The Apache “Fireball” air pistol was part of a small range of airguns produced towards the end of the 1940s by the National Cart Corporation in Pasadena, California. I’m sure you are wondering why a company with such a name would consider manufacturing airguns. I know I certainly am. Before the introduction of airguns and employing around one hundred workers, the National Cart Corporation’s product line was a range of golf carts which, according to one of their advertisements, were known as the “famous tag-a-long golf carts”. In 1947, Stuart Klingelsmith, the public relations director of the National Cart Corporation, wrote an article in which he predicted that the potential earnings from the rental and sales of golf carts could reach multiple millions of dollars in that year. With such signs of significant revenue earnings, why would the company consider branching out into airguns at all? 
It’s certainly known that golf carts were not the only product that the National Cart Corporation produced. Although there is no recorded evidence, I have found one classified advertisement that shows the company produced children’s bicycles. One such example was called Mr. Cycle and used a belt instead of a chain. It had no brakes but was clearly designed for a child of around four years of age. According to the instruction leaflet of the Apache airguns, the company also produced golf balls, fishing reels and folding, portable seats. 
Advertising literature for the company’s products show that it was an subsidiary company of Burhans and Associates. In his book Pneumatic Reflections, leading American collector Larry Hannusch states that Charles Burhans was the president of the National Cart Corporation. Charles was known as a marketing genius and made his fame and fortune by successfully marketing the Alka-Seltzer Co. Remember them? How did the commercials go… “plop plop fizz fizz”? I vaguely remember Jimmie Dee Snr taking these in the 1970s. 
His associates were Orville Schimel and Albert Dale Fogel. Some of you may already be familiar with the name Schimel, for he later designed and produced the famous Schimel Gas Pistol. I’ll cover that remarkable pistol in a future article. Larry states that it was Orville’s idea to venture into the realm of airguns. At the time, the airgun sector was rapidly growing and must have been quite a lure for successful entrepreneurs. With the promised revenue from their golf cart business, perhaps they thought they could invest their profits into other markets to further bolster the business. 
Albert Dale Fogel, the third man in this trio, was Vice President of Design and Production at the company. It was Fogel who designed the Apache Fireball along with the other airguns in the Apache range. With a previous career as an aeronautical engineer and knowledge of hydraulics, he was probably well suited to work with the pressure related concepts of pneumatic airguns. 
The Apache Fireball was not the first airgun that was produced by the company. Initially, in 1947, the company first manufactured a pneumatic air rifle, the Apache Texan. However, they were also working on a pistol as shown in a 1947 advert. The advert announces the Apache air pistol hidden behind a black “top secret” box. Part of the grip and fore-end of the pistol was clearly visible as if to tease those reading the advert of the impending release. 
The exact release date of the Apache air pistol is difficult to pin down. Some say it was 1948, however, I am inclined to dispute this. An article in the 1948 May edition of American Rifleman reviews the pistol in detail. It is safe to say that the pistol had already began production prior to May 1948. In fact, production may have started in late 1947 if the launch advertisements are taken into account. 
In an interview with Fogel, Larry Hannusch discovered that the Apache was intended to resemble the Colt .32 auto pistol. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m struggling to see any resemblance. Fogel claimed that only a single handmade prototype was constructed before the pistol went into production. In all, it is estimated that 7,000 Apache Fireball pistols were manufactured over its two-year run. Mainly due to the company going bankrupt in 1949! Constructed from poor quality and not particularly durable materials, not many have survived the test of time and trauma of children’s hands. As such, the Apache Fireball has become one of the rarest and most collectable of air pistols produced by the United States. 
Originally introduced to the market at $19.95, the Apache air pistol first made its appearance as a rifled, single shot, .250 calibre airgun. I say .250 as that was the calibre stated in the manufacturer’s literature and advertisements. They even went as far as to manufacture and market their own tubes of “Apache .250 cal” ammunition for their airguns. However, it appears the ammunition did not fit according to Trevor Adams and many other owners of the Apache airguns. The calibre of ammunition that does fit best is .24 lead shot which is also known as No. 4 buckshot. No.4 buckshot is still available today though mainly in the United States. If necessary, it is possible to manufacture your own .24 calibre lead shot using a mould such as the Lee Precision Inc .24 calibre cavity mould.
single shot and repeater variants
The pistol was available in a second variant that included a push fit or screw in .175 calibre brass smoothbore barrel insert. These inserts were “split” at the breech and intended to be squashed slightly to hold a .175 steel BB. The BB would be loaded through the muzzle which possibly made the Apache the first, and perhaps only, mass produced muzzle-loading airgun. It appears that the introduction of the .175 calibre was either a marketing gimmick or aimed towards the junior market. Or perhaps a bit of both. It was certainly advertised to be compatible with standard airgun shot of the time which would have made it much more economical to use.
