Buying advice for vintage air pistols

You’ve decided to grab a vintage Webley & Scott air pistol, and Phil Hooper has some advice to make sure yours is decent, not a dud.

If my previous article managed to convince you that you can’t call yourself a true enthusiast without owning the important piece of airgunning history that is a vintage Webley air pistol, then read on to make sure you buy a good one!

A bit like purchasing a classic car (if only!) it pays to buy the best you can afford. However, if your budget doesn’t stretch to the best, even a slightly tatty example can usually be made to perform well.

Much of the advice offered applies whether seeking a post-war (late 1940s, 50s or 60s) Junior, Mk1, Senior or early Premier, so that coverage for all of these is included under the three headings below.

Remember to check the pistol is not cocked and has no pellet in the barrel before carrying out any inspection.

Cosmetic

Firstly, is it a boxed example that you’re considering? If so, is it a genuine, original box or a reproduction, some of which are very convincing? Also, does it have the right labels for the age of the pistol?  I’ve spotted two adverts online, from the same dealer, stating that both pistols are in their original boxes when, in fact, neither are. You need to do your homework and I would recommend investing in the book Webley Air Pistols by Gordon Bruce.

Is coming in its original box a good thing? Yes, of course, but there is a downside. The original cardboard can hold moisture and cause rust pitting where the pistol touches it. I’ve come across pistols where the upper side is in mint condition, but lifting it from its box reveals horrors on the underside. Corrosion-inhibiting paper between the cardboard and pistol would have prevented this damage.

The address rolled into the cylinder of the pistol will help determine its age. A “Birmingham 4” address will, for a post-war pistol, point to production between 1946 and 1958, while just “Birmingham” will indicate 1958 onwards. Both the box outer label, and instruction label inside the lid, should show “Birmingham 4” or “Birmingham 21” respectively.

Here’s a serious case of “Webley box disease” on a Mk1 where corrosion and pitting reduce the pistol’s value, although they won’t affect its performance
These grips are made of Bakelite and the right-hand one has a broken corner, which unfortunately is not unusual

Take a close look at the grips. On the age range we are considering here, all are made of Bakelite rather than the pressed steel, walnut or Vulcanite of pre-war models. Check for chips, hairline cracks and damage caused by careless tightening of the grip screws. 

It is common for the corner of the grip to break off across the location lug at the bottom rear corner. It is very hard to do an invisible repair and only some grips are available as replacements. Airgunspares – John Knibbs is a potential source of genuine and reproduction (resin) grips, as well as many other parts.

When checking the condition of the blued finish to the steelwork, there is no substitute to viewing in strong daylight, ideally in the sun which enables every surface blemish or hint of rust discolouration to be seen. The condition of the screw heads can be an indication of how the pistol has been treated.

he barrel on this Junior has been released to check for side play – it’s minimal, with no damage to the breech jaws

On other pistols than the Junior, also check the rear-of-cylinder slotted plug. There is a rolled-in instruction “Do Not Remove”, but I’d say that half of the pistols you’ll encounter will have the slot disfigured where someone has tried to unscrew this plug, which is actually pegged in place to prevent its removal. 

Check all surfaces for possible vice jaw marks. Also check around the trigger housing where the cross-pins may have been tapped back in without the careful use of a pin punch, again spoiling the polished, blued finish. Inspect the front and rear sights for damage too.

Factory batch numbers, either three- or four-digit, should match. These are found on the barrel pivot block, on the frame under the left-hand grip and sometimes on one face of the barrel catch, as well as in other hidden locations.

Mechanical

Unlatch the barrel and raise just above the breech block. Check for lateral play by moving the breech end of the barrel side to side. 

Ideally, there should be no free movement. If 3mm or more, then there is wear to the barrel pivot screw, barrel lug or pivot block, and this is hard to correct as replacing the pivot screw seldom resolves the problem. This can eventually cause deformation to the breech jaws as the barrel is repeatedly closed back onto the breech block edges. 

This, in turn, can make it hard to remove the barrel catch, particularly on the Junior and Mk1.

The manufacturing batch number on this Webley Junior is located on the pivot block of the pistol

On these models, check the barrel catch itself. It should slide fore and aft only, not rock up and down which would indicate wear to, or the breakage of, the small front lugs underneath – a serious fault. If the screw thread in the pivot block is stripped, then for the Senior, Mk1 and Premier, although a serious fault, the keeper screw will still secure the pivot screw. However, on the Junior, which doesn’t have a keeper screw, the problem is even more serious and you should seek another pistol. 

Next, check the condition of the muzzle end of the barrel as damage here can affect accuracy, and then the barrel bore (Juniors of this era being smoothbore, the others rifled) which should be bright and free from corrosion. Mk1s in .22 have barrels that are thinner-walled than the Senior and can bend if abused, so check carefully. 

Take a look at the breech seal, which should be under slight compression when the barrel is closed. Most of the models in our date range should have a leather seal with a brass insert. Later models took a neoprene seal which is easier to fit and can be used on all models if originality isn’t too important to you. Breech seals are more easily replaced if the barrel catch is removed. For the Junior and Mk1, this first involves very carefully drifting out a 1/16th inch cross-pin.

Cock the pistol and ensure that there is good sear engagement. If a pistol has a very light trigger pull then beware. If it is a Mk1 or Premier, then loosen the locking screw and rotate the trigger pull adjusting screw anticlockwise by several turns. If the trigger is still too light then, unless there is a build-up of old grease, it suggests the sear is worn – a fault which may well not be easily fixed. 

If excessive force is needed to get the sear to catch when cocking, then this can point to wear or stretch in the cocking linkage. There are some tricks which can be employed to compensate for this, but unless you are particularly skilled I’d go and find a better, less worn example – there are plenty of good ones out there.

Cocking the pistol, you’ll be able to assess the smoothness of the action and strength of the mainspring. The Senior and Premier will be easier to cock because of the improved linkage and longer barrel travel.

Performance

The cocking action, sear engagement and wear of the barrel pivot area, plus the breech area, should have all been thoroughly checked as described above, so this leaves the firing of the pistol as the next stage.

Ideally, you’ll check the muzzle velocity through a chronograph. With average weight pellets the muzzle velocity should be between 320 and 400 feet per second, the lower-end figure for the Junior and all .22 models, the upper for .177 models other than the Junior. 

An alternative is, with care and wearing eye protection, to check the degree to which a pellet is flattened when fired into a flat-backed steel target holder at close range.  Even the Junior should do more than just flattening the pellet head, all others whether .177 or .22 should result in a pellet with its maximum diameter increased to around 9 or 10mm.

Don’t necessarily rule out a pistol where the performance is weak, as there are generally just three main causes apart from inadequate lubrication, all of which can, at a price, be fixed. 

The usual culprit is a defective breech seal (£5 in neoprene or £6.50 leather/brass), mainspring (£10 – £19), piston seal (around £12 for a leather seal in most models, £24 for a phosphor bronze piston ring for a Senior), or a combination. The price for the pistol may be negotiated down accordingly. 

You’ll need to have some skills, but very little specialist equipment, to replace the parts mentioned. In most cases power can be brought up to that when the pistol was new.   

It is hard to check the accuracy effectively in a brief “road test”, but do your best and, if all of the other check results have been satisfactory, go ahead and buy yourself that pistol! 


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