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Old Air-Gun Canes: Deadly Accessories for the Dandy

Air-gun canes were surreptitious, deadly accessories for the gentry and enthusiasts of pneumatic novelties from the mid-1800s to the turn of the 20th century.

Old Air-Gun Canes: Deadly Accessories for the Dandy

(Philip Schreier photo)

Though records are sketchy, and often contradictory, it appears the basics of air guns precede those of firearms by a millennium or so. References have come down from circa 200 B.C. describing bellows and compression devices being used to power primitive engines. Still, there is no specific evidence to positively prove air-powered devices — other than blowguns, perhaps — were used to shoot projectiles.

circa-1860 air cane trade label by London gunmaker John Blissett
As seen on this circa-1860 trade label by famed London gunmaker John Blissett, mainstream dealers were commonly offering air canes. (Philip Schreier photo)

It appears what we now recognize as an air gun, per ­se, likely emerged from Germany or France in the early- to ­mid-16th century. Spring-operated bellow mechanisms as well as pneumatic (pump-up) types both came on the scene early.

For the next couple of centuries, air-gun development proceeded apace, to the point they were not only used for amusement but as serious hunting tools and weapons of war. One of the most notable early martial-rifled air guns was a repeater fielded by the Austrians in the latter 1700s when it was used by specialized troops for sharpshooting. This remarkable gun, invented by Italian Bartolomeo Girardoni, was reported to be able to fire a remarkable (at the time) 20 shots per minute.

1910 air cane listing from a W. J. Jefferey & Co. catalog
Introduced by 1850, air canes were still popular into the 20th century as witnessed by this 1910 listing from a W. J. Jefferey & Co. catalog. (Philip Schreier photo)

Though particularly popular in Europe, air guns were also seen in the New World. The most noteworthy one in early America was a pneumatic repeater with butt reservoir (probably a Girardoni) that was included in the arms carried on the 1803 to ­’06 Corps of Discovery Expedition from Camp Dubois, Illinois, to the Pacific coast, led by U.S. Army Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark’s air gun was a source of wonder to various Indian tribes who were used to the slow-loading muzzleloading rifles and muskets of the period. They were dum­founded during demonstrations of the piece at its 22-shots-per-minute rapidity of fire, accuracy, and deadly effectiveness.

As the air gun developed, three basic systems evolved: The aforementioned bellows, likely the earliest, which was operated by a crank or similar mechanism; compression wherein a plunger under spring tension is released into a cylinder to compress the air and provide propelling power; and the type we are principally concerned with here, pneumatic.

ball reservoir guns in both longarm
For a time, ball reservoir guns in both longarm and pistol variations experienced a vogue. Empty reservoirs could be easily replaced by previously filled ones. (Photo courtesy of the Rock Island Auction Co.)

Pneumatic guns relied upon compressed air introduced into a reservoir by means of some form of pumping device. First pumps were usually separate from their guns, however, later it became common to find them attached.

two air gun canes examples are the blackthorn and the bamboo styles
In the 19th century, popular air-gun walking stick canes came in many styles, though most were designed to ostensibly look like their more benign contemporaries, which were strictly a gentleman’s strolling appurtenance. Two prime examples are the blackthorn (far right) and the bamboo styles.(Philip Schreier photo)

The two most common sorts of reservoirs were butt­stock styles and ball type — the former, as its name implies also serving as a shoulder stock, and the latter involving large globular metal (iron, copper or brass) air flasks, which depended from a rifle, shotgun or pistol barrel, though some few were also top or side-mounted. Both ball and stock types were usually removable so spare charged reservoirs could be carried to replace ones that had expended their air supply. The butt­stock variety was the first, most likely appearing in the 1600s, followed by the ball that debuted about 100 years later. Firing mechanisms normally employed external cocking pieces that resembled later percussion hammers or contemporary flintlock cocks.

air gun canes normally came in two sections
Because of the way they were designed, air gun canes normally came in two sections. They were regularly cased and came with several accessories, the most important of which were pumps for charging and keys for setting the action. Many had add-on stocks. Ramrods for loading were attached to screw-on brass tips.(Philip Schreier photo)

As air gun development progressed, the arms became more mainstream and proved popular for small- and medium-game getting, targeting and even bird shooting. Period gun­maker trade labels showed they soon became common wares alongside flintlock, percussion and cartridge arms.

Sometime around the late 1840s to early 1850s, a new pneumatic novelty appeared: The air cane. For at least two centuries prior to the air cane’s appearance, normal canes and walking sticks had been principal accessories for gentlemen. In the uncertain streets and avenues of 18th- and 19th-century towns and cities, as well as being a fashion statement, a cane could serve as a handy self-defense weapon, either as a bludgeon or, in specialized pieces, by the implementation of concealed blades or bullet-firing mechanisms.

air gun canes normally came in two sections
(Philip Schreier photo)

Canes fitted with flintlock or percussion ignition normally relied on some sort of external appliances, an arrangement that was oftentimes cumbersome and obvious. With the introduction of pneumatic canes, which cleverly enclosed their works within the confines of the “sticks” themselves, this problem was effectively eliminated.

