How powerful were the big bore airguns of the past?: Part 2

by Tom Gaylord

Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

How powerful were the big bore airguns of the past?: Part 1

  • My knowledge base
  • Quackenbush Brigand
  • Air cane
  • Farco air shotgun
  • Splatology
  • Powerful enough to kill?
  • Conclusions

This report is for reader Zebra who asked me last week about the power of the antique big bore airguns. He said he read that some were used in battle and had the power to kill soldiers. I answered him and gave a link to the very first report of this airgun history series (Part 1, linked above). It was done way back on August 21, 2015 when this section was started. But I read that report and discovered that it really didn’t answer his question. I had explained how big bore airgun power was determined, but not how powerful the guns actually were. So I’m adding this Part 2 to get to the heart of the question.

My knowledge base

Before I start throwing numbers around, let me first tell you that today’s report is based on my actual experience. It’s not based on what I think or on mathmatical calculations.

Quackenbush Brigand

My first experience with a big bore airgun was with a .375-caliber Brigand — the first big bore made by Dennis Quackenbush. He had made a replica kit of parts before that for people to build their own Paul air shotguns, but he didn’t sell them as completed guns. So 1996 when the Brigand came out was when things got real for me.

The Brigand operated on bulk CO2. A fill was good for 10-12 powerful shots as I recall. And the velocity for a 84-grain lead ball was 600-650 f.p.s. There, Zebra. That’s your first big bore velocity and my first teaching point.

After I experimented with my Brigand for awhile, I wondered how it would perform on air. Dennis made it strong enough to hold more pressure, so after checking with him I filled mine to 1,200 psi from a hand pump and got that same lead ball up to over 800 f.p.s. That’s my second data point/teaching point. CO2 may have the same pressure as air was compressed in the antique airguns, but the CO2 molecule is larger than the separate atoms in air, and therefore it flows slower through a valve. So — more velocity on air at the same pressure.

Yes, I do know that 1,200 psi is more pressure than CO2 commonly reaches. That would be 850 psi at 70 degrees F. But there wasn’t that much difference in velocity from air compressed to the two pressures (1,200 psi and 850 psi). As long as it was always air, the bullet went faster than it did on CO2.

Air cane

Then I bought an antique air cane. It came with a smoothbore barrel only and that was .43 caliber. I operated that cane on CO2 exclusively because that was what my fill adaptor was set up to work with. I got velocities of about 625 f.p.s. from that cane running on CO2. Do you see the parallel, here? The cane was a larger caliber and shot a heavier lead ball (120 grains versus 84 grains) but it still made about the same velocity as the Brigand. The cane was smoothbore and the Brigand was rifled. But they had barrels of about the same lengths and they shot at roughly the same velocities. I’m being very loose with the facts in this explanation, but the numbers really were that close. Guess what that told me? The antique big bores (the cane was from the late 19th century) all perform similarly.

Farco air shotgun

Okay, let’s look at another big bore that’s modern and runs on CO2. The Farco air shotgun from the Philippines fires a 28-gauge shot cup (.51 caliber) of shot, but a .43 caliber lead ball can also be used. The balls are lighter than the shot charge and they average about 500 f.p.s. That’s slower than the Brigand and air cane, but it’s still in the same general region. But listen to this. When it shot a charge of shot that weighed 245 grains, it went out at 450 f.p.s. That’s just 50 f.p.s. less than the ball that weighed half as much! So the velocity was pretty much based on the gun, rather than on the projectile. There’s another teaching point, Zebra.

Big bore velocities vary more gun-to-gun than they do projectile-to-projectile — as long as we are just talking about simple non-adjustable firing valves. You asked about antique big bores and that’s what I’m talking about today. Throw in an AirForce Texan and everything changes. The Texan has the technology to change velocities, unlike the antique guns.


In Part 1 we learned about the science of splatology, which is the phenomenon where a lead ball of any size flattens the same amount when it hits a hard target at the same speed. So a .375 lead ball that hits an anvil at 350 f.p.s. flattens just as much as a .60 caliber lead ball doing the same thing. The splat that the larger ball leaves behind is wider across, of course, but the lead splats from the two different calibers appear identical. That means we can determine the impact velocity of a lead ball that that has struck a hard target just by examining the splat it left behind. In turn that means we can know what velocity a lead ball was traveling two centuries ago, just by examining a drawing of the splat it left behind.

There isn’t a lot of splatology data to examine, but what we have points to many antique big bore airguns shooting in the 500-650 f.p.s. range. Curious, isn’t it? No matter how we look at this, the velocity of antique big bore airguns always seems to fall within a narrow range. And that is another teaching point.

