In March 2016, I was asked by Danny Garvin of the Vintage Airgun Gallery, if I would write an article for Issue 3 of the Airgun Collector, an online magazine full of wonderful vintage airguns and superbly written articles. I was honoured to be included amongst such highly acclaimed authors and collectors. Danny’s introduction for the article seems a good place to start this article…
“Jimmie Dee writes a detailed account of the background to the Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol, produced by Albert Augustus Pope between 1874 and 1878 and, usefully, explains the often confusing proliferation of similar pistols on sale at the time. As he identifies, the inventor of this ground-breaking pistol contributed to the development of modern airguns – and if circumstances had been different, might have made his mark on the development of modern electric vehicles too…”
The Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol, called a rifle because of its long barrel and detachable wire shoulder stock, was manufactured in the USA circa 1874 to 1878 by the Pope brothers (Albert and his younger brother, Arthur) at the Pope Manufacturing Company, 45 High Street, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Albert Augustus Pope (May 20th, 1843 – August 10th, 1909) was a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in the Union Army. He was an importer, promoter and manufacturer of bicycles and a manufacturer of automobiles. He is descended from a line of New Englanders who had their roots in the timber and lumber business since the 1660s. However, his father, Charles broke the mould and instead opted for a career in real estate. By 1851, at the age of 9, Albert had become the family breadwinner due to the collapse of his father’s business. He earned his wages through ploughing fields and then selling the produce. By the age of 15, he was working at the Quincy Market in downtown Boston. A few years later he became a store clerk for $4 a week. It is thought that his well-connected wider family helped him to get ahead and that leaving school had less to do with providing for his family but rather that he could go further and faster on his own. 
the American Civil War
Pope joined the Union Army on August 27th, 1862 at the age of 19 attached to the 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He saw action just 7 days later during the American Civil War at Antietam. His unit, whose ammunition was exhausted, became stranded behind enemy lines. The order to retreat was given but 79 men from Pope’s unit died on that day. At some point, Pope contracted cholera but he and his unit continued to serve fighting battles at Fredericksburg, Vicksburg and Knoxville. By the time Pope was discharged from the Union Army, he had attained the rank of Captain although he had received the honorary title of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel for distinguished service. A Brevet title did not carry added authority or pay. He was thus known as Colonel Pope during civilian life. 
Albert had accumulated $900 in savings and after the war, he invested in a shoemakers’ supply business at Dock Square in Boston. In just one year, his investment had returned tenfold! With a successful business, Pope supported three of his siblings through college education. Two of which became physicians and the other a minister. When Pope’s eldest brother Charles died a widower in 1868, Pope adopted his nephew, Harry aged 9. Pope eventually married Abbie Linder in 1871 and together they had four sons and one daughter. 
Pope expanded his business interests into cigarette rollers, shoe fittings and air pistols but he is better known for the development of the American bicycle and his major role in the development of the automobile and modernisation of American roads than he is for his contribution to air pistols. He was a keen advocate of patents and would invest in other people’s patents if he saw potential. Although his air gun endeavours never really took off, he did provide financial backing and manufacturing consultation to other air gun entrepreneurs ensuring that their ideas and designs reached the marketplace. As a result, his endeavours helped to further the development of the modern airgun. 
In late 1874, Pope signed an agreement with Henry Marcus Quackenbush, whereby Pope took over the “Target” name and supported Quackenbush’s air gun venture. “Target”, or “Target Air Pistol” was the name of Quackenbush’s first model pistol which in itself was an immediate success. Not long after the agreement was signed, Quackenbush applied for a patent, US Pat. 156,890 “Improvement in air guns or pistols” , whereby Pope was named as the assignee. It was this patent that described, for the most part, the design of the Pope Rifle Air Pistol and was based on Quackenbush’s fourth model pistol. Incidentally, Quackenbush refers to the pistol as a “toy” in his patent.
The production model of the Pope Rifle Air Pistol included a trigger adjustment screw which allowed the shooter to reduce the length of trigger pull. This was not a feature described in the patent. Also not mentioned in the patent was the wire stock. However, a wire stock was available as part of Quackenbush’s fourth model and was held in place by a screw in the handle. Pope’s wire stock was merely a push-fit and did not have a retaining screw.
