A rare Quackenbush pistol comes to light

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • From Airgun Revue
  • Wes Powers find!
  • Toy pistol?
  • Powered by rubber bands

I had a glitch writing today’s historical blog, so I pulled in this one from the past. Oddly, Edith did the same thing when I was unconscious on a ventilator in the hospital several years ago. At any rate, it belongs in the historical section.

From Airgun Revue

The following appeared in Airgun Revue #6, which was published in 2000. While this blog is kind of short, I’ve always had a strange liking for this little pistol because it reminds me of the Haviland & Gunn pistol Edith found at a flea market for $5.

Over 125 years old, yet no one’s ever heard of this gun!

Collector Wes Powers displayed this rare Quackenbush toy pistol at the 1999 airgun show in Baldwinsville, New York. He described the moment he first saw it, saying he knew it must be a Quackenbush or at least a near-relative, but it was a gun he’d never seen before. That’s saying something because collectors know that when West finds something new it must be REALLY rare!

He was even able to track down the patent application for the gun. The fact that Quackenbush referred to it as a “toy” pistol is especially interesting, because the gun was and is capable of launching a .22 caliber round ball with some force!

The language of the patent makes it sound as though the gun was meant to be a simple but powerful cap pistol; but the barrel is bored through, and it will accept a round ball.

This gun fits into a number of categories. It’s very much like the zimmerstutzen guns I’ve written about, especially the older ones that used percussion caps to launch lead balls.

It’s also a lot like the cap-firing BB guns I’ve written about.

Wes demonstrates how the firing hammer pivots sideways to put on the percussion cap. The rubber bands that power the hammer have been removed for clarity.

A closeup of the hammer pivoting sideways reveals the nipple for loading. If there were a rubber band on the gun, doing this would allow you to safely load the cap.

A curious thing about this toy pistol is the way the hammer is powered. Instead of the traditional coiled mainspring, this pistol uses rubber bands to slam the hammer down on the percussion cap! On the front of the frame, two wire hooks anchor both ends of a rubber band, which passes around the hammer. When the hammer is pulled back, the band stretches, storing up potential energy for when the trigger is pulled. It’s an ingenious method, not to mention how it lowers production costs, simplifies construction and gets the user involved in the design (they have to replace the band when it breaks!).

The Quackenbush Lightning air rifle used elastic bands in a similar fashion to power the piston of what was an early spring air rifle. That gun is rare enough by itself, but the gun featured in this article has never been written about. Thanks to Wes for sharing his find.

Changing from lead shot to steel

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • The first lead BB
  • Size matters
  • Advantages of air rifle shot
  • The dawn of steel shot
  • How lead shot tubes work
  • How steel shot tubes work
  • This information is worth millions

The first lead BB

When BB guns were new in the 1880s, they shot lead shotgun shot in the size BB. That’s where the name BB gun comes from. BBs were nominally 0.180-inches in diameter. Nominally means that they were supposed to be about that size and they were sorted by screens to ensure they were all close to that size, but let’s be honest — does it really matter whether a single piece of birdshot in actually 0.180-inches or 0.182-inches? Not to a shotgunner, it doesn’t. Maybe uniform shot gives a more uniform pattern, but there are other factors to consider, as well, and shot uniformity is only one of many things.

Size matters

For a BB gun, however, the size of the shot makes all the difference in the world! A single ball moves through a smooth bore that has to fit closely or power will be lost and accuracy will suffer. If the ball is too large it will stick in the bore. A size difference of just a few thousandths of an inch has a tremendous impact on the functioning of the airgun. So — while the lead BB shot was a good beginning, it was also a drawback that had to be overcome before the BB gun could evolve.

Most manufacturers were aware of the shot size problem, but Daisy soon became large enough to do something about it. Just after the turn of the 20th century they reduced the size of the shot to 0.175-inches and called it air rifle shot. That name was used by them for almost a century, though they are now calling their ammunition BBs like everyone else. They convinced shot makers to make the new air rifle shot that had no application for shotguns. Sure, it could be used, but there was no load data for the odd size and therefore no reason shot makers would make it for anything but air rifles. Making the shot smaller had several obvious advantages and one that was not so obvious.

Advantages of air rifle shot

Smaller shot used less lead, saving money. When the numbers produced run into the millions and billions, even a small difference mounts up! The smaller shot was also lighter, which boosted the velocity of the guns. But it also meant that the mainsprings could be weakened and still produce the same velocity that they got with the BB shot. That was what they did. They weren’t looking for greater velocity; they wanted easier cocking.

