by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Two different directions
  • Trainers first
  • The private trainers
  • Airguns? Not yet
  • U.S. Army marksmanship training
  • Air Force
  • Started in England
  • WW II
  • Stasi trainers
  • The austere ’70s

We last looked at a military airgun on Monday, when the U.S.S. Vesuvius dynamite cruiser was examined. Today I will get more personal and look at some of the trainers the military has employed to train new recruits. This subject is huge, and will become its own special section of the airgun history project.

Two different directions

When we speak of military trainers there are two very distinct paths. One leads to the training devices used by the military to train their personnel. The other path is a private one, though no less real and important. Those are the trainers that were built to order, one at a time.

Trainers first

First we have the trainers that were built specifically for the purpose of training. They all conform to specifications that somebody believed were right for the job they were tasked to do. Most of this series will be based on these trainers.

The private trainers

The second path is the private one, where officers would buy specially constructed firearms for their sons to learn both marksmanship and military drill. In the days when this was done — mostly the 18th and 19th centuries — a military career was considered very honorable and something to both covet and pursue.

The guns made for this kind of training were often made by the finest makers and were fully equivalent to the full-sized firearms of the day. They ranged from half-sized to three-quarter sized and mimicked the firearms they copied in every important way. All of them were fully functional because they were not considered toys, but rather appropriate training weapons for special youth. These guns often command prices today many times higher than the equivalent full-sized weapons they copy.

Airguns? Not yet

I would like to tell you about the youth-sized airguns that were used as trainers during this time, but I have never run across any. There must have been a few, but remember that airguns were such oddities themselves at this time, that finding one made for a youth would be astounding. So we will look at the first path, which are the airguns created for military training.

U.S. Army marksmanship training

When I entered the Army I thought it was going to be all guns and explosives. I was shocked to find the majority of what we did was done either without weapons or more often with unloaded weapons. The military wasn’t about to put loaded guns in the hand of kids until they had to!

I remember being trained in rifle marksmanship with .22 rimfire single shot rifles. This was before I entered the Army, but it was done with Army rifles and ammunition — all the lowly .22 long rifle shell. For some odd reason the Army seemed to want me to know how to shoot accurately before I started spraying machinegun bullets all around! Go figure.

The training I received was being given in the Army to all who entered just a decade before I joined up. I could still find the targets and even the rifles and ammunition in odd places, but there was no formal marksmanship program when I was in. I was there during Viet Nam and the focus was in putting guns in our hands and getting us out to the field as fast as possible.

Air Force

While the Army I served in had no airguns, the Air Force had them! They had purpose-built Crosman 160 target rifles that performed the same task that the Winchester model 52 target rifles did for the Army. They did it at 25 feet rather than 50 , but the pace was the same — one shot at a time.

Crosman 160
Crosman made several hundred special model 160 target rifles for the U.S. Air Force.

Started in England

Unbeknownst to me this pattern had been established a half-century earlier in Merry Olde England, where British cadets learned to shoot with purpose-built BSA underlever air rifles. King George was so enamored with the accuracy of the new BSA air rifle that he pushed for a conversion to its use, abandoning or at least cutting back on the Army’s use of — wait for it — the single shot .22 rimfire target rifle. That was way back before World War I, so this sort of individual training has been going on for a loooong time!

WW II

Adolph Hitler had to rearm his military under the scrutiny of several nations who watched to see that the conditions of the WW I surrender were not violated. He created flying clubs for young people (mostly men, of course) and rifle marksmanship training for his Hitler Youth, which he said was the German equivalent of the Boy Scouts. Call it what you want, tens of thousands of young men learned to fly and to shoot, which came in surprisingly handy in a few short years.

The Germans used the Schmeisser pattern bolt action repeating airguns. These were Schmeisser 33s, and Mars 110s and 115s. After the war they morphed into the Haenel model 310 and the AnschΓΌtz model 275 bolt action rifles. They shot 4.4mm lead balls through rifled barrels and were surprisingly accurate at short range.

Haenel 310
This Haenel 310 trainer was liberated from East German Stasi headquarters during the reunification of Germany.

Stasi trainers

The U.S. was flooded by thousands of Haenel target rifles in the 1990s. Ironically they all came after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the former Stasi (secret police) headquarters were being cleared by the German government. Guess what those rifles had been used for? That’s correct, youth marksmanship programs.

What all the military organizations knew was that trigger time was important, no matter what the trigger was attached to. If the ammunition was inexpensive enough, the shooters could shoot a lot more than they could when shooting full-charge military ammunition. After good airguns came along in 1905, even the cost of the .22 rimfire cartridge was considered high, by comparison.

The austere ’70s

I remember that in the 1970s my combat support company budget for ammunition was barely enough for each man to shoot a qualification course once per year. Viet Nam had drained both the defense budget as well as the national reserve of the population, and nobody cared that our soldiers were not training with their weapons. I would have welcomed a pellet rifle that could have been used to train my troops.

We trained with low-cost simulations because live fire was reserved for one time each year. I have seen exactly one M72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW — a portable recoilless rocket launcher) fired, but I have personally shot a dozen 35mm subcaliber training rockets.

I’m going to stop here because this is a large subject and there is so much more to talk about. Things like the Czech VZ35 trainer that accepted a real bayonet and the Daisy model 40 BB gun that looked surprisingly like a military rifle. We will get to all of that and much more in this series, so stay tuned.