Pre-war airguns

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Like firearms
  • Spring or pneumatic
  • Not powerful
  • Very repairable
  • Deceptive
  • What’s it worth?
  • Modifications? NO!
  • European guns

Today I’m looking at a category of airgun that was produced from the time right after World War I up to the beginning of World War II — let’s call it 1920 to 1940. For people in my age group, this was the time just before we were born, so it doesn’t seem that far removed. But for the majority of airgunners, this is crowding the antique market.

Like firearms

One thing that can be said about most of the airguns made during this period is they resemble firearms in their construction. And I don’t mean the firearms we know today. I’s talking about vintage firearms that are themselves revered objects among collectors.

These airguns were made from steel that was finely polished and blued. They are heavy and rugged and were obviously made for shooters rather than children. They had grip panels of walnut, though there were some with Bakelite panels, as well — just like Colt had been putting on their revolvers since the late 19th century. The rifles were stocked with walnut that was sometimes figured quite nicely. Gun makers didn’t think about things like that because the wood they used was all older growth lumber that often came that way.

Spring or pneumatic

Airguns of this era were either powered by spring-pistons or they were pneumatic. Only the Crosman Corporation was experimenting with CO2 before the war, but that would change dramatically immediately following World War II.

The pneumatics at the time were mostly in the lower cost tier with a couple notable exceptions. Vincent made a 20-gauge air shotgun and Paul made a .410 air shotgun. Both were pneumatics, but the rest of the pneumatic airguns were made by Crosman and Benjamin and are in the lower price ranges. They are made very well by today’s standards, but they certainly don’t qualify to be in today’s report.

Not powerful

By today’s standards, these guns were not powerful. The designers went more for flawless operation and reliability than to try to extract the last possible foot per second. These were days before the chronograph was widely available. People concentrated on hitting the target, rather than staring at a screen to see whether or not they should like their gun. And the materials they used did not lend themselves to high velocity. Leather seals can be very long-lasting, but you’ll not find them in guns with extreme power.

Very repairable

I remember when I owned a BSA Standard underlever that was made sometime around 1910-1914. That’s a little earlier than the era we are looking at today, but BSA continued producing the same gun for the next 20 years or so. When I first got the gun it would not shoot a pellet out the barrel, so I took it apart to see if it could be fixed. The design was very simple and straightforward and gave me no problem getting things apart.

BSA Standard
The BSA Standard model D was a very early spring piston air rifle. BSA revised it many times and made it up to the start of World War II.

The mainspring was under some tension, but not as much as you would find today. I didn’t have to use a mainspring compressor — just unscrew the breech cap after two screws were removed.

The inside of the powerplant was bone-dry. The parts hadn’t been lubricated in decades. The piston was galled (had shiny spots from rubbing against other metal parts without lubrication) in places.

I found the leather piston seal was destroyed, so I made one from an old leather belt. I oiled it heavily before installing the piston back in the rifle. I also greased the mainspring and other parts that touched each other (spring guide and piston rod) before assembly. After that minimal treatment the rifle fired fine, shooting medium-weight .22 caliber pellets in the 525 f.p.s. range.

Reader RidgeRunner bought a similar BSA underlever at an airgun show a few years ago. His rifle was also not working and needed repairs when he got it. I’ll let him tell you what he did in the comments section, but I’m sure he was impressed by how simple and straightforward these guns are.

Deceptive

These prewar airguns are deceptive, in that people are blown away when they first encounter one. Firearms dealers often put outrageous prices on them when they have one to sell, saying things like, “I have never seen anything like this. It must be super-rare.”

No, most of them aren’t. They just don’t travel in the same circles as firearms dealers. You find the same dealers trying to sell a Benjamin model 130 BB pistol that’s been taken down to brass and shined up like a trumpet for $250. They turn a $90 pistol into a $50 pistol by removing the finish with Brasso and they think it’s rare. Imagine their reaction to a Webley Senior that looks as nice as a Colt Official Police revolver! They have never seen anything like it so they naturally price it like the Colt.

Webley Senior
Webley Senior straight grip from the early 1930s is as well-made as any firearm.

What’s it worth?

What are these guns really worth? This is where it comes in handy to own a Blue Book of Airguns, because that will usually give you some idea of what a certain airgun is worth. Let’s look at that Webley pistol. The Blue Book identifies it as a Webley straight grip Senior, Second Pattern. This is the rarer of the straight grip Seniors and they give a range of values from $115 to $575. Using NRA guidelines (which you can because the air pistol is made like a firearm) I would say the example shown here is in 40 percent condition. That would give it a value of $200, according to the Blue Book.

