by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Invention
  • Marketing failure
  • Crosman Corporation
  • Shooting galleries
  • Post-war
  • The Crosman CG
  • Marketing misstep
  • From separate tanks to reservoirs
  • The dawn of the CO2 cartridge
  • The 12-gram Powerlet
  • Summary

Invention

The first successful CO2 gun was invented and produced by Paul Giffard in the early 1870s. He adapted the pneumatic guns he was already building to use this new gas and the guns he produced were operationally successful. But he failed to market the gun properly.

Marketing failure

Giffard made gun owners return the gas tanks of their guns to a central point where the tanks were refilled. And the customers stayed away in droves! Nobody wants to buy something expensive, only to be held hostage by the lack of a critical item, i.e. gas for the gun. In short, he failed because he didn’t provide the proper support for the gun.

Oddly enough, the Giffard lesson was not learned by everybody. In about 1948 the Winsel company
sold their “Jet-Powered” pistol with two removable CO2 tanks and a heavy cardboard tube for mailing one of them back for a refill. Very few guns were sold (50?) and the company went out of business with many tanks not returned to customers. The tanks the company held were ultimately destroyed.

Giffard pistol
This Giffard CO2 pistol is loaded via a rotating tap. The quality is first-rate. This wasn’t a cheap gun.

Winsel pistol
Those not familiar with history are doomed to repeat it. In 1948, Winsel made the same mistake as Giffard and quickly failed.

Crosman Corporation

Because of Giffard’s failure, I will jump forward from the 1870s to the early 1930s, when the Crosman Corporation first started playing with the gas. Their engineers knew that CO2 was a good propellant for pellets. The relatively lightweight .22 caliber diabolo pellets flew much faster and farther than Giffard’s 6mm (.243 caliber) and 8mm (.32 caliber) lead balls. But even Crosman didn’t figure everything out on their first try.

Shooting galleries

Their initial thinking was that CO2 guns might replace rimfires in public shooting galleries. The operational cost for the galleries would drop because lead pellets and the gas to propel them cost much less than even the lowly .22 short cartridge that was in use at the time. Before WW II shooting galleries were popular around the nation. At the turn of the 20th century almost every town had at least one. New York City had many, and indoor shooting was very popular.

Crosman did plan to make and sell entire galleries that included one model of repeating CO2 rifle that is practically unknown today. The Crosman model 102 Camp Perry “hose gun” was a .22 caliber repeating bolt action CO2 rifle that was based on the model 102 bolt action pneumatic repeater. It made no sense as a pneumatic, though, because even though working the bolt loaded a round ball into the breech in the blink of an eye, the shooter still had to pump the gun for every shot. With CO2, of course, the shooting was continuous. It was called a “hose gun” because it was tethered by a hose to a large gas tank (for shooting gallery use) located under the gallery counter.

I have seen Crosman literature for shooting galleries from as early as 1932, but they didn’t seem to catch on. Perhaps that was because the .22 rimfires were firmly entrenched in the galleries.

Post-war

After WW II, though, the returning soldiers had enough of shooting for the rest of their lives. They wanted to get back to civilian life, start families and enjoy the good life they had been promised. Shooting galleries were falling out of favor everywhere — not rapidly at first, but the trend was in motion.

The Crosman CG

Crosman scrambled to convert from the production of wartime materiel to making airguns again, and someone in the company discovered several thousand 4-oz. CO2 tanks that had been used to rapidly inflate large ocean-going life rafts. They bought these surplus tanks and converted their model 101 single shot pneumatic rifle to use CO2. This new gun became the famous Crosman CG (for compressed gas) CO2 rifle with the slant and straight tank.

Crosman CG rifle
The straight tank model CG rifle is a later variation that began with the slant tank. All of this was to use the 4-oz. CO2 tanks that were surplus left over from the war.

Crosman was still thinking shooting galleries when they brought out the CG rifle, but not public shooting galleries. They were thinking of league shooting run by workplaces. That was in line with what was happening at the time, because bowling leagues were popular in the 1950s. These leagues were as much for socialization of the employees as for sport and recreation, and companies embraced them as an early form of team-building.

Crosman gallery
This Crosman shooting gallery was for league shooting. This employer installed one for their employees. A straight-tank CG is clearly seen in the hands of the woman second from the left.