The following February of 1875, Quackenbush was granted another patent, US Pat. 159,354 “Improvement in air-gun darts” , relating to air gun darts and their manufacture. He built four complex and delicate automatic dart-making machines and sold one to Pope. Sometime in late 1875 or early 1876, a dispute between Quackenbush and Pope developed over the dart making machine. It seems that Pope’s staff were unable to get the machine to work reliably. Pope stopped making royalty payments and Quackenbush sued Pope in March 1876. A settlement was agreed a few weeks later in which Pope returned all the patent rights for both the improvements to air guns and the dart making machine. However, one of the dart making machines did work successfully for a century right up until the Benjamin Air Rifle Company retired it in 1993 after producing two million darts! 
A few days after the settlement was agreed, Quackenbush filed the paperwork to reclaim ownership of his patent. But, more significantly, he also filed another patent for an improved spring-powered gun action which became the basis of his Number 1 Air Rifle. Introduced in late 1876, the Number 1 revolutionised the airgun industry and became the design upon which all single-stroke-cocking airguns have been used ever since. Thousands of the Number 1 Air Rifle were sold before the patent ran out, earning Quackenbush a modest fortune. Clearly, the dispute over the dart making machine meant that Pope missed out significantly. It is estimated that Pope would have earned $100,000 if it were not for the dispute which would have been a significant amount in the late 1800s. Pope learnt a hard lesson from his venture with Quackenbush and paid particular attention to patent issues in his subsequent business career. 
In January 1876, Pope received two patents in his name. One of which was US Pat. 172,582 “Improvement in spring air-pistols” , which describes Pope’s improvements over Quackenbush’s earlier patent. Pope’s improvements were both functional and cosmetic. Functionally, the patents differed in that the barrel was not held rigidly and firmly in place and the cocking rod was no longer clamped to the barrel. The clamp remained but instead, it was loosened to allow the cocking rod to move freely using the barrel as a guide. These design differences improved cocking of the pistol as the barrel would no longer be pulled out which could also have improved accuracy due to the fixed barrel. In order to access the barrel opening, a rotating breech block was added. A feature that Frank Clarke added to his later Titan models. Sadly, Pope never produced any pistols based on his improvements. In fact, no other Pope model pistols are known to have been produced beyond the Pope Rifle Air Pistol.
On the other hand, Quackenbush had filed another patent which was granted on June 6th, 1876: US Pat 178,327 “Improvement in spring air-pistols” . This patent described an entirely new design where the barrel and compression chamber was in line as opposed to the barrel mounted on top of the chamber. The pistol would have been cocked by pushing the barrel in to compress the spring and then withdrawing the barrel once the piston was locked against the trigger sear. The intention was to make it less complicated and easier to cock compared to previous designs. Quackenbush added an orifice at the rear of the barrel to allow the projectile to be inserted. A tubular extension would cover the orifice when the pistol was ready to be fired. The trigger was also improved over previous designs whereby instead of the trigger lever comprising the piston latch and sear, a compound trigger with an extra lever that formed the sear was added in order to lighten the trigger pull.
Sadly, once again, this pistol was not produced in significant numbers. Although this may have been because the production of Quackenbush’s Number 1 Air Rifle, which was also based on the same push barrel patent, had also begun and due to its success, air pistols were in less demand. Certainly, it is a fact that Quackenbush’s company records show that by 1884 sales of Quackenbush’s pistol had significantly declined in favour of his rifle.  It’s worth noting that Quackenbush’s final air pistol patent, U.S. Pat. 188,028 “Improvement in Spring Air-Guns” , granted on March 6th 1877, was also for a push barrel pistol which although was not a success for him personally, went on to become the most successful and copied design in the history of air guns as the first pop-out air pistol where the barrel and piston were combined.
Despite the dispute with Quackenbush, Pope continued to sell his air pistols and from 1876 to 1878, Pope also retailed Bedford and Walker’s “Eureka” at Pope’s premises. It is possible that he may also have manufactured it for a short period. The Eureka is a similar Rifle Air Pistol to Pope’s however there are key distinguishing features that Bedford and Walker patented independently but were combined to produce the Eureka.
