The following information on air pistols and saloon pistols comes from The Book of the Pistol and Revolver by Hugh B. C. Pollard. The Book of the Pistol and Revolver is also available to purchase in print.
The exact limits of a book on pistols and revolvers are hard to define, but I think that the air-pistol, and especially the saloon-pistol, should be within its limits. A friend, seeing this loose manuscript with the above heading, was anxious that I should include details and data upon the Japanese sword and knife-throwing among the Latin-American races; as it happens, neither of these come within the scope of this work, and this chapter must deal with pistols that possess more or less vogue or merit, and by their novelty require some short mention.
The air-pistol has been known since a remote period, and was sternly forbidden as a weapon during the earliest days of firearms. A French book of 1783, entitled “Panoplie de Guerre,” alludes to it as having first come into notice when one was presented by Martin de Lisieux to Henry of Navarre before 1600; and seventeenth and eighteenth-century compressed-air weapons of Nuremburg or Dutch manufacture occur as museum specimens. The earlier models were either charged by pump, or by exploding a loose charge of powder inside the air-chamber, and, once charged at full pressure, were capable of several shots before the pressure fell sufficiently to affect the accuracy of the shot. The facility that they afforded to assassins was always a restriction upon their manufacture, and it was not till about the 1850 period that the compressed-air weapon—notably as a walking-stick gun or “air-cane”—took definite shape.
A few pistols of this type were manufactured, and consisted of a steel butt or air-chamber, pumped to high pressure by means of a foot-pump, and fitted with a release-valve, the seating of which was made of buffalo horn. The barrel, lock, and stud-trigger were detachable from the breech, and some were fitted with a plain tap or cylinder breech-block for breech loading. The action was simple. The lock was cocked by means of a cocking-lever or key, and, upon pressure of the trigger, the internal hammer struck the projecting stem of the outlet valve of the compression reservoir. This, driven in by the blow, released a certain amount of compressed air, sufficient to discharge the ball, and closed again automatically. These weapons were made in smooth-bore and rifle sizes to take ball or shot, and were powerful enough to drive a ball through a 3/4-inch plank at twenty paces. Later, the predecessor of the common air-pistol of to-day was evolved, and the principle of a released spring-driven plunger compressing the air in a chamber employed. These arms were made to take the No. 1 slug—a conical bullet of .167 calibre, with a deep base cavity, but the weapons were little more than toys, feeble and inaccurate. The usual type depended upon the compression of air in a cylinder round the barrel, the barrel itself forming a hollow piston-rod connected to the plunger. To operate them the spring was first compressed by ramming the weapon against a wall or the ground, a screw plug at the rear of the barrel was undone, and a slug inserted which was pushed by a projection upon the breech-screw beyond the air-vent connecting cylinder and barrel. On discharging the arm, the spring released, drove the barrel and piston breech-block forward, compressing the air in the cylinder; this escaping into the barrel through the vent, expelled the slug. In actual practice the kick of the spring and the escape of air round the ill-fitting leather glands of the barrel and piston breech-block rendered the weapon inaccurate and feeble. A better type had a hollow-handle cylinder and bolt-action breech to the barrel. The spring was compressed by pulling down the spring-piston in the handle, which, when released by the pressing of the trigger, compressed the air.
The only modern air-pistol of any value as a weapon is the Westley Richards Highest Possible model, which is equipped with a rifled barrel and adjustable sights. In this pistol the break-action is employed, and the action of opening the arm compresses a spring and plunger-piston in a big cylinder under the barrel. When the slug is inserted the weapon is closed, and the base of the barrel forms an air-tight joint by means of a leather washer with the standing breech. On pulling the trigger the spring-plunger compresses the air in the cylinder, which, issuing through a port, passes through the hollowed breech-block and escapes into the barrel, propelling the slug. The arm is well made and comparatively accurate, but the shock of the discharged spring and the peculiar balance of the pistol render it useless for learning to shoot with a real firearm, and not much more than a toy. For indoor or garden practice, discouraging marauding cats, and similar work, it is efficient; but the penetration of the slug is not enough to bring down much larger game than possibly a pigeon.
