This article takes us on a journey through history as we follow the lives of two inspiring Norwegian entrepreneurs from the late 19th century. It’s full of new beginnings, adventure, war, the construction of an empire and its downfall, successes and failures, loss and sadness and an assassination or two…. it’s a real rollercoaster! Take your time though, it’s another epically long one….
Our journey begins on February 14th 1841 in Stryn, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway when Iver Johansen, later Johnson, was born. He became an apprentice gunsmith in Bergen at the age of 16. Just five years later he moved to Oslo to work as a gunsmith. But a year later, in 1863, Iver decided to emigrate to Worcester, Massachusetts in North America. This was a rather peculiar time for anyone to emigrate to North America as the American Civil War was mid-way through! However, for a gunsmith, this must have been an opportunity brimming with adventure! 
In Worcester, Iver found work as a gunsmith with Allen & Wheelock, a major arms manufacturer of the time. We simply do not know if he emigrated and later found work or already had an offer of employment arranged. Incidentally, in 1863, Wheelock died. Maybe this was just a coincidence or maybe it was somehow related to Iver’s appointment at Allen & Wheelock. Regardless, Iver primarily worked on pepperbox revolvers which were multi-barrelled revolvers renowned, not in the least by Mark Twain, for their inaccuracy and their cheapness. 
On April 9th 1868, Iver married Mary Elizabeth Speirs in Worcester. Together they had three sons and at least one daughter: Frederick Iver, John Lovell, Walter Olaf and Mary Louise. Some sources suggest two daughters with “Nellie” as their second. I am doubtful of this as the United States 1880 census shows Iver along with his wife and four children and a 15-year-old girl named Nora Welsh. Nora was listed as a domestic servant at the Johnson household. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but Nellie is not listed. Later, in the 1900 census, Iver’s wife and children are listed as boarding at the household of Waterhouse. But there is no “Nellie” or Nora listed. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1921. It may have helped to clarify whether the Johnsons had a fifth child that didn’t survive by the time the 1900 census was recorded. 
In January 1871, Allen of Allen & Wheelock died. The company continued to operate but under the new name of Forehand and Wadsworth who were Allen’s sons-in-law. Perhaps this was the catalyst for Johnson to leave Allen & Wheelock or perhaps the company underwent a restructuring exercise. Either way, in the same year, 1871, Iver Johnson established the Johnson, Bye & Company with Martin Bye in a small rented factory on Church Street, Worcester. 
love and war
Martin Bye was also from Norway. He was originally born Martin Olesen on September 29th 1840 in Røyken, Buskerud, Norway. The 1900 U.S. Census records indicate that he emigrated to North America in 1860 at the age of 20. One source suggests that Martin joined the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry on July 20th 1864 and whilst there is such a listing for that name, I am not able to corroborate any further details to confirm that it was indeed our man. Following the end of the American Civil war, Martin entered the gunsmith trade as he was listed in the 1865 Massachusetts State census as a gun maker. It is believed, according to Norm Flayderman who was a renowned world expert in antique arms, that Martin Bye was also an employee at Allen & Wheelock. Unfortunately, Remington Arms, who through a long chain of bankruptcies and buy outs, own Marlin Firearms, which owned Hopkins & Allen, which owned Forehand & Wadsworth, which owned Allen & Co., which was previously known as, wait for it, Allen & Wheelock, couldn’t confirm that Martin was an employee of Allen & Wheelock because “Marlin had a fire in the 1950’s which destroyed a lot of information. As far as we know, no information regarding Hopkins & Allen survived the fire or the purchase by Marlin”. Oh well, it was worth a try. 
The 1865 Massachusetts State census lists Martin’s surname as “Bee” rather than Bye. However, it shows that he was living with a fellow Norwegian called Christopher Gunderson along with his family. The Worcester Directory for 1865 also lists Martin Bye living at the same address as Christopher and both listed as gun maker or armorers. Christopher’s brother, Karl or Carl, was also living at the same address and he too was listed as an armorer. Perhaps all three were working at Allen & Wheelock alongside Iver Johnson. In any case, living with the Gunderson’s turned out to be more than just a convenience for Martin as he married Christopher’s sister, Maria, on February 1st 1868. 
Shortly after their marriage, Martin and Maria had their first child who they named Gilbert. Two years later they had their second child, a daughter, that they named Jennie. Although the 1880 census lists their first daughter as Julia M., it’s possible that at the time the 1870 census was recorded, that they hadn’t fully decided on a name for their first daughter. By the time the 1880 census was recorded, Martin and Maria had two further children, Oscar A. and Emma. The 1880 census also now lists Martin’s occupation as “gun manufacturer” which coincides with his new partnership with Iver Johnson. 
Johnson and Bye had initially set up business together in order to manufacture pepperbox revolvers for themselves. Unfortunately, the pepperbox revolver had already lost its appeal and was being replaced by the revolvers of Samuel Colt, Webley, Smith & Wesson and others from 1850. However, there was a revival in the late 19th century of the pepperbox revolver as a short, easily concealable weapon that used pinfire cartridges. It was never really a success for Johnson and Bye and instead they switched their efforts to produce other small personal weapons amongst a wide diversity of other products. 
After just two years in 1873, their business had outgrown the small factory in Church Street and they moved to larger premises at 44 Central Street. 
On March 24th 1874, Johnson and Bye were granted their first patent, U.S. Pat. 148,960, “Improvement in Machines for Drilling and reaming Pistol-Barrels”. The purpose of this patent was to perform a series of drilling and reaming operations of “barrel-holes” in blank pistol-barrels without needing to remove or adjust the position of the barrel. This greatly improved both the quality and the production rate of producing pistol barrels and showed that Johnson and Bye were keen to improve both yield and production rate within their business in order to compete with other gun manufacturers of the day. 
