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THE ELEGANT CANTARINI AIR PISTOLS
by Larry Hannusch
Over the years, I have had the immense pleasure to see and handle some of the finest antique air arms extant. Certainly, many of the most magnificent examples are safely tucked away in museums. But there are still enough beautiful specimens out there in private hands which can afford us the opportunity to personally handle and really get a first-hand sense of the high level of art and workmanship created by some of the old masters. I’d like to present this awesome matched pair of repeating Cantarini air pistols as exhibit A.
Figure 1-These beautiful Austrian repeating air pistols illustrate the pinnacle of a pneumatic airgun maker’s skill and artistry dating from the early 19th century
By way of a brief introduction, this pair of air pistols are technically defined as pneumatic repeaters, which means their power source is high pressure air which is stored in a reservoir to be released upon demand to fire the weapons. The air reservoir on each pistol is housed within the hollow metal grip of the piece. A percentage of the pressurized air within the reservoir is released upon each shot, allowing multiple shots to be fired with a single charging of the pistol. The pistol is further defined as a repeater in that it is fitted with a tubular magazine holding a number of lead balls which are readily available for continued firing without the need to reload.
Before we get into the specific details about these pistols, I’d like to give a little “back story” about how these remarkable air arms came to reside in my safe deposit box for almost 20 years. It is a true story launched with a friendship, but soon other subsequent events spiraled downward, creating anguish and the need to make tough decisions. This is one of those collecting life lessons that reminds us that a deal is not done until both parties complete their respective commitments. Though it has been a couple of decades since all this went down, I can still recall the details as if it were yesterday.
Back in the early days of Tom and Edith Gaylord’s “Airgun Forum” internet hangout about 20 years ago, there was not a lot of good airgun information out there on the world wide web. This was a time before I had even gotten introduced to its potential ( I think we ourselves had only then just recently obtained electricity). As their forum monitor, Edith had received a request for information about a pair of antique air pistols that an individual had come across in an estate liquidation. Edith and Tom graciously decided that I should get involved to help, because there was always that possibility that the air pistols might be available for sale. Not having an internet connection, they gave me his phone number. I quickly called him on my black rotary telephone to begin the process. He soon sent photos and I knew I was hooked.
I learned that this special pair of air pistols had come out of a longtime firearms estate collection in Minnesota and apparently had not seen daylight in eons.. The gentleman indeed was interested in selling them if he could get HIS price. I might add that his price tag reflected an amount well north of five figures, and this was 20 long years ago. I didn’t even know that numbers could get that big! But I sensed that this could possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I agreed to his terms. To come up with the funds, I knew I would have to beg, borrow, and set.....borrow some more. I sent him a substantial check as a down payment along with a letter reiterating the terms of our agreement, along with the promise that the rest of the cash was to be surrendered when he personally delivered the pair to me in person in about a month. (We had both agreed that shipping them was too risky).
I called him in about a week to make sure that my check had arrived. It did, and he had deposited it. Whew...so far, so good. He was planning to make the long trip down to see me in a few weeks as I believe he had family in my area. The transaction date was firmly decided, and it looked like we were ready to go. Anybody know what it is like to go without a good night’s sleep for a month?
The day finally arrived as a crisp, clear January afternoon. We cordially greeted and exchanged pleasantries. He had with him these beautiful antique air pistols, and I had my old rusty wheelbarrow loaded with cash. What could possibly go wrong? He then revealed that on his way down to see me and deliver my prizes, he had stopped for the weekend at a large national gun show. Inexplicably, he had shown this pair of special air pistols to several major dealers at the show to ask their opinion of value. Yikes! He then proceeded to tell me that after these discussions, he had decided that he could not sell them to me at our agreed upon price. Are you kidding me!?! We had a verbal and written deal! No matter about our deal....he insisted that he needed more money.
I was totally tapped out, as I desperately explained to him. I had no more resources left...certainly none available in such short order. He seemed genuinely remorseful that I was going to lose them. Of course, I appealed to him under the old adage that “a deal is a deal”. No matter...our deal was off.
