by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • History
  • What an air shotgun has to do to succeed
  • The second key to success
  • Mainstream hunters
  • Below the standard
  • The Orient
  • Yewha BBB Dynamite
  • Fire 201
  • Gamo Viper Express air shotgun
  • Air shotguns today

Air shotguns are a subject that keeps bubbling to the top every few years. With the recent interest in big bore airguns, its time has probably come, again. In today’s report, I want to tell you what has been done in this arena over the past 500 years and also what’s needed to make an air shotgun viable.

History

Air shotguns date back to the beginning of airguns, some time in the middle 16th century. All guns at that time were smoothbore, so not a lot of thought was paid to whether they shot a single projectile or many projectiles. For birds that flew, many projectiles were necessary, although this was before people shot at flying birds.

Today we only think of shooting birds in flight. But as late as the late 19th century, market hunters (those harvesting game to sell for a living) were still shooting ducks, geese and swans by the dozens and even the hundreds in flocks as they floated on the water. Shooting birds on their roosts in trees was also considered proper until very late in the 19th century. The limitations of flintlock shotguns made such shooting a necessity.

During these same periods, airguns were all very large caliber. It was considered normal for a fine English-made airgun to come in a leather case with both a rifled barrel and a smoothbore shotgun barrel. But these airguns, as finely made as they were, were not as powerful as the firearms of their day. If we compare antique air rifles to antique firearm rifles of the same period, the difference doesn’t seem so great; but when we look at air shotguns, we see they lack something that firearms of the same period all had — velocity.

“Shooting flying” was the term used for downing birds in flight. Once percussion gun locks became reliable, the sport of shooting birds on the wing took off and never looked back. But the air shotguns could not compete with their firearm cousins, because, by comparison, they shot only half as fast. And, that’s one of the 2 major problems that have plagued air shotguns from around 1830 until the present day.

What an air shotgun has to do to succeed

My late friend, Mac, was very comfortable shooting shotguns. We talked all the time about what an air shotgun would need to do to be successful. It was Mac’s opinion that an air shotgun needed to shoot its shot at a minimum of 1,000 f.p.s. to be accepted by shotgunners. He told me that even lower-velocity shotgun loads are going out at around 1,150 f.p.s., these days, and most competitive rounds for Sporting Clays and Trap are leaving the muzzle at 1,300 f.p.s. In fact, today’s shells are so regular that shotgunners are basing their swing speed on that velocity. Hand a world champion skeet shooter a shotgun shell that travels only 800 f.p.s., and you’ll see him miss his target every time. Their shot columns will be behind the targets in flight. I’m not aware of any modern air shotgun capable of reaching even 800 f.p.s. with a respectable load of shot, which I’ll now discuss.

The second key to success

Besides velocity, the amount of shot in the charge has to be meaningful. Mac and I went around and around on that subject, until we realized the decision had already been made for us. Those who shoot the .410 shotgun fire a lower-velocity shell that contains 1/2 oz. of shot. One-half ounce equates to 219 grains. The size of the shot in the charge doesn’t matter; although, if it’s only a half-ounce, you’ll need a smaller shot size to give you enough shot. Maybe No. 7-1/2 or No. 8 shot is appropriate in such a shell. After all, you aren’t shooting geese at 60 yards with a .410!

So, the ideal air shotgun has to fire a half-ounce shot charge at 1,000 f.p.s. That is, if the folks who make the air shotguns want them to appeal to mainstream hunters.

Mainstream hunters

Let’s be honest. Most hunters who use shotguns today don’t shoot lower-velocity .410s with a half-ounce of shot. The trend is toward the 3-inch and even the 3-1/2-inch shell, which holds 1-1/8 oz. to 1-1/2 oz. of shot, depending on the gauge. While I am at it, let’s all understand that shot fired from a 28-gauge shotgun hits an animal just as hard as shot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. The difference is the amount of shot you can get into the charge; and to a shotgun hunter, more shot is always better. The larger gauges (which means the smaller numbers — 12 gauge is larger than 20 gauge) hold more shot.

When a shotgun fires, the shot charge that’s been bunched up into 1/2-inch inside the shell spreads out to 12-20 feet long as it flies through the air. It also starts to spread apart in an ever-growing circle. A fast-flying bird may miss most of the shot in the column because of this. Even though your shot pattern looks good on paper, not all of the shot got there at the same time, and you may miss your target because of it. Shotgunners learn this lesson very quickly, so they point their shotgun barrels ahead of their targets, ensuring that the birds fly into the fast-moving shot column at exactly the right time. When you watch a clay pigeon break into 3 pieces in the air, it’s being hit by one or two shot at the edge of a shot column. When the entire column hits it, the pigeon explodes in a puff of black smoke or dust. That’s called dusting the targets. That’s what shotgunners want to do to birds.

Below the standard

Now you should understand why air shotguns have never really succeeded. They fire their shot far too slowly to hit the target with a normal swing, and many of them shoot way too little shot in a charge. Only one air shotgun I’ve ever tested shoots faster than 1,000 f.p.s. That was the Fire 201 air shotgun. Unfortunately, it was only a .25-caliber airgun and could shoot only a very small charge of shot. The velocity was barely okay, but the amount of shot was substandard. And remember, we’re calling a lower-velocity .410 shotgun shell with a half-ounce of shot the standard.

The other air shotguns that have existed (and some still do) have had an adequate shot charge, but they fired it far too slow. The Paul air shotguns of the 1920s and the Vincent (1940-1955) had larger bores of .410 caliber. But they were too slow — at 450-550 f.p.s. The Crosman Trapmaster 1100 was .380 caliber and was both too slow (450-550 f.p.s.) and also had a shot charge that was too small.

