Years ago, I recall a fireside chat with my stepfather who was reminiscing about an air pistol he’d been given as a youngster, shortly after the Second World War. He couldn’t remember the name: “Something like Ab or Abba,” he vaguely recalled. “Abas Major?” I prompted, with a little disbelief in my voice. “Yes,” he said – but I had my doubts; the Abas was a rare gun, even in its day. However, we soon established its layout and operation and, indeed it sounded very much like an Abas Major. Then, some way into the conversation, he announced: “You know, I think I’ve still got it somewhere.”
After a rummage in the attic, a fairly pristine box came to light, bearing the name ‘Abas Major’. The gun it contained appeared to be in equally good condition, complete with cleaning brush. What a find – the airgun equivalent of discovering an E-Type Jag in the shed.
The story behind Abas goes back to 1930, when Albert Arthur Brown set up his gunsmithing business in Whittal Street, Aston, at the heart of the centuries-old Birmingham gunmaking quarter. It was a tough time to be setting up a business; the Great Depression had already made many manufacturers bankrupt. Yet AA Brown survived by manufacturing bespoke shotguns for the few wealthy people who could still afford them – and toward the end of the decade, Albert senior was joined by his two sons, Albert Henry and Sidney. The business became AA Brown and Sons, which is the derivation of the moniker, ‘ABAS’.
When World War Two intervened, Whittal Street was subject to redevelopment by the Luftwaffe, and the business moved directly around the corner, to Sand Street. At this time, though, the Browns’ manufacturing capacity was taken up with the war effort – and even after the Second World War finished, steel was in such short supply that ‘non-strategic’ items, like shotgun barrels, went to the bottom of the list.
However, the Browns were asked by another manufacturer to assemble a job-lot of parts for the Anson Star pistol, and it seems that this sparked them into producing a pistol of their own. Air pistols didn’t need so much steel… and the Abas air pistol was soon designed and built at the Sand Street works.
With its concentric barrel/mainspring arrangement, the Abas pistol bore a passing resemblance to the Anson Star – but it had a much sturdier underlever arrangement that pivoted from the front of the pistol, and its shape looked significantly cleaner and sleeker. Initially, there was no safety sear on the first few pistols that were sold. However, this meant the underlever could snap back against your fingers if the trigger was inadvertently pressed with the lever open – a problem Albert experienced first-hand, literally. So an intercepting sear was duly incorporated into the design, and you can hear this working as it engages a ratchet mechanism on the sample shown here, serial no. 184. The serial number appears on the back of the grip and the underlever.
The initial price of the Abas Major was 80/- (£4), as stated on the box – an absolute fortune in those days for an air pistol as it equated to a typical week’s wages for a working man in 1945. Later models are seen with a 90/- (£4.50) price tag on the box.
As expensive as it was then, you only have to pick up the Abas to immediately realise it’s still a desirable item – and worthy of any airgun collector’s wish list. Clearly the product of skilled craftsmen who produced it to a very high standard of finish; it may be almost 70 years old, but it would hold its own against many a modern air pistol.
Cocking the pistol is a bit unorthodox, but you soon get used to it – and you can take a rest midway through the cocking procedure as the ratchet allows you change hand position for a better grip. This is the very reason why the Abas appealed to my stepfather, who recalls that the overlever Webley pistols “were harder to cock.”
Loading is easy – a loading tap is swung open and shut simply with your thumb, with a port just in front of the rear-sight into which you load a pellet, nose first. Made from cast steel, with no pressed metal to be seen, it’s nicely contoured and finished – and there’s even a pellet-sizing hole in the underlever, although my stepfather never used it. Abas sold pellets in boxes of 500 or 1,000 and these were actually made by Lincoln Jeffries, just sold with Abas packaging. It’s most likely they were made from existing moulds – hence the need for a sizer to suit the pistol.
I tested the .177 calibre pistol with a more modern pellet – the RWS Superdome – which happened to fit perfectly without the need to downsize. I collected a few shot pellets and examined the aftermath. The front drive band appeared quite well swaged and though the rifling marks were only slight, on paper, the pistol grouped around an inch at six yards – pretty good for a pistol from that era… and more than respectable in this day and age.
I can’t think of any other air pistol with a loading tap. It’s reminiscent of the Lincoln Jeffries style of loading, which may be more than coincidental – I believe there was a family link somewhere along the line, so ideas and permissions may have been shared freely.
The Abas is quite pleasant to shoot. Its trigger – single-stage, as you’d expect on a pistol from this period – breaks at a weight suitable for plinking and informal target shooting. This sample has never been stripped, so the leather washer will be the original one fitted back in 1945. I must say it’s doing well, with a very slight whiff of smoke after the gun’s fired. There’s no ‘twang’ – probably because its concentric design, with the barrel running down the length of the spring, acts as a calming guide.
There were variations. On very early examples, there was a button to release the underlever. Number 184 is blued steel with smooth walnut grips, but examples have also been seen with chequered walnut grips, and metal finishes in black crackle or enamel. While walnut grips are a trait of the earlier-made models, plastic grips have been seen on later guns. These are very close in shape to the Webley Senior – and the reason probably has something to do with the fact that Albert (the older of the two sons) had once worked for nearby Webley & Scott, so it is feasible that he had links with the manufacturer who supplied them with plastic grips. It would have been easy to copy the moulding and put the name ‘ABAS’ in place of the Webley’s logo.
Company records show the Abas Major was actually still in limited production as late as 1950. Post-1950, there’s a gap in records, but it’s likely that it remained in production until the mid-1950s, albeit in ever-diminishing numbers. The main reason for the wind-down in production was the renewed availability of steel tubes for shotguns. I suspect the air pistols simply filled any gaps in production capacity; for craftsmen who were used to making fine shotguns for the gentry, an air pistol was a comparatively lowly product.
AA Brown and Sons is still in existence, though none of the founders are with us following Sydney’s passing in 2006. Today, it’s located in Alvechurch, Birmingham and run by Robin Brown, the grandson of Albert – a fourth-generation gunsmith who builds exquisite bespoke shotguns for those who can afford them.
But what of the Abas Major? Well, of the 1,850 examples produced, nobody knows how many have survived to the present day. My guess is probably only a few hundred – of which only a few will be in a condition as good as my stepfather’s boxed example. This one would probably fetch around £1,000 plus commission at auction, not that it’s for sale. Although spares were available for a good many years after production ceased, the dwindling stock was acquired by a savvy collector – and my research suggest that there are a handful of ‘bitzer’ Abas Major pistols put together in the 1960s or 70s.
But there’s one little mystery I still haven’t been able to solve – what shop my stepfather acquired his Abas Major pistol from in 1946, when he went to choose it with his father. He knows it was situated in Steelhouse Lane – and as that’s just 75 yards away from where Sand Street then stood, it was probably hand-delivered from the factory. But what the name of the shop is, my stepfather can’t recall. All he remembers is that it was close to a taxidermy shop called Spicer’s… but that’s another fireside story altogether.