The normal air cane was made in two parts: A rear reservoir portion with release valve, and a forward section that included the barrel and lock­work. Because of the pressures required to provide power to a projectile with any kind of lethality, normally in the 750 to 1,000 pound-per-square-inch (psi) range, a cane had to be constructed of steel, normally resulting in a weight of several pounds. It was hardly suitable for a casual stroll.


air gun canes normally came in two sections
(Philip Schreier photo)

The method of loading and discharging an air cane, while economical and reliable, also put some constraints on portability and spontaneity. Most operated thusly: First, two halves were unscrewed, and a hand pump fitted onto the rear reservoir section. One then stood on the pump’s handle and, using full-body force, gave the pump 350 to 400 hard strokes. The pump was then removed, and the two halves rejoined.

the sections of an air cane
The front section of the cane (above, right) incorporated the barrel and firing mechanism. The rear held the air reservoir. When the trigger button was pushed, the lock releases a short rod, which strikes a valve stem in the reservoir and releases a measured propellant charge. (Philip Schreier photo)

A brass tip with attached ramrod was then unscrewed from the muzzle. Next, a round ball was rammed down the bore and seated at the base of the barrel. The shooter then took a key, inserted it in a square hole at the rear part of the forward section, and turned it to cock the piece. This also allowed a small button “trigger” to pop out of the side of the cane at the proper position where it could be naturally accessed by the thumb of the left hand when the cane was aimed.

poly-grooved rifled barrels
Air canes generally had poly-grooved rifled barrels typically made of brass. Some also had smoothbore shotgun barrels. (Philip Schreier photo)

The lock mechanism employed a V-style mainspring, which activated a small hammer that hit a striker when the trigger was pushed. The striker, in turn, impacted a plunger in the reservoir valve allowing it to release a measured amount of air. Seals on these valves were normally made of horn.

There were some variations on the works and occasionally, instead of a hammer, a simple coil spring/striker arrangement would be employed. Interestingly, both arrangements anticipated the firing mechanisms seen on semi-automatic pistols and rifles by over half a century.

charge an air cane in period manner
To charge an air cane in the period manner, one screws a pump on to the reservoir. The shooter then stands on the pump handle and gives it 350 to 400 hard pumps. (Philip Schreier photos)

Barrels were traditionally made of brass and featured poly­groove rifling. Bullets — round balls of soft lead — were normally loaded naked, though if a ball of the proper diameter was not available a smaller one could be substituted by using a patch. Calibers on air canes varied from the .20s to a half-inch or more; most seem to lie in the .30- to ­.40-caliber range. Some guns came with two barrels, an inner removable rifled one and an outer one for shot.

charge an air cane with CO2 tank and adapter
A more modern and convenient method of filling the reservoir is with a CO2 tank and an adapter. (Philip Schreier photos)

Bullet velocities ranged from 600 to 850 feet ­per second (fps). At the extreme velocity, for example, a 65-grain .350-caliber round ball would have a muzzle energy of some 104 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.), about the same as a .32 S&W cartridge. Shot loads were kept the same weight as an equivalent ball of the bore caliber, the shot itself, of necessity, being small ­sized.

On full charge, a normal air cane could fire around 30 to ­40 times before having to be re-pumped. The first 15 to ­20 rounds would experience no decrease in velocity or accuracy. However, afterwards, power would drop dramatically. Depending on the gun, shooting ranges with bullets ran from 10 to 50 yards, with 20 to 25 not being uncommon. Shot was normally fired at closer distances.

steps to load air canes from the muzzle
Air canes normally (but not always) load from the muzzle. To load a bullet, the ramrod [1] is first unscrewed [2] and removed from the front end of the cane [3]. A ball is then rammed down to the rear of the barrel [4]. (The author uses patches, but it was more common in the period to load a naked ball.) The lock is then set with a key [5], which pops out the trigger [6] readying the gun for action. (Philip Schreier photos)

Based on the configuration and method of operation, it can be seen that there are a number of factors mitigating against an air cane being carried for defense. Aside from the fact the average stick’s weight alone was a drawback, the tip had to be unscrewed and the ramrod withdrawn before the gun could be fired. This procedure eliminated any possibility of bringing a piece instantly into action. Also, the lack of protection for the button trigger was an open invitation for an accidental discharge.

steps to load shot in air canes equipped with the double-barrel feature
To load shot in canes equipped with the double-barrel feature, the inner rifle barrel is first removed from the smoothbore shotgun barrel. A wad of the appropriate dimension is rammed all the way down the bore, followed by shot and a patch to keep it in place. (Philip Schreier photos)

What were they good for then? The main thing an air cane had going for it versus a more conventional weapon was its novelty value. As a vehicle for a natural philosophical demonstration, coupled with surprise and cleverness factors, the air cane achieved a remarkable popularity. They were certainly fun to shoot and impressive in their power and range. There are reports of some of the more powerful models at full charge taking game at up to 100 yards. The relative quietness of an air cane’s discharge was also often a source of amazement — though its report, while not as loud as one made by a normal firearm of roughly equivalent caliber — was far from the fiction writer’s description of “silent death.” Air canes still make a substantial “crack.”

