by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Accuracy taken for granted
  • Crosman 160 opened my eyes!
  • In the beginning
  • The ball or bullet
  • Smaller calibers
  • Pellet shape
  • Birth of the diabolo
  • A long way to go

Accuracy taken for granted

I was speaking with a group of very advanced airgunners recently and found myself amazed by what we all took for granted. The subject was airgun accuracy and topics like distance, powerplants and pellet shapes came up, but no one in the group seemed to remember the time when none of those things made any difference. They didn’t because there weren’t any pellets on the market that took advantage of them. Until around the 1960s, accuracy with airguns was iffy, at best. The problem was not the guns — it was the ammunition!

Crosman 160 opened my eyes!

I remember buying a new-old-stock Crosman 160 target rifle that had been produced and sold to the U.S. Air Force. The rifle hadn’t been fired since Crosman tested it with CO2 at the factory some time in the 1970s. The Air Force bought an unknown number of 160s that came with slings and the Crosman S331 rear peep sight. Presumedly there was a plan to use these rifle for some type of training, but that must never have happened, because hundreds of them were found in a military warehouse in the 1990s in unused condition. When I opened the gas reservoir to install 2 fresh CO2 cartridges, I found the original cartridges Crosman had used to test the gun before packaging in the 1970s! The rifle was brand new, as were hundreds of others just like it!

When I installed 2 fresh cartridges (with Crosman Pellgunoil on the tips of each), and started shooting it at 10 meters on my basement range, I was flabbergasted by the accuracy. This rifle was a tackdriver! But that was not always the case. When the airgun was new it was only accurate to the level of it’s day. A 5-shot group at 25 feet might measure three-quarters of an inch. Some were better, of course, but others were worst. But when I loaded the then-new Crosman Premiers, I could put 5 into a quarter-inch with ease. Better yet, it was very repeatable.

So, the gun remained the same but the pellets got better. Much better! That opened my eyes to a part of airgun history that has not always been visible, but has always lead the pace of advancement.

In the beginning

One early airgun projectile was a dart, but most airgunners don’t know that because they have never been exposed to an early dart gun. They were not powerful, and they were certainly all smoothbores, but the tail that created high drag as the dart flew to the target also made it a very consistent projectile whose performance could easily be predicted. And, when you know where something will go you can adjust the sights to move the impact wherever you want it. The most common term for that is accuracy.

Yes, the early (circa 17th century) dart guns were accurate at short range (40 feet?), but they were also very costly. Their price put them out of reach for all but the wealthiest shooters. So they never really caught on. Remember too, we are talking about airguns at a time when even firearms were considered exotic. Airguns in those days were unheard-of, though we now know they existed.

The ball or bullet

The lead ball was the first airgun projectile that was commonly known. In those days, again the 16th and 17th centuries, balls were called bullets. The conical-shaped bullet (longer than it is wide) was unknown. So the first airguns shot balls. Those guns were what we call big bore airguns today, because the smaller calibers (.17 through .25) just didn’t exist.

Smaller calibers

Around the year 1840 people started shooting lead balls using just the force of a percussion cap. Because there isn’t much force, the balls had to be made much smaller, and the smallbore calibers were born. This is where the .22 caliber Flobert (in Europe it was 6mm) and the 4.5mm calibers came into existence.

Airguns of the time didn’t immediately adopt these calibers. They were made in slightly larger calibers like .25 and even .28, but the idea of the smallbore airgun was definitely on everyone’s mind. By the 1870s the projectiles used by airguns had become as small as .21 caliber, and in 1886 the Markham company brought out the first true BB gun that shot lead shot on the size BB, which is nominally .18 caliber.

Pellet shape

At this time (the 1880s) some airguns were able to use so-called “cat” slugs that were simple lead cylinders only slightly longer than their width. Then someone got the idea to glue a small felt pad to the base of one of these slugs, and the first intentionally high-drag airgun projectile was created. I say the first, but it really was not the first, since the darts that had already existed for centuries were also high drag. But the darts were reuseable, where the felted slugs were a one-time use. I touched on this in another historical report titled, Other airgun calibers.

Birth of the diabolo

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the pellet shape we call diabolo was first seen. Diabolo refers to a juggling apparatus that is also made as a toy. Popular in Europe and elsewhere, it was also seen in the U.S., but never gained the popularity here that it had elsewhere. The diabolo is an exaggerated hourglass shape with a wasp waist that balances on a string when the device is spun rapidly. I actually bought one a few years ago, just to be able to photograph it, because I often talk about the device and I wanted my readers to see what I was referring to.

A diabolo is a juggling device that has also been sold as a toy. More popular in Europe than in the U.S.

diabolo pellet
Diabolo pellet shares the fundamental shape of its juggling namesake.

Eley Wasp
Eley Wasps have the classic diabolo pellet characteristics.

Diabolo pellets changed the airgun scene forever. Air rifles went from being extremely short range toys to fairly accurate guns overnight. Now the importance of rifled barrels became obvious, and the development of modern spring-piston airgiuns took off.

A long way to go

As good as the diabolo shape was, though, it still had a long way to go. It would be over half a century before things began to resolve into what we know today. But that is a tale for another time.