Paul air shotgun
Paul air shotgun was a multi-pump pneumatic.

Paul shotshell
Shells for the Paul were sheet metal with cork wads on both ends of the shot charge.

Vincent air shotgun
Vincent air shotgun was also a multi-pump.

Crosman Trapmaster 1100
Crosman’s Trapmaster 1100 was powered  by CO2. It was .380 caliber and featured 2 power settings.

The Orient

When the Philippine population had their guns taken away in 1972 by the Marcos regime, air shotguns suddenly became an important item for subsistence hunters. The Farco air shotgun is the best brand known in the U.S., although there are many others we don’t see that often. Farcos caught American airgunners by surprise in the 1990s, when they were heavily promoted by Air Rifle Specialists of New York. The ARS owner, Davis Schwesinger, even shot a small boar with one, and suddenly Americans had to have a Farco — including yours truly.

Farco air shotgun
Farco air shotgun.

The Farco is a 28-gauge shotgun powered by CO2 that’s bulk-filled into the gun’s long reservoir. The shot charge can weigh nearly a half ounce, but the resulting velocity is pitiful — barely 450 f.p.s. It was more of a gun we owned for bragging rights than for serious hunting, though there were a few stalwarts who did use it seriously.

It’s been reported that some Philippine hunters used arrows with dynamite torpedoes on their ends to kill animals as large as water buffalo with the Farco. I don’t know how true those stories are, but I do know that the Farco was used successfully for bowfishing.

But the Farco is a subsistence gun — not a sporting gun. Birds are not shot on the wing; they’re shot on the roost or floating on the water. The hunters who use a gun like the Farco are living by the same laws that existed in the United States until the late 19th century.

Yewha BBB Dynamite

The Yewha BBB Dynamite was never officially imported into the U.S. Many were brought in as samples, even by the Beeman company, which considered carrying them but never did. The samples were sold, which is why some folks think Beeman used to carry the Yewha. Although they put it in some catalogs, it was never a stock item.

Yewha air shotgun Yewha 3B Dynamite.

The Yewha was a .25-caliber multi-pump air shotgun that had a front-pump rod with a foot rest. The shooter stood on the foot rest and pumped the gun up and down up to 150 times for a full charge. After that, the gun could be topped off with 10-20 pumps after every shot.

The gun was made in Korea, where firearms are nearly impossible to own. The Koreans love to hunt, which is why so many powerful air rifles come from that country. The Yewha was also a subsistence gun, firing a pitifully small charge of shot at a respectable 1,000 f.p.s., or nearly so. Beeman sold a total of 350 of the guns; but as I noted, they never stocked it as a regular product in their line. Dr. Beeman was interested in the design of the gun, but he knew that not many customers would be willing to pump for such a long time. Since then, many Yewhas in the U.S. have been converted to precharged operations that shooters are more accustomed to.

Fire 201

I mentioned the Shinsung Fire 201 — also from Korea. It was a .25-caliber precharged gun that shot a minuscule charge of shot at just over 1,000 f.p.s. I owned one of them and tested it extensively for my newsletter, The Airgun Letter.

Fire 201
Fire 201 air shotgun was a .25 caliber that had good velocity, but the shot charge was too small.

Like most air shotguns, the shot was loaded into a hollow shell that was plugged at bother ends. I found that cleaning pellets were perfect for the job.

Fire 201 shotshell
The Fire 201 shotshell is filled with shot and plugged at either end with a felt cleaning pellet.

Like all the other air shotguns mentioned in this report, the Fire 201 was for subsistence and as a novelty, only. Although it shot fast enough, the shot charge was far too small to have any affect. The only interesting thing about the gun is it was later rebarreled with a 9mm rifled barrel to become the first Korean big bore. While the Shinsung 9mm rifle is no longer available, it was very similar to the Recluse that’s still being sold.

Gamo Viper Express air shotgun

Gamo calls their .22-caliber Gamo Viper Express air shotgun an air rifle, too, but it clearly isn’t. It has a smooth bore, and to be a rifle it needs to have rifling in the barrel. Some people not familiar with firearms call any long gun a rifle because they don’t know the terminology. But rifles have rifled barrels, and if they have smooth bores they are properly called guns.

The Viper Express is a novelty gun, only. It’s not suited to either subsistence or to sport; though if you get very close to your quarry, you might get lucky and hit something with a pellet. I tested this one for you back in 2006.

Gamo Viper Express
Gamo Viper Express is a spring-piston air shotgun.

The Viper Express is something airgunners have told me they really want — a spring-piston air shotgun! It handles really well and looks like a 28-gauge shotgun, but it lacks velocity and shot capacity — both critical items for an air shotgun.

Air shotguns today

The current interest in big bore airguns is spawning a resurgence of air shotguns. I’ve seen and shot several prototypes, including one that is based on an AirForce Escape survival rifle. That one is a .410 that does launch a half-ounce of shot, but only at 600 f.p.s.

Until an air shotgun can launch at least a half ounce of shot at 1,000 f.p.s., they’ll remain novelties and subsistence guns. I hope I’ve explained why this is the case. They do hold interest and fascination for some shooters, but that fascination is based more on what people think an air shotgun ought to be rather than what they actually are.

My gut feeling is that someone has already invented an air shotgun that meets the minimum requirements, or they will pretty soon. When that happens, air shotguns will transition from the novelty class into the true sporting shotgun class. That should open the market for them.