Readers may remember in my last article that I described Anson’s guarded Firefly in considerable detail and contrasted it against known unguarded Firefly air pistols. At the time when the article was originally written, Jimmie Dee’s Airguns did not have an “unguarded trigger” example in the collection. In early 2016, that changed…
In early 2016, I stumbled across an unguarded Firefly during a late-night routine search of the classified adverts. The following weekend we set off, that is my collecting partner, my father and I to view the rare Anson air pistol. It was a good hour’s journey, and of course, we had plenty of air gun thoughts to discuss on the way which always makes our journeys together seem much shorter. We were greeted by a lovely gent who makes his fortune through house clearances. He must see some wonderful treasures now and then as his front room was filled with a selection of stuffed birds of prey from a recent clearance.
Following a brief chat, he presented us with the air pistol. It was intact, only missing the spring that attaches the pin-seal to the compression tube. The mainspring seemed firm but we didn’t test fire the pistol so were unaware of how it might perform. I was going to dismantle the pistol to inspect the interior but unfortunately, the end cap would not move. It was clear that the exterior had been brush-painted with matt black paint. This was not original as it should be enamelled with a gloss black lacquer and the compression tube either nickel-plated or blued. The true condition of the underlying pistol was of course a mystery.
A decision had to be made. Was the paint a poor attempt to restore the pistol by an unwitting buyer or perhaps to cover up some nasty flaws? The price was reasonable considering its condition so we took the gamble, handed over the cash and headed back.
Later that day, I tested the pistol. Disappointingly, but not unsurprisingly, it was unable to fire a dart down the barrel. I decided to disassemble the pistol to investigate the cause. Normally, the end cap can be removed by hand but with this pistol, the end cap was binding to the threads of the barrel. A pair of vice grips and some leather was needed to remove the end cap. Once removed I was able to fully disassemble the pistol. All the parts were present, but the seals had dried out and were very worn. No amount of soaking in oil would replenish them enough to make the pistol usable. This did not deter me though as I knew I would be able to fashion new seals relatively easily.
At this stage, I wanted to know the true condition of the pistol under all of that paint. Out came the old newspapers, brush and nitromors. Just a light application of the paint stripper and the paint melted off. It had clearly been painted recently. Once all the paint was removed it was obvious that all the original finish, the nickel plating or bluing and the black enamel had been removed entirely using a wire brush. Surprisingly, the metal of the frame was in excellent condition and needed no further work. However, the compression tube must have had considerable rust corrosion as it was showing plenty of pitting.
Luckily, the compression tube of the Firefly does not have any visible stamps. The only markings on this variant is a roman numeral that is “cut” or stamped into the base of the tube. As I mentioned in a previous article, this roman numeral matches the same roman numeral on the frame to indicate a matching pair. In this particular example, the front end of the frame is not straight and thus the locating hole on the compression tube needed to be drilled off the centerline to accommodate this casting flaw.
Considering that the compression tube was pitted but not stamped with fine letters such as the Webley air pistols, I was quite confident that it could be restored. Restored I hear you gasp! Considering that it had been stripped of all of its original finish and was in a poor state of repair, there really was nothing to lose.
The compression tube would need to be sent away to have the pitting polished out and then either blued or nickel-plated. This would cost more money of course. I decided to look for a way to restore the frame myself before parting with more money on this pistol. I set about researching how the original Japanese black was made and applied. I soon learnt that this would be quite extreme and potentially dangerous to my health. Not to be deterred, I continued to search for a solution and eventually I stumbled across a forum that discussed a modern alternative. It was suggested that high-temperature gloss black engine paint was a very close second to Japanese black. Yes, that’s right, engine paint!
Unfortunately, I had none left from my days of car restoration. Oh, I miss having a garage and an old MG to tinker with. Long gone are the days of balancing twin carburettors with a tube held to my ear to hear their tone. Alas, I set off to the local garage supply store and I soon returned with a tin of gloss black high-temperature engine paint.
I degreased the frame, mounted it on a rod and set about brush painting it with the engine paint. I knew that any brush strokes would disappear as the paint would set. As long as you don’t over brush the paint, a perfect gloss finish would be the result. Once painted it was left to dry. I left it for a week to fully harden.
