Where it all began
by B.B. Pelletier
Blowguns are the most primitive air weapons of all - and they ARE weapons, unlike nearly all other airguns. A blowgun is a long tube that shoots a dart powered by the force of air from the shooter's lungs. It falls into the spring-piston category because the lungs do not compress the air until the moment of firing. About 400 years ago, an airgun using a leather bellows to do the same thing was invented. It was a copy of the blowgun, put into mechanical form.
The blowgun reaches far back into prehistory, so the date or even era of its creation isn't known, but it is certainly older than 2,000 years. The reason it is prehistoric isn't necessarily because of its age, but because it was used by primitive cultures that had no written language.
As an airgunner, I had read about the effectiveness of blowguns for many years before seeing it firsthand. When I saw what one could do, I was amazed. The first time I tried one, I was hitting a 6" target from 40 feet! I know some airguns that can't do as well. Suddenly I had to have one of my own.
The longer the better
Like any pneumatic gun, the longer the blowgun, the faster it propels the dart. Even with the tiny amount of air from human lungs, this remains true. I bought a modern 6-footer, which is in the magnum class, but it certainly isn't handy! If I were using it to hunt, it would get caught on every branch and weed in the field. As a testbed in a clean environment, it's perfect. There are 4-foot and even 3-foot models, and you can make your own from simple aluminum tubing bought at the hardware store, so length can be whatever you want it to be.
As airgun collectors become more interested in their hobby, they eventually start acquiring blowguns. Robert Beeman has a large collection of airguns, and he has lots of blowguns, as well. In the first Airgun Digest, he not only showed some of the history of the guns, he even included detailed instructions for making both the guns and the darts! W.H.B. Smith did the same thing in his book, Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World. In fact, blowguns are such fascinating objects that many Asian countries are now cranking out primitive models in huge numbers for the tourist trade. It's similar to the current fascination with medieval armor and swords.
Your airguns will be jealous of the accuracy!
Accuracy is surprising. Six inches at 40 feet was just my first attempt. With some practice, I can hit a 3" target at the same 40 feet most of the time. A skilled shooter can probably hit a 1" target reliably at the same range. There are clubs that shoot targets at 10 meters. Native blowgun hunters can extend that range up to 80 and even 100 yards, but they use their weapons all the time and become very familiar with their performance.
The commercial blowgun I bought came with a dozen darts fastened to the tube on a dart holder. Over the years, I've managed to lose about half of them, but they're available from any dealer. I see them all the time at local gun shows. The dart is made of a 4" section of music wire, sharpened on one end and fixed to a colorful plastic skirt on the other end. The skirt fits the inside of the tube to seal the air behind and provides high drag in flight to stabilize the dart. The dart works on the same principle as the diabolo pellet.
The blowgun is almost silent in operation. Beyond 20 feet, it's so quiet that it cannot be heard in most circumstances. The dart flies faster than the eye can track (200-350 f.p.s.), so a stealthy blowgunner can wreak some real damage. Darts will penetrate a 1/4" plywood board with ease and a 1" pine plank if the shooter has the lungs for it. But penetration isn't how the darts work in the field. They are coated with a fast-acting toxin that paralyzes the game, allowing dispatch by other means. This is academic for American hunters, though, because blowguns are not an appropriate hunting weapon when better tools, such as pellet guns, are available.
There's a huge variety of blowguns available on the internet today. There are big-bore guns, guns that will shoot 440 yards (almost as far as a diabolo pellet!) and all sorts of dart types, plus paintballs. Blowgun sites talk about hunting with blowguns, but I don't advocate it. Having seen birds suffering with darts in their bodies, I can't think of a more inappropriate thing to do.
Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island restrict their ownership. As far as I know the other 47 states have no laws against them. New York City prohibits their ownership, and there may be counties and other cities with restrictions. In Canada, they're prohibited except for use on a legal shooting range. The UK outlaws all modern blowguns entirely. Only antiques may be owned. That said, a blowgun is the easiest weapon to manufacture and to conceal.
The science of the blowgun continues to captivate all who fall under its influence. It's well worth the low cost to have one if you can, just to learn more about your sport.