I bought the pistol at a gun show in 1977 for $75, which was all the money it was worth at the time. I would not sell it for $200 today, but that’s because I like it — not because it’s worth more. If I were selling, I think $200 is about right. But notice how a little upward change in condition affects the value. If the gun was in 60 percent condition it would be worth $285. So, there is a great temptation for the seller to inflate the condition.

But it might not be worth that to everybody. The prices in the Blue Book are just there to guide you — they aren’t set in concrete. If a person wants something badly enough they will pay whatever they have to, to get it. Or they may never buy what they want because they refuse to spend money that way. Think of those Blue Book prices as a way to start a conversation.

That’s why it makes no sense to argue about the condition of the gun if you see it in person. The seller might say it is in excellent condition and you may believe it’s just very good. I just bought a Colt revolver that was mis-described like this. The seller said it was “minty” which is a slang term that means very nice. But the bluing is worn off the backstrap! Now, it can’t be both minty and have a worn backstrap. So, I mentally adjusted the condition to NRA Very Good, and even in that condition I thought it was it was undervalued. It works the same way for prewar airguns.

Modifications? NO!

Let’s say you are looking at a BSA Standard model D rifle in excellent condition. It would be worth $500+ if the finish were original, but this one has been reblued. The guy did a wonderful job, so you still have a $250 airgun. But he also drilled and tapped the spring tube for Weaver bases, so it could be scoped. There goes the rest of the value. It is now worth whatever someone will pay for it. No collector will touch it. They will buy the rusty BSA Standard model D next to it that hasn’t been touched, and pay $275 for a gun that doesn’t look half as nice as the scoped gun.

Will anyone buy the scoped gun? Sure! If you wait long enough someone will buy it. I can’t tell you what they will pay for it — that’s between you and them. All I can tell you is if you have a BSA Standard model D that’s in excellent original condition and put a $500 pricetag on it, you won’t have it long. Prewar airguns in excellent original condition sell very well.

What have we learned?

Maybe you were not aware of the status of prewar airguns. If you saw one you would know it is special. Everyone can spot that. Why it’s special, though, might slip past you. You might think it was a special brand or type of airgun, rather than simply one that was made in an era when all airguns looked similar. And, there is one more thing I must tell you.

European guns

The last comment I will make is that most of the good prewar airguns were made in Europe. When you start examining and researching them that fact jumps out. The Europeans had a high regard for airguns before WW II and they tended to build them just like they built their firearms. With a few exceptions American makers were making their airguns cheaper.

So, if you want to find exemplary airguns that are the rivals of firearms, look at European guns made before WW II.

47 thoughts on “Pre-war airguns

  1. The only thing I can say is its in the eye of the beholder.

    There is many reasons that I can think of as to why I would ask a price for a object.

    And also many reasons why I would not sell a object also.

    Also that’s why people are willing to pay for something regardless of what a book says.

    Sometimes that’s a hard thing to put in perspective. And it could change in a blink of a eye.

    If you get a chance to buy that piece you want. I wouldn’t hesitate. Because that person could change their mind ever so quickly. Had that happen before too.

    You got to be on the ball to get the right deal to happen. The more you do it the more you learn.


  2. Excellent report! I love stuff like this although I’ll probably never really be able to participate in the purchase of something like we’re talking about here and firearms of the same time period probably hold a larger share of the market and would be easier to find it’s just not the same, and you never know what you may stumble across although they’d probably be better off in other hands.
    Knowledge has a different type of value and can be one of the best bargaining tools there is but just recognizing something like these old guns for what it is itself is a rush!
    I’m really enjoying this history lesson on airguns and can’t wait for more.
    Thanks again B.B.


    • Reb,

      You would be surprised how little you can pay for some of these old beauties. If I had really wanted it, I could have bought a Diana from the 20s for about $40 at the Hickory show. It wasn’t anywhere near NRA 100%, but the guy was going to let me shoot it before I bought it to insure it functioned.

      I probably paid more for my BSA than I should have, but now I would not think of parting with it for any price.


  3. My BSA is pre-war, pre WWI. Mine was badly gouged, not galled. Yet, because I had real steel to work with, I was able to get it working without much trouble. Now it is my “go to” air rifle. I shoot it more than anything else in my “collection” and would never part with it. It even fits the décor of our log home and hangs on the wall of our great room.


