Charles F. LeFever — BB gun genius
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
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.
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!
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.
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 them 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.
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 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 an 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.