by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
The Johnson Indoor Target Gun is a catapult BB gun that was made in the late 1940s for youth target practice.
A history of airguns
This report covers:
- Who was Johnson?
- The M16
- The gun in hand
Yes, I’m reviewing a Johnson again. For some reason I keep coming back to this one. I did a short piece on December 28 2015, and before that an article on December 22 2005. Finally I did an initial very short introductory piece on October 2, 2005. That’s a lot of articles. So, why am I writing about it again? Well, the gun we are looking at today is a nearly-new Johnson that I got in the box at the Texas Airgun Show this year. It has many thing that I can show you, plus I will do a complete report on this one. So grab your coffee, boys — this series should be good.
Who was Johnson?
Melvin M. Johnson, Jr. (1909-1965) was an Army Ordnance colonel (also a former Marine) who invented several famous battle weapons, the most famous of which was the Model 1941 Johnson rifle. He tried to interest the Army in his rifle over the Garand that had early teething problems, but by the time he got his act together in the late 1930s there was too much momentum (too much money had been spent and too many contracts signed) on the Garand program, and they did not accept his design. The Marine Corps did use his rifle early in the war because there were not enough Garands to equip them. And some rifles were purchased by other countries. I’ll stop here because this report is not about the Johnson rifle, though that rifle is worthy of such a report of its own because of all its design innovations and quirks.
The M1941 Johnson battle rifle was Melvin Johnson’s most significant invention. In very good condition today an untouched example will bring over $5,000, and even rifles that have been modified into sporters will fetch $2,500 and more.
Johnson’s greatest contribution to the military, in my opinion, was the M16. He did not invent the rifle, but he was a major factor in its development in a roundabout way. He invented the cartridge (5.7mm Johnson, also called the .223 Spitfire) that prompted the U.S. Army to experiment with the .222 Remington and to get Remington to enlarge it into the .222 Remington Magnum, before they created their own 5.56mm (.223 Remington) cartridge that spawned the M16. That story also deserves a blog or two.
Johnson necked the .30 caliber Carbine cartridge (left) down to .22 caliber and called it the 5.7mm Johnson. It works perfectly in a converted M1 Carbine.
I own a Carbine that has been converted to shoot the 5.7mm Johnson and it’s cool to shoot the little cartridge that gets 3,000 f.p.s. from a tiny 40-grain .22 caliber bullet. It isn’t that practical, nor is it especially accurate, but it is cool.
Today, however, we are looking not at a firearm but an airgun designed by Johnson — the Indoor Target Gun. The ad below is a page from the 1948 Shooter’s Bible catalog.
Ad from the 1948 Shooter’s Bible
Immediately after the war companies were gearing up to provide civilian goods that had been set on the back burner during the war years. Guns of all types were among the items in the greatest demand, because returning troop s wanted to continue to shoot, now that no one was shooting back.
As you can see from the catalog page, a Johnson cost $15 in 1948. That was when a single shot Winchester model 67 .22 rimfire rifle could be bought for $11.50 and a Daisy Red Ryder went for $4.50 I don’t know what the colonel was thinking with that high price, but it sure wasn’t sales! Imagine if a BB gun powered by a rubber band sold for $157.12 today. That’s what a Johnson would cost in today’s (2018) inflated money. Ironically a used Johnson in the box will fetch about $100+ today, so not much value has been lost over the years.
The gun in hand
I am going to tell you all about the features and performance of this strange gun, but right now I’m going to shift gears and tell you about the particular example that caused me to start this series.
About 20 years ago I was attending an airgun show in St. Louis when I saw a pile of Johnsons that were all new in the box. A single dealer had at least 20 and maybe as many as 30 guns at that show. The prices were affordable, but I have forgotten what they were. I was curious about the gun, but it was the poor condition of the boxes that interested me the most.
They were all deteriorating in similar ways. The lithographed outsides were breaking off in large pieces and the cloth “backstop” that’s glued to the inside top the box was turning to white powder.
The Johnson box was designed to turn into a shooting gallery that had a cheesecloth backstop for the BBs. In that respect it is not unlike the Sharpshooter pistols we looked at recently. A rack with two tiny metal spinners clipped to the front lip of the box, where they served as targets. Look at the picture in the catalog page to see how it works.
As I said in the beginning, I saw the one I’m reporting on at the Texas Airgun Show this year and the box was in the best condition I have ever seen. I have now seen about 40 of these in the box, though some of them may have been the same guns at different shows. This box is faded and coming apart, due to acid paper used in the construction, but it’s still the best one I have seen. This time I did not hesitate. I pulled the trigger, and here we are.
When new this box was bright and beautiful. Acid paper has deteriorated over time.