by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This is a guest blog from reader Hiveseeker. Today he reflects on the very first airguns — blowguns

If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, please email me. Now over to you, Hiveseeker.

Blowguns — the first airguns
by Hiveseeker

This report covers:

  • Airgun history
  • Blowgun calibers
  • Blowgun length
  • Popular .40 and .50 caliber darts
  • Popular .625 caliber darts
  • A word about blowgun hunting
  • Blowgun accessories
  • Make a blowgun target
  • How to blow that blowgun
  • Aiming a blowgun
  • For further study

lead photo
Modern-day blowguns come in .40, .50, and .625 caliber. Note the accessory dart quivers.

Airgun history

Here at the Airgun Academy blog B.B. has done a great job of sharing his passion and knowledge of airgun history, deepening our appreciation for our favorite sport. Today we’ll be traveling even further into the past as we delve back to the earliest roots of airgun history — the blowgun! B.B. took us there in 2007 when he wrote about The blowgun Where it all began, and observed that “As airgun collectors become more interested in their hobby, they eventually start acquiring blowguns.”

Blowguns have continued to grow in both popularity and technology since then, and, as an airgunner and a blowgun enthusiast myself, I felt that an update would be interesting. Lest you doubt the relevance of this topic, I point you to the authoritative pages of the Pyramyd Air catalog:

catalog graphic
The Pyramyd Air 2013 catalog informs us that the very first airgun used lung power! The blowgun is considered to be at least 6,000 years old but some reckon it to be even older.

The blowgun is thought to have been invented at least 6,000 years ago. The blowgun is such an ancient weapon that there are few early records. However, the evidence suggests that the blowgun was invented more or less simultaneously in South America and Malaysia. From Malaysia it spread to Indonesia, the Philippines and eventually Japan, where blowguns were reportedly used by ninjas! I was also extremely surprised to learn that the blowgun was used by the Cherokee and Iroquois Native Americans, right here in the United States.

Fast-forward to modern times. In the 1960s the Jivaro blowgun company was popular, but disappeared within a couple decades. Then in the 1990s a number of different blowgun companies emerged on the scene, and today we have a wide selection of quality blowguns and darts available.

Blowgun calibers

Historical native blowguns were nearly all about .50 caliber. Today, the .40 caliber blowgun is the most popular size, but .50 and .625 caliber blowguns are also available. Popular brands of .40 caliber blowguns include Terminator, Bunker Buster, and several Avenger lines including the Avenger Warrior and Avenger Ninja.

The .50 caliber blowguns are fewer in number, with popular brands including the Commando, Extreme Ultra Pro, and Extreme Precision CT. The Extreme Precision CT (Close Tolerance) blowgun has a slightly narrower barrel that hugs the .50 caliber dart more snugly and is considered by many shooters to provide superior accuracy.

Cold Steel is the sole manufacturer of the .625 caliber big bore blowguns. These blowguns are in a class all their own. They are my favorite to shoot but they require good lung capacity.

Blowgun length

Native blowguns were often 8 feet long! Modern blowguns come in lengths from 2 to 5 feet. Short blowguns 3 feet or less are cheaper and much easier to find. However, I prefer longer blowguns 4 to 5 feet in length when available. Just as a longer barrel can give you faster velocity in a CO2 gun, a longer blowgun can give you faster dart velocity and a flatter trajectory.

The more time the dart accelerates in the barrel, the faster it goes until it exits the muzzle. The exception to this rule is the .625 big bore blowgun, which requires a lot of air to blow correctly. If you run out of breath before the dart leaves the barrel, dart velocity drops rapidly. For the .625 blowguns I recommend that female, youth, or small-framed shooters choose the 4 foot models over the 5 foot models; a shorter blowgun may be better in this case.

Popular .40 and .50 caliber darts

The earliest blowgun projectiles were small round stones or clay pellets. Sharpened wooden darts were invented later. For the modern-day blowgunner there is a bewildering array of darts available, but we’ll sort out some of the most popular and most practical. We’ll examine the .40 and .50 caliber darts together because they are so similar. In fact, the shafts of these darts are usually identical, with the only difference between them being whether a .40 caliber tail cone or a .50 caliber tail cone is affixed to the end of the dart. There are a wide variety of .40 and .50 caliber darts available, but these are the most common and popular.

— Stun dart: (.40 caliber only; the rest are available in both .40 and .50) This fun plinking dart is all-plastic. It’s not really big or heavy enough to stun anything, but is fun for plinking at toy soldiers or aluminum cans. It’s not a good target dart, though, because it won’t stick into the target.

— Super stun dart: Similar to the Stun dart above, but with a metal-tipped head that provides more mass and impact.

— Target dart: This is the standard blowgun dart and the most popular, and nearly all blowguns will come with a selection of these. The Target dart is very accurate and is the kind most used in blowgun competition shooting.

— Spear dart: This dart is longer than the target dart and has a flared spear point. Functionally it is nearly identical to the Target dart, but will wear out your target backing a bit faster due to the spear point.

— Broadhead dart: Despite what the name suggests this is really not a hunting dart. It has a plastic broadhead that is not suitable for target shooting because of the damage it causes to the target backing, though it does not do enough damage for humane hunting either.

