History of airguns

This report covers:

  • My cane history
  • Making air canes
  • Sealing air canes
  • Shooting air canes
  • All kinds of canes
  • Fascinating hobby

Sorry everyone. This is Monday’s post. WordPress got me again. I did schedule it correctly, but since it is up I will leave it up. Let’s get started

There has recently been a lot of discussion and interest in air canes on this blog. We have even heard tales of them showing up in Sherlock Holmes novels. So today I thought I would present what I know about them.

Here is what reader Hank said last week:

“RR, 

As a teenager I had a chance to checkout a couple of air-canes

A friend’s father had a collection of air-canes and sword-canes. I got to repair one that was around .45 caliber that needed a new leather piston seal. Took a lot of pumps to charge the thing and the muzzle blast was LOUD.

Those things were powerful!  Didn’t see it happen but saw the damage after his father tested the air-cane by shooting it into the fireplace. The shot blew all the ashes into the room and turned several firebricks into gravel. 

Would love to have one of those old air-canes, I’ve often thought of making one.”

Hank

Now, I think Hank repaired the cane’s pump and not the cane itself. The pump would certainly be sealed with leather, but I’ve never seen a cane that was sealed with it.

My cane history

I have owned two air canes in the past. Both were similar, but only one had a rifled barrel insert.

air cane disassembled
This is my last air cane. I have disassembled it to show all the parts. At the top is the ramrod that also has the cane’s brass tip for when it’s used as a cane. I screws onto the end of the cane. Below that is a rifled barrel that screws into the smoothbore barrel. Below that is the smoothbore barrel that’s attached to the cane’s firing lock. Just to the right of the lock is the cane’s valve that screws into the large black section just below. That is the air reservoir that fills through the valve when a hand pump is attached. At the bottom is the lower part of the cane that the lock and barrel slides into to conceal it. There is a small hole in this part just forward of the join line where the trigger, which is a black button, pops out when the action is cocked.

air cane cocking
Here you see the air cane’s cocking socket on the right. 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 lower left.

The cane shown in these two pictures wasn’t sealed when I had it, but I did have an earlier cane that had a smoothbore barrel and was in firing condition. No doubt it had a rifled barrel when it was initially purchased around 1900-1920, but that part was not with the cane when I acquired it.

Making air canes

Pneumatic canes were produced by some large makers, who used their own workers plus the collective output of many cottage industries. For example, things like leaf springs were a specialized item and you didn’t make them, you bought them. The cane makers 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 lock to fit inside the housing used by his principal customer, the cane maker. And that is all he did. He was motivated to work within the envelope of his customer’s design, so to speak. And he probably bought his leaf springs from a different maker.

A barrelmaker probably knew very little about making a reservoir or a valve, but he probably made barrels for everyone in the trade.  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 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.

Sealing air canes

Many air canes date back to the 19th century and even back to the early part of that century. That was a time before there were modern synthetics to seal the pneumatic valves. What they used was what had been used to seal airgun valves for many centuries before that — the horn of a ram. A skilled craftsman would carefully cut a section of ram’s horn to fit the recess where the seal was needed, then he lapped it in place with a tool and with rotating pressure, using chalk for the lubricant. When the seal started squealing like a vixen fox in heat, the seal was perfect. Such a seal could hold a charge of air for many hours or even for days.

Shooting air canes

Many air cane owners shoot their guns regularly. I used to shoot mine a lot. As I just mentioned, the original air valve had been 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 — that is if you use CO2. In my experience you get shots that are more powerful when you fill with air than with CO2, but there are fewer shots per fill. With either gas the final few shots will be so weak that they’re not worth the effort. However, 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. That’s what caliber my shooter was. A greased or oiled patch does not improve accuracy nor velocity, as long as the ball fits the bore reasonably well when dry.

The rifled barrel that’s inserted was smaller. I remember that mine was around .30 to .32 caliber.

Back to loading the smoothbore. 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).

air cane shooting
David Yost shoots my air cane that I bought 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!

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All kinds of canes

I used to see all sorts of air canes at airgun shows in the 1990s. There were exquisite cased canes that came with their original hand pump and the tools to cast balls to shoot. Outfits like this cost $2,500 and up in the days when gasoline cost $1.16 per gallon. BB didn’t have that kind of money, so it was all looky and no touchy.

But a working basic cane could be purchased for $400-450 in those days. That’s what BB could afford, so that is what he bought.

I also saw unique canes that looked like real walking sticks. One of the common yet unique styles was the bent cane. It was one level of sophistication above the straight cane. Its steel reservoir is curved gracefully to showcase the maker’s skill. 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.

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

Then there are the shillelagh canes. Their outsides have knobs that are just like those found on blackthorn sticks and one of them that I saw was actually housed inside a real blackthorn! I have seen a couple of them at airgun shows, but the most unique one I ever saw had a ball flask where the cudgel was.

Where traditional shillelagh air canes are built with spots of spot-welded steel or brazed brass to simulate the knobs of an Irish blackthorn branch, this particular cane was 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.

shillelagh air cane                                                      
This rare shillelagh air cane is housed inside a genuine blackthorn stick! The cudgel is a ball reservoir.

air cane cudgel
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.

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.