Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Crosman 160: A Legend of Our Time

When Martial Law was declared in 1972 all firearms, including sporting small bores, were required to be immediately surrendered to the government under the pain of death. The collection points for the surrendered weapons included police stations, town halls and wooden drop boxes. It seemed the end of small game hunting had come for the common man.

But the common, rural Filipino had always hunted. Not for mere sport or diversion, but to partake of traditional delicacies that required wild, harvested meat: squab, river fish, bats and reptiles. The military bureaucrat who penned the clarificatory rules must have been one such hunter. For the rules as finally written specified that air guns were not firearms (as presently alleged) but toys. Pinalusot na, a loophole was provided. This loophole allowed the small game hunters to continue with their pursuit. It also made many traditional air gun smiths to become relatively prosperous in the long years of the dictatorship.

The products of these air gun smiths varied widely in quality. On the main the rifles were engorged adaptations of American pneumatic or pumped up air weapons, such as Benjamins and the like. Where the American originals were mostly of limited power and small-bored, the Filipino variations of the de bomba were larger of powerplant and bore. Using foot-pedal pumps, the rifleman used arm and back effort hundreds of times to build up air pressure for a few shots. In a sense, the Filipino weapons were a re-discovery of the archaic pneumatic air rifles that saw dramatic use in the hunting fields and theaters of European wars well past the Napoleonic era. On their trip to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark carried an air rifle as large as a Kentucky flintlock, and which could fire several shots before recharging.

While many Filipino air rifles were in the traditional .22 caliber, specialty bores as large as .30 caliber were seen. Crafted from brass, with seals of belt or shoe leather and rubber scavenged from automobile tires, these rifles were reputed to be able to shoot through one side of a water drum, and to take the occasional deer or boar!

But on the main the requirement was simpler: a good air rifle to take small game such as edible birds, frogs, reptiles and fish. And the ideal was the Filipinized, powerized bolt-action single shot Crosman 160 from the USA. By coincidence, the 160 was discontinued in 1970 and stopped being a catalogued item in 1973.

CO2-powered air guns were also an European invention of roughly one and a half centuries ago, but the difficulty of maintaining seals and such was difficult at best, given the materials available in the 19th century, when the earliest CO2 guns were patented by Paul Giffard in France. CO2 had to wait until after WW II, with the new profusion of materials, including synthetics, for CO2 rifles to become simple enough for common marketing. The Crosman Arms Inc. of Fairport, New York billed itself “the oldest and largest manufacturer of CO2 air guns in the world.” Though they had a run of CO2 rifles since the late 1940s, the culmination of their experience and skill came in the1960s: the Crosman160.

Only the .22 caliber version, the version overwhelmingly preferred in the Philippines as well as the United States, was properly called the 160. The .177 version was stamped “Crosman 167”. The sporting goods store Associated Trading in Binondo was their Philippine distributor, repair and warranty station. And Associated must have brought in thousands upon thousands of Crosman 160s plus a smaller number of 167s.

There were two distinct versions of this model. The earlier Crosman 160 had a slimmer stock with a distinctive high cheekpiece, a safety that operated automatically upon the opening of the bolt, a non-adjustable trigger. It had barrel-mounted square notch open sights. The other, newer version had a fuller stock sans cheekpiece, a sophisticated adjustable trigger assembly that included a swinging safety. And it was supplied with excellent micrometer peep sights.

The main drawback of the Crosman 160 as originally imported was that it was powered by Powerlets – expensive, imported metal CO2 cartridges. The solution was provided by Crosman itself by making handy, convenient refillable gas cylinders available. These gas cylinders had been marketed by Crosman in America earlier. Soon there were filling stations even in the provinces that refilled the portable cylinders from bulk tanks. The CO2 gas that powered the air guns were everywhere called “oxygen”!

The second drawback, easily solved by native ingenuity, was the relative low power of the Crosman relative to the foot-pumped powerplants of the local rifles. Air gun smiths and tinkerers promptly went to work: enlarging blowholes, installing more powerful springs, balancing the works. Four or five shots was all you could expect from the rifle’s tank, but each shot rivaled the power of a .22 Short rimfire round.

Other shortcomings were minor: the hard rubber barrel band did not last long, but was easily replaced with one fabricated from steel. Mr. Soriano in Pasig could make one for you.

Because the Philippine Martial Law demand for the discontinued 160 was very strong, local manufacturers crafted many imitations in various degrees of polish, including the vanished, much lamented Valiente air guns: nickled brass with gorgeous stocks decorated in with various morisco motifs. Even the current Armscor air rifles, that seem to have eliminated all of its home grown competition, may in some ways be derivative of the Crosman 160 design.

But then as now, the obvious advantage of the Crosman over the local air guns was accuracy. Most were not pellet sensitive and shot grungy, inconsistently sized native fodder amazingly well. The 160s and 167s had bright, beautiful bores with button rifling that gave unheard of precision. There was, and there may still be, a thriving blackmarket in Crosman barrels. A good Crosman barrel was simply unbeatable, specially when used in conjunction with a scope, usually a Weaver 4X, acquired from Mr. Pinlac’s in the alley off Avenida Rizal was mounted. Then no punay, no balud, no puñelada, no mourning dove, no rain soaked September snipe, kanduro, crunched tight against the ground, within 50 meters was safe.

My Crosman 160s

I owned four or five Crosman 160s and one Crosman 167 through the early years. As with all of my old guns, I wish I still had them all.

My Crosman 167 was the earliest version – the one with the non-adjustable trigger. Tweaked by a succession of disappointed tinkerers, including myself, it achieved its full potential slowly. Then it became the most wonderfully accurate air rifle I ever shot – and I own Feinwerkbaus. Because of its caliber my Crosman 167 would not consistently kill mourning doves immediately, often allowing them to fly away lethally wounded. So with the 4X Weaver, it was used essentially a varminter: large rats, maya, other non edibles, It was so accurate – matuwid – it would consistently blast aratiles fruits at 60 meters from a braced position using heavy, round nosed Parco pellets.

Later I found a Crosman 160 with a shot-out barrel and had it replaced by - if I remember right - a short barrel from a Crosman 1400. Bulacan air gun smiths made a stock for this rifle patterned after the stock of the M1 Carbine. They also made an M1 Carbine styled winged front sight on a barrel band. Seriously powerized by Soriano of Pasig, it was a nifty, very handsome, little hunting and target gun, and was immediately sold the afternoon I had it consigned at Mrs. Kaw’s branch of Associated Trading in Makati.

Old Mr. Sagenes of Silang, Cavite was the boss of Estrella-Parco, one of the oldest air gun makers in the country. His personal Crosman 160 with a shot out barrel went on sale at Associated. I bought it together with an unfired 23” barrel from a repeating, slide action Crosman. This combination was superbly accurate. The powerizing process gave it a full, solid explosive blam when firing.

I also had a very nice, late model Crosman 160 – more or less original except for powerizing and the replacement of the barrel band for one of steel. This was my favorite of all.

I taught all my five sons to shoot with the Crosman. But with the return of legitimate cartridge guns after the Edsa Revolution, my air rifles fell into disuse. Though time I gave them all away, but still miss them and the days when my boys and I went afield with those rifles after the vanishing doves.

In memory of Virgilio Pinlac of Revir
and Jovita Kaw of Associated Trading.