Powerful enough to kill?

Zebra also asks if the antique airguns he has read about were really powerful enough to kill a human. Where they used in war, as he has read?

At least one of them was. A 21-shot repeater called a Girardoni, after its inventor, shot a .47-caliber lead ball with enough force to kill a man at a distance of 100 yards. In the book, Smith’s Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air and Spring guns of the World, the author, W.H.B. Smith, reports of one instance where this happened. It was sometime in the late 1700s when an orderly sergeant was killed by a ball while standing next to a group of officers. The shot was not heard and no smoke from the powder was seen, but they were facing Austrian troops and they knew the Austrians had no fewer than 500 rifled repeating airguns.

If a .47 caliber ball hit a man at 400 f.p.s. it would have had enough energy to kill him if a vital organ was hit. While we tend to think of 400 f.p.s. as too slow to do much damage, we are thinking in terms of pellets. It’s very different when it’s a lead ball of considerable size. Elmer Keith slaughtered cows in the stockyards in Chicago with muzzleloading cap and ball revolvers that shot smaller balls just a little faster than that, and those balls would often pass through the animal from front to rear.


Zebra, and anyone else who was wondering about the power of the antique big bores, that’s about all I can tell you. You now know:

1. They mostly shot from 500-650 f.p.s. at the muzzle.
2. We can determine their terminal velocity from forensic evidence if a drawing of the splat remains.
3. We know the air pressure at which they operated (from Part 1) and that also tells us how powerful these older big bores were.
4. To get greater power they used larger, heavier balls.

When you think about it, we know a lot about the power of the old big bores.

69 thoughts on “How powerful were the big bore airguns of the past?: Part 2”

  1. Hello BB and the group. I think you explained the topic quite well and thus all of us readers of the blog, again have learned something new pertaining to air guns
    Now I want to go to the opposite side of the spectrum and go to .177 or 4,5 mm BB shooting. Would it be possible at times at the end of your regular accuracy test to shoot the pistol or gun at ten meters. The target would be a full
    size picture of a Coke Can, or any other regular 12 oz can that seems to be a popular target for us BB shooters. You still could use the non blow back Makarov as a standard. We may get groups of 6″ center to center, but be interesting to see how many could actually hit the can. Thank you

    • Harvey,

      I like the idea. A fun little twist at the end of a 5 meter bb test. Wasn’t there an “un-official” Pepsi challenge that involved shooting Pepsi cans that I heard about awhile back?

      • Chris,

        There is still an ongoing Pepsi Challenge. As far as I can determine it started in 2013 on the Talon Airgun Forum. If you search there you can find posts about it, but be warned, that site may get you hooked on AirForce rifles.

        Those guys are the unofficial research center for AirForce. They will make modifications to there air rifles that show up a couple of years later on the production rifles.

        As for the Pepsi Challenge, if you search You Tube you should find a couple of videos of a guy shooting in the Pepsi Challenge at 614 yards. It is my understanding that the distance is now up to 700 yards.

        • RR,

          I like the AF line but they are not much on stock/butt adj., so they are out for me. And yes,( we the people) may be the best “testers” of all. 700 huh? Now that is some serious hold over! 😉

  2. Fascinating article. I loved the experimentation and discovery factors involved. Very clear explanations as well without getting into a lot of other things.

    My current interest, besides getting a PCP, is the arrow firing 880 that Reb made awhile back, or a 760 with an 880 barrel. (comments yesterday on prev. blog) If it works, the arrow is kept light, makes good fps and has some good fpe,….it will be a nice fun little project. Not to mention a truly effective short range weapon.

    Always playing and trying new things. 🙂

    • Chris,

      I was reading yesterday on Hector Medina’s blog in his archives where he took a Crosman 2200 and replaced the barrel with a .25 barrel to use for hunting pigeons.

  3. Lewis and Clark took a repeating air rifle with them on their famous expedition. It has been described as a .46 caliber Girandoni repeater capable of firing 22 shots in under 30 seconds. Circa 1790. It was used to demonstrate firepower to the Native American Nations they encountered on at least 39 separate occasions. Apparently they would arrange a demonstration, fire a few rounds off in quick succession and make it look as effortless as possible. The rifle had to be pointed upward to cock it if I recall correctly. The rifle air reservoir was a removable iron piece used as the buttstock of the weapon. Additional charged reservoirs could be carried for recharging in hurried circumstances. It took about 1500 pumps of a bicycle style pump to fill it to nearly 800 psi and would then be capable of firing about 40 round balls before any appreciable drop in velocity. Something an Austrian infantryman fighting Napoleonic wars might do by rolling on his back and then rolling back to a belly down position between shots if he was able to remain prone during battle. Lewis and Clark also avoided giving the impression they had only one such weapon. It may be the reason they were able to report on their expedition. I tend to think that is the case. Actually, I am confident that single air rifle Lewis and Clark tricking the Natives that they had many more similar rifles, and the grace of God are the only reasons Lewis and Clark survived their expedition.