Following the single shot version, the National Cart Corporation released a repeater model of the pistol. It wasn’t actually a true repeater as the pistol must be cocked and loaded for each shot. However, it was fitted with a six round force-fed magazine attached to the right-hand side of the action. Loading the magazine was a simple affair. The spring-loaded catch is pushed towards the front of the pistol and turned upwards to lock it into position. Up to six .240 calibre lead balls would be inserted into the top of the magazine through a loading port. The magazine plunger would then be released which would place the array of load balls under the tension of the spring. Whenever the loading probe is retracted, one of the lead balls would be pushed into the chamber. As the probe is pushed forwards, the ball would be forced into the barrel to engage the rifling.
The repeater variant was also available with the same .175 barrel insert that was available for the single shot model. However, the magazine was not designed to hold .175 ammunition and so, unlike the single shot variant, an additional loading port was added to the left-hand side of the action. The secondary loading port would only accept .175 calibre sized BBs and allowed them to be breech loaded rather than muzzle loaded. Should the .175 BBs fall out of the barrel when loaded, the split ended breech of the barrel was designed to be squeezed together such that the BBs would be firmly held until the pistol was fired.
The pistols were available in two finishes. Early models had die-cast, low-grade zinc alloy frames whilst later models used aluminium. The frames were either painted “gun blue” (black) or their aluminium frames were simply polished to a high shine. The brass barrel, insert and pump lever tube were chemically blackened. The hammer casing, hammer rod and probe assemblies were blued along with the rear sight. The grips were typically grooved walnut although there does appear to be at least one example with smooth ivory or white plastic grips which may have been custom-made. The Blue Book of Airguns lists ivory or black plastic grips as variants which would appear to be very rare. 
The only inscription to be found on the pistols is on the cap at the front of the pump compression tube. Of these two examples, the .250 calibre model is inscribed “PASADENA 2 CALIF USA” around the edge of the cap with “APACHE” across the center. The model with the .175 calibre barrel insert is marked “PASADENA 2 CAL USA BURHANS & ASSOC” around the edge of the cap with “FIRE-BALL” across the center. This is the only place where I have seen the name of the pistol. I have not seen it make an appearance on any literature or advertising material where it was only known as the “Apache Air Pistol”. Other markings are known to be “Burhans and Associates”, “National Cart Corporation”, “Fire-ball” or “Apache” but not a combination as found on the examples of this collection. 
strip down guide
Although the National Cart Corporation filed patent applications related to the Apache airguns, sadly they were not granted before the company’s demise. Therefore, the only way to describe the inner workings of the pistol was to take one apart! First, I removed the pin that also acts as the pump pivot. This pin is splined at one end and as such can only be removed by knocking through from the left-hand side. Once removed, the pump assembly and end cap can be removed by sliding it out of the front of the pump tube.
The pump plunger is adjustable in length via a threaded rod and lock-nut. The pump piston seal would have originally been a leather cup. According to John Groenewold of JG Airguns, this seal is the same size as that used in the Benjamin 130 series pistols and can therefore be used when a repair is required.
To access the valve, the hammer assembly must be removed first. Normally the cocking handle will unscrew from the hammer weight and a thin length of metal can then be used to unscrew the hammer housing cap. Unfortunately, the cocking handle on this pistol was a little seized and so it was necessary to remove the entire hammer assembly in one piece. Luckily, I was able to remove the hammer cap by hand using rubber gloves for extra grip. It was then a simple case of holding the hammer weight in a vice and using a piece of bicycle inner tube and grips to unscrew the cocking handle.
