The manufacture of pistols and rifles, which flourished in America in the 19th century – particularly as a result of the Civil War – is an integral ingredient in the history of the bicycle. All arms manufacturers started in small workshops. The successful ones employed staff or merged with others. Having established engineering workshops, and production lines and also negotiated distribution networks, usually via larger arms companies, they were in an ideal position to capitalise on the popularity of the bicycle when it arrived.
Arms and bicycles shared similar metalworking techniques. But the main point in common was the need for constant innovation and invention to refine each product. The start of the cycle industry – and the automobile industry that followed on its heels – was an era where ordinary working class men, engineers and toolmakers, through experimentation and diligence, could refine an existing product and receive immediate rewards from a manufacturer. In fact, creating and patenting a prototype, or patenting ‘improvements’ to a product, was usually more financially rewarding than actually manufacturing it.
As this era was also the beginning of the modern advertising industry – which got rich and evolved directly as a result of sales of guns, bicycles and then cars – we are able to observe this time in history easily a century and a half later through magazine advertisements. Patents are also available to help us piece together the early history of the bicycle industry.
Bicycle frame tubing in 1890 was around half inch diameter with 50% thickness. By 1896 it was around one inch diameter with 2-4% thickness. The reason for such rapid development in frame tubing was because it had a precedent …rifle barrels. Rifle barrels may have started out as one hollow piece of metal, but rifle-making had evolved to such a degree by the 1890s that toolmakers were able to use several very thin diameter tubes to make a strong but lightweight barrel.
Several companies made both guns and bicycles, or components for either. My own gun collection is limited to those connected to bicycles. So this page examines companies who made both arms and cycles, as well as the range of pistols and rifles that were marketed for cyclists. The example above and below is the oldest ‘bicycle gun’ I’ve seen. This ‘Revolver-Cycle’ was advertised in 1892, but illustrates a miniature pepperbox pistol which is much older than that date. Its fitment into the handlebar grip is very dubious! So it’s quite likely that M. Joubert, the inventor, advertised it before actually making any.
This does raise a question that was often posed in the late nineteenth century, and was still being debated in the early years of the twentieth century:
Should cyclists carry revolvers?
SHOULD CYCLISTS CARRY REVOLVERS?
ARMS & CYCLE MANUFACTURERS
While the American approach to patents in the late nineteenth century was aptly expressed by Mark Twain: ‘a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab and couldn’t travel anyway but sideways or backwards,’ this view was not necessarily true in Europe where abolition of the patent system was seriously considered at various times in both the United Kingdom and Prussia (Bismarck was at best lukewarm about the merits of the patent system) and the system was actually abolished in the Netherlands from 1869 until 1912 at least in part because it was thought to be contrary to democratic principles.
Nevertheless, it was during this period that the international patent system started to come into being. Patents, as rights granted by the state, are inevitably territorial in nature. This presents significant practical problems for an inventor who wishes to seek protection outside his or her home country. In most countries the intellectual property systems developed during the nineteenth century in a fairly nationalistic way. United States patent law development included periods when foreigners could only obtain patents if they were resident in the United States and intended to become citizens. At other times, where foreigners were charged much more for the right to secure patent than were American citizens.
The problems of avoiding national discrimination were recognized by the mid-century when provisions recognizing the need for fair treatment of what would now be called the intellectual property of citizens of other nations started to be incorporated into commercial treaties. One of the first of these was the Treaty of Commerce between Russia and Great Britain of 1859.
The United States was not alone in discriminating against foreigners and matters came to a head in connection with the Vienna International Exposition of 1873. At the time the patent law of Austria-Hungary had a provision similar to that of the United States Act of 1832 requiring working of an invention within a country with one year in order to maintain validity of any patent issued for it. Foreign inventors were reluctant to exhibit at the exposition for fear that by exhibiting their inventions and being unable to work them within the Austrian-Hungarian Empire within the prescribed one-year period they would in effect be giving their inventions away. Following representations by the American Minister in Vienna, the Austrian authorities passed a special law to try to protect foreign inventions from loss of rights by exhibiting at the Exposition and convened an international congress in Vienna to discuss ways of improving international protection for inventions …but no legally enforceable treaty was agreed to.