Bedford’s patent, US Pat. 172,376 “Improvement in spring air-pistols” January 18th 1876 , described a breech-closing mechanism whereby the barrel of the pistol was located forward at the end of the compression cylinder. It was still mounted on top of the compression chamber but was fixed in place, unlike Quackenbush’s design. An air passage, known today as a transfer port on modern air rifles, was created between the end of the compression chamber and the barrel. The piston travel is opposite to that of the Pope in that the spring would be compressed moving the piston towards the rear of the pistol by means of a push rod. The piston was also improved as it comprised of leather or other semi-elastic material sandwiched between two circular discs. This formed a seal that Pope’s pistol was lacking. Interestingly, the patent states that should the seal begin to leak, it could be adjusted by tightening the two outer discs thus expanding the leather seal further. Bedford’s design removed the need for the pushrod to pass through the piston thus improving efficiency significantly. The patent also described the use of a double levered trigger whereas Pope only used a single lever, the trigger blade combined with sear. Finally, the patent describes the breech mechanism which was a vertical gate or plate covering the rear of the barrel and a locking device consisting of a button. The plate was pivoted and could be swung out of the way in order to load the pistol. The sloping wall ensured that the plate would return to a tightly closed position ready for firing.
first bolt action breech probe
Walker’s patent, US Pat. 179,984 “Improvement in spring air-pistols” July 18th 1876 , further improved on Bedford’s design of the breech seal. In his design, he introduced a bolt action breech probe that pushed the pellet the required distance past the transfer port and formed an airtight seal against the barrel by means of a leather washer. This method is still used in many of today’s modern air rifles.
In 1878, Pope switched his attention to his bicycle business that he had established in 1876. He continued to include an engraving of an air gun on his company letterhead as late as 1880. Bedford took over Pope’s premises in 45 High Street, Boston and continued to make the Eureka. By 1880, Bedford’s company, the Eureka Manufacturing Company, had ceased to trade and Bedford became an employee of Quackenbush. 
Pope’s entrepreneurism did not end with bicycles. In 1896 he diversified further into automobile production and he was particularly interested in developing new clean electric-powered vehicles. He was the first to use mass-production practices of automobiles and in 1900, Pope’s Hartford factories produced more motor vehicles than any other factory in the world. The acquisition of a number of small companies necessary to build his automobile empire was expensive and competition in the industry was building. That and his dream of the electric car drove him to bankruptcy in 1907. 
Pope died two years later on August 10, 1909, aged 66. His cause of death was recorded as “locomotor ataxia” which covered an array of symptoms usually associated with Parkinson’s disease or the late stages of syphilis.  His automobile empire collapsed by 1915. 
The Pope Rifle Air Pistol was available in two finishes, nickel-plated or black lacquered (Japanese Black). Two variants of the basic design are known where the compression cylinder length varies by a mere 7mm. This may just be due to the available materials at the time of manufacture. There are also two variations of the wire stock: a straight and a cranked version. The cranked version is much rarer than the straight version.
Initially, the pistols were sold in cardboard boxes and it is thought that in 1878, they were supplied in wooden cases along with a ramrod, a combined claw and wrench tool, a wire stock, six darts, six targets and one hundred slugs. The claw part of the combination tool was used to pull darts out of the target and the wrench was used to remove the compression chamber end cap. 
There are also differences in the markings on the cylinder plug. There are two listed types. The key differences are that the town of manufacture is present on one and not the other and on one, the patent listed is actually for an earlier Quackenbush pistol. Other differences include an error in the patent date and the inclusion of patent dates for various other countries whereas the alternative simply stated patented in Europe which may have been ineffective as there was no central European patent office at the time. It’s also worth noting that the patent dates stamped onto the end cap of 1871 are incorrect as they should be 1874. Thus, rather extraordinarily, it would seem that many errors are present on the end cap stamps of Pope’s Rifle Air Pistol despite the opportunity to correct the errors whilst manufacturing the second variant. 
The Rifle Air Pistol sometimes had a serial number stamped on the left-hand side upper grip area but this was not always present. When present, the last two digits of the serial number may also have been stamped on the piston head. It has been suggested that the parts or indeed complete pistols with serial numbers may have been supplied by Quackenbush to Pope. 
The piston spring is flat sectioned as opposed to the usual round style. The design did not include a traditional piston washer to seal against the cylinder, however, a leather and metal washer was fitted inside the piston head. This was presumably to seal against the central push rod. The barrel is smoothbore .21 calibre only and the sights are non-adjustable. A trigger adjustment screw allows adjustment of the let-off point which functions remarkably well.
The pistol is cocked by pulling the barrel forwards. The pull rod clamp is fixed to the barrel such that pull the barrel also pulls the cocking rod forwards until the piston engages onto the trigger sear. At the same time, the barrel is held in this position by a thin section of sprung metal. Thus acting as a crude safety mechanism to save the shooters’ finger should they inadvertently pull the trigger whilst loading a slug or dart into the barrel.
