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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Daisy/Heddon V/L Rifle

When you heard this was a story on caseless ammunition for a .22, you probably had your interest piqued.  However, if you've seen the title, you may be a bit surprised to see the pellet/BB gun manufacturer Daisy.  After all, Daisy is more synonymous with beloved children's plinkers and Red Ryder than with futuristic yet-to-be-perfected ammunition systems.  This is the paradox this article investigates.  The contradiction of the two is interesting, but so is the story itself.  The technology and chemistry involved, the potential, the hype, and the fall back to earth.  I present to you the Daisy V/L rifle.  The little plinker has a pretty neat mechanism and a story to boot.  This particular example recently sold at a RIAC auction.

Shown is a Daisy-Heddon VL rifle, a box of caseless ammunition consisting of ten 10-round tubes, a few loose rounds, and an extra "presentation" wood stock.

Our story begins in 1961 when a chemical engineer from Belgium named Jules Van Langenhoven invented what his patent describes as "caseless ammunition and propellant."  According to the October 1967 issue of Popular Mechanics,

"In 1961, two men walked into a Paris shooting gallery carrying an amazing new rifle.  After firing only a few rounds, one man suddenly whipped out his checkbook.  He started writing one of the most important checks of his life.  Case Hough, president of Daisy/Heddon...was purchasing a revolutionary new gun system.  It had been invented by the other man - Jules Van Langenhoven..."

Image taken from Popular Science Magazine, October 1965 issue.  Copyrighted material.

A bit sensationalist perhaps, but there can be no doubt that Daisy/Heddon acquired the new technology from Jules and had plans to develop it.  Patented in December of 1961, Daisy must have been bursting at the seams to tell the world of the new technology when the special gun and its ammo were first introduced to the public on August 20, 1962.  Despite their excitement, Daisy proceeded very slowly with what would be called the V/L system, named for its inventor.  In October 1965 Popular Science published a brief piece on the rifle, with a photo of Jules firing it, and even includes comments from the author describing its recoil, so prototype rifles had been created and were being used to keep the excitement alive in the press.  That same article even cites that a prototype VL gun had been fired 50,000 times without being cleaned (other sources also cite that it fired 50,000 times without a single misfire nor a cleaning).  With all the applications Daisy had planned for their propellant - construction, high power rifles, military uses, etc - they took their time and finally began selling the gun in 1968.

How it Works

The new caseless ammunition can be described as such:  a combustible nitrocellulose compound, barely the size of a pencil eraser, is adhered to the back of a lead slug 29-grains in weight and .224" in diameter.  That compound serves as the propellant.  The rifle itself is loaded at the breech by pulling down a long, straight lever, recessed in the forend, to 90 degrees.  Hinged by the trigger guard, this lever opens the breech.  Because there is no case for the ammunition, many of the common components of a firearm are unnecessary such as the extractor, firing pin, ejector, and so on.

A single caseless VL round.

Like many Daisy products, it operates using an air/spring combination.  The gun cocks upon opening, essentially a large piston behind the loading gate is compressed backwards and is secured by a sear.  Once the piston is locked into place, spring pressure on the lever is relieved and a VL round may be placed directly in the chamber.  Safety measures prevent the gun from firing until the lever is again secured in the forend of the rifle and the safety, which resets after each shot, is switched to fire.  Pulling the trigger of course releases the piston which rapidly compresses the air in front of it.  Here comes the tricky part.  When air is compressed, it increases in temperature, and in the VL rifle the temperature of the gas reaches 2000° F, a process is best explained in the diagram below.

Image taken from Popular Mechanics Magazine, October 1967 issue.  Copyrighted material.

The gas passes through an obturator, which creates the intense heat.  The heated  air then pushes the ball forward en route to the nitrocellulose-based propellant which ignites.  When the propellant ignites, it creates its own gas which forces the ball back toward the opening adjacent to the cylinder/piston head.  This returning of the ball to its original position prevents gas from escaping, not only propelling the round forward, but also preventing the user from what could potentially be a nasty burn.  Opening the breech for another shot would reveal... nothing.  No case, no primer, no gunk, though one review did mention "only a trace of residue."

