Posts Tagged ‘Rubber band guns’

Sharpshooter catapult pistol: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Small things have a way of defining my life, and this is a story about one of them. When I was about 12, I bought a copy of the 1948 Shooter’s Bible in a used bookstore. It was full of guns, and I couldn’t get enough information about them back then. Unfortunately, the wonderful books I would discover on the subject like Sixguns by Keith and Yours Truly, Harvey Donaldson were still decades in the future — in the latter case, more than a half century. But, I had that old Shooter’s Bible — a book I still own, by the way. I read it and re-read it, unwittingly but also unerringly committing the pages to memory.

1948 Shooters Bible
This original 1948 Shooter’s Bible was my constant companion in my youth.

Then, in the 1960s, when I was in college at San Jose State College (years before it became a university), I walked into an old sporting goods store in downtown San Jose, California, one day and stumbled upon what I thought was a time capsule — two new-in-the-box Sharpshooter catapult pistols whose design and specifications I’d committed to memory a decade earlier. Imagine my shock to learn that these two relics from what I thought was the 1940s timeframe were still for sale at the original 1948 price of $4.25!

Sharpshooter page
Sharpshooter pistols had a whole page of their own in “The Shooter’s Bible.”

Sharpshooters
The two Sharpshooters on the left are newer, post-WWII guns with plastic parts. The two on the right are from the 1940s. Details look similar this far away; but when you look closer, you can see how the guns were cheapened.

metal Sharpshooter launcher
The metal launcher from before the war is tough. It seems to last indefinitely. As it’s pulled back, it lifts the sear (the metal piece on the right) that allows one lead ball to drop from the linear magazine into the launcher seat. Yes — this is a repeater!

plastic Sharpshooter launcher
The post-war launcher is made of plastic. It works the same as the metal launcher, but it wears out quickly.

Thirty-plus years would pass before I came to the realization that these were not the same pistols that were in that old book…that the company making them had been bought and sold numerous times, and that the guns I saw in the store were the 1965 versions of the gun, albeit made by someone else and to different manufacturing standards. They looked like the Sharpshooters of the 1940s, but they had plastic parts in key places. As a result, they didn’t hold up very long when used.

When I became a serious airgunner later in life, I rediscovered the original Sharpshooter pistols. These were the real deal with all metal parts that are still functioning today. What a difference they are from the cheapened guns! Although the two look very similar, the older ones are the Diana 27s of the catapult gun world, while the plastic-parts guns are the Chinese wannabes.

Operation
The Sharpshooter pistol is a repeater. The No. 6 shot lead balls lie in a channel on top of the gun. They’re held in place by the front sight, which simply slides out of the channel to load the gun. A metal trough is provided to funnel the balls into the channel, then the sight is pressed back into place. There’s room for approximately 50 shot in the channel.

When the launcher is pulled to the rear, stretching its rubber band, it pushes up the sear that moves out of the way to allow one shot to fall from the channel into the launcher seat. Only one piece of shot at a time can be loaded. What the user does is pull the launcher straight back until the sear catches the trigger, cocking the gun. That holds the launcher in place until the pistol is shot.

Sharpshooter front sight in place
The front sight holds the lead shot in the magazine channel on top of the gun. It’s held in by tension, alone. Look close, and you can see some of the shot in the channel.

Sharpshooter front sight removed
The front sight simply slides out of the channel for loading.

Sharpshooter ready for loading
The metal loading trough is attached to the magazine channel and shot is poured in.

The front sight can be adjusted up and down by a small amount. That’s the elevation adjustment. The rear sight can be slid from side to side a small amount because it’s held in place by 4 small metal tabs that form a crude dovetail.

Sharpshooter rear sight detail
The rear sight slides from side to side under the 4 metal tabs.

How much value can be put into an inexpensive gun?
I think the old Sharpshooter pistol is the perfect example of putting value into an inexpensive gun. I think it shows why people love designs like the Soviet AKM rifles. Nobody argues that the AKMs are cheap to build — but the thought that went into them before the first piece of metal was cut is where the investment is. That’s what the Sharpshooter pistol shows us — that thought given to a design before it’s executed can be a wonderful thing.

Sharpshooter targets
With the older Sharpshooter pistols, you also got a target like this. It attaches to the box that becomes the shot trap.

Sharpshooter target stamp
You also got a rubber stamp to make unlimited paper targets!

