Air canes

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • What is an air cane?
  • What was their purpose?
  • Air cane styles
  • One special air cane
  • Shooting air canes
  • Fascinating hobby

This report was requested by several readers after seeing a cased air cane in an earlier history report.

In the 19th century, the airgun world developed many curiosities, but none made more of an impression on today’s collectors than the pneumatic walking stick, or air cane, as it has come to be known. They survive by the thousands and fascinate all who see them. Today I’d like to examine the air cane!

disassembled air cane
Here we see a complete simple straight cane disassembled. From the left the parts are: the lower outer shell, the upper outer shell that is also the reservoir, the smoothbore barrel and lock, with the firing valve removed from the reservoir, the rifled barrel insert and the ramrod that doubles as the cane’s outer tip for walking.

What is an air cane?

An air cane is a large-caliber single-shot pneumatic gun that fires many times on one charge of air. Most are muzzleloaders, but there are a few breechloaders that employ loading taps. There is no standard design, but the most common canes are straight smoothbore guns of about .43 caliber with a rifled insert barrel of .28 to .33 caliber. The lock and firing mechanism is completely hidden inside a two-piece smooth metal shell that looks like a thick walking stick. A male key is inserted into a square socket in the side of the cane to cock the lock for each shot, and when the lock is cocked a small metal button pops out to serve as the trigger.

air cane cocking socket
Here you see the air cane’s cocking socket. A square-shaped clock key is inserted and turned to cock the lock. I have cocked the lock for this photo and the firing button (the trigger) has popped out on the cane’s body at the upper left.

The air cane lock is unique, but bears more than a passing resemblance to a percussion lock of the same period. The cane is divided in two sections, with the top section being the air reservoir and firing valve and the bottom section housing the lock and barrel. Look at the photo of the disassembled cane to see these parts.

Canes can fire at least 10 shots from a single fill of air, and as many as 40 shots have been recorded from some of the largest examples. The first few shots (on CO2) will propel a 121-grain .43-caliber lead ball at about 650 f.p.s., which is lethal. On air you can expect another 100 f.p.s.

What was their purpose?

The popular myth is that air canes were 19th century defensive weapons. Most advanced collectors believe this is untrue, because it takes a lot of work to make a muzzleloading air cane ready to fire. Perhaps, if you knew you were about to go in harm’s way, you might have time to make the weapon ready, but a derringer or even a good knife would be better. Using an air cane for self-defense would be the equivalent of holding up a liquor store with a flintlock — not the thing a thoughtful person would do. I think sword canes are much more capable defensive weapons, and people have probably extrapolated the defense role to air canes because of their similar appearance.

Many collectors believe the principal attraction to air canes was simply their existence. They were portable science experiments one could use to amaze both family and friends.

They were not used as walking sticks. The end of the ramrod did have a brass tip that could be put on the ground, but it was too fragile to serve as a walking support. It was more for show than for go.

Air cane styles

Pneumatic canes were produced by some large makers, who used their own workers plus the collective output of many cottage industries. They brought all the parts together in a design that did not vary over many years. Hence, there are common types of canes, yet each cane is also a unique, handmade object.

A lockmaker fashioned the locks to fit inside the housings used by his principal customer, the cane maker. He was therefore motivated to work within the envelope, so to speak. A barrel maker probably knew very little about making a reservoir or a valve, and only at the cane-making house, whose name sometimes graces the lock, did all the components come together.

The straight cane shown at the beginning and end of this report is by far the most commonly encountered style. It could be purchased as a smoothbore alone, a smoothbore with a rifled insert barrel or with all the tools and the necessary hand pump, cased together in an attractive display box. Sometimes there was an additional reservoir shaped like a shotgun butt, so the cane could be converted to a more sporting use.

One level of sophistication above the straight cane is the bent cane, whose steel reservoir is curved gracefully to showcase the maker’s craft. Bent canes were often sold as cased sets, and sometimes they also came with an additional shotgun-style reservoir butt to replace the bent reservoir when the owner wished to shoot it for sport. It wasn’t a very practical sporter with the button trigger, but no one seemed to care.

bent air cane
A bent cane is similar to a straight one, but demonstrats the cane maker’s skill at bending a steel reservoir this gracefully.

