Catapult guns and velocity

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

Sharpshooter pistol uses rubber bands to launch a .12 caliber lead ball. Other catapult guns were as large as .43 caliber!

This report covers:

  • You know catapults guns
  • More power doesn’t mean higher velocity
  • Why a limit?
  • What is the limit?
  • Crossbows may be faster — but…
  • What about stonebows?
  • Conclusion?

You know catapults guns

Over the years I have written several reports about catapult guns . The Sharpshooter shown above and the Bullseye pistol that proceeded it used rubber bands to launch their shot. But the Johnson Indoor Target gun used surgical tubing. And a don’t really know for sure what the .43 caliber Hodges gun of the 1840s used but I suspect it was natural rubber bands. The point is, catapult guns have used many different power sources.

Johnson Indoor trainer
Johnson Indoor Trainer uses surgical rubber tubing.

More power doesn’t mean higher velocity

Most people equate the strength of the elastic bands with velocity, but with catapult guns it doesn’t work quite that way. It is possible to increase velocity by adding additional bands or stronger bands to a point, but once that point has been reached, no more velocity is possible. There is a close correlation between catapult guns and spring-piston guns in this respect. though there are also a few significant differences. For today,  let’s stick with catapult guns.

I discovered during testing of the Sharpshooter and Bullseye pistols, that by adding additional rubber bands I could boost the velocity from around 100 f.p.s. all the way up to about 170 f.p.s. Then it stopped rising and I couldn’t fit any more rubber bands on the guns. If I worked at it, there is probably 30 more f.p.s. to be had, but that will be the limit.

Why a limit?

This is the crux of the question, and it also applies to the metal springs, found in conventional pellet guns. The larger a spring becomes, the greater its mass. The greater the mass, the slower that spring operates. It will push more weight, but it will do it slower. That defines the velocity limit of a conventional spring.

A stronger but slower spring will push more weight at a given velocity. In some catapult guns where the shot size is limited by te gun’s design, you have to find the optimum spring size for your projectile. In other catapult guns where there is greater latitude in the projectile size and shape, a larger spring means greater weight can be pushed. A gun like the Hodges will benefit from using the biggest ball made from the heaviest substance. That would be a .43 caliber ball made from pure lead.

Hodges catapult gun
The Hodges catapult gun from the middle 19th century shoots a heavy lead ball.

Other catapult guns may allow the use of different-shaped projectiles. This is where the speargun comes from. And some guns may be convertible to shoot either spears/arrows or round balls. Match the projectile to the application. But with all of them the size of the spring — be it a rubber band or a thick natural rubber cord — determines the velocity. More power does not mean more speed.

What is the limit?

For many years I have written that the Hodges was capable of taking boar-sized wild game, based on an estimated velocity of around 350 f.p.s. Well, where does that number come from? It came from a remark made by Larry Hannusch, when I was talking to him at an airgun show about his Hodges gun. I asked him if he ever shot his gun and he said he had. But he never really chronographed any shots from it. He had loaded both sides of the launcher with rubber tubing, one band at a time, until the steel arms of the launcher appeared to be stressed. That was where he stopped. When I pressed for a velocity number he rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t know. Maybe around 350 f.p.s.?” It was a best guess.

The point is, no velocity testing of a Hodges guns has ever been done — as far as I know. But there has been testing of the catapult concept by itself. In his book, Man-Powered Weapons and Ammunition (copyright 2005), by Skyhorse Publishing, New York, Richard Middleton did a test to find the limits of several catapults. While doing this I believe he stumbled upon the fundamental fact that all catapults have a limit.

That limit seems to be around 250 f.p.s. It seems that nothing can be done to increase that limit. If more elastic bands are added the gun will launch heavier projectiles just as fast, but nothing will make them go faster. Maybe this should be called the elastic limit or barrier?

Middleton did not actually conduct his tests to find this limit I am describing; but all of his tests of catapults seem to end just shy of 250 f.p.s., save one. A condom firing a chickpea was able to reach 270 f.p.s. — or so it was claimed. While Middleton never states that 250 f.p.s. is the practical limit of a catapult, I am suggesting that it is, based on all of his results.

Just as additional mass in a coiled steel mainspring actually slows the spring down, so does adding more elastic material to a rubber band or surgical tube. This mass/accelleration ratio is what defines the limit of a catapult.

Crossbows may be faster — but…

I say that crossbows may be faster than other types of catapult guns, but their upper limit seems to be around 425-450 f.p.s. That’s more velocity than ball-shooting catapults are getting, which makes crossbows more efficient. And obviously I’m talking about crossbows with conventional limbs and a string — not airbows.

What about stonebows?

Some of you are aware that there are such things as stonebows. They are crossbows designed to shoot stones or balls. Middleton did test several stonebows, though his tests were by no means comprehensive. The max velocity he got hovered at just over 200 f.p.s. So the stonebow falls well in line with the elastic limit.


I conclude from both Middleton’s writings and my own limited tests that 250 f.p.s. or thereabouts is probably the limit that a spring-powered gun can achieve. If I am right, we now know something important about airgun design. If I am wrong, whoever disproves me will advance our understanding and knowledge.

The bottom line is this — catapult guns are slow. And they will always be slow because of the limits of the springs that power them.

