The bellows gun — a blast from the past

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • A mechanical blowgun
  • How it works
  • Comparison to a blowgun
  • Springs
  • Shape of the gun
  • Breechloaders
  • Triggers
  • Accuracy?
  • Rare?
  • DIY?

I was surprised several days ago when a couple readers told me they thought a bellows gun was some kind of pneumatic, after I had written i9n a report that it’s a spring gun. Today we will find out what a bellows gun is.

The bellows gun is thought to be one of the oldest airgun designs. Some writers say it may be older than the precharged gun. There is convincing evidence that bellows guns existed in the 1500s, which is when precharged guns are also thought to have started. They seem to have been made well into the 19th century — so their span of production is very long.

Bellows guns have shot several different projectiles like hard clay pellets and even lead balls, but darts are by far the most favored projectiles. Their darts aren’t like the airgun darts we see today. They are longer, larger diameter and their tails have long natural hairs plucked from game. Each individual dart was apparently regulated for accuracy by removing the hairs from its tail, one at a time. I guess this reduced their drag, and perhaps caused them to travel in a certain direction.

These darts also had one dark hair that was called a guide hair. It was used to orient the dart in the breech the same way every time it was loaded. Shooters found that by consistent loading, their accuracy improved. Schuetzen shooters do the same thing when they load their cartridge cases into the breech in the same orientation every time.

antique airgun dart
Darts for bellows guns were longer than today’s darts. They had one dark guide hair, so they were always loaded in the same orientation.

A mechanical blowgun

The bellows gun is simpler than the precharged gun because it contains no valves. That is a strong argument for this design being earlier than the precharged gun, since the valve I discussed in my report on The first pneumatic gun was state-of-the-art for its day. The bellows gun needs no valve because it doesn’t work in the same way.

How it works

You all know how a blowgun works. You hold the blowpipe to your mouth and blow air sharply through the mouthpiece, propelling the projectile out of the pipe. Your lungs are powered by your chest muscles — mostly by your diaphragm that pushes upward to force air out of your lungs rapidly.

A bellows gun uses bellows instead of lungs to do the same thing. You all probably know what bellows are. They are a simple wind pump that has a one-way air valve. The air comes into the air chamber when the bellows handles are pulled apart, but cannot leave that way because the valve closes. The simplest form of a bellows is two wood pieces held together by a pleated leather piece that forms a flexible airtight chamber.

Air is taken in through the one-way valve when the bellows are opened and it’s forced out the nozzle rapidly when the bellows are closed. Normally you use your hands to close the bellows, but in a bellows gun, a powerful V spring is substituted.

bellows
The bellows is a simple wind pump.

Comparison to a blowgun

The blowgun uses air that’s not compressed very much. It is the rapid application of the air that starts the dart moving in the blowpipe and continues the acceleration until the dart leaves the muzzle. Even with air compressed by only your lungs, the dart flies very fast. It’s almost too fast to see.

A bellows gun compresses less air than your lungs hold. There is less volume inside the bellows system than there is in your lungs, but it all gets used. It is almost impossible to exhale all the air from the lungs. So the two are roughly equivalent. But the bellows act faster than your diaphragm. So the small lightweight dart they propel goes out the muzzle at a respectable clip. I have no data on velocity, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a bellows gun propels its darts at up to 300 f.p.s.

This may sound slow to airgunners, but remember — this gun is shooting darts! Darts have sharp points that stick deep in whatever target they strike. You don’t want a lot of velocity for them or you’ll never get them out of the target.

Springs

Remember the time frame for the first bellows system, because this is important to understanding its design. Coiled springs hadn’t been invented yet, so the bellows gun made do with V springs. One side of the bellows was anchored and the other side was free to move. It moved against a powerful V spring that was under tension, once the moving side of the bellows was caught by the trigger’s sear.

When the sear released the movable bellows side, it was forced together with the fixed side rapidly, resulting in a puff of air that was not unlike what you do with your lungs to fire a blowgun. Only the V spring acted quicker than you can blow, so the puff was stronger. The air was forced behind the projectile in the breech — in the same way you exhale a puff of air into the mouthpiece of a blowgun to propel a dart.

