by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Everything old is new again
  • Feet per second (f.p.s.)
  • FX offers many arrow launchers
  • Missing the boat
  • What I would do
  • Advantages of a pneumatic arrow launcher
  • The downside
  • Summary

Everything old is new again

This will be a different kind of history report, because today the past is also the future. Today’s topic is one that has been touched on ever-so-lightly over the years, yet is also one of incredible significance today, when hunting with airguns is at the forefront of the hobby. I’m talking about airguns that launch arrows.

I’m not talking about crossbows, though they do serve as both the inspiration and the performance baseline for this subject. The airgun that launches arrows is very similar to the crossbow, except that it exceeds it in many important ways.

Feet per second (f.p.s.)

Our cousins using crossbows are assaulted by ads that tout  f.p.s., just like we do in the airgun world. The crossbow makers are as prone to ignore the weight of the arrows or bolts their products shoot when they give those velocity figures as any airgun maker would be. The advertising appears very similar to airgun advertising, though if you dig a little you can discover the facts that really matter. This is where I will start the discussion. A hunting crossbow that shoots a heavier hunting arrow of 400 grains at 350 f.p.s. is considered a powerful hunting weapon. But you really have to dig to get the arrow weight, because the advertising is all about the velocity.

However, where conventional crossbows struggle to get velocity, airguns do not. Their struggle for airguns is to shoot the arrows slow enough

I have shot airguns that propelled their arrows so fast (in excess of 440 f.p.s.) that they were either damaging the arrows or burying them so deep in the backstop that they were damaged when extracting them. In fact, it is a little-appreciated fact that when someone shoots an arrow from an airgun that their biggest concern may be slowing the arrow down!

Swivel Machine Corp Airrow Stealth

The airgun I shot that went that fast was one made many years ago by the Swivel Machine Corporation. It was both a pellet shooter and an arrow launcher. As a pellet shooter it was a miserable failure for many reasons. It was a revolver whose cylinder had to be rotated by hand for the next shot. The tolerances were machined to the ten-thousandth of an inch, and, while that sounds good — trust me, it isn’t. The parts fit so tight that they didn’t move freely on a cold day. And the trigger was a pneumatic valve release that had to be yanked fast or all the air would leak out of the gun. That gun just wasn’t fun to shoot at all, and it wasn’t accurate — probably because of all the trigger-jerking I had to do.

But their arrow launcher, called the Airrow Stealth, worked quite well. We operated it on CO2 outdoors on a 38-degree day and I was still burying bolts so deep in the backstop that some of their hollow shafts were damaged when they were extracted. The launcher had a red dot sight and, at about 40 yards, the whole thing was very accurate. I didn’t want to stop shooting it! I didn’t chronograph that launcher, but I can believe the claim of greater than 400 f.p.s. for a heavy hunting arrow on a 60-degree day.

Airrow Stealth
I shot the Airrow Stealth on a cold day and was surprised by the performance!

One thing Swivel machine Corp saw was the potential for military sales. Arrow launchers are quieter than lower-powered pellet rifles, both because they have a lower muzzle blast and also because their arrows do not approach the sound barrier.

Swivel Machine appears to still be in business and still offers a pneumatic arrow launcher. I’m sure there have been changes in the nearly two decades since I shot one, but it still looks similar.

Another pneumatic arrow launcher of the recent past was the AirBow from Pneumatic Arms. It was pretty much the same thing — a rifle-looking launcher that shot an arrow. The trigger was a long lever grasped by the entire hand — very similar to a crossbow trigger of the Middle Ages. Not many were made and they are considered collector’s items today.

AirBow
The AirBow from Pneumatic Arms is a collectible today.

FX offers many arrow launchers

FX of Sweden has seen the light and offers several arrow launchers today. Some are made specifically for that purpose, while others are adaptations of their existing pellet guns. So, it is possible to get a new pneumatic arrow launcher, but the price is high and the wait can be long if it isn’t in stock when you order.

Missing the boat

There are also several boutique arrow launcher makers out there. They come and go with the seasons. If you want something different it pays to go online and look around, because at any point in time, somebody if probably making them.

The remainder of the mainstream airgun community, however, is missing the boat. They scramble over one another to build big bore rifles that have become the flavor of the month while disregarding the technology that has the greatest potential for bearing fruit. With hunting as hot as it is today I would think this would be the next hot thing, but it isn’t.

When I talk to these makers, they tell me that crossbows are not legal for hunting in many states today. To which I answer, “Yes, and silencers were illegal for hunting until a few years ago. Now they are experiencing a boom!” If you wait until the climate is right and all the laws have been passed, you’ll miss the boat. Get out in front of the development curve and start defining the future yourself,  rather than waiting for it to be defined for you. Everyone else will have to scramble to keep up

What I would do

From time to time over the past 20 years I have advised certain manufacturers on new airgun projects and accessories. If I were asked to do this with an arrow launcher I would advise them to build it on the chassis of an existing gun. That saves a lot of development time and simplifies production.

I would advise them to sell the arrow launcher as an upgrade to the existing platform. Even if the existing platform isn’t perfectly suited to being an arrow launcher — say the stock is too fat and heavy — make a new stock part of the upgrade.

I would advise their marketing departments to create a package that includes everything in one handy field-transportable box or case — both the airgun and the arrow launcher. Shooters like systems that have multiple applications. To put it succinctly, everyone likes MacGyver and most men own at least one Swiss Army knife.

Advantages of a pneumatic arrow launcher

I’m not against crossbows, but air-powered arrow launchers do have several advantages. Weight is a good place to begin. A crossbow gains weight as the power increases. The makers are doing a lot to keep the weight in check, but an air launcher is so much easier to trim down that there is no contest.

Bulk goes along with weight. The limbs of the crossbow stick out to the sides. Compared to them, the air launcher can be as thin as a pipe.

Cocking effort! Do I even have to say it? Cocking a crossbow is daunting — especially the powerful ones. Air, on the other hand, weighs almost nothing. And we know that the pneumatic launchers have to be scaled back to keep from shooting too fast!

The downside

I’m sorry, but I don’t see a downside to this. If you are reading this subject I assume you want to hunt with arrows, so let’s not make comparisons between the trajectory arrows and bullets.

The fact that it takes compressed air to fill the gun isn’t a drawback. You can do that with a hand pump. Hand pumps are in the same price range as electric cocking winches for conventional crossbows.

Summary

Let’s wrap this up by observing that this idea of a pneumatic arrow launcher today is as obvious as a group of chemical engineers standing around a pool of oil in Titusville, PA, in the late 1800s and wondering whether the stuff had any commercial value.