.40 and .50 caliber darts
The most popular .40 and .50 caliber darts include (left to right) the Stun, Super stun, Target, Spear, and Broadhead darts.

Popular .625 caliber darts

I mentioned that the .625-caliber blowguns are in a class all their own, and so are the unique .625 darts. All the big bore blowguns come with a nice dart selection. Note that, even though some of these names are similar to the names of the .40 and .50 caliber darts above, the .625 darts are very different — so try to keep them straight!

— Stun dart: This is one of the most fun blowgun darts of all! It won’t stick in a target, but is fun for plinking at aluminum cans or stuffed toy animals. It will also work small-caliber firearm spinner targets. This dart is actually heavy enough to stun or kill small targets like house sparrows or starlings.

— Bamboo dart: This is the bantamweight of the .625 darts and the one I recommend for women or youth shooters because it is so light and easy to blow. It works only as a casual target dart because the shafts on many of these are not very straight and its light weight makes it easily diverted by wind, though it sticks into a target readily enough. These are also fun for popping balloons or shooting aluminum cans.

— Mini broad head dart: This is the standard .625 dart and a great all-around performer. It is an accurate target dart as well as a plinker that will also do a number on aluminum cans, balloons, and stuffed animals. However, despite the name, the flared broadhead is not wide enough to make this a humane hunting dart.

— Razor tip broadhead dart: This is the only commercially available dart besides the .625 Stun dart that I consider to be a legitimate hunting dart, and, of the two, the Razor tip broadhead is definitely superior. The broadhead is wide enough to do significant tissue damage in small game up to squirrel or rabbit sizes. This dart has very little other use, and will rapidly tear up a target.

.625-caliber darts
The .625 caliber darts are fewer but unique and include (left to right) the Stun, Bamboo, Mini broadhead, and Razor tip broadhead darts.

A word about blowgun hunting

I have already mentioned hunting more than I want to only because many of the dart names specifically imply it, and because this topic ALWAYS seems to come up when blowguns are discussed. Let me state categorically that a modern airgun is the superior hunting choice. Only those who have acquired a great deal of skill and experience in shooting a blowgun should even consider hunting with one. Limited accuracy and power confine blowgun hunting to a range of about 10 yards. If you wish to pursue this topic you should check your state regulations regarding the legality of hunting with a blowgun first, and then join one of the blowgun forums listed below for some experienced advice. Also, be aware that blowguns are outright illegal in California, Massachusetts, New York City, and Canada.

Blowgun accessories

Most blowguns will include quivers that mount on the barrel for carrying darts. Other accessories (which may or may not come with the blowgun) include foam barrel grips, vertical pistol grips, slings, crosshair sights, laser sights, and red dot sights. While some sight types (like red dot sights) are really designed for use on pistols and rifles and don’t function well on blowguns, I have found laser sights to be very effective.

blowgun accessories
A wide variety of blowgun accessories like foam grips, quivers, sights, and slings are available.

Make a blowgun target

I have not found a good commercially available blowgun target. Dartboards or plywood are too hard to remove darts from. Archery targets or various foam sheet products can work but have to be just the right density to stop the dart from burying itself all the way up to the dart cone, but still be easy to remove the dart. You can make a cheap and effective target by filling a flat box such as a large pizza box with at least 8 layers of cardboard. This is enough to stop the dart, but is also not too hard to remove the dart. Target darts work best with this type of target backing, with the Spear dart, Bamboo dart, and Mini broadhead also working well.

How to blow that blowgun

Nearly all blowguns come with an anti-inhale mouthpiece, but just like a gun safety you should depend more on good safety practices than on a mechanical device to keep you safe. Never inhale through a blowgun! To reduce the possibility of inhaling a dart you should inhale away from the mouthpiece before shooting. Of course, all your basic gun safety rules apply to blowguns as well.

Blowguns are simple and fun to use but they are not toys! To shoot, many blowgunners just puff or blow into the mouthpiece, but you can get significantly faster dart velocity and a flatter trajectory by saying “Tuh!” forcefully into the mouthpiece as you blow. This technique is called tonguing and pre-compresses the air in your mouth to release it in a focused burst. This method will also help you to achieve more consistent velocity from shot to shot and therefore better accuracy.

Aiming a blowgun

The most different thing about aiming a blowgun is that you do it with both eyes open. This creates a double image of the blowgun barrel, which provides a very helpful aiming point to center the target between. Then, all you need to do is hold steady and adjust for elevation until your darts are hitting the bull’s-eye!

blowgun aiming
Aim a blowgun with both eyes open. You will see a double image of the blowgun barrel, between which you center the target.

For further study

I hope you enjoyed this snapshot of what blowguns — the first airguns! — have become in modern times. There is a lot more to the sport than what we’ve covered here; a Blowgun Basics video provides further information. You can also learn more by joining one of the popular blowgun forums, the Lefora Blowgun Forum or The Blowgun Forum. Blowgun competition shooting has become increasingly popular in the United States as well as Japan, France, and Germany. For rules check the United States Blowgun Association. Have fun, and remember — shoot responsibly!