He then asked if I had any other special antique airgun that I could offer him to “balance” the deal. I was in such shock and desperation that I agreed to let him pick something right off of the wall of the collection. He chose a nice marked, full stock German crank rifle (including the original crank) with most of its early brown finish as a sacrificial lamb to complete our pistol deal. Assuredly, I could have taken the righteously indignant path and demanded that he legally honor our original agreement. Sure, I could have, but then you dear readers here would probably be reading about a nice German crank rifle instead of these Cantarini air pistols. To the man’s credit, at least he didn’t sell them outright at the gun show. Such is life and the consequences of the decisions we make along the way, both good and bad.
So let’s get back to studying the pistols themselves. As mentioned, they would be defined as butt reservoir (grip) pneumatic repeaters. Specifically, they would be called Girandoni air pistol repeaters because of the mechanical design featured as the repeating system.
Within this design, a transverse moving breechblock is used in conjunction with gravity to move the round lead balls from the magazine tube into the pathway of the expanding air through the breach of the airgun. An 18th century Austrian gunmaker named Bartolomeo Girandoni (alternate spelling Girardoni) is credited with the invention of this remarkably simple yet reliable design. The standard reference work Der Neue Støckel lists Girandoni as dwelling in Cortina d’Ampezzo (and later in Vienna) from 1744-1799.
Figure 2-Each of the Cantarini marked air pistols display a high degree of artistic embellishment with the use of gilding, engraving, and gold inlays throughout the specimen.
The Girandoni breech design was used in his Model 1780 Austrian Military air rifle. The Model 1780 used a hollow conical metal buttstock to act as the air reservoir. Today, this type of airgun using this conical buttock reservoir is typically referred to by collectors as an Austrian butt reservoir airgun, and were made both as single shot and repeating air rifles.
The work of Girandoni and his apprentices on the Austrian military contract for his powerful repeating air rifles was a closely guarded operation by the Austrian government. It became apparent after some years that the military air rifle project was hopelessly behind in the fulfillment of the contract. And coupled with the recurring problems of breakage in the field, the government air rifle project was finally closed around 1800-1805 after approximately 1500 rifles were produced.
This left the door wide open for the previously employed air rifle apprentices to strike out on their own to produce specimens for affluent civilian clientele. So early in the 19th century, we start to see quite a number of high quality Girandoni style repeating air rifles from talented Austrian gunsmiths such as Joseph Lowentz (Lowenz), Joseph Schembor, and Joseph Contriner (Cantriner), among a host of many others. The design was soon duplicated in other countries by talented gunmakers such as Samuel Staudenmayer and H.W. Mortimer in London. One prolific Austrian maker, J. Schembor, actually made butt reservoir rifles in both Vienna and later in London, and Schembor butt reservoir rifles will be found today marked with either locale.
In rare instances, a few of these ambitious gunmakers also created repeating air pistols using the Girandoni breech design. But these air pistols are incredibly rare relative to the number of repeating air rifles produced. Generally speaking, it has been estimated that the ratio of pneumatic reservoir air rifles encountered (themselves not a common air arm) compared to pneumatic air pistols may be on the magnitude of 40:1.
When it comes to the highly embellished, high art examples of the Austrian butt reservoir airguns, it is generally conceded by collectors today that Joseph Contriner was the reigning king of them all. Not only did he create some of the most incredible pneumatic masterpieces of all time, he also created more high art examples of this genre than any other maker known. Understanding the remarkable nature of Contriner’s work is useful in helping us explain the origin of the name “Cantarini” found on this superb pair of repeating air pistols. I have never encountered any sources which list Cantarini as a gunmaker of any type of weapon. We’ll come back to that point a bit later after examining the details of these beautiful pistols.
Both pistols of this pair are identical in dimensions. Each has an overall length of 13 inches and weighs 2.8 pounds. The deeply rifled barrel is 7 inches in length, and has a bore caliber of about .40” . The magazine tube which lies along the right side of each pistol measures 4 inches in length, which translates to
Figure 3-Both air pistols are essentially identical in appearance and dimension, with only a few small detail differences seen in the decorations.
Figure 4-The coat of arms seen on top of each receiver are slightly different in theme. Please note the 10 shot magazine affixed to the right side of each pistol.
a magazine capacity of 10 shots. The sights are quite simple, consisting of a small blade front sight and a fixed rear sight notch cast into the top of the receiver.