The following year in 1875, the business was still growing and they decided it was necessary to purchase the entire building on Central Street. As the business continued to expand, each room of the building was converted for manufacturing purposes. This continued up to 1881 by which time the entire building had become fully utilised. 
a growing company
The factory at 44 Central Street employed between 250 and 300 hands. They produced ice skates, roller skates, air pistols, guns, revolvers and other arms. The factory consisted of a quadrangle of three and four-story brick buildings that were 100 feet square with each side 30 feet wide and a 40-foot court in the center. According to records, the factory contained lathes, planers, drills, trip-hammers and so on. There was also a “complete outfit of special tools and appliances” and a “costly set of modern improved nickel-plating apparatus” all driven by a 160 horse-power steam engine. It has been said that Johnson and Bye manufactured their products using automatic machinery that required almost no manual fitting of the final product and are considered amongst the first entrepreneurs to do so. 
In 1881, Iver had established agencies in New York, Boston and other large cities of the United States. His products became known in all parts of the country. He also established outlets in Canada and Mexico. These agencies may have been those of John P. Lovell & Co as Iver had signed a contract with Lovell for the sole distribution and sale of Johnson and Bye’s products. John P. Lovell & Co were at the time quite a famous arms supplier. 
Lovell, who was also Norwegian, had a business relationship with Johnson and Bye from at least 1873 when they became the sole manufacturer of handguns which he advertised as his own. This relationship was clearly very lucrative for Johnson and Bye. So much that Iver named his second son John Lovell Johnson when he was born circa 1878. It is also believed that Martin served with Benjamin Lovell, John P’s son, in the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. 
a tale of sorrow
For reasons that are not clear, Martin Bye retired from the company in 1882. One source states that Iver bought Martin’s share of the business in 1883 and the company was renamed Iver Johnson & Co. It seems very odd that Martin would retire from the business and sell his share when the business appeared to be going from strength to strength. As we will soon discover, Martin did not retire in the sense of employment which adds to the mystery even further. 
Rewinding slightly to 1879, Martin and Maria had a fifth child, Harold Martin, on October 17th 1879. Unfortunately, Harold died just three months later on January 22nd 1880 of pneumonia. Later that year on December 28th 1880, Martin also lost his wife to tuberculosis. She was just 36 years old, leaving behind her children of 11, 10, 8 and 5. These sad and unfortunate events may help to explain why Martin left the business that he and Iver had worked so hard to build together. 
Almost a year to the day, Martin married once again on December 26th 1881 in Worcester. One source suggests to “Marie Lindstrom nee Thompson” and had two more sons, Frederick and Warren. However, my records search shows a marriage between Martin Bye and Maria M. Kempston Lindgren, also a Norwegian. It lists Martin as a Firearms Manufacturer and that it was his second marriage. A close inspection of the original record lists his new wife as Maria M (Thompson) Lindgren. Clearly there has been an error whilst transcribing to digital format. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, Martin and Maria had three children in all, Harold M., Frederick J. and Warren Bjornson. No doubt that Harold M. was named after his last child with his late wife. 
rebirth of a gunsmith
A search of the patents database shows that Martin continued to develop inventions long after his departure from Johnson and Bye. In 1885 he was granted a patent related to roller skates which was one of the products the he and Iver manufactured at 44 Central Street. He was also named as the assignee of a roller skate patent invented by John C. Howe. Perhaps he offered to buy the patent and intended to return to the roller skate business. 
In 1888, Martin was granted a patent relating to shotguns called “Breech-Loading Fire Arm” which was assigned to Sullivan Forehand. It’s reasonable to assume that Martin was employed by Sullivan at this time. If you remember, near the beginning of this article, Sullivan and Wadsworth were sons-in-law of Ethan Allen for which Iver had worked for early in his North American career. Sullivan and Wadsworth had inherited Ethan Allen’s company, Allen & Wheelock. The company was subsequently renamed to Forehand and Wadsworth and later to Forehand Arms when Sullivan bought Wadsworth’s share. Interestingly, John Howe also had a connection with Forehand & Wadsworth. In 1868, Howe, along with Forehand & Wadsworth, had become embroiled in a lawsuit against the United States government. The lawsuit was for the infringement of an ammunition cartridge patent which had been granted to Howe in 1864. 
I could probably write another article solely about John Howe for he was also a prolific inventor of firearms and also at least one air gun patent relating to a Gem style magazine fed air rifle. 
By 1892, Martin became associated with Edward George Parry of Parry Firearms Co. Together they filed a shotgun patent called “Breech-Loading Firearm” which was granted on January 17th 1893. Again, I have been unable to determine if Martin and Edward were partners or whether Martin was employed by Edward. However, Parry Firearms Co. became bankrupt in 1895 and was sold to Ithaca Gun Co. on October 1st 1895 for whom Edward may have previously been an employee. 
An interesting patent of Martin’s is U.S. Patent 562,455, “Magazine-Pistol”, which was granted on June 23rd 1896. Martin’s intention was to simplify the manufacture of such pistols and reduce the number of parts that they consisted of. However, the interesting part of this patent is that it was assigned to John C. Speirs also of Worcester, Massachusetts. There is only one John C. Speirs listed in the U.S. census records of the time and he was the brother of Mary Speirs, Iver Johnson’s wife! John’s occupation in the 1880 U.S. census is listed as “book keeper”. Perhaps John had become an investor by 1896 although I have not found any other patents assigned to him. Thus, it is unclear what his involvement was with Martin. Perhaps Martin was closely tied to Parry Firearms Co. and through its demise, Martin needed to raise some money. Certainly, this story has become quite a twisting turn of events and intertwining of lives! 
In 1897 Martin generated another shotgun related patent and assigned it to Forehand Arms Co. Then between 1899 and 1906, Martin is granted eight patents of which he assigned to Harrington & Richardson Arms Company. Again, it is reasonable to assume that he may have been employed by Harrington & Richardson at this time. 