The hidden advantage was the fact that the new shot size was proprietary. As long as someone (Daisy) controlled quality (the size of the shot) through acceptance inspections, the problems of BBs getting jammed in the shot tube became a thing of the past. This new lead shot lasted from early in the century until sometime in the 1920s.

The dawn of steel shot

In the middle ’20s, Daisy started receiving returns of shot tubes that were split and filled with steel balls jammed inside. Cass Hough, grandson of Daisy’s founder and later president of the company himself, tracked the problem to Minneapolis, where he discovered the American Ball Company, a maker of ball bearings, was selling their scrap bearings of the appropriate size to local boys. There were three problems with this. First, these balls were not lead and did not work with the shot tubes in the air rifles that were then on the market. I will explain why in a moment The second problem is because they were steel, not only did they not work, they also ruined the breeches of the shot tubes in which they were used. And the third problem was the quality (shot size) standards of American Ball were too low, resulting in steel shot that was both oversized and undersized.

How lead shot tubes work

Shot tubes designed for lead shot have a constriction in their breech that stops the shot from passing through. Until the gun fires and the air tube on the front of the plunger pushes the shot through this constriction, the shot remains in the breech regardless of how the gun is held. As long as the ball is made of lead, this works well.

When the ball is made of steel, though, it doesn’t deform when pushed through the shot tube. So American Ball selected steel balls that were a little smaller than air rifle shot. While they did pass through the constriction most of the time (as long as the shot sizes were consistent), they also hammered the constriction out of the breech over the course of time. Maybe it took 30,000 shots, but kids did shoot their guns that much. Eventually the gun would start shooting two BBs at a time instead of just one. That’s a sure sign that the shot tube has been hammered by steel shot. Also, in some guns the shot would just roll out of the tube when the muzzle was held down. Another sure sign. The fix was simple enough — buy a replacement shot tube from Daisy. But not too many people knew to do that, so many older BB gun shot tubes were destroyed.

How steel shot tubes work

To hold a steel BB in place, Daisy and others relied on a thin wire spring instead of the constriction. The BB was held in the breech mechanically until pushed forward by the air tube. This worked great for the next 55-60 years.

shot tubes
The shot tube for lead balls (right) has a constriction at the breech. It’s inside the tube and doesn’t show up in a photo. The shot tube for steel BBs (left) has a wire spring to hold the BB in place. Either tube will fit all Daisy number 25 guns made since 1913.

Today they use rare earth magnets to hold BBs in place. These were not available back in the late 1920s when the switch was made from lead to steel, but they are very handy today. They work well and don’t wear out as the wire springs sometimes did.

modern shot tube
The rear of a modern Red Ryder shot tube looks like this. This tube fits inside the outer barrel jacket of the gun. An inclined slope feeds the BBs down to the breech, where a powerful magnet holds each one in place for the next shot.

This information is worth millions

I’m sure today’s report seems like a bit of trivia regurgitated by an old man. That’s what old men do. Well, about 16-18 years ago, this old man helped save the Daisy Manufacturing Company from a damaging and very costly lawsuit with some of the information you have read today. The Consumer Product Safety Commission contacted me to question me about what they claimed was an inherent design flaw in most Daisy BB guns. They used gravity to feed the BBs. That last picture of a modern shot tube is one that Daisy sent me to use in our discussions.

The thrust of their lawsuit was that gravity-fed systems were inherently unreliable for feeding ammunition. They wanted me to testify to that in court. If they won they planned to force Daisy to cease production of all their models that are gravity-fed (the Red Ryder?) and pay a large penalty.

I met the lawyer from the CPSC at the field target (DIFTA) range in Maryland and we discussed the Daisy design. He told me a young person had been shot by a BB gun that must have held a BB and then released it suddenly, because the youth shot another kid with what he thought was an empty gun!

He told me they had tried at the CPSC to replicate that type of fault with another Daisy BB gun, but were unsuccessful. But maybe someone like me with experience shooting BB guns would know how common a thing this was?

I told him I had never heard of it happening. I didn’t doubt that it could happen under certain circumstances, but it would be a one-in-a-million occurrence. I then informed him that I saw four serious flaws in the CPSC case.

1. Military firearms have used gravity-feed mechanisms for over a century, starting with the Gatling gun. Gravity feed works. He didn’t know that.

