by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

Webley Senior straight grip
Webley Senior straight grip air pistol.

This report covers:

  • Design
  • Piston ring
  • Power
  • Sights
  • Trigger
  • Quirky

Today we start looking at a Webley Senior straight grip air pistol. This model was made from 1930 to 1935, according to the Blue Book of Airguns, 11th edition. There were two versions — a first version that has a trigger adjustment screw sticking out the front of the triggerguard and the second version, which is the one I have. I bought the pistol at a small gun show in Kentucky in the 1970s, when I was assigned to Fort Knox. I paid $75, which was considered a lot at the time, but I owned the first edition of the Airgun Digest and I knew what this pistol was. It’s worth a lot more today.

The pistol is all steel except for the black plastic grip panels. The steel is polished and blued similar to a firearm of the time, which makes the value of Webley pistols recognizable to even firearms buffs who have no knowledge of airguns. It just looks and feels like quality! My gun has about 50 percent original bluing remaining, and it’s peppered by rust that’s been stabilized by frequent wipes with a rag coated with Ballistol.

I had already owned two Webley Premier pistols prior to this purchase, so I knew the brand and the basic pistol pretty well. The Premiers (not the later Premier Mark II that had some aluminum parts) were actually a better, more refined version of the Senior and were the last of the all-steel Webley pistols.

This pistol stimulated a desire in me to own more Webley air pistols. I had to pass on one as a kid because it cost $29.95 and my paper route money wasn’t enough. I bought a Crosman Single Action 6 instead. But I knew the Webley was the gun I wanted. That happened around 1959 or so, and the gun I passed on was a slant grip Senior that still looks very cool.

Webley Senior slant grip
Webley Senior slant grip.

The slant grip Senior was made between 1935 and 1964, with time out for World War II. It was replaced by the Premier model I just mentioned.

Design

All of these Webley pistols share a similar powerplant. The mainspring is cocked by raising the rear of the barrel and rotating it forward. It looks and feels clumsy at first, but once you become familiar with it, you’ll never forget how.

Webley Senior cocked
Once you learn to cock a Webley pistol, you never forget how.

The breech is held shut by a spring-loaded latch that rides over the top of the barrel and forces it down into a groove at the breech. It looks crude, but it works very well — certainly much better than the cammed bolt that’s found on the Mark II Service rifle.

When you cock the gun, press the bottom of the barrel latch forward with your right thumb (sorry, boys, Webley didn’t think about southpaws) and raise the rear of the barrel. Then flip your left hand over so your thumb is down by the cocking link and all your fingers are under the barrel. Rotate your left hand forward and up until the sear catches the piston.

When the pistol fires the piston comes straight back, which is the reverse of the direction most spring pistons travel. On the straight grip model the powerplant sits high in your hand and you do feel a little backwards recoil, similar to a .22 rimfire. The slant grip models cancel this feeling a lot more because of their ergonomic grip shape.

Piston ring

Another interesting quirk of the older Webley pistols is that many models used a single piston ring for compression, rather than a seal mounted on the crown of the piston. It looks and works exactly like a piston ring in an internal combustion engine and it normally lasts a lot longer than a conventional seal — even one made of leather. I have no way to prove it, but the ring in my 1933-35-era pistol appears original. Replacements are still available from vendors in the United Kingdom, and as I told you, I did order one for my Mark II Service air rifle a couple weeks ago.

Power

When I bought my Senior it seemed a little anemic, so I ordered a new mainspring and breech seal. When I replaced them I also lubricated the new mainspring and the piston with lithium grease. The power of the gun is low enough that lithium seems like a good match. Not only does it lubricate, it also dampens vibration a little. The Webley is very simple and straightforward to work on, so I plan to show you the insides in this report.

Webley Senior breech seal
The breech is sealed by a fiber seal (arrow) that has a brass tube in its center to keep the airway open.

Sights

The Senior has adjustable sights, but they are the crude kind found in the 1930s. The front sight is machined into the front barrel band that also serves as the cocking pivot. The rear sight is a two-part sliding arrangement that’s held fast by a single screw passing through both parts. Any adjustment is a by-guess-and-by-golly arrangement.

Webley Senior rear sight
The rear sight consists of two plates that slide together, giving you adjustments in both directions. It’s simple, but it works. Hard to get it exactly right, though!

Trigger

While my Senior’s trigger doesn’t adjust, I have to tell you it is one of the finest handgun triggers (outside of 10-meter target triggers) I have ever used. I’m sure Webley intended it to be single-stage, but a little slop in the linkage after 81 years has given it a false first stage. Then the pull is incredibly smooth, though not that light. You can feel the sear parts sliding against each other with absolutely zero creep (starts and stops due to binding). I will measure the pull weight during the velocity test.

Quirky

If you like quirky, and from the stats I know a lot of you do, then this is the air pistol for you. It looks like its owner should be riding a pennyfarthing and wearing a bowler!