It would appear that Martin continued to work in the firearms industry his whole life for it was on April 9th 1906, aged 65, that he died from a kidney infection at his home in Worcester. His final patent, U.S. Pat. 818,075 “Cylinder-Stop for Revolvers” was granted on April 17th 1906. 
seven thousand bicycles a year
Back in 1885, just a few years after Martin left Johnson Bye & Co., Iver ventured into the manufacture of bicycles. He produced about one thousand cycles that year and by 1891 was producing perhaps seven thousand bicycles a year. As well as bicycles, his products now included police goods such as handcuffs, leg irons and several styles of shot gun and revolver such as the Swift, Defender, American Bull Dog and Boston to name a few. All of which were still supplied to the trade through John P. Lovell & Co. 
By 1891, Iver’s business had outgrown the factory in Church Street and he decided to search for larger premises. That same year he purchased a factory that was owned by the Walter Haywood Chair Manufacturing Company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Iver relocated his business to his new factory almost 30 miles away in Fitchburg and renamed his business to Iver Johnson’s Arms & Cycle Works. 
In 1894, Iver’s factory began producing the Safety Automatic Hammer revolver and then in 1895, the Safety Automatic Hammerless revolver. These were designed by Andrew Fyrberg, a Scandinavian immigrant employed by Johnson at the Fitchburg factory. A review of Johnson’s patents, or at least those assigned to Johnson, shows Fyrberg as the inventor on at least twenty patents between 1886 and 1890. These were probably the best-known firearms that Johnson produced and were sold in their millions over the next 50 years. 
automatic hammer safety
Strangely there is an advert for the Swift Automatic Safety Hammerless but shows the address as 44 Central Street Worcester rather that Fitchburg. This could be a printing error or perhaps Iver was still using the premises at Central Street to retail his goods.
Despite the title of the patent, “Lock for Revolvers”, neither of these pistols actually had a manual or automatic safety as you would think of one today. Instead, the safety was actually an internal bar that rested between the hammer and the cartridge. This prevented the revolver from accidentally discharging should it be dropped or the hammer hit. The bar would only be removed when the trigger was fully depressed.
As a small side note, one of Iver Johnson’s safety automatic revolvers was used to assassinate President William McKinley on September 14th 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.
Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works made good use of this invention in their advertising literature. They claimed that striking the hammer with a hammer could not cause accidental discharge and showed children in bed playing with a Johnson safety automatic revolver!
out with a bang!
Sadly, on August 3rd 1895, Iver died of tuberculosis at the age of 54. It was clearly a prevalent disease that had taken so many lives yet can be cured so easily with today’s antibiotics. His wife, Mary, was his executor as can be seen on some of the patents that were in the process of being granted when he died. Clearly, Iver had left his family a significant legacy to inherit. His sons took over the running of the business and his eldest son, Frederick, became president of the company. 
Besides managing his business, whilst he lived in Worcester, Iver was president of the Worcester Loan Association, director of the Sovereign’s Co-operative Store and three co-operative banks of Worcester, president of the Equity Co-operative Bank, vice-president of the Home Co-operative Bank and also a charter member of all three banks. Iver was also a member of the Worcester Lodge and a 32nd degree Mason and a Shriner. After moving to Fitchburg, he became a director of the Fitchburg National Bank, a trustee of the Fitchburg Savings Bank and president of the Iver Johnson Sporting Goods Company. 
A year later after Iver died, his company produced their first catalogue and opened two retail stores. By 1900, in a turn of fate, the company was doing so well that the family purchased J. P. Lovell & Co. which was previously their sole retailer. In fact, it is said that by the turn of the 20th century, Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works had probably produced more revolvers than any other manufacturer in the world! 
In 1909, Iver’s second son, John Lovell Johnson took over the role of company president from his elder brother. By 1910, the Iver Johnson factory had become the largest of its kind in North America. They branched out into motorcycles in 1911 but by the time of the first world war, this venture was closed down, along with the bicycle business, in favour of firearms production. Despite not receiving any arms contracts from the U.S. government, the company still managed to remain profitable by solely producing arms and tools. Many attribute this to the need for self-defence in the rising tide of robberies of the period. 
Incidentally, John Lovell Johnson was very successful in his own right. He became director of the Merchant’s National Bank of Boston, vice-president and trustee of Fitchburg Saving Bank, director and member of the executive committee of the Fitchburg Mutual Fire Insurance Company, direct of Fitchburg Co-operative Bank, advisory committee member of the Worcester County Trust Company of Fitchburg and president of the board of Alderman of Fitchburg. 
Politically, John became state senator, 3rd Worcester Senatorial District from 1907 to 1908, a councillor of 7th District from 1909 to 1910 and treasurer of the Republican State Committee of Massachusetts. 
the beginning of the end
The company continued to produce arms throughout the Great Depression and Iver’s youngest son, Walter, became president of the company in 1935. During the second world war, the company lost a major contract with the U.S. Army over the replacement for the M1 Garand. But worse still, it produced 70,000 of the replacement M1941 Johnson rifles which the army did not purchase. From here on, it was a downward trend for the company. 
Iver’s grandson, Luther Otto III, became the company president in 1953 but he was unable to turn the company around. The only notable piece of information about the business was that it concentrated on low cost sporting firearms and that one of these was used to assassinate Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 5th 1968. 
In around 1973, the company was sold to Louis Imperato and the business moved to New Jersey. Imperato was also unable to turn the business around and in 1980 it was sold again. In 1983 it moved to Arkansas but still operating under the Iver Johnson name. The company struggled on producing a few models of arms including a copy of the Walther PPK that was called the TP22. But finally, the business succumbed to its demise and filed for bankruptcy in 1986. 
