Charles F. LeFever — BB gun genius

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • In the beginning
  • Moses goes to the mountain
  • Historic trivia
  • Pump gun a big deal
  • Cast iron versus folded metal
  • Water pistol
  • Number 40 Military model
  • No protoptypes for Fred!
  • He quit — 19 different times!

In the beginning

I mentioned Charles F. “Fred” LeFever in an answer to a comment the other day and it dawned on me that this is a man I really should address in this history segment. Fred, as he was known, wrote a letter to Daisy in 1911, telling them about a pump-action BB gun he had just invented that he thought they should see. They were very busy when the letter arrived and answered him curtly, saying that if Daisy was interested they would contact Mr. LeFever sometime in the future about seeing the gun. You have to appreciate that they got letters and cold calls like this all the time and were hardened to the reality that most of those contacts were bogus.

LeFever contacted them again and told them they weren’t the only BB gun manufacturer in the country and they had better act promptly or he would go somewhere else. What probably caught the attention of Daisy management was the fact that Mr. LeFever was the grandson of the founder of the LeFever Arms Company — a prestigious maker of fine shotguns.

Moses goes to the mountain

So the president of Daisy, E.C. Hough, traveled to St. Louis to see the BB gun Mr. LeFever talked about. He liked it enough to invite LeFever back to Michigan and Daisy bought the design. LeFever stayed on to help them get the gun into production, which they did in 1913 and the Daisy number 25 was born.

Winchester’s model 12 pump shotgun had just hit the market and was the talk of the town. It looked so sleek and modern. And now Daisy would have its own sleek pump gun for the sons of model 12 owners.

Daisy Number 25
Four early Daisy number 25 pump guns. Top, first model from 1913/14. This is the only one that has the old soldered-patch pump tube. Second down, second model from 1916 that has the new welded pump tube. Third down, third model with longer pump lever and smaller head on takedown screw. Bottom, 1930? model with case-hardened pump mechanism.

The first pump gun was produced in late 1913 and was promoted by the Happy Daisy Boy, Rockford Reame. Reame’s son came forth several years ago, giving Daisy numerous promotional photos of his father that had not been seen since the early part of the 20th century. I spoke to him in a telephone interview, and — get this — he lives less than 25 miles from Pyramyd Air!

Happy Daisy boy
Daisy’s Happy Daisy Boy, Rockford Reame, promotes the Number 25 pump gun for the 1914 retail season.

Historic trivia

For those who want to be in the know, that picture wasn’t taken with a Number 25 in the boy’s hands. He was originally photographed holding a more conventional Daisy Model B, and the photographer put the pump gun into his hands. It’s hard to see the work on the low resolution image here, but I have the high resolution image that shows the touchup work on his hands.

Happy Daisy Boy original
This is the original picture that was retouched to make the ad shown above. Notice they fixed his fly at the same time.

Pump gun a big deal

Daisy was reasonably pleased with the gun they got from LeFever. So much so that they hired him as a permanent employee and he reported only to the president. His shop was closed to most management and employees and he set his own hours. Who says enlightened management is a new invention? Daisy knew they had the golden goose in LeFever and they bent over backwards to keep him happy. He retired in 1953, which means he was there for 41 years. And the Number 25 pump gun was their most popular model ever, according to the Blue Book of Airguns. More that 20 million of themย were made. Whether that remains true today, I don’t know, because an awful lot of Red Ryders are sold every year. Of course the Number 25 is also still being made.

Cast iron versus folded metal

The pump gun was his masterpiece and entree into a successful 4-decade career with Daisy, but Fred was not a one-trick pony. He was, as I said to one blog reader, the John Moses Browning of the BB gun world. And he came along at the start of the folded metal era.

Until the early 20th century, BB guns were made with cast iron frames. In fact, with no small irony, the Daisy 20th Century gun exists in both cast iron and folded metal variations — as it spanned the two eras. Folded metal, or sheet metal as it is also called, was a new innovation that simplified production and lowered costs. It was just as strong as cast iron and in some cases stronger, though it was both lighter and less costly to produce. I am sure the word among little boys of the time was that they missed the passing of the old cast iron guns, just as we rail against plastic pistols and metal injection molded parts today.

But folded metal guns were faster and easier to prototype because no heavy casting was required. A man like LeFever could work quietly in his shop with a press break and a vise and fashion almost anything from sheet steel stock.

Water pistol

The same year Daisy was laboring to ready the production line for the Number 25 LeFever showed Hough another new idea of his. It looked like a .32 automatic pistol, but when Hough pulled the trigger as instructed, a stream of water shot across the room and the Daisy Model 8 water pistol was born.