With the hammer removed, the valve retaining nut can be accessed. The nut is slotted with the valve stem and guide protruding through its center. A special tool is required to remove the nut without causing damage. Such a tool is relatively easy to make from a steel hex socket. Using a hacksaw and a bench grinder, I carefully cut out two locating pins and ground away the excess metal. The socket would fit over the valve stem and locate in the slots on the nut. A 3/8th extension bar and ratchet completed the tool. The retaining nut came out with very little effort. I had expected more of a fight after spending so long crafting the tool. In fact, it took longer to manufacture the tool than it did to disassemble the rest of the pistol.
The exhaust body is located in place with a small grub screw on the side of the action. This grub screw is used to ensure that the exhaust port of the exhaust body does not rotate out of alignment with the barrel transfer port. Once this grub screw was removed, the valve, valve spring and the exhaust valve body almost fell out.
A thin brass washer was found between the nut and the exhaust valve body. This is probably to prevent too much rotational stress on the aluminium exhaust body when the nut is tightened down. On reassembly I would add some oil or grease to both sides of this washer.
Under the exhaust body was a circular seal. Originally this seal would have been a paper gasket. Probably similar to the kind of gasket that is used to seal the thermostat housings to the cylinder head of car engines. However, this pistol was fitted with a modern polyurethane seal. I recognised the seal as one typically made by Lawrie Amatruda in his home workshop. Lawrie is a gent whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions and is known by many as the “go-to” man to reseal CO2 and pneumatic airguns.
Lawrie Amatruda’s work
The valve seal was also Lawrie’s work. Originally it may have been fitted with a thick paper gasket. Or perhaps it was just a metal to metal seal as I have been unable to find any source that describes the design of the original valve and its seal. Also, I can’t be sure that the valve of this pistol is original and not a part from a Benjamin or Crosman that has been adapted to fit. Either way, it’s better than having a non-functional pistol!
Now that the exhaust body and the valve and spring was out, the valve check seal and brass pin disc could also be removed by pushing them out with a wooden kebab stick. Again, the seal on these would have originally been paper and should they dry out, the valve body would not be able to hold air. These could be kept “wet” with a couple of drops of oil regularly fed through the pump tube. But this was not an instruction provided with the pistol and as such, these paper seals were a typical failure point leading to many being returned to the company through the free “lifetime” warranty!
Many would think that this is all there is to the valve assembly. However, there is still one more part to remove. Within the valve chamber of the frame is the brass valve body. This is tapped out using a wooden dowel and mallet or hammer from the pump tube. It only took a light tap and out came the brass valve body along with another modern circular polyurethane seal. This would also have been a paper gasket back in the day.
The rest of the pistol is quite simple to disassemble. The grips are held in place with a single screw on each side. Within the grip you will find the trigger assembly consisting of a sear lever, trigger blade, two pivot pins and a spring. First remove the spring and then the pins. Just like the pump pivot pin, the trigger pins are also splined and should be tapped out from the left-hand side. The levers can then be removed.
The rear sight is fixed to the body by a single screw. Loosening of which allows for windage and a screw at the rear of the sight allows for elevation adjustment.
The breech probe casing is located in place by a grub screw. Remove the grub screw and then unscrew the breech probe casing. The breech side of the casing is angled such that the pins of the probe bolt are wedged in place when turned to the closed position. On reassembly, ensure the probe is pushed in and turned to the locked position. Then screw the probe casing into the frame until the probe makes contact with the breech of the barrel. Lock down the grub screw and test the probe. You should be able to release and then lock it again with ease but with a small amount of friction to hold it in place.
The magazine is mounted to the side of the frame with two screws. Remove the screws but be careful not to lose the spring and lever when you remove it from the pistol.
The barrel of the pistol appears to be held in place by a grub screw. I removed the screw and attempted to remove the barrel but it was still held firmly in place. As there really is no need to remove the barrel and replacements are not available, I thought it wise to leave it alone. Similarly, the pump tube is also removable. It is not held in place by any screws and appears to be a friction fit. I have read that it is lipped and should be pushed out by pushing it into and through the frame. Again, this was firmly in place and I saw no gain from attempting to remove it.