Caseless ammunition is nothing new.  Technically, early paper cartridges did not have a case, nor did the Walter Hunt's Rocket Ball, nor did Smith & Wesson's Volcanic cartridge.  However, wrapping paper around the ingredients of a round hardly counts and resulted in undoubtedly fragile ammunition.  The latter two, while demonstrating a sound proof on concept, were quite underpowered.  The VL caseless ammunition, on the other hand, suffered from no such lack of pep.  The .22 caliber bullet would leave the barrel at 1,150 fps!  Lower speed cartridges were developed that would travel 700 fps, but they were never brought to market.  Neither were the faster ones, clocking in as fast as 3,000 fps.

A Bright Future

There were several different versions of the rifle released in 1968.  The first 1,000 serial numbered guns are unofficially dubbed "Collector's Models."  They had a wood stock and a plate engraved with the collector's name and the rifle's serial number.  After that Daisy/Heddon made a mix of the standard model, using a plastic stock of which roughly 19,000 were produced, and their Presentation Model.  The Presentation Model was the same as the Collector's Model, but the buyer would put their own name on the plate.  Price information on the three models varies.  Regular models have sources citing their prices anywhere from $29 - $40.  However, even the $29 price tag would have made it more expensive than other single shot .22 rifles.  I don't yet have a reliable source for the price on the higher quality models. The 1,000 round "bricks" of ammo sold for around $17.

Even the tubes for the VL caseless ammunition had their own patent.  
The removable plug at the end of the tube was reversible.

The new system had the potential to give Daisy a very rosy financial outlook.  After all, with so many of the traditional components of a firearm no longer needed, the guns would be very cheap to manufacture, in theory.  The same went for the ammo; with no need for brass or primers, costs for production were anticipated to be lower than traditional ammo.  No brass or primer also meant lighter rounds.  Hunters, soldiers, and even fighter planes, would be able to carry a great deal more ammo.  The propellant could even be used for construction purposes.  Magazine periodicals were supremely optimistic of the new technology and gave glowing reviews to the little air rifle.  There was even talk of a "repeater" version.  Military use, that ever golden choose chased by arms manufacturers, was not out of the realm of possibility for Daisy and their new caseless ammunition.  After all, the propellant could be ignited by hot air, but also chemically or electronically.  The possibilities seemed endless.  However, like an doomed combat plane, Daisy too would come crashing back to earth.  For while they were paying attention to the Army and Air Force, they should have been paying attention to a different government entity:  the ATF.

ATF Crashes the Party

Daisy/Heddon was in the business of selling air rifles and pellet/BB guns.  The ATF was fine with that, since that's what they were licensed to produce.  What the ATF was not fine with was the unlicensed production of firearms.  Since the V/L rifle utilized a propellant, the ATF ruled that the V/L rifle was a firearm.  Daisy not being licensed to produce firearms, and having no desire to become a manufacturer, ceased production in 1969.  Exact dates are fuzzy without additional digging, but it is allegedly a production run of approximately 8 months for a gun that was nearly 8 years in the making.  The very chemical compound that should have propelled Daisy/Heddon into the future instead brought about its own demise.

Image taken from Popular Mechanics Magazine, October 1967 issue.  Copyrighted material.

Potential Problems

Maybe the ATF is solely to blame for the death of the VL rifle.  After all, if Daisy believed in the gun so much, why didn't they simply acquire a firearms manufacturer's license and continue production?  The primary reason is likely the reason driving most business decisions: money.  As mentioned earlier, the VL was not exactly competitively priced in the market.  Like most new technology, it would take time for the price to come down.  Also, once production ramped up, they could depend on economy of scale to push prices lower still.  Daisy didn't have time and sales of the VL proved to be sluggish at best.  Even with the heralded new technology, Daisy gave the VL the same plastic stock it gave most of its products, giving the gun a chintzy, cheap feel.

