The first pneumatic gun

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • First air compressor
  • Condensing chamber/reservoir
  • Valves
  • Controlling force
  • Sealing against air loss
  • The first air valve
  • The rest of the gun was easy
  • Performance
  • When did it happen?

I just finished reading about the Wright brothers quest to fly, and I learned some things. For starters, I never thought about their first flight — how did they know what to do? There was nobody to teach them because mankind hadn’t flown a powered airplane yet. So how did the Wright brothers learn to fly?

Don’t answer that. That was a large part of what the book was about. But do you see a parallel between the Wrights and the person who built the first pneumatic airgun? He had no one to copy, either. He had to do everything himself, because pneumatic guns didn’t exist yet.

First air compressor

The inventor of the first pneumatic gun was probably aware of certain pneumatic experiments that came before his time. The condensing syringe was known to the Greeks of Alexandria 200 years before the birth of Christ. We call them air pumps today, but they do their work today the same as they did back then. This is the first air compressor. With it, the pneumatic airgun becomes possible.

Compressed air can be used immediately upon compression to do things like power a siren or a whistle. The sound tells you that the air was compressed and it also tells you when the compressed air is completely exhausted. However, if you could store the compressed air and then call upon it at any time, it would be a source of energy that might have a lot more uses.

Condensing chamber/reservoir

I don’t know when the first condensing chamber (reservoir) was invented, because its history is pretty vague. But it is the key to the first airgun. We know that airguns with bellows have been around since the 1500s, but the bellows gun is a spring gun that compresses air and uses it immediately. The gun we are interested in is the one that holds compressed air as long as desired and releases it suddenly on command. To be able to do that you first need a way to store the compressed air, and that’s where the condensing chamber (reservoir) comes in.

A reservoir (I will use that term from now on) needs a way to accept compressed air, and we call that an inlet valve. If there were no inlet valve but only a straight hole into the reservoir, the air would enter, but the moment the incoming pressure was relaxed it would come back out again. The valve acts as a door that only opens one way.

Once the air is safely stored inside the reservoir, there needs to be a way to release it on command, as well. That’s another valve. It could be the same valve as the inlet valve, but it has to work in the opposite direction — to only release air from the reservoir. The same valve can be made to do both tasks, but the mechanism needed to do both things with a single valve is complicated. It’s easier to just use a second valve that’s located at a different place on the reservoir.

This valve has to work one way also, but its function is exactly opposite that of the inlet valve — to only release air from the reservoir. You have probably experimented with something like this already if you ever shook a bottle of soda pop and held your thumb over the opening. Your thumb acts as the valve and with it you can control where the soda spray goes. The gas pressure of the soda is low enough that you can control it.

Valves

We are just getting started designing the first pneumatic gun, but building the reservoir is the key. Barrels, triggers and locks are simple compared to pneumatic valves. At the time the first pneumatic gun was created, mankind was used to valves that controlled water. The pneumatic valve had to control air — something much more ephemeral. What could do it? Not your thumb — that’s for sure!

Controlling force

One key to making a valve was controlling a powerful force. A clockmaker, for example, knew that a small lever could be used to control a very powerful force if the lever’s fulcrum were in the right location. The air valve had to be like that — able to control a large force with just a little effort.

Something better than a thumb was needed. The valve had to be strong enough to hold back the air, yet it had to be able to open at the right time. Before you start wondering how this was ever conceived, remember that at this time in history (a time we don’t exactly know) men already knew a lot about designing gun locks, door locks and mechanisms like clocks. These were the same men who had the knowledge to design the first pneumatic gun.

Another key was controlling the amount of the force, itself. Mill operators knew that opening the millrace allowed more water to flow through and hit the wheel, generating greater force. The way to control the mill was to control the flow of water through the race. The same idea could be applied to compressed air, though in far smaller scale because of the thinness of air.