An air-pistol slug in the eye would destroy sight and possibly kill, but otherwise the weapon is not fatal, though wounds of slight penetration can be effected with it, and it must decidedly not be classed as a “toy pistol.”
Shooting or pointing at people should never be allowed, and children indulging in the practice, even with toy weapons, should be severely rebuked, and, if necessary, properly spanked. It may seem cruel to advocate “corporal punishment,” even with a bedroom slipper, for such an essentially natural offence, but, as nine out of ten cases of “accidental shooting” arise from the pointing of arms at a person with the cheerful, jesting formula, “I will shoot you!” it is sound practice to discourage the habit from the earliest days.
The Pistols Act provides that no pistol or revolver can be sold to any person without the production of a gun or game licence. Pistol, within the meaning of the Act, means any air-pistol or firearm with a barrel less than nine inches long. Exceptions are made with regard to antique firearms—a rather vague classification, but which certainly covers flint-lock and probably all muzzle-loading weapons. Rim and pin-fire breech-loaders would not be technically “antiques.” The other exceptions to the Act are revolvers needed by Army officers in the discharge of their duty, and pistols sold to people going abroad for a period of not less than six months. In the two latter cases, if you are not personally known to the dealer, it is legally necessary to produce a letter signed by a Justice of the Peace or police inspector.
The Pistols Act was framed to prevent the sale of cheap Belgian revolvers to schoolboys and “unauthorized persons,” and although severely criticized as restricting trade, it has done an immense amount of good in preventing accidents, and should be further extended.
Latterly, in 1914, the cheap and nasty foreign pistols known as “saloon pistols” or “long-barrelled Derringers” have been made with 9 1/2-inch barrels expressly to evade the Pistols Act. The result was almost immediate, and an “accidental death” or street-shooting case with one of these weapons occurred early in April, 1914.
As it is necessary to have a ten-shilling gun licence in order to be allowed to carry or use a firearm anywhere, except in your own “house and the curtilage thereof,” the advertised sale of these weapons, for which it is advertised that “no license is necessary,” deserves and needs rigorous suppression. The person who is genuinely interested in pistols can afford to purchase a licence and sound weapons, but the sale of dangerous firearms, at six or seven shillings apiece, to boys and ignorant people cannot be too strongly condemned.
These weapons are smooth-bore, .22 calibre, single-shot pistols, made to take the No. 1 bulleted breech-cap. This little cartridge is perfectly capable of inflicting fatal injury, while its small size and mild report are anything but convincing of its genuinely dangerous nature. Such weapons are usually sold with unadjusted sights and terrific trigger-pulls, but properly adjusted they are accurate at ranges up to fifteen yards, and will kill rats, rabbits, cats, etc.
A peculiar weapon is known as the “Dedless pistol,” and is made in .410 shot-cartridge sizes, both as a single-shot and as a four-shot revolver. The alleged use of this arm is to render an assailant unconscious by means of a discharge of asphyxiating gases, and it is claimed that no fatal injury can result. The cartridge that is to accomplish this feat contains a variety of pepper, lycopodium powder, and other ingredients, and produces a loud report and enormous flash.
As the whole purpose of a firearm is to stop adversaries at a distance, the short-range limitations and dubious efficiency of this pseudo-weapon render it of doubtful value; the primary assumption that the assailant must of necessity inhale the fumes is also uncertain of fulfilment, as the discharge might take place exactly as he finished inhaling a breath, and he probably would duck and flinch from the explosion. Its pseudo-harmless nature is an additional danger, as, fired by a fool for a “practical” joke, a wad or small foreign body in the cartridge or scales of dirt or rust in the barrel might destroy the victim’s sight.