There are some differences between the single and dual calibre variants in the collection. The single calibre model has a polished aluminium hammer end cap whilst the dual calibre model has a blued steel hammer cap. The single calibre model uses an allen key style screw for the bolt probe casing locking screw and rear sight adjuster whereas the dual calibre model uses a slotted style grub screw for both. Other than that and the inscriptions on the pump tube end cap, both pistols appear to be the same.
a frequent point of failure
Now that we know how the pistol was constructed we also know its weak points. In all there were three or four sources of failure. First, the original zinc alloy frames would have been brittle and may have cracked if dropped. The barrel and pump tube were not joined together and so may have bent whilst charging the pistol according to some sources. I’m not so sure about this myself as I am able to charge the pistol without placing undue stress on the pump chamber or the barrel. It has also been suggested that the metal surrounding the pump pivot pin is thin and could elongate through use. But, the pin is also located within the aluminium end cap which bears all the stress of charging the pistol. Once again, I doubt that this is an actual point of failure. Finally, the paper seals of the check valve and the valve face would be prone to wear as they are moving parts. They were undoubtedly the most common and frequent point of failure.
using the pistol
To use the pistol, the safety is first engaged by pulling the hammer back to its first position. A discernible click is heard after just a few millimetres of travel and you will notice that the trigger is locked. Not only did this engage the safety but it relieves any pressure that the hammer imparts on the valve. This would otherwise cause the valve to open a small amount and prevent it from holding air whilst being charged. This probably mislead many owners to think they had a faulty pistol!
Next, the magazine should be loaded if not already. Then, using the lever under the compression tube, the pistol is pumped six to ten times. To retract the probe, first rotate it a quarter of a turn anticlockwise and then pull it rearwards. This allows one of the lead balls to be forced into the chamber under the tension of the magazine spring. The probe is then pushed forward and locked into position which ensures the lead ball engages the rifling of the brass barrel. Finally, fully retract the hammer. This also releases the safety allowing the pistol to be fired.
I found the six-round magazine to be very effective. However, the probe often had to be pushed home with some force to get the No. 4 buckshot into the breech. You might mistake this for a jam but you soon get used to this once you’ve done it a few times. It’s certainly not something for young hands and you can image many pistols were damaged beyond repair through excessive force. Perhaps this is why they introduced the .175 calibre barrel insert with the split breech as it is far easier to load. Either way, I can’t see how the Apache .25 lead balls could ever have been loaded!
The trigger, as you might have realised from the photos, is not adjustable. But having said that it’s not bad to use either. Even my six year old boy is able to release the trigger with one finger. Now that I come to think of it, whilst the pistol is full sized, the reach to the trigger is quite short and better suits a young hand.
Running the Apache over the chronograph showed the power to be an average of 235 fps / 2.65 fpe for 21gr No.4 buckshot and 321 fps / 1.88 fpe for 8gr .177 lead BBs. The maximum power that I have seen this pistol deliver is 3 fpe. Not long after running the power test a leak developed which probably explains why the power is a little lower than I expected.
The Apache Fireball is an interesting glimpse into the immediate post-war era of American airguns. Whilst the Apache pistol is not of super quality when compared with the airguns of today, it is nonetheless an interesting and rare item to collect. I can imagine being a young boy at the time these were available. With their science fiction raygun appearance it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the games and roles that were played out with these in the hand. For any of these pistols to have survived those games is nothing short of a miracle in itself. Especially when you consider that only a relatively small number were produced in the first place!
Part 2 of our series of the Apache airguns will discuss the Apache Texan air rifle. We will also discover what happened to the National Cart Corporation, Charles Burhans, his associates and why the Apache airguns only had a short production run of a couple of years.
Finally, I must give thanks and credit to Larry Hannusch and Trevor Adams for their time and correspondence as well as their unwavering devotion to the history of airguns.
Until next time, happy shooting!
- Bag Cart Big New Factor in Golf Business, Stuart L. Klingelsmith, Pg. 71, Golfdom, April 1947
- Classified advertisement for Mr. Cycle 1940s child’s bicycle. Kraemer Aviation Services
- Apache Airguns, Trev’s Airgun Scrapbook
- Alka-Seltzer, Advertisement Gallery
- The Apache – An American Native, Pneumatic Reflections by Larry Hannusch
- Apache .250 Caliber Air Pistol, American Rifleman, 1948
- March 2011 Newsletter, Cornell Publications
- Apache Airguns, Trevor Adams, Issue 111, Mar/Apr, New Zealand Guns & Hunting Magazine 2009
- Apache Fire Ball Texan: Part 2, Airgun Academy
- APACHE (aka FIRE-BALL) APACHE CONFIGURATION, Blue Book of Gun Values