Many an American child grew up hearing his mother warn, "You can't have a BB gun, you'll shoot somebody's eye out." For Dennis Quackenbush, though, airguns are a family tradition.
More than a hundred years ago, another Quackenbush, Henry,
began mass producing airguns and created a hobby that took the
United States by storm.
Suddenly, indoor shooting galleries were common and target shooting with lead shot or darts became a popular pastime.
The Quackenbush gallery rifle changed the perception of airguns in this country forever. While Europeans knew air-powered guns as finely crafted arms once used by aristocrats for hunting boar, elk and deer, the popularity of the Quackenbush, and later the ubiquitous Daisy BB gun, conditioned Americans to regard airguns as little more than toys, appropriate only for children.
Today the family legacy comes full circle as Dennis Quackenbush, a distant relative of the turn-of-the-century industrialist, produces handcrafted pellet guns and reproductions of 17th- and 18th-century air rifles in a cottage machine shop in the Ozarks.
"I like to make things," says Quackenbush, 49, who left a career as a Chicago tool and die maker for a quieter life near Pomme De Terre Lake. "My making isn't with clay or such. It's with metal. I like to create but I also like to shoot."
Among the many specialized air-powered guns that leave Quackenbush's small machine shop, the most impressive, certainly, are the replicas of large caliber airguns like those used for hunting and issued to military troops more than 200 years ago.
The Southwest Electric Cooperative member is currently working on a limited run of reproduction air rifles. His Liege Lock recreates a .43 caliber air rifle involved in a foiled plot to assassinate 17th-century English ruler Oliver Cromwell. Another gun appears to be a rather plain muzzle loading black powder rifle but is actually based on a .36 caliber airgun carried by Lewis and Clark on their Northwest Expedition of 1804-1806. A third reproduction recalls an air rifle issued to Austrian troops in defense against Napoleon Bonaparte's march across Europe in the early 1800s.
"It's told the gun was so fearful that any Austrian soldier that had it in his possession would be immediately hung. I don't believe that's true. It's just mystique built up around it," Quackenbush says of the rifle that provided soldiers 10 rapid fire shots from a charged butt reservoir, and each trooper carried two extra reservoirs. This is in the era of muzzle loading muskets.
Like the originals, the reproduction guns can be charged with a hand pump. The air reservoir is in the rifles' stock. Only a purist, though, will be willing to supply the 1,200 pumps necessary for a full 10-shot charge. For modern shooters, Quackenbush redesigned the guns to be powered by carbon dioxide purchased at a welder's supply.
"At $600 there are people lining up for the Liege Locks because they thought they should be around a thousand," Quackenbush says.
Of course, lining up is relative. "The airgun community is really small. It's a custom market," says Quackenbush, who numbers the collectable airgun market at less than 5,000 customers nationwide.
Several hundred of those shooters and collectors are expected to attend an airgun show Roger Yost is hosting in St. Louis-one of only five such events in the nation. (For information contact Roger at 314-894-2036.)
"This is something that none of the major manufacturers will make. It's a niche for me," he says. "I'll make them for myself and anybody else that wants to join in, OK. When the market peters out-I don't know, 50 rifles maybe-then I'll build something else."
Much more promising from a market standpoint is the Quackenbush XL rifle, an adult-sized .22 caliber pellet rifle suitable for small game hunting or target shooting. Powered by CO2 or compressed air from a scuba tank, the rifle is suitable for squirrels, rabbits and crow at distances of 35 to 50 yards.
Quackenbush produces the mechanisms on World War II-vintage machines in his shop while his wife, Karen, finishes the stocks. So far, Quackenbush has made a quantity of XL rifles at $350 each-pricey to those accustomed to youth guns sold at discount stores but actually reasonable compared to many other adult airguns on the market.
While attracting little attention in popular media, or the gun trade for that matter, airgunners are a dedicated group who routinely spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for target and hunting guns made in Europe, where airguns are the only guns most people can own. Not attracting attention is exactly the point, though, says Quackenbush, who sees airguns as a tool for our times-an age of increased urbanization and reduced shooting opportunities.
"It's unobtrusive," he says. "You can hunt safely in areas where people cannot hunt with firearms. You can shoot in your basement. People with apartments can sharpen their skills with an airgun."
Besides, he says, airgun shooting is fun. "It's pleasant to shoot. Your ears don't ring. Your shoulders don't hurt. It doesn't have to be game. It can be metal targets. It can be anything," says Quackenbush, who hunts with airguns on his 40 acres.
By combining his interest in hunting small game with airguns and his machining abilities, Quackenbush is quickly making a name for himself in an industry that has known his family well for years. But more than attention in an admittedly small community, producing airguns gives Quackenbush the opportunity to do what he loves-to create.
