A brief history of Beeman and Air Rifle Headquarters – Part 1
by B.B. Pelletier
Matt61 asked how many Beeman R-type airguns there were last Friday, because he’d never heard of the R8 model I’m currently testing. His question reminded me how Dennis Quackenbush is always going on about the lack of historical documentation of the airgun hobby. Matt’s question epitomizes this. So, I figured a short history was in order. This should also prove interesting to our readers outside the U.S. who may not know the Beeman name as well as we do. I can’t tell the Beeman story without including the history of Air Rifle Headquarters, which preceded it by a decade. This is really the story of the beginning of precision adult airguns in the U.S.
It began in the 1960s
The importation of European airguns and ammunition into the U.S. had been spotty up to the decade of the 1960s. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Stoeger had imported J.G. Anschütz, Haenel, Diana, Webley and perhaps a few others, but they lacked the marketing push to popularize them. Who, in 1940, was going to spend $70 for a single-shot Peerless (Diana model 58) air rifle they had never heard of when a sleek Winchester model 61 pump .22 cost just $24.87? Besides, in 1940, war loomed on the horizon and German products were not that popular in this country, so the time was not yet right. After the war was over, though, was a different story.
In the very early 1960s, Robert Law became aware of the high quality of European airguns and pellets. He formed the company known as Air Rifle Headquarters in Grantsville, West Virginia, and started importing and selling these products through the mail.
But he did something extra that Stoeger never attempted, and it made all the difference in the world. He borrowed a page from the marketing plan of George L. Herter and told the detailed story of the airguns he was offering. He told you why his $150 FWB breakbarrel was far superior to the Sheridan Blue Streak, which he sold for $42.00. He gave you numerous reasons to spend almost four times the money for the same type of product. If he were still in business today, I bet he would have a blog very much like this one.
Law produced a catalog and other printed materials that showered the buyer with interesting information about fine European airguns and pellets. His catalogues are collector items today, selling for $20 and up. They still fascinate the collector with the history of the first real sales campaign for precision airguns in the U.S.
These catalogs were loaded with articles — not touting any specific airgun but, instead, educating the airgunner in general. Another product he produced were Air Rifle Monthly pamphlets that dealt with specific airguns. How he managed to find the time to do all he did I will never know, but from the volume of publications his company published, it’s clear that the man with the Mo Howard haircut knew how to prioritize.
Law also created better owners’ manuals than those supplied by the manufacturers, and his were supplied with the gun at the sale.
Of course, all these educational materials were also selling products, as the enthusiast learned more and more about his airgun. Eventually, he became hooked and had to try the tuneups he read about in the pamphlets.
In the early years, Law also included a lot of sex in his catalog. There were many pages of scantily-clad lovelies touting the guns. There were also several photos of the pretty ARH female employees in miniskirts filling orders in the shipping department. There must have been complaints, though, because by 1974 the catalogs dropped this practice entirely.
The vision of modern airgunning
Law was also a visionary. He coined the term “accurized” and added value to his guns through tuning both before and after the sale. He also mounted scopes on airguns at a time when it was considered very problematic. The scopes of his day broke from the recoil of the spring rifles he sold, so he searched far and wide for models that could take the strain.
ARH, as it was known, had some special models of its own. These were guns that they customized to the nth degree, including fancy stocks, scopes, accurizing and other added perks. The Feinwerkbau F12 came before the model 124 and was a model 121. ARH sold it as-is for $144.50 in 1973. But when they accurized it and added their own electric guitar-style walnut stock, it became the model F120 and the price went to $234.50. I have seen but one of these rifles in my life. It was at the Roanoke airgun expo a few years ago, and I was stunned by the sheer size of the wood stock. They made the forearm so deep that there’s no longer a cocking slot. There is sufficient room inside the forearm to contain the cocking link as it cycles through its arc.
They also sold some American airguns. For example, they sold the Smith & Wesson 78G and 79G, and they did it their way. They boosted velocity to a guaranteed 500+ f.p.s. in the .177 79G.
Air Rifle Headquarters lasted from about 1963 until 1979. Then, it closed its doors and has been talked about in airgun circles ever since. Probably one reason they folded their tent was that a new company — Beeman Precision Airguns — started in California in the early 1970s. However, the name lives on, as Jim Maccari calls his company Air Rifle Headquarters.
Next time, I’ll cycle you through the Beeman history and finally answer Matt’s question of how many R-type guns there are.