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Dr. Robert David Beeman shaped the face of airgunning around the world and gathered an expansive collection of antique air guns from every genre imaginable. Rock Island Auction Company is proud and deeply honored to present an exquisite assemblage of some of his finest antique air guns to the public this May.
Dr. Robert Beeman wore many hats throughout his life, including wildlife researcher, professor, author, entrepreneur, arms collector, and prolific world traveler. Founder of Beeman Precision Airguns, the first modern American company to significantly develop a market for adult air guns, Robert Beeman influenced countless firearm fans through his writings in the ‘Blue Book of Airguns’ series, ‘Airgun Digest,’ and his company’s numerous catalog releases.
Instead of powering their projectile with the gas generated by an explosion of gunpowder, air guns used gas confined under pressure and then suddenly released. Antique air gun systems had several advantages over conventional black powder firearms, including less noise, less fouling, a quicker reload, a more reliable "ignition," little recoil, a system that was less impacted by rain and moisture, and a firearm that didn’t generate obstructing smoke. The Robert Beeman Collection encompasses a profound variety of air gun styles and mechanisms produced between the 17th century and the late 19th century.
The air gun selections featured below represent a small sample of the rarity, history, and condition on display in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 2023 Premier Firearms Auction. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each fantastic firearm.
Dr. Robert Beeman had a particular fascination with the Girardoni repeating air gun system (also spelled "Girandoni) and dedicated significant research toward the most legendary air gun in American history, the pneumatic air rifle carried by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 1803-06 expedition from the Missouri River west to the Pacific Ocean. RIAC's May Premier Auction offers three distinct Girardoni styles.
In the late 1770s, Tyrolean master gunsmith Bartolomeo Girardoni first developed his repeating air gun system. Though primarily designed for the sporting market, the Austrian sharpshooters adopted the air gun for military service from 1787 to 1815. Girardoni's design was widely copied, like the fine air rifle below produced by J.B. Missillieur of Vienna, Austria.
Our next rare air gun demonstrates the versatility of the Girardoni system. This superbly crafted, gold-plated and silver inlaid pistol is signed “Girandony,” a spelling that was used by the Girardoni family. Dr. Robert Beeman suggested that the pistol was built as a demonstration specimen of the Girardoni rapid-loading repeater air gun mechanism for a wealthy patron, perhaps the Austrian emperor Joseph II. The pistol’s “JC” inscription indicates that the gun might have been manufactured by Bartolomeo's son, Johann.
When examining antique air gun mechanisms that used a pneumatic design, long guns are dramatically more common than pistols due in part to an air pistol’s more limited reservoir. Dr. Robert Beeman’s air gun collection contains air pistol examples using several different reservoir systems, including an early 18th century German air pistol with a concealed grip reservoir that could be unscrewed and detached for refilling. It was manufactured by Frantz Heintz, a gunsmith from Sternberg, who was active between circa 1690-1730.
This Frantz-Heintz concealed grip reservoir pistol was among the limited number of high-quality air pistols crafted during the early 18th century, serving as an advanced piece of technology for the era.
One of the most unique pieces in the Dr. Robert Beeman air gun collection, this impressive Nicolas Bouillet repeating air pistol has a tube magazine located beneath the barrel, a ball-shaped grip air reservoir, and a trigger that flips out automatically upon pulling the hammer back to the full cock position. The pistol loads out of the tube magazine by pulling a lever down that is located on the left beneath the breech and pushing up on a spring loading button found on the bottom of the magazine tube, similar in concept to the famous Henry rifle.
Powered by a detachable ball-shaped reservoir of compressed air, the ball reservoir air gun was often filled using a stirrup pump. Ball reservoir air guns were popular from about 1730 to the early 1800s and produced by some of the finest German and English makers. Each ball reservoir could offer between ten to twenty shots, depending on size. They were crafted of copper, brass, or steel, and examples of each can be found in the Dr. Robert Beeman collection.
Another standout from RIAC’s May Premier, the exact ball reservoir pistol below is pictured and described on page 169 of Dr. Robert Beeman's ‘Blue Book of Airguns, Thirteenth Edition.’ The smoothbore screw barrel is able to be loaded from the breech end with .33 caliber lead balls.
While most ball reservoirs are fitted beneath the gun, the next example features a configuration fitted above the action, in this case a large brass ball reservoir located on the lockplate placed off center of the line of sight. This smoothbore German muzzleloading air gun dates to circa 1760 and demonstrates the wide breadth of styles and eras covered in Robert Beeman's expansive collection of antique air guns.
In the case of many ball reservoir guns and other pneumatic antique air gun types, a flintlock-style mechanism was included so shooters would have an action that resembled something they were used to firing. The hammer serves to cock the gun and the “frizzen” in some ball reservoir models serves as a handle to turn the internal breech which feeds lead balls from a magazine hidden beneath the barrel.
Some of history’s finest gunmakers, including Johann Kuchenreuter of Germany and Edward Bate of England were proud to put their talent to work on barrel reservoir air guns. In this style, the outer housing consists of an air reservoir located beside, above, or surrounding the barrel. In the case of the large caliber, Edward Bate repeating air gun below, a pump is built in that can be accessed through a small rotating door located on the buttplate, and a rod pulls out of the buttstock for pumping air.
Dr. Robert Beeman’s fondness for the superb craftsmanship of Edward Bate continues with this .50 caliber barrel reservoir muzzleloading air gun. A pump (not included) connects to a threaded port accessed through a small rotating door located on the buttplate. Antique air guns of this style were used primarily for hunting.
Our next eye-catching air gun comes from the capable hands of German gunmaker Johann Joseph Futter who was active from 1754 to 1779. Futter was among the select few gunmakers who produced high-quality air pistols in the region. The example below features a flat beveled step-tailed iron lock signed “FUTTER A DRESSDEN” and is another fine example of the classic craftsmanship that accentuates the Dr. Robert Beeman air gun collection.
Stock reservoir air guns comprise any pneumatic system where the air reservoir is included as a detachable butt which is removed from the gun and pumped up to pressure using a stirrup pump. Though the Girardoni is perhaps the most famous type of stock reservoir air gun, the system was produced in numerous styles such as the muzzleloading iron stock reservoir air gun below that dates to the late 1700s.
Next up, we have a unique stock reservoir air rifle from London gunmaker Edward James Bond that employs a rotating faucet breech to load from the top. The game scene engraving speaks both to the weapon’s intention as a hunting arm as well as the wealth and status of its owner. As is the case with this leather-wrapped example, many stock reservoirs were covered to make them easier to handle in cold weather.
Since the invention of matchlocks, clever gunsmiths have experimented with all manner of ingenious ways to get multiple shots out of a firearm. Because air guns held a considerable amount of charge in their reservoirs they lended themselves particularly well to experiments with repeating systems. The fascinating stock reservoir repeating air rifle below was created by 19th century Scottish gunmaker Charles “Old Charley” Ingram, who was also an accomplished marksman and a sergeant in the 1st Lanarkshire Volunteer Rifles. The rifle employs a 7-shot revolving cylinder that is loaded from a gate on the left of the breech.
The bellows air gun system appeared in the late 18th century and was powered by a pair of conical leather bellows hidden within their hollowed-out wooden buttstock. The bellows are forced open against the pressure of one or two V-springs, this being accomplished by means of a removable crank. When fired, the air compressed by the sudden closing of the bellows propels the projectile out through the barrel.
Dr. Robert Beeman speculated that the bellows air guns were styled as nostalgic replicas of wheellock firearms from the 1600s. The example below certainly shares a similar silhouette with its Germanic wheellock predecessors and features aesthetically comparable floral relief carvings and ornate brass inlays and furniture. The bellows were primarily used for indoor target shooting, more often loaded with wax bullets or reusable darts than conventional lead balls.
Crank wound weapons used a spring, piston, and cylinder setup that’s still present in many modern air gun systems today. Where the crank on a bellows opens up the bellows within the gun, a crank wound air gun is powered by a spring-loaded piston of sorts under pressure that powers the shot. To cock, or compress the mainspring, it was necessary to fit the crank into an aperture on the air gun and turn or wind the handle several times. The crank was typically removed before discharging the weapon.
The New York manufactured example above demonstrates that these European-born crank handle air guns were eventually produced across the pond as well. As with other air gun genres, crank wound guns could be quite ornate and equally expensive to produce, which proved to be one of the platform’s greatest obstacles toward widespread adoption.