Beyond the bent cane, there was the shillelagh. It was a straight cane, but the exterior steel or brass casing was covered with spot-welds or lumps of braze that were filed and smoothed to look like the nodules of blackthorn wood — just like a traditional shillelagh. All that most of these canes lack is the traditional shillelagh cudgel, made from the root of the branch. This style cane is quite scarce in the U.S. Of the 200 or so air canes I have examined, only two have been shillelaghs. They command about twice the price of a nice cased bent cane with the pump and all the accessories, which sells for about $2,000 to $4,500.

One special air cane

The air cane came into its own after the ball reservoir airgun had left the scene, sometime around the year 1800, plus or minus. That’s not surprising because having a ball reservoir hanging off an air cane sort of defeats the purpose of looking like a walking stick. However, I saw the one exception. It was a rare shillelagh air cane with a brass reservoir that served as the cudgel.

shillelagh air cane
This shillelagh air cane uses the brass reservoir as the stick’s cudgel. This is the only shillelagh air cane I have ever seen that had a cudgel. This can be called a cane with a ball reservoir! It isn’t exactly ball-shaped, but the ball reservoir design comes through very clearly. And it is a fine air cane in all other respects!

air cane reservoir off
The cudgel/reservoir has been removed to show the inner workings. The small pin in the center of the cane (on the right) is powered by the mainspring to hit the large steel button in the center of the reservoir on the left. That larger button is actually the firing valve’s stem.

Where traditional shillelagh air canes are built of spot-welded steel or brazed brass to simulate the look of an Irish blackthorn branch, this particular cane is housed within a genuine blackthorn outer sheath! The wood was carefully hollowed out to accept the cane’s action and barrel, a difficult feat in the days before Dremel tools! The brass air reservoir is fashioned to look exactly like a genuine blackthorn root cudgel that might be found on a real shillelagh fighting stick.

Shooting air canes

Many air cane owners shoot their guns regularly. The original air valve was sealed with a piece of animal horn, lapped into an airtight seal by turning it against the valve seat under pressure. Common chalk and oil were used as a cutting and lapping  compound, and the valve maker knew when to stop by the squealing sound made when the seal was perfect.

But perfect is a relative term. That animal horn was porous and did leak over time. So a lubricant like whale oil was applied to the horn seal, to enhance its airtight nature. That is the purpose of the small oil bottle often seen with cased specimens.

When a cane is prepared for use today a modern Delrin valve face is substituted for the animal horn valve face, but all the other original parts are retained. Delrin is non-permeable, so the whale oil is no longer needed to seal the cane.

The operating pressure of an antique cane is in the 500 to 650 psi region, so the modern owner can either fill it with air to that pressure level or substitute CO2 gas in its place. Because CO2 operates at around 850 psi at 70 degrees F, the cane’s reservoir should be hydrostatically tested before filling.

Once the cane’s reservoir is filled, you will get no less than 10 and often as many as 20 powerful shots before a refill is required. There are even more shots than that, but the final few will be so weak that they’re not worth the effort. Each cane is unique and requires the shooter to learn its characteristics.

The smoothbore barrel of a typical straight cane will accept an unpatched round ball of about .433 caliber. A greased or oiled patch does not improve accuracy nor velocity, as long as the ball fits the bore reasonably well when dry.

The ball is rammed to the bottom of the barrel. Then the lock is cocked, causing the button trigger to pop out of the cane’s side. On every cane I have examined, this button has been positioned for release by thumb pressure of the left hand (for a right-handed shooter).

man shooting air cane
David Yost shoots my air cane (I bought it from him) at the St. Louis airgun show around 1997.

The top knob of the cane is held to the tip of the shooter’s nose so the tiny open sights (yes, these canes do have tiny open sights) can be seen. Once the sight picture is right, the button trigger is pressed and the cane fires with a loud, deep bellow. You feel a rocket-like push from the recoil that is approximately equal to a .32 S&W Long cartridge fired in a medium-weight revolver.

