by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Johnson Indoor Target Gun
Johnson Indoor Target Gun was an impractical post-war BB gun.

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Sometimes you just can’t win!
  • Johnson gets shafted
  • The first time
  • After the war
  • Enter the Johnson Indoor Target Gun
  • Repeater
  • It uses surgical tubing
  • Weird cocking!
  • How much power?
  • The cost
  • Do you want one?

Sometimes you just can’t win!

Melvin Johnson was a gun designer of note who left a lasting impression on the world of firearms. Today’s M16/AR15 and all of its variants owe their existence to his marketing attempts with the United States Army. He did not design the gun — that credit belongs to Eugene Stoner. Johnson was the man who convinced the Army that a .22 caliber bullet flying at high velocity was better than a .30 caliber bullet in many ways. It was smaller, lighter, cheaper to make, flew faster and, under certain circumstances, was just as lethal as the larger projectile.

Johnson gets shafted

Johnson demonstrated his invention to the Army in the early 1950s. He called it the 5.7mm MMJ (Melvin M. Johnson — what else?). But later, when the cartridge became a semi-commercial product, it was given the name 5.7mm Johnson Spitfire. Johnson took a .30 caliber M1 Carbine cartridge case and necked it down to accept a .22 caliber bullet. This he fired in an M1 Carbine that had been rebarreled to the caliber. Though the case is small, it was capable of accelerating a lightweight .22 bullet up to around 3000 f.p.s., where it was quite lethal on human-sized animals.

Spitfire and 30 Carbine cartridges
Johnson necked the .30 Carbine cartridge (left) down to .22 to create the 5.7mm MMJ.

The Army listened to what Col. Johnson had to say, then disregarded him entirely and set off on a campaign of their own to create a .22 caliber battle cartridge. They asked Remington to increase the powder capacity of their .222 caliber centerfire round to get higher velocity, which they did, calling it the .222 Remington Magnum. The Army rejected that cartridge, too, because its overall length was slightly too long to function in the new action that Stoner had developed. So they specified a slightly shorter cartridge that was called the 5.56mm. Remington was given the right to develop a commercial version of the round that they designated the .223 Remington, and the rest is history.

The first time

This wasn’t the first time Col. Johnson, a Marine Corps reservist, had suffered discouragement at the hands of the Army. In World War II he developed the Johnson Automatic Rifle — a semiautomatic rifle chambered for the M1 round we now call the 30-06. The Garand was the official military rifle at the time, but it was undergoing early development problems and wasn’t being produced fast enough to arm the troops going into battle, so Johnson’s rifle was procured in limited quantities as a stopgap measure. Marines that used them praised the Johnson rifles, even though they weren’t very successful with a bayonet (the barrel moved backwards when pressed from the front) that was considered essential in the Pacific Theater where they were used.

After the war

Melvin Johnson knew what it was like to have a good product that he couldn’t sell. After the war ended he continued to manufacture his automatic rifle, making slight changes and calling it a sporter, to appeal to the civilian market. One of its best features was the ability to make rapid barrel changes, which meant calibers could be switched in seconds — as long as the new cartridge was close to the same length and diameter as the one it replaced — a .270 Winchester and a 30-06, for instance. Wonderful concept, but not that practical. Switching calibers that are so similar in performance offers little advantage. So the popularity of the Johnson Sporter languished.

Enter the Johnson Indoor Target Gun

In 1948 Johnson came out with the Indoor Target Gun — a catapult gun housed in a plastic shell that resembled a submachine gun. Just as retailers push the black rifle look today, the submachine gun was thought to be a popular look in the post-war U.S. economy.

Johnson Indoor Target Gun writing
Gun is embossed with information on the plastic frame.

Here are just a few highlights about the gun’s design. The rear sight is a peep that slides up and down a slotted post for elevation adjustment. The front is a windage-adjustable post – just like several military rifles! The “ears” that protect the front sight are spring retainers that allow the top cover to be lifted. That gives access to the mechanism. The gun is a repeater! A long tube of real steel BBs feeds one at a time into the plastic shot carrier for launch. The trigger would embarrass half the adult airguns on today’s market – it’s that good.

