The EM GE Zenit air pistol: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Zenit
The German EM-GE Zenit air pistol from before World War II is a fascinating collector’s item.

History of airguns

This report covers:

  • History
  • Grips
  • Cocking
  • Repeater
  • Barrel
  • Sights
  • Danger!
  • Direct sear
  • Power
  • Diana model IV
  • Summary

Today we begin looking at an air pistol with a rich portfolio of design features. The EM-GE Zenit is a pistol many airgunners have never seen, though there were copies made by Milbro under the Diana name, by the German maker Falke, by Swedish maker Stiga, by Italian maker Brema and even the Russians made a copy on what was probably the original Zenit machinery and tooling after they took over the EM-GE factory at the end of the war.

History

The EM GE Zenit is an overlever spring-piston air pistol made by Moritz and Gerstenberger of Zella Mehlis, Germany from about 1937 until 1940. Because of the short production period, it is a relatively rare air pistol that is desired by many collectors. And it has an interesting and potentially dangerous design flaw that makes shooting it something of a gamble. I will discuss this in detail later.

The pistol is made from wood and steel. The wood is walnut and the steel is highly polished and deeply blued. The pistol I am testing for you has most of the finish remaining, though rust has set in and needs to be treated. I will treat it with Ballistol that penetrates and neutralizes the rust.

Grips

Most Zenit (German for zenith) pistols have a one-piece walnut grip. There is a round brass escutcheon with the EM-GE logo on either side of this grip.  There is also a model with Geco grip escutcheons that was made for export to the United States.

A rare version was made with a  black bakelite grip. Bakelite is the world’s first synthetic plastic. While plastic parts are usually a cost control measure, this one may have been to save resources, as Germany was gearing up for war and needed wood for many items of materiel. This version has the logo cast directly into the grip, which is possible with plastic.

The plastic grip is very rare and was made before World War II. Some may have existed as new old stock for sale after the war, but this grip is definitely a prewar item.

Cocking

The pistol is cocked by lifting up on the overlever that lies on top of the spring tube and rocking it forward until the sear catches the piston. The barrel tips up when this happens and moves slightly forward, exposing the breech for loading. The leverage is odd but effective, rendering the Zenit very easy to cock for its power.

Zenit top strap
To cock the pistol, first raise the top strap that’s the cocking lever.

Zenit cocked
Then rock the top strap forward until the sear catches the piston.

Anti-beartrap

With the top strap up the trigger cannot fire the pistol. This is an anti-beartrap on an airgun from the 1930s!

Repeater

The Zenit is a single shot, loaded at the breech in the conventional way that a breakbarrel is loaded. But there is also a repeating model with a gravity-fed tubular magazine on top of the spring tube. The magazine aligns with the breech when the pistol is cocked and the barrel tips up. The pellets then slide down the magazine tube. It doesn’t sound too positive to me, but it’s so rare I will probably never get the opportunity to examine one.

Barrel

The outer barrel is steel but it has a brass liner. This liner may be smoothbored or rifled. The pistol I am examining for you is rifled, as noted by the abbreviation gez. for gezogen that’s stamped into the barrel.

Zenit barrel marks
The barrel is marked with the caliber and also gez. — the abbreviation for gezogen or rifled.

Zenit patent mark
A different-looking patent mark with no patent number.

Zenit name
The name is Zenit.

Zenit EM-GE markings
And the name of the maker.

Sights

The rear of the overlever is bent up and has a notch that serves as the rear sight.

Zenit EM-GE rear sight
The rear sight is cut into the end of the cocking lever.

The front sight has a thumbwheel jam nut on the right side that allows the post to be raised to varying heights. The higher you go the lower the round strikes. The blade can also be moved left or right a little by rotating the sight ring, which will adjust the windage.

Zenit front sight left
The front sight blade swings up to adjust the elevation.

Zenit front sight top down
Loosen the thumbscrew and rotate the front sight ring right or left for windage adjustment.

Danger!

The one design flaw is the end cap. It is threaded on the spring tube and held in place by a small hole in its bottom that accepts a protrusion from the bottom of the spring guide. If, while firing, this small protrusion jumps out of the hole in the end cap, the cap is free to unscrew and send the cap back into the shooter’s face with the force of the mainspring.

Zenit end cap
As long as you can see the stud through the end cap hole like this, the cap cannot unscrew and hit you in the face.

Direct sear

The trigger acts directly on the sear, which, in turn, locks the piston in the rearward position. I have tried the trigger several times and can tell you that it’s a two-stage design with a very light but positive stop at stage two. I can feel some movement in stage two, but the release is reasonably crisp. There is no provision for adjustment.

Power

I doubt the Zenit will be a powerful air pistol. It’s probably somewhere in the higher 200 f.p.s. region with lightweight lead pellets. But for its day it was at the zenith (pun intended) of performance. It was up against air pistols such as the Haenel 26 and 28, the BSF S20, and the Diana model V. The Zenit wasn’t the most powerful, but it packed more features than any of the others into a nice compact package.

Diana model IV

As I mentioned in the beginning, there were many copies of the Zenit, with the Russians just building the same gun on the same machinery after the wart. Milbro copied it and they came very close. Theirs lacked the rear sight on the cocking lever, as the lever was extended to the end of the pistol and folded over the end cap. That was one of several ways Milbro protected the shooter from the end cap springing back at their face. This pistol was called by numerous names including the Milbro Diana Model Mark IV, the Diana G4, the Milbro G4 (rifled) and the Milbro G4S (smoothbore). In the US this is one that you may see more often than any except the original Zenit.

