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Saxby-Palmer Ensign – a precharged rifle from the past

by B.B. Pelletier

About once a year, I get a message from someone who has a “great new idea” for an air rifle. Why not put compressed air into separate cartridges and load them like regular firearm ammo? They would work through the action of a bolt-action rifle and everything would be real neat. I have to smile when I read these messages because I “invented” the exact same thing myself back in the 1980s. I called my rifle the Quantum One, and it essentially did everything I have just mentioned. Mine was a .30 caliber big bore that I hoped would have the power of a .32 ACP – about 200 foot-pounds at the muzzle.

Saxby-Palmer Ensign
While I was dreaming, the Brits were actually creating, and they’re the ones who came up with the Saxby-Palmer Ensign. It’s a bolt-action rifle that loads a huge plastic or metal cartridge that contains both the air and a .22 caliber pellet. Each reusable cartridge is about the size of a 12-gauge shotgun shell or larger. It fires like a centerfire cartridge, with the firing pin pushing on a central valve pin that runs almost the entire length of the air cartridge. When the pin moves, it opens the air reservoir inside the cartridge, allowing the compressed air to escape behind a pellet that’s loaded in the nose.

The Saxby-Palmer Ensign is a classic rifle.

The Ensign was imported into the U.S. by Marksman for a short time in the 1990s. Now, they pop up at airgun shows from time to time. If the seller has never fired the gun, the asking price may be as high as $500. If they’ve actually used it, they’ll more likely ask $350 or less. It’s the kind of airgun that looks great when you see it all laid out and the concept sounds fine, but when you actually use it, you discover the flaws.

This is the hardest airgun to use that you can imagine! Each case has to be prepared by filling it with air from a separate pump and loading a pellet in the nose. There are also maintenance procedures to be undertaken to keep the cartridges functioning.

Each cartridge gets filled with the pump.

Pump her up!
Never buy one of these rifles without the separate pump because no one will sell you just the pump. The pump is either bolted to a bench top or to a board for transport to the field. The guy who let me test his rifle had his pump bolted to a plank so he could carry it to the range. His cartridges were all the plastic “Mark I” type that cannot be rebuilt, so even though the .22- caliber rifle is capable of achieving 800 f.p.s., he played it safe and kept the velocity down below 600. For that, he had to pump each cartridge three strokes, as my memory serves. I chronographed the rifle at 585 f.p.s. with RWS Superdomes, a thin-skirted pellet that fills the larger bore of the rifle well.

Cartridge maintenance
Besides charging and loading the cartridges, they have to be lubricated periodically. Crosman Pellgunoil is about the best stuff for this. The metal cartridges can be taken apart and overhauled with new O-rings, but the plastic cartridges cannot be disassembled. When they failed, they had to be broken apart and the valve had to be pulled out and installed in a metal cartridge case. In the days when the cartridges were being made, that was easy enough to do, but now the supplies have dried up and you have to treat them like they aren’t available anymore.

Do NOT add Crosman Pellgunoil to a precharged pneumatic airgun or separate air cartridges, as mentioned above. I have learned that Pellgunoil is a petroleum-based oil. It is very dangerous to introduce petroleum oil into a vessel containing compressed air. It can form a fuel-air mixture and become explosive.

After filling, each cartridge needs a pellet.

The rifle is lightweight, at 6.5 lbs., and more accurate than one might think. It was no threat to top PCPs, but ahead of a Benjamin or Sheridan multi-pump rifle. Something on the order of 1/2″ at 25 yards, or so.

You could scope the rifle, but the owner of this one decided not to. I have read accounts of the Ensign making a splendid hunting rifle when the cartridges were pumped all the way up, but owners of plastic cartridges are right to be cautious, because there aren’t being made anymore.

This rifle with all its support equipment makes a fine collectible that can be brought out to amaze your friends. It has all the gizmos and doodads one would associate with a mad scientist. For shooters who like shooting everything they own, this incredibly fiddley air rifle seems a bit overpowering – about like running a steam calliope. Yah gotta love it or leave it!

author avatar
B.B. Pelletier
Tom Gaylord is known as The Godfather of Airguns™ and has been an airgunner for over a half-century, but it was the Beeman company in the 1970s that awoke a serious interest in airguns. Until then, all he knew were the inexpensive American airguns. Through the pages of the Beeman catalog, he learned about adult airguns for the first time. In 1994, Tom started The Airgun Letter with his wife, Edith. This monthly newsletter was designed to bring serious reports about airguns to the American public. The newsletter and Airgun Revue, a sister magazine about collectible airguns, was published from 1994 until 2002, when Tom started Airgun Illustrated -- the first American newsstand magazine about airguns. Tom worked for three years as technical director at AirForce Airguns, the makers of the Talon, Condor, and Escape precharged air rifles. Today, he writes about airguns and firearms for various publications and websites. He also makes videos, and you'll find short clips embedded in some of his artices on Pyramyd AIR's website. Tom is a consultant to Pyramyd AIR and writes under the name of B.B. Pelletier.