Like with the bellows system, the crank wound air gun was used primarily for indoor gallery shooting. Though firing at velocities as low as 350 feet per second, examples like this extremely rare pistol variant below could be fairly accurate and were more than capable of entertaining a group of gentlemen testing their shooting prowess.
While Dr. Beeman originally specialized in large bore antique air guns, his collection broadened to encompass the expansive diversity found within the genre, including the previously mentioned bellows and crank wound systems. Side lever air guns were another variant of the low-velocity gallery gun concept developed in the 19th century. Under this system, a side-mounted lever is pulled back for cocking in order to fill the cylinder reservoir, and upon pulling the trigger the spring-loaded piston releases.
Side lever air guns were chambered in small calibers, like the .22 caliber example above and the .28 caliber offering below. Of the several antique gallery gun styles featured in the Dr. Robert Beeman Collection, the spring action side lever system will be most familiar to fans of contemporary air guns.
In 1872, French engineer Paul Giffard patented an air gun design that used removable cartridges containing compressed and liquefied gas. The patent covered several of Giffard's ideas, including a design with a large-capacity reservoir that allowed multiple shots from a single propellant cartridge. Giffard adopted compressed CO2 in the late 1880s, resulting in air guns that could fire between 40 to 60 shots. These guns were first produced by French arms maker Manufacture Francais d’Armes et Cycles de St. Etienne from 1890 to 1894.
Giffard Patent air guns produced by Manufacture Francaise d’Armes et Cycles de Saint Etienne were offered in 4.5mm, 6mm, and 8mm calibers and included smoothbore, rifle, and pistol variants. These guns featured a cylindrical steel reservoir pressurized to 4,000 p.s.i. An adjustable hammer stop could regulate the duration the reservoir remained open, allowing for longer, more powerful shots that used more gas.
In 1894, Paul Giffard organized the Giffard Gun and Ordnance Co. in London, England. An improved CO2 air gun was manufactured using a lever-action hammerless design that featured an octagonal barrel and a counter for tracking gas usage. Some military and conventional arms manufacturers of the late 19th century took great interest in Giffard’s CO2 air guns and studied their potential in warfare. Though Paul Giffard’s concepts were never adopted for military use, his ideas have gone on to find success with some modern air gun manufacturers such as Crosman and Daisy.
As Dr. Robert Beeman traveled the world building arguably the most expansive antique air collection around, he encountered a number of rarities and one-of-a-kind prototypes in the genre, like this 19th century underbarrel reservoir air gun by J.T. Grahnholm, a gunmaker from Stockholm, Sweden who operated in the mid-19th century. The weapon loads from the breech end with a flip-up breech lever that releases with a button catch visible ahead of the stock comb.
Another noteworthy air gun prototype, this pistol was designed by Edward Lindner and covered under U.S. patent number 37,173 granted on December 16th, 1862. Inventor Edward Lindner is better known to the U.S. martial arms collecting community in relation to his invention of a breech-loading percussion system seen in Civil War carbines and long arms. In the patent text for this air pistol, Edward Lindner states, “My invention consists in the formation of a lever constructed conformably in shape with the handle or stock of the gun or pistol, and in so arranging and combining with it a piston and spring as to compress the latter by direct action on the piston-rod...” and further goes on to describe detailed features of the gun notably including an India-rubber ring for an air-tight joint between the breech of the barrel and face of the air cylinder.
A true gentleman collector, Dr. Robert Beeman was an outstanding curator with an eye for the highest quality examples in the air gun genre. Anyone who enjoys art, engineering, craftsmanship, history, and the evolution of technology through the centuries will find something to enjoy in this exceptional arms collection.
As the world’s number one gun auction house since 2003, Rock Island Auction Company has featured some of the most desirable collections in the fine arms pursuit. May’s fantastic lineup includes offerings from the Greg Lampe Collection, the Tom Selleck Collection, the Jim Supica Collection, and more.
From impeccable condition Civil War guns like this fluted Colt Model 1860 Army to pepperbox pistols, derringers, and Bowie knives, the Greg Lampe Collection has it all.
The finest collections are featured at RIAC, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos on celebrated names like Joe Wanenmacher, George Moller, and Hank Williams Jr.
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