Summary

We are looking at a strange and fascinating German air pistol from before World War II. This may not be a long series, but it should be an interesting one.

Velocity testing is next. What should I do?

38 thoughts on “The EM GE Zenit air pistol: Part 1

  1. BB,

    Very cool little piece. The front sight with windage and elevation adjustments is pretty cool too,… with easy to see hash marks for both no less!

    How does the barrel/action lock in the closed position? Break barrels have a spring loaded ball and/or chisel lock,.. for example.

    Looking forwards to see what this will do.

    Chris

    As I mentioned in the beginning, there were many copies of the Zenit, with the Russians just building the same gun on the same machinery after the (wart).


  2. BB,

    Someone put a lot of thought into all of the features found in this air pistol. The “design flaw” of the retention pin on the end cap I myself think is quite ingenious, though I would prefer it to protrude into the hole a little further. I am VERY curious as to how this retention pin mechanism functions. I am assuming that it is spring loaded and does not stop the cap from rotating until it is screwed on completely, whereupon it “pops” into the hole.

    The one thing about this air pistol that I do not like is the one thing it has in common with many of the air pistols of this era, the wood grips. I know it will fit the hand well and will be comfortable to shoot, but they always look so clunky to me. Excluding air pistols such as the Webleys, this style of air pistol did not have grips that I cared for until the Diana 6 and 10 target pistols came on the scene.

    Speaking of Webley, I wonder how this compared? 😉


    • RidgeRunner,

      “…but they always look so clunky to me.” Wood* you call the grip frame on a P. O8 9×19mm Parabellum clunky looking?

      shootski

      * would or wouldn’t



        • RidgeRunner,

          So if one cut of the wood behind, above, and ahead of the actual grip replaced it with something closer to the…what would it be called? Lower? Of the PO.8 metal beneath the chamber and barrel you would be good with that? The angle is close to the same and the/a circular trigger guard would look good.

          You may have a point….

          shootski


          • Shootski,

            Like I was saying, I really like the looks of the Diana 6 and 10 target pistols. These just look so wrong to me. The grip parts usually look fine, but all the wood above such usually looks bulgy and awkward. I guess I prefer to have my air pistol look a little more svelte.




  3. It looks like the P1’s father maybe. The overlever makes a longer cocking lever than the barrel would do,
    and the sights are adjustable, so there seems to be some expectation about accuracy. Oil the piston seal,
    and maybe take a peek inside, it may need fresh grease. It has almost no sharp edges on it, looks comfortable to hold in the hand. Great condition, looks expensive to me. Nice find.
    R


  4. BB,
    When I first opened the blog and saw the picture of this pistol it reminded me of the airguns Ingvar Alms used to have on his tables at the airgun shows. His table was usually filled with odd looking airguns that I had never seen before. But, at the time, I was in the acquisition period of basic quality airguns and didn’t pay than much attention to the old and odd airguns. , I wish I had paid more attention to those airguns and talked to Ingvar more. The only thing I ever bought from Ingvar was a Webley Tempest and and one of his pumper scope mounts.

    Back to the EM GE Zenit, I really like the cocking arm and the way it lifts the barrel. I have come to appreciate the many ways clever men came up with to cock and load airguns. This one is particularly clever.

    David Enoch






          • shootski, The ASP20 has been on my list for awhile, but I just ordered a Benji SAM instead. I think the SAM has plenty of ingenuity but I also already have plenty of break barrel airguns but no semi-autos. Of course the SAM would probably be considered to be more ingenious if there had never been a Marauder before it! Now I need to go back and study Gunfun1’s tutorials about how to modify the original Marauder mags.

            Today’s pistol is a beauty. From its lines, it made me think of the Whitney Wolverine or the Remington R51, even though they don’t really look the same. I guess the Zenit is a little space-age looking to me.

            -Cal


            • Calinb,

              I hear you! I had no break barrels before the two ASP20. If the SAM works as well for you as my very early 1st generation Marauder you will be a Happy Camper!

              shootski



              • Gunfun1, I mostly have the discontinued boxed 22 cal. Premieres (several boxes) but maybe I should save them for other guns and buy some readily available HPs for the SAM. Of course I’ll at least try the boxed pellets too to check their performance. Thanks for the general tip about shorter pellets. Are the Premiere HPs actually shorter than the domes? I’ve never measured. Marauder mags are pretty much out of stock everywhere. If I find any, they’ll probably be the old style but I can mod them as you tutored, right? Do you know if Crosman is just going to produce the backward-compatible new style from now on? I hope I can devise a method of changing mags while slung-up prone.

                As I mentioned back when B.B. was reviewing the SAM, I’m very interested in it for the Appleseed course of fire and I’ll probably introduce an Appleseed shoot boss friend of mine to it at an event later this year. Given the shortages of 22 ammo (the most popular round for AS), maybe a “SAM-seed” program would be viable. First, I need to figure out a good mag change method while slung-up in the prone position Seated and standing mag changes will probably be less challenging.

                I may be coming to you with more questions once I receive the rifle.


                • Cal
                  I modded some Gauntlet mags for my SAM too. They worked fine. And PA did get some SAM mags in a little while back but they sold out quick. Sign up for email notification for when they get back in stock is the best I can tell you.

                  And I don’t remember if the hollow point premiers are shorter than the domes. But what I was talking about was the JSB round nose pellets compared to the premier hollow points about them being shorter than the JSB’s.


                  • Great! I like it when plain ‘ol Premiers work the best. They are cheaper than JSB, H&N and RWS. Pellet economy is even more appreciated with a semi-auto! I’ll sign-up for the notification too. I’ve been doing that a lot for firearms reloading supplies and tools lately. 🙁




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