Sharpshooter sales receipt
It’s hard to read, but this sales receipt for one of the old guns is from March 23, 1942.

What is this about?
This report has started like a history lesson about a vintage airgun, but that’s not what it is. I don’t even think I’m going to go in that direction, though I will test it in similar ways to other vintage guns on which I’ve reported. But that isn’t what got me started thinking about this gun.

I was at the Roanoke airgun show, sitting by myself when my eyes fell on a vintage Sharpshooter pistol. I was bored, so I loaded a few shot into it and fitted a rubber band. Then, I cocked the gun and fired it at a styrofoam coffee cup sitting on a chair about 12 feet from me. I hit the cup once, then twice then a third time, and I realized that you don’t have to have 50 foot-pounds of energy to have fun with an airgun. I doubt this gun has more than one five-thousandth that much energy (a 1-grain shot going 60 f.p.s. has 0.01 foot-pounds of energy), yet it’s pleasing to see it hit a small target some distance away. In some of the vintage ads, there were claims of being able to hit houseflies at 16 feet with these guns.

More power!
That got me thinking about springs, and how new airgunners think more powerful springs will increase the energy of an airgun. We know from testing that they often don’t. The rubber band of a catapult gun is a type of spring. What kind of “spring” will have the greatest effect on the velocity of the gun — a big thick one or several smaller ones?

Think about this — which spring will toss you higher: A normal one found on a pogo stick, or a coil spring from a car suspension? The pogo stick spring works well already because it’s been selected to work within the parameters of weight for which the pogo stick is designed. The car spring is rated to many hundreds of pounds, which makes it more powerful, but not a better choice for a pogo stick.

pogo stick
The spring on a pogo stick was selected to work with the weight range for which the stick was design.

automobile suspension spring
There’s no argument the car suspension spring is more powerful than the pogo stick spring. But will it improve the operation?

Sure, you say, it’s obvious the bigger spring won’t work as well on the pogo stick, or even at all. But what if it wasn’t that big? What if it was only a little larger than the spring that’s on the pogo stick now? The answer is that it might work, but maybe not as well as you think. The pogo stick spring was chosen to do its job with weights inside a certain range, and a heavier spring may not improve things.

The same holds true for airguns. Whether we’re talking about coiled mainsprings driving pistons or just compressed air inside a reservoir, there’s an optimum that works well with the other parts of the gun; and anything outside that range is probably not going to work as well.

I’m going to examine that thought using the Sharpshooter catapult pistol.

What IS an airgun?

by B.B. Pelletier

Simple enough question, no? Maybe you get confused by certain air-powered tools or perhaps a slang reference to a paint sprayer, but most folks know exactly what you mean when you say airgun.

Think so? Think again.

The term airgun isn’t found in most dictionaries, yet. You’ll find your spell-checker wants you to write it as two words, but that’s not what today’s blog is about. I really want to know if you know what’s encompassed by the term airgun.

Some of you have already stopped reading to formulate an official-sounding definition that goes something like this: An airgun is any smoothbore or rifled gun that propels a projectile by means of compressed air. As you stand back to admire your work, it suddenly dawns on you that your definition doesn’t encompass any of the guns that are powered by CO2. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Airguns, it turns out, can be a great many different things. Air is only one of their defining characteristics.

Carbon dioxide
Before we move on, however, let’s deal with the CO2 issue. Clearly carbon dioxide isn’t air. If you doubt that, try breathing it for 20 minutes, and then we’ll talk. I’ve had arguments at length with airgun collectors who were stubbornly opposed to labeling CO2 guns as airguns. While that’s a fun subject for two people to banter about as they watch the fireflies rise on a warm evening, it doesn’t serve a person who is drafting state legislation regarding new hunting laws!

So, are CO2 guns airguns, or not? Well — let’s see. They’re sold by airgun dealers, they travel under the same restrictions as guns that do operate on air, they use the same ammunition and they perform similarly. And, heck, there are even a few amphibious models such as Benjamin’s Discovery that operate on either compressed air or CO2. Wasn’t it Robert Kennedy who observed that if something quacks like a duck it probably is a duck? So, yes, guns that use CO2 are also airguns.

Green gas/red gas
Wouldn’t it be nice if it ended there? Well, it doesn’t. There are other propellant gasses that power guns that must also be considered, now that the door has been opened for CO2. I’m talking about green gas and red gas. The airsoft industry hates to admit it publically, but green gas is actually propane. A tiny bit of silicone oil is added to the gas to lubricate the gun’s parts as it functions, and they leave out the odor that’s added to commercial propane to identify gas leaks (real propane doesn’t smell like onions; it has no smell at all).