Then there were all the other problems that other caseless ammunition pioneers have had to tackle: how to extract a misfire, cooking-off rounds, and maintaining the necessary seals of the weapon.  Daisy also had the additional issue of the propellant being fragile enough to crumble off using only a fingernail.

Regardless, of what killed the VL, it still remains a curious little firearm.  It has a permanent place on the short list of firearms to use caseless ammunition.  The guns and its ammo are not difficult to find today, nor are they expensive, so if you want a firearm that uses caseless ammo, you're much more likely to obtain a VL than an H&K G11.  There's a comparison I never thought I'd make.  It's another fascinating firearms concept that at least saw the light of day, even if it didn't see it for long.

-Written by Joel Kolander


Bradshaw, Hank. "Now - A Bullet Without A Case." Popular Science Oct. 1965: 173. Web.

Evans, Donald J. "An Amazing New King of Gun. It's Not All Hot Air." Popular Mechanics Oct. 1967: 120+. Web.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Top Guns: 2015 April Premiere Auction

In case you missed our post-auction write-up, our April Premiere Firearms Auction was a weekend filled with bidder battles that made for an exciting and fun event.  The sale as a whole garnered over $11.6 million and enjoyed great participation, with many lots receiving dozens of sealed bids before the auction even started.  Per positive response, here again are the top items in a whole bunch of categories we hope you find useful or interesting.  Again, these aren't some cherry-picked stats from the auction that we use to hype our results.  This is straight from the data to you.  Enjoy!

Most Popular Item

Lot 3871: : Cased Colt Python Double Action Revolver
Number of Sealed Bidders: 36

To clarify, this revolver had 36 bidders competing for it before the auction began.  This isn't really surprising since Colt snake guns, especially the Python, are currently enjoying a celebrity-like level of attention.  It's also not surprising that this particular revolver broke its low estimate of $1,300 and sold for $3,162.  What is surprising is that this example has the second lowest estimate out of all Pythons in the entire auction.  What does that tell us?  That people are still trying to get in on these tough looking beauties on the ground floor.

Something that WAS surprising for Colt Pythons was the new record price reached for one during this auction.  Lot 1934 was a first year production with the low serial number of 170 and it easily caused the most excitement of the weekend as bids just kept climbing and climbing.  It would eventually sell for $17,250.

Top Dollar

Lot 1093: Highly Documented, Cased, and Earliest Known Factory Engraved Colt Pocket Model Paterson Revolver No. 1 (Baby Paterson) with Accessories

Realized Price: $414,000

Drawing top dollar in this auction was this diminutive Colt Paterson.  These pocket pistols are the earliest offering from the legendary manufacturer and this example is particularly early with its serial number of 98.  Therefore not only is it one of the first one hundred Colts ever made (in quantity), it is also the earliest known factory engraved Colt and the earliest known to be fitted with pearl grips.  Only 500 No. 1 Model revolvers were ever made.  Its mother-of-pearl grips, special 1 3/4 inch barrel, hand-engraved frame, backstrap, & barrel, six German silver band inlays, backstrap inlaid with a German silver escutcheon, case-hardened frame & hammer, and six German silver stud inlays to secure the grips are, in the opinion of Colt expert R.L. Wilson, evident that this was used as a sample piece by Samuel Colt himself.  This revolver has been in numerous prominent collections and documented in several books.

Highest Performing Item Overall

Lot 3772: Cased Colt Rattlesnake Legacy Edition Commemorative Model 1911A1 Semi-Automatic Pistol
Low Estimate: $900
Realized Price: $4,887

The coolest features about this gun are easily the grips bound in the skin of an American Diamondback rattlesnake.  What's unusual is that commemorative guns typically don't draw huge prices.  Yes, Colts have often been the top performers at our auctions, but usually they're classic models that have stood the test of time, and while a 1911A1 certainly fits that bill, a modern commemorative one doesn't.

This Colt just barely edged out lot 3492 as the top performing item overall; it contained the rare Springfield Armory experimental M1 Garand chambered for the 22-06 cartridges.  Generating much interest and many bids, the iconic weapon far surpassed its $6,500 low estimate on its way to sell for $31,625.