Daisy number 25 water pistol
An all-metal water pistol seems strange today, but when they were introduced in 1914 they were well-received.

Daisy didn’t stop at just one model of water pistol. When they saw how well-received the Model 8 was, they quickly produced other variations of it — including a brightly lithographed comic book variation that shot liquid helium (and water!) to instantly freeze your adversary.

A sheet metal squirt gun may seem strange to all of us who grew up with plastic guns, and the truth be told, plastic has many advantages over folded metal. It doesn’t rust and it costs far less to produce, once the initial high cost of the molds are paid for. But in 1914 when the Model 8 came out, the only squirt guns that existed were cast iron guns that had rubber squeeze bulbs in their grips. They worked well, but the way they operated wasn’t realistic. The Daisy Model 8 was a huge leap forward in realism, and started several decades of sales of multiple folded metal water gun models. World War II and the rise of injection molded plastics spelled the end to a long and successful commercial run.

Number 40 Military model

Another of Fred’s early coups was the famous No. 40 military model that came out during World War I. At the time BB guns were selling for $1 to $3, with the Number 25 commanding the highest price. But Daisy management thought the No. 40, “Looked like it was worth $5,” so that was the price they slapped on it. Imagine a Benjamin Marauder priced at $900 instead of $500, with no change except a different stock! Yet the No. 40 was well-received, at least by customers affluent enough to afford one. It lasted until 1932 when the general tide of commerce in the Great Depression killed anything that wasn’t already slashed to the bone.

No prototypes for Fred!

LeFever had another trait he shared with Browning. He could see his guns and build them without resorting to engineering drawings or specifications. He just bent the metal parts and assembled them. Of course drawings and specifications had to be created before the guns could be produced, but Fred let others do that work.

He quit — 19 different times!

Fred was an irascible cuss. He kept to himself and didn’t think much of senior management. If you weren’t a BB gun guy, you didn’t stand very high in his estimation. A year after he started work he padlocked the door to his shop to keep out the riffraff. Only Fred and the president had a key to get in. later in his career he softened a bit and was friendly with the employees who had been with the company a long time, but he didn’t suffer fools.

And he quit the firm 19 times over the course of his employment. According the Louis Cass Hough, the grandson of the founder and also a president of the company, LeFever always quit over questions of quality. Remember the blog on the difficulties of production? It turns out Fred could bend metal by hand very fast to create whatever he wanted to make, but it took Daisy’s production engineers far longer to fashion the jigs and fixtures needed to create the same parts on a mass production basis. Just as anย example, they labored a year making the tooling to produce the Number 25.

Fred LeFever was an influential gun designer at Daisy. Point to almost any BB gun made between 1912 and 1953 and his hand was upon it. I’m not talking about the reskinnings, renamings and experiments with different colors on guns — those were all driven by marketing. I’m referring to the genuine different models of BB guns that Daisy produced.

Fred retired voluntarily when he eyesight degraded to the point he could no longer keep up. He passed away in March of 1961, leaving a legacy of work that is still with us today.

87 thoughts on “Charles F. LeFever — BB gun genius





  1. B.B.,

    A great report. I especially enjoyed reading this one because my as a child my grandfather was given a brand new Model 8 water pistol (sadly, lost during a move) and a brand new Model 25, which I still have, and although I believe the mainspring has broken, it is in otherwise original and quite good condition. It is either a first version or second version. I’ll have to take a look and get back about it.

    Michael


    • Michael,

      The first version has a patch soldered to the bottom of the outer spring tube. That was how guns were sealed until around 1915, when Daisy learned how to weld tinplate.

      Also the first version has an adjustable front sight element that slides sideways. I believe the second variation had that, as well.

      B.B.


  2. I had a Model 25 that belonged to my Grandfather. When he gave it to me it needed a reseal, I think. Also, part of the internal cocking bar (don’t know the correct term) was broken. I could get it to cock and fire but it wouldn’t shoot a BB. For some reason, it never occurred to me to pester my Dad to send it in for a repair! It disappeared in one of our moves so I don’t know what became of it. It was an old one. Blued (at one time) and with a wooden stock.

    Mike


  3. Reading an old field and stream, 1992, I see a daisy ad with the 188 for sale at 15$, I was 6! So those are the guns I just missed as a child, sad right? Luckily the new revolution of airgun engineering makes up for that. All things move in waves.


    • The 760s and 880s had been around for awhile and I occasioned them and marksman pistols, but nothing in my area started me rolling. I finally started picking up 760s and the like and soon after the box store springer was born, besides reading along and experiencing the” better” boxstore models, im technically still 10 years behind.