Sealing against air loss

This is the big one. The other problems have solutions in other areas that can be studied and modified, but no one had ever tried to contain compressed air before. However, they weren’t without ideas. One was obvious, although I don’t suppose it struck them that way until they tried it and found that it worked. Make the seal from leather! Make a leather valve face contact a metal valve seat, sealing all airflow through the valve. As long as the leather remained pliable, it would seal against air loss pretty well. No one knew this until they built several valves and tried them for the first time, of course, but it did work.

valve

This seal worked for both inlet valves and exhaust valves. Once a valve was finally built, the builders discovered that the pressure of air compressed by a condensing syringe (hand pump) was sufficient to open the valve to admit more compressed air into the reservoir. When the incoming air pressure dropped (at the end of the pump stroke), the valve spring inside the inlet valve forced the valve shut again. Once that happened, the air pressure inside the reservoir held the valve shut, along with the tension of the valve spring.

The first air valve

Controlling the amount of force that came from the reservoir was solved by making the air passage through the valve body very small. It was just like the millrace only far smaller. They couldn’t control the power in the same way as the race, because once the air valve opened things happened too fast. So they found themselves in our world of valve dwell time. The size of the air passage leading out of the valve combined with the strength of the spring holding the valve shut determined how much air escaped when the valve was hammered open.

Sounds cool, no? Well, at the time it was among the most advanced technology mankind had ever seen. Still, leather is somewhat porous and also prone to dry out, so the compressed air didn’t stay inside the reservoir for long. At best it might hold for several days. But eventually it leaked out and you had to fill the reservoir again.

The rest of the gun was easy

Once he had his air reservoir holding air that could be released at will, the first airgun designer found the rest of his task easy. As I said before, designing a lock to hammer the exhaust valve open was child’s play. And the remainder of the gun came together rapidly.

It was a successful condensing syringe (hand pump) and a working valve inside a working air reservoir that challenged that first airgun designer.

Performance

Once all these things came together, a first shot was fired. Maybe the projectile (a ball?) came out of the barrel at 200 f.p.s. — fast enough to dent the wooden walls of his shop. Within a week he was denting the wood deeply and on one fine day that first ball passed completely through the wooden plank and left the building. That shot wouldn’t impress any of us today, but to the man doing the work back then it must have looked like he had just invented anti-gravity or invisibility!

When did it happen?

No one knows when that first pneumatic airgun was invented. We suspect it might have been in the mid-1500s, though there are sources that claim it happened as early as the mid-1400s. We do know it wasn’t much earlier than that because no trace of airguns or writing about them dates that early. We also know of dated airgun parts from around the year 1600. Their designs are advanced far enough to suggest that there must have been something that came before. So the time of the first pneumatic airgun is pretty much fixed to between 1450 and 1600 AD.

That puts the first airguns at 100 to 200 years after the invention of firearms. But firearms advanced rapidly after they were invented, because their technology was relatively simple. Airguns, though, would remain the stuff of rumors and legend for several hundred more years.

42 thoughts on “The first pneumatic gun

  1. BB– Is it possible that the pipes (Bagpipes ) gave ideas to the gunsmiths who built the first pneumatic guns? They have a long history as musical instruments. They have an air chamber and valves. Ed


  2. BB–I checked wikipaedia, they claim that bagpipes might be as old ad 1000 B.C. ( Oxford dictionary of music). It,s possible that someone used the chanter as a peashooter. A clever smith might have taken this a step further to make an air gun. Of course this idea is purely hypothetical. Ed




      • Too funny Reb!

        I could imagine some jokester shoving a grape or something into his buddies’ bagpipe tube and got a “visual” of a big guy wearing a kilt stomping on the bagpipe bag to dislodge the grape.

        Wouldn’t be long before they would be stomping grapes at each other making the bagpipe the first pneumatic gun!

        My granddaughter asked what I was laughing at when I read you post. Didn’t take me long to get a large plastic pop-bottle, piece of PVC pipe and a couple of grapes to demonstrate how that would work.



  3. But this must mean…(21st century journalism speaking, of course)
    that invisibility and/or antigravity is/was/will be available last week/this week/next week fer’sure/probably/me’be/soon/yup/okay/yeah/absolutely…accordingly to you.
    What was yer name again?
    Mind if I quote you?
    Okay if I attribute yer statement to yer name? Never mind, it’s not important…what’s yer name again? What’s the invisibility/antigravity thing again? Okay if I refer to your references as “scientists say?”



