The Webley Service Air Rifle is a much-loved piece of airgun history, but Jonathan Young ends up with an example that’s been loved a bit too much.
Collectors love the Webley Service and seek out the best examples they can, often paying vast sums of money for them. Those in original wood cases accompanied by their accessories can make serious money. But some of us have to make do with fixer-uppers!
These classics are very usable airguns, and even a weary example is worth having. People appreciate them because they are original take-down rifles with removable barrels. The Service makes a wonderful garden plinker and can be used in vintage springer events and bell target shooting.
The Service lasted for less than a decade due to the Second World War, but developed a number of series changes. Compare it to a Webley air pistol and you’ll get some idea where the inspiration for the design came from.
Here’s a rather weary Series III from the latter end of the 1930s that arrived in need of some intense TLC. This one had a .22 barrel, which on this later version is removed by the neat push-button cradle release.
It has a flip-up peep sight as with all the others, but on the Series III this was recessed centrally for its protection. The fullbore-style bolt handle is connected to a rotating collar, which locks over the barrel, and being threaded pulls the barrel face back onto the breech seal, giving a great seal. On firing, the air rushes back to the trigger block and then turns back on itself through the breech.
As with many Service rifles, small parts go walkies and the safety sear on this had been in part knocked clean off! This is simply a small sprung rocker bar held between two side posts on the cylinder under the barrel, which drops down when the barrel is lifted.
The finish had gone walkies too, but without any rust, so someone had cleaned it bright at some time. The bolt handle had lost its ball end. The folding peep sight frame had lost the internal slider, screw and eyepiece. It was low on power. A peashooter from the front cover of a kid’s comic would have been pokier. Still, this was at least in working order.
The ball was an easier fix for a colleague, who made one on a lathe. The peep sight parts are a fiddle to replace, and are expensive and time-consuming to make, so that’ll be for another day. This unit still had the mid-section rear sight, so there was no need to worry about this for now.
The decision was made to refinish it as there was no original finish left. After a scrub down it was degreased chemically. A modeller’s or artist’s paintbrush and a clean toothbrush are both useful for getting into nooks and crannies.
Bear in mind that small bristles can throw liquid in all directions, so always wear safety goggles when handling any chemicals. Some old artist’s haematite solution was applied and two coats left the Service with a nice vintage worn brown patina. This finish suits the weary gun perfectly, especially as it’s not a bling blue restoration, so I have no complaints there.
The Service has a leather breech seal, replaced here with a recent poly substitute, making the barrel’s sealing tighter than a duck’s posterior. Unbelievably there is no leather piston seal inside – instead a bronze ring fits around the piston head and sits in a shallow machined recess.
This is a split ring and it rides up and down the cylinder tube, creating the air seal. It’s still available from specialist suppliers, and as it is in bronze it does not damage the inner surface of the compression chamber.
The Service is relatively easy to get into, so it was time to look inside. The large pivot pin to the front of the cylinder is simply drifted out. Originally a tiny grub screw, missing on this gun, would have locked it mid-centre from the front, preventing loss.
The end plug now needs to be unscrewed with care, but it is an awkward shape. A plastic block was wedged in a vice and the action was placed down onto this. Using it as a stop, the action was unscrewed slowly against this and braced for final release as the threads ended. This particular spring still had some poke in it, but all came apart easily enough.
The piston came out after a bit of a struggle, though, as the metal ring seal was snagging on the freshly exposed cylinder threads.
The seal is a split ring that pulls easily over the piston top. It was actually in good condition, and just a little worn. Some PTFE tape was wound around the recess to take up any slack before the ring was fitted back, making it a snugger fit against the cylinder walls.
The interior was deep cleaned with some meths-soaked rags on a rod twisted back and forth to scrub the compression area clean of any grease. Refitting the Service together, the piston seal needed to be squeezed down hard to get it and the piston beyond those sharp threads on the cylinder walls. The original mainspring was good enough to be reused and everything went back together easily.
Later, the gun was test-fired to settle everything. The Service was chronoed and showed a little improvement, with a lot of noise. So it was time for another quick strip down, some more PTFE and a different, but almost identical, spring. After about 50 pellets through it the chrono reported a superb and workable 7-8 foot pounds, with some small further gains depending on the pellet used. Time to put this old girl back into service.