Airgun restoration w/ Phil Hooper

Phil Hooper puts his restorative skills to the test as he sets out to breathe new life into a vintage Webley Mk1 air pistol.

In previous articles we looked at why you might want a vintage Webley air pistol and then how you would go about finding a good one. This time, if your budget hasn’t stretched to buying the best, we consider what is involved in restoring a slightly tatty, post-War .22 Webley Mk1.

The pistol in question was bought from a private online seller and the photos in the advert showed that there were some cosmetic issues including one corner of the right-hand Bakelite grip being broken off, some minor corrosion pitting and some burred screw heads. A phone conversation with the seller confirmed these impressions, but indicated that there was very little mechanical wear, it functioned as it should and fired with “really good power”.

I’d have preferred to have bought it face-to-face, but it was a long way from home and the Covid-19 restrictions that were in place at the time further complicated matters. I negotiated the purchase price down to £95, including postage, and the deal was done. Bearing in mind that prices for a nice one start at about £160, with £220 being typical, I thought I’d done quite well.

It arrived after a few days via Parcelforce Express 48, a legal UK carrier for low-powered airguns, and had been packaged well. Initial checks verified the visual condition except that the corrosion, particularly to the cylinder sides, was much worse than I’d expected. Test firing revealed that there was very little play in the barrel pivot, it cocked with good sear engagement and the trigger pull was fine. Power, however, was pitiful. It threw a pellet down the garden in a graceful arc and now I knew it was time to get to work!

My approach is to sort out mechanical problems first, and only when the pistol is working perfectly do I strip it to embark on sorting out the cosmetic aspects. By doing this, newly refinished parts are not subject to becoming marked if repeated stripping is needed to correct any internal problems. The first step was to clean some light corrosion from the barrel bore with a phosphor bronze brush. Then to lubricate the cylinder internals through the cocking slot, also the linkage and barrel pivot, and fire it again. 

The power was no better. It was evident that the breech end of the barrel was not compressing the breech seal when closed and latched.

The rust pitting was more serious than Phil had expected, having seen the photos in the advert

I removed the grips to avoid any further damage. I then removed the barrel pivot pin and the barrel and linkage. I carefully drifted out the barrel catch retaining pin and slid the barrel catch out, complete with the small coil spring behind it. Doing this makes removing the old breech seal and cleaning out its housing much simpler. I replaced what was probably the original leather seal with a later pattern neoprene seal.

I could probably have fitted a 10 thou card shim behind the original seal, or replaced the seal like-for-like. However, although deviating slightly from the original spec, I find the synthetic seal works and lasts rather better. Refitting the barrel catch and the barrel and linkage assembly, I could now test it again for power.  Pleasingly, it was now delivering good performance at almost 3.5 foot pounds. No further mechanical work was needed!

So it was now onto the dismantling stage, ahead of addressing the visual side of things. The grips were already set aside for later repair to the right-hand one. I partially stripped the pistol, leaving just the trigger guard, trigger and sear still fitted. No spring compressor/sash clamp is needed with these pistols. After removing the barrel and linkage again, the barrel front lug was inserted into the pivot block (cylinder front end plug) and used to provide the leverage necessary to unscrew the plug. 

I’ve never found these to be too tight. When it was held in place by just four or five threads, the barrel ‘Tommy bar’ was removed and the pistol held down firmly onto a small square of carpet tile and the pistol body rotated under body weight until the plug was undone. Reducing the downward pressure allowed the end of the mainspring to come into view.  

Although the mainspring is nowhere near as strong as that in an adult air rifle, care should still be exercised. The end plug and integral mainspring guide were then removed, followed by the mainspring itself. To remove the piston assembly, the trigger was held back to retract the sear and a screwdriver blade was inserted through the cocking slot to coax it out. The spring was nice and straight, and of the correct free length, and the leather piston washer in good condition, consistent with the decent power-check results I’d obtained. 

A pin punch enabled the removal of the trigger assembly cross-pins – it’s easy to damage the surrounding metalwork if not done very carefully

Useful, as the breech seal had only cost £5, but a new mainspring and piston washer would have added £22-£30. Costs so far were therefore just £100 in total with “only” the cosmetic challenges remaining – and very little extra costs likely.

I could have stopped the dismantling process at this point, but I wanted to clean the sear and housing, and remove the tarnish from the trigger. So I drifted out the trigger guard retaining pins, removed the trigger guard, drifted out the trigger and sear pins, and removed both the trigger and sear and their respective coil springs. This was relatively straightforward, except that the cross-pins were unusually tight. 

I needed to use a concave-ended pin punch of exactly the correct diameter (pins are 0.10” diameter) and to tap very hard with a toffee hammer to remove the pins without scarring the exterior surfaces of the trigger housing. This assembly had evidently never been apart before, but it is not unusual to find pistols badly marked in this area – not so this one, fortunately.

So with the pistol now completely dismantled, where to start on the cosmetic work? It had to be the rust pitting, initially the worst being on the right-hand side of the cylinder. Sadly, this was bad to the extent that the maker’s name had been lost. 

Also, either the “Birmingham 4” (indicating 1946-58 manufacture) or the “Birmingham” (1958-64) legend, originally rolled into the cylinder, was just about showing “…ham” so not only do I not know when the pistol was made, it also explains why the seller couldn’t identify this info for me over the phone. 

Also, in attempting to remove the pitting, I would sadly end up losing this lettering altogether, with some possible loss of value to a serious collector. 

Initial, drastic action was needed to combat the disfiguring, deep rust pitting that this little pistol had suffered

Hey ho, it’s just one of those things and desperate times call for desperate measures, so out with the file! The cylinder and trigger housing were stuffed with rags to avoid steel filings getting inside. The forward part of the cylinder was masked off to provide protection and a visual reminder for me to take care.

With the pistol body held securely in the vice, careful filing commenced. Fortunately, the cylinder rear portion is quite thick-walled so that significant material can be abraded without serious implications to the integrity and function of the pistol. 

Much care was needed, but most of the serious pitting was removed and the profile of the cylinder maintained without any flats or hollows resulting. A finer-toothed file, then p120, p320, p600 and p1200 grit emery cloth, followed by 000 grade steel wool, saw the job done, and in the end I was left with a good, bright and even surface finish. 

The other side of the cylinder, which was less badly pitted, and other areas followed. Easily described, but believe me this took quite some time and care to achieve. On the left-hand side of the cylinder I was able to avoid erasing the ‘Webley “Mark 1” Made in England’ and ‘Oil’. This did leave some shallow blemishes that I’d have preferred to have removed, but actually were virtually invisible when the restoration was ultimately completed.

The cylinder front end plug had a nasty ding to the flange edge which was carefully corrected. Initially I thought that much of the barrel exterior, once light surface rusting had been removed with fine steel wool, was quite good. As the barrel is subject to a lot of handling during cocking, the more durable original finish is preferable to cold bluing, whenever that original finish can be salvaged. 

I planned just to blend in some small localised areas, however I later reappraised the situation and decided I would strip and re-blue to achieve a better quality end result. The straight knurled area was prepared using a wire brush with brass bristles, and then steel wool.

The finish in the grip area of the body and frame was mostly in surprisingly good condition. The front and rear lower corners needed some light rust pitting removed and then careful surface preparation before being readied for just localised re-bluing.

In the second part of this article we’ll look at the final preparation and refinishing of the body, cylinder front end plug and barrel. I’ll also explain what was needed on the other small parts and how the Bakelite grip was repaired. Then the finishing touches – and the eventual result! 

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