"I make usable artwork," he says. "Certainly it's not Michelangelo's 'David.' That's visual artwork and that's all it can be. Mine is an artwork that I can use. I like that."
Addendum: Path to Being an Airgun Maker
As a kid, I had a Daisy 102 Cub and couldnít wait until I got the model 25 pump. After BB guns, I considered myself lucky to be able to get a hold of a Crosman 180. The 180 was a great little gun for an 11 year old because it worked well and was accurate enough to keep a kidís interest. Having a good gun just whets the appetite for being able to do more. Unfortunately, I had to sell the 180 to be able to buy a Sheridan. I believe this is the same way many other of the current airgunners came to know and love airguns.
These are thumbnail pictures, click to enlarge
I had traded an indoor target trap for a Hahn 45 BB pistol. I was 14 years old and had a paper route, which I made $22. a month from, not including tips. Trying to reduce the cost of shooting, I modified a CO2 powerlet by drilling and tapping, and soldering in a metal tire valve stem. After completing this work I ran the compressor up to its shut off pressure, 125psi, ran a hose to the pistol and to my disappointment when I fired the pistol the BBís just rolled out the end of the barrel. This was 1964. I had no idea what CO2 pressure was, and nobody I knew, knew what it was either. This kind of information wasnít the knowledge that people were interested in.
On a trip to the gun shop, for pellets and CO2, it was pointed out to me that there was a book about airguns. W. H. B. Smithís ďGas, Air, & Spring Guns of the WorldĒ was in their bookrack at $12.50. I could buy a Noble single shot .22RF rifle new for $16.50. $12.50 was a fair amount of money, but I had to know what knowledge it held, so I bought the book. I found out was CO2 pressure was. I also saw that they had manual pumps to charge air rifles with. So I built a pump using an automobile brake cylinder piston cup. I now attached this to the Hahn pistol. The CO2 cartridge was pierced so it had to be charged while it was in the gun, it was not detachable. The power went up, but I still didnít get but a few shots out of it. Looking back at it now, with the pump that I had built I believe I was getting no more than 500psi.
Further reading of Smithís book had me intrigued by the high
powered, butt reservoir air rifles. So
I set about to build one with only the abilities of a 15 year old and some
advice from people who had never built an airgun.
I needed a curved air passage inside the frame of the rifle.
I didnít know how to machine it from a solid block and didnít have a
foundry and pattern making to cast one. So
I did it clamshell style. I laid
out the curved passage with dykem layout fluid and a scriber.
I then used a ball end mill in a milling machine and etch-o-sketched the
X-Y axis's to follow the line. If I
were to do it today, I would enter the start and the end location with a couple
of way points into the CNC milling machine computer and it would plot and cut a
perfect path. But CNC milling, for
the small shop, was another 20 years in the future from 1965.
I have pictured the actual gun that I built, minus the original barrel,
which was removed for another project years ago.
For the picture, I just placed a piece of bar stock to show how it would be with
the barrel. The rifle as a muzzle loading, patched ball, .45 cal.,
charged with CO2 via a filler in the butt of the rifle.
The air reservoir was not detachable.
The valve and valve seat was in the front reservoir plug.
The spring loaded striker, under the barrel, was pulled forward to cock
and was back acting to open the valve. It
shot well, but nobody at that time owned a chronograph. That was only for laboratories like H. P.
White, a ballistics development company.
If I only knew then what I know now that if I had oddly and weirdly decorated it I could have sold it for a small fortune.
The next year I turned 16, old enough to get a driverís license
so I could buy a motorcycle. For $500. I bought a used Harley-Davidson XLCH.
Its serial number is 60XLCH2706. Iíd
being interested in owning it again. So
my interest changed to motorcycles. My
summer job through high school was working in motorcycle shops.
The next airgun construction came about due to a need for a particular
airgun. In the late 80ís, I had a
need for a tranquilizer dart gun. At
first I converted Crosman rifles and pistols to shoot .50 cal. tranquilizer
darts. Later I built and sold a gun
made for shooting tranquilizer darts. When
the need came to build an air rifle, I had this as background knowledge.
Iím going to leave out the middle part of this because thatís
currently on the website and doesnít need to be repeated here.
A look to the future would be of interest.
I have 2 rifles I intend make soon.
Theyíve been delayed, because the Outlaw series has been selling so
well. When I see off the last of
the Outlaws Iíll be making these rifles.
This is a peek into the future, but please donít inquire until I am
making them. I can tell you, because I use modern manufacturing methods to
make these guns, they'll be reasonably priced. There's no need to spend a
lot of money on an ugly gun just because it's powerful.