by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • The Spittin’ Image
  • What is it?
  • Catapult gun
  • A kinetic gun?
  • Very low power
  • Cowboys are cool
  • Four variations
  • The Holy Grail
  • The pistol
  • That’s all for today

The Spittin’ Image

In 1960, Daisy Manufacturing Company embarked on a marketing campaign that was to blossom into one of the largest segments of the airgun market. They brought out their model 179 BB pistol that was copied after the Colt Single Action Army revolver. A few years later they brought out their first 1894 that was highly successful, and a half-century after that not many people remember the first Spittin’ Image BB gun.

Daisy 179
Daisy’s 179 BB pistol came out in 1960 — the first of the Spittin’ Image guns.

Today the lookalike airgun market is huge. It’s expanding all the time, with more and more realistic models coming out every day. You can argue that the 179 was not even the first such airgun Daisy made. many folks think their Targetmaster BB pistol copies the Colt Woodsman Match Target and the Number 25 slide action BB gun was patterned after the Winchester model 12 shotgun. But in 1960 the term Spittin’ Image was first used to describe this pistol as an intentional lookalike.

What is it?

The 179 is important for another reason. It operates differently that any other BB gun, as far as I can determine. When I first reported on this airgun in 2007, I called it a catapult gun, but I’ve thought about that more and no longer believe that term describes it accurately. A catapult launches something with the energy of a spring.

Catapult gun

There are many catapult-style airguns. The Johnson Indoor Target Gun is one example. It uses elestic bands to launch a BB at low speeds, but it is remarkably accurate at close range. Another series of catapult guns are the Sharpshooter pistols that owe their lineage to the Bulls Eye pistol that was first made in 1932. These pistols all use number 6 birdshot and launched by rubber bands. And who can forget the powerful Hodges catapult gun that was actually a big bore (though it has no barrel and therefore no real bore)! Yes, indeed, there are many catapult guns.

Johnson Indoor Target gun
Johnson Indoor Target gun was another popular catapult gun.

But the Daisy 179 doesn’t work like the others. Instead of a launcher that accelerates the projectile to terminal velocity by means of an elastic band, a BB in the 179 gets whacked by the hammer in the same way you send your opponent’s croquet ball off course — by whacking your own ball that’s in contact with your opponent’s ball. You step on your ball to keep it in place, and the kinetic energy of the mallet blow is transmitted through your ball to your opponent’s ball.

A kinetic gun?

So, what do we call this? Is it a variation of a catapult, or does it rate a different term of its own? It it a kinetic gun? I don’t know. What I do know is there aren’t many others like it. I can’t think of any, but I don’t know everything, either.

Very low power

Catapult guns all share a common trait — low velocity. The book, The Practical Guide to Man-Powered Bullets, by Richard Middleton, is an excellent study on the subject. In it I learned that going above about 225 f.p.s. with a catapult is difficult, if not impossible. The author calculates the maximum possible velocity of a catapult powered by elastic bands to be 270 f.p.s., but in his tests that speed was never reached. As an interesting sidenote, Middleton mentions what I have called “splatology” briefly in his book and he even refers to, The Crossbow, Sir Ralph Payne Gallwey’s book that mentions it from back in the 19th century.
Now I will tell you that the kinetic powerplant of the 179 is even less efficient than the true catapult. I will save the velocity test for Part 2, but it’s going to be very slow. One reader commented when I first wrote about the 179 that I had shown him something even slower than a Marksman 1010 — an airgun he thought was the slowest.

Cowboys are cool

When the 179 came out the most popular shows on television were about cowboys. It may be difficult to imagine today, but that was a time when every kid in this country wanted to be a cowboy when he grew up. Actually, most of us didn’t grow up, we just got older and larger. But we all wanted to be cowboys.

Anything cowboy was going to sell. And the 179 was the only game in town, if you wanted something to come out of the gun. Oh, you could launch Shootin’ Shells with Greenie Stick-‘Em Caps in a Fanner 50 toy gun, but the 179 was a real BB gun, and therefore much more desirable.

Four variations

The 179 exists in four variations, with two of them being primary. The first variation was produced from 1960 until 1981 and is characterized by having no safety. The gun was dropped in ’81 but demand forced it back into production in 1992. This time it had a crossbolt safety that differentiates the second variation from the first. The second production run ended in 1996 and the number of guns made was much lower than what was made in the first run, so this one will be harder to find. But the story doesn’t end there. In 2004 Daisy found a supply of parts in their warehouse that had been returned from a foreign customer. They had shipped the guns as parts, so the customer could assemble them in their own country, but politics turned the sale around.

From these parts Daisy assembled the final 700 model 179s they ever made. They put them in special vintage-looking boxes with certificates of authenticity signed by former Daisy employee and museum curator, Orin Ribar. They sold them from their museum over the course of the next few years. This variation is identical to the second variation and must be accompanied by the box and certificate. And it doesn’t end there, either.

last 179
The last 179 Daisy made was a run of 700 made from parts returned from South Africa. They were sold by the Daisy Museum and must be accompanied by the box and signed certificate of authenticity.

The Holy Grail

Daisy made up a small number of 179s made from solid brass parts. These guns are sometimes called “salesman’s samples” but they were more likely made up as special gifts and presentation guns. They are painted gray and weigh 2.7 lbs., so the difference from the other 179s is apparent. The Blue Book of Airguns says a perfect one is worth $2,000, but that’s just a guess. I would imagine they would go for a lot more than that and they wouldn’t have to be perfect, either. I have never seen one of these, and there aren;’t many airguns I can say that about.

The pistol

Okay, I have given you a lot of history — some of it that’s not even in the Blue Book — but now let’s take a look at the gun itself. The 179 is a 12-shot repeater. The BBs are in-line in a tubular magazine with a spring-loaded follower. The cylinder is just molded into the metal body. It doesn’t move. [Editor’s note: I originally described the body as plastic, and a sharp reader called me on it. Indeed, the frame or body is metal.]

I will now describe the physical characteristics of the gun that I own, which is one of the ones sold by the Daisy Museum. The gun weighs 1 lb. 1.25 oz. It is finished with a shiny black paint. The grips are dark brown plastic molded to look like wood.

Cock the gun by pulling the hammer back until the sear catches. When you release the hammer after cocking it rotates forward a half inch. Pulling the trigger fires the gun. The hammer is pulled forward by a strong spring and it hits the BB that’s sitting in the breech. The force of the impact sends the BB on its way.

179 cocked
The hammer is cocked and the pistol is ready to fire.

Even though the gun is low velocity, the hammer is quite hard to cock. You certainly cannot fire the gun rapidly.The light weight of the gun and the strength of the hammer spring combine to make operation a deliberate act.

That’s all for today

I’m going to stop here. There is a little more introduction to do and I will cover it in Part 2, along with velocity and probably accuracy, as well. I will talk about the trigger, the cocking effort and the sights, such as they are.