    • My problem is I’m like a bull in a China shop anymore and to be able to do the things I once breezed through takes so much support equipment.
      That means if I tear into something I had better be on my toes. The alternatives are to pay someone else to do the work or pay for something that’s already been restored to working condition, both of these options are depressing with me being a longtime tinkerer.


  4. Unlike most of what is built today, the airguns of this period were built to last. When you bought one of these, they were very expensive. You need to remember that the entire world was in the midst of the Great Depression. When you bought one of these, it would likely be the only one you owned.

    The BSA that I own and the others that BB is talking about were competition air rifles. Buying one of these at the time was like buying the top of the line Anschutz or FWB 10 meter air rifle today. Usually a bunch of guys would get together and form a shooting club or team, pool their money and buy one air rifle. They would take turns shooting the same air rifle in competitions.


  5. B.B. and RidgeRunner,

    I admire the simplicity and quality of materials of these old airguns, but how accurate are most of them? Obviously modern pellets don’t hurt in that department. How accurate is the BSA? I ask because the Webley is fun to hold and shoot, but many are only so-so when it comes to accuracy.

    Michael


  6. I’m a sucker for old school airguns. Well made with wood and metal.

    It’s easy for me to be passionate about vintage airguns and the Pre-war airguns certainly fall into this catagory.

    Never bought an airgun as an “investment”. Never bought an airgun to hang on a wall. I shoot them. It seems the value for these old girls is slipping. Can’t help but wonder if the pinnacle of interest in these airguns is in our rear view mirror. From my perspective, most of the potential buyers for these vintage airguns are older, have amassed their collections and are thinking about divesting instead of acquiring or they were very active collectors and have already passed.

    There don’t seem to be many younger airgunners interested in these types of airguns. They dream of owning the latest multi-shot or full auto pcp and don’t have the least bit of interest in a classic 9 ft lb airgun that can hit the target every time.

    kevin


  7. BB,

    What a timely report. I recently bought a Haenel Model 1 rifle and a 28R (repeater) pistol. Both are very well made. The 28R is just like you said – solid steel parts that were carefully polished and blued. It is every bit as well-constructed as my PPK.

    I also have a couple of the old Hubertus push-barrel pistols. These too are made of nice, stolid steel parts. Even the grip/frame fit is snug after 80 years. I would hate to think of what the production costs would be today.

    Once they are working they are a real pleasure to shoot. I am sure they will be around long after I am gone.

    Paul in Liberty County


  8. If they weren’t fast, were they accurate? It sounds like at least the European guns might have been with their workmanship. It would be interesting to know how WWII affected airguns as it affected everything else. With typewriter companies recruited to manufacture firearms, I would guess that airgun manufacture came to a crashing halt. And once it resumed after the war, I would expect that mass production techniques displaced the old standards of workmanship to produce cheaper guns although new technologies were also possible like CO2.

    Matt61


  9. I love these old guns aesthetics, they remind me of A Christmas Story, everything about being a kid and experiencing bb/pellet guns for the first times is a magical atmosphere. Hopefully younger airgunners can appreciate that for the sake of a more complete and fulfilling airgunning journey. Like my friend that just got the highest number fps and made the loudest bang he could, its a shame when people dont pursue well rounded experience and knowledge of a given subject. I like velocity, but relative to energy for the interest of hunting ballistics, but otherwise, im just anal about knowing the details of things, like if a pellet didnt tell you the weight it would make me crazy! If it werent for the urge of knowing I wouldn’t care what the fps were, If it hits the target and does the job.
    On that note, I got my refurb g6 today! A day early then stated, as usual, and the pump works perfect. At 2000 psi I thought the gauge was stuck or broken, lol, and at 2700 I thought a rib was gonna follow, but neither were broken, and I have a fully functioning mrod and pump that puts jsb 10s in the same hole for as far as I have shot and a quick test of the eunjin16s has them to the same poa and are indicating they’ll be just as accurate. They might drop a bit more further out is all. Before pumping it up a sparrow went down with a jsb at 1600 psi not showing any loss of power/poi. My chrony is a pain, but gonna try and get it happy, if not im not wasting pellets fighting with it and will be leaving the settings as is. The refurb slip with the pump said “user manual trouble” which im guessing means it was returned because it couldn’t be figured out and assembled. I highly recommended if planning to get a pump you jump on the refurb g6 and there’s 10% AND free shipping happening so cant beat that. Thanks to everybody that’s been here for my own journey, Tom, regulars, invisibles, im glad to be here and happy to be learning and evolving with you and impossible without you. Have a great day everyone!


