The Anson Firefly is a small pistol based on the pop-out design that was originally patented by Henry Quackenbush in 1877. Quackenbush was an exceptional and prolific American air gun designer of the late 19th century and whilst he is credited as the original designer of the pop-out pistol, he never produced one. Strangely enough, Quackenbush’s design went on to become the most copied and successful of all air pistols. 
I have discussed Anson’s background in the article The Westley Richards “Highest Possible” (non-concentric) 1909-1914 by Edwin Anson so I shall refrain from repeating myself. 
The Firefly may have been manufactured in small numbers as there are very few remaining today. It was not marked with a serial number so very little is known with regards to actual numbers produced. It was available from 1925 to 1933 and until recently, only one variant was known to exist. It was rumoured that a second variant may have existed and would be clearly distinguishable by the addition of a trigger guard. In March 2016, a boxed guarded trigger example surfaced and an article included it in the April edition of the Air Gunner magazine. In that article, it was clear that the pistol was for sale to the highest bidder. Being unique and possibly the only one in existence, a gap was made for it in Jimmie Dee’s airgun collection. 
Interestingly, it appears that Anson did not produce a patent for the Firefly as he had done for his earlier designs. Yet it is clearly an inventive step above other pop-outs of the period. Anson would typically patent his design and then sell the rights to another company or individual who would manufacture and market the design. Without a patent protecting the design, Anson may not have been able to sell the rights to the pistol as it could easily be reproduced by other manufacturers.
One reference suggests that Frank Clarke, a known associate and well-known air gun inventor, may have manufactured the Firefly along with Anson but no such evidence is available to corroborate this. In fact, Clarke was busy manufacturing his own improved pop-out air pistol, the Briton, and therefore may not have been interested in promoting Anson’s pistol. Catalogue adverts of 1933 show that the Firefly was distributed by the Midland Gun Company and the Firefly box clearly indicates “1925 model”. Thus it is considered that the Firefly was produced from 1925 and perhaps up to 1933. Although it is possible that production may have stopped earlier and any adverts may have been for excess stock only. Anson continued to work his whole life and died in 1936 at which point his business assets were bought by Curry and Keen. 
Anson clearly had a desire to produce the best air guns at the time in the UK. His “Highest Possible” air pistol clearly being an example of his high standards and expectations. This desire also shows in the design of the Firefly which was a significant improvement over the standard pop-out that was currently available. Anson must have wanted his pop-out to be a cut above the rest.
At first, the Firefly does not appear to be a pop-out pistol as the mainspring, which is normally visible along the full length of the barrel, is completely hidden. Where the mainspring and barrel are normally visible in the uncocked state, Anson added a black enamelled wooden barrel shroud. At 1″ (25mm), the size of the compression cylinder is much larger in diameter than the 11/16in (17mm) of the typical “Dolla” pop-out pistol. Thus with the larger cylinder and black barrel shroud of almost the same size, the Firefly instantly took on an appearance more fitting of a pistol than a toy.
The Firefly is constructed mainly of two halves. The upper being a compression tube that is either nickel-plated or blued. The lower being cast iron comprising a ribbed grip finished in black enamel and a blued steel trigger. The trigger is normally stamped in some manner with the words “Anson’s O.K.”. This may have been stamped on the left side or split with “Anson” on the right and “O.K.” on the left. Some examples are known to be stamped with just “O.K.”.
The guarded Firefly has ribbing extending along the top sides of the grip to the end of the trigger whereas the unguarded Firefly ribbing stops at the grip and does not extend over the trigger. At the end of the ribbing on the left side and forward of the trigger is stamped “THE FIREFLY” AIR PISTOL. Whereas the unguarded model simply has FIREFLY stamped just above the trigger. Unfortunately, the cast-iron frame with straight ribbed grip lets the pistol down aesthetically.
A thorough disassembly of the Firefly illustrates how the departure from existing designs becomes even greater. Anson used not one but two mainsprings. A larger diameter spring that is slightly smaller than the cylinder and a smaller spring that fits closely around the barrel. This made the Firefly the only concentric dual spring pop-out pistol ever produced. The other notable feature of the mainsprings is that they do not run the full length of the barrel. Instead, they are kept within the steel tube behind the barrel shroud.
Why did Anson use two springs? One theory suggests that with a shorter spring length and wide cylinder, two springs were necessary to produce sufficient power. However, Anson could have drilled the wooden shroud to allow for a typical full-length spring to be fitted but still be hidden. The shroud could be held in place at the end of the barrel by leaving a lip of wood and a washer for the spring to push against. Maybe Anson considered that approach, prototyped it and found it unsuitable. Perhaps it didn’t produce enough power or perhaps it added too much complexity and cost to the design. Or maybe he didn’t think of it at all and developed the concentric dual spring right from the start so as to be unique over existing designs. We may never know the truth but can blissfully try to place ourselves into the mind of the genius that was Anson.
