The bellows gun — a blast from the past

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • A mechanical blowgun
  • How it works
  • Comparison to a blowgun
  • Springs
  • Shape of the gun
  • Breechloaders
  • Triggers
  • Accuracy?
  • Rare?
  • DIY?

I was surprised several days ago when a couple readers told me they thought a bellows gun was some kind of pneumatic, after I had written i9n a report that it’s a spring gun. Today we will find out what a bellows gun is.

The bellows gun is thought to be one of the oldest airgun designs. Some writers say it may be older than the precharged gun. There is convincing evidence that bellows guns existed in the 1500s, which is when precharged guns are also thought to have started. They seem to have been made well into the 19th century — so their span of production is very long.

Bellows guns have shot several different projectiles like hard clay pellets and even lead balls, but darts are by far the most favored projectiles. Their darts aren’t like the airgun darts we see today. They are longer, larger diameter and their tails have long natural hairs plucked from game. Each individual dart was apparently regulated for accuracy by removing the hairs from its tail, one at a time. I guess this reduced their drag, and perhaps caused them to travel in a certain direction.

These darts also had one dark hair that was called a guide hair. It was used to orient the dart in the breech the same way every time it was loaded. Shooters found that by consistent loading, their accuracy improved. Schuetzen shooters do the same thing when they load their cartridge cases into the breech in the same orientation every time.

antique airgun dart
Darts for bellows guns were longer than today’s darts. They had one dark guide hair, so they were always loaded in the same orientation.

A mechanical blowgun

The bellows gun is simpler than the precharged gun because it contains no valves. That is a strong argument for this design being earlier than the precharged gun, since the valve I discussed in my report on The first pneumatic gun was state-of-the-art for its day. The bellows gun needs no valve because it doesn’t work in the same way.

How it works

You all know how a blowgun works. You hold the blowpipe to your mouth and blow air sharply through the mouthpiece, propelling the projectile out of the pipe. Your lungs are powered by your chest muscles — mostly by your diaphragm that pushes upward to force air out of your lungs rapidly.

A bellows gun uses bellows instead of lungs to do the same thing. You all probably know what bellows are. They are a simple wind pump that has a one-way air valve. The air comes into the air chamber when the bellows handles are pulled apart, but cannot leave that way because the valve closes. The simplest form of a bellows is two wood pieces held together by a pleated leather piece that forms a flexible airtight chamber.

Air is taken in through the one-way valve when the bellows are opened and it’s forced out the nozzle rapidly when the bellows are closed. Normally you use your hands to close the bellows, but in a bellows gun, a powerful V spring is substituted.

bellows
The bellows is a simple wind pump.

Comparison to a blowgun

The blowgun uses air that’s not compressed very much. It is the rapid application of the air that starts the dart moving in the blowpipe and continues the acceleration until the dart leaves the muzzle. Even with air compressed by only your lungs, the dart flies very fast. It’s almost too fast to see.

A bellows gun compresses less air than your lungs hold. There is less volume inside the bellows system than there is in your lungs, but it all gets used. It is almost impossible to exhale all the air from the lungs. So the two are roughly equivalent. But the bellows act faster than your diaphragm. So the small lightweight dart they propel goes out the muzzle at a respectable clip. I have no data on velocity, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a bellows gun propels its darts at up to 300 f.p.s.

This may sound slow to airgunners, but remember — this gun is shooting darts! Darts have sharp points that stick deep in whatever target they strike. You don’t want a lot of velocity for them or you’ll never get them out of the target.

Springs

Remember the time frame for the first bellows system, because this is important to understanding its design. Coiled springs hadn’t been invented yet, so the bellows gun made do with V springs. One side of the bellows was anchored and the other side was free to move. It moved against a powerful V spring that was under tension, once the moving side of the bellows was caught by the trigger’s sear.

When the sear released the movable bellows side, it was forced together with the fixed side rapidly, resulting in a puff of air that was not unlike what you do with your lungs to fire a blowgun. Only the V spring acted quicker than you can blow, so the puff was stronger. The air was forced behind the projectile in the breech — in the same way you exhale a puff of air into the mouthpiece of a blowgun to propel a dart.

So, the bellows gun is a spring-type airgun. The bellows takes the place of a piston and compresses far more air to a much lower pressure.

