The Britannia Air Rifle
Collecting and using airguns from 100 years ago can be inevitable. One old name that is held in awe by many is Britannia. The name refers to the Britannia Air Rifle which appeared in Edwardian Britain then passed into airgun folklore.
By 1900 most airguns were simple break barrel Continental designs with smoothbore barrels. Over time people came up with ideas to improve them. When gunsmith Frederick Cox of Handsworth, Birmingham released his design it followed the period style but displayed some important ideas.
(Early to late production changes - 700's , 1900's , 2300's, 2700's)
Aesthetically unique with a short length achieved by lengthening the spring chamber, the end formed the butt with the woodwork moved to sit on top of it. The cocking arm had the trigger to it, not to the frame. A short spring was only needed despite the long chamber allowing for less stress when uncocked. A neat idea was to have the piston with two notches. Compressing to one of the two positions offered high and low power. The barrel with a seal fitted to its face was released by a lever to the left. Most of the few seen bear marks claiming they were made in Germany, using similarly cast and forged parts in the contemporary Continental style of plated two tone finishing.
Perhaps this was an experiment as serial numbers indicate only a few hundred were made. They have a spring chamber with side lobes that formed an ergonomic grip but this style has never been shown in period publications. The situation that surrounds the first Cox gun is an unusual mystery and only four are known to this author. This design is the 1st Series, 1st Pattern Britannia or the Cox Britannia without which the following story would never have been.
(Early Sear Adjustment)
A new air rifle was released very quickly, retaining features from the 1st Pattern but with improvements. It displayed a stylised logo of the figure of Britannia with the name 'THE BRITANNIA' surrounding it. Made in Britain now with a manufacturing stamp to one Bonehill, a very large Birmingham gun maker.
(Later sear adjustment)
The barrel was now rifled and mounted into a meatier block locked by an external ring-like catch. A small spring provided tension to allow the hook to reach fullest lock. The main spring chamber was now a simpler steel cylinder with the barrel jaws lump a separate piece with a leather breech seal placed to it now. The cylinder lost the cast-in lobes but instead a chunkier combined trigger and cocking arm had this detail added to it.
The new Britannia design with patent marks appears with the manufacturer declared as 'C.G.BONEHILL SOLE MANUFACTURER' to the upper flat of the block. Each bears mention of Cox with 'COX'S PATENTS' stamped likewise to the block. This is the 2nd Series or Bonehill Britannia. This is still very much a Cox creation and some could call these the 2nd Pattern Cox Britannia. It’s this specific gun that has been known to generations as the definitive Britannia Air Rifle.
(Cocking and trigger casing - 700's and later 2000's with sear access )
We cannot tell if Cox sold out to Bonehill at this point , and if so it’s not unfeasible that factory finished units or parts still worked their way back to Cox as part of any deal. Many early Britannia show variations that a factory item would not exhibit. Cox was a gunsmith who would have known gun part finishing and assembly. He would also be used to dealing directly with choosy customers whilst a manufacturer like Bonehill may possibly have been more interested in wholesale orders. One unit offered to this author was described as a trophy special offered regularly as Club prizes. Other early specials show two tone colouring, target peep sights to the spring chamber, short wood forends to the barrel and different styles of rear sight.
(Spring, slotted piston, spacer bar with guide rod and chamber plug)
Production however standardised with non-adjustable sights on occasion with an added folding blade , dovetailed to the block. Later a long sporting or semi-buckhorn sight was used here with a simple screw for height adjustment as on one unit with a serial number in the low 700's but here now absent. A new fully adjustable sight was designed and this was placed further away possibly for better eye relief, sat on the barrel to the block edge, as on one shown here with a serial number in the 1900's. It was then moved further down the barrel where it remained for the rest of the production as on one shown here in the high 2700's. These later units are referred to as see-saw sights as they look like playground see-saws. They’re stamped with their own diminutive 'PATENT' mark and mount by dovetailed pivot with a separate panel for protection. When absent numbers can be seen to the barrel underneath.
The axis bolt protrudes out the other side, usually fitted with a hexagonal nut but early guns can have only a short bolt decoratively rounded off. The block differs in shape with earlier guns having an angular flat top with two flat upper sides squared off. Later units have a rounded tapering top and this changed between the 2300's and 2500's as shown here. The 1900's unit here has the upper flats taper indicating another interim phase.
The block served as the manufacturer's noticeboard with relevant stamps to the flat top with a small stacked mark for Bonehill, his location, logo and the gun's name separate. Then the logo with name went down to the side. The later dome top units have a cleaner layout with Cox's mark ahead of the long linear Bonehill mark but now minus his address, but on occasion even these details can be reversed.
It was common practice by retailers to badge up airguns with their own details. One retailer R. Ramsbottom appears to have had a long relationship with the Cox and Bonehill Britannia project. An example offered to this author no.776 had a simple Ramsbottom brass retailer's medallion to the stock but later Ramsbottom guns appear stamped 'ANGLO SURE-SHOT MARK 1' and 'MADE ONLY FOR R. RAMSBOTTOM MANCHESTER' to the block crudely, as on the 1900's unit here. Others have the Ramsbottom marks split to either side of the two upper flat surfaces in a decorative lighter script. Oddly Bonehill doesn't even get a mention when as shown on the latter gun there is still plenty of room to the upper flats. Perhaps Cox did hold more sway over how and what happened on his guns. Time will reveal how many were stamped as these Mk1 Sure-Shots. They appear at intervals throughout the earlier production timeline when later Ramsbottom sold a German made break barrel air rifle as the MKII.