  4. BB,

    OK, you’ve gone and done it now! You’ve done gone and discumbobblated me and you now have to straighten me out!

    I was under the impression that a bellows air rifle operated similar to a single or multi-stroke pneumatic with air being compressed by a bellows in the stock filling a reservoir. Now you are going to have to write a blog about these. 😉


  5. Hi folks,

    another very interesting report…

    When I read the Wright brothers analogy I thought that for flying we at least had an inspiration since there are animals that do it and they need wings.

    I would guess that shooting projectiles is pretty much a human invention. It still seems that was still easier to do because it was achieved some centuries before flight.

    The things we take for granted today were once radical new ideas that had to be figured out by someone. So we know and see the things we do because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

    Pretty fascinating stuff…

    Stephan



  6. I’m with RidgeRunner — as soon as I saw today’s blog title I thought of bellows airguns. You’ll have to de-discombobulate us (is that even legal?!) on Friday.


  7. B.B.
    Fascinating article! I remember being in front of the old clock in Prague, Old Town Square, and thinking that when this was built it was the most complicated machine in the world! Then the clock makers went on to Italy and built one even more complicated. Were blowguns even known to the Western World then? I thought they were the exclusive domain of the Western Hemisphere indigenous people.
    Thanks,
    -Yogi



      • B.B.,

        I guess being human-powered, another technique that wouldn’t count would be John Belushi putting a ball of rice in his mouth, puffing his cheeks, and whammo! (Sometimes the dumbest humor is my favorite.)

        Not exactly as complex as the Giss anti-recoil system, eh?

        Seriously, though, I am again and again surprised by how simple an actual airgun can be in its design. When I was a misbehaving seventh-grader, some of my friends and I would wad up a ball of paper, stuff it into the very end of a soda straw, and pinch the straw just behind the wadded paper. Then we would pinch the other end of the straw and fold it over our fingers a couple times. You could see the air pressure quickly build as the barrel of the straw would get ever more plump. All that was left was to point the “muzzle” upward at the desired angle and release the pinched fingers. Pop. That technique could shoot a paper wad almost as far as simply using the straw as a blowgun, and by having the straw lowered to just under the cafeteria table, we were much more stealthy than if we raised it up to our lips.

        Alas, misbehavior is the mother of invention.

        Michael


        • The old Bic pens with the clear barrel made the best pressized spitwad shooters for me, they actually have a tapered bore but you gotta keep the venthole covered ,and the ramrod could put an eye out. 🙂


  8. B.B.,

    I see that Umarex is about to release a series (blued, blued-weathered, and nickel-plated) of John Wayne Commemorative Colt SAA revlovers. Those on the Pyramyd Air site are the BB smooth-bore models, but as I understand it, there will be at least a weathered one with a rifled barrel as well. Any information you might have would be welcome. Personally, I’d love to see a 4.75 inch rifled barreled version in blued or weathered blued finish, especially if Umarex would significantly tone down the brightness of the legal disclaimer warning on the right side of the barrel.

    Thanks,

    Michael



      • B.B.,

        Now I see Umarex has shrewdly offered all of the Duke models in rifled as well as non-rifled.

        I’d very seriously consider buying a rifled one of these except for the day-glo lettering on the right side of the barrel. With that defacement being so obvious, I think I’ll pass. Maybe if it were rifled and 4.75 inch I’d get one even with the deer-season-vest lettering.

        When I showed my Marshal’s Commemorative model to my next-door neighbor, he at first though it was the real deal, as in a REAL 19th century Colt SAA Peacemaker. When I turned it over and he saw the bright warning lettering, he instantly said, “Oh, it’s one of those non-firing copies from Italy.” “No, no, it’s an airgun! It loads, cycles, and shoots, and . . .,” I replied. Nope. He was so turned off by the lettering it went from being like the Lost ark of the Covenant to “just a BB gun.” I couldn’t get him even to grasp it. I couldn’t even get his attention by removing and replacing the shells.

        What we need now (in addition to a good five cent cigar) is a rifled, 4.75 inch barreled, blued or weathered, SAA with a significantly darker/less obvious warning on the barrel.