The same dealers who tell you green gas is special will even sell you adapters to fill your green gas guns from five-pound propane tanks, all the while backpeddling on admitting that green gas is propane! The Orient, where a lot of airsoft guns are made, is quite good at doublespeak!

Here’s where it becomes interesting. Green gas develops a pressure of around 115 PSI at room temperature. That’s plenty of push to propel a 3-grain plastic ball (they call them BBs) out the spout at a fairly good clip.

Red gas is more exotic. It has a higher vapor pressure than green gas, so the guns that use it require some modifications. If you read all the warnings, you’ll get the idea that red gas is like nuclear fuel, but for one thing. Some airsoft guns also operate on CO2, which has a vapor pressure of 853 PSI at room temperature, which goes way beyond the pressure of red gas. To operate on CO2, airsoft guns have to be modified even more, and this is done by restricting the gas flow through special valving that has very small gas ports. There you are. Guns that run on green gas, red gas and CO2, none of which is air — yet they fall into the airgun category because there’s no other category for them.

Airsoft guns do receive special legislation of their own because many are built to simulate firearms (called “real guns” by some folks), and they’re used in force-on-force skirmishes, with people shooting at each other. There are legal issues concerning brandishing in public and special markings on the guns that are not as applicable to the kind of pellet guns I generally write about. But airsoft guns are sold by the same dealers and often made by the same companies who make conventional airguns. Again, they quack like ducks.

Catapult guns
We’re not finished with the non-air powerplants, yet, Sparky. There are still catapult guns to consider.

Catapult guns propel their projectiles by means of a spring in the form of an elastic band or even a conventional coiled steel spring. If you think CO2 guns cause controversy among the anal airgun collectors, try raising this subject and see what happens!

The most common catapult guns are the Sharpshooter-series guns dating from 1923 and produced as toy novelties in the U.S. through at least the 1980s. These guns all shot .118 lead shot, which is more commonly known as No. 6 birdshot.


This Bulls Eye pistol was the first of many so-called Sharpshooter pistols powered by rubber bands. It fired No. 6 birdshot up to ~150 f.p.s. when multiple rubber bands were used.

In most airguns, the use of dropped shot (shotgun shot is made by either dropping it from a high tower so that it forms a ball as it solidifies or forced through small holes by centrifugal force) can be a problem, because of inconsistent size. The shot can easily get jammed in barrels when it’s oversized, which is why we seldom see real BB-sized shot (shot size BB is nominally 0.180 inches in diameter) used in antique BB guns. It simply isn’t regular enough. But catapult guns seldom use barrels. They usually place the shot to be fired in a shaped seat to hold it during acceleration, then release it cleanly at the end of the acceleration phase.

The Johnson Indoor Target Gun shot conventional steel BBs from a submachine gun-looking plastic frame. It used tubular elastic bands much like modern surgical tubing to launch a 5.1-grain BB at 100-150 f.p.s., depending on the strength of the bands.


The Johnson Indoor Target Gun sold for $15 in 1949. It shot steel BBs at 100-150 f.p.s.

But Daisy made a catapult gun that used steel springs. Their model 179 is a Spittin’ Image replica of a Colt single-action revolver that I reported in this blog some time back. Instead of just flinging the BB with the force of the spring, the spring in the 179 pushed a paddle that actually hit the BB like a croquet mallet smacks a ball. Instead of just pushing the BB out the barrel (and this is one of the few catapult guns that really does have a smoothbore barrel), it was whacked out like a line drive off a baseball bat.


Daisy’s 179 was an early Spittin’ Image gun. Production began in 1960.

Rigid airgun collectors are really challenged by catapult guns, because of the Daisy connection. They don’t want to include them in the body of legitimate airguns; but with Daisy being such a key player, they usually cave.

That sets them up for a huge disappointment when they suddenly learn that in the 1840s there was another catapult gun that launched lead balls of approximately .43 caliber with sufficient force to kill small game. The Hodges catapult gun is a long gun with no barrel but with all the Victorian styling expected of a naval weapon made in the 1840s. The thought among advanced collectors is that it was a foraging gun made for naval vessels. Except for the few parts that absolutely had to be made of iron for durability, the rest of the gun is fashioned from bronze and English walnut!


