In this article, I will attempt to tell the story of another facet of the late 19th-century American air gun industry. We shall learn about the relationship between three important pioneers of early American air guns whilst investigating Bedford and Walker’s Eureka air pistol. We will also discover the first bolt-action breech seal that is still used in today’s modern airguns.
The Eureka air pistol is an amalgamation of two independently patented designs. The first of which by Augustus Bedford, is mostly an improvement on the Quackenbush rifle air pistol. The second element is the breech bolt designed by George A. Walker. I would have liked to tell you all about the background of these two innovators but unfortunately, there is very little information known about these men. Therefore they are likely to remain an enigma.
What I can say is that Bedford established a company called the Eureka Manufacturing Company in 1867. It was originally located at 171 Devonshire Street in Boston, Massachusetts where Bedford produced lathes and machine tools. In 1874, Bedford filed U.S. Patent 157,363 called “Improvement in Bell-Targets”.
He assigned this patent to himself and Albert Augustus Pope who was a very important and influential figure in the early days of the U.S. airgun industry. It isn’t known how or why Bedford became interested in airguns or bell targets. Perhaps he owned his own Pope or Quackenbush rifle air pistol and a bell target. Or perhaps he frequented establishments where air pistol parlour games took place. Whatever the reason, his early business relationship with Pope is interesting. It would not surprise me if Pope manufactured and sold the bell targets himself and paid Bedford an appropriate royalty on each that was sold. 
Certainly, by 1875, Bedford had realised that he could improve on the Pope/Quackenbush air pistol design. So much so that he filed U.S. Patent 172,376, “Improvement in spring air-pistols” on December 9th, 1875. 
improved air pistol design
In his patent, Bedford described a breech-closing mechanism whereby the barrel of the pistol was located forward at the end of the compression cylinder. Just like the Pope/Quackenbush, it was mounted on top of the compression chamber but 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 was opposite to that of the Quackenbush in that the spring would be compressed moving the piston towards the rear of the pistol by means of a pushrod. The pushrod was no longer attached to the piston as in Quackenbush’s design and was returned to its start position outside of the air chamber by means of a secondary spring. At the end of the pushrod was a sealing cap that would seal the end of the compression chamber. This design was intended to be simpler to cock by pushing on the pushrod and the handle of the pistol rather than pulling. It also improved safety as there was no risk of the barrel accidentally snapping back under the force of the mainspring and trapping the shooter’s fingers.
The patent indicated that the piston was fitted with a leather or other semi-elastic material sandwiched between two circular discs. This formed a seal that Quackenbush’s design 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. However, it appears that this seal did not make it to production models as no known examples show any signs that it existed.
Bedford also improved on the trigger compared to the Quackenbush design. He described the use of a double levered trigger whereas Quackenbush used a single combined trigger and sear lever. The patent also shows that he made the sear engagement adjustable by means of a small screw in the sear lever itself.
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. This is where Walker’s invention made a significant improvement to Bedford’s design.
Whilst Bedford’s design was sound, it was necessary for the shooter to ensure that the dart or slug, as they were called then, was pushed past the transfer port in the barrel. Without doing so, the compressed air would not be able to get behind the dart to shoot it down and out of the barrel. This is where Walker entered the scene.
first air gun breech bolt probe
Walker’s patent, U.S. Pat. 179,984 “Improvement in spring air-pistols” July 18th 1876, further improved the breech seal of Bedford’s pistol design. Walker’s invention introduced the first bolt-action, breech bolt probe and seal. The probe 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 groundbreaking method is still used in many of today’s modern air rifles. 
How the Bedford and Walker association started is unknown and, other than through his patent, Walker seems to disappear into obscurity. Maybe Walker was a close friend of Bedford, or maybe he worked with Bedford at the Eureka Manufacturing Company. Or perhaps there is an entirely different explanation. Maybe we will never know.
However, British patent records show a combined patent of the two designs, Patent No. 23 1876, was applied for on January 3rd 1876 that showed both Bedford’s pistol design and Walker’s breech bolt design on separate illustrations. This was less than a month after Bedford’s patent was applied for in the U.S. However, this patent was only assigned to Bedford. Walker was not mentioned at all. Interestingly, the British patent lists Allison Owen Swett, Henry Newton Sheldon and James Rollin Marble [Ed. that’s quite a joke to play on your child] Squire all from Boston, Massachusetts as the patent agents. These very same people, albeit Squire changed to Square, appear as the sole assignees on Walker’s U.S. patent which was applied for on March 18th, 1876. I assume that the patent “agents” were patent attorneys. But it is very strange that a patent attorney would also become an assignee. 
It’s understandable that Walker’s design was patented independently in the U.S. in order to protect the design. But what is far from clear is why Walker assigned his patent to the patent agents. Perhaps they had acquired the rights to his patent at an early stage. Maybe shortly after the application of Bedford’s British patent. Maybe there was some bad blood between Bedford and Walker over the use of Walker’s design? This could account for Walker not appearing on the British patent. Whatever the reason, it’s a mystery of which further study is warranted.
