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A short history of the CO2 airgun

Part 1 History of a spring-piston airgun

This report covers:

  • First practical application
  • Giffard flubs
  • Gifford flub number two
  • Next?
  • Marketing misstep
  • From separate tanks to reservoirs
  • One final failure
  • CO2 cartridges
  • Bottlecap cartridges
  • Why this blog today?
  • Summary

If I say CO2 most of us get a vision of modern realistic air pistols, plus some rifles that use one or two 12-gram CO2 cartridges. But there is so much more to this power plant than just that! Today we will take a brief look at all that has transpired since the gas of carbonic acid, or carbon dioxide, has powered guns.

First practical application

Frenchman Paul Giffard produced the CO2 guns that bear his name today. He started in the mid-to-late 1870s and continued for several decades. He made his guns in 6mm and 8mm primarily, but other calibers are known to exist. There are both long guns and handguns and all load from a tap that I described for you in the report  titled How do taploaders work?

Giffard pistol
A Giffard pistol from the Malvern airgun show.

I have seen Giffard guns at airgun shows since I started going to them in 1993. There always seems to be at least one. The guns are very well made and feature light engraving, classic walnut furniture and deep bluing of polished metal. They were always priced at just over a thousand dollars, but today that has crept up to over three thousand.

I don’t know how many were made but I have seen at least 50, and by eliminating the guns I’ve seen more than once that’s at least 20. They are scarce but not rare.                               

Giffard flubs

There is a huge amount of misinformation about them, such as you drop a pellet of some compound into their tank and add water to get the gas. That would be acetylene, not CO2. The Pawn Stars (an American “reality” television show) brought in their “expert” who said the Giffard was NOT charged with CO2, but a liquid — carbonic acid!!! That was what carbon dioxide was called back in the 1800s when these guns were made. It’s the same as saying we don’t drink water, we drink hydro (from the movie, Waterworld).

The Giffard rifle or pistol has a removable tank that had to be sent back to the factory to be refilled. If you lived close to the factory, no problem. If not — problem. Keep that in mind, because the same business model reemerges in the 20th century and puts one company out of business.

Giffards were almost all hand made, so they were never cheap. And they are not cheap today.

Giffard flub number two

A British-made air tank allows Giffards to be fired with air instead of CO2. If you don’t modify the gun’s valve, the air pressure has to be held low, otherwise the valve won’t open. In a test of an 8mm rifle a 49-grain lead ball that CO2 pushes out at 600 f.p.s. but with air it goes over 1,000 f.p.s. That’s taking 50 foot pounds over 100 foot pounds.

So, based on just that, some auction sites are claiming 120 foot pounds for antique Giffard guns that can’t make half that. Don’t buy a Giffard to wallop your target. Buy it because it’s what you want. Buy a big bore if you want wallop.


Unlike spring-piston airguns that never had a break in production, but like PCPs that broke from the 1920s until 1980, nothing more happened with CO2 after Giffard until the 1930s. Crosman started experimenting with a model they called the 117. After WW II it turned into the model 118. The 117 was tethered to a large tank of CO2. The 118 stood alone with CO2 cartridges inside.

That model was followed by the 100-series rifles converted from air to use CO2 from a 4-ounce tank that hung under the action. These were called CG guns, for compressed gas. They used 4-ounce CO2 tanks made for large life rafts in World War II and a pellet rifle got hundreds of shots per tank.

The first guns had their tanks on a backward slant. Later guns had the tank hang straight down.

Crosman CG rifle
This straight tank model CG rifle is a later variation that began with the slant tank. All of this was to use the 4-oz. CO2 tanks that were surplus left over from the war.

Crosman’s idea was to promote league shooting at companies and organizations. There probably weren’t enough serious airgunners in those days to make it economically viable. But World War II had just finished and there wasn’t the fear of guns that we see today. That was in line with what was happening at the time, because bowling leagues were also popular in the 1950s. These leagues were as much for socialization of the employees as for sport and recreation, and companies embraced them as an early form of team-building.

Crosman gallery
This Crosman shooting gallery was for league shooting. This employer installed one for their employees. A straight-tank CG is clearly seen in the hands of the woman second from the left.

