by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Table of contents
  • What is an airgun?
  • The first airgun
  • What we do know
  • The load-compression airgun
  • What came next?
  • Bellows gun
  • How rare were they?
  • Multi-pump pneumatics
  • Spring-piston airguns
  • Catapult guns
  • CO2 guns
  • Single stroke pneumatics

Table of contents

Before we begin today’s blog, I want to tell you there is a link to the History of airguns table of contents at the top and bottom of this pager. Go there and you will see all the historical report linked.

Today’s report will sound like a continuation of Friday’s report on the power of big bore airguns of the past, but that is just a coincidence. Today we look at the timeline of airguns.

What is an airgun?

Before we proceed we need to agree what an airgun is, or the rest of the discussion will be meaningless. Most books about airguns start with the primitive blowpipe, which is also called a blowgun. Does that make you think of natives on tropical islands, hunting birds and monkey in the trees? Would you be surprised to learn that the blowgun was also very popular in Europe during the middle ages? There are tapestries that show hunters using blowguns in exactly the same way as the islanders in the tropics, only they are doing so in European and English forests. The blowgun has been a very popular air-powered weapon all around the world.

For the purposes of today’s discussion, however, blowguns are not being considered as airguns. The airguns I will talk about have parts and mechanisms to assist in the storage and release of compressed air, or in the generation of compressed air when the gun is fired. Today we are looking for the first dates for each of the major types of airguns. I will include catapult guns and CO2 guns, though strictly speaking, neither is a true airgun.

The first airgun

Most people want to know the limits of things. What’s the fastest? What’s the largest? What’s the smallest, and so on. One thing they want to know about airguns is which one is the oldest.Which one came first? The problem is — nobody knows. Author Eldon G. Wolff documented a great number of early mentions of airguns in his book, Air Guns, completed in 1955. He gives a range of possible dates for the first airgun that were found in several old documents dating from 1474 to 1608. Many of these citations originate in or at least name the German city of Nuremberg in the middle 1500s as the birthplace. Names like Guter and Lobsinger are mentioned more than once, along with the date 1560.

What we do know

While we cannot say with certainty what the first airgun gun was or even when it was made, we do know some things about it. Most of the literature points to it being what we call a precharged pneumatic (PCP) today. That’s a gun that stores a charge of compressed air in a reservoir onboard the gun. The gun has a valve that releases some of the stored air when the gun fires, but the remainder of the air can be used for additional shots. But air storage, by itself, is not what defines a PCP. The principal difference between a PCP and a multi-pump pneumatic is the absence of a pump mechanism on the gun, because some multi-pumps do store air for more than one shot per fill.

We also know that this airgun was probably what we call a big bore today. That means it is in a caliber larger than .25. The reason for this is the smallbore airgun calibers that we know today — .177, .20, .22 and .25 — are too small for the guns of antiquity. People were not making guns for just pleasure in the 1600s. They were experimenting with what was technically possible and the firearms of the day served as their models. The airguns were just as much a science experiment as they were a working gun. All of the old firearms were in larger calibers, simply because larger caliber barrels were easier to make. It wasn’t until around the 1840s that we started seeing firearms in .22 caliber. So the first airgun was no doubt a big bore and also a PCP.

The load-compression airgun

There was one curious experiment with a compressed-air gun at this time by the mayor of Magdeburg. It was called the load-compressed airgun and worked by seating a ball inside a tight leather patch, then ramming it down the bore. This action compressed the air behind the load (supposedly) and forced it into a chamber that had a petcock valve to shut it in. When the petcock was opened the gun fired — theoretically. The compressed air that was stored in the chamber suddenly got behind the ball — hopefully pushing it out the muzzle.

Wolff, who writes about this development, says the muzzle velocity was undoubtedly low. No kidding! In fact, he doubts the gun would even work, as do I. But now you know that people thought of everything in the past — just as they do today.

What came next?

I said that the first airgun was a big bore because people were not making guns just for pleasure at that time. Now I’m going to modify that a little. Once it was known that a bullet could be propelled by the force of just compressed air, gunmakers were quick to capitalize and start innovating. And sport is where they went with it.

There were already huge shooting tournaments being held around Europe where crossbowmen competed. Firearms began to compete in these tournaments in their own classes sometime in the early 1400s. So, the use of firearms for sport — target shooting — was already established. Airguns followed suit, with a short-range target gun being first.

Bellows gun

And this is where Wolff and I disagree on the timeline — a little. He states that, given the essential design, the bellows gun is logically the earliest form of airgun. He goes on to state, however, that those specimens that have survived are newer than the big bore PCPs we have just been discussing.