2. The boy who did the shooting should never have pointed a gun of any kind at another person. That is the first rule of safe gun handling and it would be brought out in court. Either the shooter was not trained to handle guns (very likely) or the parents were not supervising him (also likely) or the parents had not taken reasonable precautions to secure the gun when they were not able to supervise its use (also likely). Instead of a gun design flaw, this case was about a family flaw and a lack of training and supervision. Something similar could have happened with a knife, a bow and arrow or matches.

3. One never checks whether a BB gun is loaded by shaking the gun (which the CPSC lawyer told me the shooter had done, and which he also did with his sample BB gun to show me how it was done). That will not work when the gun’s  magazine is spring-loaded and force-fed. The defense attorney could use this information, maybe not with the shooter who was too young to testify, but with one of his parents. And you can forget rehearsing them for the trial. There are hundreds of small details like this that could be asked to demonstrate their lack of knowledge about how BB guns function.

4. The shooter had given the number one excuse why the “accident” happened. He was “sure” the gun was empty. Go back to point number two and read it again. There is no excuse for pointing a gun at someone, and certainly no excuse for firing at them! This excuse is the one that’s always given, “I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” It is such a cliche that a song was written by the same title.

Three months after meeting with the lawyer, I was informed of two things by Daisy’s legal department. First, I was told that lawyer I had spoken to had resigned from the CPSC. And second, the CPSC dropped their lawsuit in return for Daisy adding some safety information to each boxed gun they sold.

Boring or not — this information is valuable!

The rise of the BB gun: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

Part 2

This report covers:

  • The first BB gun
  • Plymouth Iron Windmill Co.
  • The BB becomes air rifle shot
  • Quality control problems
  • You’ll shoot your eye out
  • World War II
  • After the war

The first BB gun

This is a comprehensive report of the early history of the BB gun. The first successful BB gun is thought to be the Markham. It was made in 1886 in Plymouth, Michigan by the Markham Air Rifle Company. The gun was mostly wood with just a few metal parts where they were absolutely needed — such as the mainspring, trigger, barrel, barrel hinge and other assorted small parts. It looked a little like a gun overall, but the shape was fatter all around because of the wooden parts.

Markham BB gun
Markham BB gun was made of wood with a few metal parts. This is a later 1888 model, but the early guns looked similar.

The gun was cocked by breaking the barrel down. A heavy wire connected to the barrel pushed the plunger ( a wire with a round airtight seal at the front — it was an early form of piston) back until it was caught by the trigger, whose end served as the sear. A coiled steel spring located below the piston was now stretched and ready to pull the piston forward violently when released by the sear. The plunger compressed the air in front of it as it went, but the air was blocked by a small lead ball that was loaded in the breech end of the barrel. When the pressure built high enough, the ball’s friction was overcome and it took off down the smooth metal barrel concealed inside a brown wood shroud.

Markham BB gun open
Markham BB gun broke open like this when cocked.

Markham BB gun hinge
A furniture hinge held the barrel to the rest of the gun.

The Markham used easy-to-find lead birdshot (shotgun shot) for projectiles. They standardized on the shot size BB — there was also a size B and a size BBB. BB shot measures 0.180-inches in diameter, nominally.

Plymouth Iron Windmill Co.

Across the street from Markham, The Plymouth Iron Windmill Company was making and selling iron windmills to farmers to run their water pumps. These windmills were expensive and difficult to sell, so the company looked for other products that might keep them going. One day a local firearm inventor named Clarence Hamilton, who is better known for the several youth .22 rimfire rifles he designed and produced, brought in a small gun to show to the Iron Windmill president, Lewis Cass Hough. He cocked it, then dropped a lead BB shot down the muzzle and shot it into a wastepaper basket. Hough was impressed and shot the gun several times himself. When he was finished he is reported to have said, “Clarence, that’s a Daisy!” In the vernacular of the day he was saying the gun was fantastic.

first Daisy
The first Daisy BB gun was all metal. This is a working replica Daisy produced in 2005.

The story has arisen that the windmill company made guns to give away as premiums with the purchase of iron windmills, but advanced BB gun collector Wes Powers thinks that’s a stretch. According to him, there is no proof that was ever done. The company was simply looking for additional products they could make to improve their business, and with the Markham BB gun doing so well across the street, this gun seemed like a good way to go. Whatever the case, they made their first gun is late 1887 and started selling in early 1888.