A similar congress accompanied the Paris International Exposition of 1878. This occurred in the wake of the creation of a number of international organizations during the 1870’s including the Universal Postal Union, the International Red Cross and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. At the time there were high hopes that a treaty could be drafted creating a world wide patent system. But it was not to be. Following further conferences in Paris in 1880 and 1883 the best that could be achieved was a convention prescribing how member states could treat nationals of other states and laying down certain minimum provisions as to various aspects of what is now known as intellectual property law.
In the late 1800s, America, England, Belgium, Germany (Prussia) and France were the world’s main arms manufacturing centres. Some companies made both arms and bicycles.
ENGLAND: The Birmingham Small Arms Company is the best-documented British manufacturer of both bicycles and guns, with government military contracts for each.
BELGIUM: Fabrique Nationale (FN) is equally famous in Belgium for arms and bicycles, particularly its Chainless (shaft-drive) bicycle for which it was the European market leader.
USA: There were countless American businesses producing arms and bicycles and, especially in the early days, many companies made parts for both. But Iver Johnson was a top manufacturer in both the arms and cycle industries.
FRANCE: Manufrance of St. Etienne sold a range of bicycle and guns through their annual catalogue, although most were made by other companies and many of the guns were made in Liege, Belgium, which was a mainland European centre for arms manufacture.
Soon after the German Dreyse Needle Gun was introduced (below) France brought out their own version, the Chassepot. They introduced the Lebel smokeless cartridge rifle in 1886, which had the advantage of not giving away a soldier’s position when fired. This was first smokeless powder cartridge for military use, and it started the small-bore smokeless revolution.
GERMANY: The Dreyse Needle Gun revolutionised rifle manufacturing and warfare. As a result of the introduction of this breech-loading rifle and its use to devastating effect during the Prussian-Danish War of 1864 and, in 1866, when the Prussians defeated the Austro-Hungarians, all governments had to upgrade their own muskets to breech-loaders and invent new breech-loading rifles.
The ‘Model 71’ Mauser bolt-action metallic cartridge rifle, officially adopted by the Prussian government on 2nd December 1871, was another revolutionary gun; it was much more reliable than the paper cartridge rifles previously in use. The Mauser smokeless cartridge ‘Model 89’ was brought out after the French Lebel. The subsequent ‘Model 98’ Mauser was known for its strength, simplicity and ease of manufacture, and was adopted by many nations. (It formed the basis of America’s Springfield Model 1903 military rifle). It is still manufactured today.
ENGLAND: BIRMINGHAM SMALL ARMS
Founded at a time of national crisis, The Birmingham Small Arms Company is an example of how history repeats itself, as it was directly owing to a shortage of munitions at the outbreak of the Crimean War (I854-56) that the Company had its inception. Those were days long before a Ministry of Munitions was thought of, and the situation being extremely serious the Government called on sixteen firms of small arms manufacturers in Birmingham to furnish a supply of arms. At this period the rifles were of the muzzle-loading pattern, and were entirely hand-made, but it was not long before the Government commenced the manufacture of rifles by machinery at the Enfield Works. This was shortly followed in 1861 by the members of the Birmingham small arms trade consolidating themselves under the title of The Birmingham Small Arms Company. The munition resources of Birmingham being thus co-ordinated, a factory was erected at Small Heath for the manufacture of small arms by machinery.
– BSA History Leaflet, 1914
1876 BSA MARTINI HENRY RIFLE (GOVERNMENT CONTRACT)
BELGIUM: FABRIQUE NATIONALE (F.N)
USA: IVER JOHNSON ARMS & CYCLE WORKS
FRANCE: MANUFRANCE, St. ETIENNE
GERMANY: MAUSER C96 ‘BROOMHANDLE’ PISTOL
Details to follow…
BICYCLES AND GUNS
In 1892, the Premier Cycle Company copied the process of rifle barrel manufacture for their Helical tubed bicycles: observe the Helical tubing on the 1894 Premier Model A93, below.