Shape of the gun

There has to be room inside the gun for the bellows. The buttstock was made much wider and was hollow inside to house the bellows. All bellows guns have this shape. Once you have seen a couple you will be able to spot them every time you encounter a different one.

bellows butt
The butt of the bellows gun is both deeper and wider to accommodate the bellows inside. The square shaft fits a long spanner that’s used to cock the gun. The split wood at the bottom of the butt is for disassembly of the butt to maintain the bellows.

bellows gun
Most bellows guns look like this. A deep wide butt and wood to the end of the barrel.

Breechloaders

All bellows guns I have seen have been breechloaders. And several have used the wood forearm of the stock to serve as the spring to close the barrel after loading! The long wood forearm actually flexes when the barrel is opened. This is scary when you are handling a gun you know to be several centuries old, but it does work.

Triggers

Triggers are where the bellows gun excelled. They are nearly always double set triggers (I have never seen any other kind) with the rear trigger being pulled to set the front trigger. These triggers are the ones that brought the term “hair trigger” into existence. They can be adjusted so light that they will fire when the gun is rotated from the horizontal to the vertical. The weight of the trigger blade by itself is enough to set them off. The front trigger blade is usually so thin that it bends as pressure is applied.

Accuracy?

I read a lot about the stunning accuracy of bellows dart guns, but I reserve judgement until I see it for myself. I have read accounts of placing one dart on top of another at 45 feet. Maybe that’s possible, but as I said — I reserve judgement. No doubt they seemed accurate compared to what went before, which was nothing.,

Rare?

I have seen about 20 bellows guns in my time as an adult airgunner. Some of the guns I have seen may have been the same guns in different hands. They certainly are not that common. I think there must be several hundred that still exist somewhere, so to answer the question — yes, they are quite rare.

And they are fragile. The passing centuries have left most bellows guns is a very fragile state. I have heard of one or two that have been restored to working condition, but even then I think they are just used for special occasions. They are not everyday shooters.

DIY?

Of all the airguns that exist. the bellows gun is one of the easiest to replicate. I have seen several homemade guns that worked quite well. They all lacked the sophistication of the antique models, but they did function well. On 50 psi they will send darts through Luan wallboard with ease. If you are looking for a project airgun to make, this would be the place to begin.

75 thoughts on “The bellows gun — a blast from the past


  1. I assume the bellows open and close vertically rather than left to right? Seems like there’s more room for it to work that way. I would be fascinated to get my hands on a functioning example of the beauty pictured here. If it was accurate enough to put ten consecutive darts into even a two inch circle at 10 meters it would be a lot of fun for indoor target shooting. it also looks so stylish I think I would feel obligated to wear a frock coat when shooting it.

    Lionhii: Do you mean use the airbag material as bellows material? The actual inflation of an airbag is done by a fairly violent chemical reaction and would be a one shot device requiring replacement of the gas generator chemicals after that shot. Might as well just get a firearm.



  2. Nowhere:

    Was wondering if a miniaurized airbag gas generator with a tiny charge of chemicals could squeeze the bellows. Probably faster than a steel spring. If the sytem was scaled down, then maybe it becomes cost effective? Is there any actual ignition/explosion involved in an airbag? Then again, there seems to be some residue left after an airbag inflation so it could get too messy.


    • I was under the impression that the nitrogen came from a capsule of compressed nitrogen.
      Anyway I revise my statement and now consider your gun to be a hybrid. And yes it would probably apply more initial force to the bellows.


  3. BB,

    Thanks! That is really a pretty neat idea there. I can well imagine that like the PCPs of the time, these were toys of the landed gentry.

    As far as building a modern version, it would be a novelty that some would want in there collection, but due to cost it would have a very limited market otherwise. I sure would like to play with one for a bit though. 🙂


  4. Hi BB,
    I’ve owned my .22 Talon SS for about 6 months. I haven’t shot it in around 2 months, and it seems to be down around 100 pounds or so. If it has a slow leak, is there anything I can do with silicon or some kind of lubricant to try to stop it from leaking?
    Thank you,
    Doug


  5. Thanks, B.B.!
    I believe I have read an airgun history or two that described early PCPs or pneumatics being charged with a bellows-type apparatus, which is what came to mind when you mentioned the bellows gun. Learned something new today!



