A radical new arrival

As well as for many cartridge firearms, pressed metal had since the early 1900s been a method of airgun construction for American and German boys’ BB guns. It had also been successfully utilised for more serious air pistols like the British-made Accles & Shelvoke Acvoke of 1946, and the ingenious American Hy-Score, designed by Andrew Lawrence and patented in the UK in 1947. But it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1950s that BSA Guns, then at Shirley, Solihull in Warwickshire, embraced the use of precision presswork and other non-traditional gunmaking methods to keep down manufacturing costs.

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The result was the new BSA Meteor Air Rifle that made its debut in February 1959 as a replacement for the popular break-barrel BSA Cadet and Cadet-Major air rifles which had appeared in December 1945 and April 1946 respectively. All three models are shown, with the Meteor underneath the outgoing Cadet and Cadet-Major. The overall length of the new Meteor (which has since become known as the ‘Mark I’) was 1,041mm (41in), roughly in between the measurements of the Cadet (953mm (371/2in)) and the Cadet-Major (1,067mm (42in)). Initially, the BSA Meteor was only available in No. 1 Bore, or .177 (4.5mm) calibre.

102As a young witness to its arrival, I recall boys and youths of my acquaintance comparing it with the outgoing, very solidly-built Cadet-Major. Indeed, the use of heavy pressings and fabricated parts – which replaced the drop forgings and machined components of the Cadet models – didn’t go down at all well with fans of that series of break-barrels and BSA’s underlever Airsporter. I can remember hearing complaints that even the Meteor’s cocking link was ”just made of heavy folded metal“. Of course, the important economic necessity for this was lost on us – and, as history attests to, the innovative little rifle went on to become a global multi-million seller and influenced many other airgun designs.103

Armed with good promotional literature in the form of a Meteor folder and new booklet, The Air Rifle, BSA extensively advertised their new model. This included a series of half-page advertisements in the popular Meccano Magazine in the June 1959 edition, by which time the rifle had become available in both .177 and .22 (No. 2 Bore). As you can see, an adult shooter is shown using a telescopic sight on his rifle – which would have been a radical departure at that time; airguns hadn’t really been considered ‘worthy’ of scopes up to that point.

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However, BSA’s ground-breaking provision of raised slots on the Meteor’s electro-etched cylinder for firmly mounting an optional telescopic sight tipped the balance for many prospective buyers – and the new Meteor soon found favour among a wide gamut of airgunners. Indeed, sales were such that it began to lead the fi eld where mid-weight air rifl es were concerned, information clearly backed up with facts of BSA’s commercial gun production detailed in the The Golden Century – a fine, historical book by BSA expert, John Knibbs. T105his book also informs us that the plastic telescopic sight shown in their adverts was designed by BSA and produced by another Birmingham firm, Elliott Optical, and was later designated the BSA Mark 1 Telescopic Sight.

Comparison between the Cadet series of rifles and the Meteor revealed that very little of the old… had been inherited by the new. Apart from the common denominator that they were all break-action air rifles, the Meteor was pretty much an altogether entirely new product.

107The only identical feature between the Cadets and the Meteor when it was first introduced was a very minor one – they both shared the same, 34-groove ribbing at the butt. Was this formed on the same stock-making machine? Apart from that, though, the Meteor was ‘new’ all the way. Even when cocked, the way the piston was retained was entirely different from previous BSA models. Rather than a notched piston rod engaging with the trigger sear, the sear engaged directly with a notch in the piston’s body, rather like the Webley air rifle system of the time.

The Meteor advertisement shown in figure 8 ran as a full-page in the November/December 1960 issue of Guns Review – and to aptly suit the Christmas period, it explains that the Meteor was supplied as a complete ready-to-shoot kit, inclusive of pellets, target, target holder and lubricant.

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Casting my mind back to 1959, the power output of the new Meteor seemed substantially higher than the Cadet-Major’s, with the pellets reaching their target noticeably faster (we didn’t have chronos in those days). In defence of the Cadet-Major we tested it against, however, I do recall it was nearly 10 years old at the time – so it would have had a well-worn mainspring. Hardly a fair comparison with the new powerhouse lurking within the shiny new, blued cylinder of the Meteor. However, I concede that the Meteor probably would have been the more powerful rifle in a like-for-like comparison. And the Meteor’s power was gradually increased by BSA as newer versions were introduced in the following years – such that the 7.5ft/ lb muzzle energy of the Mk. I had been revised to a figure in excess of 11ft/lb by the time the Mk.7 had been released. I’m told that BSA’s ‘new Meteor’ – they’re following Apple’s iPad marketing strategy, and not labelling it the ‘Mk. 8’ – retains a healthy output close to the current 12ft/lb legal limit.

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Originally, the first Meteor batches had machine-cut rifling, like their predecessors. But as this was a time-consuming – and therefore expensive – operation, by mid-1959, Meteor barrels had swaged rifling. Even with the time required for stress relieving of the tube, this takes nothing like the time needed to deep-hole drill, ream and then lap a barrel before many passes of the cutter are made. Nonetheless, cold-swaged barrels remain quite an important feature of BSA’s airguns today; they’ve always been of the highest quality and will shoot just as well as a traditional cut-rifled bore in my opinion.

110Later, as another cost-saving exercise, the Meteor had a change to its finish: the chemical blue of the original rifle was altered to black stove enamel, thereby producing both a quite hardy and rust-proof finish. This meant less of the expensive polishing time that’s needed to blue a rifle to a high degree of chemical finish.

Sadly, old air rifle cartons don’t seem to have fared as well as the cardboard boxes of antique and vintage air pistols – perhaps they were too big to store and keep? Even common post-War rifles like the BSA Cadet and Cadet-Major rifles – which have combined sales approaching 225,000 – seldom surface with an accompanying box nowadays. Of course, all collectors know that the correct box drastically increases the value of the gun within – which makes this particular near-mint example of the original Meteor, serial no. N6257, just that little more desirable.

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It’s remained in its original packaging, complete with labelling and pressed paper pulp inserts. Figure 11 shows the serial number stamped underneath the barrel root of the Meteor, which matches the stamped number on the end label of the accompanying box. Next time, I’ll take a more detailed look at the ‘Mark I’ Meteor, along with some of the accessories that were supplied with these iconic rifles to both the public and trade.

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Posted in Air Rifles, Features, Gear

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