Fun at the flea marketFinding a Haviland & Gunn BB pistol
by B.B. Pelletier
One of the things I miss about the days of The Airgun Letter was the local flea market my wife and I attended every Sunday for two decades. It was a gold mine for rare and vintage airguns–some of which I bought and others I let slip through my fingers. Today, though, I’d like to tell about the gun my wife, Edith, found. It turned out to be the best deal we ever closed at that market!
I have told this tale briefly in the blog twice before, but today you’ll read the entire thing.
The Columbia, Maryland, flea market was held in the parking lot of the Columbia Mall. Once every month, it expanded many times in size and called it Super Sunday.
On the day in question, the flea market had actually become smaller and less exciting for us. It had already given up many super finds, and I guess we’d become jaded by our success. You know how it is. You go there with the idea of finding a new-in-the-box Sheridan Supergrade and are disappointed at having to put up with not one but two tinplate Sentinel BB guns for $100 each. As well-worn as they were, they were only worth about $600-800 each, so you wisely passed them up. Thank goodness they never had the bad manners to ever appear again! Unfortunately, neither did that Sheridan in the box.
On the Sunday in question, I’d gone to the flea market and made a quick pass-through on my own in the morning. Gotta get there early if you wanna get the worms! But this day, Edith was also set on going, so I went back with her that afternoon.
She was eyeballing the contents of a glass case filled with an assortment of trinkets…Avon containers, jewelry, scarves, wrist watches, plastic squirt guns and more. She saw a shiny object sticking up through the jumble and carefully dug in to pick it up. As she pulled it out, she noticed it was a gun. It didn’t look like any gun she’d ever seen, so she asked the vendor if he knew what it was. He thought it was a metal squirt gun that was missing the stopper on the water reservoir. Edith turned to me and said that she didn’t think it was a squirt gun, then offered the guy $5–and he was glad to get it.
Small cast iron pistol was a puzzlement to the vendor who sold it.
The pistol was a small cast-iron gun with screw threads in the bottom of the grip. I noticed that the base of the butt had a spring retainer plate screwed in, so I unscrewed it. Out came the spring retainer, a coiled steel spring and a steel rod with a leather washer in the shape of a fat doughnut between two metal plates. That was a spring-piston powerplant, no doubt. It had nothing to do with water!
Disassembly revealed a spring-piston powerplant. No doubt this is an airgun!
The pistol has a breech that is obviously sealed by a part this gun was missing. I assembled the parts after oiling the leather seal, then I loaded a .177 round lead ball in the barrel and held my finger over the breech. When the gun fired, the ball came out with some force! This was definitely a BB gun.
A breechblock is missing. It fits in the groove at the base of the breech to seal the air generated by the piston–another leather breech seal.
The Blue Book of Airguns wasn’t published in those days, but if it had been I would have learned that we had a Haviland & Gunn model of 1872. According to the price guide in the latest book, the value today is about $500 for what we had, though a buyer might be willing to pay more, because of the rarity of the piece. The spring retainer plate is stamped with a May 21, 1872 patent date.
The gun is cocked by pulling down on the steel piston rod. Seeing those threads in the base of the grip, the vendor thought a water hose was supposed to be attached to the gun. It fit the story he made up, and I guess he believed it.
After showing the gun around at the next Roanoke Airgun Expo, collector Roger Blaisdell told me a friend of his would make a breech for the gun if I wanted. I had it made and the little gun actually fired after a fashion
Three years after Edith made her find, a friend of mine bought a rare Pope air pistol at the same flea market. My own list of finds from there runs into double digits, with some of them being quite remarkable. But nothing ever equaled that penny-on-a-dollar find Edith found that Sunday so many years ago.