Did I say finally? No, there is yet another twist, another gasp of breath, for Imperato somehow purchased Iver Johnson from the bankruptcy court for $1.2 million. He then sued the existing owners for the outstanding balance of which they still owed him from the previous sale! Production resumed under the name of Iver Johnson Arms by AMAC (American Arms Corporation). But, yes, finally this time, in 1990 the company declares bankruptcy again and was eventually wound up in 1994. 
on the shoulders of giants
Oh, did I hear someone shout “but Iver Johnson Arms is still going!”. Well, yes and no. There is a company in Florida that is operating today as Iver Johnson Arms, Inc. This new company was established in 2006 and is not the same company despite using Iver Johnson’s name and his “owl” logo. They have even stated on their website that “We do not have any parts, guns, records, or info related to the older Iver Johnson products made before 2005. Please contact your local gun dealer for any questions related to older Iver Johnson products. Thank you.” It’s a little cheeky of them don’t you think? 
designs made of air
Over the years together, Johnson and Bye were jointly awarded multiple patents. Most of which related to the design of revolvers and breech loading shotguns. However, they did venture into the realm of airguns, albeit very briefly, when they raised two patents relating to air pistols on March 15th 1876. These patents were only their second and third that they had raised together. It was probably during the period when they were wondering what they could manufacture to prop-up the diminishing orders of the pepperbox revolver.
U.S. patent 176,004, “Improvement in Spring Air-Pistols” was clearly based on Pope’s Rifle Air pistol. However, Johnson and Bye’s invention was solely focussed on a new design of breech seal. In this design, the barrel was fixed in place whereas Pope’s would slide out during the cocking procedure. A section of the barrel was hinged towards the front of the pistol. At the rear was a lever which when turned would release the hinged barrel section. The owner could then load a dart or other projectile into the hinged section of barrel. The barrel would be returned and then locked and sealed in place by turning the lever to the right.
The rest of the design is not of importance with respect to the patent claims. But a close inspection of the drawing reveals that it probably would not have functioned particularly well. To cock the pistol, the owner would pull the cocking rod out from the front towards the muzzle of the barrel. The clamp used by Pope is still present in this design and there is a spring on the cocking rod. This spring is similar to that used by Bedford in the Eureka. However, the spring on the Eureka is used to pull out and then hold the cocking rod in place after the gun has been cocked. I can’t see any purpose for the spring in Johnson and Bye’s design. When fired, the piston and cocking rod would be forced towards the breech of the pistol by the mainspring. But surely this would be limited by the cocking rod spring and the friction of the barrel clamp. 
It is thought that this pistol was never manufactured for retail as no such examples are known nor have any illustrations been seen in any advertising literature. If any such pistols had been made, I suspect the cocking rod spring and clamp would have been removed as they appear to serve no practical purpose. Most likely they would have probably limited the pistol’s efficiency.
and now, the moment you’ve been waiting for…
Finally, we arrive at the object for which this article is intended…. “at last” I hear you groan!
Johnson and Bye’s second air gun patent, U.S. Patent 176,003, “Improvement in Spring Air-Pistols”, did indeed become a reality. It became known as the “Champion”. 
This design was significantly different from any other of the period. The other offerings from Quackenbush, Pope and Bedford all placed the barrel on top of the compression chamber. This design brought the barrel in front and in line with the compression chamber in much the same way as today’s break barrel air guns.
Having said that, Quackenbush did file a patent that looked similar to the Champion on March 4th 1876. This was just a week or so before Johnson and Bye filed theirs. However, other than both designs looking superficially the same on the outside, they differed significantly in their cocking method. I wonder if both were designed in isolation or whether Johnson and Bye had a glimpse of Quackenbush’s new design. Or perhaps it may have been the other way around. Who can say. It was not unheard of, in those days, that pending patent designs would be manufactured in advance of their application or approval. Thus, it is possible, albeit slim, that Quackenbush could have advertised his new pistol ahead of its production. This may have provided Johnson and Bye with some invaluable insight. I wouldn’t get too hung up on that though. It’s just as possible, if not more probable, that Johnson and Bye had simply improved on their previous design!
In this design, Johnson and Bye reversed direction of movement of the piston compared to that of the Quackenbush and Pope Rifle Air Pistol. In fact, it was very similar to the Eureka where a cocking rod pushes the piston back against the force of the mainspring until it is locked in place by the sear. However, whereas Bedford simply placed a button or disc on the end of his push rod for the owner to press against, Johnson and Bye realised that the barrel could be used as the cocking handle. Rather than fixing the barrel in place, they attached it midway along its length to the end of the cocking rod with a hinge. The owner could then rotate the barrel until it was perpendicular with the push rod and use it to push the rod and hence the piston towards the rear of the pistol.
The barrel is located in a recess around the transfer port. Obviously, to release the barrel from this recess, the user must be able to pull the barrel forward slightly. Johnson and Bye realised that they needed a method by which the barrel would be pulled back and held against the recess otherwise the barrel would be susceptible to falling out whilst the pistol was being used.
Johnson and Bye devised an ingenious spring loaded solution that was hidden within the end of the push rod. At the end of the push rod, within the compression chamber, is a cap. This cap served three purposes. First, it was a stopper that prevented the push from from being completely removed or fired out of the pistol. Second, it served as a plug to seal the push rod guide port. But more importantly of all, hidden within the end cap is a spring loaded screw. The spring, probably a thin spring metal washer, was fitted between the screw head and the bottom of the cap. The idea was that the push rod would be pulled back, along with the barrel, by the force of the spring pushing the screw head away from the base of the cap. Thus, holding the barrel firmly against the compression chamber recess.
Johnson and Bye also filed their Champion patent in Great Britain on May 29th 1876 via their British patent agent, William Robert Lake. The British patent, No. 2257, “Air Pistols and Guns”, shows the spring-loaded push rod cap in greater detail than the U.S. patent. It also provides some extra diagrams that illustrates the barrel locating recess with more clarity and the arrangement of the spring-loaded trigger and sear levers. 