    • Jim,
      I have read the Lewis and Clark journals and they make very little mention of the airgun.
      I would like to read the material you got the information on Lewis and Clark using the Girandoni if you don’t mind telling me what it was.


      David Enoch

      • David,
        If you search “lewis and clark girandoni” the National Firearms Museum has a nice 8 minute youtube video regarding the rifle. It notes the weapon mentioned on the very first page of Lewis’s first Diary and thirty eight additional times within the 13 volumes of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary journals.

      • The air rifle was mentioned 39 times in the journals and described as .46 caliber 22 shot repeating rifle. If I recall correctly it is not specifically identified by the Girandoni name in Lewis and Clark journals. However, there is no other air rifle of the time known to meet the Lewis and Clark rifle description.

        I have not read the journals and am relying on the testimony of historians for my content.

        • Jim,
          I did not mean to contradict you. The video you mentioned was what spurred me to read the journals. I am wondering if there is more that I have not read. What I read was Lewis and Clark’s daily recount of what occurred each day. I only remember a handful of mentions of the airgun. One interesting thing they mention was finding a dinosaur skeleton. The term Dinosaur had not been coined yet and I think they called it a giant lizard. That material is available for free download from several sources. I downloaded it from Bushcraft USA myself. I am wondering if upon their return they may have written more complete accounts based on their daily journals.

          David Enoch

  4. Off topic.
    I found an HWv35 the man wants to sell for $75. Haven’t seen it yet. I know it is not supposed to be as good an airgun as my FWB 124, but thought this was a very good price for an HW 35.
    What are your thoughts concerning the HW 35?

    • Jonah,

      This is my personal opinion so take it for what it is. At that price unless it is junk as BB stated, I would buy it. I would not be afraid of taking it apart and fixing any issues it may have.

      What you should do is another matter. If it looks to be in decent shape, any issues can probably be fixed. If it works, it is most definitely worth that price. It could have a leather seal if it is old enough.

  5. Air is not separate atoms, air is a mixture of many molecules. Oxygen is found as O2, Nitrogen as N2, etc. Outside of noble gasses, not many elements are going to be found as single atoms. Argon is one example, but only less than 1 percent of air.

    An argon filled PCP however would be not much faster than CO2. The speed of sound in the gas is what can be used to predict this. Note that the speed of sound in Helium is 1007m/s and Helium filled PCPs are for the same pressure much faster than air filled PCPs. In nitrogen, about 80% of air, the speed of sound is 349m/s, in CO2 it is only 267m/s.

  6. B.B.,

    These reports always interest me, probably in part because they get my imagination going in unorthodox directions. For example, you write that in the late 18th century the Austrians had at least 500 large bore repeating air rifles, and I wonder how many of them still exist today?

    Also, if a lead ball delivering roughly 50 foot pounds of energy to the target (that Airgun Energy Calculator on the P.A. site is quite handy) can be an effective weapon of war (you did note it would have had to injure a major organ), how much energy does a typical NATO rifle deliver to a target 250-350 yards away?


    • Michael,

      They had a unit with 500 rifles in it. They made over a thousand of these.

      I don’t know how many still exist, but probably only a few hundreds. A good one will bring $60,000 to $80,000 today.

      Your NATO energy question is tricky, because NATO bullets don’t kill as well (with low energy numbers) as round balls. At that distance they will still retain hundreds of foot-pounds, which will do the job.


    • Roughly 500 FPE at 300 yards which is considered close to the maximum effective range for the rifle.
      Roughly 250 FPE at 500 yards which is probably as far as an infantryman would attempt a shot.
      If using something closer to a 78 grain projectile a Squad Designated Marksman might attempt a shot at 800 to 1,000 yards with the projectile arriving on target with about 100 FPE.

  7. I’d like to try some Big Bores. But, as you know, here in England the legal power limit (without a licence, which is an intentionally arduous, long and complex state-of-affairs to obtain) is 12 ft-lbs. So, a Big Bore at that power level would have a pellet arc akin to a rusty, problematic cannon from the year 1434.