        • Yeah, I always say I’m from the mountain dew and beef jerky generation, guess thats why I have so much heartburn now that im about to be 30! Besides having the cartilage out of my knee couple years ago I’ve never broken a single bone. Tip of the toe when you kick the bed on accident doesnt count. Gut problems, brain damage, otherwise im pretty solid lol. Just waiting for every branch of my family’s having cancer to convene apon me…


          • Don’t ignore the GI problems, I had a buddy that had his esophagus replaced with pig guts and still died within 10 years.
            I’m supposed to get checked out if my doctor would just start listening.
            If it doesn’t happen soon he’ll be looking for another patient to fill the slot.


            • Yeah, I think they let organ donors think they’re A-ok no matter what, if you know what I mean. Pig guts?? Thats actually pretty gross lol. I know their close anatomically but didnt know any parts requiring blood flow would survive, like cartilage or little heart valve pieces maybe but the esophagus? Woah. Sounds like a good anti smoking story!


  4. BB,

    Thank you for yet another very interesting and informative post in the “History of Airguns” series. So much truly cool information, and the newly discovered memories this series brings out.
    My very first projectile-shooting airgun was a “Spitting Image 1894” my bought new for $12.95 at a dept. store in 1968. That thing was accurate to the point that I could regularly cut small plastic coffee-stirrers in half at right about 25 ft…. (regularly being 7out of every 10 attempts usually). Not bad for a 10 yr. old kid being raised in Baltimore.
    Before that, the closest I was allowed was a so-called “pop-gun” that looked amazingly like a Daisy Model B. When shot, it produced a fairly strong puff of air and a “POP” noise…hence the term “pop-gun”.
    I had nearly forgotten the hours of fun that the 1894 provided, and HAD TOTALLY forgotten the countless “battles” and “safaris” I had with that pop-gun.
    Sadly, like so many of us, both of those guns were lost over the years. Oh how I would love to still have both of those today. But alas…
    Thank you for reviving all the memories associated with them that this history series calls to mind, as well as for the ‘new’ information that you give us readers about the history of our chosen hobby/sport.

    Denny.




      • BB,

        I have now ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you for the link. Mine was the standard model, but thinking logically now, I believe that all of the models were very likely identical under the skin up through 1986. Either way, I know that in my then 10-year-old mind it was the best gun of any kind that had ever been made. ( I have NO doubt that we ALL probably felt that way about our first ‘real’ airgun, WHATEVER make/model/type it was).
        Those were indeed magical and wondrous days. ๐Ÿ™‚
        Thanks again for the reminder that though those days may be long-gone, they are still tucked away in our minds to be re-enjoyed any time we like.
        Denny.


        • Denny,

          My first was an 1894 as well. Spittin Image. I would love to see a re-release of that one. Imagine one of those with the accuracy of a 499? Yeah,….upgrade it it ! Even as was,…I would order one in a minute.

          Mine is long gone,….I think I wore it out. Chris


          • Absolutely I’d love to the 1894 re-released and definitely with a 499 barrel, that’d be a great gun even if it still had the plastic ‘wood’ that Daisy loves so much…yes, I’d buy that without even a second thought!!!
            It would STILL come out several hundred dollars less than the Umarex version. (They ARE nice, but I just cannot justify almost 400 bucks for what it is).
            Daisy could do, keep it still affordable for the budget-minded, and I truly do believe it would sell enough or more to justify the cost to them. ๐Ÿ™‚

            Denny.



            • Denny,

              It is not like they would have to design it from the ground-up. I would think that all the molds, dies, stamps and drawings still exist. For me, the octagon barrel and brass colored reciever and front band are the most important, though I believe there were many variations.

              Oh well,….hopefully live long enough to see it and before I get old enough that I am not allowed to have any sharp objects and have to have someone open the box for me. ๐Ÿ˜‰

              Then again, if I get that old and in that bad of shape,…I will only be to look at and drool over it which I would probably be doing already anyway (drooling). Man,….I hope I never get that bad.


  5. I would of like to met Fred.

    I just wonder how many designs he had running through his mind that never got produced.

    Or the ones he secretly produced in the locked room that nobody ever got to see.



      • BB
        That’s way cool. I can only imagine what kind of prototypes are devolved and we never get to hear about them or see them.

        I don’t want to go off subject here but that was the stuff I always was excited to find out about back in the muscle car days. Things were being developed behind close doors to secretly have the majic combination to beat the guy that’s been kicking everybody’s butt with their car.

        That was called skunk works. I would love to have a job doing something like that with air guns. It be like a free ticket to be able to try out ideas and get paid doing it even.