So, the bellows gun is a spring-type airgun. The bellows takes the place of a piston and compresses far more air to a much lower pressure.

Shape of the gun

There has to be room inside the gun for the bellows. The buttstock was made much wider and was hollow inside to house the bellows. All bellows guns have this shape. Once you have seen a couple you will be able to spot them every time you encounter a different one.

bellows butt
The butt of the bellows gun is both deeper and wider to accommodate the bellows inside. The square shaft fits a long spanner that’s used to cock the gun. The split wood at the bottom of the butt is for disassembly of the butt to maintain the bellows.

bellows gun
Most bellows guns look like this. A deep wide butt and wood to the end of the barrel.

Breechloaders

All bellows guns I have seen have been breechloaders. And several have used the wood forearm of the stock to serve as the spring to close the barrel after loading! The long wood forearm actually flexes when the barrel is opened. This is scary when you are handling a gun you know to be several centuries old, but it does work.

Triggers

Triggers are where the bellows gun excelled. They are nearly always double set triggers (I have never seen any other kind) with the rear trigger being pulled to set the front trigger. These triggers are the ones that brought the term “hair trigger” into existence. They can be adjusted so light that they will fire when the gun is rotated from the horizontal to the vertical. The weight of the trigger blade by itself is enough to set them off. The front trigger blade is usually so thin that it bends as pressure is applied.

Accuracy?

I read a lot about the stunning accuracy of bellows dart guns, but I reserve judgement until I see it for myself. I have read accounts of placing one dart on top of another at 45 feet. Maybe that’s possible, but as I said — I reserve judgement. No doubt they seemed accurate compared to what went before, which was nothing.,

Rare?

I have seen about 20 bellows guns in my time as an adult airgunner. Some of the guns I have seen may have been the same guns in different hands. They certainly are not that common. I think there must be several hundred that still exist somewhere, so to answer the question — yes, they are quite rare.

And they are fragile. The passing centuries have left most bellows guns is a very fragile state. I have heard of one or two that have been restored to working condition, but even then I think they are just used for special occasions. They are not everyday shooters.

DIY?

Of all the airguns that exist. the bellows gun is one of the easiest to replicate. I have seen several homemade guns that worked quite well. They all lacked the sophistication of the antique models, but they did function well. On 50 psi they will send darts through Luan wallboard with ease. If you are looking for a project airgun to make, this would be the place to begin.


Gallery dart gun: Part 2

by B.B. Pelletier

Part 1


David Lurch Primary New York City gallery gun.

You readers have been very patient waiting for the next installment on this report! For that, I thank you. This project is taking a long time because it isn’t on the front burner (it probably isn’t even on the stove!) and because this is the kind of project in which you must “make haste slowly.”

Last time, I described the gun (it’s a smoothbore, so it’s not a rifle) and told you some of the general, as well as some specific, history of this particular example. Today, I want to honor Mr. Duskwight, our Muscovite blog reader who’s actively building a recoilless spring-piston rifle of his own design! Duskwight became fascinated with the performance of the Whiscombe air rifle and decided he could build one. Many of us have said similar things, but in this case the conviction remained even after he sobered up; and he’s spent many long months and a LOT of money making his dream come true.

By watching what happened to him, we’ve learned just how difficult and risky it is to build something from scratch. You don’t just tackle the technical job with all its intricacies and challenges. You also take on the entire socio-economic profile of your society, enduring substandard work, business failures, technical incompetence and on and on.

What I’ll show you today has one additional complexity added to the story. The builders didn’t have access to modern machine tools! Most of what you are going to see was made with files and hand labor. The metal hardening was done using a forge and eyeball, carefully judging the state of the metal by its color. If anything had to be timed, they did it with a pocketwatch instead of a digital timer linked to a time standard.

And the design came from someone’s head! There probably were no drawings in the “factory,” which was really just a quiet workshop. If they required anything to go by, there were possibly pattern parts that journeymen makers copied. While it’s true that what you are going to see is very simplistic, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s simple to do! Each part has to fit, and each part has a specific job to do if the whole item is to work as intended.

Enough talk, let’s see what this baby looks like. The first thing I will show is the new crank that Dennis Quackenbush made for the rifle.