Anson’s attention to detail doesn’t stop with the hidden dual concentric springs. Oh no, there are a few more secrets yet to be unveiled from this compact pop-out pistol!
Take a closer look at the barrel shroud and cap nut. They both have leather washers. One has to ask why are these leather washers necessary? They are not part of the air compression section of the cylinder. All pop-out designs split the cylinder into two halves with a solid divider or bulkhead between them. A hole is present in the centre of the bulkhead for the barrel to slide through. The breech side of the cylinder generates the compression stroke with the piston head at the breech end. The muzzle side of the cylinder houses the mainspring which is typically compressed against the bulkhead and barrel cap nut or shroud in the case of the Firefly.
The pistol is cocked by pushing the barrel into the pistol. This moves the piston head backwards over the trigger sear which then holds it in place. The breech of the barrel is sealed with a threaded “probe” pin. When fired, the spring extends pushing the barrel forward in a pop-out action. The piston is attached to the barrel at the breech and is therefore pulled towards the bulkhead at speed. This compresses the air in the chamber which then makes its way into the barrel via two air transfer holes drilled near the piston. With the breech sealed using the threaded pin seal, the air has only one direction that it can flow which is forwards driving the projectile along the barrel and out towards the target. The seal pin also serves a secondary purpose which is to push the projectile ahead of the air transfer holes in the barrel allowing the air to push the projectile forward.
You may be thinking thanks for the explanation of how the pop-out design works but what does this have to do with the leather washers on the shroud and end cap? Normally they would not be required as you may have realised that the shroud is not on the compression side of the bulkhead. However, Anson added two more holes in the barrel at the muzzle end. I puzzled over this for a while wondering why would Anson add these holes as they serve no functional purpose and would potentially make his design less powerful. Considering all the effort to maximise the power available, you have to wonder why.
It’s quite simple though. Perhaps Anson added the extra set of holes as an assembly aid. Instead of pressing down on the shroud and springs with the cap nut and trying to screw it on, potentially cross-threading it in the process, the assembler could insert a pin through the holes once the shroud and springs were compressed into position. This makes screwing the end cap onto the barrel a breeze. The leather washers are necessary to seal the leak that would otherwise be generated by the assembly holes. Note the long socket head used to keep the piston against the bulkhead to allow the springs to be compressed far enough for assembly.
The next design improvement was the addition of two further leather seals. These are found on the compression side of the cylinder. Other references thus far have not documented both leather washers as one is held captive by a pin screw against the bulkhead wall. The other commonly known leather seal is attached to the piston face with small pins. These seals help to improve power by sealing around the barrel and the cylinder wall. Previous designs did not have any seals and so air would escape through the bulkhead from around the barrel and between the piston and cylinder walls.
Typical pop-out construction was cast iron which would be machined out for the barrel and cylinder. The central bulkhead would be formed by the junction of the larger compression cylinder meeting the narrower bore of the barrel. However, Anson only constructed the lower frame from cast iron and the cylinder is constructed from a steel tube. To form the central bulkhead, Anson made a cylindrical block from machined steel which is held in place by what may be a threaded or welded locating bar. The other end of the locating bar is threaded so that the cylinder and frame can be attached held secure with a nut. A section of the rear of the tube is cut and turned upwards with a notch cut into it to form the rear sight.
Finally, in terms of design surprises, Anson added a rotating ring to the breech seal pin to which a retaining spring was fitted and the other end of which attached to the rear of the cylinder. The purpose clearly to help prevent the loss of the breech seal pin. However, this spring is missing on most of the known examples yet the pin remains present in an ironic twist of fate!
It is worth mentioning the other pop-out pistols that were available in 1925 when Anson was developing his pop-out design. The “Dolla”, circa 1898-1940, was a typical cast iron pop-out with exposed full-length spring design. The Lincoln Jeffries Scout, circa 1922-1926, had a metal shrouded barrel and was much wider than the typical pop-out giving it the look of a real pistol. The Briton first model, 1925 to circa 1930, by Frank Clarke, was another larger diameter pop-out similar to the Lincoln Jeffries but with a uniquely designed screw-in breech pin and a trigger guard. Finally, the British Cub, considered to be manufactured in the late 1920s to the early 1930s and as such possibly not available at the time of Anson’s Firefly inception. 
Of the above, only the Lincoln Jeffries Scout could potentially be considered an influence on Anson’s design although I doubt it considering the significant differences between the two. On the other hand, Frank Clarke’s Briton was very similar to the Scout. So much so that perhaps Clarke copied but slightly improved the design by adding a trigger guard and unique pin breech seal. There are also known examples of the Briton without a trigger guard. Anson and Clarke were known to be in business partnership although this didn’t begin until the late 1920s sometime after the production of the Firefly and Briton. Thus it seems clear that Anson was intent on improving the typical pop-out design in isolation of other modern designs of the day. Although I have not included photographs of the Scout or Briton as I have neither in the collection, both were significantly better looking than the Firefly. 