(Double notched 'plate ' dropped into piston)
The barrel catch can have coarse or finely machined ridge lines to the strap or occasionally none at all. To each side of the catch on the ears the crossed knurling can differ. To the arm on the left on early units, appears 'PAT' instead of the later fuller 'PATENT'. Sometimes this, the chamber and trigger block are plated on early guns. Likewise knurling to the chamber plug can appear very crude or much better.
Triggers are simple with two styles seen . On early units behind the trigger casing a small sear screw is drilled through the side of the sear bar at an angle. A small slot or cut to the edge of casing wall has been observed on only a few units for access. Later units have a larger screw drilled at 90' through the sear and the casing given an access hole where on some very early units a cast extension of the ergonomic grip appeared as a finger hook. These later screws are also held captive by a thin metal strip acting as a retaining washer. The trigger blades themselves are usually smooth on early units and later ridged for grip. The trigger block or cocking arm changed shape with the earlier ovoid finger hole area becoming rounded for the rest of production.
Barrels show variations and early guns sometimes have a reinforcing strip added to the underside with the block milled to accommodate. Lengths of 21” exactly are seen as here on one in the 1900's range but 23” is noted prompting possibly reference to 'target' models over the years. Three in the 2000's are all exactly 580mm which seems to have been the standard by this stage in production.
The power plant was retained throughout production, a spring on a long spacer with integral guide rod and the end plug. This plug requires only a minor anti-clockwise turn to release it and a stop screw prevented accidental loss of the whole assembly. Using a Britannia without this screw could result in the innards discharging rearward under pressure.
With an appropriate mainspring there may be little pre-load when un-cocked but with unknown history caution was used here. A protrusion on the plug lines up the assembly into a channel which has a right angle turn. The woodwork is fixed to the chamber by three screws, two accessed through the cocking slot and the third externally to the butt.
(Make no mistake, Mr Bonehill only is making this gun now)
The pistons are slotted perhaps to counter weight, the top endwall is pinned into place through the sidewalls and the sear notches, two of them on the Britannia are made as a separate plate dropped into place then pinned to the tube. The long sear sits inside two extended side walls. A small retaining screw also acts as the pivot, with a small spring trapped underneath providing resistance.
The transfer port hole is to the top outer edge of the front assembly with its barrel jaws and leather breech seal. In removing and replacing pistons they can exhibit a tightening to the tube around the sear area then a slack in the compression area and it is possible this zone was polished from the front end before the jaws were sealed on. As for this sealing a hole was discovered to the underside of the chamber near the breech on one unit, this is usually filled and ground back and may have helped align the assembly to the front of the tube. It appears all Britannia have this but today under years of patination no visual evidence can remain. An original flat wound spring was found in one unit and although damaged, measurements of 7.5”/190mm long, 30 coils with an internal o/d of 12.5mm were taken.
Many components share their gun's matching serial numbers. Occasionally tiny stamps can be found elsewhere. On one in the 700's there is a stamped fork to the underside of the barrel possibly to aid alignment. There’s a punch mark to the underside of the block appearing to aid barrel pinning but it is in the much thicker shoulder area below. Here there is also a letter stamp, very indistinct and possibly W or M noting something now missing from the story. There’s a second mark alongside it smudged beyond recognition. The letter also reappears faintly to the right hand side on the spring chamber above the trigger area but is obliterated by time.
(Bonehill multi-part see-saw sight)
On a low 1900's unit similar marks of M or W appear indistinctly to the block but very clearly to the spring chamber hidden from view by the trigger casing and with an added letter I or smudged L again to the right side. The barrel punch mark is now singular, purposeful and to the much thinner throat area directly below the barrel tube. All later higher serial number units have only this single punch to the block with no lettering.
The most common calibre for Britannia is .177. The .25 appears much less and a recent near purchase was no.3403. This calibre appears mostly in later guns with higher serial numbers. Offered to this author was the rare and elusive .22 Britannia no.1765. Perhaps made as a workshop experiment or to customer order, Bonehill was heavily involved with firearms rebarreling and calibre conversions. This unit was fitted with a fold down target sight fitted to the wrist of the spring chamber and this feature appeared on Bonehill's military rifle to .22lr conversions. Although waisted airgun pellets were scarce or non-existent in some calibres , the use of lead ball including .22 was common. Note also that in this period rare .22 Gem are known and some Lincoln H's have allegedly been seen in this calibre.
As a British airgun it’s not surprising that the national image was used for the logo in this Age of Empire. Anglicising foreign catalogue designations resulted less in Model 13a's or 1b's being advertised, with more user friendly names like Speedy, Gem and Dare Devil Dinkums appearing. So too with Britannia. The small image of Britannia stands clearly on a raised plinth holding a rifle resting overarm to her right. There is a small shield or very possibly an airgun target board held to front on the the left side. With behind over sea there is a beacon or lighthouse to the right and a large sailing ship or schooner to the left in the distant horizon.
After only a short time little is heard of the Britannia and Cox. It appears he had time to spend on other ideas such as how to improve bicycle brakes. Bonehill released a totally different airgun of his own called the Improved Britannia. Cox's Britannia Air Rifle had its day and over the decades the name has conjured up an image of something well made that few could afford then or find today.