Marketing misstep

But there were some missteps here, as well. Crosman must have thought that if they made the caliber proprietary they would corner the market on ammo sales, so many of the CG gallery guns were made in a .21 caliber that is not available on the market — then or now. Those guns were sold with complete gallery kits intended for league use.

They also made some CG rifles for direct sales, but these were made in the far more common .22 caliber that met with public acceptance. There were already pellets available everywhere in this caliber. Filling the CO2 tanks was still a problem, but Crosman’s engineers solved it with adapters that league gallery teams and presumably private individuals could purchase to fill their tanks from common fire extinguishers.

From separate tanks to reservoirs

The supply of surplus tanks finally ran out, so the company had to do something different. They provided a tubular gas reservoir that ran parallel underneath the barrel of each gun. Thus was born in 1950 the model 114 in .22 caliber and the model 113 in .177. I covered the 114 in a three-part report. A separate fill tank was needed to fill these guns, so Crosman provided the model 110 10-oz. CO2 tank that came packaged with each gun.

They were still on the shooting galley kick, though, and one version of the rifle was a repeater with a hose permanently attached. Collectors speculated for decades whether this was a real airgun or not, but paper evidence found about 10 years ago proves that it was at least prototyped. The model 117 was never sold to the public, but in 1952, Crosman added an onboard tubular reservoir to the gun and renamed it the model 118.

The dawn of the CO2 cartridge

The Benjamin Air Rifle Company was one of many companies (Americal Luger, Carbo Jet, Schimel, Challenger Arms, etc.) who seized on the possibility of powering an airgun by a CO2 cartridge in 1952. All of them used the 8-gram cartridges that were also used in seltzer bottles. At the time, seltzer bottles were very popular for making mixed drinks, and the cartridges were plentiful. Benjamin was the only company with airgun experience and distribution channels though, and within a few years in the mid-1950s all their competition went away.

In 1954 the Crosman Corporation brought out the first iteration of their iconic model 150 air pistol. This single shot .22 pistol replaced the Models 111, 112, 115, and 116 pistols that were all bulk fill. The 150 (.22 caliber) was soon joined by the 157 (.177) and quickly became a mainstay of the Crosman lineup. We can still see remnants of it today — 60 years later — in the model 2240 pistol and associated airguns.

Crosman 150
My old Crosman 150 has seen better days. I bought it as a project gun and fixed it with Pellgnoil.

The 12-gram Powerlet

What was most important about the 150 was the 12-gram CO2 cartridge it used. It was the first airgun to use that size. There is 50 percent most gas in that larger cartridge, which means guns that use it can be more powerful or get more shots. That cartridge became the world standard and for 20 years I referred to it in my writing as a Powerlet, because Crosman trademarked that name for it. They didn’t invent the cartridge, they simply capitalized on it with great success.

Benjamin continued to sell their CO2 guns, but they lost a lot of customers when Crosman’s 12-gram Powerlet came along. Other companies like Heathways Plainsman, who made a BB repeater that featured 3 power settings, started with 8-gram cartridges, but developed an adapter for their gun that allowed the use of the more popular 12-gram size. I wrote a 4-part report on this gun back in 2009/10.

About 5 years ago I noticed Crosman no longer pushes the use of the name Powerlet. It’s still found on their packaging, but not in their advertising. So I decided to stop calling the 12-gram CO2 cartridges Powerlets and reverted to the generic term cartridge.

Summary

There you have the dawn of the  CO2 powerplant. We looked at its invention in the 1870s all the way to the development of the 12-gram Powerlet. I could have gone on and mentioned the use of the larger 88-90 gram cartridges, but that push has already started showing signs of fragmentation. There is industry disagreement on the size of the cartridges (they should all be identical because their specification is controlled by someone outside the airgun industry).

The 12-gram cartridge shows no signs of letting up, though. Even Umarex decided to redesign the grip of their Single Action Army BB revolver, rather than to revert to the smaller 8-gram cartridge that would have fit inside the standard grip.

Bulk-fill guns are still with us, though they are far in the background. They have the advantages of allowing the gas to conform to oddly shaped reservoirs, plus they cost about a tenth as much to operate as cartridge guns, once the shooter has invested in the equipment to fill his own bulk tanks.

I think CO2 will continue to be popular, but I doubt we will see much that is new coming from this propellant. Its uses are now well-known and will continue to be used in the best ways to power pellet and BB guns.