Conversation piece


Last week, I stepped out of CS Arms, antique pistol and receipt in hand, (handguns made before 1898 are exempt from federal regulation) into the sunshine and the main street of Upperville, Va. I paused for traffic which just happened to be two pulpwood trucks out of Hampshire County — neighbors of mine “back home.” Before rumors circulate that I’ve been seen dealing with an upscale, high end and presumably very expensive gun shop, I had better clear up a common misconception.

One of my junior high school teachers, Mrs. Muller, apart from being a self-avowed National Socialist, was the best world history teacher that anyone could ask for. Her teaching of the period of the first world war, though bearing a Teutonic slant, left me with a lifelong fascination with that period and an eye for related artifacts.

I had come across a small cache of World War I trench art at a local yard sale. Trench art are things that the soldiers made out of bullets and shell casings to pass the time while they were pinned down in the trenches for extended periods. I sold one piece to a collector in Ranson, and another to Just Pawn It in Capon Bridge. The latter mentioned piece remains on display at Just Pawn It as of my latest visit.

However, one piece bewildered me — it was made of brass like the others but had been cast rather than hand forged. The trenches contained many of the future foundry men, tool and die makers and achinists that would produce the venerable Packards and LaSalles of the golden age of the automobile.

Certainly, the skill and talent was there and possibly a heat source in the form of phosphorus bombs but I never heard of metal being cast in the trenches of World War I.

I stared at the piece, a figure of a dog that stared back at me across the ages, refusing to divulge its secret.

I had been past CS Arms repeatedly for many years but never stopped there thinking that it was probably too upscale and that my bib overalls and tractor grease would offend the decorum. I’ve since learned that this impression is not at all uncommon.

Still, I knew that CS Arms held the answer to my question and the possibility of a sale. I stopped and approached the shop expecting a towering figure, somber and austere, to meet me at the door and demand a banking statement and blood sample (to verify blueness).

Wrong. Instead, I met Cliff Sophia, a cheerful, bright, articulate and witty character whose very presence puts one at ease.

Cliff doubted that any foundries were ever established in the trenches but his curiosity had been piqued and he bought the brass dog on the spot. (My further research revealed that the brass dog was actually a hood ornament from a Whippet truck from the early 1900s).

My pursuit of the gun hobby largely consists of purchasing inoperative guns and using the skills I btained working in my father’s machine shop (and occasionally some help from Miller Machine and Tool) to get them firing again. I shoot these newly-repaired guns for awhile then sell them at a sometimes respectable but more often modest profit.

Early this spring, some bills were coming due and the time had come for a little profit taking in the gun business. I stopped at CS Arms with the intent of selling a rare Stevens .410/.22 over/ under rifle shotgun. Cliff said that he wasn’t buying sporting guns but was only interested in military guns and select related antiques. He mentioned that in buying collections of guns for the military pieces, some sporting guns and others of lesser interest were sometimes among them. We discussed this accidental overstock and concluded that I was there to buy rather than sell.

And so it has gone ever since.  Though there are collector guns at CS that are surely out of my reach, the fixer-uppers can be quite reasonable. I now find it difficult to go through Upperville without stopping at CS Arms.

Back to our story; I had become interested in fixing up a dog pistol. A dog pistol is a tiny revolver with a fold away trigger and no rifling in its short barrel that was made to fire small caliber shot shells. These pistols were carried by cyclists cirTed Kalvitis ca the 1890s and were used to repel menacing canines. As long as the eyes were avoided, these guns were harmless to the dog other than to help Fido reconsider this pastime of chasing bicycles.

I certainly wasn’t going to shoot any dogs but I found this history interesting and even perhaps a little comical. From the start, I knew that this would be a poor investment since resale prospects would be hindered by the gun’s being virtually useless for target shooting or home defense. Still, though in the strictest sense I really couldn’t afford it, the pistol was an irresistible novelty.

I purchased one of the little pistols with the fold-up trigger, presumably in .22 caliber.

Moving along to the farm (where I was supposed to be fixing tractors) I checked the gun over and made a few minor adjustments. With 300 acres surrounding me and a mere 2-inch barrel, I felt that I could try the gun out without being any significant threat to society. I loaded three of the nine chambers with .22 shorts then, aiming at nothing in particular, pulled the trigger. Click. Mmmm…dud — try another — click. Unloading the gun revealed that each of the rimfire shells had been neatly dinged in their centers. 

Like antique tractors, old guns can lead us into their world where we meet new and interesting people and see new places while giving intense consideration to times in history that may have otherwise remained obscure. This is the good stuff. I then examined the pistol more closely.

The barrel was rifled and using precision measuring equipment on the old Black Truck, I measured one of the chambers. The chamber measured 255 thousandths of an inch in diameter, about 1/4 of an inch. This was much larger than the .22 shorts that I was trying to fire but about the right diameter to accommodate a .22 magnum shell.  However, the .22 magnum is rimfire while this gun was a center fire — the first mystery. 

After a few token hours of work I headed back to Winchester and Gander Mountain, which carries a vast selection of ammunition, to look for a .22 center fire cartridge, if such existed. Back at the gun counter I was fortunate to meet up with Alex Bentley, a sales associate, who enjoys a challenge. As we discussed possibilities, a small crowd gathered around us intrigued by the antique firearm. There was no name or caliber stamped onto the metal of the gun but mysterious symbols or “proof marks” abounded. Alex determined that these markings were likely of Belgian or French origin. 

Though I drew a blank (subtle pun) at Gander Mountain, Alex, myself and several other patrons had fun trying to determine what ammunition would fit the old gun. The camaraderie among old gun enthusiasts resembles that of the old tractor crowd — it also takes less time, money, sweat and skinned knuckles to become an authority on the subject.  It was getting dark as I arrived at Steele Reloaders on the far North end of Winchester. Steele is housed in a two-story brick building built in 1902.

The shop was closed but I could discern movement in the dimly lit interior. I tapped on the oldfashioned plate glass door with the antique pistol, feeling much like a character in a Cagney movie or Edwin Hopper painting.  Proprietor Bill Alamong unlocked the door and, though they were busy loading up for a gun show the following day, he and Chuck Brill took the time to research the possibilities of finding this rare and obscure ammunition.  Bill tried the fit of various shells while Chuck checked the Internet.  Knowing something of my background, Bill finally suggested that I modify the revolver to fire rimfire .22 magnum cartridges.  The following day, the old revolver led me on another adventure.  Stopping at Just Pawn It for .22 magnum shells, I had the folks there look the gun over and venture a guess as to its origins. There was some humorous conjecture but nothing conclusive — they were also out of .22 magnum ammo. On the way to the North River Mills shop, I made the first of what will probably be many stops at Capon Sport Shop and found the shells there.  At North River Mills, I made the necessary modification and fired the first few rounds using the vise and lanyard method as is my custom. 

Still, I have no real conclusive idea where the gun came from or what it was intended to fire — the only clue being those mysterious symbols.  Every few years, I get a letter from an Antique Power reader who lives in a ghost town in New Mexico.  Most of us know his general neighborhood as Area 51. I’m not sure whether his location has any significance but after reading his lengthy penciled letters, which are just a little “out there,” one might wonder. I may send him drawings of these symbols — I’m sure that he’ll have some suggestions. Meanwhile, as for the dog pistol project, it’s back to the drawing board — and back to CS Arms.

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