        Look at the air guns we have today. They had to be thought of and tryed out some kind of way before we ever got to see them. How about those Bengamin Discoveries. I wonder how they got thought of and developed. ๐Ÿ˜‰



    • Reb
      I never had one as a kid. For some reason my air guns as a kid where always pump guns. The Crosman and Daisy’s.

      Until one day I remember getting my .22 caliber Benjamin pump. That gun seemed like a monster compared to the others. Me and my buddies would go out shooting or air guns and it would knock the heck out of everything it hit. So we ended up rotating each others guns because they wanted to shoot it all the time. It’s like I got a new hot rod car or something. Everybody wanted to try it. Had some fun times with that gun.

      And as it goes my brother got it when I got my Winchester 190 semi-auto rimfire rifle then he shot the heck out of it and traded it for a bike or something. That was one that I wish I would of kept. But still got my trusty Winchester though.


      • Hold on to that Winchester,
        I’m still holding on to my Remington 550 and keeping an eye out for a donor gun for it.the gluing is 95 percent gone and it’s probably not worth much on the market but it’s a good one.


        • Reb my Winchester is actually in good shape for the abuse I put it through as a kid. Got that back in 71 when I was 10 years old.

          I had that gun out in all kinds of weather. But that was something my dad made me do was wipe it down and clean it when the day was done if I wanted to keep it. And you know I wanted to keep it. Learned to follow that little rule real quick.


          • My Remington was rough when I got it with putting all down the barrel and what does an uninformed tinkerer use to remove rust? WD-40 of course!
            I got it looking pretty good for a $50 gun after I found out how well it shot but then got the job offer in Austin and couldn’t take it with me so left it in my brother’s care… When I got my own place to store it the springs and firing pin had disappeared along wit enough parts to triple it’s original cost to return to operational condition
            ;(



  6. B.B.,

    Fine article. Not really sure why, other than just the way you told the story of “Fred” and his time at Daisy. The locked room, Pres. access only, inventions, etc. You “painted” a pretty good picture. I enjoyed it. Chris


  7. I love my Remington 550-1!
    It’s got a floating chamber that allows for shooting shorts, longs or long rifle.
    I can basically shoot anything except magnum outta it and it’ll hold about 25 shorts without modification and the only time it ever jammed was when I was trying to find out if it could by bouncing my finger inside the trigger guard.
    In other news, I received a notice today that I’m due for another back pay installment on the 2nd and checked my balance to find I just got my October payment of $733 so I’ll be getting all my guns outta hock come Monday.
    ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Reb
      Glad your getting your guns back. Believe it or not I have been where your at in a different way.

      All I can say is it ain’t no fun when you get sick and you wonder if they will get you fixed up. And then the worry of what will happen with your kids.

      My parents always said I better enjoy life while I can. They were right again.



  8. Wonderful article.. Another parallel between Fred and John Browning is his designs LOOKED good.
    When we finally leave this world, wouldn’t it be nice to have as an epitaph, like Fred, “He made millions of kids happy!”


    • You sure got that right.

      Wonder if he thought about how he made them happy.

      I wonder how many people have jobs and they can say they do the same for kids and adults at that.

      And how many people now days could quit their jobs that many times. A good reason for quiting I will say that though. “quality”

      I don’t talk about it much but quit where I work 3 times over the past 30 something years. And believe it or not it was about quality and people not being faithful to what they said.

      It really don’t take much to be a trust worthy person. The problem is finding them.




      • I was thinking that’s”about” what they “looked” like, I lost 2 folding metal ones in the move and wouldn’t mind having a good work bench for teardowns.
        4′-6′ are all around $30.
        After having all those guns stacked up in there I’m sure can make it fit in the trunk.
        Thanks again! I’ll pick one up soon.


  9. Well, got all my guns back as well as my splitting mawl and picked up1 tin of Winchester roundnose, the image on the package is very misleading and I didn’t want the hollowpoints or I’d have bought them out again. At least now I think they’ll keep stocking them and they have a good selection of high-end gunsafes I will be looking closer at ad well as 3% moly paste.


  10. Also spotted a 10ga sxs double for about $300 today, it looks like a goose gun. The wood has seen better days for sure but the barrels are in good shape.
    It’s definitely a heavy gun with all that steel way out there. The guy at the counter said it was probably a European gun and about half the stamping didn’t take so no telling what it is but I’m gonna remember to take my readers next time to see if I can make anything out.
    Any advice on this deal?


  11. Hi folks,

    I have discovered something that might be interesting to people who shoot an HW45 / P1.

