Translate This Website
New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Inc.
Promoting Excellence in Gunsmithing
PO Box 52, Kaitaia, 0441, New Zealand. Tel/Fax + 64 9 409 3835
Contact Us
Home arrow Gun History arrow Historic Air Gun A Real Gem
Historic Air Gun A Real Gem Print E-mail

By Wayne Nelson, M.A., A.S.G.

A friend recently gave me an old air gun to look at. He thought it was something very special as far as air guns go because, he surmised, it seemed to be at least one hundred and thirty years old and possibly made in Germany. It belonged to a fourth generation New Zealander, and the family believes that the great-grandfather had purchased the air gun in Germany shortly before immigrating to New Zealand in the 1870’s.

Closer examination of the arm itself however, raised more questions than answers about its manufacture. The following are the details of this particular arm:

Make: Gem
Caliber: .177 (bore gauge actually reads .18 caliber)
Type: Pneumatic (air)
Action: Barrel cocking, spring and piston
Construction: Steel; walnut butt stock
Dimensions: O/A length: 35 inches
Barrel and breech or action unit: 18 ½ inches length
Piston/compression chamber unit: 7 ½ inches length
Butt stock: 9 ½ inches length (to heel)
Finish: Originally all metal parts were blued.
Markings: Barrel top flat near breech: "Gem"
Barrel bottom flat near breech: MADE AMRCA (partly illegible)
Serial Nos: Breech face (breech face of action): 2866
Piston chamber face: 2866

Description: The gun is opened by releasing the top catch and ‘breaking’ the barrel down on its hinge to cock the powerful piston spring in the grip area of the stock. The barrel is octagonal for 8 inches of its length from the action which it screws into, and is round thereafter to the muzzle. The trigger guard is in fact the cocking lever acting directly on the spring in the receiver through a long slot underneath the piston chamber. Trigger let-off is screw adjusted directly on to the sear. Sights consist of a rear leaf V notch and a foresight blade. Front and rear sights are dovetailed into the barrel and breech respectively.

Condition: 98% of original finish gone. Some vestiges of original bluing under the action and underside of piston chamber. Has been ‘shined up’ to bright silver grey with emery cloth. Varnish gone from stock but stock not bone dry – usual dings and whangs but nothing major. The action works very smoothly and operates extremely well with a good punch. Break-open is a little loose at hinge pin as is to be expected. Leather seal has not deteriorated. GWO&C (good working order and condition).

Features: The gun is a smoothbore made to fire darts and ordinary BBs only. The top catch is a long (2 5/8 inch) pivoted lever on hidden spring. The rear end of the catch duplicates the ‘doll’s head’ of contemporary DB shotguns with the head slipping into a corresponding slot on top of the piston chamber unit. Like a shotgun, the barrel hinges on a pin under the action body. The cocking lever/trigger guard resembles a Winchester lever action. Few screws are used in the construction except for the underside of the piston chamber and the trigger adjustment. All other parts are pinned through. There is some very nice moulded lathe turning at the junction of the octagonal barrel section with the action end of the barrel. The piston chamber unit is in two parts with a rectangular underside screwed on which houses the trigger unit and cocking lever slot. The butt stock fits into the rear of this unit.

History: Haviland and Gunn produced the above type of gun in the USA in 1876 as a combination air gun and .22 short rim fire cartridge gun for $25. H & G stated that the barrels for their combination gun were made by Remington and Sons. They also manufactured a smooth-bore version "for darts or shot only" for $22. The calibre of the smooth-bore version was not specified in the H & G advertisement which appears in Smith’s book (see below), but since the advertising specified .22 caliber only for the combination gun, it is possible that the smoothbore for darts and shot was made in .177 caliber. This type of air gun/rifle subsequently appeared as the Quackenbush when H & G sold their patents to Mr Henry Marcus Quackenbush of Herkimer County, New York. The gun under Quackenbush was made in Germany from 1876 under license and sold as a "Quackenbush". There were a number of patents, including English patent 4413 of March 29 1886, in the name of Flurscheim & Bergmann trading as "Eisenwerke". Other Germany makers also operated under license. Quackenbush began manufacture of the H & G design under (his) name in 1876. Around 1905 C.G. Bonehill of Birmingham manufactured a modified version of the Q. called the "Britannia" – British in manufacture only. The design of the H&G/Quackenbush/Britannia air gun is considered by W.H.B. Smith (see below) to have ‘principle current value (is) to collectors".

Note: References to the "Gem" trade name cannot be found in the authority given below, although the arm is identical to the Haviland and Gunn combination gun illustrated by Smith. "Gem’ may refer to a H&G trade name, or it may refer to another patent even earlier than H&G or Quackenbush. The date of the arm described above can, in any case, be dated with confidence to at least 1876, and may possibly be earlier than this date.

Reference: W.H.B. Smith. Smith’s Standard Encyclopaedia of Gas, Air & Spring Guns of the World. pp.36-37: 48: 50: 113.

To recapitulate on the foregoing, the arm is question is a smoothbore "Gem’ air gun. Further research into this arm has been hampered by an apparent total lack of published information on the Gem. The only other piece of information I could find was a reference in a publication called the NZ Airgun (for which I unfortunately do not have the number and date since I was provided with only a photocopy) where an article on the Britannia Air Rifle notes that (quote) "in the early part of the century, a number of Militia and Gem air rifles were imported into this country from Germany, either in whole or in pieces for assembly over here". Unfortunately no further information on the Gem is provided other than a contemporary advertisement for the arm which shows that it retailed for £1 7s 6d. The arm was obviously designed by someone who knew about the requirements of sportsmen as the Gem lifts naturally up into the shoulder with the lightness and perfect balance of a fine hunting rifle. It would be interesting to know more about this most intriguing arm.


NZSG Copyright The New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Inc.