    The only negative thing about them is the fact you have to constantly refill them. I’d prefer to have a break-barrel Big Bore, despite the cocking force it would need. Then again: the recoil from one would be considerable and would, amongst other things, break your scope and affect your aim.

    But yeah. Big Bores will definitely continue to become more and more popular, I think.

    • By the way, Tom: On my WordPress homepage, there’s a message instructing me to, quote: ‘WordPress 4.4.1 is available! Please notify the site administrator.’

      I’d personally advise to update it. It’s quick and easy, and it’ll improve the site and the sites security. And, depending on what version you’re on now, you might also get a few new features.

      Just thought I’d let you know.

    • Or a bamboo cannon.
      Apparently Hatsan is offering a break barrel big bores this year.
      I believe it even comes with open sights, hopefully they’ll offer a detuned version for y’all.

            • I don’t believe the 880 is a good platform because the barrel shroud is so integral to it’s construction.
              The bamboo hand cannon also starred in an episode of Star Trek when captain Kirk was forced to duel a lizard man.
              He stumbled across a sulphur deposit and charcoal to make the powder and I believe it was a rock that he used as the projectile.

              • Reb,

                Too bad on 880. I was ready to give it a go. 🙁 Serious, I was ready to go.

                As for the survival tip,.. I will keep that in mind if ever stranded on a planet inhabited with humanlike lizards, that also happens to have some charcoal, rocks, Sulphur and bamboo laying about. 😉 Yea, I used to watch them as a kid. Along with all the Godzilla VS What The Heck Ever,……. 🙂 (Big) bags of BBQ chips and 1 qt. cokes at Grandma’s house till me and the little bro fell asleep in front of the “tube”. Ahhhhh, the “good ol’ days”.

                Still, an 880 is on the shopping list. Bamboo BBQ skewers look out! At 35$, what can go wrong? And you know, that puppy will come all the way down, if for nothing else than to figure out what makes it “tick”.

                • They are inexpensive now.
                  Not too hard to work on and if yo don’t mind cutting the shroud back it just might work.
                  The reason for only 5 pumps was anything more would start the arrow to yaw in flight.

                  • Reb,

                    Thanks for the “yaw” info. I was thinking shorter, say 12″? 6″? Now,…. where is my hand operated pipe cutter? 🙂

                    Question: You think that if the shroud were cut off at the forearm, the shroud would come right off?

                    • The only thing holding it in place are the two screws that go through the receiver and the front sight/ barrel bushing.

                    • Reb,

                      Thanks. It sounds like a project. Will check into arrows at the one and only Mom and Pop sports/gun shops. They do custom arrows. So at least I should get some parts. Just the barrel OD and arrow ID right,….got to get that at least close.

                    • Chris, if you’re thinking about going that short(6-12″) you might consider crossbow bolts but the tension between the barrel and bolt takes a little experimentation.

    • If I were limited to 12 FPE I would be inclined to rely on a single pump pneumatic. As a youth I took hundreds of squirrel, sparrow, blackbird, mouse and starling with a red ryder boasting close to 1.3 FPE and throwing steel bbs down range at an astounding 275 fps. So for me it would seem reasonable to step up from that to one of the regulated target rifles used in competition. I think they are limited to 5 FPE or 500 fps. Not sure precisely. But I know I would not shoot anything bigger than a pigeon or large rat with something under 12 FPE unless I really had to. Some reputable models price in under $200.

  8. B.B. Very good read. I used to wonder how the .41 rimfire short derringer could kill having only a 130gr bullet going at 425 fps with 52 fpe . But from what I read, at close range it would in fact kill. Yet at 15 yards, it would “bounce” off a hard tree. At 20 yards it’s said you can hear the shot, then the bullet striking the tree. Interesting to me about this “big” bore stuff.
    Off subject, in selecting between a .177 and 22 cal rifle, what would you and some of the seasoned guys on here say the “cut off” is on velocity of the .22 is? Meaning if you take the avg pellet of say 7.5 gr for .177 and 14 gr for .22, what would be the lowest velocity for hunting say pest birds, maybe a squirrel/rabbit and plinking of a .22 cal would be before going to a higher vel. .177? Meaning would a 750 fps .177 be better than say a 500 fps 22? I know it’s not black and white, but I wanted you guys thoughts. A good example would be the new Sig C02 rifle (just an example). Let’s just assume the velocities of both guns listed were with the pellet weights I listed. Would 750 fps in .177 be better or would 550 in .22? Considering knock down, penetration and trajectory.