With the coming of the pneumatic tyre, the need arose for a light and responsive frame of thin walled steel tube, but there were limits to how thin and therefore how light ordinary tubing could be made, before its efficiency was impaired. Helical tubing was developed and tested during 1891–2 and introduced in the autumn of 1892. These strange looking spirally wound tubes were the result of experiments to convert very high carbon bright rolled Swedish steel into tubes without reducing the carbon content.The chosen steel was non-ductile, in other words it was not capable of being drawn into steel tubes in the usual way without loss of strength.The solution found was to helically roll a thin sheet of steel varying from 0.008in to 0.017in thickness round a mandrel. A clamp was placed on one end to prevent its unwinding and the mandrel was withdrawn. A stout collar was then driven on the free end, and the whole tube brazed together. The brazing operation was carefully designed so that a complete film of brass was spread between the two layers of thin sheet making up the tube. Premier claimed that the brazing process was so perfect that every tube could be rung like a bell. In this way the tubes were tested and either rejected or passed fit for use.
It’s not common knowledge that Colonel Albert Pope, maker of Columbia bicycles, who became America’s top cycle manufacturer, also sold guns.
Pope Brothers had the patent for a short time for Henry Quackenbush’s ‘Target’ Rifle Air Pistol, marketed as the Pope Brothers Rifle Air Pistol.
HARRY POPE & THE STEVENS-POPE
Harry Pope was Colonel Albert Pope’s nephew; the colonel adopted him when he was orphaned at the age of seven. He worked for the Pope family at the Hartford Bicycle Company, and went on to become America’s top specialist rifle maker.
1884 STEVENS BICYCLE RIFLE
1896 USA LIQUID PISTOL (PARKER STEARNS SUTTON)
1906 BSA LINCOLN JEFFRIES AIR RIFLE
The British army had not fared well in the Second Boer War. Their Lee Enfield Long Pattern Bolt Action .303 rifles were less accurate than the Mausers used by the Boers …and the Boer farmers had been using rifles since childhood. After the war, the British government encouraged school Cadet Forces, Boys Brigades, Working Men’s Clubs, etc to focus on shooting practice. The airgun was ideal for this purpose, but the airguns available were not accurate enough for serious target shooting.
Luckily, Lincoln Jeffries came up with the solution. His 1904 patent design for the air rifle, with fixed barrel and breech and an under lever system for cocking, was revolutionary (e.g. compared to spring-action American models). It provided a simple system of action and was the most accurate mass-produced air rifle on the market.
With the outbreak of WW1, cyclist battalions were formed, and armed with rifles. As you can read in the article below, a cyclist-soldier was considered a rifleman:
‘Cyclists are not, as a rule, expected to attack in large numbers, in close or extended line, over open country. That is the province of the foot soldier. The cyclists are required to go out in small bodies, as scouts, for reconnaissance, as patrols, and so forth. If they fight, they should proceed secretly and speedily to a point where they can attack unexpectedly, surprising the enemy and then making off before he has a chance to overwhelm them with greater force. And in this kind of fighting it is accuracy of shooting that counts.’ Shooting practice was therefore essential.
.303 calibre rifles were not easy to find in civilian life, but so-called ‘miniature’ rifles were freely available, and practice with a .22 was therefore advocated.
1907 SMITH & WESSON BICYCLE RIFLE
1916 BSA LEE ENFIELD SMLE No.1 Mk.III
RIFLE MOUNTING CLIPS ON MILITARY BICYCLES
PISTOLET VELODOG MANUFRANCE ‘MIGNON’
International Patent Law – http://www.ladas.com/Patents/Harmonization/Patent_Law_Harmonization02.html
Boneshaker Magazine article, number 169, Autumn 2005, written by Gerry Moore. Reproduced with thanks.
(I bought Gerry Moore’s collection of literature in 2010)