The Challenger Arms Corporation Plainsman Pistol (Pneumatic) (1949-1951)

The Challenger Arms Corporation was a subsidiary company of the National Cart Corporation.  If you have been following our articles it will come as no surprise to you that the National Cart Corporation also produced the Apache range of air pistols and air rifles. After designing the Apache air pistol Daniel Fogel, the Vice President of Design and Production at the National Cart Corporation, developed a .28 calibre air shotgun sometime mid-1948. But rather than add it to the Apache line Charles Burhans, the president of the National Cart Corporation, decided to market it via a separate company called the Challenger Arms Corporation. Perhaps Burhans had already realised that the Apache airgun range along with its high failure rate and free lifetime warranty was already doomed. Or perhaps they had not managed to productise the new air shotgun by the time the Apache and production tools had been sold to SIMCO. Whatever the reason, as far as Burhans and his associates were concerned, the Apache era was over and the Challenger range of air guns had begun! [1][2][3]

Being a new company, the Challenger Arms Corporation required premises of its own. These premises were originally located at Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, just 5 miles from the National Cart Corporation in Pasadena. As expected, Burhans began his marketing campaign and put the air shotgun head to head with the Apache .25 BB air rifle which was now being manufactured by SIMCO in June 1949. I wonder if Burhans chose the name “Challenger” from the apparent challenge to the Apache range of airguns. [1][4]

Challenger Arms Corporation Plainsman .28 calibre air shotgun – courtesy of Anderson & Garland Ltd.

The air shotgun used shells made from cardboard tube. The tubes were loaded with about twentyfive No. 8 or No. 10 lead shot balls which were sandwiched between two felt wads. However, this wasn’t a feature unique to Challenger Arms. We know that Mike Nagy and Thomas Willoughby developed a pump up multi-purpose air rifle in 1946 that used, amongst other types, a paper capsule that contained a small handful of birdshot as ammunition. But perhaps Challenger Arms were the first to actually produce and successfully market such an airgun. However, the feature that set this airgun above the Apache was that it incorporated a sealed, owner replaceable, brass valve unit which featured strongly in promotional advertisements. Clearly Fogel had learnt a very hard lesson from the Apache crisis! [1][5]

A pack of “air shot shells” for the Challenger Arms Plainsman air shotgun –soldusa.com [6]

Although the Challenger Arms Corporation never produced a bulk filled CO2 airgun, the air shotgun marked Fogel’s venture into the use of carbon dioxide gas as a propellant instead of compressed air. Fogel developed at least one prototype that could be powered from a connected bulk filled CO2 cylinder. This prototype is shown in the October 1949 edition of Science & Mechanics. The article stated that the COcylinder would provide enough gas for 200 to 400 shots. Again, this wasn’t Fogel’s invention as Crosman was already using a CO2 bulk fill cylinder earlier in 1946 on their Model 121, 122 and 123 air rifles. [7]

October 1949 Healthways advertisement for the Plainsman airgun range. [8]

Along with the air shotgun, Challenger Arms also launched an air rifle and an air pistol and named the entire range the “Plainsman”. All three airguns used the same design and sealed valve unit to reduce tooling costs. This was something Fogel was trying to introduce to the Apache line before it inevitably collapsed. Burhans and perhaps Fogel were clearly keen to rid themselves of the reputation for unreliable airguns and strongly advertised the Plainsmans with slogans such as “America’s finest”, “Most Trouble-Free Air Rifle on the Market!”. They also prominently showed the user replaceable valve as “The HEART of the PLAINSMAN!”. [1][8]

I was lucky to find a Challenger Arms Corp Plainsman (pneumatic) pistol for sale in the spring of 2016. I knew instantly it was a rare airgun and the chances of finding another would be very slim. The Challenger Arms Corp airguns were not sold commercially outside of the U.S. so to find one in the U.K. is exceptionally rare. Especially as they are rare to find in the U.S. to begin with! This may be the only pneumatic Plainsman in the U.K. or at least one of a very rare few. A call was swiftly made, a deal struck, a car journey later and the pistol found a new home in Jimmie Dee’s collection.

The Challenger Arms Corporation Plainsman pneumatic air pistol.

The Plainsman pneumatic pistol is very similar to the Apache. Well it was created by the same designer after all. However, there are many improvements over the Apache. These are not limited to improving reliability but also with a view to reducing production costs. Visually it’s a really ugly pistol. Perhaps it’s the look of the pump lever. There’s no doubt Fogel tried to make it as slimline and functional as possible but it looks out of place. Functionally though, it is a big improvement over the Apache pump lever. There is much more to grab hold of and it sits well in the palm when closing during the pump cycle.

an improved design for success?