    • I remember the Weihrauch HW40 pistol in .22 cal did only 300 fps. In .177 it did 410 fps. I had read where people that had both preferred the .177 if shooting any distance at all.

      • Doc,

        Very new to studying ballistics. I am considering a .25 PCP. With Chairgun, the .25 seems to stay in a 1″ kill zone longer and has less drop at say 75yds. Plus the fpe goes way up, even at lower fps. I could be wrong, but from the time I spent on the site, it would seem not. I have two .22’s and was doing some comparisons. I think .177 would be even worse. Like I said, very new and still learning.

  9. Reb,

    The hole in the top of the receiver is the barrel retention screw. There should be a cover that slides forward with the bolt handle that has a shoulder on the end that locks the bolt closed. Maybe that corner is rounded off or the part is missing?

    Paul in Liberty County

  10. I recently learned that mass is inversely related to entropy. So, air with its smaller molecule would have higher entropy than CO2 which would correspond to higher speed, which confirms what we know already. The Revenant could have made use of airguns with the amount of water that was sloshing around.


  11. Gunfun, I got my guns back today and tried a shot on the Regal loaded with a 9.8 Winchester round nose and the recoil through the scope was substantial.
    I wouldn’t try the bipod mount directly on one of my good scopes but the rope trick would probably be alright.
    Now to find out how the Impact is doing.

        • GF1,

          Thanks. I took some height info. from my gun(s) on my usual rest(s) and built the rope version based on where the (under side) of the scope tube height was. The 1/4″ rope is the type that is white and the soft, smooth, silky type outside. It is knotted at the one end and the other end with knots at 3/4″ intervals. That is for adjustability. Knots are “pinned” between 2 small “post” on each side that are atop the 2 main uprights.

          One instance where this would (not) work,….if the scope objective sat very close to the receiver. Both of mine are very close to a 1/4″, so in my case, it’s a go! Look forward to trying it.

    • Reb
      The scope mount bi-pod was a idea that I have not ever tryed. So that s what I’m interested in finding out.

      The scope on a rope would work good for either a pcp or a springer.

      And I believe the scope mounted bi-pod would work for a PCP, Co2 or a multi pump or single pump air gun.

      I know what the scope on a rope does for a gun. Now I want to see what the scope mounted bi-pod will do on all the gun types I listed. But really all I need to test is a spring gun and probably a pcp gun. Those two type of power plants should tell how the scope mounted bi-pod will work.

        • Reb
          The ring that would be attached to the scope tube for the bipod is placed right next to the front scope ring.

          That gun would have to weigh a hundred pounds and kick like a artilary shell to bend the scope.

          And you don’t need to worry about your money. I said I would test it with my scope and guns.

          Don’t worry I will report what happens when I try it. Good or bad.

            • Reb,

              Thanks for all of your advice on the 880 arrow firing gun (from above). One final question,…I would like to know what the OD of an 880 (barrel) measures? With that info, I could do some arrow research (before) tearing into it. Thanks, Chris

              • Chris USA
                You know those wood BBQ skewers. Try shooting one out of a .177 caliber smooth bore 760. You could put the felt cleaning pellet in the breech like you would normally load a pellet then drop the skewer down the barrel.

                Search “modern day blow guns” and see what kind of darts are available now days. I think it will give you some ideas of how to make something for a smooth bore 760.

                Oh and I had some modern blow guns and they are very accurate. I could stick a 6″ long 1/16″ diameter metal dart all the way through a Nyquil medicine bottle at 15 yards. Same with a 2 liter soda bottle at 20 yards.

                Of course try at your own risk.

                  • I’ve shot many bamboo skewers through my 760 but never use cleaning pellets and even bare they’re good enough to play a round of cricket with.
                    Love the pellet behind it idea!
                    I just May pick up a dartboard and some skewers to wrap for the house.

                    • Reb
                      I think that would be fun. But I would becareful. I bet that felt cleaning pellet will really speed up the skewer.

                  • Chris USA
                    The 880 is rifled I believe? The 760 is smooth bore.

                    All the blow guns are smooth bore from what I remember. Don’t think I heard of a rifled blow gun. Not to say there is no such thing. I just haven’t heard of one.

                    So that’s why I suggested the 760.

                • Reb,

                  Thanks for the info. I will go the 880 route and BBQ skewer route for a few, till I get board and then the chop job starts. Let me know if you do get a solid OD on the 880 barrel in the meantime. Thanks for all the tips and advice on the arrow bit. Yes, I will consider bolts. As long as they are hollow, they should work. Chris

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