In reality, it appears that the Champion as illustrated in the patent drawings may never have been produced as no examples are known to exist. Instead, Johnson and Bye combined the two patents into a single design. They took the thumb lever barrel lock and added it to the Champion. In doing so, they eliminated the need to spring-load the push rod. Perhaps they realised that the spring within the push rod cap did not have sufficient strength to hold the barrel in place, or that the screw could work loose. Or that by keeping the design simple, production costs could be kept down and the quality of the product improved.
To begin with, Johnson and Bye manufactured the Champion at their factory in Church Street, Worcester. They certainly were not strangers in the art of making firearms. In fact, there are company records from Johnson, Bye & Co that lists the number of Champions they made. It is known that Pope at least advertised and sold the Champion as his own. Pope also re-used the testimonial from General Sherman that he used for his “rifle” air pistol alongside the Champion. Whether Pope made the pistol himself or whether it was supplied by Johnson and Bye isn’t known. When Pope retired from the air gun industry in 1878, Quackenbush acquired the rights to manufacture the Champion. Quackenbush continued to manufacture the pistol, or at least it was available to buy, until about 1893. 
According to adverts in the J. P. Lovell catalogue of 1891, the Quackenbush pistols were advertised as both the “Champion” and “Victor”. It is possible that in the early days of the pistol that J. P. Lovell also advertised and retailed the Champion as he did for Johnson and Bye’s other firearms. He may even have continued to advertise the Champion when Pope became involved. Certainly, it is evident from surviving advertising literature that Lovell was advertising the Bedford Eureka alongside the Excelsior air rifle in February 1881. 
The Champion and Eureka have also been seen advertised side by side on the bottom of a packet of Union Metallic Cartridge Company .22 “swaged” bullet pistol cartridges of the 1880s. It has also been seen advertised as the Champion in the British 1893 Bonehill Catalogue. 
There may have been five models of the Champion as advertising literature referred to some of the models as the No. 3 which was black enamelled, the No. 4 which was nickel plated and the No. 5. which was nickel plated with rosewood grips. The black enamelled variant was also available with walnut grips but this has not been seen advertised with a model number that I am aware of. 
We do not know what the appearance of the No. 1 and No. 2 pistols may have been or whether the black enamelled variant with walnut grips could have been No. 6. Without further advertising literature or company records the numbering scheme will remain a mystery. Of course, this numbering scheme might have been made up by the advertiser simply for the purpose of making ordering easier.
variations of production
There were also some variations in the pistol’s construction of which there are four variants that are currently known. At least three have different length compression chambers and each of these three vary with respect to the push rod guide. Let’s start with the longest compression chamber variant first.
With this variant, the compression tube appears to be constructed in two parts with a clearly visible seam. A hole was drilled almost exactly on the seam between the two halves and was threaded to receive a grub screw. The grub screw acts as a spline that locates in a groove that runs the length of the push rod. The purpose was to prevent the push rod and barrel from rotating whilst the owner cocked the pistol. 
The second variant has a slightly shorter compression chamber but the push rod guide is longer. This variant also uses a grub screw to form the spline and is located on the push rod guide tube rather than the compression chamber cylinder. Also, the compression chamber and push rod guide is a single piece casting. 
The third and last known variant has an even shorter compression chamber. The overall length of the chamber and push rod guide tube is also shorter than the previous variants. Rather than using a grub screw as the spline, this variant has an indentation on the guide tube. The indentation may have been stamped or pressed into the metal. The process of which could have formed a bulge on the inside of the tube to act as the spline. This was the method of construction of the spline described in Johnson and Bye’s patent. However, the patent drawings show that the groove and spline were originally designed to be on the upper side of the push rod guide rather than on the underside as found on actual examples. 
The fourth variant shows a few significant differences in the design and manufacture of the pistol. On the other examples, and the one in this collection, they all have a two-lever trigger design. The sear lever is mounted towards the front on the pistol with the trigger and integral leaf spring mounted just ahead of the handle. However, a photograph of an example, shown to me by Bruce Stauff Jnr., shows a pistol that is exceptionally similar to the Champion design but does not have the forward sear lever. The pistol clearly has only one pin which indicates a single-lever trigger design. It also appears to show a rear sight that is part of the casting rather than a separate, dovetail machined sight. Johnson and Bye’s patent suggests a two-lever trigger design with an integral cast rear sight. However, neither of these features are actually within the claims of the patent. Nor are they specifically detailed on the patent drawings. This fourth variant pistol, plus another, appeared in the July 2010 Amoskeag auction as lot numbers 223 and 224. Lot 223 was nickel plated and lot 224 was black enamelled and complete with its original box. Perhaps this fourth variant may have been the elusive No. 1 and No. 2 in nickel and black enamel finishes. 
According to the auctioneer’s description of the lot 224, the box is “an original green and tan two-piece cardboard box marked “The New Air Pistol”/ “THE CHAMPION” on the lid and “VICTOR” on one end label.” This was probably an exceptionally rare piece as cardboard boxes from this period of history rarely survive if they haven’t been thrown away at the time of purchase. According to the auctioneer’s records, it sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium which may have been about $150. 
The first, second and fourth variants that I mentioned were all stamped along the top of the barrel with “PAT. MAR.7, APR.11, 76. ENG. JULY 1, 75. MAY 29, 76”. The third variant is stamped “PAT. MAR.7, APR.11, 76. ENG. JULY 1, 75” on the left-hand side just above the grip of the pistol. None were stamped with a serial number except maybe for the wood grip variants. At least one such example is known to be stamped with a number. This may or may not be a serial number. 
I must make it clear that the variants listed above by no means indicate order of chronological manufacture. It is possible that the four variants may represent separate manufacturing processes by Johnson and Bye, Pope and Quackenbush but the fourth variant adds to the mystery further.