Albert Augustus Pope
Bedford manufactured and sold his Eureka air pistol, which was named after his company, from his premises in Devonshire Street. Interestingly, according to surviving advertisements, Augustus Pope of the Pope Brother’s Air Rifle, also retailed the Eureka from his premises at 45 High Street, Boston. But by 1878, Pope solely focussed on his bicycle business which he had started in a new factory in 1876. Bedford took over Pope’s Boston premises where he continued to manufacture and retail his Eureka air pistol. Presumably, Pope may have sold his premises, stock and machinery to Bedford. 
At this time, it appears that Bedford secured a contract or an agreement to manufacture and market Quackenbush’s fourth model air pistol. Such pistols were stamped “MANFD BY A BEDFORD, 45 HIGH ST. BOSTON, PATD JUNE 6 DEC 26 1871” which was actually Quackenbush’s first air pistol design and bared no resemblance to his fourth. 
By 1880, Bedford’s company had ceased to trade. But this was not the end for the Eureka as it would appear that Bedford became an employee of Quackenbush. Development of the first variant of the Eureka progressed under Quackenbush until production ended around 1893 according to the last known advertisement. In all, there may have been five models of the Eureka. I say “may” as no physical example of the second variant is known to exist except through advertisement drawings. 
There were possibly four variants of the Eureka but I suspect just three. The first variant had the rear sight at the back of the pistol on the bolt housing. The push rod handle was also attached to a ring that was mounted around the barrel. The front half of the compression chamber is cylindrical and the rear half is octagonal. There is no trigger guard as per Bedford’s patent drawings which is unique to this variant of the Eureka. Advertisement illustrations show the first variant with chequered grips although known examples have a smooth polished finish. The first variant has been seen in advertising from 1876, 1879 and 1880. 
So far, no known examples of the second variant have come to light, but illustrations in 1885 advertisements give rise to the idea that it may have existed. It was similar to the first variant with the octagonal to round compression chamber and rear sight mounted at the rear of the bolt housing. However, this variant is illustrated with a trigger guard and the barrel ring of the push rod has been removed. The grip is shown to be chequered but as with the first variant, it may also have been smooth. 
The third variant is almost identical to the second. The only functional difference is that the pushrod appears thicker and the pushrod guide is wider and longer. According to the Encyclopedia of Spring Air Pistols, there is no known advertising for this variant. I wonder if perhaps the advertisements of the second model and physical example of the third model are one and the same. There are two different versions of the third model that are known to exist. One has a chequered grip and is finished in black enamel. The other has a smooth grip and is nickel-plated. 
The fourth and final variant known to exist sees the rear sight moved to the front of the barrel housing and the compression chamber octagonal throughout its whole length. It has been suggested that the reason for repositioning the rear sight to a forward position is that when used with the wire shoulder stock, it may have been too close to the eye to be able to focus on it clearly. There are some examples with the rear sight at the rear of the bolt housing with the full octagonal compression chamber but these could be one of the French copies which are made from brass. Although still highly collectable, take a magnet along when viewing such a potential Eureka so you can tell the difference if there are no visible signs of brass showing under the nickel plating. The last known advertisement for this final variant is dated 1893. 
With respect to stampings, first variant examples are known to be stamped as follows: either along the barrel towards the breech with “BEDFORD’S EUREKA PATD. JAN 18, JULY 1876. PAT. IN ENG” with no other markings, or on the rear of the compression tube with “BEDFORD’S EUREKA U.S. PAT. JAN 1876. PATD. IN ENGLAND” with a serial number on the grip just below, or “BEDFORD’S EUREKA PATENTS 1876” with a serial number on the rear of the grip. Some examples also have a single number stamped onto the end of the breech bolt. There is no mention of markings on the third variant from any sources that I can find. This seems strange as it was customary to at least add patent stampings to protect the intellectual property rights of the inventor. The fourth model is stamped “PAT. JAN. 18. JULY 18″76. PAT. IN ENG.” on the left side rear of the barrel only. 
There is one other variant of the first model known to exist which has wooden grip inlays and a wooden presentation case. Another has ivory grip inlays. It has been suggested that these may have been presentation or special order items as no advertisements are known to exist for these pistols. However, black walnut with velvet-lined cases were available and advertised as an optional extra. 
All variants had a hole in the heel of the grip for a wire shoulder stock. Each would have been supplied with a cardboard box with instructions on the lid along with a set of six darts, six targets, one hundred “slugs” a wire shoulder stock, a ramrod and a combined “claw” and wrench. The claw would be used to pull darts from targets and the square section wrench as a tool to remove the rear compression chamber cap should the pistol require servicing. The pistols were finished in either nickel plating or black enamel for all variants. All, except the last variant, have been seen with smooth or chequered grips. The last variant has not been seen with a chequered grip but with either a smooth polished nickel-plated or “hammered” black enamel finish. 
I have noticed another difference in the variations that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. The first variants have a cylindrical metal cap on the bolt that would hold a wad of felt or maybe leather to form the breech seal. But on later variants, it would appear that the metal cap is not present but just the felt remains or perhaps a leather disc supported by a washer. I have seen this on a number of examples on auction websites and of course the example in Jimmie Dee’s collection.
pistol post mortem
Jimmie Dee’s collection is lucky to include a late variant Eureka. Almost all of the black enamel and nickel finish has worn away but it is still mechanically intact and sound.
