Benjamins, Manhood, & Civilization
by Robert Beeman
Reprinted from The Airgun Journal Vol. 2, No. 1, 1981.

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I've always had a particularly fond spot in my heart for the products of the Benjamin Air Rifle Company in St. Louis, Missouri.  As a boy, it was the arrival of my first Benjamin, the result of weeks of pounding a newspaper delivery route, that made me feel that I had acquired my first real gun.  Little did I then dream what a role airguns would come to play in my own life!

Benjamin went to some lengths to foster the notion that a boy would be started on his way to responsible manhood if he only had a Benjamin airgun. When Mrs. Beeman and I visited the traditional old St. Louis plant of Benjamin, we were delighted to be presented with a pair of booklets, copyrighted 1930, which show how important Benjamin, and some zealous writer, thought their airguns were to America's youth.

These booklets are so charming, and offer such a perspective on the Benjamin company and indeed on the general role of the airgun in the life of the early 20th century American boy, that Mrs. Beeman and I couldn't help but read aloud sections from these booklets to others. I'd like to share them with you:

The booklets are entitled "BB Magic" and sub-titled "The Shooter's Digest."  The cover paragraph isn't modest: "The American boy's own handbook on the art of correct gun handling and expert shooting. Explains things boys should know to become leaders in sportsmanship and action. Shows how the round shot made history and how it creates the confidence and poise necessary to personal achievement and success in life. "

The opening pages, entitled "Use Your Head," are a now-amusing cross between instilling pride in the proper use of the gun and instruction on how to persuade Dad to get you a Benjamin if you didn't already have one: "From the time you first learn to hit a mark to the time when you go down into the forest in search of deer and bear or down onto the marshes where the snipe and ducks bring thrills to you, remember- USE YOUR HEAD. A gun is a wonderful thing and a most satisfactory form of possession as every parent knows, but you simply must realize that the way you handle your gun determines whether or not you should be permitted to have one. STRAIGHT SHOOTING shows up early in a boy in the way he honestly and carefully goes about learning the use of a gun. Straight shooting does not just mean hitting the target; it means hitting the mark in every test of honesty, common sense, fairness, and courageous unselfish action." Wow!

Now comes the pitch, a classic of youth-directed advertising of that period: "As to the matter of having a gun, simply ask Dad to remember the fun he had putting his eye to the line of sight and pulling a neat, fine bead on the mark and pressing the trigger just so. Ask him if he learned things in those glorious days that he simply cannot forget, and that helped him on his way through life.

Things about nature; sounds of the wind, the feel of sharp rain on his face, the calling of crows, the hippety-hop of rabbits across his path, the scream of the jays, the way to outwit the game he was after, the whistling of ground squirrels, and things like that. And then he'll remember how after a long hard effort to get in range of some mark, just everything depended on the kind of shooter he was.

But don't take advantage of Dad and don't beg. Be sure to promise him that you will never point your gun at any living thing until he tells you that you can -you'll have to live up to every promise and never let yourself say, I FORGOT, for you have a definite responsibility to others when you get a gun. "

The booklet goes on to explain that “ordinary BB's are not all the same; they are lumpy, irregular and lead to carelessness and disappointment". It warned the boy to "get not regular BB's measuring .18", but true AIR RIFLE SHOTmeasuring.175".

A good hard swing was taken at spool-shaped pellets {which couldn't be used in the then current Benjamins): "Many long lead shot slip over and over in the air. Compare the action of a baseball when you throw it and the action of a flat stone or lop-sided object like a pear. One goes straight and the others curve at unknown angles. " Imagine comparing the incredible precision of the modern diabolo pellet now with "a flat stone or lop-sided object like a pear" !

The writer of the booklet was only warming up! After a few remarks about how round air rifle shot does not have long side walls for air friction and that its body "is practically streamlined like the wings and body of an airplane " he moves into a section entitled "Round Shot In History". Here he really waxed eloquent: "When powder was discovered and its use in propelling missiles from a tube was first thought of, the experience of thousands of generations of mankind was behind the selection of the round shot. All the old cannons used round shot - round shot that were true to the eye and barrel of the famous old guns. In the Indian days the witchery and mystery of the powder gun and round ball paved the way for the White Man's conquest of this land. " The writer closed his effusive presentation on round shot with this amazing one sentence paragraph:

MAGIC BB AIR RIFLE SHOT "The wonderful missiles that bring to the shooter's brain and nerve and muscles the fine training and poise and balance and concentration on which the progressive march of the race is based. "

Perhaps some liberals today might take that high-sounding proclamation as a racist remark. However, I'm sure the writer was only thinking it was truly great sounding advertising prose.

A short section on "The Gun Owner's Responsibility" carefully wove comments on responsibility in with an attempt to develop a desire to own a Benjamin, and to buy another one later on: "The boy who fails to realize this responsibility does not deserve so fine a gun as a Benjamin, nor any other kind of gun. But the boy who learns to respect others by handling his first Benjamin with proper care and consideration is going to fit himself to handle a Benjamin Automatic and bigger powder shooting guns intelligently when he grows older. "

The centerfold entitled "The Only Genuine Compressed Air Rifles Made For Shooting BB Air Rifle Shot" describes the models then available in the Benjamin line, introducing them with some old fashioned rhetoric on how the guns work: "The Benjamin uses the easily regulated, yet tremendous, force of compressed air, formerly used only in the costly foreign rifles, famed for their accuracy and hard shooting -you compress air with a simple self-contained pump and capture the mysterious force used to operate brakes on trains and drive powerful machines for riveting, drilling and other operations requiring tremendous force quickly and always within control. The Benjamin has none of the faults of the ordinary airguns. "

The Model 200 Benjamin single shot rifle was listed for $5.00, a fairly steep price for the times. The text advised that: "one pump stroke outshoots all others; three or more pumps give maximum power. " (Modern pump pneumatics, which use the more convenient, but less efficient swinging arm pump mechanism, require three or four pumps just for enough power to force the pellet to clear the barrel!)

The booklet closes with several vigorous paragraphs (illustrated by a boy in knickers) on shooting from various positions, shooting moving targets, principles of wing shooting, and a few things that would make an agent from the present Consumer Products Safety Commission cringe, such as hitting a tin can in the air, lighting matches with a shot, and candle snuffing. It was a different age and I'm sorry that it ever went away to be replaced by dryly worded instruction booklets laced with governmentally required statements and dire warnings!

Postscript: Collectors will want to know that there were at least three versions of this booklet. The first one, copyrighted 1926 entitled "The Shooter's Art" was not so eloquent, and featured the gun now known as the Benjamin Model F-the only gun that Benjamin was making at that time. It was yellow and measured 3 1/2" x 6 1/4 ". The next two editions were the same size but were entitled "BB MAGIC" and both marked as copyright 1930. I believe that the 1930 date correctly applied only to a yellow booklet which featured only the Model 200 Benjamin Single Shot rifles and the new No.600 Benjamin Automatic rifle. The Model 200 was shown on the cover but featured the No.300 and 700 Benjamin rifles inside -guns which introduced bolt action to the Benjamin line. The trend of the future was already set in the last BB Magic booklet. It had more warnings and "Things to Remember" than its delightful little predecessor .