An Historical Review of Airguns – By Lee Blair-Jenke

Victorian Pepperbox Air Gun

Although of a unique and exacting design, the air gun has not enjoyed the popularity it deserves, both now and throughout history.  In this historical review of the airgun, Lee Blair-Jenke of Regimentals Antiques in Adelaide researches both the positive and negative aspects of this largely overlooked weapon.

THE AIR GUN is only casually thought of by collectors and students of arms history.  In fact it is considered by most people to belittle more than a toy, a judgement being biased by the popular modern air rifle or gun.

Air guns have been with us in one form or another since the early days of firearms.  Had Oliver Cromwell been assassinated by an air gun, so hopefully purchased for that purpose, or had the American Continental Army adopted it as was proposed at the time, and as Austria later did, and if Napoleon had not taken such violent exception to its use agains this army by the Austrians, the subject would not have been as obscure as it is.

It is uncertain when the first airgun was made, but it appears to have been invented by a number of different people at different times and in different places.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) makes mention of the air gun quite casually as if a commonplace weapon.

The earliest known air gun is preserved in the Armoury of Schmetan in Germany and bears the date of 1474.  Many references are to be found of air guns in use in Germany during the 1500’s and it must be concluded that during this century they had been developed to a point where they were considered to be a serious and practical weapon.

The Air Gun as a Weapon.

The use of the air gun for hunting in the past was extensive although its military use was limited.  In a hunting book published in 1779 it states that three hundred strokes of the pump were required to·fill the ball type reservoir with air.  This was then sufficient for around 24 shots.  The first 6 shots with a lead bullet were able to down a deer between 70 and 80 aces.  Subsequent shots became weaker as pressure reduced in the reservoir.  According to another old report, Louis VIII, Landgrave of Hessen (1691-1768)

preferred to use air guns rather than conventional firearms for big game hunting.  Many great deer, including one weighing 480 pounds, and an un-numbered amount of wild boar are claimed to have fallen to his air gun.

Experiments with an old airgun in Germany showed that a 9.5 mm round bullet could be targeted at a total shooting range of 500 metres.  At a 35 metre distance a 3 cm pine board was pierced.  Flight speed amounted to about 200 metres per sec.  The results of this investigation was that the penetrating power of the air gun in question was sufficient to kill big game at a distance of 100 paces.

The air gun is,from the standpoint of pressures used, decidedly more efficient than the conventional firearm.  It appears that gas confined under pressure and then suddenly released has a relatively more powerful effect upon a projectile than has the gas generated by the burning or explosion of gunpowder.

Air rifle Girardoni 1779 system Windbüchse Designed in 1779 by Austrian inventor Bartholomäus Girardoni

Advantages of Air Guns in Comparison to Firearms.

In considering the advantages of the airgun, it is also necessary to review the disadvantages of the firearm,particularly as they existed in the flintlock and earlier ignition systems.  Whilst this may suggest it’s superiority, the air gun nevertheless did have certain objectionable features that apparently prevented it from being adopted seriously by many nations

The most obvious disadvantage of the firearm was the uncertainty of ignition.  The matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock were all plagued by this problem.  The firearm could misfire for any of many reasons and probably the weather was the biggest cause.  Powder falling out of the pan, a badly primed piece, poor quality powder, a blocked touch hole or a worn or faulty flint were all possible causes of misfire.  In this respect the air gun had a distinct advantage.  As far as certainty of ignition or discharge is concerned, the air gun never fails.

Firearms of this period were not only noisy but generated a lot of smoke from burning powder.  In this respect the air gun was again superior in that it was noiseless, nor did it reveal the position of the shooter by clouds of smoke, and it was for this reason that it became so popular for game hunting and poaching.  In guerrilla warfare the air gun was a priceless weapon.  The Austrians found this feature to their advantage in the Tyrolean campaign against the French.  As a result, Napoleon caused every Austrian captured carrying an air gun to be summarily shot or hanged.  Another material advantage which the air gun possessed over the firearm was the fact that the former adapted itself to repeating mechanisms and rapid fire more readily than did firearms of the pre-cartridge era.

With the air gun an assortment of principles were available.  They were:

Single pressure charge: single shot

Single pressure charge: multiple shot (with ball magazine).

Multiple pressure charge: single shot

Multiple pressure charge: multiple shot

Repeating mechanisms in firearms of the flintlock era were decidedly dangerous and many explosions are recorded with disastrous results to the shooter.

A very practical advantage that the air gun possessed over the firearm using black powder, was that the air gun required almost no cleaning.  The firearm needed cleaning after every use and suffered badly from fouling during use, which affected accuracy.  Because of the absence of fouling, the use of rifling in the air gun presented less of a problem than it did in firearms.  Much to the delight of collectors, most air guns, even very old ones, are invariably found with perfect bores.

Rapid fire did not pose any problems for the air gun but in a muzzle-loading rifle a serious danger was involved due to residual sparks in the chamber.  Apart from fouling making rapid fire difficult for the firearm user, he had also to carry quantities of powder and primers,whereas the air gun only required the ball to be handled and the carrying of a pump.  Rapid fire in a fire-arm caused it to overheat badly, but the air gun remained cool.