The cast brass receivers are deeply chisel-engraved in relief and beautifully gilded. In fact, all of the brass components, including the trigger guard, ramrod pipes, thimbles, and muzzle cap are all gold- plated. In addition, all of these gilded elements are ornately engraved as well. The swell center trigger guard is foliate engraved in the body, completed with ribbon borders, and is terminated at its forward end with an engraved, stylized pineapple finial.
It appears that all of the steel components such as the barrel, sideplate, lock plate, and magazine tube were left in the white, probably to accentuate the white and yellow gold ribbon inlays and floral motifs. These intricate gold inlays are found on the breechblock, barrel, sideplate, and hammer. The horizontally articulating breechblock itself is retained in position by two fancy fasteners engraved to simulate a quadrant of four flowers complete with gold center stamens!
The hammers are artistically sculpted in full dimensional form with long ears at the top for cocking leverage, and display gold inlaid flowers along their faces to set them apart from the ordinary. However, it would be difficult to describe anything on these pistols as ordinary.
The aforementioned magazine tubes are each fitted with a long leaf spring affixed to the outer right side. This spring terminates its rearward end on the side of the breechblock which forces the breechblock to its battery position to the far left of the pistol under normal rest conditions. The forward end of each magazine tube is fitted with a pivoting metal cap
Figure 5-With the air reservoirs removed, one can observe the accuracy of the matching of each pistol to the other. The sliding breech block of each pistol receives the next lead ball from the magazine when the muzzle is held up and this breechblock is then pushed to the right against the tension of the long external leaf spring
which must be rotated to load the pistol, and then replaced over the tube to retain the lead balls from rolling out. Unfortunately, both magazine tube caps are now missing their retainer springs. The magazine functions as a gravity operated apparatus to feed balls to the breechblock cavity when the muzzle is tipped upwards.
Each lockplate is engraved with a flag banner scene directly below the hammer. Within this flag engraving is a small, circular, gold-filled emblem, or poincon, displaying the script initials “J.C.''. Further forward on the lock plate is the gold-filled marking “in Wien'' (translated “in Vienna'') to state the gunmaker’s city of origin.
We find that each pistol features a tapered, wooden ramrod capped with a brass tip. As these pistols are obviously breech loaders, the ramrods simply add familiarity to the arms, as well as serving to aid in the possible dislodging of an errant ball stuck in the barrel. The taper of the ramrod allows for friction anchoring within the thimbles. Each pistol is stocked with a single piece of nicely figured burl walnut that is shaped but not carved.
The base of the hollow grip reservoir is bulbous in shape to give a better purchase for the shooter in addition to increasing the size of the reservoir and thus increasing the shot capacity. The reservoir is constructed of thick sheet steel which is brazed along two longitudinal halves. This joint is further strengthened by a strip of metal brazed onto the reservoir along this seam.
The front of the reservoir is fitted with a brass valve body containing a horn-tipped valve stem to seal the pressurized air stored within the grip. This valve stem
Figure 6-The left side plates of both pistols are beautifully decorated in matching form as well.
Figure 7-The view from below the pistols show the nicely figured burl walnut stocks in eye-catching contrast to the engraved and gold plated trigger guards, finials, and ramrod pipes.
serves a dual function in that it is the check valve for charging the reservoir with the pump, and also serves as the firing (or exhaust) valve in releasing the pressurized air during the firing cycle. I measured the grip reservoir’s storage capacity at 90cc (5.5 in3 ) with the complete valve body in place. Each of these grips has been professionally recovered in black Moroccan leather to duplicate the original covering. However, as a side note, some of these antique pistol reservoirs have been encountered finished in either maroon leather, or had the steel itself painted in a mottled, mosaic pattern.
To charge the pistol with air, the grip is first unthreaded from the receiver, and then it is screwed onto the assembled hand pump. The complete pump consists of the pump tube and rod with metal piston head, the foot pad which is held down under the shooter’s foot, and the fancy ebony handle which is used to move the pump up and down for pumping once the reservoir is attached to the top of the assembly.
It would take several hundred pump strokes for the reservoir to be fully charged to an estimated 400-
Figure 8- With the grip reservoirs removed, the pistol markings on the number 2 specimen can be seen. Also visible is the firing pin positioned within the center of the air passage cavity in the receiver. A close inspection at the 9:00 o’clock locations on the receiver faces will reveal the locking pin for the reservoir.