On close inspection, it is clear that the body and compression chamber, as was typical of the period, is a one-piece iron casting. The compression chamber is remarkably smooth and so would have been machined or at least honed out. Each end of the chamber has a thread machined into it. The transfer port does not appear to have been drilled and was most probably created using a core as part of the casting process. It is possible that all the tubes were coarsely constructed during the casting process and then refined during the machining stage as otherwise a lot of iron would need to have been removed to form the compression chamber. The trigger and sear lever slot appear to have been machined.
The barrel is brass, 21cm (8½ inches) long and .21 smoothbore calibre and is stamped with “PAT. JAN 18, JULY 18″76. PAT IN ENG”. The barrel would be nickel-plated when new. In this example, most of the nickel plating has worn away but some remains near the breech. The foresight is also brass and is normally just a small pip. The one on this example is a replacement as the original was missing. Although different to the original sight, it looks the part and is quite functional.
The bolt is machined steel as is the pushrod, end cap, push rod knob and guide. The trigger and sear are machined from hardened steel. The sear lever is fitted with a screw to set the sear engagement and is quite effective. This example was missing both the screw and the thread. I had a brass thread insert added and a small adjustment screw that is a close copy of an original. The trigger lever is fitted with a small spring and is very effective at removing any free play.
The piston spring is a flat section spring and approximately 14cm (5½ inches) long. These were also used in the Pope and Quackenbush airguns of that period. The piston, or plunger, is a cylinder of solid steel with a small guide for the spring to locate onto. As discussed earlier, there is no piston seal despite one shown as part of the patent design.
The compression tube is 130cm (5 inches) long and 19mm (¾ inch) in diameter which is about half an inch longer than the Pope rifle air pistol but approximately the same diameter.
“No Pumping! No Pulling! The only air pistol a lady can load.”
Despite the claims of Bedford, the pistol is not easier to cock in my opinion. It might be safer, but not easier. I find the pull method used by the Pope and Quackenbush much easier than the push method of the Eureka. Having said that, I would not be surprised to find that people placed the heel of the compression chamber against a door frame, or something similar, and then pushed against the pushrod with the weight of their body behind them. Certainly, judging by the rear cap on this example I first thought that it had perhaps been used as a hammer! Now I know why it appears so worn.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good in the power department. Despite a reasonably well-fitting piston and some preload still in the spring, darts only just penetrated a corkboard. Cardboard would be ok but the drop could be significant even over a couple of feet. Perhaps it has seen better days. Nonetheless, this pistol was another important stepping stone in the progression towards the better-performing pistols that began to appear in the early 20th century.
It’s been quite a puzzle trying to unravel the timelines and business relationships between Bedford, Walker, Pope and Quackenbush. So, just to throw another curveball into the mix, there is a printed letter from Augustus Bedford which appears to suggest that he introduced the Pope Rifle Air Pistol into the market. This goes against the popular belief that Pope would have marketed his pistol himself and not Bedford. The letter is transcribed as follows…
Since I introduced Popes Rifle Air Pistol into the market, Air Pistols have had a large sale, not only in the Gun Stores throughout the country, but in many of the Hardware & Toy stores, as well as with those dealing in Sporting Goods & Games Air Pistols are fast becoming a popular source of amusement, pleasure & practice. My attention was long ago called to the defects in the Air Pistols heretofore offered for sale & I have devoted much labor & study to their remedy with the “Eureka” it will be forever impossible to bruise the fingers or injure the barrel. My main object has been to secure a first class pistol, one which should have more force than any yet produced & consequently greater accuracy & at the same time a pistol which could be easily & safely loaded by a woman or child. In these desirable points I claim my Eureka Air Pistol is a success. The Eureka Mfg Co are now making these Pistols under my supervision & every one is guaranteed.
I don’t know about you, but I am struggling to believe this to be true based on what we know about Pope. Until other information from an alternative source appears, i.e. not from Bedford, we will always have this question hanging over us. Did Bedford market Pope’s pistol first? Did he market Pope’s pistol at all?
I will leave you with that thought…
Until next time, happy shooting!
- Bruce Stauff Jnr. Correspondence, photographs and literature of Bedford Eureka pistols.
- The Encyclopedia of Spring Air Pistols, John Griffiths, ISBN 978-0-95595-160-2
- U.S. Patent 157,363, “Improvement in Bell-Targets”, A. Bedford, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 172,376, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, A. Bedford, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- U.S. Patent 179,984, “Improvement in spring air-pistols”, G. A. Walker, United States Patent and Trademark Office
- D. Commins Patent info, Vintage Air Guns
- Albert Augustus Pope and The Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol (1874-1878), Jimmie Dee’s Airguns
- Parlour Pistols, John Atkins, Airgun World Annual 1984  Bedford & Walker EUREKA, www.muzzle.de
- Bedford & Walker EUREKA, www.muzzle.de