The pistol can be used as a conventional pistol or shouldered with the optional wireframe shoulder stock. My personal preference would be to shoulder the pistol and use it as a rifle. The power is obviously low due to the small air chamber and spring, but also due to the piston design as there isn’t a leather piston seal as found in later air gun designs.
These seemingly insignificant spring air pistols from the late 19th century are anything but insignificant. Clearly, there was plenty of competition concentrated in Boston and the people involved were driven to improve each design further and further potentially forming a solid basis for the early British air pistol entrepreneurs to incorporate into their air guns and then improve upon. For example, Frank Clarke’s MK1 Titan clearly exhibits features from the Pope in that it has a sliding barrel but improved with a bolt catch to lock it in place when closed. It also features a similar pull rod cocking mechanism. Also, Clarke incorporated the rotating breech block in his MK2 Titan and later designs as described in Pope’s patent some 40 years earlier. Quackenbush’s pop-out design has been reproduced by numerous British designers and the Walker bolt action probe, with improvements, is still used in modern rifles and pistols such as the BSA R10, the Crosman 2240 and the Brocock Atomic air pistol over a hundred years since its inception.
To round up this article, according to sales literature of the Pope Rifle Air Pistol, and other pistols that Pope sold, one of the most notable customer testimonials is from General W. T. Sherman where he writes:
“From the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army. Headquarters Army of the U.S., St. Louis, Mo., Feb 22nd, 1875.
Dear Sirs: I have now been in possession of the Rifle Air Pistol for nearly a month. It has wonderful attraction…. Thus far all the parts work well, and nothing is out of order. It is surely ingenious in mechanism, quite accurate in aim, and useful in preparing one for the more serious handling of the ordinary rifle. As such, I have no hesitation in recommending it as the best Parlor Pistol of which I have knowledge.
W.T. SHERMAN, General.” 
Whether this was Sherman’s true opinion or written as a favour for Pope who can say but it is known that Pope used it amongst all of the pistols that he sold.
This article has taken us on quite a journey. To begin with I’m sure we all thought we would read about the air gun and some of the designer’s background relating to air guns. Instead, we have learnt that whilst Pope’s contribution to air guns may be small, his contribution to the American nation and perhaps the world was significant. He built a financial empire that placed Hartford as the centre of the automobile and bicycle industry. His pioneering efforts to provide a clean electric alternative to the dirty gasoline automobiles was doomed by the battery technology of the period. It is only in recent years that practical electric vehicles have become reality. With hindsight, it is easy to say that the demise of the electric automobile of the early 20th century may have been due to the commercial and financial battles of the automobile and oil industry of the time. Perhaps investment in battery development just wasn’t considered profitable due to the considerable availability of cheap oil. Maybe the gasoline automobile was simply more powerful. But I wonder how different the world may be now, both environmentally, politically and economically if Pope’s electric automobile had risen to become the dominant vehicle. At least we can be grateful knowing that this giant played a part in the development of our air gun heritage.
Albert Augustus Pope – I salute you, sir!
Until next time, happy shooting!
- Albert Augustus Pope, Wikipedia
- Colonel Albert Pope and His American Dream Machines: The Life and Times of a Bicycle Tycoon Turned Automotive Pioneer, Stephen B. Goddard, ISBN-10: 0786440899
- The Encyclopedia of Spring Air Pistols, John Griffiths, ISBN 9780955951602
- US Patent 156,890, “Improvement in air guns or pistols”, Henry M. Quakenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- US Patent 159,354, “Improvement in air-gun darts”, Henry M. Quakenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- 1875 Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol, Century Columbia & 1892 Chicago Expo Worlds Fair, The Online Bicycle Museum
- US Patent 172,582, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, Albert A. Pope, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- US Patent 178,327, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, Henry M. Quakenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- US Patent 188,028, “Improvement in Spring Air-Guns”, Henry M. Quakenbush, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- US Patent 172,376, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, A. Bedford, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- US Patent 179,984, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, G. A. Walker, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- Albert Augustus Pope, Transportation Pioneer, Gregg Mangan (PhD)
- Pope Manufacturing Company, Wikipedia
- Pope Rifle Air Pistol advertisement, The New York Public Library Digital Collections