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Marketing misstep

But there were some missteps here, as well. Crosman must have thought, like Sheridan, that if they made the caliber proprietary they would corner the market on ammo sales, so many of the CG gallery guns were made in a .21 caliber that is not available on the market — then or now. Those guns were sold with complete gallery kits intended for league use. Try to buy some .21 caliber lead balls today.

They also made some CG rifles for direct sales to the public, but these were made in the far more common .22 caliber that met with public acceptance. There were already pellets available everywhere in this caliber. Filling the CO2 tanks was still a problem, but Crosman’s engineers solved that with adapters that allowed league gallery teams and presumably private individuals to purchase common fire extinguishers to fill their tanks.

gas tanks
The 20-pound CO2 tank on the right holds gas for many times the number of shots that the 3000 pound 80-cubic-foot aluminum scuba tank on the left holds.

From separate tanks to reservoirs

The supply of surplus tanks finally ran out, so the company had to do something different. They provided a tubular gas reservoir that ran parallel underneath the barrel of each gun. Thus was born in 1950 the model 114 in .22 caliber and the model 113 in .177. I covered the 114 in a three-part report. A separate fill tank was needed to fill these guns, so Crosman provided the model 110 10-oz. CO2 tank that came packaged with each gun. Oddly they required that tank to be returned to Crosman for refilling — remember Gifford?

But Americans found a way and made adaptors to connect those 10-ounce tanks to 20-pound fire extinguishers, plus they learned that a siphon tube inside the gas tank allowed it to stand upright while pumping liquid CO2 (yes, Pawn Stars, CO2 inside a tank is a liquid). That they learned from the beverage industry, with their post-mix systems (syrup and gas are mixed after leaving the tanks, hence a tank of soda syrup holds many times more drinks than can be put into a premix tank of the same size.

gas tank design
The siphon tube allows the CO2 tank to stand upright while pumping liquid CO2.

One final failure

In 1950 there was one last failure with the bulk-fill CO2 gun where the owner was required to send the tanks back to the company for refilling. The Winsel company brought out a pistol and they even provided a second tank and a cardboard mailing tube for the tanks return. Fat chance. The thought of returning a CO2 tank for filling is as silly as storing your electronic data in “the cloud.” Sure, it’s safe — until it isn’t! It’s safe as long as THEY keep it safe. Ooops — we lost your archived family photos. Sorry. To repay you for your loss your next month’s storage service is free. Folks, there is a reason why, when disaster strikes, the things people save first after people and pets are their photos.

Winsel gas pistol
The Winsel gas pistol was a failure in the 1950s because the gas tank had to be returned for refilling. Try returning one today.

CO2 cartridges

It was a short move from bulk-filled CO2 guns to guns that used cartridges. But which ones to use? Of the companies we know today Benjamin was first and chose the 8-gram cartridge. Actually Schimel was at least two years earlier, but they went out of business quickly.  Crosman and other companies followed in the 1950s with 12-gram cartridges. Nobody has yet used the 16-gram cartridge, and I wonder why.

Schimel CO2 pistol
The Schimel CO2 pistol was made around 1950 and used an 8-gram CO2 cartridge.

CO2 cartridges
There are the small three CO2 cartridges. From the left they are 8-gram, 12-gram and 16-gram. Notice the 16-gram cartridge is threaded. To my knowledge it hasn’t been used in an airgun yet.

The 16 gram cartridge will probably never be used in an airgun without good reason. It would make pistol grips too large. The Colt Single Action Army revolvers already have Colt 1860 grips that are a half-inch longer, just to accommodate the 12-gram cartridges. People don’t complain because they look right, but a true single action buff knows the difference.                                                                          

Crosman 150
Crosman’s 150 came out in 1954 and established the 12-gram world standard size for CO2 cartridges. After that the race was on.

Bottlecap cartridges

Unfortunately for airgunners there was a patent on the method of sealing the 12-gram cartridge. To get around it and avoid paying licensing fees, Crosman invented the bottle cap method of sealing the cartridge and it was problematic. Us kids from the 1950s remember that in a box of 5 Crosman Powerlets we were lucky if three of them held gas. That and the design of the airguns that used them was what gave CO2 the reputation for leaking.

Why this blog today?