Like the gun itself, this crank looks deceptively simple. It’s just a gear and a handle to turn it. Yes, but that gear isn’t as simple as it appears. Dennis has made cranks like this before, so he thought this one would be straightforward. He asked me for the width of the hole the gear fits into, as well as the width of a second hole on the inside of the gun that serves as a bearing for the crank once it’s inserted. I gave him those two dimensions, and within a month he sent me a pinion gear with instructions to try to fit it to the rack gear inside the gun.

I did, and it was a no-go. Dennis thought it would simply be a case of cutting a new gear that had more teeth; in his experience, these gears had one of only two different numbers of teeth on the pinion gear. Unfortunately, that wasn’t it, either! We were stumped. He had to see the gun.

We met at this year’s LASSO shoot, and he got the chance to examine the gun. When he did, he discovered that the rack gear in my gun is different from any other he’s seen. Apparently, David Lurch, who made the gun, had a better idea. He filed the rack gear teeth on a bias; as the crank is turned, the handle is also pulled tight against the mechanism because of the angle of the meshing teeth. A straight-cut gear cannot mesh with teeth cut on a bias, even when the number of teeth are the same because they aren’t set at the correct angle.

This time, Dennis took the gun home with him so he could cut the new pinion gear to the corresponding angle. He delivered the new crank assembly at the Malvern airgun show, and as you can see, it fits perfectly. He intentionally did not harden the new pinion gear because he wanted it to be the sacrificial part on the gun. The gun’s rack gear is hardened. If anything fails in operation, it’ll be this gear, which can always be remade. But he didn’t stop there.


The crank Dennis made fits the gallery gun very well. It’s still shiny, but I will take care of that with a browned finish later.


The crank turns the pinion gear, which engages the rack gear attached to the piston, withdrawing it as the springs are compressed.

Dennis contacted collector Larry Hannusch, who was kind enough to disassemble one of his Primary New York City gallery dart guns and remove the double volute spring mechanism so Dennis could have a look at it. Larry had seen my gallery gun at the Malvern airgun show the year before and was quite taken by it — as most collectors are. It’s not that this is an especially beautiful example, or that it’s extremely rare. It’s just that each one of these guns was made by hand, so every one is a collection unto itself. Just as Duskwight will be forever proud of all the effort he puts into his new rifle, so we can appreciate all the labor and skill that went into making one of these dart guns in the 1860s.

Larry brought the spring mechanism from his gallery gun and Dennis took measurements. He plans on making a new double-volute mainspring assembly for my gun. This will be the first time he’s made one of these springs; and to my knowledge, it hasn’t been done in recent times. It’s very possible that someone has made one and just not written about it, of course; but as far as I know, this will be the first time a double-volute mainspring has been made and documented in modern times. The documentation is important. How are we going to know about these old dart guns if we can’t test them? And nobody seems to be writing about them, so I guess I’m going to be the first one.

Last year at Malvern, Larry Hannusch showed me how to disassemble my gun. It proved about as easy as disassembling a Garand, but I had shied away from trying because of the age of the airgun. I really thought the gun would be fragile. But after seeing how things go together and how robust the parts are, I have confidence that I can work on this gun just as easily as I would a modern spring rifle.

A gallery gun works just like any other spring-piston airgun. The piston is driven forward by springs, rapidly compressing air in front of it that pushes the dart out the barrel. The big difference in this Lurch gallery gun is that the piston is very large (over 1.5-inches in diameter), and the piston stroke is quite long (about three inches). Those volute springs I thought were so fragile are probably far more robust than coiled steel wire springs. Seeing them up close and examining their potential travel gave me a new appreciation for the ingenuity of these old gun makers.


This is a gallery gun piston with its two volute springs and a spring guide that you cannot see. Notice that this piston seal doesn’t look like mine, which you’ll soon see. Mine is a replacement that needs to be trimmed.


The rear spring has been removed, and you can now see the spring guide that sits between both springs. Notice the piston rod is the rack gear that the crank works with to cock the gun.


Here you see how a volute spring works. It’s a coiled steel bar that’s pulled into this cone shape before hardening. It’s incredibly strong, plus it has a huge length of travel before becoming fully compressed.


