A very German Webley Service Air Rifle
If you like old air pistols then you may well know the name Webley. Their shared pistol design is a spring chamber with a barrel riding piggyback. The barrel is hinged to the front and pulls the piston back away from the user to cock the gun. On release, the piston pushes the air towards the breech block then up and out into the barrel. Very odd - the air does a U turn. Webley decided to have a go at air rifles but strangely kept to this layout.
Their very first MK1 looked like a super-sized pistol but soon became more rifle-like. Better ways to secure the barrel other than the old pistol style thumb-catch were introduced and a closing lever was added that looked like a large military bolt handle. Rebadging means new interest from the buying public and Webley added the rather impressive tag of Service to the MKII. There were variants or versions but they all look similar. This example here is a later Service. It’s weary, shoots low on power and has some parts missing. What’s not to like? It’s got character and a strange history.
This gun has the superb rotating locking collar or screw grip as Webley called it which has a cut out recess to match the machined barrel end. This is lowered into the recess and then the collar is rotated over it by the lever. In any shop window with only break barrel airguns the simple addition of the big military style bolt handle would have created a buzz. The screw collar's sealing function is the real refinement however as being threaded it winds or screws back pulling the barrel face onto the breech seal. Another really neat trick is how the barrel detaches quickly for easier transport. It has a ridge to the underside that slots into a matching channel in the cradle. The cradle on this improved version has a round spring button release and with only one hand you can hold the barrel and press the button with your thumb to dismantle it in seconds for travel. Other calibre barrels were available and you could swap them over, another very unique selling point. Let’s take a closer look at this old timer.
Marked in a really nice font on the left side is:
‘WEBLEY SERVICE AIR RIFLE MARK II’, on the spring chamber wall with a Webley logo to the upper block. This doesn’t show the usual winged pellet but a bullet, as seen on their firearms.
The trigger unit below has:
‘MANUFACTURED BY WEBLEY & SCOTT Ltd’ then with the address of ‘BIRMINGHAM’ and ‘ENGLAND’ appearing very faintly in a smaller type along the bottom edge of the trigger unit.
The right hand side has patent marks in a neat group, with a seperate single patent stamp near up on the breech block. The serial number is squeezed onto the back of the trigger guard as ‘S6398’ and is also just visible on the back of the trigger blade. The barrel has ‘22 CALIBRE’ stamped to the left side. Barrels can match the serial numbers of the guns but often don’t. This one has ‘6469’ smudged to the underside. Original barrels got lost or sometimes a second barrel was bought later in a different calibre to that provided originally.
This barrel, like most, is rifled but some smoothbore barrels were found and nearly bought - these oddly were all in .25 and possibly other smoothbore calibres do exist. Owners repeatedly claimed that these were for export to far flung corners of the Empire where rifled barrels were not allowed. If sales restrictions were indeed implemented then the possibility of aftermarket use of these on improvised firearms may have been the reason. Small calibre firearms especially in .25/6.35 and their ammunition had been readily available for years.
Accuracy from these Webleys is known to be good and that barrel at just under 650mm makes this classic look like it gives supersonic performance. The pistol propulsion system worked well enough on the pistol frame and was upscaled but with some obvious limitations. The resulting difference to say a contemporary tuned BSA can be considerable.
Strange references have been made by owners that performance was improved by encouraging the ignition of oil. This dieseling is normally to be avoided and occurs when oils or grease work their way in front of the piston where they burn off. Higher FPS figures can occur but are inconsistent and worse can result in distorted cylinders, destroyed leather seals and piston rebound which can cause it or the spring to crack.
The Service uses a thin metal ring not leather as a seal that fits flat into a machined recess around the piston's circumference. This requires lubrication to prevent unnecessary wear. Possibly this in part fuelled this idea, the side effect of which just happens to be a smoking gun. However it’s been claimed that these Service do indeed like to blow gas by design. Urban myth? Let’s take a look inside this one - especially as it was only giving 2.75ft/lb.
The trigger block was removed first, the rear screw and the large front bolt with its keeper screw. This long bolt threads into a nut welded to the cylinder wall which is also holed on this gun into the spring chamber. After removing the cradle, a chunk of plastic was placed in a vice and used to locate into the end block recess then the action was rotated on this to unscrew it. A spring compressor is really a must but sometimes… it came undone without drama.
