Would you want to buy a vintage Webley air pistol? Phil Hooper looks at the reasons to get one and considers the various models on offer.
If you’re already an airgun collector, then you will doubtless have one, or more likely several, old Webley pistols. But if you’re not a collector, why would you want one?
At this point, I should identify which models I’m classifying as ‘vintage’ here. I favour those produced pre-1970 for several reasons, but primarily because they were all-steel construction with a traditional blued finish, which in my book makes them particularly desirable. Principally Mk1, Junior and Senior models, but also early Premiers. So that means a date range of about 46 years from the first Mk1s of 1924.
So, back to why you’d want one of these. First, they ooze quality and were made to perform and to go on performing for a lifetime (sometimes several lifetimes). Secondly, because of the barrel-over-cylinder configuration, they are ‘pistol-sized’, not like, for example, the Original Model 5 of the 1950s to 1970s, which had similar power
and good quality, but was rather large and unwieldy.
Thirdly, at up to 4 ft-lb, they’re relatively powerful and very accurate, ideal for informal target shooting and plinking. It’s particularly satisfying if, with practice, you can outperform a friend who’s using a modern air pistol.
Don’t get me wrong – if you own, for example, a late Premier, Mk2 Junior or Tempest, then they’re worthy pistols that generally function very well. However, unfortunately, the Webley accountants had determined that cost-cutting was necessary for sales to remain profitable.
Machined, solid-steel triggers, sears and barrel catches moved to a more brittle sintered steel – small steel particles, fused under high temperature and pressure – leading to occasional breakages in service. Finishes moved from the traditional bluing of polished steel to a black lacquer and, later still, a black plastic coating. While the latter is possibly more corrosion resistant, it is much less appealing to my – old-fashioned? – eye.
Solid-steel forgings of the pistol frame and cylinder moved to a die-cast, non-ferrous alloy frame with a seamless steel tube cylinder inserted. I’m glossing over the detail here, but you get the picture.
Within my suggested date range, what should you go for? The pre-World War II models made from 1924-35 were of the ‘straight grip’ pattern where the grips were at almost right angles to the barrel. The Mk1, Junior and rarer Mk2 and Senior were all made to this pattern.
These may be considered the most collectable and hence are a little more expensive than later versions, particularly in top condition. The later ‘slant grip’ models, especially those made post-World War II, are generally a bit less expensive and, I find, more pleasant to shoot because of that change of grip angle from 100 to 120 degrees.
Whether the early or the later pattern, which model to go for? If the later version, then the lowest priced will be the Junior, which, despite being smoothbore (.177 only), is still a good performer and is truly compact at 7.75in long and weighing just 24oz.
Webley claimed an accuracy of 1in groups for all pistol models, including the Junior, with a velocity of 290fps at 20ft from the muzzle. Mine (maybe a particularly good one) does 378fps at the muzzle with H&N FTT, which is up there with many much larger pistols of the era.
The next model up, the Mk1, is 8.5in long and weighs 30oz. It came in .177 and .22 with a rifled barrel. It used a leather piston washer, like the Junior, but was more powerful and more accurate over longer distances. It had an adjustable trigger. While the Junior is a little agricultural in its design – the frame is made of malleable cast iron – the Mk1 was, in its day, considered more appealing to the adult purchaser.
Above this in the model line-up was the Senior. This is similar to the Mk1, but with some significant improvements. An additional element in the cocking linkage makes for a longer barrel travel but a rather lighter, more manageable action. Diamond knurling on the (stronger) barrel made for a better grip. The ‘revolver stirrup’ barrel catch is easier to operate.
The rear sight is adjustable for windage as well as elevation. And though not adjustable, the trigger has a different sear design and a smooth action. Internally, the Senior has a phosphor bronze piston ring rather than a leather washer and, as long as this is kept well lubricated, gives rise to a small improvement in power over the Mk1. My own, in .22 calibre, delivers 4 ft-lb and a 355fps muzzle velocity with 14.34 grain, 5.6mm Eley Wasps. The Senior weighs in at just 3oz more than the Mk1.
The Premier (1964 onwards, replacing the Mk1 and Senior) was a bit of a hybrid, utilising the trigger arrangement and initially the leather piston washer of the Mk1, but with most of the other features of the Senior.
The choice of which to buy is a personal one. They’re all great, in my view, and there are plenty out there to choose from via the likes of Guntrader or Gunstar. Prices vary with condition, and examples in their original boxes are, understandably, more expensive. Dealer prices are generally higher than for private sales, with one or two dealers, who will go unnamed, asking silly money.
As a very rough guide, post-World War II unboxed Juniors start at around £85 for a decent example, up to about £190. Good Mk1, Senior and early Premier models start around £160 and rise to about £350 for a mint, boxed specimen.
To put this into perspective, if the Senior was produced today, to exactly the same design, it would probably need to sell for £800-plus to make commercial sense for the manufacturer (though CNC machining would be applied to reduce machining costs).
The frame and cylinder started life as a rough, solid-steel forging weighing more than 3lb and it took around 60 manufacturing operations, including precision boring, drilling, reaming, milling and polishing, to get it down to the finished, intricate, 1.5lb end component. That’s before you consider the barrel, again produced from a single forging, with its hand-cut rifling. Also, all the other components, totalling around 30 parts, and the final, painstaking hand-assembly.
Spares availability for the models described is surprisingly good, with Airgun Spares – John Knibbs providing
a superb mail-order service for top-quality parts, and other suppliers including Chambers Gunmakers. Mainsprings, piston washers, breech seals and many of the screws are readily available as well as many other components.
There are other vintage pistols out there that are comparable with the Webley models covered above. I’m thinking specifically of the Acvoke, made by another Birmingham-based company, Accles & Shelvoke, with concentric barrel and cylinder to enable a similarly compact design with good power and accuracy.
However, scarcity makes these more expensive, spares are largely unavailable, though mainsprings can be modified to suit and some parts improvised, and they are not of quite the same high quality. If performance is less important than aesthetics, then the pre-war Haenel Model 28 is a great looking and beautifully made pistol (I’ve owned two), but the clever Luger-like design cannot be coaxed to produce power beyond the level of a good Webley Junior, I have found.
There are other makes to consider: Diana, EMGE, Hy-Score, Original, Tell, Walther and many others. However, if you’re starting out and looking for a practical, vintage, spring air pistol that won’t cost a fortune, will be a pleasure to own, shoot, tinker with and eventually pass on to a grandson or granddaughter, then an old Webley & Scott could be just the ticket.