A peculiar group of pocket pistols claim attention because of their design upon lines of extraordinary thinness in the pocket. The “Reform” pistol is one of these, and consists of four superposed barrels in one block. These rise one barrel at a time when the arm is cocked, and it is worthy of note that the recoil of the succeeding shots automatically ejects the empty shells from the three top barrels without the use of mechanism, the simple shock being sufficient to throw the empties clear. The arm is chambered for the .25 automatic cartridge.
Another queer pistol of similar design is “Ashland’s Patent,” a weapon of .22 calibre, with four superposed barrels. In this weapon the barrels are fired successively by means of an ingenious series of firing pins, hit successively by means of an eccentrically-pivoted revolving hammer. The arm is non-ejector, tip-up action, and fitted with a folding trigger.
Squeezer or grip-operated repeating pistols have been known for some time, the weapon known as a “Chicago Squeezer” being the prototype. In external appearance this device resembles a large watch or tape measure. From one side projects a short barrel, and from the other a short lever, shaped to fit the palm of the hand. The cylinder is of the axial or cart-wheel type, and holds seven .32 short rim-fire cartridges. Squeezing the pistol in the hand with the barrel projecting between the second and third fingers actuates the mechanism, so that the act of delivering a blow or punch at one’s adversary, or the mere tight clenching of the fist, discharges the weapon.
A similar pistol, but with a square grip handle somewhat similar to an automatic, was popular in France. A special cartridge of approximately .32 calibre is required for it.
Devices for surprising the highwayman or footpad are not uncommon, and pistols made to resemble pencils, pocket-books, or watches are not unknown. One of the most ingenious of these is the watch pistol, made to resemble a watch, but firing a .25 automatic cartridge. The muzzle of the weapon is the milled head of what is apparently the winding stem. The trigger is a round bar moving in a groove, which runs back to engage the hammer. The pistol is fired by means of a simplified double action, and the projecting end of the trigger is pressed back until it loses engagement with the hammer, as is usual with the average automatic pistol-firing device. To reload, the inner tube of the barrel is removed by unscrewing the milled head of the apparent watch stem, a fresh cartridge is inserted, and the barrel screwed back into place. The weapon is a single-loader, but as a surprise for the footpad probably entirely efficient.
The disguised or concealed pistol has always been popular, and is found both in flint-lock and all conceivable ages of pistol combined with whips, swords, purses. A modern Belgian manufacture is the pin-fire revolver and sword combined.
Water-pistols barely come within the scope of this work, but it should be remembered that when loaded with strong ammonia or capsicum tincture, they become dreadfully efficient weapons for blinding an adversary.
The sporting or shot-gun pistol is seldom made nowadays, though double-barrel under-lever pistols similar in design to shot-gun practice were very popular in South American republics as horse pistols, for use with a charge of shot or slugs from on horseback. The author uses a side-action .410 single-shot, 10-inch barrel, shot pistol for sporting purposes, but at any range over twenty-five yards the shot scatters too widely for certain effect. The best-known modern sporting pistol is the composite weapon known as the Marbles “Game-Getter” pistol, which combines a variety of smart mechanical adjustments and a wire shoulder-stock with an under and over pair of barrels. The top barrel is smooth-bore and chambered for the .44-40 Winchester shot cartridge, and can be used with a special round ball; the lower is rifled to take the various lengths of .22 rifle cartridge. The weapon is made in several barrel lengths, and is certainly ingenious; excellent results are claimed for it, but as the .44-40 shot-cartridge is practically an unknown charge in Europe, the arm is little known on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
In countries where game is not shy and met at close range, and explorers can carry but little surplus weight, the single-shot pistol is sometimes carried in place of the heavier rifle. A Watson’s single-shot target pistol of .360 No. 5 calibre was used in the Hudson’s Bay territory by Mr. Alexander Crundall, and proved perfectly capable of accounting for moose and similar big game. American writers on sporting subjects are great advocates of the .22 single-shot, on account of the extremely light weight of the ammunition; but one hesitates to depend on it for anything larger than grouse or small pot game, as to bring down larger animals a fatal head-shot is essential—a matter not always easy of accomplishment.