This is the piston assembly with springs and spring guide. The tiny notch seen on the side of the piston rod opposite the rack gear teeth is the sear notch, properly called the “bent” at the point in time this gun was made. That’s what the trigger holds onto!

Are you enjoying this so far? Well, there’s more to come. Now, I’ll disassemble my gallery gun and show you the parts we’ve been talking about.


The compression chamber simply unscrews from the action of the gun. There’s no fastener holding the two assemblies together other than the threads seen here. You can actually see the color-hardening of the piston rod that has the rack gear teeth, but I’ll show it closer.


The rear screw is removed from the triggerguard, which is then unscrewed from the action. The front of the hand-filed brass guard is a screw!


Two screws are removed, and the wooden butt is separated from the action. You can see the rear of the piston rod in this view.


In this view, you can see the entire piston rod. The sear notch is also visible, opposite the rack gear teeth. Each gear tooth was filed by hand. Notice how much excess leather hangs down from the piston head.


The piston rod was hardened to a medium blue, which is pretty hard! The excess leather on the seal really stands out.


Here you can see that the gear teeth were cut on a bias to pull the cocking crank tight into the gun when it’s wound.


The side of the brass triggerguard still shows the marks of the maker’s file that shaped the piece to fit the gun after it was cast.

Well, that’s what the inside of a 150-year-old handmade airgun looks like. Dennis is going to make a pair of volute springs for me, but in the meantime I may try to get the gun operational with a coiled steel spring. It won’t be ideal, but it may provide me with a platform for testing the darts that I’m going to have to make.

The caliber appears to be exactly .25, as a .256 bullet will stop after entering the breech. So, I may be able to find large .25-caliber pellets that fit, and there may even be a .25-caliber dart I can find.

The bore is pretty ugly from the neglect of more than a century, so that will be my next task. I don’t know when I will return to this airgun again, but you can rest assured that it’s in the queue.

I found my silver dime!
In other news, my silver dime has returned! It was hidden under a Post-It note on a desk I’d used temporarily when changing computers several weeks ago. So, you will be seeing silver soon.


Gallery dart gun – Part 1

by B.B. Pelletier

Today, I want to share my Christmas gift with you. It came along as I was undecided what I wanted, and it presented itself so forcefully that I knew it had selected me.

A couple months ago, I put a bid on Gun Broker for a Primary New York City gallery dart gun made by David Lurch. I’ll tell you what kind of airgun this is.

When the American Civil War began, the North was hampered because many men coming to fight had no skills or even familiarity with shooting. In the South, it was the other way around. Shooting was both an accepted sport and a means of subsistence for many, so their soldiers needed very little in the way of training beyond familiarity with the arms they were issued. The Northern soldiers needed much more training.

At the end of the war, several generals such as Sherman and Grant agreed that American men needed basic training in the shooting sports to ensure that they would be ready to go to war if the cause ever arose. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1873 for the explicit purpose of training American men to shoot.

The soldiers returning home after the ware were now well-inculcated in the shooting sports and didn’t necessarily want to stop. Across the Eastern U.S., shooting galleries sprang up in every village and town. It was not unlike the trampoline parks of the 1960s, or the go-cart tracks of later years, and lasting even until today. Shooting became the social thing to do, and everybody wanted to do it. Even women joined in as the galleries and shooting clubs proliferated.

In the galleries, the most common gun was the .22 rimfire, shooting either shorts or CB caps. But, there was another option. For much more than the cost of a .22 rimfire rifle, a gallery operator could buy an airgun that shot darts. Twenty-eight caliber was the most popular for these gallery guns at the time, though .25 cal. was also in vogue. The reason an operator might pay five times as much as a firearm to buy an airgun was because the ammunition was reusable. The cost to operate the gun dropped close to zero. Hence, these guns could make far more money than a rimfire in a shooting gallery.

Small wonder that gallery owners were willing to pay from $20 all the way up to $35 for a really fancy repeating airgun. Once bought, the guns needed next to no maintenance. They didn’t even need to be cleaned! And, the darts lasted almost forever if they were cared for properly. So, you had a gun you could shoot for nothing. That’s an airgunner’s dream…even today.