If you watched the first two videos with Tyler and me talking about airguns for newcomers we discussed the realistic lookalike air pistols that exist today. Actually companies have been making realistic CO2-powered airgun for many decades. I guess it all started around 1959 with the Crosman Single Action 6. That revolver was realistic, but manufacturers, namely Umarex, have gone out of their way to make air pistols more realistic. They are so realistic today that even experts can’t distinguish them without close examination.


The CO2 powerplant has evolved with the hobby of air gunning over the years. It’s older than the modern spring-piston pellet gun powerplant but far younger than precharged pneumatics. At the present time it seems to be enjoying the replica role among airguns, but that could always change.

Some of you love this powerplant! Well today is your chance to tell the rest of us why.

author avatar
B.B. Pelletier
Tom Gaylord is known as The Godfather of Airguns™ and has been an airgunner for over a half-century, but it was the Beeman company in the 1970s that awoke a serious interest in airguns. Until then, all he knew were the inexpensive American airguns. Through the pages of the Beeman catalog, he learned about adult airguns for the first time. In 1994, Tom started The Airgun Letter with his wife, Edith. This monthly newsletter was designed to bring serious reports about airguns to the American public. The newsletter and Airgun Revue, a sister magazine about collectible airguns, was published from 1994 until 2002, when Tom started Airgun Illustrated -- the first American newsstand magazine about airguns. Tom worked for three years as technical director at AirForce Airguns, the makers of the Talon, Condor, and Escape precharged air rifles. Today, he writes about airguns and firearms for various publications and websites. He also makes videos, and you'll find short clips embedded in some of his artices on Pyramyd AIR's website. Tom is a consultant to Pyramyd AIR and writes under the name of B.B. Pelletier.

64 thoughts on “A short history of the CO2 airgun”

  1. BB,

    With our restrictive firearm laws CO2 was the one the powerplants that could be allowed. I mean, who could object to an airgun that uses a fire extinguisher as a propellant?


      • BB,

        And releasing the entire content of 20 pounds of CO2 will occupy about 175 cubic feet! Surely that will drive out the oxygen from the fire! And don’t call me Shirley!


        • Siraniko,

          Your comment reminded me of a fire suppressant system one of my previous employers used. I think it was installed in a document storage room. I was told soon after my start date that if I was ever in that room when the fire suppressant went off that I would have only seconds to get out before suffocating from lack of oxygen. I don’t remember the name of the fire suppressant system with any certainty, but halon sounds familiar.

          • cstoehr,

            HALON was used in engine nacelle fire suppression on some of the aircraft I flew/fly. I also worked in a vault frequently before I retired and they used HALON Systems in all of them.
            HALON 1301 (Bromoflourtrimethane) production has ended for ecological mumbo-jumbo and it has a number of fire suppression replacement Oxygen/air displacers. Once we run out of existing stocks of HALON 1301 those systems will be converted of scrapped.


  2. Siraniko made a point.
    Indeed restrictions on arms in many countries lead to substitutes. But I think that commitment to low power replicas only must change. There should be many people who want higher powered co2 airguns, easy to use without pcp hassle. All these people who find it expensive to shoot their firearms today and turn to airguns would gladly pay for a co2, 10+ fpe, AR platform even with a one mag/one cartridge efficiency. Same thing for bolt, lever or any other action types.
    Crosman’s 2240 conversions sales prove the demand for the concept of this thinking.
    After all if Giffard delivered 50fpe, we should do better today.

    • Bill,

      Sad to say that CO2 as power plant for air rifles has a limit due to the relatively low maximum pressure it is capable around 1,200 psi. Easy to reach in the tropics, we do suffer from action locking up when it exceeds the normal working pressure of 1,000 psi which is why most CO2 rifles here use an external hammer so that the user can add external force to overcome the pressure. From there the next limiting step would be the practical length of your barrel. I’m sure glad PCP technology finally reached our shores and is allowed.


  3. Honest? I found this powerplant good in a multi-shot BB`s P99 replica to have fun (it has blow-back too). Only in such application, for fun, multishot.
    To shoot in one shot mode and try to stay accurate, always depending on the ambient temperature and even humidity… hellooouuu. If you are outside with no cartdriges left the fun is over.
    I’m not telling it is no good. No, it might be delicious. It is just not tasty for me.

