by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Crossbow trigger
  • The nut
  • Fast-forward to today
  • What have we learned?

Today’s report is a simple one. But it’s also profound. This is a diamond mine where the diamonds are laying about for anyone to pick up.

When we look at vintage and antique airguns, it’s more than just the guns themselves that hold our interest. It’s also the unique parts of the guns that can be special. Today I want to present a special trigger from centuries past that is still having an impact in airguns today.

Most of the information in this report comes from the excellent book, The Crossbow, by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey. It was copyrighted in 1903 and was reprinted by Barnes & Noble Books, Inc. in 1996.

Crossbow trigger

I’ve written about this trigger before, but not for many years. And it is the perfect subject for the history of airguns. The trigger I refer to was in use on crossbows in the fifteenth century. That makes the design nearly 600 years old!

Before we look at the trigger let me tell you something about the crossbow it was found on. It had either a steel bow or a laminated horn bow that took 400-700 lbs. of effort to cock. This is not a target crossbow that you cock with your hands. You used a windlass (like a modern hoist) or an articulated lever to force the string back to the point where the nut held it. The nut was the crossbow’s sear and it was in direct contact with the trigger.

This modern hoist can handle up to two tons. The crossbow windlass was similar, just not as robust.

The force that the ancient crossbow trigger restrained was many times greater than the force of a modern spring-piston mainspring. The trigger also wasn’t what we see today — a curved lever pulled by a single finger. It was usually a straight or slightly curved lever that was squeezed up into the bottom of the stock by the entire hand.


crossbow trigger
A drawing of the early crossbow trigger from the book, The Crossbow. The trigger is pulled up to the bottom of the stock by the entire hand. Shown in the cocked position.

The nut

The crossbow nut is the sear that interfaces with both the bowstring and the trigger. It was made from animal horn, and as I mentioned held hundreds of pounds of force in check until the right moment.

crossbow nut
A drawing of the early crossbow trigger from the book, The Crossbow. The nut is the circular piece labeled A.

The nut took tremendous force and made it smooth through a rotating axle. Though the force from the bowstring was great, the small notch in the edge of the nut allowed the square end of the trigger to block its rotation. Six hundred years ago some brilliant crossbow maker designed a mechanical way to restrain a huge force with minimal effort!

Fast-forward to today

Well, not exactly today. Try 40 years ago. That’s when some brilliant engineer at Crosman decided to resurrect this ancient design to build an inexpensive airgun trigger that was both super light and very adjustable. The time was the late 1960s/early ’70s and the gun was the Crosman 160.

This time the sear (nut) only held back 12-15 pounds of spring force. That meant the amount of sear engagement could be very small, giving the trigger a crisp release. And all the springs in the trigger could also be small, which helped with the lightness of the pull.

Crosman 160 triggewr graphic


Crosman 160 trigger
Not a great photograph, but it does show the parts of an actual Crosman 160 trigger.

What have we learned?

Today I hope you have learned that by studying the past we can learn to build for the future. This Crosman trigger is a good one, but it isn’t the last word in airgun triggers. I have designs for several other triggers that would be just as effective and perhaps even less expensive to manufacture. For that to happen, though, the corporate suits and bean counters would have to stand aside and let the innovators take over for awhile.

The Rekord trigger is the gold standard in airgun triggers. It has been for a long time. Anyone who has read anything about airguns knows this. How much effort do you think Weihrauch put into creating that design? Perhaps quite a lot. And how long have they been making the Rekord? A minimum of 60 years!

Do you think perhaps the cost of the Rekord’s development was offset by the number of decades the company has been producing it, the hundreds of thousands of guns it has been installed in and the honor of having the acknowledged finest airgun trigger in the world?