Figure 9-The front faces of the grip reservoirs are each drilled with three holes to allow the indexing and anchoring of the grips to the receivers.
500 psi of high pressure air. This probably allowed for about 10 strong shots. Unfortunately, some of these early air reservoirs have been known to rupture under the stress of charging. So due to the historical importance of these pistols, I am letting caution overrule my curiosity regarding the exact technical details of the charging pressures and shot count. I had to machine a new firing pin and notch years ago for one of these two pistols which came incomplete, and I cannot fathom how difficult and disheartening it would be to fabricate an entire grip reservoir. My guesstimates will have to suffice here in lieu of solid data.
Once the reservoir is fully charged, it is removed from the pump and threaded back onto the pistol’s receiver. The magazine tube can then be filled with 10 lead balls (plus one extra ball in the breechblock if desired). The muzzle is pointed upward to allow gravity to pull the balls down against the breechblock. The shooter then uses his offhand to push the
Figure 10-Once the grip reservoir is removed from the pistol, it is threaded onto the top of the pump above the ebony handle. The small steel plate is placed beneath the shooter’s feet to secure the pump during the air charging procedure.
breechblock fully to the right (against the tension of the magazine leaf spring), allowing a single ball to drop into the tapered .40” cavity. The block is then released, causing the leaf spring to force the breechblock back fully to the left, which in turn brings the ball held within the block’s cavity to be aligned with the bore. This square, steel breech block sliding within the square, steel channel of the breech and barrel is so carefully machined that it creates a near perfect air seal. Amazing!
Once charged and loaded, the cocking hammer is pulled back through two distinct clicks as the tumbler with its wedge contacts travels over the sear. The mainspring is quite stout, and the cocking force is not insignificant. This helps explain the gunmaker’s use of an extended vertical spur on the hammer to give additional leverage for cocking. Though the firing energy from one of these pistols would be quite less than that found from an Austrian butt reservoir rifle, the pistol’s power generated from its massive .40 caliber projectile would still be substantial. At close range, I have no doubt that an accurate shot delivered to the mid-section of a bad actor in a crisis encounter would inflict a mortal wound to the miscreant. And after that, our pneumatic hero would still have nine more rapid, potent rounds at his immediate ready should the need arise to deal with the thug’s misguided friends. Now that is some serious (and attractive!) firepower from 200 years ago!
Both pistols of this pair are essentially identical, with two exceptions. First, we find that the high relief coat of arms that is chisel-engraved on the top of the
Figure 11-The small engraved button near the back of the side plate is used to anchor and index the grip to the shooter’s preferred angle. The bypass button (rod) can be plainly seen protruding from the top of the receiver
receivers are slightly different. Pistol number “1” has the coat of arms featuring a centerpiece of a shield and drum within the flags and spear. Pistol number “2” has a centerpiece featuring 2 cannons, a helmet, and a suit of armor among the flags and spear. How did I differentiate the number of each pistol? That is the second difference between them. The second air pistol is marked “No 2” both on the back face of the receiver, and on the front face of its matching reservoir.
There are two small features found on both pistols that are worth noting. On top of each receiver is a small, spring-loaded rod protruding straight up from the pistol. This item is referred to by collectors as a bypass button or let-down lever. This small rod is the top of the bypass button.
Within the design of an Austrian butt reservoir airgun, whether it be a rifle, shotgun, or pistol, the function of the falling hammer (cocking piece) is the same. All of them have a horizontal wedge attached to the side of the tumbler that is connected to the hammer. This wedge catches a notch in the firing pin assembly to drive it rearward to knock open the reservoir’s valve for a fraction of a second. This allows the high pressure air that is stored within the reservoir to escape and expand and travel through the hollow channel in the receiver to propel the lead ball waiting within the pocket of the breechblock. That firing cycle can then be rapidly repeated.
The bypass button comes into play in that the Austrian airgun does not know or care if the hammer is falling rapidly from the force of the mainspring as a shot is being taken, or if the hammer is lowered slowly to void a shot: either way the wedge will make full contact with the firing pin’s engagement notch.
Figure 12-The pivoting door at the front of the magazine tube is swung open to allow the loading of ten .40 caliber lead balls. The small (and fragile) spring retainer holding the cap in position is missing from both specimens.