  4. I have a 2240 now. I pull it out and play with it a little bit, but it lacks the power and range I would prefer.

    Now I dream of a Giffard pistol and / or rifle. One of those would be awesome, but as BB has pointed out, the price of one of these is rather steep. I would really like to see a modern version of a Giffard.

    If you hunt around, you can find some decent CO2 rifles. Until recently you could get a rather nice one from TCFKAC, but I think they quit making those, like they quit making the Discovery and the Maximus. That is a real shame.

    • RidgeRunner,

      You need to look into the valve modifications as well as the bulk fill systems for the 22XX platform. I still have my 2250 DAQ .22 Caliber Upper replacement with an ENLARGED (twice as long) valve with every flow increasing modification that could be done and the DAQ bulk filled cartridge/capsule/POWERLET replacement. Way more shots and much more power at all temperatures as long as you know how to use the hammer spring preload adjuster!
      Lots of mods available back in the day but the Molecular Physics says go HPA young man if you want raw power!


      • Shootski,

        I am well aware of the limitations of CO2. I have shot some of Dennis’ conversions in various calibers and they are quite impressive, it is just that I am not looking for an HPA hand cannon. I am much more interested in a functioning Giffard. Maybe I need to catch up with Mike Reames.

        • RidgeRunner,

          I figured that!
          From comments of some of the Sproinger ONLY crowd and probably some of the newest PCP only shooters CO2 it seems is now the least understood powerplant in many places!
          Yea, CO2 sure has limitations. Probably the one that Dennis realized sooner than most was how hard it was to keep barrel length at hunting reasonable lengths along with valve and reservoir volume down to a practical for hunting size and weight! Power was not the concern directly since you can get Girardoni levels of power easily.
          I do understand your wanting a Giffard for RRHFWA…they are among the most wayward, LOL!


          • Shootski,

            The Girandoni is the most wayward. I have seen several Giffard rifles and pistols for sale. They are really well made. Now if I could just come up with a small fortune.

  5. R.R and Tomek
    I was under the impression that you like low power quality airguns. I appreciate them after a tour in the dark side… Anyway I believe that the Umarex 850 for example could make a nice Ar 15 platform. And the Winchesters already exist. Image a combination of wood, rifled barrel and pellet shells in the 10 fpe level.
    I wonder what is the cost of a co2 cartridge and 20 pellets vs 20 rounds of 5.56 30-30 or 7.62 ammo? Regarding climate parameters, any power plant type is affected one way or another.
    And above all since every major manufacturer keeps a production line in China anything can be made sensibly priced with a good QC. team.

    • Bill,

      A Mattelomatic?! Really?! To each his own, I guess.

      I would prefer a Giffard. When you build an airgun that will last for over one hundred years and still shoot as well as when it was first made, that is quality.

      As far as China goes, I do my best to not give them any of my money. Some things cannot be helped, but they have not convinced me yet that they can build a true quality airgun.

      • R.R.
        Mattelomatic? I’m afraid that I lost this term during my English classes.
        Regarding China made products’ QC I believe it’s more of a problem of the Mother Companies’ lack of exercising it, rather than the unattended workers’ who don’t have any motivation, either in a positive or in negative(…) way.

        • Bill,

          LOL! Your English is fine! I remember the birth of the AR15. I always liked steel and wood, not plastic and pot metal (aluminum) in my firearms. The early AR15 also had a real bad reputation of jamming and inaccuracy. BB can tell you about that himself.

          I still do not care for the AR15 platform. I would much rather carry an AK47/AKM rather than an AR15/M16/M4. The AK is simpler, more rugged, looser tolerances and delivers a heftier punch.

          • R.R.
            Only two shotguns remain in the house. One of them is a first generation Saiga .410. Is it necessary to say more?
            I just love classics and the M16 has become one. Just like the Porsche 911 platform that started out as a Beetle based dangerous vehicle. Look at them now. Evolution can become classic.
            By the way I now have in front of me the HK MP7 springer from Umarex. Very modern from your site of view but a classic with seal team seven… And one I am in pursuit is a BAM side lever springer with folding stock, AK 47 clone. Probably you have seen it in U.S. years now. Still I consider it a classic to remain in the premises.

  6. B.B.,

    The Winsel company attempted the same approach Kodak used in the 1880s and 1890s. Customers bought the camera, loaded with unexposed film, through mail-order. After shooting the film, consumers sent the camera back to Kodak. Kodak would charge for developing the film, providing negatives and prints, and then sending the camera with unexposed film back to the consumer.