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Johnson and Bye’s patent design was copied at least twice. Examples made by Joseph Dumonthier of St Martin, Paris are known to exist. Dumonthier’s version had a longer compression chamber and also an integral cast rear sight. It also had two main springs with one inside the other and the handle was entirely wooden as opposed to wooden grips screwed onto a metal frame. 
We also know that Michael Flürscheim of Eisenwerke Gaggenau, in Germany, raised a German registered patent of his own based the Champion. It was a near copy but no physical examples are known to exist. 
The stripped photograph of the Champion shows a minimal number of components. This would have helped to keep production costs down, helped Johnson and Bye compete with the competition and turn a profit. The main body of the pistol is a casting of iron. The quality of the casting is spectacular. It is very smooth without any imperfections due to air pockets nor are any casting seams visible. Considering that the push rod guide cap is a separate item, it is surprising that it is such a flush fit. Perhaps both the body and the push rod guide cap were machined and polished whilst fitted together to create an almost seamless join.
There is a hole drilled in top the heel of the handle in which the owner could fit a wire shoulder stock similar to that of the Pope Rifle Air Pistol, the Eureka and other pistols available at the time. The Champion was not always advertised with a wire shoulder stock. That’s not to say it was not always supplied with one but it may have been an optional extra in some catalogues.
The trigger consists of two levers, two pins, an adjustment screw and a bent leaf spring that sits behind and between the trigger and frame. The face of the trigger is knurled unlike most triggers which are normally smooth. This provides some grip which is probably a good thing considering the trigger spring is quite strong and the available area to pull against is very small due to the close proximity of the frame.
At the rear of the pistol is a threaded cap. It has a square hole where a suitable tool would be inserted to allow for removal of the cap. This is similar to the rear cap of the Eureka which also has a square hole. The pistol may have been supplied with a tool, similar to that of the Eureka, that could be used to both pull darts from a target board and also remove the end cap from the pistol.
Once the end cap is removed, the flat style mainspring, that was common place in air pistols of the era, can be removed along with the piston. The piston is a solid piece of machined steel. The rear face of the piston has a protruding lip that perhaps forms a small guide on which the spring can be located. The center of this locating lip is drilled and threaded. This puzzles me as it appears to serve no functional purpose when assembled within the pistol. It has been suggested that perhaps a rod would be attached to the piston so that the piston and compression tube could be lapped together for a better fit. Certainly the piston in this pistol is a good fit. With the mainspring removed, the piston is held in place by a vacuum as long as you block the transfer port or barrel with your finger. As soon as you release your finger, the piston will fall out under its own weight. It also slides within the compression chamber smoothly without any lubrication. This implies that the tolerances must be very good.
On the front face of the piston is a leather cushion. This is certainly not a seal and neither a seal nor a cushion was mentioned in Johnson and Bye’s patent. However, we do know that Quackenbush added a “pad of leather, rubber, or other elastic or semi-elastic material” to act as a cushion to soften the impact of the piston and the frame in his U.S. Pat. 244,484, July 19th 1881. Perhaps this particular pistol was manufactured by Quackenbush. It might be possible to roughly date some of the Champions and who made them based on the piston. Without further information from other Champion collectors I cannot say for certain. Hopefully we will hear from some soon. 
The front 9mm (3/8”) of the compression chamber on this particular variant is clearly a separate part. There is a visible seam running around the entire circumference of the compression chamber where the two parts meet. I expect that these two parts have been assembled by slotting one into the other using a process of heat expansion and cooling to create a very tight friction fit. I doubt that they have been threaded and screwed together as the front section must align precisely for the barrel to be directly at the top of the pistol. Exactly on the underside of the pistol and almost directly on the seam is a slotted grub screw. The screw forms a locator that fits into a curved slot that runs the length of the push rod. This prevents the rod from turning whilst the owner cocks the pistol.
The top of the main body of the pistol has a slot where a dovetailed rear sight is mounted. The rear sight is machined from steel and appears to be blued. The dovetail fitting allows for windage adjustment. I have not seen an adjustable rear sight for a pistol of this era before. The foresight is a simple steel rod that is shaped to form a point.
The barrel is nickel plated brass and 21 cm (8.4”) long. It is smoothbore, .21 calibre, which was standard for the period and region. The nickel plated, solid steel hinge clamp is mounted at exactly one third of the barrel from the breech. It appears to be a tight friction fit and was probably assembled by heating the clamp and sliding the barrel into place. Once cooled, the clamp would shrink in size around the barrel forming a tight fit. On the top of the barrel along the front two thirds is the patent stamp. Parts of which are quite difficult to read on my example.
The push rod and plug are machined from steel. They are constructed from two parts as the groove on the push rod terminates squarely at the plug and there is a visible seam between the two parts. It’s not possible to determine if the two parts are screwed together or whether a process of heat and expansion was used to allow a hole in the rod to accept a pin from the plug. The rod appears to be nickel plated although there is little plating left. This is only to be expected as it is a high wear item. The cap, on the other hand, does not appear to have been plated or the plating has been removed during the fitting stage of construction of the pistol. The cap appears to have a small taper which explains why it is sticky to release when cocking the pistol. This taper helps to form an effective seal at the push rod guide port. The push rod is attached to the barrel clamp using a screw which also forms the pivot.
Above the push rod guide port is the breech seal and lock. The seal and lock is simply a sleeve with a thumb lever. It is threaded to fit on a helical thread such that turning only through 180 degrees is enough to move it forward by approximately 2mm (1/16″). This is plenty of allowance to not only hold the barrel tightly and create a seal when closed, but also enough room to release the barrel when opened. The breech seal lock is mounted on a helically threaded steel tube. This forms the transfer port between the compression chamber and the barrel. The breech side of the port is slotted which implies the port is screwed into the end cap of the pistol. This appears to be firmly seated in place and as there is no real need to remove it, I’ll leave it alone rather than risk damaging the pistol.