27 thoughts on “Saxby-Palmer Ensign – a precharged rifle from the past”

  1. Recently I pit someone on the track of someone who sold his cartridge based (LEP: Luft Energie Patrone) revolver (yes, those exist too, also pistols) which included a couple of cartridges, a pump and…a HPA bottle with adapter to fill the cartridges. Apparently the cartridges can be filled to 230bar…that’s PCP levels!

    That bottle->adapter->LEP concept makes the whole idea much more appealing all of a sudden.

    It works a charm, too.

    For those who can understand german, there’s a good description, including the bottle adapter on: http://www.muzzle.de/N3/Druckluft/LEP_Luftenergiepatrone/lep_luftenergiepatrone.html

  2. B.B,

    This is off topic, but I figured you have experience shooting so many different airguns, perhaps you can verify if this phenomenon is true.

    I have an older Sheridan rifle. I say older because it has the slender forestock, hold down safety, and straight bolt handle. I usually shoot targets at a distance of 10 yards using 5 pumps, but this rifle shoots about ¾-1 inch high with the rear sight adjusted touching the hand grip. The previous owner replaced the rear sight with one from a newer Sheridan, so I thought maybe that was the problem. I asked that question on one of the internet forums and was told that all Sheridan rear sights are the same height. I was told that 5 pumps are too many for shooting only 10 yards because five pumps will cause the tube and barrel to bow upward. This rifle was recently resealed and is a bit hard to pump. Is it true that Sheridan tubes and barrels bow like that? Is this true of any other multipump rifles? Thanks in advance.


  3. Clarke,

    The bowing sounds wrong to me. That’s what a PCP does when the entire reservoir is pressurized to 3,000 psi, but a multi-pump has a small chamber about an inch long pressureized to maybe 1200 psi.

    Keep the new piston head oiled and store with one pump.


  4. (new topic)

    Exploding square stick-on targets seem to need a minimum velocity to reliably detonate. My RWS 52 seems to be borderline, some hits pop them louder than other hits, and some hits don’t pop them at all. I wonder if the greater impact, even though lower velocity, of the big-bore 909 would do it? (assuming I could hit it!)

  5. BB and,

    i shoot those explosives by the box with hollow points in my 22 hornet!

    I cant get them anymore because the guy that i did buy them from stoped selling them. They were no longer legal. I got the last of his supply. 13 boxes. FINSHED THEM.

    They are a BLAST! LOL get it? Blast! I had to say it. As usual.

    We got like 5 people with them. It my be a new shooter or anyone who doesent know what they are but i set up the box they shoot and boom. They A- drop the gun B-pee C- play it cool. Some times they do all three in that order. My whole family is in on it each time. We have them shoot the whole box at the same time!


  6. Hi! B.B.,

    About the “Crosman pellgun oil”. I was told by a friend that worked at an oil co. lab. that automatic transmission oil is exactly the same stuff. Do you have any idea?


  7. WAAAAY more trouble than it would be worth, but, a neat idea.

    Clarke, I have been shooting Sheridan Air Rifles since 1968. The barrels don’t bend that I can see. However, I have found that five pumps is often very accurate.

    I would file the rear notch deeper and then file the top of the rear site down as well. That will lower your POA.

    Or, you can scope it with a crosman intermount and a Scout or Pistol scope. That works great!

    Pyramyd AIR has the mount. You may have to shim it to tighten it properly on the Sheridan. I used strips from a plastic milk carton.

  8. Wow, I actually have one of these! I haven’t shot it in years, because it was just too much of a pain to get set up. Definitely not a plinker, too much preparation needed.

    Good gun though. Would love to put the stock on one of my QB’s… hmmm…

    If anyone out there DOES need the pump, I think mine is still out in the garage. Drop me an e-mail at crosman@earthlink.net

  9. I seem to remember reading about this rifle in the Airgun Digest, 3rd Edition (J.I. Galen, editor). Its a very interesting concept – leave it up to the clever Brits to design something so innovative. Thanks for the gun review – truly something interesting.

  10. I had a Saxby&palmer revolver back in the late 80s.
    It was a .177 calibre 5 shot pistol which looked like a smith&wesson police 38.
    For reasons unknown the cylinder had been produced so as the front half of the cartridges were exposed.
    About 1999 I bought a Brockock .22 calibre 5 shot revolver based on the snub nose Detective special.
    Unlike the saxby&palmer this pistol had a full cylinder all be it hollowed out not to accept proper rounds.
    Good fun to shoot but a pain to reload.

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