Friday, December 21, 2007

The windbüchse of Prostl - Part 6
A fictional account of the development of an early airgun

by Tom Gaylord

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

The opportunity came within the next week. He called at the great hall and found the nobleman between work, so the two men retired to the inner garden where they could be alone. He presented the younger man with a dark walnut case in which there were divided compartments for each piece, much as a fine firearm is housed. There was the butt in one section; the barrel and lock in another—the longest, which ran the full length of the case; the condensing syringe and a separate set of handles with which to pump it; a ball mold; a set of spare horn seals for replacement when the gun started to loose force; an oil bottle for lubrication of the seal between the butt and lock; and one more section. The final section was covered, and contained balls already cast, plus the small key to lock the case. The entire presentation was as breathtaking as the very idea of the gun, itself.

The baron found himself without words to express his gratitude. This was so far beyond his expectations that it was almost something else, indeed! Oh, how he would lord it over his cousin when next they met!

Then, he chanced to notice the number three impressed on top of the lock. "Herr Bidderman, what does this number signify?"

"My lord, you were so concerned that the Emperor would try to steal this gun from you if ever he learned of its existence that I devised a way to prevent that from happening. I put the number three on the lock because I am going to make two more guns especially for the Emperor. They will be a matched pair of the most exquisite beauty anyone has ever seen. No one will have a pair of guns, wind or firelock, that compare to what I will make for him. And, they will be the last Royal commission I ever undertake."

"I am astounded, my old friend. What gave you such an idea?"

"My lord, I know that my time on earth will soon come to an end. I have no apprentice to whom I can pass even a fraction of the secrets I possess, so they will perish with me. If I were to die with a such speculative commission in progress…"

"The Emperor will break down the gates of heaven and hell to find a craftsman to finish the project! He will build his own guns and leave mine alone! By Jove—what a plan!"

"Yes, my lord, I think I out-foxed him this time."

True to his premonition, August Bidderman closed his eyes for the final time four months later. He died in his sleep, apparently without a struggle of any kind. The baron laid him to rest in his family's own plot in the yard of the chapel that served the north end of the valley. The entire village of Prostl turned out for the funeral, and there wasn't a dry eye present.

The Emperor never did learn of the existence of Von Eiger's fabulous wind gun, but the cousin from the Low Countries certainly did! He was consumed with jealousy after shooting the piece one afternoon, so Von Eiger had to let him take it back to Antwerp to have it copied.

There wasn't a craftsman willing to undertake the work in Antwerp, but in the city of Liege there was a man who said he could do it. He kept the gun for almost a full year before returning it to the cousin, who raced across Europe to return it to the baron—so long had it been out of his sight.

The copy proved to work as well as the original, so the workman in Liege began making more of them for his other patrons. Soon, other men in town copied the design, and they began turning up everywhere. Several centuries later, there would be such a proliferation of the pattern that some experts would come to believe that it had originated in Liege.

The baron's gun was handed down for two more generations, until the dissolution of the family estate in 1796, when it was sold at auction to a wealthy merchant from Ingolstadt. He kept it for 20 more years before selling it to cover a loss in his business. The gun's whereabouts were lost from that time until the end of World War I, when it was rediscovered in the ruins of an estate in western France. The liberator, an English officer, took it home with him as a souvenir, but to keep curious eyes from discerning its presence during transit, he left the case where he found it.
His family later sold the gun at a weapons fair in Birmingham, in 1956. Then, in 1968, the gun was documented in a short article in a British airgun magazine. This brought it to the attention of a wealthy American collector who flew to England and bought it from the owner.

In 1989, the gun was again sold at a gun show in Dallas, Texas. By that time, there was only the gun. All the other accessories, including the pump, had been stripped away by the indifference of casual owners over the centuries. It still fetched $8,500 because of its great elegance and beauty. The sights, which the maker believed to be made from elephant tusks, were actually discovered to be mammoth ivory—obtained from frozen carcasses recovered by Russian expeditions in the 18th century. They survive to the present day.

Today, the outside lock air gun made by August Bidderman for Baron Von Eiger resides in a collection in the United States. Although the story of the piece sounds complete, its history is still unfolding. The great care with which it was constructed has given the airgun a kind of near immortality. Anyone who possesses it for a time will do his utmost to conserve it.

The valve seals have been replaced with modern components, which, while they give no more power, at least seal it so that sperm whale oil is no longer required.

August Bidderman died in the year 1727, but his masterpieces still live on. The one and only wind gun he ever made is perhaps the final epitaph for the man whose name has been all but erased from the pages of history. A work of art that inspires all who see it to preserve the most tangible part that remains of the old master.


At 2:51 PM, Blogger JoeG said...

A wonderfull story it is. I guess this shows how sometimes even the smalest good things we do will out live us for centuries to come. It looks to me Bidderman was not after the fame or immeadiat gratification but understood and had the wisdom to benifit future generations. Or am I reading too much into it.

Do you own the rifle that inspired the work?

JoeG from Jersey

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Tom Gaylord said...

Jersey Joe,

You got it right! The gun isn't mine, but the original inspired Gary Barnes to make a replica for me. It is a .25 caliber that gets 10 shots on 800 psi.

I sold the rifle but I still have pictures that I plan to post with this article. I dedicated this article to Barnes after receiving the rifle, but it has never been published.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger rimugu said...

This writings are always make for a really good read.

Thank you very much.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger TSBrat2002 said...

Tom's been a buzy fella, didn't post the photo of the vunder rifle. LOL

At 4:02 PM, Blogger B.B. Pelletier said...


I forgot! Please keep after me!


At 10:27 PM, Blogger E in V said...

(TSBrat2002 here) I'll do my best to remind you every so often.


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