by B.B. Pelletier

Today’s blog comes from an article I originally wrote for Airgun Revue #4.

An American classic. The front-pump Benjamin pistol is a symbol of airgunning from the first half of the 20th century.

Today’s airguns are so refined that they make the models I grew up with look ancient by comparison. When I was a boy in the 1950s, airguns were either BB guns or pneumatic pellet guns–there were no others to choose from. Although Crosman bulk-fill guns had been around for awhile, they weren’t well known in my neck of the woods. If they had been, this story might be very different. I grew up with Benjamins in rural Ohio. Both rifles and pistols were around, but my father only had a pistol, so that became my first exposure to airgunning.

His was one of the first–a front-pump pistol. It isn’t the first airgun to have a pump mechanism built into the front; that credit probably goes to Giffard, or to someone else from Europe in the last century. But Benjamin gets the recognition of having built more of them than anyone else, so if you think about them today, they’re the ones who come to mind.

The “Benjamin Franklin” inscription on the sides of many Benjamin guns leads many to the false assumption that it’s the name or model of the gun. The words are purely fanciful, a play on the name “Benjamin.”

Let’s set the record straight–it’s a Benjamin, not a Benjamin Franklin. When I was a boy, everyone seemed to know that; but over the years, a completely new crop of collectors and dealers has sprung up. They insist on using both names because they happen to appear on the side of the guns. Maybe, back when the guns all came in boxes and the pellets were still sold under that name, it was easier to remember. Just Benjamin.

I had my father’s Benjamin 107 pistol. Although I now know it to be a fine air pistol, at the time I didn’t even consider it to be real. It was just too hard for a little boy to operate. Even today, the front pump mechanism can be a chore for an adult. It has the least mechanical advantage of any pneumatic airgun, which you may safely read as “none.”

The pistol is a metal and wood airgun with a substantial but compact heft–not unlike a Colt Woodsman of the same era. It was contemporary with the last of the Quackenbush long guns and has that same look of substance and quality. Although we’re living in a golden age of airgun development right now, the Benjamin and other guns like it made the earlier decades of this century a very fine time to be alive, too.

Both the company name and the model designation of the gun are stamped on the end cap of the receiver.

According to the chronology given to us by collector Fred Liady, the pistol models 100 (.177, smoothbore), 102 (.22, rifled) and 107 (.177, rifled) were all introduced in 1935. These were Benjamin’s first air pistols. I remember my father’s pistol came in a green cardboard box that was colored the same as the pellet tins, but advanced collectors tell me that the plain brown box was the earliest. You’ll still find many of them in their boxes because even the box looks retro enough for people to recognize it as quality.

The rifles predated the pistols by several decades, with the first–designated on Fred’s list as the Benjamin model A–being made around 1898. Actually, that first one was the St. Louis Air Rifle. The date on the left side of the stock reads “Pat. June 20 1899,” so the 1898 date may be taken with a grain of salt.

The B model, supposedly first made in 1900, was actually the second version of the St. Louis Air Rifle, and I’m sorry to say I have only seen one picture of this gun–in Smith’s Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World. The model D, first produced in 1910, is the earliest Benjamin rifle (using the Benjamin name) that is seen in any great quantity. That rifle came 25 years before the first pistol–a remarkable stretch of time, when you think about it.

Benjamin rifles and pistols of the vintage of our subject gun came with two finishes on top of solid brass. The top finish was a fragile layer of black nickel on top of a much tougher coat of silver nickel. The black usually wears off pretty quick, although there are guns with lots of it still clinging. There may have been small lot-to-lot differences in the application of the finish, or it just might be due to how much the individual guns have been handled over time. As incredible as it sounds, the example shown above was acquired in 1997 and has much more original black finish than my father’s almost-identical gun had in 1955!

The silver finish is much more permanent, to the point that many believe it to be the only original finish on the gun. Often, when I see an older Benjamin advertised with 60 percent of its finish, I ask the seller whether all the silver is still there. They often refer to just the silver nickel because they believe it to be the top finish of the gun; so it pays to ask. Many people are not aware that the black finish was ever present. Obviously, 60 percent silver nickel with no black showing equals 30 percent of the whole original finish. It makes an interesting bargaining position, if you want to get a price adjustment.

Don’t be surprised to see some of the base metal peeking through on an otherwise good-looking gun. It’s not at all strange to see brass showing on the sharp edges, silver on most of the smooth surfaces and some black in the corners and under the barrel, where it has been protected. Our subject pistol, a model 100 smoothbore, is showing a little brass on the edges of the end cap, a condition that tells me the owner(s) were pumping it correctly. Unlike fine cameras, a little brassing isn’t such a fatal flaw on a Benjamin pistol or rifle, although there are plenty of guns showing none at all.