A bellows gun is a form of spring gun in which a powerful spring closes an air bellows located in the gun’s hollow butt rapidly enough to generate a puff of wind — wind that gets behind a projectile. The projectile of choice was a dart, because the force of the wind was too small to propel a lead bullet. The bore was smooth and the guns that survive all seem to be made for shooting targets. Given their low level of power, that is probably all they were used for.

While there is no piston in a bellows gun, the bellows perform the same function that a piston does in a spring-piston gun. They compress ambient air rapidly and direct it behind a projectile sitting in the breech. Many bellows guns have set triggers so fine they will fire when the muzzle of the gun is elevated. The weight of the trigger blade by itself is enough to release the sear.

But the bellows gun shoots darts — not bullets. It is an airgun, but not a very powerful one. And to date none that I know of have been found dating to the 16th century, though there is a mention of one dating to 1570. So they were definitely a very early type. Perhaps Wolff is right and they do predate the butt reservoir big bores, I don’t really know. But from the physical evidence that remains, I still believe the big bore ball shooters came first.

How rare were they?

Airguns of any kind were very rare before the middle of the 19th century. Until then they were handmade and cost the same as fine rifles and shotguns. But their rarity goes beyond even the cost. There wasn’t as much advertising in the 17th and 18th centuries as there is today, and as a result, the general public was unaware of any airguns in existence. Of course an airgun was too expensive for the average man on the street, so perhaps it didn’t make any difference that they weren’t well-advertised. It is very difficult to make a timeline of the earliest types of guns, because there could easily be a mistake of decades that results from a lack of information. This timeline is my best guess, based on the best research that’s been done.

Multi-pump pneumatics

As early as 1645 the multi-pump pneumatic was born. A gun in the Stockholm museum is credited to builder Hans Koler from that date. This is a pneumatic airgun that has the pump built into the butt, with a sliding rod the shooter stood on while pumping the entire gun up and down. That air was stored in a brass tube or jacket that surrounded the barrel.

Where PCPs were made by the hundreds, early multi-pumps must have been much less common. I have seen just one in all the time I have been in airguns. It wasn’t until the Benjamin Air Rifle Company began producing them in volume in 1899 that multi pumps became popular. And the Benjamin guns were seen as mere toys. They did improve as time passed but even today they produce a paltry 14 foot pounds in .22 caliber.

Spring-piston airguns

Okay — the bellows gun qualifies as a spring gun, but what about the spring-piston guns we are more familiar with? When did they come into being?

Around the 1840s the first spring-piston gallery rifles were being built. They used volute springs that I showed you when we looked at my David Lurch gallery gun from the 1860s.

Volute spring
A Volute spring is a flat spring that’s been coiled then stretched out like this. It is very understressed in operation.

By the 1870s airgun makers like Quackenbush were using coiled steel mainsprings that allowed the spring tubes to become smaller. The guns started to take on the look we see today.

Catapult guns

The first decent catapult gun was probably the Hodges gun from the early 1840s. It shot a .43 caliber lead ball with enough force to take down larger small game. The gun was a piece of art as well as a gun and it is believed that the Hodges was used as a foraging gun because of its silence.

Hodges gun
The Hodges gun was a large caliber foraging gun that used elastic bands to propel the ball.

CO2 guns

While the first airgun is a mystery, we know exactly what the first CO2 gun was. It was a gun made by Paul Giffard that was converted from his pneumatic design to operate on carbonic gas — which is the old name for CO2. It had a removable gas cylinder that was supposed to be mailed back to the factory for a refill. There weren’t as many places to get CO2 in the 1870s are there are today.

Giffard pistol
This Giffard CO2 pistol is nice looking even today.

Giffard guns were not cheap. They were engraved and nickel-plated and still look gorgeous today. But they didn’t last long. The need to return the CO2 cartridge to the manufacturer for filling killed CO2 as a power source for 3 or 4 decades.

Crosman and Benjamin both promoted CO2 guns in the 1930 and ’40s, but it was the mid ’50s when Crosman came out with the 12-gram Powerlet that changed the face of CO2 guns forever. Since that time CO2 guns have risen to a high level of acceptance among airgunners.

Single Stroke pneumatics

The final airgun powerplant to come into being is the single stroke pneumatic. As far as I can tell, it was developed by Walther and launched with their LP2 pistol in the mid-1960s. There may have been something before this time, but I have been unable to find it. A single stroke accepts one pump only. The pump head is one end of the compression chamber and if it is backed out for a second pump, all the air from the first pump is lost.

Well, that was a short look at the timeline of airguns. I didn’t cover BB guns because they were address in the report on BB guns. Everything of significance has been covered here. Of course there is a lot more detail to cover, but we will get to that one topic at a time.