I’ve shot several smoothbore canes that were accurate enough to hit a soda can every time at 20 yards, so there is an element of close-range marksmanship to them. When a 121-grain .43-caliber lead ball connects with a full soda can at 600 f.p.s., everyone in the vicinity knows it!

Fascinating hobby

Air canes are a strange, yet fascinating niche within airgunning. They are the pneumatic equivalent of a primitive flintlock rifle. Their owners travel life in the slow lane with the windows rolled down, enjoying airguns that almost defy classification.

66 thoughts on “Air canes

  1. Thank you for this article! Just wondering if you’re familiar with the air canes that are (or were) hidden inside (incase) an umbrella? Used as late as the cold war days in Europa! Semper fi!


  2. Im falling in love…more and more..
    As I bought, rebuild& fininshed an 60 year old walther lg55, Im falling in love with it more and more..
    It now looks like a new rifle {after 3 full days work Ive put in) and it shoots phenomenally!!
    The ease of cocking is superb… a 5 year old can cock it. It has very little recoil and is very VERY accurate. The rifle is balanced perfectly and the trigger is as it should be..
    The best part…… its so fun to shoot: Im doing things Ive never done before. I pour a ful tin of rwsR10 pellets in my pocket and enjoy informal target shooting at 10,15 and 17 meters.. Being a 3position shooter, Ive never understand how people could enjoy informal target shooting… but now I do!!
    Ive setup the lg55 to run at about 7 joules (5.5foot pound} and an onther lg55 is on its way to our home. It has a tyro stock and Ill rebuild it to run at 9 joules…. if it doesnt ruin the fine shotcycle, Ill keep it that way..
    Guys…. If you can get your hands on one of these rifles, do not hesitate….but buy it!!!
    In contrast to previous blog, Ill state: they do not make em that way anymore


    • LOL! A kindred spirit!

      I have never shot formal competition, but most of the air rifles and pistols I own or have owned are 10 meter competition air rifles and pistols. Right now the only air pistol I own is a Izzy 46M. I also own an AirForce Edge and a 1906 BSA which is a 10 yard competition air rifle.

      To handle and shoot an air rifle or air pistol of such superb quality and performance is an experience that is awesome. The knowledge that if you miss when you pull the trigger it is your fault drives you to a deeper level of concentration, even when you are just “hunting feral soda cans”.

      GunFun1 knows what we are talking about. 😉


      • ridge,
        Theres no feral sodacans on my shootingrange in my garden, but I stick to my trusted 10m comp cards. I practise mostly quickdraw and shooting yellow corn off a shelf.
        I never saw myself as a plinker, but I guess THATS what Im doing with the lg55


        • Dutch,

          I mostly shoot target myself, but some days I will set up the spinner targets and place soda cans at various random distances and start shooting. I classify myself as a plinker. A very serious plinker.


  3. Hi BB and the group. I still wonder how they pumped those walking stick or cane guns up back in the 19th century. Bigger mystery to me is how the Lewis and Clark air gun was pumped up. It is amazing to me that they had pumps capable of so much capacity they could pump up a 40 caliber air rifle or gun and get multiple shots. I presume they used pumps with leather covered pistons. Thinking of the materials of that day and age, it is a miracle the guns could hold that high pressure and not leak it out.
    Thank you
    Harvey


  4. B.B.

    Unrelated to the post today, However, I’ve been reading past blogs and I’m currently in the year
    of 2005, it’s funny how times have changed, a lot of resistance and lack of information about .25 calibers. and a incredible lack of pellets for the .25 also..
    10 years later, .25 is all the rage:D

    Keep up the good work and Happy New Year!




      • Reb,

        I was referring to the last paragraph of the blog.

        “Their owners travel life in the slow lane with the windows rolled down, enjoying airguns that almost defy classification.”

        The airguns I dream of are the air canes, open locks, etc. Like I have often stated, my favorite air rifle is my 1906 BSA.