    • Glad you got your pump and 2000 psi is a good place for my 140# self to stop but the HIPac suggested testing @ 2500 and it shot just fine as I recall.
      My 2400 is still basically stock with a HiPac in place of the Co2 cartridge. No spring or seals have been swapped. It’s also time to refill it and I think I’ll test my theory, it’ll probably take about an hour for me to get to 2500 without over exerting myself and it’ll be getting colder and dark by then so I’ll have to test it some other time but that’s what I’m filling it to this time.


      • 2250 and it’s break time, this time my gauge started moving at about 500 so the cold probably has a lot to do with that and I’d be nuts to go all the way to 2500 but we’ll see what happens.


        • The more I think about it the bigger the mess could be, my valve isn’t staked and I don’t wanna catch it in my face tearing it down to strike the valve by hand if it does valve lock.
          Calling it quits for this session.


    • RifledDNA22,

      Have you tried BB’s recomendation of a 500W Halogen shined at a white ceiling? It works. White poster board in the case of basement rafters. No sunscreens. No flourescents in the room at all.

      Still,….mine will miss a reading on the first or second skyscreen on occassion.


      • No, hadnt read that, sounds smart, gonna search the blog about it. Right now I’ve got the screens short with one leg each cause at one point that worked ok, now it not at all. I’ll have to find a good light, its all fluorescents in my house.


        • RifledDNA22,

          Sounds like you are the right track. My 500W was 13$ at Lowes. Normal price. I can’t see doing the outdoor bit,…too many variables. When set up, muzzle is about 18″ from first screen and the target/stop is about 1′ past the second screen. Also, keep the shot level and centered side to side over the screens. I use about 1 1/2″~2″ above. Gun is full rested in a homemade rest supported front and rear.

          Just make sure you got a stop that WILL stop a pellet at that close range. 😉

          When I first got mine, I tried several things. I was ready to SHOOT the CHRONY. The 500W worked the best. Thanks BB!


          • Lol, whole new meaning to ;shooting chrony” 🙂 u know what you mean, I wasted too many jsb 15s trying to test the impact when I got it, if it didnt give me one reading in the first 5 shots I wouldn’t have shot 15 more trying to get another! I definitely need to take the time to set up correct lighting, apparently what seems like good lighting with fluorescents is useless for chronying, I’ve proven that is a fact, I’ve had every intensity of light, distance, angle and never got consistent readings, but, it was all with fluorescents. Im sure I’ve read before that flouros weren’t good but I guess I hadnt understood the seriousness till now. See! Learning happens! Simple little things you dont realize arent tips but all or nothing rules.


            • 🙂 Good,….we expect to hear the chrony results from all the guns in your collection now that you will have a working chrony,…(hopefully)…. 😉 Best of luck on getting ‘er up and running.


        • RifledDNA22,

          In case you are wondering,….the flourescents “pulse” their light,….not that you can see it,…but they do. The chrony can apparently see this as well and will play havoc with them.



            • RifledDNA22,

              Fianl tip,…..watch the scoped rifles. You think you are over the chrony,..when in fact you are pointed directly at it. Use a full rest, lay a straight edge over the barrel to insure alignment,…and shoot. No sighting through the scope what so ever. Never did it, (shot the chrony), just heard about it. Hence the method I use.


              • Another tip( the only time I ever hit mine)
                Beware of Co2 & PCP guns falling off their curves! Fortunately I bought an alpha master with remote readout but the Monsters I was shooting were running around 480 when one came back at me after hitting the front plate dead center.


        • That’s the same problem i’m having, all the bulbs in my apartment are fluorescent.
          I used to set it out on the patio when weather was cooperating but that’ll be a while now and I need to do some testing.
          I looked in the storage building and it’s packed solid, about the only thing I can get to is the toolbox so I guess I’ll have to buy another work light.


          • Reb,

            Follow the advice I gave above and you will more than likely be ok. Incadescents work as well, but try finding those any more. Just make sure your “work light” is not a flourescent.

            Did I mention?,……Thanks BB. ( All the “cred” is yours.)


            • My work light has 2-250w lamps, I used it to extend my range time at the old place. It lit up y pellet trap very well all the way to 40 yards and was blinding at 10m but I don’t even know if I still have it so I’ll probably get something that puts out less heat for the carpet here because it was huge and would get my garden fence hot enough to blister skin if set a few feet away.