        Michael



          • B.B.,

            Oh, I get that. I just wish the lettering could be a) slightly smaller, b) located a bit more on the underside of the barrel, and c) a few shades darker on the blued and weathered models. Just those three small differences on the dark models would combine for a much better looking revolver. On the nickel one, at least from the photos I’ve seen, the light, bright lettering actually blends in pretty well as is.

            Michael


            • I’m afraid the Orange script on an airgun is meant to let someone whom it may get pointed at know it’s just an airgun so the BB shooter doesn’t get shot by someone who thought it was really a firearm.
              I also believe states may adopt and require it to be legal like the muzzle requirement for airsoft.
              I hope I’m wrong but when considering a replica there will be compromised.
              I’d probably soak the lettering with brake fluid to lft it but I’d check an inconspicuous spot to test the finish first.


              • Reb,

                For what it’s worth, on my U.S. Marshal’s Commemorative, I chose a tiny corner of the warning and very carefully, very lightly scratched my thumbnail over just one part of one letter, to see what the effect would be. What happened is that the dullness of the weathered finish started to get shiny, and the lettering started to get brighter. I stopped before I did anything that could be noticed by anybody but me. Even then, I did it so carefully that I’m not sure even I could find the exact spot anymore.

                I suppose someone could buy a blued model and have all of the finish removed and then have it re-blued. That would even leave open the option of having replica engravings made on it. Heck, a skilled gunsmith might even be able to convert it into a credible-looking 4.75 inch barrel model!

                Michael



  9. Mr. Gaylord:

    While you covered regulated valves in 2008, will you also be addressing the development of regulated valves in the present discussion of the first pneumatic guns and valves?

    I’m thinking of 10 meter rifles like the AirForce Edge. While it doesn’t have a history going back to 1492, and wasn’t the first air rifle arriving with the Mayflower, it’s still an historic rifle in the 10 meter sporter class world. It’s small reservoir coupled to a regulated valve lets a competitor shoot a full 60 shot match and have lots of air for sighters.

    Respectfully submitted
    Wm. Schooley
    Rifle Coach
    Crew 357
    Chelsea, MI



  10. It’s a good thing I read the article last night because I’m getting a headache trying to read the comments.
    I did what I could to clear as much space on here as is possible without getting into my contacts
    Thanks B.B!
    Let’s see if it gets better?



    • Reb,

      The contract to my smartphone ended a few months ago and, get this, I went with a “dumbphone” for my next one. No touchscreen, no wireless, 800 prepaid minutes for the next year. I thought the kid behind the counter would make some kind of expression of surprise. Nope. Finally I gave up. I said to him, “Betcha don’t see this everyday.” He looked up and took the wind right out of my sales by saying, “Actually we get a couple people a day who have decided to downgrade to a non-smartphone, not unusual at all.”

      As you can imagine, it’s not every day that somebody describes me or something I am doing as “not unusual at all.” What a letdown.

      Michael


      • AT&T has already been fined for “throttling” data speed but the basis for the fine was lack of disclosure to the customer so now when I get close to my “unlimited”plan’s allotted high speed internet connection they send a text every time you try to use it.
        My “unlimited” data isn’t even enough to update my apps.
        );


  11. Reb,

    We have Comcast for our data-stream (cable TV and internet) but from everything I’ve read, both AT&T and Comcast are generally lousy.

    Oh, and I meant “wind out of my sails” above.

    Michael


    • I had a AT&T rep suggest I install and pay for WiFi to support the phone but that’s another 50-75 bucks a month and I didn’t buy this thing to keep dumping money into.


  12. B.B. , ok I got the teaser email from PA. The Umarex Colt is now available in a John Wayne “Duke” version. But now you can get it in pellet or bb. Looks great. But, one thing that has me puzzled is that PA list the pellet version and the bb version as smooth bore??? Surely that is a mistake. I wonder if the “shells” are the same for each gun or different. So exciting to see them. They come in blue, nickel and “weathered” finishes.


  13. Yogi– when were you in Prague? I was there in August, 1989. I was one of the 3 tourists who had a cam-corder (in St. Wenceslas square. and in front of the clock tower), Ed


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