  5. Dutchjozef—-What a terrible way to treat good pellets! You might damage their delicate little skirts. Go to the Pyramyd air website and get a few pellet pens. I hope that you will never put candy , or a tissue , etc. in that pocket. It is probably full of lead dust. Ed


    • ed,
      I use my designated “shootingjacket”
      its an alweather jacket made from poly-something materials.
      the barrel wont be dusted from the jacket cos of its material.

      Yes I know I might damage the skirts, but I try to let go!!
      All my shooting life Ive been an obsessed guy with pellets and live-ammo.
      This is my way of being naughty 🙂
      I only do it to the pellets I use in the lg55.
      competetionpellets are treated differently.
      And I wont put food in that pocked either.
      all my pellets are washed and lubed, so most dust is gone anyway

      btw.
      I did a test once. I dented the skirt of a pellet and shot it in a pile of sand. guess what: the dent was blown out the skirt in the barrel.


      • Many times I’ve filed or handled lead enough my fingers would be grey, then I’d eat…. sauce on my fingers? Yeah, I licked em. A long time ago I worked in a factory with metal and a furnace melting metal, I would have metal hairs grow out of my shoulder and so much charcoal in my body it would settle to my feet and make big black holes. Im sure none of the above is very good for a person.


        • RifledDNA22,
          In the distant past, I always smoked (carefully) while reloading and casting bullets, never licked my fingers though.
          Many years ago, I worked in a machine shop running a large G&L horizontal boring mill, and one of the services they provided was spraying metal to build up worn steel shafts (no problem) and large babbit bearings. The individual who normally did this was spraying babbit one day and when he was finished, he looked like the tin man from the Wizard of OZ. He was silver from head to toe. He died not long afterwards.
          There is a medical procedure known as chelation, which will remove heavy metals from your body. You may want to look into that.

          Bugbuster


  6. B.B.,

    When I was a little boy, I coveted a sword cane, and when my family would go to flea markets and antique stores, would often see one, but alas, Mom and Dad said, “Not on your life!” As an adult, however, and one of Irish American ancestry at that, I’ve long admired blackthorns and bought myself one tears ago. It sits in the hall stand next to the front door in the stead of a baseball bat.

    The blackthorn/shillelagh air cane is an incredible feat! A blackthorn cane without the intricate internals is an effective weapon, but WITH them, oh man.

    Legend has it that in the old days some Irishman would hollow out the knob of their shillelagh, poor molten lead in it, and then reattach it to the rest of the cane. The shillelagh is sometimes referred to as the national weapon of Ireland. This is an incredibly enhanced version!

    Thank you very much for this report,

    Michael


  7. Hi BB! I’m back with some more questions. So here’s the deal… my diana 27 makes some noises as if stuff is loose inside when I shake it (gently, I dont shake it violently) and I know that for some air rifles this is normal. Is it normal for the diana 27? Also the cocking mechanism needs to be oiled a bit too. Is there a way for me to cock it without having to tear the gun apart? Thanks in advance.
    -João




  8. Fascinating article. I love inventions like this. Is there any CO2 current rifle that even comes close to 121 grain ball at 650 fps? If not, why not? Anyone? Thanks, Chris


  9. Tom,

    I finally had a chance this weekend to sit down, prop my feet up, and read your new book, “BB Guns Remembered.” I greatly enjoyed the book. I can’t fathom how you can look at an old picture and come up with such great stories. I don’t remember every reading a book that used the concept of old pictures to create a stories. I believe that you have come up with a unique concept.

    I hope that there will be a sequel,

    Jim


  10. BB
    I bought both the BB gage and the Pellet gage. Now trying to evaluate groups without them seems like trying to measure something with a rubber ruler.
    Fido3030


  11. That shillalegh at the end, wow. I appreciate a nice cane as it is. I love making full length walking sticks, and finishing handled wood implements. Im oiling up a husqvarna ax handle the last couple days, good way to kill an hour or keep yourself occupied when the wifes watching a chick flick!


    • BB fascinating article on air canes. I had just purchased an 1828 original print titled Air-guns And Canes. The print depicts exploded views of repeating air rifles and a air cane. Thank you for the information to further fuel our diverse air-gun(19th century spelling) habits.


