Looking back at classic BSA air rifles

Phil Hooper takes a look at some of the classic BSA air rifles dating from 1904 to the outbreak of the Second World War

This Lincoln Jeffries-inspired BSA Improved Model ‘D’ of around 1912 is exceptionally well made and is a delight to shoot with excellent accuracy

BSA are really well known amongst the airgun community for their high-grade PCPs, manufactured in Birmingham, and good value spring and gas-ram air rifles made by Gamo, their Spanish parent company since 1986. 

They have numerous UK and overseas competitors – different from the market domination that this company had enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century.

Let’s rewind and take a look at a potted history of BSA before later, in subsequent articles, I’ll home in on their air rifles from the 1940s to the 1960s. I actually have a close interest in BSA, having owned numerous models manufactured from 1906 onwards, some of which I’ll later comment on individually.

I would recommend reading two excellent books for those who wish to explore further the history of commercial arms production by BSA, both by John Knibbs and entitled “Lincoln Jeffries & BSA Air Rifles” and “The Golden Century”.  I have referenced both.

The origins of BSA (The Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd.) date back to 1861 and their brand new factory at Small Heath, Birmingham, a small corner of which they still occupy to this day. I have visited this historic site several times: in 1969, 1987 and 2006. 

My first visit was in connection with a university project on the BSA Snipe, a budget-priced single-barrel 12 bore shotgun. It featured a diecast zinc alloy action body. Novel, as also were many of their airgun designs, but with heavy use not as durable as they had intended and not well balanced.

At the outset BSA focused on military small arms contracts, but by 1904 they wished to diversify. Their intention was to reduce their dependence on these lucrative, but intermittent government contracts and to sell into the wider, commercial market. 

The approach to the BSA board by gun maker and inventor George Lincoln Jeffries at that time resulted in an opportunity to manufacture his innovative, fixed-barrel, tap-loading, underlever air rifle. 

This product was marketed by Lincoln Jeffries and BSA themselves. With an established brand, strong market presence, greater advertising budget and a national distribution network (including cycle shops) BSA’s sales predominated.

They sold very similar air rifles, with only evolutionary improvements, up until 1939. 

The tap-loading concept is thought to have been inspired by the gas tap, used for gas appliance isolation, examples of which were manufactured in premises very close to those of Lincoln Jeffries. His tap design, when made with the degree of precision needed for exact pellet alignment, and lapped-in for an air-tight fit, was very effective.

Break-barrel rifles of the time were often prone to leakage at the breech seal (no synthetic seals, just leather) and barrel pivots that could wear loose, leading to poor accuracy. 

The fixed-barrel, tap-loading arrangement now allowed air rifles to be taken more seriously by the discerning shooter. The rifles were made in .177 for target shooting, and in .22 (5.6mm) and .25 calibre for vermin control and small game. 

Before WWII, shooting practice was encouraged within the civilian population and a popular pastime with many active clubs. Air rifles enabled this with pellets costing less than .22 LR rounds. 

The BSA air rifles themselves were extremely accurate, particularly in comparison with most alternatives from other manufacturers of that era.

Wasp pellets from the pre-WWII era – probably amongst the best available at that time, but not produced to today’s quality standards

Competitions took place, standing, at ranges out to 50 yards and even using the only sights available at the time (open and aperture) and with the unsophisticated triggers of that period, impressive groups were obtained, even by today’s standards.

Top marksmen achieved single-hole groups at 10 yards and occasionally groups small enough to be covered by an old penny at 50 yards.  

Probably the only other contemporary air rifle of comparable quality and performance was the excellent,
but much more complex and expensive to make, Webley Service Mk2 of the 1930s. 

In the period we’re considering up to the 1960s, BSA also produced an extensive range of commercial firearms including .22 LR sporting and target rifles. 

The BSA Martini International dominated smallbore target shooting at 25, 50 and 100 yards for many years (I used its predecessor, the 12/15 model, bought second-hand from the NSRA). They also made a range of centrefire hunting rifles in numerous calibres, and various shotguns. However, I won’t dwell further on these products as my primary focus here is, of course, the company’s air rifles. 

I owned an early BSA L-J pattern underlever air rifle in .177 for many years. It was an Improved Model ‘D’ Standard pattern, a volume-produced model, in very good condition. 

Strangely, its serial number dated it to 1906 but some of the other markings, and the side-button underlever release catch, suggested circa 1912. It is known that BSA sometimes uncovered unused, obsolete components in their stores and utilised them in later production. 

On showing my rifle to BSA guru John Knibbs in 1990, it was thought this was a possibility for mine. That, or someone had taken two damaged rifles and created one good one out of them!  I prefer the former explanation, but either way it was great to shoot.

I fitted a new leather piston washer and twin, opposite-wound, flat steel section mainsprings (correct specification and making for a very smooth cocking and firing cycle). 

Once used to the muzzle-heavy balance, and to gripping “ironmongery” rather than a wooden forend, I was able to shoot 1” groups, unrested at 30 yards. It gave a very consistent muzzle energy of around 7.7 ft-lb at 688 fps with Eley Wasps.  

These L-J pattern rifles featured barrels that were painstakingly produced to exacting standards. The forging, which included the breech portion into which the loading tap aperture would be machined, was deep-drilled after which the barrel was straightened (“set”). 

It was turned on a lathe so the tapered surface was concentric with the bore and set again. Next, it was reamed and spill-bored to an exact size and polished finish. The rifling was cut via repeated application of a single cutter until the correct depth of each groove in turn was achieved.

Next, the bore was lead-lapped to ensure final and tight tolerances were met, enabling a near perfect end result. This level of precision translated into an accuracy potential limited only by the user-interface factors already mentioned, and the limitations of the pellets of the day.

There were numerous versions of these fine rifles created including Junior, Juvenile, Light/Ladies, Standard/Ordinary, Club, Sporting, as well as the very different looking Military pattern.

The Webley Mk3 and Original Model 50 followed the underlever, tap-loading configuration for several decades after BSA had moved on

The larger models in .22 calibre had a reputation for their high power, in addition to the accuracy capability mentioned above, and their cylinder dimensions would suggest muzzle energy levels around 11 ft-lb were achievable. 

Spanning over 30 years of production, BSA enjoyed some very significant sales volumes and presumably respectable profits. It is thought that Lincoln Jeffries signed over his patents to BSA in 1912, possibly to offset some of his business debts. 

He seems perhaps not to have derived the financial rewards that his inventive genius merited.

Whilst BSA deviated from the early underlever arrangement in the post-WWII Airsporter models, some major manufacturers continued with the earlier format for several decades, albeit with wooden forends for an easier hold. The Webley Mk3 and Original Model 50 were particularly successful examples.

There were .177 “Breakdown Pattern” (break-barrel) BSA rifles available from 1933 as a response to lower cost imports, particularly from Germany. These rifles were once again made to a very high standard, with a strong family resemblance to the underlever models and sharing some components.

This advert heralded the first all-new models following WWII – these will be covered in detail in Phil’s next article

As WWII ended, BSA reviewed their potential product offerings for the domestic and overseas markets. 

There were insufficient components still available to build complete air rifles to the pre-war designs, and much of the tooling had been damaged or lost during the war, so much so that a “clean sheet” approach was necessary. 

The old fashioned, un-ergonomic designs would probably not have found favour and so new models were developed, initially in the form of the break-barrel BSA Cadet announced at the end of 1945. 

This was followed by the Cadet Major in April 1946 and the flagship Club/Airsporter model, which was a radical and brand new design, in August 1948.

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