Some effort was however needed on the piston. A simple external safety mechanism was fitted to this Service; a drop-down block that snags the piston when loading. This one had been partially knocked off and the tube had suffered some very slight deformation and the walls were pinching. A large flat headed screwdriver was inserted to gently pry the piston back to free it off. The other open end of the piston then appeared to snag despite looking true, on the coarse threads. When it was finally out a big monster file, then a small needle file then some wet and dry paper smoothed everything off.
The seal is made from a split ring of bronze and slips over the crown of the piston into its channel and pushes out slightly to hug the cylinder walls. These rings can wear and a new replacement can take time to wear. This one had even wear so was reused. It sat loose in its recess and the reason the open end of the piston appeared to jam for no reason on the threads. The diameter was closed over slightly by rolling it gently on a smaller cylinder - an empty Co2 bulb. When reinserting the piston it was still necessary to ease down the ring by fingernail to allow it to edge past those threads.
A longer mainspring was found and with greater tension pre-load, it needed much more effort for reassembly. The action was pressed down onto the end plug sat on the floor to compress the spring and then engage the threads. With a stiff and smooth cocking action a pellet was tested over the chrono. Smoke getting in your eyes is an understatement as the room filled with choking fumes. The noise was also terrifying. The chrono figures were better but despite the drama all below 6ft/lb. It was dismantled for a rethink. Black soot inside an airgun cannot ever be normal.
A shorter spring with an added spacer gave moderate pre-load. This gave on average 6.50 ft/lb For some fine tuning all was removed again. A small strip of plastic tape was wound around the seal's channel and the piston ring replaced. This took up some slack on the worn ring whilst allowing it to sit slightly more proud. A test with some medium and lightweight pellets in both 5.5 and old British 5.6 revealed 7ft/lb maximum and this may improve after the new(ish) piston ring beds in. The best fps figure, not necessarily the best for accuracy came oddly from a modern 5.5 pellet.
As for any added after burner effect, with a wipe down there appeared a mysterious hole up near the sealing ring. This is angled backwards into the piston cavity. If greases were packed inside they would indeed bleed out here. Perhaps Webley's desire was simply to lubricate the sear and add life to the piston ring if nothing else. The notion persists however amongst some that this was used for added compression. With a strong dislike for ringing ears, acrid smoke and soot it is difficult to theorise further.
In reality this gun may never give crackle performance and further tuning potential is limited as the bending of air back on itself in a U bend lends to limitations. The piston weighs in at only 165 grams compared 300 grams on a BSA. The spring has to fit inside the piston but still have a large o/d to slip over the guide rod which near 14mm is huge. If this was turned down and the piston opened out a wider choice of springs could be used. Power isn’t everything and in servicing older guns, sometimes less is more. With this Webley you got an accurate, lightweight easy to dismantle air rifle with enough power for most shooting.
There are two sight units, a standard unit on the barrel cradle and a military style flip up sight to the rear. Bits go missing as on this gun's sights which has lost some peep sight parts. The round knob to the handle had also vanished, a loss seen before on others. The rear butt plate made from horn is intact and with only some minor cracks. There’s an old hole for a sling screw to the stock, it won't be filled and disguised but rather a sling attachment will be fitted again.
These losses and damages do not detract from this gun's unique history. It was discovered in France a few years back and repatriated by a colleague. Areas of France were under German control and in particular Alsace-Lorraine had strong germanic influence even before the war. On the right-hand side of the walnut stock appears the outline of a wartime German Wehrmacht eagle. The pin marks indicate that a military badge had been fixed firmly to the stock. Later possibly after the war the badge was prized off. What a story it could tell going from Birmingham to mainland Europe, surviving the war then living in rural France for over 65 years.
The wartime Wehrmacht logo could raise the question of an association with some military training in Germany but it’s more likely a youth so thrilled with his new Christmas present simply personalised it. If restoration is likely the motif will be retained as a window on history. For now after its clean up it will be ready again for many years service – in the garden.
Text & Images @Copyright Jonathan Young
GUIDE to Images
A Large image no text
1 Bolt action – well not really, it’s the barrel locking collar.
2 Cradle with push button barrel release
3 From occupied France a ' Wehrmacht ' Webley
4 Standard adj. sight and also a peep sight
5 Piston seal ring with mystery hole
6 Webley Flying Bullet
7 Old advert showing an early Service
8 Typical Webley pistol , inspiration for the rifle
9 Dismantled from the front end
10 End plug and guide rod