    It worked for Kodak for a while, so Winsel had reason to expect success.


  7. The kid inside FM enjoys shooting CO2 replicas/semi-replicas because they tie-in to the history buff side. Yeah, wish the Umarex MP40 had more “oomph,” but unlike the Real McCoy – or should we say “the Real Schmeisser” (true, Hugo Schmeisser did not design the original), the experience is both affordable and backyard-friendly. And fun.

    Was wondering whether to take my Weeblefletzer Granular H2O-powered one-off prototype 23.5 caliber rifle built by a secret society of Airgunning Elves in the Black Forest to Pawn Stars, but fear their expert will say it can be easily powered by tap water thus reducing its pawnable value. 🙁

  8. BB,

    “the Giffard was NOT charged with CO2, but a liquid — carbonic acid!!! That was what carbon dioxide was called back in the 1800s when these guns were made.”

    I saw an episode of Pen and Teller’s TV show “Bullsh*t” where they were able to get a bunch of tree huggers to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogenmonoxide (H2O) from all future products, including baby formula. It was one of their best episodes.


  9. BB

    I love spring guns, multi pumps, single strokes, PCP’s and CO2 guns and shoot all three in rotation.. But this is about CO2 which has advantages over the others when shooting indoors and even the backyard except in winter. They are easier to shoot accurately than springers. No pumping is required. No expensive equipment is needed. You can buy nearly a lifetime supply of 12 gram CO2 cartridges for the cost of an air compressor. Best suited for target and plinking fun. If you want to hunt with a CO2 get a Crosman 160 or hunt only very small game like bird pests and mice.. I do wonder about the unexplored potential for more power.

    This a a really good look at the history of CO2 or carbonic acid.


    • More power, you say? Well kids, your wait is over with the new and improved CO3! That’s right, you heard it here first. Our scientists have been hard at work in the lab and have perfected oxygen injection. You use your existing CO2 pistol or rifle, attach our $29.95 CO3 kit, borrow Grandma’s oxygen tank (that’s the green one)- she won’t mind, she’s napping- and voila! Twice the POWER! Twice the FUN! HURRY!

    • Deck,
      as with power from a CO2, I think of a Farco Shotgun that could also shoot lead balls. Lots of power out of that gun. I think BB has talked about it more than once.


    • Deck,

      The AirJavelin will produce 34 FPE in normal use and, with a well placed chemical handwarmer, 60+ FPE is achievable. I’m surprised that nobody has tried fitting a barrel that will allow propelling a 170 grain lead projectile instead of an arrow. Wouldn’t that be neat?


    • Decksniper,,,

      They really aren’t the same. Carbonic acid is H2CO2,, a mild acid produced in the body from CO2 and H2O. I don’t know if it splits as easily as it forms, tho. Surely there is a chemist among us. (Sorry about calling you Shirley)


      • Carbonic acid is H2CO3, which is formed when water is exposed to CO2 in the air. Pure deionized or DI water is non-conductive, but as a powerful polar solvent, DI water exposed to air will go from pH of 7 to under 6, as if forms a dilute solution of carbonic acid, which is highly conductive, and somewhat corrosive.

        • JerryC

          I seem to have misplace an O back there. You get CO2 from mixing the H2CO3 with water,, but can you go the other way and get Carbonic acid from CO2?

          Could that Gifford have been filled by putting carbonic acid in the grip and then a certain amount of water? Would the pressure have been available or would The Whole mess just corroded away?

          I knew I should have paid more attention in high school chemistry class.


          • edlee,

            Been a long time but IIRC it would need to be some other molecule beside H2O to get the double reaction required and the end product would be SOMETHING + H2O + CO2
            I had it memorized once a long time ago with the rest of the gas forming double reactions….
            So they could have added a H20 solution of the SOMETHING (Sodium or Sulfur +) molecules and made gaseous CO2… can’t do better than that…sorry.


  10. Excellent report, B.B. Thank you.
    I love these historical blogs. So many interesting bits of information. The repurposing of old fire-extinguisher tanks is interesting and something I had never heard of.
    I like the idea of employer-provided shooting galleries. Sure, it doesn’t fit in with many people’s preferences and world views today. But I’d like it. I also appreciate why they did it… the business was trying to facilitate social interaction. That’s still a great purpose for airguns today. Kids, neighbors, fellow parents… they have all enjoyed shooting my airguns.