Repeater

The gun is a repeater! A long tube of real steel BBs feeds one at a time into the plastic shot carrier for launch. When the carrier is pulled back to cock the gun it trips the magazine gate to open and deposit a single BB into the carrier. When the sear breaks it releases the carrier to fly forward and fling the BB out the end of the gun — there is no barrel.

The Johnson gun is a fascinating study in the toymaker’s art of the 1940s. The materials used were stamped steel plate and plastic. The steel parts were mostly well-finished with black oxide (bluing). Though plastics were in their infancy in those days, Johnson apparently picked the right ones because they don’t deteriorate nearly as much as the early Daisy plastic stocks.

For power a Johnson needs something with a lot more power than rubber bands. Medical rubber tubing is perfect. Of course this tubing wears out from repeated stretching, so owners have to replace it periodically. Below I show the installation on my gun, in case you have to do the job.

Johnson Indoor Target Gun cover up
Lift the top cover to expose the surgical tubing that launches the BBs. Also to load the BB magazine.

Johnson Indoor Target Gun surgical tubing
The underside of the metal cover is where the surgical tubing lives, and also the BB magazine.

Johnson Indoor Target Gun mechanism
The cocking mechanism lives inside the bottom half of the gun. Your fingers pinch those hooks to grab the BB carrier and pull it back to the sear while it drags the rubber band along for the ride.

Weird cocking!

To cock and load, a pair of metal fingers at the “breech” are squeezed together and pulled backward, pulling a plastic launcher in front of them. A groove in the launcher captures the rear of the rubber band and as the entire mechanism now slides to the rear the sear catches it with a click. As it passes a metal release lever in the magazine, one BB is dropped into the launcher seat.

How much power?

Velocity depends on the strength of the rubber band. It never varies by more than two f.p.s., which makes it even more stable than an airgun. The gun was made during a time when accuracy was favored over power. My Johnson gets 101 f.p.s. with steel BBs. While that is very slow, I can pick off a fly at 12 feet, which is what this gun was designed to do. Velocity varies by no more than 2 f.p.s. Accuracy lets you hit baby asprin at 10 feet with every shot! Of course, 100 f.p.s. isn’t much, but the scale of the target gallery is perfect for it.

The cost?

Brand new in 1949, a Johnson sold for $15 – when a Daisy number 25 pump gun was selling for just $6.50. That probably aided the demise of the Johnson. His automatic rifles were too different from the Garand to gain success and his Indoor Target Gun was too expensive.

Today, you can find a complete and functioning gun at an airgun show for $50 to $75. A good one in a tattered box brings $100 to 150. The Blue Book lists them for $25 to $115, plus another $30 for the box. All the boxes will be tattered because they are made from pasteboard that contains acid. They have been disintegrating for the past 65 years and it is now impossible to find one in good condition. They are all crumbling into a fine powder, but hey, who isn’t?

The box turned into a shooting gallery with metal spinners on a wire stand that connected to the box. The cheesecloth hung behind to stop the shots. There was also a small bundle of replacement rubber bands.

The BB carrier is made from plastic and the one on my gun has worn through, so it can’t be pulled back by the finger tabs any longer. But I discovered that I can run a heavy dowel into the front of the gun and push the carrier into the cocked position, so my gun still shoots — some of the time. It’s fiddly but it can be made to work.

Do you want one?

The Johnson is a very specialized BB gun for the collector who cannot live without it. I grew up seeing them in ads, so when they became available at airgun shows, I had to get one. But for the guy with a hankering for a really accurate BB gun, my recommendation will always be the Daisy Avanti 499.

A Johnson is a curiosity among BB guns — like a Stanley Steamer is to car buffs. It’s weird enough to stimulate the collector, but aggravate a serious shooter.