Gallery dart gun – Part 1
by B.B. Pelletier
Today, I want to share my Christmas gift with you. It came along as I was undecided what I wanted, and it presented itself so forcefully that I knew it had selected me.
A couple months ago, I put a bid on Gun Broker for a Primary New York City gallery dart gun made by David Lurch. I’ll tell you what kind of airgun this is.
When the American Civil War began, the North was hampered because many men coming to fight had no skills or even familiarity with shooting. In the South, it was the other way around. Shooting was both an accepted sport and a means of subsistence for many, so their soldiers needed very little in the way of training beyond familiarity with the arms they were issued. The Northern soldiers needed much more training.
At the end of the war, several generals such as Sherman and Grant agreed that American men needed basic training in the shooting sports to ensure that they would be ready to go to war if the cause ever arose. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1873 for the explicit purpose of training American men to shoot.
The soldiers returning home after the ware were now well-inculcated in the shooting sports and didn’t necessarily want to stop. Across the Eastern U.S., shooting galleries sprang up in every village and town. It was not unlike the trampoline parks of the 1960s, or the go-cart tracks of later years, and lasting even until today. Shooting became the social thing to do, and everybody wanted to do it. Even women joined in as the galleries and shooting clubs proliferated.
In the galleries, the most common gun was the .22 rimfire, shooting either shorts or CB caps. But, there was another option. For much more than the cost of a .22 rimfire rifle, a gallery operator could buy an airgun that shot darts. Twenty-eight caliber was the most popular for these gallery guns at the time, though .25 cal. was also in vogue. The reason an operator might pay five times as much as a firearm to buy an airgun was because the ammunition was reusable. The cost to operate the gun dropped close to zero. Hence, these guns could make far more money than a rimfire in a shooting gallery.
Small wonder that gallery owners were willing to pay from $20 all the way up to $35 for a really fancy repeating airgun. Once bought, the guns needed next to no maintenance. They didn’t even need to be cleaned! And, the darts lasted almost forever if they were cared for properly. So, you had a gun you could shoot for nothing. That’s an airgunner’s dream…even today.
The guns were made by hand in several regions around the United States. They all have similar characteristics, but regional differences are very rigidly defined. An inexpensive variation of the gallery gun was cheap enough to be owned by individuals. This is the triggerguard-lever-cocking gun, or the bugelspanner. Perhaps, in the future, I’ll do a report on bugelspanners, but the subject of today’s report is a different type of gallery gun altogether. In Eldon Wolff’s book, Air Guns, it’s identified as the Primary New York City type.
David Lurch Primary New York City gallery gun.
The Primary New York City gallery gun is larger and much heavier than a buglespanner that might weigh 6 lbs. My example weighs 7.25 lbs. and is 44 inches long. The barrel is a whopping 21.5 inches long and does not affect the overall length that much because of a very compact powerplant.
The iron barrel is an untapered octagon. It measures 0.75″ across the flats at the muzzle, which leaves a lot of metal around the .28 caliber bore.
The powerplant is a spring-piston type that uses two volute springs butted against each other in tandem. What’s a volute spring? Take a flat ribbon of spring steel and wind it into a coil. The center of the spring will rise up like a pyramid. By butting two of those against each other you get a long, powerful stroke in a very short space. The only problem is that volute springs are much stronger than coiled steel springs and are also harder to compress.
Cross-section shows how two volute springs work as a mainspring.
The Primary New York City gallery gun overcomes this problem with a separate geared crank that meshes with an internal gear mechanism in the gun. Turning the crank in a circle compresses the springs and sets the sear. A single trigger blade then fires the gun.
The crank inserts in this hole and engages this gear to cock the gun.
To load the gun, the barrel pivots to the right, exposing the breech. There’s no solid lock up for the barrel, so some care is needed when shooting the gun to get the barrel aligned with the transfer port. The breech may be opened in this way at any time.
Simply twist the rifle to the right to open the breech.
The sights are atypical on my gun, as they’re a two-piece folding leaf type. One is for long range and the other is for close work. I would presume close range would be 10 meters and long range might be 50 feet, or so. The front sight is a post and bead that sits on a dovetail across the barrel.
An unusual two-leaf rear sight on my gallery gun.
I mentioned that these gallery guns were all handmade, which is the truth. No one ever set up a factory to turn them out in any quantity. But, there were a great number of makers back in the day. The maker of my gun was New York City gunsmith David Lurch, who was one of the most prolific makers out of a list of at least eight for this type. He made airguns from 1863 until some time in the 1870s, though he maintained a store on Grand Street in New York City until 1889. He and his brother, Joseph, were well-known makers of gallery guns during this period.
Clearly signed David Lurch. What you can’t see is the street number…157. That pins the production to after 1866.
The triggerguard and crescent buttplate are brass, once plated with nickel. The action is steel and also nickel-plated. The barrel is made of soft iron and was probably finished blue, though it has now gone to an even brown rust patina.
How I came to get this gun
This story is a wonderful one. As I said at the beginning of this report, I had placed a bid on Gun Broker for a David Lurch gallery airgun. My bid was the high one but didn’t reach the seller’s reserve. Two months later, I got an email from a man who had found my bid and had Googled my name to find out that I write for Pyramyd Air. He had a David Lurch gun and wondered what I could tell him about it. I told him all that I knew over several emails, and then he asked if I was interested in the gun.
I made him an offer after appraising the gun for more money than I offered, because in all honesty, if you find a buyer who is seeking this kind of gun, he is often willing to pay more. But we did pay him a very fair amount, and I asked Edith to turn this into my big Christmas present.
The seller told me how he came into possession of it. His father was a welder who was called to an old armory in New York City many decades ago to do some work. While there, he spotted a pile of guns awaiting destruction. He was given his pick from the pile and selected a very old military muzzleloader, a Trapdoor Springfield and this gun. It didn’t have the crank, of course, but was still a substantial gun.
For the remainder of his life, the father believed this was some kind of firearm, though he could never figure out how it worked. His son, who sold us the gun, believed it was an airgun. Until I gave him the information you’ve read here, he knew nothing about it.
Dennis Quackenbush makes cranks for these guns, and I believe I will have him make one for me. Even though I don’t plan to ever shoot it, it’ll look better with a crank in the hole.