  6. Hi Tom,

    Cool rifle and enjoy reading about it. What time frame is that exact gun from? Any more info on it? Looks like a German Jager rifle from early to mid 1700’s to me. Would enjoy reading more details about it.

    Take Care,
    Bryan Enoch


  7. B.B.,

    I had thought that bellows guns were PCPs charged with air by an external bellows! Thanks for setting me straight.

    What is the protrusion above the grip in the second photo?

    Michael


  8. BB:

    Great read. Thanks for the information.

    You mentioned DIY bellows guns. I did a quick internet search but was unable to find any plans. I’ll try a more detail search at lunch to see if I can find a set. It might make an interesting project.

    Thanks,

    Jim


  9. A bellows gun sounds like an interesting project. Wondering if a tapered bore to provide a bit of resistance would allow the air from the bellows to compress a bit before “popping” the pellet out of the barrel.

    Hmmmm… might be better if both sides of the bellows were pulled together. May try making a PVC mini-marshmallow gun to test out a couple of ideas. Could be good for a “salt-gun” for flies as well.

    As a kid I made a “cannon” using a rubber baster bulb, a piece of pipe and a couple of bits of lumber. Drop a short piece of dowel down the muzzle and hammer the bulb with your fist. It shot hard enough to destroy buildings made with those small (inch long) plastic Lego bricks. Kept me busy for hours.

    Hank


  10. BB,

    Coiled springs are already known in clocks from 1450 (Italy, Germany) and are probably developed earlier. I think the V type of spring is here the most efficient way to use a spring which lasts long enough to be of practical use.

    Regards,

    August


    • August,

      Yes, a coiled flat wire spring is older. When I wrote about coiled springs I meant the open coil spiral mainsprings found in airguns. The Volute spring was the transition from the flat coil to the one I’m talking about.

      B.B.


      • BB,

        I stand corrected.

        You mean they used a volute spring to drive the bellows? I would expect that a V type would deliver a more explosive kind of push. This opens up a large field of possibilities for our confirmed airgun tinkerers and designers.

        Regards,

        August


  11. BB,

    DO you know what the typical weight and caliber of the darts were? Sunds like this could be an interesting concept gun substituting a rifled 177 caliber barrel and lead pellets. Having shot set triggers with muzzle loaders, I’d love to be able to do the same thing with an air gun. Would a blog member with a machine shop or access to one want to take this on?


    • Brent,

      The darts vary from around .25 caliber to .40 caliber, with .28 caliber being common. The weights are unknown to me, but light for their size because the darts were made from lightweight materials.

      You may have seen set triggers on modern muzzleloading guns, but until you experience the triggers of these old bellows guns, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. You can’t feel the trigger blade before the gun fires the first few times you try it.

      B.B.


  12. Should I get a free online account with this Blue Book? It’s all I can do to spend 5 minutes either holding it close enough to focus my readers or bend over it on the coffee table.
    Anyone please?



    • Ever seen those long, rectangle, flat one side convex other- book magnifiers? You just slide it around over what your reading and it makes the letters like a half inch big, might help. I see em at flea markets and pharmacies.


      • Yeah, I’ve seen them before and used to have one but couldn’t find it anywhere today and I’m broke til the first now. Thanks for the help! I was looking for the online site I’ve stumbled on before and thought buying the book would give me a code for online access.


        • Reb,

          Do you have a smartphone? There is an app that will turn it into a magnifier that I saw demonstrated at one of our Lion’s Club meetings. I believe that it was a free app.

          Hope this helps,

          Jim


          • Jim, yes I have a HTC running Android so as long as it’s not strictly an Iphone app it should work. I’ll look for it after I get my back settled down, gonna be another rough day, I’ve been up for 2hrs and already puked once.


    • Reb,

      Just tried the web address given on the back cover and pg.5, General Information. Same, but one has caps and the other is all small letters. At any rate, it appears you must subscribe to the on line version. $19.95 for 1 year.



        • Reb,

          Good luck. I guess it comes down to how much you are going to use it. Like the P.A. website, you can narrow down your search real quick. Plus, I think there is some other “extras” thrown in. And, I believe they do updates all year long. From what BB has said, it is better to hit some of the airgun auction sites for real time/history pricing,….and use the Blue Book as a general guide.

          But yes, it would be nice to get at least a years on line subscription for the price of the book.