The guarded trigger Firefly revealed one further secret that is not present in the unguarded variant and until now has not been documented. It has a trigger adjustment screw. The screw head forms a contact point between the trigger blade and the trigger sear and as such it is hidden from view. The screw can only be adjusted by removing the trigger blade and therefore it was probably a factory adjustment set during assembly.
During disassembly, it was noticed that the guarded trigger Firefly had only one large mainspring. Inspection of the leather washer on the shroud showed wear around its circumference and no wear indicative of a smaller spring. There is also a metal washer that was fitted against the bulkhead separator. Deep thought ensued. Why does this variant have just one mainspring? After mulling it over for some time, it was considered that perhaps the pistol had been disassembled at some time. Perhaps the smaller spring had broken and had not been replaced. It was also thought that the metal washer should be placed against the shroud leather seal and not the bulkhead to protect the leather.
This would explain why there are no markings from a smaller spring but considerable wear from the larger spring if the pistol had been reassembled incorrectly. This metal washer is noted to be present in at least one other Firefly according to the April 2016 Air Gunner magazine article by John Atkins. The leather seal of that example shows no wear but may have been replaced at some point.
“roman numerals and notches”
In his article, John discussed some Roman numerals that were found on the pistol. He noted that hidden between the frame and the cylinder was the Roman numeral “VIII” that was cut or scratched into the frame and cylinder. His own Firefly had the Roman numeral “V” and he considered these to be batch numbers. The guarded trigger Firefly is believed to be different in this regard.
Rather than cut or scratched, the Roman numeral “V” is stamped into its frame. But there is no numeral scratched or stamped into the cylinder. Perhaps the cylinder had been restored at some time and this mark removed. However, five notches were found cut into the end of the cylinder tube. A coincidence perhaps? They certainly serve no functional purpose and you would not see them without looking very hard.
The Firefly was sold by Anson or the Midland Gun Company in a red-covered card box. The one for this particular example shows signs of a label applied to the lid that would have been similar to the label fixed to the inside of the lid. The label is bordered with blue swastikas. Some may instantly link the swastika with Nazi Germany but there is no such evidence. The swastika symbol had been used 5,000 years before Hitler adopted it in 1920. It had many meanings in the early twentieth century with the most common being a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness. There is a very good article about the history of the swastika on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. 
Printed on the label is “The ‘Firefly'” in large font. The following lines say “Air Pistol”, “1925 model”, “Smallest, Lightest, Most Accurate and Powerful”. The final line reads “Manufactured by E. Anson, Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham”. Smallest perhaps, lightest I couldn’t say, most accurate and powerful? Well, that’s marketing for you!
In the base of the box is a compartment for darts or perhaps pellets. Some examples show a lid for the compartment with a string or ribbon pull cord. 
Uncocked, the Firefly measures approximately 7in (18cm). The barrel is smoothbore .177 calibre and made from steel. As with all pop-out pistols, it is cocked by pushing the barrel into the cylinder until it locks against the trigger sear. Cocking between two hands was much easier with a wide shrouded barrel of 1in (25mm). Whereas with the earlier pop-out pistols of narrow diameter cap nut, they would be cocked by pushing against a wall or other suitable object. Once cocked, the breech seal pin is accessible and is unscrewed to allow a dart or pellet to be inserted into the barrel. The pin seal with its small leather washer is re-inserted which pushes the projectile past the air transfer holes in the rear of the barrel. The sights are not adjustable and obviously was used at close range.
Shooting darts at a paper target mounted on a corkboard indoors is fun and must have been a fun way to pass time with the family back in the late 1920s. These, and other, pop-out air pistols would perhaps have been used, as they are today, to play indoor dartboard games or paper target family competitions, or even just plinking in the garden. I was remarkably surprised by the power and accuracy of the Firefly. For a smoothbore pop-out aimed at the centre of a target, I was able to achieve a reasonable grouping of three darts. The target was placed just a few yards away at the other side of my living room as may have been the case just over 90 years ago. The darts penetrated the corkboard fully indicating how effective Anson’s design was even without the smaller of the two mainsprings fitted. The trigger was quite heavy and not predictable and although it is adjustable, I decided not to fiddle.
A final thought to ponder… was the guarded trigger variant a deluxe model with the trigger slack adjustment refinement or was it a prototype or demonstration pistol? One thing is certain, only one is known to exist.
Until next time, happy shooting!
- Henry Marcus Quackenbush and the Quackenbush Model 1 Air Rifle (mfd. 1876 to 1938), Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- The Westley Richards “Highest Possible” (non-concentric) Air Pistol (c.1907 to c.1915) by Edwin Anson, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- The Encyclopedia of Spring Air Pistols, John Griffiths, ISBN 9780955951602
- GATS A Guide to Junior Push In – Pop Out Airguns, First Edition, Malcolm Atkins
- History of the Swastika, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum