Air Guns: From Sherlock Holmes To My Toy Bin

The Union Station Archive has a vastly more full history of arms and guns than just heaps and piles of the history of the Browning Arms Company.

Yes, we are home to the  Browning Arms Museum, but there are other things to look at.  This brings us, in a round-about way, to Sherlock Holmes and to my own childhood.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the evil killer, Col. Sebastian Moran, kills a rival at cards by using an air gun which fires, according to reports, an expanding revolver bullet.

The chief advantage to this, Doyle never explains, is that Moran was able to carry out this crime in the middle of a busy city without alerting anyone with a noisy gunshot. Moran’s crime also gives the world its most famous “room locked from the inside murder” mystery.

I’m a huge Sherlock fan — the BBC series that ended last year was, mostly, amazing and a real treasure hunt for folks who liked to find references to Doyle stories in the Benedict Cumberbatch scripts — so when I found a book mentioning air guns in the Union Station archive, my interest was piqued.

The book is “Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World” by W.H.B. Smith, published in1957 by the Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, PA.  Much has changed in the gun world since1957, but it’s still a fun read.

I should point out,

at this point, that the Browning Arms Company never made an air gun that even the company’s official historian, Glen Jensen, who volunteers here at Union Station, has heard of. This is not to say that one didn’t find its way onto John Browning’s work bench at one time, to be pondered and rejected. It could have happened.

Air guns are not new. As far back as the 1790s they were kicking around. One, the Girandoni Air Rifle, was a 30-shot device that was adopted, in strict secret, by the French Army and only issued to sharpshooters. A gun that could be fired without alerting someone to the presence of the shooter has an obvious advantage.

It is reported that Lewis & Clark took one of these with them on their trip to the western possessions after President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase territories. It no doubt impressed the Native Americans that the explorers encountered.

The problem with air guns, Smith reports in his book, is that they are quiet, but they are also a heck of a lot of trouble for little benefit beyond quiet. Charging one for a shot means pumping the thing up, usually a labor-intensive process taking many minutes (and even Col. Moran, preparing his fictional gun as Holmes watched from the shadows, had to labor long and hard before Holmes hear the metallic click that indicated the gun was prepared.)

Rifle rounds using powder are always ready and easy to carry in large number. It would be very difficult to carry a large supply of pumped up air cylinders. Plus, the muzzle velocity of an air gun can’t come close to matching that if even a low-power traditional bullet round. 

There is much of interest: A wide variety of pumping systems and methods for creating compressed air. There are a variety of artillery, and even spring guns and guns powered by dry ice. Even today, target pistols and rifles use the principle. When all you are doing is punching holes in paper, most of the faults of air guns are blown away.

There are chapters on spring-powered pistols, the various types of ammunition and both military and civilian use. And air guns have come a long way since. Some are even used, today, for hunting.

A very significant part of the book is dedicated to that most iconic of air guns, known to every red blooded American boy who survived the 50s with vision intact: The Daisy “Red Ryder” BB gun.

Yes, the famous “You’ll shoot your eye out!” gun of  filmdom’s “A Christmas Story” fame, but that movie tapped into a bit of American culture now long gone.

The book reports that 1.5 million young people a year were given Daisy BB guns, part of a time when they were seen as first step training devices for people who would, later in life, want to use more potent firearms either for sport or hunting. In the 50s — and I can say this because I’m that old — it was very common for kids to want to be cowboys or Davy Crocket and have a toy gun of some sort.

The things weren’t as politicized as they are today and proper training and responsible gun ownership were the watchwords. One ad shows Red Ryder himself advising skill, training, care and responsibility.

That said, some of the early ads are kind of cringe-worthy, by modern standards. A dad standing behind his son who is aiming his BB gun, the dad saying “I want my son to be a real man!” shows, one supposes, the culture of the day.

The book goes into great details describing the high quality of the Daisy rifles, describing its modern and efficient factory in Plymouth, Michigan. It is no longer there, of course. It moved to Arkansas years later to cut costs, and now doesn’t even make the parts of the guns it sells. At the time, however, the company was worth looking at in this book simply because of the huge volume of guns it sold.

Which brings me to my own experiences. Mom and dad wouldn’t buy me a BB gun, no matter how much I whined, so I had to be jealous of neighborhood kids who had them.

One, I recall, liked to remind me that he could shoot me any time he wanted, and showed me one of the small BBs, which happened to not be copper colored like the rest, and said the color meant it was super-hard and would likely go right through me.

My parents refused to get me one of those, but they did buy me an air gun, which research shows was probably a Daisy Model 960, derided

on discussion groups today as a mere “pop gun.” It looked like a BB gun, complete with wooden stock and gun sights, but all it did when you cocked the lever and pulled the trigger was make a noise.

I called it “Old Betsy” because i was a Davy Crocket fan, and had fun for years in the neighborhood games of cowboys and indians. I got so I could cock and fire it pretty quickly, too.

It gradually wore out, of course, and no doubt now decorates a landfill somewhere, or got recycled into beer cans.  Even Daisy didn’t make that high a quality of a toy, and toy it certainly was. As I said above, it was a different world back then.

How different? Go rent a John Wayne movie made back then called “The High and the Mighty.” It involves an airplane flying from Hawaii to the mainland.

The fun scene that could never happen today? Little kid gets on the plane wearing his cowboy cap pistols. Wayne turns in the pilot seat and does a quick-draw with him.