The pistol is very easy to use. Simply unlock the barrel, rotate it to form a handle then push to cock the pistol. It may require a tap to break the seal between the tapered push rod cap and the guide port. Then load a dart or slug, as they were known, into the breech, close and lock the barrel, take aim and fire! There really isn’t much to it.
When I first handled the Champion, I noticed immediately that it felt and looked sturdier and better made than the Pope Rifle Air Pistol and the Eureka. Nothing about the pistol appears to be superfluous. The push rod appears as though it is part of the barrel. Whereas the Eureka’s push rod along with its return spring seems excessive in comparison. Whilst the breech bolt of the Eureka is ahead of its time, the breech seal and lock of the Champion seems almost invisible. The Pope, well, probably better if I say nothing. Everything about the Champion appears to have been carefully considered. Nothing has been “tagged on” or looks like an after thought. Whilst the Champion appears simple, it is actually a streamlined, minimalistic design that carefully hides its functionality.
Of the three pistols, the Champion is the longest at 38cm (15”). The Pope Rifle Air Pistol the shortest at 30.5cm (12”). The Pope has the longest barrel of all by far at 27cm (10 ¾”) whilst the Eureka has the shortest barrel at 20cm (8”). The Pope has the smallest compression chamber of 11.5cm (4 ½”) whilst the Champion and Eureka have similar sized chambers of 13cm (5 1/8″).
The Pope fills you with a great fear of losing a finger tip whilst cocking, loading and returning the barrel to close the breech as you hope the trigger does not release prematurely or that you don’t accidentally press it! The Champion is by far the easiest to cock once you overcome the initial friction lock of the push rod plug. The Eureka is awkward to cock but its saving grace is its trigger guard.
The sights on the Eureka are the clearest whilst those on the Pope and Champion are very small and hard to see against the target. Mind you, I had a replacement front sight made for the Eureka which may be larger than the original.
Out of the three, the Champion is the most powerful. Of course I am comparing only one example of each pistol and they are 140 years old. But, as you might expect with its long barrel, the Pope is the most accurate of the lot! The Champion fired to the right of the target and with the widest group. The Eureka fired left and low, whilst the Pope fired slightly low but with the tightest group. Each were only really capable of penetrating a cardboard box. Ranges further than three or four yards would probably see the darts bounce off the cardboard. That’s if they don’t dive straight under the target in the first place.
Nonetheless, their poor accuracy might actually help make a game of indoor pistol darts quite challenging and fun!
The story of the story…
I have been exceptionally lucky to acquire a Johnson and Bye Champion air pistol. Earlier in the year I was made aware of an auction in the U.S. There were plenty of the usual Crosman pistols and rifles but also two late 19th century items. A boxed Eureka and a boxed Champion. Both boxes seemed suspiciously fresh. I decided that I would try to purchase the Champion. I researched values and set a figure based on sales tax, buyers fee, shipping, customs, duty fees etc. I registered to bid and followed the auction all day long. Finally, by around 3pm, it was time. I was quite surprised when the bidding seemed to reach a lull at $200. I hit the bid button…. nothing happened! I hit it again…. Still nothing. Frantically hitting the button but alas, the lot closed and some lucky person got that cased Champion for a ridiculously low $200! Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
Some weeks later, I was having an email conversation with a fellow collector about an interesting pistol that had been put up for auction. I mentioned how I had lost out on the Champion through a communication failure. At this point he told me that he had two Champions and would consider letting one go for the right price. Well the rest is history as they say!
I am indebted to you, my fellow collector, as are the readers of this article for you all know that I only write articles about the items in my collection. If it weren’t for you, I may never have learnt so much about Iver Johnson let alone find myself on such a journey trying to piece together the history of Martin Bye.
Piecing together the history of Iver Johnson was quite a task, but nowhere near as big a task as researching Martin Bye! There are so many conflicting sources of information about Iver. One source tells a very nice tale and quotes Iver to have had three children… Fred John Lovell, Walter O. and Mary Louise. Whereas many other references quote five children… Frederick Iver, John Lovell, Walter Olaf, Mary Louise and Nellie. It just goes to show that you should always check your references and cross check with other sources of information. Especially as both sources were incorrect! Also, the official birth, marriage, census and death records can vary in respect of first names, surnames and parents. It has taken an enormous amount of diligent inspection of the records to remove any doubt about the links between each record. Often cross checking multiple records to ensure that I have not mistaken once person for another.
On a number of occasions, I nearly gave up as I was going around in circles unable to find a definitive link between people and events in history. Only when I looked closely at the original records, rather than the digital transcript, could I see the truth and most importantly, those vital connections.
It’s been an extremely interesting and rewarding journey to uncover the details of Martin Bye’s life where others have stated that there is little known about him. Thank goodness that these records have been preserved and digitised for anyone in the world to view. I can imagine that just ten years ago, one would have had to fly to the United States, then Norway and perhaps back again spending days if not weeks going through the records to discover all of the information listed in the references of this article. Almost all seventy-seven of them!
The Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Works factory still stands today on River Street in Fitchburg. Remarkably one of the buildings is currently being used by a company that salvages motorcycles for parts. I wonder if they are aware of the full history of the building and that it also, many years ago, was used to manufacture motorcycles. Google has a superb photographic 3D rendition of the factory which, building for building, matches the drawing of the factory from 1910 including the chimney stack.
Bravo Iver. Who knows what you might have concocted if only you had continued to develop air guns. Still, I think it’s turned out ok for us afterall.
Until next time, happy shooting!