          Since you are starting into the restoration business,…it might be worth it. If you could get a phone app. working good, it would be good to take to a air gun show, along with the other sites. Stroll around the the show like a real pro ! 😉


          • The best I’ve been able to do with the book so far is find the Daisy section and flip pages til I see one I’m looking for and being able to type one in would save a lotta time and back pain.


          • I don’t think it would be timely enough for a show atmosphere unless you take a break specifically to look up guns you’ve already seen there and having a difficult time making a decision on.


            • Reb,

              Yea, that’s how I would see it working. The only other option would be to know a lot of airguns and their worth from memory. That would be hard. Good ol’ gut feeling and instinct may be the best. The sites would be good if you are dropping some big coin.

              I knew a guy once that started with a 50$ Chevette and after 11 “flips”, had worked himself up to a full custom van worth 18,000$. All done with trades/sales and marking them up to cover what he in them, plus some profit.


  13. Found a good wadcutter for the QB-88, the-RWS diabolo basic, just put 10 into a group I covered with a penny. So far the Winchester roundnose still are in first place but they don’t cut very clean holes and I’m down to my last ten.
    I was thinking the H&N econs would be a better choice but they’re not impressing me with this gun which is a shame because I got 4 tins of them and meant to pull out the RWS all together.



      • Just checked them out and weight is claimed to be 9.3, the basic is labeled7.0 and they’re much faster than the 9.8 Winchesters it likes so well.
        I will give them a shot because it makes sense to me for short range targets and I’ll see if I can get some more Wimchesters around town to stock up on for longer ranges.



          • That’s where I found them here too, in the Daisy display and I rarely have a reason to go there so I didn’t know if they still have it or not but I’ll swing by to check as soon as I get some money to work with. I bought them out last time, I shot most of them through my Airmaster @ 10 pumps and they’re very good in it out to about 75yds but now I have a couple more that I’ve tested them in and apparently they’re good pellets at a good price just a little short on supply.
            Thanks for the reassurance!

            Reb


            • Reb,

              The Winchesters aren’t too bad in my powerful springer/gas ram guns, never tried them in my QB 58FC but the Daisy’s are absolute junk, in anything! What do the Winchesters cost where you live? I should have been a little more clear, here, the pellet’s list at $ 4.99 plus $ .30 sales tax.

              Bugbuster


              • Right, 4.99+ tax. I bought all 4 tins they had and a year later or almost20,000 pumps I finally need more my Regal(NP) likes em and they are a favorite of my QB-88. So far they’ve done well in all the guns I’ve tried them in!




    • I don’t think it would be timely enough for a show atmosphere unless you take a break specifically to look up guns you’ve already seen there and having a difficult time making a decision on.


      • This was supposed to be in reply to Chris about the phone app above my comment there said it had already been submitted so I moved on but when I checked it was here waiting as soon as I hit the reply button to offer my thanks for the heads up.



          • I’m gonna have to get my savings back to a respectable level and concentrate on the ones I gotta get fixed.
            Found out tonight I have a working powerplant in a powermaster 66 pumps tube so I’ll probably see if I can get my 2200 magnum going tomorrow. If it does decent I’ll hang on to it and mod it up like my Airmaster.


  14. Tried swapping my 1377 over to the steel breech I picked up from BNA at the show, I noticed it didn’t have a bolt or any hardware in the bag so I asked and the representative said to use the original hardware and that woulda been fine except the handle on my bolt is pressed in.
    Guess I should call them Monday.


  15. I was wondering where they hid the bellows. Pretty clever. I would never have recognized them in the buttstock. I still have a little trouble imagining how a spring could exert force on the bellows with the necessary speed, but I suppose it works.

    On the subject of accuracy from a previous post, that is interesting to hear how some guns are so accurate that they are boring like B.B.’s Springfield rebarreled to a .458 Winchester or the TX200 by another account. Accurate rifles are supposed to be interesting. I will admit that I’ve never found an accurate gun to be boring. But for those that are, I have a recommendation. Change your distance or your firing position like to offhand, and things will get more interesting. 🙂 I find myself getting bored with rested shooting. Not just to do it myself but to see it done universally at the shooting range. People benchrest rifles at 15 yards and benchresting is universal at the 100 yard range. I think position shooting is the way to go.