From the standpoint of efficiency it is acknowledged that the pressure in the reservoir of a pneumatic air gun was progressively lowered with each shot but experiments show that the strength between the first and tenth shots are practically the same.  By comparison, gun­powder strength did vary enormously in the early days.

Another claimed advantage of the air gun was the amount of ammunition that could be carried.  The soldier or sportsman could carry sufficient compressed air in the reservoir of his airgun for possibly 40 shots and could carry extra reservoirs if he wished.  An Austrian soldier equipped with the air rifle went into battle carrying 24 filled flask reservoirs, each of which held a potential of upwards of 20 lethal shots.  The soldier was therefore prepared to deliver 480 shots at ranges varying from 150-400 paces, meaning that one corps of 500 men could deliver 24,000 shots with normal field equipment.  The rate of fire of the Austrian air rifle was 20 shots per minute.  One reservoir would last at least a minute and on this basis a corps of 500 men had a potential ire powder of 10,000 shots per minute. This, in view of the little equipment involved and the then existing rate of fire for firearms, is absolutely incredible.  It is no wonder that Napoleon ordered the death of all Austrian soldiers caught with air guns.

Disadvantages of Air Guns.

The primary disadvantage of the air gun was the cold hard matter of cost.  The construction of the weapon required practically every element present in a firearm plus the addition of certain other parts.  The first of these was the reservoir.  This required the forming and welding of an air-tight container which had to be fitted with a screw joint.  In addition to the reservoir a valve assembly was required, which had to be manufactured and fitted with sufficient precision to permit the retention of up to 750 pounds per square inch of air pressure.  The fitting of these valves required a degree of precision in workmanship far above that needed for firearms.  Even after these extra operations, there remained the making of a pump for charging the reservoir which at least equaled the task of making a barrel.  The internal surface or bore of the pump required fitting of sufficient precision to allow a steel piston to slip fit within it, the pump chamber.

A great many air guns were breech loaders and this involved other operations in manufacture.  At the very least it can be said that air guns required twice the time needed to produce a fire-arm of similar quality and workmanship.  Another disadvantage of the air gun was the physical work required to charge the reservoir.  Instructions on a pump accompanying an old air rifle state? ‘800 strokes to fill each globe with air’.

An additional drawback is the element of danger involved in having air under pressure.  Several instances are recorded of air gun reservoirs having exploded either injuring or killing the user.  Probably the most dangerous of reservoirs was the ball type.  The early workers must have had a fear of ball reservoirs exploding as they are invariably made of copper.  While copper, the softer metal,does not have the strength of steel or iron, it does have the advantage of opening when it gives way under pressure, and does not splinter or fracture like a grenade.  These reservoirs filled with air were cold and unpleasant to handle in cold weather and for this reason the stocks were covered with leather or cloth.  Ball reservoirs sometimes were fitted with a stocking cap arrangement.

A reservoir filled to its maximum in a cold room would increase its pressure and possibly explode when brought out into the sun.  Distribution of the air gun was limited by another factor related to earlier remarks.  The skill required to maintain the valve and any other precision parts made it an impractical weapon for use at any distance from a gun making centre.  The air guns,upon which the Austrians put so much hope, were eventually abandoned because of the state of disrepair into which they had fallen.

TYPES OF AIR GUN

The Blowpipe.

The most primitive type of air gun is the Blowpipe; along tube through which a projectile is driven out at great speed by the force of the human lungs.  This surprisingly efficient and precise weapon has been used by many peoples all over the world .

Bellows Gun

The Bellows Gun is the earliest form of mechanical air gun.  It is found in one inherent form which in its general appearance is reminiscent of he wheel lock.  The Bellows air gun had a hollowed out butt stock in which the bellows and its accompanying mechanism are housed.  The gun is operated by forcing the bellows open against the pressure of one or two V-springs, this being accomplished by means of a removable crank.  The aircompressed by the sudden closing of the bellows forces the projectile out  through the barrel.

Fine German Breech-Loading Crank-Wound Bellows Air Gun

Strike Pump Guns (Gallery Guns)

Systematically different from the bellows gun is a type which is generally called a spring gun, where the momentary air pressure is created by a spring propelled piston rushing forward in a pump cylinder.  Such air guns occur at about the same time as the bellows guns and its general external appearance is that of a conventional wheel Jock gun.  A common feature of the later strike pump gun was the use of a new type of spring, the double volute spring.  About the middle of the 19th century the strike pump gun became popular in Europe,but was far more widely used in the United States.  The period represented by the strike pump or American Gallery gun appears to have begun shortly before the Civil War and continued for about a decade after.

strike-pump Gallery gun, probably by Johann Peterlongo

With the interest in rifle shooting coming to the attention of urban dwellers as a result of the Civil War, there developed a desire to emulate the heroes of the War.  A means of satisfying this desire was found in the gallery gun, and as the name indicates, was generally used in indoor ranges.  These guns, whilst occurring in a variety of designs, have certain characteristics in common.  They were highly stylized and were of European design.  All are double volute spring piston guns.  All are breech loaders,have smooth bores and were designed to use darts.  A detachable crank which is inserted into an aperture in the side of the receiver operates a rack within, which compressed the spring.  Other varieties are cranked by means of a combination trigger guard level.  Makers, judging by names, were of Germanic origin.