The name Daisy first appeared on the gun after a few were made with just the name Plymouth Iron Windmill Company cast into the top iron cocking handle. But the Daisy name stuck. In 1895 the company reorganized as the Daisy Manufacturing Company and they were off to the races.

As far as most people know, Daisy was the only game going, but in fact it was more of a race among dozens of startup companies to make and sell BB guns. Michigan was the epicenter, but guns were made in other regions and states as well. While the competition was very heated for several decades, Daisy advertised heavily and also pursued sales to stores through aggressive traveling salesmen. The others relied on word of mouth and eventually they went away — except for Markham. Daisy quietly took over control in 1916 and used Markham as a cheaper line they could sell through different distribution channels like Sears. They renamed the company the King Air Rifle Company in the 1920s and Daisy officials started to populate their executive staff and board of directors.

The BB becomes air rifle shot

Daisy was the major player in the BB gun world by the first decade of the 20th century. In that capacity, they were able to prevail on the makers of lead shot to produce a ball that measured 0.175-inches in diameter. There were several advantages to this smaller shot. First, it was lighter, so it went faster than the old BB shot. That meant BB guns could have weaker mainspring and still achieve the same velocity as before. Weaker springs meant the guns became easier to cock — a very significant advantage! The smaller shot also used less lead that saved money when millions of them were made. Daisy wasn’t making shot at the time, but they would begin in a few years.

They named this new ammunition air rifle shot to differentiate it from BB shot, and it occupied a unique place in the spectrum of shot. No equivalent shotgun shot was made in this size, so the BB gun — ironically no longer shooting BBs — separated itself from the world of birdshot at this juncture. It also lead to the serendipitous invention of the steel BB — or air rifle shot, as it should be called. I will continue to call this shot BBs, to avoid confusion.

Quality control problems

Before long, the new smaller shot tubes began to be returned to Daisy for repairs! The faulty shot tubes (that were actually the barrels) were split and had one or more steel balls stuck in them. Cass Hough, the grandson of the founder, traced these problem guns to Minneapolis, where he discovered that the American Ball Company — a maker of ball bearings — was packaging its scrap balls of the appropriate size into small tubes and selling them as the Bullseye brand of air rifle shot. The problem was these balls were steel, not lead. The shot tubes needed lead balls to function properly, because they depended on the lead squeezing through a constriction in the breech at the instant of firing. Steel balls didn’t deform, and eventually they removed the constriction altogether — ruining the shot tube. American Ball was also not controlling the size of the balls closely enough, which lead to the jams and split shot tubes.

Daisy tried telling its customers that only lead air rifle shot would work in their guns, but the steel shot was cheaper and it was a losing battle. So Daisy redesigned their shot tubes to accommodate steel shot and worked out an agreement with American Ball for the continuation of the Bullseye brand with Daisy participation. This happened in 1928 and lasted until 1939, when Daisy acquired American Ball and moved the shot making business in-house. The Bullseye brand name for air rifle shot continued into at least the early 1970s.

You’ll shoot your eye out

When the switch was made from lead shot to steel there was a hidden disadvantage that didn’t surface for several years. When lead shot hits something hard like a rock or a tree at high velocity, it deforms and loses much of its energy. Steel shot doesn’t deform. Steel will rebound from hard surfaces with almost the same velocity that it impacts, and a lot of kids were finding that out the hard way. I have been hit in the face by a steel BB rebounding from a hard surface 33 feet away and my lip was split by the impact. I always wear safety classes whenever I shoot modern BB guns at anything! You should, too.

World War II

Daisy suspended BB gun manufacture during the war and switched over to defense projects like the rest of American industry. Cass Hough, who would later lead the company, joined the Army Air Force and became a rather famous fighter pilot. Among other things, he acted as a test pilot and is believed by many to have been the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1943 in a power dive in a P38 Lightning fighter over England. Supposedly a sonic boom was heard. You don’t hear much about that achievement because propeller planes are not supposed to go that fast and because Chuck Yeager was the first person to do it in level flight in 1947, which is where the record is assigned.

After the war

After the war Daisy scrambled to get back to peacetime operations, but shortages of key materials like steel hindered them. Steel BBs were not made for some time after the war, so experiments were made with aluminum BBs. They did not fly straight and were quickly abandoned — making them a rare collectible today.

By the late 1940s Daisy was back in full production and positioned to advance the BB gun for many more decades. This report will end here, but I will return and finish the story of the BB gun at some time in the future.