    A while ago, I’ve mounted a Simmons 30mm red dot sight. I bought it because it has a combined 11mm and 22mm mounting system so I figured it might work on the HW45’s weird 13mm rail. It did, but you might need a stopping block or stronger screws.

    Watching the sight is now much easier to me so I can use more of my brain cells to concentrate on my hold ๐Ÿ™‚

    Another thing I have discovered is that my HW45 *really* like SWS Thunder pellets. They are very similar to H&N Sport but cheaper (they may or may not be identical). The slightly heavier weight seems to tame the gun and apparently they work well in the barrel, too. I guess the actual H&N Sport should be as good or a little better – their specs are the same.

    With this combination, I can often manage to fire 10 shots and put all of them inside the 7 ring of an official 17x17cm air pistol target. Yes, I know it’s nothing to write home about, but believe me when I say that it’s a big deal for a novice like me with a “difficult” pistol like the HW45.

    I rarely shoot my Umarex Hรคmmerli S26 anymore. It doesn’t recoil, but somehow it’s harder to shoot accurately. One reason for this is probably the excellent trigger of the HW45.

    (BTW, I shoot at full power with a one-handed stance, which now works best for me).

    Stephan


  12. Oh by the way, I’ve just ordered a mainspring for the Diana 280. It should have the same system as my 34, but less power (about 16 joules).

    I also gave explicit instructions to make sure the spring doesn’t get bent. So I’ll have to see how that goes…

    Maybe this will hit some kind of sweet spot of acceptable noise, vibration and power (for plinking ๐Ÿ™‚

    If not, there are still the full tuning kits…


  13. I am glad to have my Regal back, I knew it liked the Winchester round noses but I just put some Swiss arms pointed through it and it’s still on the money. I bought them to see what they were hoping for something new but after running some through my other guns I came to believe they’re just rebranded Daisy’s. I like the plastic threaded tin so I was hoping to find something that would tolerate them.


    • I looked at those, made in Serbia. I think they are independently made from a small manufacturer, swiss arms are made by chinese airsoft company I believe so they may have enlisted a known maker, who knows, how’d they look? Any measurements on weight?


      • They do say “made in Serbia but no weight listed, the Swiss Arms guns look like reskinned 880’s kinda like the APX. that’s why I figured they’re just rebranded Daisy pointed except that’s what they look like too.


      • So far the Regal is the only one that’s liked them well enough to keep shooting them, I may test them through it tomorrow. I tried them in the only 880 I have going but they were’nt feeding well.



        • I figured out what air gun I need, an escape UL or TalonP. The talonp put out the same as an mrod and the gun and a pump is the same price as the rodder alone, and will fit in a backpack which is how I like to go out in the woods. An escapeUL puts a little more smack done but if the mrod can put down a bobcat at 50yds and talonp is essentially the same power then thats all I need. Talonp, talonp, talonp… doin a little rain dance. ๐Ÿ™‚


          • I remember considering a P-rod instead of the 2400KT I converted and I still need a repeating breech to get there.
            Got about $250 in it and still going but I got the pump outta the way and it’s awesome as a .22 single shot. But the shrouded .25 repeater kit runs another $150.


            • The UL and pump are going to come to about 700, I have no clue how im going to accomplish this, but it needs to be done. I think I deserve it, if you only knew. I will make it happen, before Christmas.


              • That’s why I went the route I did so I could have something to shoot as I saved for it.
                The 2400 was a little over $100 with muzzle brake and trigger shoe, $150 later was the HIpac and GF1 cut me a deal on a used pump.


                • Thats a good deal, I need to find a pump on the cheap, thatll help make things a little more possible. I would look for a used UL but dont trust classifieds very much, rather order from pyramyd and know things are in order.


            • Thats cool, you only live once. Sounds like the p-rod had everything you needed though. They seem like target shooters more then dedicated hunting guns, even with the camo version they still look benchrest, maybe just me, but definitely look nice. That’s probably why, they look too nice to kick around.


              • Once I put the HIpac on it it was no longer a pistol but I got an extension too but I think it’s gonna save me a little weight in the long run and I got the option of any caliber up to .30.


                • Wow, imagine a 30 on that, might need some valve tinkering! The single shot is fine with me, im so used to springers that it wont bother me, I can reload perty quick, but im sure if I got a magazine I would want to have one all the time. The only thing that matters is putting sufficient power exactly where I tell it at respectable distances, these northern furred squirrels are tough as rawhide, heads too small for long shots with the usual suspects- 30 yds go by quick. I want to do better shooting all around for hunting, I need it for my sanity!


          • I want the escapeUL, that settles it. UL UL UL, talonp is cheaper but when its already up there your better off just getting what you want. Now just need to figure out how…. :/



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