The guns were made by hand in several regions around the United States. They all have similar characteristics, but regional differences are very rigidly defined. An inexpensive variation of the gallery gun was cheap enough to be owned by individuals. This is the triggerguard-lever-cocking gun, or the bugelspanner. Perhaps, in the future, I’ll do a report on bugelspanners, but the subject of today’s report is a different type of gallery gun altogether. In Eldon Wolff’s book, Air Guns, it’s identified as the Primary New York City type.


David Lurch Primary New York City gallery gun.

The Primary New York City gallery gun is larger and much heavier than a buglespanner that might weigh 6 lbs. My example weighs 7.25 lbs. and is 44 inches long. The barrel is a whopping 21.5 inches long and does not affect the overall length that much because of a very compact powerplant.

The iron barrel is an untapered octagon. It measures 0.75″ across the flats at the muzzle, which leaves a lot of metal around the .28 caliber bore.

The powerplant is a spring-piston type that uses two volute springs butted against each other in tandem. What’s a volute spring? Take a flat ribbon of spring steel and wind it into a coil. The center of the spring will rise up like a pyramid. By butting two of those against each other you get a long, powerful stroke in a very short space. The only problem is that volute springs are much stronger than coiled steel springs and are also harder to compress.


Cross-section shows how two volute springs work as a mainspring.

The Primary New York City gallery gun overcomes this problem with a separate geared crank that meshes with an internal gear mechanism in the gun. Turning the crank in a circle compresses the springs and sets the sear. A single trigger blade then fires the gun.


The crank inserts in this hole and engages this gear to cock the gun.

To load the gun, the barrel pivots to the right, exposing the breech. There’s no solid lock up for the barrel, so some care is needed when shooting the gun to get the barrel aligned with the transfer port. The breech may be opened in this way at any time.


Simply twist the rifle to the right to open the breech.

The sights are atypical on my gun, as they’re a two-piece folding leaf type. One is for long range and the other is for close work. I would presume close range would be 10 meters and long range might be 50 feet, or so. The front sight is a post and bead that sits on a dovetail across the barrel.


An unusual two-leaf rear sight on my gallery gun.

I mentioned that these gallery guns were all handmade, which is the truth. No one ever set up a factory to turn them out in any quantity. But, there were a great number of makers back in the day. The maker of my gun was New York City gunsmith David Lurch, who was one of the most prolific makers out of a list of at least eight for this type. He made airguns from 1863 until some time in the 1870s, though he maintained a store on Grand Street in New York City until 1889. He and his brother, Joseph, were well-known makers of gallery guns during this period.


Clearly signed David Lurch. What you can’t see is the street number…157. That pins the production to after 1866.

The triggerguard and crescent buttplate are brass, once plated with nickel. The action is steel and also nickel-plated. The barrel is made of soft iron and was probably finished blue, though it has now gone to an even brown rust patina.

How I came to get this gun
This story is a wonderful one. As I said at the beginning of this report, I had placed a bid on Gun Broker for a David Lurch gallery airgun. My bid was the high one but didn’t reach the seller’s reserve. Two months later, I got an email from a man who had found my bid and had Googled my name to find out that I write for Pyramyd Air. He had a David Lurch gun and wondered what I could tell him about it. I told him all that I knew over several emails, and then he asked if I was interested in the gun.

I made him an offer after appraising the gun for more money than I offered, because in all honesty, if you find a buyer who is seeking this kind of gun, he is often willing to pay more. But we did pay him a very fair amount, and I asked Edith to turn this into my big Christmas present.

The seller told me how he came into possession of it. His father was a welder who was called to an old armory in New York City many decades ago to do some work. While there, he spotted a pile of guns awaiting destruction. He was given his pick from the pile and selected a very old military muzzleloader, a Trapdoor Springfield and this gun. It didn’t have the crank, of course, but was still a substantial gun.

For the remainder of his life, the father believed this was some kind of firearm, though he could never figure out how it worked. His son, who sold us the gun, believed it was an airgun. Until I gave him the information you’ve read here, he knew nothing about it.

Dennis Quackenbush makes cranks for these guns, and I believe I will have him make one for me. Even though I don’t plan to ever shoot it, it’ll look better with a crank in the hole.