    Now rejoice with me. I have just acquired a CZ 75 SP-01. This is based almost entirely on the internet. Whenever I looked for a list of best 9mm handguns, this one was almost always at the top. I had never heard of it before but eading further, I see it has quite a pedigree. It is supposed to be the most widely-used handgun by law enforcement and military in the world. It was a favorite of the famous Jeff Cooper and it is one of the most popular guns in international action-shooting including by an extremely attractive young female Russian shooter who seems to be in a class by herself. And it chambers the most popular handgun round in the world (which is also remarkably cheap). When I first held the gun, I had some misgivings that it was just another 1911. In part that is true as it copies some features of the Browning Hi Power. But as time goes on, it is feeling more like a unique gun.

    The dealer who transferred the gun was very excited about me shooting it, and when I told her that I didn’t get out to the range to shoot firearms much, she started telling me about a laser technology you could attach to the gun which could be used with specialized targets indoors. When I told her that I did my indoor shooting with airguns, her face completely glazed over. She just didn’t get it and seemed to think that a laser was a better approximation of shooting. However, I had planned to get into target lasers with this handgun and specifically to explore the world of the green laser.

    With this gun, I might have passed another milestone. I think I might actually have everything that I want. Can this be true? The idea was to get the best in class of all the distinct classes of guns and I think I might have done it….

    Matt61



    • Matt61
      I got a NC Star green laser from PA years ago.

      Haven’t found another one that works lke it with the same model number.

      It blows any laser away that I have had yet. But I tryed a experiment with it. I mounted it on top of my Savage .22 rimfire bolt action rifle. Mounted it in a single scope mount ring and used the pressure switch. I mounted the switch at the back of the bolt where I rest my thumb on the stock.

      So far real good results. I have been able to shoot from 15-60 yards with different velocity and weight rounds and hit a aluminum can. That’s shooting prone and at my waiste and bench resting. Both of my daughters can hit the can at 50 yards bench resting.

      But what I’m having problems with is I have not had to put hold over or under in shooting a can at those distances. Doesn’t seem right but its the results I’m getting.


  16. Well it’s been a day, gotta go back to the plastic breech on my 1377 and spilled a Buncha the lead I tried to harvest.
    At least my aluminum cans a ‘re ready to cash in but I’ll still have to hock another gun or two for cash tomorrow.


  17. Gunfun1– Using a rimfire ballistic chart, most .22 lr rounds will not drop more than 2″ at 75 yds, with a 50 yd zero. I zero my indoor rifles at 50′ for sporter rifle matches. When I use the same rifle for indoor silhouette ( 25 yds) The bullets poi is .75″ higher.( 40 grain, std. vel.). A 25 yd zero is almost perfect when I shoot the rifle at 50 yds. From 50’to 75yds, the poi probably does not vary more than 3″. How tall are your cans? Where does the bullet hit the cans at each distance? (top, bottom or middle?). Perhaps you should shoot at a few paper targets . If the cans are 4″ @ tall, and a center hold is used, your results seem right to me. Ed


  18. Would this be a reasonable minimum requirement for squirrel and rabbit hunting: the farthest distance an airgun can (a) shoot through both sides of a steel soup can filled with water and (b) the farthest distance it can hit a quarter on the first shot almost every time from a hunting (not benchrest) hold?


    • Squirrel are tough! Even with Rimfire headshots they can still get away, that’s what happened the first time I caught one dead to rights with a Ruger Bearcat @ 10 yards.
      I’d have been better off with a crossbow to pin it to the tree in hindsight.
      On the first shot most of the time would be pushing it with them and I’ve had to chase em down after a good hit with a full charge through my 392 so I consider most .22 pellets a little too light for hunting them.
      There’s a blog or two on ethical airgun hunting you should read before going forward, hopefully B.B. will furnish a link in the morning.


    • Fido3030,

      You do need some criteria, but this one is a little crude. The quarter is okay, but there is a huge difference between a steel can and an aluminum one.

      Better to use a chronograph, or penetration in ballistic putty than to use can penetration.

      B.B.


  19. Thanks for thoughtful comments. Although I have a chrono, I’m looking for an easily repeatible test of power/penetration. Hence the steel can filled with water. (a 2260 with CPHP’s will produce a 1/2 inch exit).How about penetration in soft pine or in a can of spam or in wet newspapers?
    For rimfires I like .22 short HSHP over solid LR in a handgun. Thanks!



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