The Hodges catapult gun dates from the 1840s. It was a ship’s foraging gun that made little sound, yet could take game of reasonable size without alerting hostile natives. The Roman soldier statues at the front are for anchoring the elastic bands.


The Hodges ball carrier is pushed back until the sear hooks it. Then the elastic bands are stretched one at a time to increase power. This way, the shooter can build in a lot more power than he can possibly handle when cocking the gun.

The elastic bands were anchored at the forward end by two Roman soldiers cast in detailed bronze relief. I’ve seen two such guns — the one pictured here is in remarkable preservation and the other one has been restored to working order and shot by its owner, who reports velocities in the mid-400 f.p.s. range with 122-grain swaged lead balls.

Caps!
The next branch on the oddity tree deviates toward those guns that shoot BBs and shot by means of the power of an exploding toy cap. Wamo made a minimum of five different models, and new ones surface every couple years. The most recent I’ve discovered shoots potato plugs!


The Kruger ’98 was a cap-firing gun that shot No. 6 birdshot. The same gun also shot BBs and was called just Kruger. Wamo (also spelled Wham-o) made them both.


The Western Haig used toy caps to launch No. 6 shot. It sold for $2.98 in the 1960s. Sold by the founders of Wamo under a different company name and only from a P.O. Box.

If a toy cap can launch a BB, what’s to prevent it from igniting a small charge of black powder? And who decides what’s “a small charge”? There have been .22-caliber, .36-caliber and even .45-caliber rifles made by Rocky Mountain Arms Corporation in modern times that operate by means of exploding caps igniting black powder. If you go back 100 years, there were some made then, as well. They’re clearly firearms when they use black powder, but what about those using caps only?


This .22 rifle from Rocky Mountain Arms Corporation uses toy caps to ignite black powder behind a .22-caliber lead ball. They also made this in .36 and .45 calibers!

As long as we’re talking about caps, what prevents someone from using percussion caps and even primers to propel pellets and BBs? Apparently nothing, because it’s been done. Are these all airguns, as well?

Not the end!
As you now can see, the question of what constitutes an airgun is far from clear. Once you accept any of these deviations, the rest will come streaming through the same loophole. For instance, is a gun that also launches an arrow then considered a bow? And if so, is it legal to use during bow season?

It is for reasons like this that Edith and I are sometimes so rigid and precise in our terminology — because you never know what’s waiting in the wings.

A rare BB gun from Wyoming!

by B.B. Pelletier

Over the years I have written about many strange airguns. Some of them were mine and others were guns I either borrowed to test or just wrote about.

Sometimes, I’ve even written about firearms, which a student of airguns should understand because of the insight firearms shed on our hobby. Microgroove rifling, for instance, came from a 19th century barrelmaker named Harry Pope. Then, the Marlin company copied it; and only after airguns began being rifled in about 1906 was microgroove rifling finally applied to them.

And, there have been a fair number of curious guns that don’t really fit exactly in one category. For example, the Kruger cap-firing BB pistol isn’t really an airgun, but a firearm by the definition that a firearm discharges one or more projectiles by the force of a chemical explosion. But no BATF&E agent would ever give one a second look. Made mostly of black styrene, the Kruger is a toy by anyone’s definition. You can read about it in this report.

Well, today I want to tell you about another odd type of gun that also isn’t an airgun by the strictest definition. But it’s been lumped in with the airguns ever since it was launched in 1923 in Rawlins, Wyoming, by a dentist, Dr. C.L. Bunten. I’m referring to the Bulls Eye Pistol, a catapult gun that operates by the power of rubber bands.

The Bulls Eye Pistol is a repeating ball-shooter that launches .12 caliber lead balls by the force of rubber bands. Yes, I said it’s a repeater! Although, in today’s vernacular, anything that isn’t semiautomatic is a single-shot (not really, but that’s what a lot of non-shooters and kids believe). A repeater is a gun that stores multiple rounds of ammunition that it can fire when loaded by the mechanism. If you have to insert each round into the breech by hand, it isn’t a repeater, regardless of how much ammunition it can carry; but if an onboard mechanism loads each round, you have a repeater.

The Bulls Eye Pistol holds over 50 rounds in a gravity-fed inline magazine. Once again, don’t get too cocky about gravity feed, because the deadly Gatling gun of the 19th century used it to great effect! And the 18th century Girardoni military rifle of the Austrian army fed 22 .47 caliber balls via gravity, alone. So, gravity-feed is a legitimate feed mechanism.


