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Heilprin Columbian impressive wallhanger.

Here is a BB gun few people have seen. The Heilprin Columbian Model E lever action BB gun was made from 1914 to 1920 and, according to the Blue Book of Airguns, maybe 50 or so survive. I know I've only seen one or two at airgun shows over the past couple decades. So, when this one came up on Gun Broker, I bid on it and won it. I don't think there were any other bidders. I think they stayed away because they didn't know what it is and they didn't have the library to look it up.

The maker, Heilprin, made an earlier Model M (1910-1914) that I have seen more often at airgun shows. Dr. Arni Dunathan, who wrote the book, The American B.B Gun, says it's rarer than the gun I'm reviewing for you here, but for some reason, there seem to be more of them around.

Both guns are 1000-shot BB repeaters. That's very high-tech for their timeframe. BB repeaters weren't that common back then. Most BB guns then were loaded through the muzzle with one BB at a time. Little boys on expeditions carried a reserve of lead BBs in their mouths, ready to spit the next one into the gun when necessary. Imagine the uproar that would cause today!

A Little Heilprin History

William Heilprin of Philadelphia was a businessman who probably was the money behind the guns that Elmer Baily invented. He was apparently from a prominent Jewish family and a member of the Franklin Institute. Heilprin BB guns are the ones that have the cast iron frames with intricate scrollwork and animal figures cast into the I receivers. They often have remarkable figured f wood stocks that convey a sense of value not seen today. More on the stocks in a moment.


The BB gun we are examining in this article is small. It's about the size of a Daisy 105, which is a small youth-sized BB gun that's even smaller than the Red Ryder we are all familiar with, It's nickel-plated over the entire surface and has a wooden buttstock. The length is 33 1/2-inches and the weight is just 2 lbs. 5 oz.

The finger lever is quite small and obviously sized for young hands. It's painful for an adult hand to try to hold the rifle by grabbing through the lever The only comfortable way to hold it is to wrap your hand around the outside of the lever. Also, the trigger guard is so small there isn't much room for your finger.

The gun is made from sheet metal, and is nickel-plated all over. It looks striking today, but in 1914 bright nickel was a common finish for a BB gun. We see this in Quackenbush pellet guns and European Gem guns.

One additional word about Heilprin BB guns is warranted. I have seen some of them with highly-figured walnut that would be thousand-dollar wood on a shotgun. Apparently such wood was plentiful in the late 1800s, if a product as cheap as a BB gun could use it.

The gun loads through a hole in the side of the barrel, just forward of the receiver. A sliding cover goes forward to expose the hole for loading, then slides back to keep BBs from falling out. This cover is held in place by friction and appears to be made of spring steel.

Sheet Metal Fabrication

The entire gun is a study in the evolution of sheet metal fabrication. If you examine it carefully, you see holes punched in various places to stiffen the parts. There are also depressions punched into the metal that obviously hold internal parts in place. There is even one primitive rivet peeking out from the inside, where it must hold something critical in place.

The receiver of the gun is made in two half-sections that are stamped shells, rather than being folded around a mandrel in a single piece as some Daisy BB gun receivers were. At the join where the halves come together the receiver seam is open, top and bottom, allowing a peek at the mechanism inside.

In 1913, Daisy perfected a method of welding thin sheet metal so they could make their BB guns air-tight, but this gun doesn't show that. I can see a sheet metal tube inside the two receiver halves that has to serve as the compression chamber. Since the outside of the gun cannot be sealed air-tight, the engineers did what was necessary to make it work.

Above the receiver at the top of the wrist is a sheet metal button that must be depressed for the trigger to work. It's identical in function to the thumb safety that Sheridan would use in the 1950s, only on this gun I find it a little easier to reach. Perhaps that's because of the small overall size of the gun? I don't know, but it is an interesting look into the evolution of airguns.

According to the Blue Book, the Model E is a true BB caliber, which would be .173". I had my doubts because of when it was made. Daisy didn't get into the steel BB business before 1920, and I thought the date was after 1925. This gun wasn't made that late. So I guessed this was really made for Air Rifle Shot that is lead and measures .175".

I took my time examining the gun before I dared to cock it the first time, because I was trying to figure it out. And I oiled the barrel to soften the leather seal that's no doubt inside.

Loading Failed

I then put a couple .174" (4.4mm) lead balls into the BB magazine, and tried shooting, but they didn't feed. I imagine the inside of this gun is jammed by many decades of neglect. Next I tried the same thing with smaller steel BBs and got the same result. Something isn't right inside.

But when I dropped a modern steel BB down the muzzle, it stuck tightly in the bore. Not knowing any better, I cocked and fired the gun and the BB came out weakly--maybe 50 fps or so. I figured the BB wasn't as far down the barrel as it was supposed to be, so I put in a second one and rammed it in harder. Sure enough, it did go in much deeper, but there was certainly a lot of resistance. It appears the bore size in the Blue Book is given correctly.

Shoot It

With a BB in the breech, I tried shooting it, but nothing came out. Now there is a BB stuck in the bore and this old gun may not function like it's supposed to.

Metal Art

A BB gun as rare as this is an investment. There are a limited number of serious collectors in the world, but it's a safe bet there are more of them than examples of this gun. So I should be able to recover the money I spent when I finish with it--if I want to.

This gun is so unique I am thinking of making it a wall-hanger conversation piece. I can see it on a green felt background on the wall of my man cave.

That's the thing with unusual airguns like this one. They are desirable for a number of different reasons, and your money is usually very safe. Buy them right like I did and you can even make money.

You might not be familiar with a gun like this, but if I said you could buy an Air Venturi Bronco that's like new in the box for $50 or an excellent FWB 124 deluxe for $200, would you do it? You would make money on both those deals, almost guaranteed!

Continue the March

I will also continue to try non-destructive things to see whether I can "awaken" the action. At some point I may delve into the innards, or more likely I will find a careful worker to do it for me, because it would be a pleasure to see this old girl in action once more. But even if that never happens, I just like the vintage look of the gun.

Caption: The Columbian Model E BB gun was produced between 1914 and 1920. It was a very small air rifle that was clearly intended for children. The finger lever is way too small for adult users.

Caption: The 1910 Heilprin Columbian Model M BB gun is supposed to be rarer than the Model E, but for some reason there seem to be more around, said Gaylord, who haunts airgun shows.

Caption: This Heilprin Columbian I Model 1900 BB gun receiver is very recogniz! able among BB gun collectors. It has overall nickel plating and makes a very impressive wallhanger!

Caption: The left side of the receiver tells the model, while the right side gives the patent information. What other products may have been made by Philadelphia's Heilprin Mfg. Co is unclear.

Caption: The cover has been slid forward to expose the loading hole at the front end of the receiver. A boy could happily have shot all day with a fully loaded Columbian in hand.
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Author:Gaylord, Tom
Publication:Firearms News
Date:Mar 20, 2017
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