    Starboard Rower

  11. B.B.
    Thank you for this blog today. I’ve always liked CO2 guns for ease of use. I too wish they would make some with a little more power. I wished I would have bought the Benjamin CO2 rifle when they made them. I don’t understand why the 12gr cart. is cheaper to use than the 88-9r cart. For those interested in a good read on CO2, there is a book by the late James House called CO2 Pistols & Rifles. https://www.amazon.com/CO2-Pistols-Rifles-James-House/dp/0873496787


  12. hi BB, thanks for providing this great information, as you always do! I’m wondering how long do modern 12g powerlets last if kept in a cool, dry location? when will they not be safe to use?

    • peter,

      I have some Powerlets that I bought in 1980 and I used one recently and it worked just fine. So I know they last 42 years at least. I don’t think they ever become unsafe unless you throw them into a fire or something like that. The heat would rapidly raise the pressure inside the cartridge and blow out the end. The modern ones that don’t use the bottle cap type seal will last forever, since the gas can’t actually penetrate the steel of the cartridge. They also have a plating on the steel that prevents rust.


  13. Someone mentioned hunting small game with CO2 guns. The old bulk fill Crosman 114 , 118 , and the South American Shark brand guns are quite capable in warmer temps. I use a 114,118, and the Shark RB pump for that purpose. PA used to sell the Shark a few years ago, BB wrote an article for “Shotgun News” about it , and I just had to find one. Mine will easily shoot a Gamo .22 cal RB right through a 1×2 at 20 yards. It’s a 25 shot repeater. BTW , there is a typo above in the article . The Crosman 118 is a bulk fill , not carts. internally like a 160. The Gamo RB’s also work quite well through the magazine of the 118 as well, without jamming like the pellets sometimes do. At least mine does.

  14. Yes, I’ve used my own QB-78 for squirrel at reasonable ranges. There was a RB repeating accessory that was made in Poland to shoot the .22 cal RB in the QB-78. I don’t have one ,but it was reported to work well for rat shooting. My interest in the RB stems from my small bore(.32 .36 and .40 cal) muzzle loading small game hunting experience. The issue with most .32 cal ML’s is that the barrels are rifled with too slow a twist .Air guns don’t have that issue , and if the ball is not too big or small it often gives equal accuracy to pellets at (20-25 yards) short ranges With RB ,the ball has TO FIT THE BORE!.. Although it says not to use them for air rifle shot, I have also found that F size buckshot works well in many of my ,22 cal RB shooters which include the Crosman 160 ,180, 114,118, 102, 2240 and Benji 3220,,342, as well as the above previously mentioned QB-78 , and Shark. They are the same size as the Gamo RB (around .218 -.219 dia average) ,and 5 lbs are around $40 for aprox 3000 shots. Conversely , .25 cal RB (#4 Buckshot), does not fit any of my .25 cal airguns. It falls through the barrels. Too small!

  15. I have been reading and enjoying this post for several years. I haven’t commented because I am getting educated. My old friend says ” DON’T LET YOUR ALLIGATOR MOUTH GET AHEAD OF YOUR HUMMINBIRD BRAIN”. Well, today is the is the day. I love my Diana Chaser rifle in .22 caliber. After some tinkering and mounting a Hawke 4 x 32 A O scope, this little rifle is sure a lot of fun. I bought it to teach my grandson how to shoot. I went from being grumpy old man to shootin partner, quite a promotion. Now, I have been a shot gun hunter for sixty odd years. Just hated ducks, geese, doves and quail birds . Chased them from the low country of South Carolina to the Chesapeake Bay over to North Dakota down to Texas and everywhere in between. Got so I don’t hate them much any more. Besides, I was starting to embarrass my dog with my shooting. Excuse my alligator mouth. Now back to the Chaser. It will shoot a jsb 14.3 gr pellet at 600 fps, 11.4 flbs. Inside a inch at 20 to 25 yards. WE mostly shoot home made targets but every now an again Mr. squirrel will come by and stay. Junior will skin um out and we will grill um up. Now folks that’s Miller Time.

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