The Official on line magazine of the
North American Frontiersmen
A short history of the Airgun
by Buck Conner
The use of compressed air to propel a projectile is an old concept dating back to 250 BC, when a gentleman by the name of Ktesbias II of Egypt drew plans and wrote of a weapon that would operate on mere air pressure. Vague references to Ancient Greeks using a source of compressed air to throw rocks at their enemies or in the Renaissance Period - inventor Leonardo DaVinci having drawn plans for air powered weapons. Some historians have claimed that Guter of Nuremberg in 1430 designed a working model of an air rifle, (but never had it profectived). While others claim that Hans Lobsigner in 1560 produced a modified version of the Nuremberg hand held rifle that worked flawlessly and produced numbers of them in the late 1500's. France, Holland, Italy and several other small countries were producing airguns by the early 1600's and supplying arms for personal protection.
The oldest existing airgun known is in the Royal Danish Arsenal in Copenhagen and dates from around 1580.
Otto Von Guerick (1602-1686) established the principle of the vacuum with the Madgeburg spheres, designed and building an air rifle using this surge principle. His devise according to an article written by J.T.Haynes was actually a cannon arrangement that used a detachable air reservoir connected to the cannon tube. These wind chambers as they were called generated considerable force, capable of propelling a four pound lead ball 500 yards, and able to penetrate a three inch thick oak board.
The airgun history actually began in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, these odd arms then equaled the power of the contemporary big-game and waterfowl weapon or military firearm. Many thought that the Lewis and Clark air rifle was an unusual item, when the real truth of the matter is this type of weapon had been around for 400 years before the exploration of the Northwest in 1804. Airguns were considered weapons of war, an early version would be the blow gun powered by one's own breath, and many disagree on when this early weapon came into being. In Europe many leaders would have anyone using a crossbow or airgun put to death, they didn't like the idea of a weapon being silent, in war or peace time.
The first largest produced airgun was of the bellows chamber design, so named as implies, a spring loaded bellows was used for power with an expanding ratchet device housed in the butt stock that was cranked or keyed to rewind the spring. All bellows type guns were smooth bores according to James W. Harrom (Beeman Precision) and many shot tufted large diameter darts up to 50 caliber. They were all breech loading in design with the convential barrel opening at the breech and tilting downward for loading. Most of the bellows guns were of the long gun configuration, very few produced as pistols, most were very elaborate in design, hardware and finishes. The bellow gun production was short lived in the 1500's and mainly used as a target weapon, but resumed popularity in the mid to late 1700's, 200 years later that has puzzled historians world wide. According to Mr. Harrom most bellows guns date from 1740 to 1790 and seem to come from a small area bounded by Munich, Prague and Vienna. the bellows airgun had disappeared by the late 1800's, yet a few appear to have been made as late as the 1870's.
Another design that appeared on the scene around 1600 was the spring piston gun, with several variations of springs used in their operation. >From the zigzag shape to the helical coil spring (much like what is used today in modern spring piston airguns), again a ratchet device is used to pump or crank the spring into a compressed position when loaded, then released by a trigger sear or unlatching mechanism. By the first part of the 19th century the spring piston gun had established it's elf through out Europe as an indoor target weapon. By the mid 1800's this airgun had found it's way to the New World in the indoor shooting galleries becoming very popular as a great past-time sport. Usually found in .25 to .30 caliber, smooth bores intended to shoot darts. As time and weapons improved they were placed into a number of classes for competition, from small caliber - smooth bore to the larger caliber - rifled and so on. There were manufactures of weapons with names we all remember like Quackenbush, Daisy, Atlas, Markham/King and many others, some have survived, others are history.
The pump pneumatic gun has been worked on by inventors since the early 1600's, with a number of mechanism designs that were so involved that the system developed slowly when compared to the other systems mentioned. The size ranged from .30 to .68 caliber bores - smooth and rifled, meaning that a large volume of compressed air was needed in a large reservoir to produce pressures from a few hundred pounds per square inch to several thousand pounds per square inch. Not only deadly at the muzzle but also at the reservoir area. This much pressure would fire a .40 caliber lead ball, 40 times without resupplying the reservoir and equal a 35 grains of FFG black powder per shot, able to penetrate 2 1/2" into a hardpine board. This was duplicated a few years ago with one of these early air rifles and found to produce each shot with 750 PSI, that's impressive, no wonder the L&C members wanted to have one of these along to show the Natives their "Spirit Gun".
There are a number of other manufacturers from other parts of the world that have had success with the airgun, for example an Austrian firm using a design by Bartolemeno Girandoni in 1779 made weapons that ranged from .40 to .52 caliber in bore and capable of firing 15 to 20 rounds within a minute by a gravity feed magazine. "When you figure that a group of armed men, 500 in number could fire approximately 100,000 rounds per hour, meaning they would have 5 times the firepower of many troops with flintlocks muskets, at 100 yards this is amazing," says author J.T.Haynes.
Now you can see why the airgun was condemned by Napoleon and other leaders being targeted by the Austrian Army in the late 1700's, even the Church of Rome condemned the Austrian rifle. "Poachers, assassins and other undesirables were portrayed", Mr. Haynes says, "as the likely users of these weapons, tools of the Devil."
For power of these guns, Louis VII Landgrave of Hesse (1691-1768) used a big bore air rifle to kill 500 lb. stag elk at ranges of 150 to 160 paces in 1746-1748. On our continent the journals of Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) show their big bore pneumatic rifle, made in Philadelphia by Jacob Kunz and Issaih Lukens, capable of 40 full power shots at 900 PSI with a 1,000 pump strokes for raised pressure. This .31 caliber rifle had a 34" octagon barrel of brass with 17 groove rifling and needed no patching as the ball to barrel rifling was so close with the shallow rifling, making a snug fit. They used it to show the Indians of their power in taking small game up to deer in size, this had to astonish the onlookers. As late as the 1890's we have seen in this country pneumatic weapons disguised as walking sticks and canes ranging from .40-.50 in caliber with 500-750 FPS velocities capable of killing a man at 40-50 yards.
This information came from many resources: J.T.Haynes, "Airguns Throughout History", C.D.Hamilton, "Silent Killers", James W. Harrom, "History of Air Rifles", Permission from "Beeman Precision Airgun Guide".
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