The barrel is finely rifled steel and was said to be available in .177, although no examples have yet to be seen, as well as .22 calibre. The Apache, on the other hand, had a brass rifled barrel of .25 calibre only. Perhaps another lesson learned by Burhans and Fogel was to use conventional or popular calibres rather than trying to force their unique and probably costly .25 calibre ammunition onto their customers. Unlike the Apache, which could only be loaded with round shot, the Plainsman has a very accessible breech in which pellets, darts or ball shot can be easily loaded. But whereas the Apache was available with a six shot magazine, the Plainsman was single shot only.

Simpler breech adjustment design with fewer parts.

The breech bolt is still very similar to that of the Apache. However, instead of a threaded adjustable sleeve, the Plainsman’s breech was adjusted by sliding the barrel and locking it in place with a grub screw. This reduced material and production costs by doing away with the complicated breech bolt sleeve. The bolt still uses a taper to tighten it against the breech, only the taper is built into the frame rather than the adjustable sleeve of the Apache.

The hammer is similar in design to the Apache except that the automatic safety has been removed and the cap has a knurled ring so that it can be removed without any special tools or without removing the cocking handle.

The pump tube is also constructed from steel but the frame and grip are made from die-cast zinc alloy. The frame that houses the valve, hammer and breech bolt was intentionally designed to be universal amongst the Plainsman pistol, rifle and air shotgun. The only difference would be longer pump tubes and barrels. The grip of the pistol is also a separate part connected to the frame using a large screw ahead of the trigger guard and a pin at the rear of the grip. I suspect that a longer screw would be used to attach a stock for the Plainsman air rifle and shotgun. Thus Fogel achieved his goal of dramatically reducing tooling and production costs by using a common frame throughout the entire range of Plainsman airguns.

Another feature that must have improved production rates was the use of plastic grips rather than wooden ones that would have been quite time consuming to produce. Not to mention the waste material generated in the process.

The Challenger Arms Plainsman pneumatic air pistol disassembled.

Internally the design is very similar to the Apache. Well there are only so many ways you can make a valve operated airgun. The valve body orientation is still held in position with a grub screw but this time it is on the underside of the frame and hidden by the grip. The valve unit is held in place by the same style of slotted circular nut that is accessed from inside the hammer tube. Of course as mentioned earlier, the main internal difference is that the valve unit is a sealed unit. Thus removing the circular nut allows the entire valve assembly to be removed in one piece. The intention was to enable the owner to return the valve unit to a dealer or the factory should a fault occur rather than the entire airgun. A replacement or refurbished valve unit could be provided immediately or by return post. So rather than shipping the whole airgun back to the factory, spares could be held by the distributor or local retailer for a quick turn-around and happy customers.

The sealed valve unit.

By the looks of it, Fogel has designed out all of the flaws that hit the Apache line hard. It would seem that all of the corners were covered. But, as we know from the Apache articles, by mid-1950, the parent company, the National Cart Corporation was in financial difficulty and Burhans simply “disappeared”. Fogel and Schimel, the third partner, were forced into bankruptcy and the National Cart Corporation closed its doors along with the Challenger Arms Corporation in 1951. [3]

It is known that the Goodenow Manufacturing Corporation of Erie, Pennsylvania revived the production of the Plainsman airgun range in 1954. It is highly likely that they purchased the rights and production tools from a liquidator at some time after Challenger Arms declared bankruptcy. At some later stage, Goodenow converted the Plainsman air rifle to use 8g CO2 cartridges. According to D.T. Fletcher, who owns one if not the only example, Goodenow also added the bulk fill CO2 option to the air shotgun. Bulk filled CO2 Plainsman rifles manufactured by Goodenow are also known to exist and both the rifle and shotgun were invariably fitted with walnut stocks. Unfortunately, production only lasted for a few years and the Plainsman line was discontinued in 1958. This made the 8g CO2 rifle quite a rare item to find today. [1][9][10]

rumours

There are various rumours of what happened between the closure of Challenger Arms Corporation and the rebirth of the Plainsman by the Goodenow Manufacturing Corporation in 1954. But unfortunately there are no references to any dated material provided. Therefore what may have happened during those years is still a mystery as far as I am concerned and until any factual references are brought forward, any such information must be treated as conjecture or perhaps discarded altogether.

The inscription on the bolt housing shows the “Eagle Rock” address. The calibre, “22”, is also stamped on the side of the breech.

