Young Gun, Old Gun
The design of a firearm
is still based around a simple principle
By Dennis Adler
I am paraphrasing the legendary William B. Ruger, Sr., when I say that all gun designs serve the same purpose, to fire a projectile, but what the gun fires and how it fires it, will dictate the design of the gun. Case in point, John M. Browning designed .32 ACP and .380 ACP cartridges and he designed the guns to fire them in 1903 and 1908, respectively. Bill Ruger, Sr. was something of a modern day J.M. Browning and what I learned from my time around him in the 1990s, while I was writing a short biography of his life, visiting his factories, talking with his engineers and staff, and having quiet, introspective dinners with him discussing firearms history, was that great design, and the fundamental breakthroughs that come with them, become the paradigm for all that follows. I understood than as I do now, that with few exceptions, every single action revolver, regardless of manufacturer (including the c. 1953 Ruger Single Six and c. 1955 Ruger Blackhawk), is descended from Samuel Colt’s original revolver designs, even though Colt had died years before the Peacemaker was designed. Ruger’s point being that no matter how different, regardless of the ammunition it fires; however large or small the pistol may be, the fundamentals of its design began with Colt. Bill knew this when he designed the original “Old Model” Single Six .22 revolver, and all the Ruger-designed and built single actions that followed. Were it not for Sam Colt…
Much the same can be said of firearms designed by John Moses Browning for Colt’s (the 1911 stands out), Winchester, FN (Fabrique Nationale), and of course, Browning itself, (originally J. M. Browning & Bros. in Ogden, Utah c.1880), and for the guns of Paul Mauser, Georg Luger, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. I could go on for pages with firearms concepts and the men behind them that have become the standards for all we have today, and that is what makes collecting firearms so interesting. Even more interesting, is that for airgun enthusiasts all that I have said also applies to CO2 pistols and rifles. The works of Colt, Browning, Mauser, Luger, Smith and Wesson, and even Bill Ruger, Sr., is represented by air pistols and air rifles with designs descended from their original guns. It is an amazing heritage in which we can share, however vicariously, through the airgun experience.
Old Guns, New Guns
The same formulas apply to CO2 handguns and longarms as to their centerfire and rimfire counterparts, what the gun fires dictates to a great extent how it is designed. CO2 is the propellant, a .177 caliber steel BB or a 4.5mm lead or alloy pellet is the bullet. They are separate components just as Sam Colt’s percussion pistols with powder poured into the cylinder chambers, a lead ball seated atop each, and a percussion cap placed at the back of the cylinder chamber to ignite the powder charge. The hammer strikes, the cap, the round is fired; the hammer hits the valve, the CO2 is released and the round is fired. The fundamentals still dictate the design. No matter what it looks like on the outside, the internals require the same actions in order to function. We may improve upon how the action occurs, but the end result is the same. More so with air pistols because even those with modern designs based on striker-fired semi-autos (like the Glock, Springfield Armory XDM, and Sig Sauer P320 and M17 models), still use some form of internal hammer to strike the CO2 valve releasing the charge of air that puts things into motion.
With old guns, like all the current single actions; Colt Peacemakers, the Schofields (more about that later in the week), and the over zealously branded Remington 1875, the look is as close to the original designs on the exterior, which must also cleverly disguise the internal differences to the highest possible degree. These are mechanical success stories that wholly surpass almost everything that came before. Why “almost?” Laws and politics, perhaps practicality and the underbelly of man to corrupt anything good, ended the groundbreaking Brocock Tandem Air Cartridge design (early 1990s to 2014), which used actual custom-built western revolvers and lever action rifles manufactured in Italy by Pietta and Uberti. These guns were specifically designed to fire a .22 caliber lead pellet from a self-contained metallic cartridge charged with compressed air (basically a miniaturized pre-charged pneumatic bullet). These reusable, self-contained metal cartridges and the guns designed to use them were the issue. Built for sale in the UK by Brocock and paired with the Italian revolvers (1851 Navy conversion, 1875 Remington, Colt 1873, etc., the airguns could, with some ingenuity on behalf of a criminal element, be converted to fire actual cartridges. Cartridge guns being almost impossible to own in the UK made this a profitable endeavor, and the Brocock design was legislated out of existence in the UK. The guns could not be traded in the UK or exported (many had to be turned in and destroyed), and thus this technology, a remarkably logical one, came to an end. The guns occasionally turn up on the secondary market in the U.S. and Europe. (If any of our U.S. or European readers own one, I would love to see some pictures and get some opinions on the design).
Within the confines of what technology exists for building CO2 powered air pistols and rifles today, the U.S. market currently has some of the best choices in both old handgun and rifles designs, and some of the most modern, as exhibited in the photos. I am drawn to these designs, particularly revolvers with BB or pellet cartridges, and semi-autos (or select-fire) guns, because they embody some the greatest classic and groundbreaking designs of the past.
With CO2 airguns we can now span the history of modern weapons from the 1870s to the 21st century. More noteworthy for America, is the knowledge that in very few parts of the world today can an individual have in one collection the actual guns of the past and present sharing a spotlight with their CO2-powered counterparts.
When I put an array of current production CO2 guns together for an article such as this, I find myself truly impressed with what the world of airguns has accomplished. Certainly, there are a dozen guns I would love to see recreated in CO2, and may yet see in the next year or two. Still, even the handful exhibited here, just a small sampling of what is available, is a reminder that no matter what the design, and no matter what era it came from, it can be done, because as Bill Ruger Sr. once told me, they are all based around a simple principle, and that is one principle history has yet to change.