is a very simple latch that just gets out of the piston's way upon firing. Because the gun is so moderately powered, it can have a light, crisp action without a lot of complexity.
The stock is a nice piece of dark hardwood that could be walnut and is checkered at the wrist with 14 l.p.i. flat diamonds. The low cheekpiece and schnabel are quite fitting for a gun from around the turn of the century. Unfortunately, someone in the past saw fit to slather Tru-Oil all over the wood, which now gives a rather cheap appearance; but it probably preserved the wood underneath. Removal would reveal some very nice grain.
The heavy iron Swiss buttplate has no visible traces of nickel remaining, making me wonder if it was ever plated to begin with. It seems massive compared to the rest of the gun, but no doubt it's in keeping with the style of German guns at the turn of the century.
The most unusual part of this gun is the way it cocks. It's a breakbarrel, but the mechanism is earlier than what is seen today. The barrel itself pushes directly on the end of the piston through a bar pivoted under the breech. There's no baseblock. Instead, the barrel is held captive by two flat bars connected to the action and by the piston rod. The hermetic seal at the breech is the result of a direct seal between the barrel and the mainspring tube. If you study the cocked gun, you'll see this strange arrangement. This is termed a hebelscheiber verschluss or push-lever lock, as the rod connected to the barrel pushes directly on the face of the piston. According to the writings of Larry Hannusch, push-lever locks are not common. They were made by only very few makers.
In the book Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World, a gun very close to this design is shown in an extracted drawing from an advertisement (p. 76). Author W.H.B. Smith says the design was completed around 1905 but never met with commercial success.
I think the truth probably lies closer to what Hannusch says than Smith. The basis for that belief is that we have a specimen of a gun in hand with commercial markings. Tower & Lyons bought this from the German manufacturer and had their name put on for resale, just as is done today. Either this gun is one of a small sample sent to T&L for evaluation, a not-uncommon event, or else it's one of a lot of guns they bought and resold. Usually, samples are not this complete. They come with other things on them, and the buyer understands that these minor items will be corrected in the first shipment of production guns. That's not always the case, but it's probably the norm. So, if T&L were selling this gun, it had to exist in some numbers.
Also, the gun carries a four-digit serial number. By itself, that doesn't mean much, because we know of makers starting production at high numbers to create the impression of high production; but when viewed in light of this particular gun's very mature appearance, it seems correct.
Of course, we can conjecture till the cows come home, and nobody will be the wiser. Whatever the truth is, this is a rare airgun.
The rear sight is fixed as far as adjustments are concerned, but it also functions as a sliding latch to hold the barrel shut. By sliding it backwards with a finger, the barrel is freed to tip up at the breech. It's a novel arrangement and the only one like it that I've seen.
The front sight is a typical post and bead, mounted on a dovetail across the barrel. Windage can be adjusted by sliding this sight sideways in its dovetail opposite the direction in which you want to move the projectile.
Overall, this is a fine, collectible airgun. There's a chip in the schnable, and of course the Tru-Oil on the stock, but these are minor problems in a rare piece like this.
On the down side, a former owner saw fit to engrave his Social Security number on the underside of the receiver, and the name J. Weber has been engraved on the side. Both were done with a modern vibrating tool, so they probably date from the 1960s or later. Unlike the Tru-Oil on the stock, the engraving is more permanent, and very difficult to remove. A useful practice for bicycles and boat motors, but one that removes value from fine collectibles like this one. A person wouldn't do it to their silver tea service or their pre-'64 Winchester, so why do it to an airgun that's even rarer? Today, we can only smile and pretend that it adds charm to the piece, which it no doubt does in many minds.
Elsewhere on the gun, the last two digits of the serial number are found everywhere. It was made in a time when parts were married together at the factory and meant to stay that way throughout their life. Happily, all numbers match.
What about power? This gun is a .22, which is not a common caliber for European airguns of this time. Was it a magnum blaster or a pussycat? Well, the years have robbed the mainspring of much of its power (who hasn't been through that?). Today, the gun barely launches darts at just below 200 f.p.s. Pellets don't even come out of the barrel. But its construction suggests that it was at least as powerful as the best Quackenbush or Gem in its day--if not more so. A fresh spring and perhaps a new leather head on the piston (if it has one) would probably do wonders. I wouldn't be surprised to see 400 f.p.s. from a well-maintained gun.
That's actually not too far from the mark. The larger, more powerful BSA underlever, first made in 1906, was fully capable of achieving 600 f.p.s. in .22 caliber when it was new. This gun has a smaller powerplant than the BSA, so the lower number seems appropriate, if even a bit conservative.
Alas, the gun is now gone. Another collector is enjoying it, but we had the privilege of examining it closely for awhile. Sometimes, that's enough.