It is quite easy to tell which Plainsman airguns were produced by Challenger Arms and those that were produced by Goodenow. Those made by Challenger were inscribed with Eagle Rock on the frame whereas the location was omitted entirely on Goodenow produced airguns. But to be frank, there really isn’t any factual data on who produced what and so, until any factual information surfaces, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. The other point of consideration is why would Goodenow continue to use “Challenger Arms Corp” when that business had become bankrupt? [11]

Interestingly, Goodenow appear to have used a distribution company called “Challenger Arms Distributing Co” as listed on the instruction manual. Perhaps this was established by Goodenow in a similar manner that the Challenger Arms Corporation was established by the National Cart Corporation. [11]

During the Challenger Arms Corporation years, the Plainsman airguns were marketed and distributed mostly by Healthways of Los Angeles although adverts have been seen in other vendor’s catalogues as well. From about 1957, Healthways reused the Plainsman name on their own range of airguns. These were entirely different in all but name from the Challenger Arms range of airguns. [9]

in action

The pistol is charged by pumping the underlever handle six to ten times. There is a bolt action breech at the top of the pistol which when rotated to the left and retracted, provides access to the barrel where a pellet can be inserted. The bolt is returned to close the breach and rotated to lock it in place. The hammer is then cocked by retracting it via the knob at the rear of the compression tube. The pistol is now ready for firing.

There is a fixed foresight blade and an adjustable rear sight for elevation and windage. Adjustment for elevation is via a single screw. Windage is achieved by loosening one or both of the two screws that hold the sight in place, adjusting the sight slightly and then tightening the screws back down to lock the sight in place. Barrel length is 21.5 cm (8.1″). The overall length of the pistol is approximately 33 cm (13″) and weighs 1.2kg (2lbs 10oz).

Considering the simplistic design, I found the trigger to be remarkably light. However, there is no discernable let off point that I could detect.

Power Chart

The power output of the pistol is directly related to the number of pumps. I found about ten pumps to be the best trade off between power and the effort required. I managed to test it up to seventeen pumps with a maximum output of 4.9fpe or 393fps with a 14.3gr .22 pellet. I tried for eighteen pumps but realised after a few pumps that I had blown a seal! Let that be a warning to anyone else trying such an experiment. I have since managed to repair the pistol though.

Overall, despite my initial claim of its sheer ugliness, this is actually quite a nice and very well-built 65-year-old pistol that has stood the test of time.

For all the ups and downs suffered by Fogel, he did eventually produce a worthy range of airguns. Such a pity he was unable to continue his venture in this field. The Challenger Arms Corporation could have become a big name in the airgun industry if only it hadn’t been so closely tied to the National Cart Corporation.

There is one burning question in my mind and that is where was Schimel throughout all of this? All we know of him, in relation to the National Cart Corporation and the Challenger Arms Corporation, is that it was his idea to add airguns to the product line and that he and Fogel ended up bankrupt. But we do know that he and his brother developed the Schimel Gas Pistol together (a very good, if not still the best Luger P08 replica ever made) and retailed them from 1949 to 1954. Schimel obviously had a sideline going on that was independent of the National Cart Corporation which survived for a few years after it was said that he and Fogel became bankrupt. It’s certainly food for thought and I shall write an article about his pistol, the first production pistol to use 8g CO2 gas cartridges, at a later date.

One final note of interest. Published adverts for the pistol show that it was marketed for “small game, target practice or self-protection”! I very much doubt that the pistol would be of any use for small game let alone self-protection but it certainly would have been a fun plinker and one I shall enjoy and treasure for years to come. [8]

 

Until next time, happy shooting!

Jimmie Dee

 

References:

  1. Pneumatic Reflections by Larry Hannusch
  2. Apache Airguns – Part 1: The Apache “Fireball” Air Pistol (1947-1949) by the National Cart Corporation, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
  3. Apache Airguns – Part 2: The Apache Air Rifle (1947-1949) by the National Cart Corporation, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
  4. Challenger Arms Corporation, Blue Book of Airgun Values
  5. Popular Mechanics, June 1946, Pg 150-152, 260
  6. Pack of of Challenger Arms Corporation Plainsman “air shot shells”, courtesy of soldusa.com
  7. Science & Mechanics, October 1949, courtesy of Trev’s Airgun Scrapbook
  8. Challenger Arms Corp, Trev’s Airgun Scrapbook
  9. Gas, Air, and Spring Guns of the World, First Edition by W.H.B. Smith
  10. Correspondence with D.T. Fletcher, Crosman and Benjamin airgun historian and author.
  11. Need info on Postwar Airguns 1946-1950 Challenger Arms, a post by Dave Trull on GTA International Air Gun Forums

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