            • Read below to reb, 100% readings with a little reconfiguring. I turned up the rodder to throw the new eunjin 16s at 850 which also sends the jsb 10.3s at 1000. Gotta test the springers now I can finally get numbers out of it.


              • RifledDNA22,

                Awesome! Sounds like you did a shorter setup. The weaker lights, closer to the lid, copied what the 500W at the ceiling does. If you get the 500W, you should be able to do away with any skyscreen tops.

                I use bamboo bbq squewers for guides on the inner set of holes. The outer ones hold the rods that hold the diffuser plates. Also, I just remembered,…..the wood rods will take a hit and break. The steel rods, if hit, can transfer enough force back to the plastic bases and break the “eye” housings. I got the red Chrony with the remote read-out.


          • I put the chrony on a box, put to desk lamps with old regular filament bulbs on the floor pointing up at a large white tupperware tub lid I laid on the diffuser legs sans diffusers… perfect. Reading every time.


  10. Reading this after playing with my mid-late 1940s Webley Mark1 pistol, which is as good as the pre-war ones.

    The quality stayed around in the UK and Germany after the war. 1940s-60s Webleys, BSAs, Dianas, Weihrauchs, BSFs, Anschutzes, Falkes etc are just as well made as the pre-war guns. Standards started slipping from the mid/late 60s, with the Brits going before the Germans (plastic, painted finishes, alloys).


  11. Performed the surgery on my Daisy point sight and it’s doing well enough to put the first 3 pellets outta my 2240 through the same hole, I had to take a peek at that point then finished the set of 5 I had planned.
    Only one didn’t go through that hole it landed about 3/8″ low.
    I hereby declare this one to be accurate enough for me and could easily claim fault for the one that got away but after dryfiring it 5 times last night to check that the grips were gonna stay put I actually think it ran outta liquid Co2 on the fourth or fifth shot. Bottom line is rested on my armchair @10yds the group can be covered by a nickel with POI touching the bottom of the red bullseye on the 6″ shoot n see target.
    Not only is the gun accurate but I salvaged my point sight, fixed the grips and it’s dialed in!
    Woohoo!
    Not bad for a $60 pistol!



    • Reb,

      Had to laugh at your “had to take a peek and see”,….as I am sure you have read,….I have had several of those 3 shot (TRUE) one holers,…at 25 and 30 yds. Flat out jaw dropping would be closer to the truth!!! I thought the gun went crazy and I was missing the target all together…..I ain’t that good,….but I am for sure,…not that bad.

      🙂 , Chris


      • I Was in true disbelief, I had not tested it’s accuracy since removing the original plastic breech and sights and had to pull the dot sight off to adjust spring tension on the battery.
        Then I just put it back on and those were the first 3 shots so I guess I did have it dialed in pretty good.
        I’ve had this sight on every gun I had with a dovetail and it’s been a good one other than the dot covering POA. Think I’ll renig on retiring it and just leave it put until I get something with a circle or square reticle, don’t wanna throw chicken-voodoo on my Mojo.
        🙂


      • For a pistol with a 7″ barrel it was nothing short of phenomenal in my shaking hand, especially considering I had to guess at the aimpoint due to the dot and it was a true one holer, no ragged to it.
        Actually looks like one pellet made the hole!
        I’ll text it to Gunfun tomorrow, maybe he can forward it to you.
        I don’t want you posting your number here but if he’s got it and it’s okay with you can I get it from him?


  12. The turn of the century BSA’s in particular can be remarkably accurate, with the proviso of an unworn barrel and, sonewhat more awkwardly in 22, the correct size pellets. An older chap at my club had a pre war BSA underlever that happily chrono’d at 11 ft/lbs and could cloverleaf his pellets at 25 yards on open sights, leaving one to wonder what spring piston advances had, realistically happened in the intervening century.
    I never got on very well with Webley accuracy, their finish was nice but I had a series of Vulcans, Ospreys, Trackers and Hawks during the 70’s and 80’s, I was never that enamoured with the trigger or overall firing behaviour and accuracy


  13. Competition Electronics in Rockford, IL makes an infrared light kit that mounts on top of their chrony. Works well and ambient lighting doesn’t matter. Also if you shot the chrony they’ll fix it for 50%.



  14. LED Lamps work for chronies as well. Some of them are on flexible strips that can be attached to the sun screens. Easier is to get a spare (or make) set of sun screens and attach to that.
    Use white LED’s of course.

    Silver Eagle


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