air-cane sights
Air-cane sights are of necessity. They are fairly rudimentary, consisting of a fixed-notch rear and small blade or bead front. (Philip Schreier photos)

Designs and styles of air canes were limited only by the designers’ and retailers’ imaginations. Some had removable wooden or reservoir shoulder stocks. Many were bent, others straight. Finishes varied, leaning mostly towards faux wooden or bamboo decoration. Handles ran from crooked or angled grips to fancy chased gold and silver, to carved ivory styles. Casing was common, a container being necessary to accommodate the pump, bullet mold, cocking key, oil bottle and tools required to keep the arm shooting and in good fettle. Period instructions admonish the user to keep his cane well-serviced and offered such helpful hints as:

standard canes were fired close to the cheek
Standard canes were fired rather awkwardly, close to the shooter’s cheek. Stocked versions could be shouldered in a more traditional manner. The left hand must be properly positioned so the thumb can easily push the trigger/button. (Philip Schreier photos)

“Always choose a clean place to pump the air into the top, for fear the piston should draw in grit, which, if forced into the valve, would cause the air to escape; therefore, if a little grit should get into the valve, put a few drops of oil in the hole in the pump, and fill the top sufficiently full of air, then shoot several times, which will very often prevent air from escaping.”

The vogue for air canes lasted a surprisingly long time despite being sold alongside more sophisticated self-contained cartridge walking sticks. This is interesting, especially in light of the fact that they were not exactly cheap. A good quality air cane setup (cane, pump, mold and key) in 1910 ran as much as £2 10s ($11), only slightly less than a Colt Police Positive.

Range Time

test air guns printed an excellent pattern
At 10 yards, the .40 shot barrel of one of the test air guns printed an excellent pattern with all 20 No. 7½ shot pellets hitting within an 8-inch circle. (Philip Schreier photos)

For our shooting evaluation we rounded up a pair of circa-1860 vintage air guns, one a rifle .349 across the lands. Fashioned to look like a blackthorn stick as well as a hard rubber knob, it also had an attachable wooden butt­stock. The other is a faux-bamboo rifle/shotgun combo featuring a .287 removable poly­groove barrel inside a .400 smooth­bore tube. Its handle is of fixed horn. As we had the proper sized bullets to fire the blackthorn sans patch (.350), I thought it would also be interesting to see how well some smaller (.323) balls wrapped in lubricated linen patches would fare.

five-shot groups from the “blackthorn” air cane
Five-shot groups from the “blackthorn” air cane rifle averaged 3 3/4 inches at 25 yards using either patched or unpatched balls. One of the best, this one measured 3 inches. (Philip Schreier photos)

Both guns were fully charged using a C02 canister with a proper adapter to fit the threads on the reservoirs. Fortunately, both threads were the same. The blackthorn was fired at 25 yards, from a rest using both unpatched and patched bullets. Loading was easy as was cocking the piece. The gun’s report was respectable but not prohibitive — around what one would hear from a .22 Short fired from a rifle. Recoil was nil. Given the cane’s rather skimpy sights and “different” hold, it took a few rounds to figure out where it was shooting. Five-round strings were loosed, with the gun’s charge being topped up after every quintet. Accuracy was decent, giving us groups averaging 33/4 inches, slightly low and to the left. At one point we did experience a bit of gas leakage, though this was easily corrected and we were able to continue the evaluation unabated. As it has been about 30 years since the valve was last worked on, I decided to retire the piece for the time being and give it a going-over before I take it out again.

We loaded the bamboo cane’s shotgun barrel with 20 No. 71/2 shot pellets on top of a .400 felt wad, the 50 grains of shot being contained by a paper wad. Fired at 10 yards, the pattern was surprisingly good, with all pellets printing within an 8-inch bull. Later spreads were not quite as tidy, but still respectable. Some recoil was experienced, but only enough to give me a bit of a rap on the cheek.

repeating rifle invented by Bartolomeo Girardoni
One of the best and most influential of the butt reservoir air guns was the repeating rifle invented by Bartolomeo Girardoni. It is said one of these guns accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famed 1803 to 1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition. (Philip Schreier photos)

The pair performed up to expectations. I must admit they are a lot of fun once one gets used to their peculiarities. Despite being left-handed, I fire a rifle right-handed, and this was a decided advantage when shooting these canes. Accessing the trigger with the right hand requires the substitution of one’s forefinger for the thumb.

During the air cane’s heyday, considerable advances were being made in air gunnery, and by the turn of the 20th-century pneumatic cane sales were tapering off. Additionally, the sobering effect of the Great War took something out of the enthusiasm for novelties. By 1918, air canes were passé and their already-waning popularity and production drew to a close, along with other Victorian artifacts unceremoniously pushed to the sidelines by the heady pleasures of the 1920s.

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