Part 1 A short history of the spring-piston power plant
Part 2 A short history of the CO2 airgun

This report covers:

  • It all started…
  • What is a precharged pneumatic gun?
  • Butt flask
  • Girardoni
  • Ball flask
  • Air canes
  • The gap
  • BB’s rant
  • Where are PCPs going?
  • Summary

Today we look at the history of the precharged pneumatic (PCP) airgun. This is the oldest and most convoluted of all the airgun powerplants. When it comes to pneumatics we have to separate them into PCP, multi-pump and single stroke because each has a unique history and they all started at different times. The PCP is the oldest of all. We believe it dates back to the mid-16th century, but the oldest intact airgun action is dated in the very early 1600s, so that would be the beginning of the 17th century. I will therefore be bringing you histories of the multi-pumps and single strokes separately.

It all started…

… centuries earlier with the blowgun. The blowgun was/is powered by human lungs and qualifies as a pneumatic, since the air is first taken into the lungs and then expelled by means of the diaphragm forcing the air out rapidly. Considering that is the blowgun a PCP, or is it instead a spring-piston gun? That’s a debate that has raged for years, and no doubt you readers will wish to join in.

What is a precharged pneumatic gun?

A pre-charged pneumatic gun is one that is first charged with air under pressure, which it holds until  released on command by means of a valve. By that definition the blowgun doesn’t seem to be a PCP. It’s more like the early dart guns that had bellows that closed rapidly to force the dart out the barrel on command. There are no valves involved with the primitive bellows gun. But the PCP had a valve to hold and release the air on command. The command came by means of a trigger.

Butt flask

The early PCPs usually contained their pressurized air inside a hollow butt. They are collectively called butt flask guns unless there is a good reason to distinguish them. The butt is made by folding iron plate into a conical shape with a long seam where the metal joins. The place where the metal joins is folded to make a mechanical joint that is then soldered for an air-tight seal. The end of the butt is similarly attached to the rest of the hollow structure by the same mechanical means and then soldered as well. It sounds easy when explained, but it took a lot of careful craftsmanship to ensure all the seams were air tight. The small end of the butt is reinforced to allow a valve to be attached. That’s the point where the butt screws onto the receiver.

butt flask gun
Early butt flask airgun.

Girardoni

The most famous butt flask airgun was a repeating rifle called a Girardoni, after Bartolomeo Girardoni, the man who designed it for the Austrian army. It is a 21-shot ball-shooter with a gravity-fed magazine on the right side of the rifle. This is the air rifle carried by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to explore the central and western territory of what became the United States.

Girardoni
A Girardoni of 1780.

Cantarini cased pistols
Cased Cantarini air pistols. The air is stored in the butt of each pistol. These repeating air pistols were made on the Girardoni principal.

Cantarini detail
The details on these pistols make it obvious they were made for either royalty or nobility.

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Ball flask

I say that many of the early precharged airguns were butt flasks, but not all. The ball flask is recognized by a ball-like air reservoir and is considered an icon of early airguns. And I have seen other early airguns that have hollow shrouds around their barrels to contain the air. They are very complex and are extremely rare. One that was made like that was actually a very early multi-pump whose butt plate was stepped on while the entire gun was pumped up and down! But I digress.

Hannusch display
Here are a few ball flask long guns. Larry Hannusch’s display at the 2014 Ft. Worth Airgun Show.


Ball flask rifles are rare but when was the last time you saw a pistol?

Well, PCPs continued to evolve, but since they were handmade, there was no competition and very little recognition. So their evolution went slower throughout the 19th century. But one interesting offshoot was the air cane.

Air canes

We covered air canes recently. Though some people say they were used for self defense, they are really too cumbersome and problematic for that. They are simply an interesting niche of precharged pneumatic airguns that existed from the 19th century until about 1920. They were all made by hand, by cottage makers who turned out parts and assemblies that larger firms purchased and used in their final products. After World War I the skills to make them went away, as the demand evaporated. In the final years the few canes that sold were assembled from parts remaining after the war.

The gap

Following the 1920s there wasn’t any real activity in precharged guns until 1980, when Daystate turned a game capture dart gun into a .22-caliber pellet rifle they called the Huntsman. That was when the modern era of precharged pneumatics started.

BB’s rant

I wrote a newsletter called The Airgun Letter from 1994 until 2002 and in 1996 I bought a used Daystate Huntsman so I could review it. It was my first precharged airgun. The Brits who made the thing were absolutely cliquish about sharing information. Such things as how to fill your airgun were considered state secrets until you obtained their official decoder ring.

And the prices? Get outta here! That, more than anything else, was the reason I took the idea of what became the Benjamin Discovery to Crosman in 2006. I wanted everyone to know about these airguns and how to properly operate them. The rest is history and it’s history that most of you readers know because you have lived through it or at least read about it.

The Benjamin Marauder blew the competition away and the airgunning world had to acknowledge once more (since the half-millennium that ended in 1920) that the PCP was a good thing. Prices fell and quality went up. That was mostly because of the internet, where shenanigans can’t survive very long. You can beat up a Chinese manufacturer on price only so far. If your airgun has to hold air, that’s the end of it.

And now with this blog we are demanding good triggers, accurate barrels and stuff like .457 bullets instead of .452 bullets — if our big bore barrel needs them. Knowledge is power!

Okay, off my soapbox.

Where are PCPs going?

I usually don’t do predictions like this but this topic is too ripe for it. We need:

  • PCPs that are slim and trim, but not short.
  • Balanced valves or reliable regulators.
  • Fill levels of 3000 psi or less.
  • Accurate barrels.
  • Great triggers with some adjustability — but not the world.

I don’t know of a PCP that has all of that today. But it’s all possible. You see, many airgun designers are satisfied when they get the gun to work at all. If they achieve what their marketing department says is the Holy Grail of 1,000 f.p.s. (.177) and 30 shots, they’re done. But why stop there? Why not build a platform with all these features? Don’t do it all at once. Take a current winner and look at what still needs to be done. Then do it in increments. Do that and release a model that no one can compete with.

Summary

PCPs have been with us for over 500 years. Where should they go next? How should they get there?