The Austrian airgun depends upon the stored energy of the mainspring creating enough kinetic energy in combination with the mass of the hammer to overcome the air pressure forcing the valve head shut. Under this scenario, the valve is knocked rearward and open while it normally would remain shut. Without the momentum of a rapidly falling hammer, the mainspring usually does not have the power to open the valve unless the reservoir pressure is somewhat depleted. In this case, a slowly lowered hammer can allow an unintentional firing of the weapon.
The solution to this issue was solved in that the gunsmiths learned to cut a deep slot in the tumbler as a safety notch. In either case, the bypass button allowed the lowering of the hammer. Depressing the button down forced the spring-loaded firing pin notch assembly to be pushed below the reach of the arc of the tumbler’s wedge. Earliest Austrian airguns, such as the true military Girandoni air rifles, are not fitted with this bypass function.
The second interesting detail seen on both of these pistols is the raised round button found on the side plate near the reservoir junction. This finely engraved button slides back and forth about 1/4 of an inch. It is used to index the angle of the grip reservoir in relation to the receiver. Each reservoir has three small holes drilled in its face which will mate with the pin operated by the sliding button. In this manner, the grip can be locked in the desired position for firing, and is slid forward to release its anchoring hold to allow the reservoir to be removed for recharging. This feature is only found on some Austrian pistols, but never on the Austrian air rifles. This is because it is not needed on the rifles, as the conical buttstock is symmetrical around its circumference.
Figure 13-The muzzle of the Austrian repeating air pistol reveals a very impressive set of deep rifling within the .40 caliber bore.
The reproduction case housing these fine pistols was created by a master case maker after a considerable amount of research. He finally located an original cased pair of Joseph Contriner flintlock pistols to pattern the outfit to historical correctness.
Why use the Contriner cased set as a pattern? Both of these air pistol’s octagonal barrels are clearly inlaid with the name “Cantarini ''...and inlaid in gold wire, no less. What is the connection? As was mentioned earlier, there is no known record of any gunmaker named “Cantarini'' from this time period or any other, much less a skilled gunmaker who would be capable of creating such masterpieces as this pair of air pistols. There is no doubt in my mind that these magnificent high art air pistols are the work of the master airgun maker Joseph Contriner of Vienna, Austria. They were assuredly created under the custom directive of a very wealthy and prominent sportsman of the era. Was his name “Cantarini''? Possibly, but not likely. The name “Cantarini'' could also have been the retail sales agent between the maker and the buyer. Or perhaps Container was still concerned about the previous Austrian airgun laws prohibiting the former Girandoni apprentices from selling to the public and secretly created them under an alias.
I believe the definitive clue that these remarkable air pistols were made by Contriner circa 1815 is found on the pistols themselves. Remember the “J.C.” gold-filled poincon found below the hammer on each lockplate? This was Joseph Contriner’s signature stamp which he often used on a number of his highly-embellished air rifle creations. This same script “J.C.” poincon is found on the lockplates of the rifles in which the top
Figure 14-A close look at the lock plate shows a gold-filled “J.C.” poincon that strongly indicates that this fine pair of repeating pneumatic air pistols are most certainly the work of the famed airgun maker Joseph Contriner of Vienna.
barrel flats of these same air rifles are clearly marked Container (or Cantriner) in gold filled splendor. Case closed.
So after all these years, am I happy that I swallowed my pride in forgiving a perceived injustice surrounding the acquisition of this incredibly beautiful pair of high art air pistols? Does a chicken have lips? Of course! I am still absolutely thrilled even to this day to be blessed with the privilege of enjoying these exquisite Container repeating air pistols dating from 200 years ago.
My continued thanks and gratitude are extended to Tom Gaylord and his dearly departed Edith, whose cherished friendship made all of this memorable experience possible.
Beeman, Robert, “Austrian Large Bore Air Rifles”,
Blackmore, Howard, Gunmakers of London 1350-1850,
Hannusch, Larry, “A Fine Pair of Austrian Pneumatic
Repeaters”, Airguns Illustrated, Jan. 2003
Heer, Eugene, Der Neue Støckel, 1979
Hoff, Arne, Airguns and other Pneumatic Arms, 1972
Wolff, Eldon, Airguns, 1958