  12. Hi BB,

    I’ve been following the air canes topic since I first heard the word, and after reading all I found here and in the 2005 old blog, still a couple of questions arise to me:

    -The first one comes from the old blog: I don’t fully understand how the “cam mechanism” lets the valve open for a longer time, allowing those speeds with such “low” pressures. Is there any cross section, diagram…anything????

    -By watching that beautiful cudgel reservoir i don’t fully understand how air travels from the reservoir to the barrel. i see the valve centered on the reservoir and the needle (?) of the action centered too, so how does exactly air travel to a off centered barrel? Admitting there is some clearance between the breech and the reservoir, it seems one would fill part of the circle to fix a dead volume problem… so?

    Thanks very very much, as this kind of airgun is one of my favorites. And hats off to this blog!


  13. Schwanzig,

    Welcome to the blog.

    A cam applies force over a longer period of time because the inclined surface that applies the force is longer (the bump on the cam, that a straight hit from a hammer.

    The air flows straight from the reservoir through the valve and into the rear of the barrel, which is in line with the end of thw valve. I don’t know what offset you refer to, but trust me — the reservoir on that gun lines up with the barrel.

    B.B.


    • Hello again BB,

      Thanks for the answers. I couldn’t reply earlier.
      About the cam, what I’d like to know is how exactly it works…a cross section or diagram if exists could help.
      “the bump on the cam, that a straight hit from a hammer.” I don’t quite really understand that part…maybe my poor English, I think…
      But considering what you say, I can imagine a cam, let’s say a V shaped piece of steel moving vertically down (if the air cane is pointing to the horizon), hitting a valve pin. It forces the pin in, then the cam shape suddenly releases the pin (when the V is below the valve pin?) and the air pressure closes the valve. Is that right?

      About the offset, I trust you! But tell me if this picture
      https://cdn.pyramydair.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/01-04-16-05-air-cane-reservoir-off.jpg
      doesn’t seem to have an offset “breech”. To be honest I could say that the strike pin and the breech share the space that links with the valve. At least that’s what I see. But a stranger example is given here (taken from an outside web page) in which it’s noted “barrel end plug”.

      Not willing to look like a smartass…really! I’m just sincerely confused… valves have always been a small mystery for me on airguns.

      If you are not tired yet, I’d like to ask you about another type of valves: The gamo Compact, and the co2 valves. They must have a very very small dead volume in order to work with such small volume, right? so which are the internals? How do they work? I looked many times at the templates and blueprints but the valve is never clearly shown. I saw an experiment on which a 12g CO2 cartridge was emptied into a rubber balloon. It just filled the balloon. Just that. So I think the smallest of dead volumes on the valve means maybe a couple of missing shots, per shot(?).

      Thank you once again and very much!



      • Schwanzig,

        Holy —-!

        Consider me overwhelmed!

        You have asked me how a cam works. That is an hour’s lecture, at least.

        And then you want to know about the valve operation in a single stroke pneumatic and a CO2 gun. Both?

        Wow! I’m over whelmed.

        I need to think about how to respond to your questions.

        Maybe if you started posting on the current day’s blog the thousands of other readers would be able to help us get to where you need to be.

        Do not think that I am angry or that I’m brushing you off. I’m not doing that. But this is a question that will take a lot of thought to answer.

        B.B.


        • So sorry!

          I thought I understood how a cam works…but now… the cams I’m used to see are from steam engines as that’s my true world and the one that led me to air pressure guns… but they work quite differently, you see…

          Well, thanks for all the care and comprehension…
          About the valve operation, a call to a friend led me to some photos of a gamo compact trigger. He is a smartass but a nice guy. So the Co2 valve is the one I’d like to know better, since it’s semiautomatic.

          Sorry you all, BB and readers. I’m used to work with cylinders and pistons at 5 atm tops…

          Schwanzig



            • B.B.,

              Of course they do, but as you may know, the ones on a steam engine are rotary, almost shaped like a G.
              But that’s not the topic. Thanks again!
              I’ll come back tomorrow, as here it’s almost dinner time!

              Schwanzig


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