Enough political incorrectness to last a lifetime. Not only is a nuclear family shown enjoying an evening of shooting, they’re shooting in their living room and mom and little sister are downrange from dad and son! And the target is set up on the furniture.

The gun is enormously underpowered, but it has just enough power to get the job done if that means hitting the target. In the literature (yes, I have the owner’s pamphlet that came with the boxed gun), you’re told that you can shoot at windows and not break them, but you can kill a fly at 10 feet.

The Bulls Eye Pistol came in a box with three paper-thin celluloid bird reactive targets. If you ever find a kit I advise you to never shoot at these birds, because the gun can easily poke holes in them at close range. Back in the day when the gun was being made (1925-1940), you could order a package of replacements for next to nothing but they’re irreplaceable today.


The kit came with the pistol, rubber bands (long since dry-rotted), a tube of shot, ammo loader (silver thing in front of the box), target stamp and pad, 3 celluloid bird reactive targets with stands and a box that served as the target trap.

There was also a bundle of rubber bands inside the box and a small paper tube of No. 6 shotgun shot. Of course, one 12-gauge shell provided hundreds of shots, so I imagine little boys were taking jackknives to daddy’s shotgun shells when he wasn’t looking.

The box served as a safe backstop since the heavy pasteboard could not be penetrated by the shot. And three targets stamped on the inside of the cover provided good targets for the new owner until he found a herd of flies to thin.

Many years ago, Dean Fletcher wrote a test article for Airgun Revue, in which he tested a Bulls Eye for me. When his gun was powered by 4 stout rubber bands, he got a top velocity of 195 f.p.s. with No. 6 shot, which is a .12 caliber lead ball — more or less. But try as he did, he never got his Bulls Eye to group any better than 5 shots inside .75 inches at 10 feet. Some groups were as large as 2.50 inches. He found that follow-through was extremely important with this pistol, which is the artillery hold at work.

There were other rubber band guns that followed the Bulls Eye, with the Sharpshooter being the most noteworthy. It was also produced in Rawlins for a short time, and then production moved around the nation like a geography lesson. When I attended college in San Jose back in the 1960s, I found two Sharpshooters in the box in a hardware store. They were new-old-stock and must have been laying around for close to 20 years.

The way the gun worked was simple. The shooter pulled the launcher straight back against rubber band power. At the next-to-last instant, the shot dropped out of the magazine and into the catapult launcher and then the launcher was caught by the sear. Squeezing the trigger released the sear and let the launcher fly forward, powered by the rubber bands. The launcher had a special seat that contained the shot that was under heavy G-forces until the launcher ran out of track and stopped moving. The shot took off on its own but was guided by the launch seat that had held it in the optimum launch position.


This picture shows everything. The metal launcher is in the center, held in the gun by a top and bottom rail, the hole in the bottom of the magazine dropped the next shot into the launcher when it was in position, and the sear…which moved up when the trigger was pulled.

Dr. Bunten found that No. 6 shot was not perfectly round, and it also varied in diameter by several thousandths of an inch. Running it through a precision barrel was not the way to go. But his launcher eliminated the concerns about any irregularities, so accuracy was possible.

Believe it or not, the front sight on this pistol was even adjustable for elevation and the rear adjusts for windage. I suppose if a fellow had enough time to kill he could regulate his gun quite well until it was possible to pick off flies at 10 feet like the literature said. I do know that lubricating the launch track and even adjusting the tension between the upper and lower guide rails that held the launcher captive was what you did to increase velocity and regulate the direction the shot took.


The front sight was removed and 50 round balls were poured into the channel that leads back to the loading hole.

I have a sales receipt from 1942 for a Bulls Eye Pistol for $2.95 plus 20 cents tax. That would be $30-40 today, so this was no cheap toy by any stretch. It wasn’t targeted toward the younger shooter, whose BB guns cost about $1 to $3 at the same time. No, it went after the adult shooter with a few extra coins jingling in his pockets.

Today, a pistol as fine as the one shown here would costs $100-150 at an airgun show. But this is one of those times when anywhere else you might get it for a lot less, because it looks so cheap. I have a small collection of rubber band-powered guns and this one is both the oldest and the star of my collection. It was handmade by Dr. Bunten in the room behind his office in Rawlins, as all Bulls Eye Pistols were.

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