Established in the 1980s by Saxby-Palmer – and perfected by Brocock – the air cartridge system was at the peak of its popularity when, a decade ago, the UK government sounded the death knell for the entire range of air cartridge-powered airguns by way of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, 2003.
The Brocock Air Cartridge System (BACS) was by far the most popular air cartridge product on the market, with revolvers the mainstay of the range – although there were a few rifle models based on the air cartridge system.
BACS was an ingenious, self-contained portable airgun propulsion system, initially dubbed the TAC (Tandem Air Cartridge), and is now all but extinct in the UK as the Act required shooters to either hand in their kit (with no compensation), or put it on a licence. Those who chose to do the latter were not permitted to subsequently transfer their guns to other licence holders; in effect, they were dinosaur guns.
Before taking a closer look at the original Brocock Specialist six-shot revolver, permit me to remind you of their rapid, government-assisted descent into oblivion. Up until 2002, BACS air pistols and rifles were readily available on the UK airgun market. The popularity of the Brocock range was such that, by 2002, estimates put the number of air cartridge guns in circulation around the 70-80,000 mark. This figure included western-style Uberti and Pietta airguns, which were manufactured to chamber BACS and other manufacturers’ air cartridges.
However, a small number of incidents relating to the alleged illegal conversion of (mainly) Brococks to allow them to discharge live ammunition sparked a media frenzy. In early 2002, the BBC reported that figures from the National Criminal Intelligence Service showed converted Brococks accounted for 35 per cent of all guns recovered by the police – and David McCrone, firearms adviser to the Association of Chief Police Officers and Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme: “There is evidence which would justify banning them.”
In the months that followed the sensationalist media hype, a number of cases involving the illegal conversion of air cartridge airguns were graphically portrayed in a very anti-airgun media, and the calls to restrict their sales escalated such that, by March 2003, the government had included ‘self-contained gas cartridge weapons’ (SCGCs) in a white paper outlining its proposals for tackling anti-social behaviour. As a result of the illegal activities of a few criminals, the resulting Anti-Social Behaviour Act that received Royal Assent in November 2003 had introduced sledgehammer legislation on the tens of thousands of law-abiding airgunners who enjoyed shooting with air cartridge power.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act introduced a number of changes to the Firearms Act, 1968 – and I deliberately used the word ‘sledgehammer’ earlier, as Section 39 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act added air cartridge airguns to section 5(1) of the Firearms Act, thus classifying them as ‘prohibited weapons’ alongside ground-to-air missiles, sub-machine guns, grenades, pump-action shotguns and burst-fire automatic weapons!
From 20 January 2004, it became an offence under the act for anyone to manufacture, sell, purchase, transfer or acquire a SCGC gun, and it was illegal to be in possession of one after 30 April 2004 unless you had a Section 1 Firearm Certificate. Penalties for non-compliance were fixed at a mandatory minimum imprisonment sentence of five years, up to a maximum of 10 years – and airgunners with air cartridge guns were left with two simple choices: surrender their kit to the police without a penny of compensation; or apply for an FAC.
Rather than simply refer to the commonly-used description ‘air cartridge’, the government dubbed air cartridge-powered airguns as self-contained gas cartridge weapons. At the time, this caused massive confusion as airguns powered by CO2 gas capsules were also incredibly popular, and sold in vast numbers through Brocock! However, CO2 guns did not fall under the new legislation.
Interestingly, the Home Office subsequently reported that fewer than 6,000 BACS airguns had been entered on firearm certificates in the UK, which makes legally-owned air cartridge models some of the rarest modern-day airguns in circulation today. Ironically, though, because they can’t be transferred between owners, these guns have no material value whatsoever – although their owners will tell you that they consider their Brococks ‘priceless’!
While it is, unfortunately, clear to see why these high-quality, precision-engineered airguns were so attractive to the criminal fraternity, it’s also as easy to see why they were so popular with the law-abiding airgun community.
The operation of the BACS system was – and still is for a minority of airgunners lucky enough to have them on ticket – the closest thing to handling real firearms, but without all the power and noise. The BACS cartridge, just like a live round, is entirely self-contained. It holds the projectile – the pellet – and the source of propulsion needed to fire it: compressed air. No other airgun operates this way.
The TAC really was a work of genius. Its body is brass, which incorporates a sophisticated valve and seal system, onto which screws a nose cone to hold the pellet. The body is effectively a mini air chamber, which is filled with compressed air in one of three ways: via a hand-operated ‘Slim Jim’ pump, a stirrup pump or a ram-charger which attaches to a diver’s tank.
The Slim Jim hand-pump is – and I use the present tense because the system is still considered ‘current’ by those who own them on an FAC – by far the most economical in terms of cost, but most expensive in terms of effort as, typically, each TAC requires eight strokes of the pump. Charging just 12 cartridges can leave the healthiest shooter out of breath! Extracting charged cartridges from the hand pump can sometimes be problematic and can require a pair of pliers to release the pump’s charger cap.
Because of their added ‘realism’, the original range of Brocock BACS airguns, although small in number, was diverse enough to lure airgunners in their droves – regardless of their preferred choice and style of gun. The range included rifles and pistols – most available in both .177 and .22 calibres. The bolt-action Safari and Predator rifles took care of the hunting fraternity, while the futuristic Fox rifle – with its black, skeletal, almost minimalistic frame – attracted shooters who preferred a more unconventional rifle.
There was a choice of eight revolvers, which came with varying barrel lengths – including the western-style, gate-loading single action Texan revolver that was also available with a case-hardened frame. For those preferring a more modern handgun, there was the magazine-fed Para ME9 pistol – available in black and nickel finish. This compact pistol – the only one in the range to chamber BACS Micro cartridges – bore a striking resemblance to the famous Walther PPK.
In terms of the champion of the Brocock pistol league, initially led by the Orion 6 which launched the company, the Specialist revolver, for me, wins hands down. No relation to Brocock’s latest PCP hunting rifle of the same name, the Specialist is a beautifully constructed, powder-blued handgun that was manufactured by Weihrauch specifically to take TACs. Its 10cm barrel is steel and rifled and it is fitted with a fully-adjustable rearsight. It packs a formidable punch – the gun shown here records 5.1ft/lb with RWS Hobby flatheads.
Even the heft of this gun is impressive. Weighing in at just over 1kg unloaded, and with an overall length of 239mm, it feels like you’re holding a real handgun rather than a punily-powered air pistol. Cocking is a dream and perfectly demonstrates its classy engineering; the blued, six-chamber cylinder locks into place tightly, and with a resounding click.
The trigger – which is both single- and double-action – is smooth, but quite heavy in the latter mode. On firing, there’s no recoil, but a healthy ‘airgun’ report that even comes with the scent of the shot; not burnt powder – but a nostril-pleasing waft of the special TAC anti-dieseling cartridge lubricant! The final point to note is the seal of quality – Brocock’s famous gold insignia inlaid into the frame above the rubber combat grips.
As I alluded to earlier, there are a very small number of BACS in legal ownership and active use, though numbers ‘in service’ will dwindle as spare parts and maintenance becomes scarcer and FACs expire and aren’t renewed. I’d say Brocock BACS airguns are already museum pieces and, indeed, anyone wishing to see the real thing can do so at the Imperial War Museum in London, where you’ll also see the Brocock Fox air rifle and the Brocock Texan revolver.
Is it only a matter of time before the final death warrant is issued and the last of these beautifully engineered airguns is finally laid to rest and consigned to memory? I hope not…
– Allan Crookston