Barrel Reservoir Air Guns

Among the earliest surviving pump-up air guns is the system of the air reservoir surrounding the barrel.  The barrel consists of two tubes, the barrel proper and an outer tube that forms an air reservoir between the two.  The barrel surrounding reservoir air gun is one that is deceptive at first glance.  The impression normally conveyed is that of a heavy barreled piece.  In this type of arm there is a pump in the butt.

Globe or Ball Reservoir Air Gun

This variety is recognisable at a glance.  The ball reservoir is usually constructed of copper, but steel and brass examples do exist.  The advantage of the ball type reservoir was that only one valve was required.  With are movable reservoir it was necessary to have an auxiliary pump instead of having one built in.  The ball reservoir was attached to the gun in a variety of positions.  The ball under the barrel was the most popular position, but a number of examples have the ball reservoir placed either on top or on the side of the barrel.  Locks also are found in a variety of types from simple cocking levers to full mock flintlocks.

G W Bales ball reservoir rifle / shotgun – David Swan Collection

Butt Reservoir Air Gun

Air guns of this style fall into two categories, those with built in butt reservoirs and others with detachable butt reservoirs.  While airguns with built in butt reservoirs and those with barrel reservoirs had to be equipped with two valves, the globe reservoir gun required only one valve.  On the other hand, it had to be admitted that globe reservoir guns were less practically shaped for hunting than butt reservoir guns.  A system that combined the advantages of both was the detachable butt reservoir which required a separate pump.  The detachable butt reservoir was simply a metal container, but with the same outer shape as the normal butt which was covered with leather or fabric.  The ultimate air gun in the form of the butt reservoir air gun was developed by the Austrian Girandoni in 1780.  It was his system that was adopted by the Austrian Army with such success against Napoleon.

Air Canes

The air cane gun was developed to its ultimate form in England.  The lock mechanism is hidden beneath a casing of painted metal.  There is little variation in the essential form of the air cane.  It is divided into two sections with the halves united by a screw joint.  The front section contains the lock, barrel, breech, sights and combined ramrod and barrel cap.  The pop out trigger is characteristic as is the cocking mechanism.  The rear portion of the cane is the air reservoir.  English air canes are commonly found with two barrels.  In addition to the regular barrel a removable liner was provided.  Generally the bore is smooth and the liner is rifled.  Barrels and removable liners are usually made of brass and the rifling is poly-grooved.  While most air canes are muzzle loading, certain specimens are equipped with a loading port at the breech, usable for ball.

Gas Gun

Closely related to the air gun is the gas gun, which uses a chemically produced gas as the propellant.  Attempts to construct such a gun were made as early as the 1830’s.  The first gas gun to be actually produced was the ‘Giffard’ gas gun in 1872, which had an ‘air cartridge’ containing compressed air.  It was obviously not a very long step from this to a cartridge of carbon dioxide gas.  The presently produced C02 air guns are, of course, descendants of the earlier gas guns produced by Paul Giffard.

Quackenbush

In the late 1870’s the solid but expensive handmade gallery gun was priced out of the market by a new factory made strike pump gun.  Henry Marcus Quackenbush, with his No.l air gun, had an effective substitute for the expensive handmade gallery gun.  His weapon had only 15 parts compared to 27 parts in a typical gallery gun and weighed considerably less.  In place of the hand fitted leather covered piston, a precision machined steel piston was used to slip fit in a forged cylinder.  Another improvement was a machine wound coil spring.  Gallery guns were equipped with either a detachable crank or trigger guard lever for cocking.  Quackenbush substituted the barrel itself for his purpose.  The result of these improvements and simplification in design was that, while effective as the handmade gallery guns, it could be mass produced at a fraction of the cost.  Under these circumstances the gallery gun gradually disappeared and was not advertised for sale after 1879.  From that time on Quackenbush rapidly assumed the leading position in the air gun field in America.

Tinplate

It is evident that air gunmakers had a lead over gunsmiths.  Not only were the advances in lock mechanics, breech loading techniques, metallurgy and appreciation of pressures evident, but the radically new process of using folded metal was also adopted by air gun makers as early as 1890.

With the cheap tinplate airguns flooding the market, the air gun had now become little more than a toy, with nearly every boy owning one at some time or another.

Air pistol, percussion cap, ca. 1875


Air Pistol Percussion cap, ca. 1875

References:

‘AIR GUNS’ by E.G. Wolf

‘AIR GUNS & OTHER PNEUMATIC ARMS’ by A. Hoff

‘GAS, AIR & SPRING GUNS OF THE WORLD’ by W.H.B. Smith.

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