- Iver Johansen, Norway Baptisms, 1634-1927, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson, Massachusetts Deaths, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson History, Online Museum for Iver Johnson + Lovell Diamond + Truss Bridge & Truss Frame Bicycles
- Why the Iver Johnson Deserves Some Respect, Rock Island Auction Company
- Iver Johnson Handguns 1871-1941: The Handguns of Johnson & Bye & Co 1871-1883, Iver Johnson & Co 1883-1891, Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works 1891-1941, by Brian L. Massey, ISBN 0994075111/978-0994075116
- Allen & Wheelock, American Gun Makers, Arcadi Gluckman, Colonel U.S. Army – Retired and L.D. Satterlee, The Stackpole Co. Pg. 4 and 5, Internet Archive
- Directory of Mark Twain’s maxims, quotations, and various opinions
- The Iconic Pepperbox Revolving Pistol, The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles
- Iver Johnson, Massachusetts Marriages, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson, United States Census 1880, FamilySearch
- Mary E Johnson, United States Census 1900, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson, Pg. 821, Biographical Review, Volume XXX, Worcester County, Biographical Review Publishing Company, 1899
- Martin Olesen, Norway Baptisms, 1634-1927
- Martin Bye, United States Census 1900, FamilySearch
- Martin Bye, Soldier Details, The Civil War, National Parks Service
- Martin Bee, Massachusetts State Census 1865, FamilySearch
- Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms…. and their values, Norm Flayderman, Third Edition, Pg. 385, Internet Archive
- Email correspondence with Remington Arms regarding company records of Allen & Wheelock
- Martin Bye, Worcester Directory for 1865, Henry J Howland, Pg. 53, Internet Archive
- Martin Bye, United States Census 1870, FamilySearch
- Martin Bye, Massachusetts Marriages, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Martin Bye, United States Census 1880, FamilySearch
- Johnson, Bye & Co., American Firearms
- Pepper-box, Wikipedia, English edition
- U.S. Patent 148,960, “Improvement in Machines for Drilling and Reaming Pistol-Barrels”, Iver Johnson and Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- History of Worcester County Massachusetts with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men, Volume II, 1889, D. Hamilton Hurd, Pg. 1639, Internet Archive
- IVER JOHNSON & CO., Pg. 72, Inland Massachusetts Illustrated, The Elstner Publishing Company 1891
- U.S. Patent 308,075, “Handcuff”, Iver Johnson, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- John L Johnson, United States Census 1880, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson: Arms & Cycle Works Firearms 1871-1993, W. E. Bill Goforth, ISBN 0978708601 / 978-0978708603
- Harold M. Bye, Massachusetts Deaths 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Inga M. Gunderson Bye, Massachusetts Deaths, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Martin Bye, Massachusetts Marriages, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- U.S. Patent 332,049, “Roller-Skate”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 315,623, “Clamp for Skates”, J. C. Howe, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 378,355, “Breech-Loading Fire-Arm”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Forehand & Wadsworth, Wikipedia English Edition
- U.S. Patent 483,651, “Air-Gun”, John C. Howe, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 490,065, “Breech-Loading Firearm”, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Parry Firearms Co., American Firearms
- Edward George Parry 1890s Gunsmith, genealogy.com
- U.S. Patent 562,455, “Magazine-Pistol”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- John C. Speirs, United States Census, 1880, FamilySearch
- U.S. Patent 582,776, “Gun-Frame for Drop-Down Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 644,040, “Ejector Mechanism for Breakdown Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 644,402, “Mainspring Attachment for Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 658,314, “Safety Mechanism for Double-Action Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 674,957, “Ejector Mechanism for Breakdown Guns”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 812,015, “Recoil-Operated Firearm”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 812,016, “Handle for Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 795,816, “Safety-Stop for Firearms”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 818,075, “Cylinder-Stop for Revolvers”, Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Martin Bye, Massachusetts Deaths, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- Iver Johnson, Wikipedia English Edition
- U.S. Patent 566,393, “Lock For Revolvers”, Andrew Fyrberg, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Iver Johnson, Massachusetts Deaths, 1841-1915, FamilySearch
- U.S. Patent 697,516, “Firearm-Lock”, Oscar F. Mossberg, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Illustration of the Iver Johnson Sporting Goods Company building, Iver Johnson Sporting Goods, Vintage Baseball Glove Forum
- John Lovell Johnson, prabook
- The History of Iver Johnson’s Arms, Post WWII Commercially Manufactured M1 Carbines (U.S.A.)
- Iver Johnson Arms, Inc. Rockledge Florida
- U.S. Patent 176,004, “Improvement in Spring Air-Pistols”, Iver Johnson and Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Albert Augustus Pope and The Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol (1874-1878), Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- The “Eureka” (1876 to circa 1893) by Augustus Bedford and George A. Walker, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- U.S. Patent 176,003, “Improvement in Spring Air-Pistols”, Iver Johnson and Martin Bye, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 178,327, “Improvement in Spring Air-Pistols”, Henry M. Quackenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- British Patent 2257, May 29th 1876, Johnson and Bye, courtesy of John Griffiths
- Images of four types of Champion pistols, Johnson & Bye, courtesy of Bruce Stauff, The Vintage Airgun Gallery
- The Encyclopedia of Spring Air Pistols, John Griffiths, ISBN 978-0-95595-160-2
- Air Guns, Eldon G. Wolff, second printing, Milwaukee Public Museum Publications in History Part 1. Pg. 133
- Bruce Stauff (Jnr), photographs and correspondence
- Amoskeag Auction Company, photographs of a Champion / Victor with box
- Amoskeag Auction Company, Auction #78 Post Auction Price list, July 31st 2010
- German Patent DE3960, “Neuerungen und Luftpistolen”, July 3rd 1878, German Patent and Trademark Office
- The Eisenwerke Gaggenau MF (1878-1900) by Michael Flürscheim, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- U.S. Patent 244,284, “Air-Gun”, Henry M. Quackenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Henry M. Quackenbush and the Quackenbush Model 1 Air Rifle (mfd. 1876 to 1938), Jimmie Dee’s Airguns