Highest Performing Genre: Shotguns

Lot 1746: Extremely Scarce, Desirable, and Documented Parker Bros. AHE Double Barrel Shotgun with Vent Rib in 20 Gauge with Additional Barrel Set

When we say that Rock Island Auction Company is becoming the place to go for high end hunting pieces, both rifles and shotguns, we're not kidding.  It's always nice to see the numbers verify the trends one notices in person.  Shown above is the double barrel Parker Brothers shotgun that found the highest sale amount of the genre at an impressive $48,875.  The top performing shotgun though was a bit more, shall we say, popular, in nature.  Lot 3746 contained the Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun: banned from import in both 1989 and 1994, and featured in movies such as Jurassic Park, Terminator, The Matrix, & Snatch, was (pun intended) snatched up by a collector who disregarded the $1,000 low estimate to add the celebrity shotgun to their collection for $3,737.  That's 225% OVER its anticipated figure.

Highest Selling Colt

Since the top dollar of the entire auction and the top performer of the auction were Colts that we've already covered, we'll just move right along.

Highest Selling Winchester

Lot 1017: Rare Deluxe Factory Engraved Gold-Plated Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle

This deluxe Winchester 1866 lever action, manufactured circa 1869, drew $69,000 at auction.  This third model has a gold finish that was period replated, a highly figured fancy walnut stock with the high polish piano finish, over 70% of the original blue finish, a nitre blue loading gate with barely a mark upon it, factory engraving on the receiver, fore end cap, & buttplate, special sights, and several casehardened small parts.  It would be easier to list the special order features this rifle didn't have!

Highest Selling German Arm

Lot 1451: Extraordinary Historic Pre-World War II Walther Factory Engraved Gold Plated Model PP Presentation Pistol For King Carol II of Romania

With three world class selections in this auction all with an emphasis on German and European arms, it was anybody's guess which collector firearm would claim the top spot in this genre.  When the auction was all said and done, the gilded Walther PP you see above reigned supreme as the top grossing German arm with a realized price of $92,000.  Hot on its heels in second place was the DWM Model 1902 "Cartridge Counter" Test Luger in lot 3345 that earned $74,750.

Highest Selling Civil War Item

Lot 265: Rare Cased Pinfire LeMat Grapeshot Revolver
This cased Belgian pinfire version of the Civil War hand cannon earned this honor with a sale price of $31,625.  Some lucky collector also received the added bonus of some nasty looking fragmented "slugs" for use in its 20 gauge smoothbore barrel.  In no small coincidence, the third best selling Civil War arm was also a LeMat in lot 1085, though it was a Paris addressed Second Model that used the percussion firing system.  Both are a tribute to the popularity of what is easily the most recognizable Confederate revolver.

Highest Selling Non-Firearm

Lot 1295: Historic Theodore Roosevelt Presentation Inscribed Western Saddle with Research

This  category was also wide open with the amount of historic and often highly adorned Nazi items appearing in this auction.  It's hard to hide my satisfaction that this item, with its neat presidential and wild west history, edged out the Nazi gifts.  I believe Teddy would say, "BULLY!"  This was a gift to President Roosevelt from the historic Rough Riders, which he in turn presented to Lucille Mulhall, known then as "The First Cowgirl" and "Queen of the Range."  That's a lot of history between two stirrups.

Well how about that?  This was a very well-rounded sale with three phenomenal collections focusing on German and European arms, but the Colts still took the cake.  Not only did a Colt see the highest price of the auction, and the best performance, but also the auction's most popular item!  This doesn't even mention the large number of other Colts that received a high number of bids before the auction even began.  They were also aided by the William Baird Collection - a lifelong study on Colt Model 1877/78 Lightnings and Thunderers.  We don't call Colts "blue chip" guns without good reason.

Now that you've read about the past auction, be sure to check out the upcoming auction!  That's right! The catalog for our June Regional Firearms Auction is already online as of today.  Head on over today to search for all your favorites and to place those bids as early as possible.

-Written by Joel Kolander