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!