Whilst the frame was setting, I asked my local machinist friend and fellow airgun enthusiast if he could do anything to improve the threads on the end cap and barrel. Also, whilst he was at it, to remove the rivets that held the piston seal in place. As usual, he did a superb job with the threads, removed the rivets and also re-knurled the end cap. He also went out of his way to supply me with new steel rivets and some thick leather to make a new seal with.
I manufactured new leather seals using the method I described in a previous article called “Leather Seals…”. I fixed the piston seal in place with the steel rivets and a ball-peen hammer. The excess material at the visible end of the rivets was removed with a file and various wet and dry paper was used to remove the file marks. Finally, it was polished to a mirror finish using a polishing wheel and polishing compound.
Once the paint on the frame had fully cured, I reassembled the pistol and tested it. It was now firing probably as well as it was when it was new. With the frame restored and the pistol firing well, it was time to send the compression tube away to be restored. Along with it, I sent the end cap, the trigger and the nut. The latter two were to be blued. I decided to leave the wooden barrel shroud alone as it appeared in good original condition.
Whilst the compression tube was away, I was sent abroad on business. This was a good distraction to stop me wondering when the tube would arrive back. The trip was extended to almost two weeks from an original few days so my excitement to hear that the compression tube had been returned was now growing more each day! When I eventually returned home after 24 hours of flying I opened the package immediately. I was not disappointed.
The compression tube looked factory fresh. No signs of corrosion and pitting. Just glorious mirror finished nickel plating. The end cap had also been restored to the same condition and the trigger and nut blued to a high standard. A superb job by the master refinisher we know as Colin Molloy!
As a final touch, I added a new spring to the pin-seal.
I’m sure you will agree that this restoration has turned out exceptionally well. Whilst many would cringe at the thought of restoring a vintage antique air pistol, there really was no other option in my mind. It has now become an item to be cherished rather than hidden away as the ugly sister of the family. It can now take pride of place next to its sibling.
a closer look
Fully stripping the unguarded Firefly did not reveal any new surprises that I haven’t already discussed in the guarded Firefly article. The pistol appears to be standard in comparison to other known examples. The only difference is that there is only one mainspring whereas other examples are known to have an inner and outer mainspring.
Whilst documenting the guarded Firefly, I mentioned that its sear lever incorporated an adjustment screw which the unguarded Firefly does not have. This example also does not have an adjustment screw and it is clear that the screw was added to remove any free play in the trigger. This free play is quite significant in this example as you can see between the rear of the trigger and the sear lever.
Also, the guarded Firefly had a hole drilled through the muzzle end of the barrel which is a feature not found on other examples of the unguarded Firefly. This hole is not present in this example either. It is thought that this hole was added to aid the assembly of the pistol. A rod could be fitted through the hole to hold the wooden shroud and mainspring back. The end cap could then be screwed onto the barrel with ease. In practice, this isn’t necessary as the shroud and mainspring can be held back by hand quite easily.
The guarded and unguarded variants also differ with respect to the method of applying a production stamp to the frame and compression tube. This stamp was probably applied to ensure that the same two halves could be reunited once they had been plated or enamelled by a subcontractor.
This example of the unguarded Firefly follows the same method of marking as other known examples in that a roman numeral is stamped into the tube and frame. In this case the roman number VII. I do not consider this to be a serial number but perhaps a number within a batch. Batches may have been sent to subcontractors to be plated and enamelled. It is conceivable that the frame and compression tube may have been sent to separate subcontractors for finishing.
The guarded Firefly differs in that the compression tube is not stamped with a roman numeral but instead has a number of notches machined into the front lower edge of the tube. The number of notches coincides with the roman numeral stamped into the frame.
Finally, there is a further difference with respect to the frame. The ribbed side of the guarded firefly extends all the way to the end of the trigger guard whereas, on the unguarded variant, the portion above the trigger is smooth and stamped with “Firefly” on both sides.
a pleasure to restore
It really has been a pleasure to restore this rare British air pistol that was manufactured by one of the founders of the British air gun industry at the turn of the 20th century. To bring it back from such a poor state to its full former glory and be able to fire it once again gives an enormous feeling of satisfaction. I’m sure that this pistol will last for another hundred years at the very least!
Son, if you are reading this in years to come, be sure to take good care of it and pass it on to your children when the time comes. Oh, and above all, use it and enjoy it!
Until next time, happy shooting!