Sharpshooter catapult pistol: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Small things have a way of defining my life, and this is a story about one of them. When I was about 12, I bought a copy of the 1948 Shooter’s Bible in a used bookstore. It was full of guns, and I couldn’t get enough information about them back then. Unfortunately, the wonderful books I would discover on the subject like Sixguns by Keith and Yours Truly, Harvey Donaldson were still decades in the future — in the latter case, more than a half century. But, I had that old Shooter’s Bible — a book I still own, by the way. I read it and re-read it, unwittingly but also unerringly committing the pages to memory.

1948 Shooters Bible
This original 1948 Shooter’s Bible was my constant companion in my youth.

Then, in the 1960s, when I was in college at San Jose State College (years before it became a university), I walked into an old sporting goods store in downtown San Jose, California, one day and stumbled upon what I thought was a time capsule — two new-in-the-box Sharpshooter catapult pistols whose design and specifications I’d committed to memory a decade earlier. Imagine my shock to learn that these two relics from what I thought was the 1940s timeframe were still for sale at the original 1948 price of $4.25!

Sharpshooter page
Sharpshooter pistols had a whole page of their own in “The Shooter’s Bible.”

The two Sharpshooters on the left are newer, post-WWII guns with plastic parts. The two on the right are from the 1940s. Details look similar this far away; but when you look closer, you can see how the guns were cheapened.

metal Sharpshooter launcher
The metal launcher from before the war is tough. It seems to last indefinitely. As it’s pulled back, it lifts the sear (the metal piece on the right) that allows one lead ball to drop from the linear magazine into the launcher seat. Yes — this is a repeater!

plastic Sharpshooter launcher
The post-war launcher is made of plastic. It works the same as the metal launcher, but it wears out quickly.

Thirty-plus years would pass before I came to the realization that these were not the same pistols that were in that old book…that the company making them had been bought and sold numerous times, and that the guns I saw in the store were the 1965 versions of the gun, albeit made by someone else and to different manufacturing standards. They looked like the Sharpshooters of the 1940s, but they had plastic parts in key places. As a result, they didn’t hold up very long when used.

When I became a serious airgunner later in life, I rediscovered the original Sharpshooter pistols. These were the real deal with all metal parts that are still functioning today. What a difference they are from the cheapened guns! Although the two look very similar, the older ones are the Diana 27s of the catapult gun world, while the plastic-parts guns are the Chinese wannabes.

The Sharpshooter pistol is a repeater. The No. 6 shot lead balls lie in a channel on top of the gun. They’re held in place by the front sight, which simply slides out of the channel to load the gun. A metal trough is provided to funnel the balls into the channel, then the sight is pressed back into place. There’s room for approximately 50 shot in the channel.

When the launcher is pulled to the rear, stretching its rubber band, it pushes up the sear that moves out of the way to allow one shot to fall from the channel into the launcher seat. Only one piece of shot at a time can be loaded. What the user does is pull the launcher straight back until the sear catches the trigger, cocking the gun. That holds the launcher in place until the pistol is shot.

Sharpshooter front sight in place
The front sight holds the lead shot in the magazine channel on top of the gun. It’s held in by tension, alone. Look close, and you can see some of the shot in the channel.

Sharpshooter front sight removed
The front sight simply slides out of the channel for loading.

Sharpshooter ready for loading
The metal loading trough is attached to the magazine channel and shot is poured in.

The front sight can be adjusted up and down by a small amount. That’s the elevation adjustment. The rear sight can be slid from side to side a small amount because it’s held in place by 4 small metal tabs that form a crude dovetail.

Sharpshooter rear sight detail
The rear sight slides from side to side under the 4 metal tabs.

How much value can be put into an inexpensive gun?
I think the old Sharpshooter pistol is the perfect example of putting value into an inexpensive gun. I think it shows why people love designs like the Soviet AKM rifles. Nobody argues that the AKMs are cheap to build — but the thought that went into them before the first piece of metal was cut is where the investment is. That’s what the Sharpshooter pistol shows us — that thought given to a design before it’s executed can be a wonderful thing.

Sharpshooter targets
With the older Sharpshooter pistols, you also got a target like this. It attaches to the box that becomes the shot trap.

Sharpshooter target stamp
You also got a rubber stamp to make unlimited paper targets!

Sharpshooter sales receipt
It’s hard to read, but this sales receipt for one of the old guns is from March 23, 1942.

What is this about?
This report has started like a history lesson about a vintage airgun, but that’s not what it is. I don’t even think I’m going to go in that direction, though I will test it in similar ways to other vintage guns on which I’ve reported. But that isn’t what got me started thinking about this gun.

I was at the Roanoke airgun show, sitting by myself when my eyes fell on a vintage Sharpshooter pistol. I was bored, so I loaded a few shot into it and fitted a rubber band. Then, I cocked the gun and fired it at a styrofoam coffee cup sitting on a chair about 12 feet from me. I hit the cup once, then twice then a third time, and I realized that you don’t have to have 50 foot-pounds of energy to have fun with an airgun. I doubt this gun has more than one five-thousandth that much energy (a 1-grain shot going 60 f.p.s. has 0.01 foot-pounds of energy), yet it’s pleasing to see it hit a small target some distance away. In some of the vintage ads, there were claims of being able to hit houseflies at 16 feet with these guns.

More power!
That got me thinking about springs, and how new airgunners think more powerful springs will increase the energy of an airgun. We know from testing that they often don’t. The rubber band of a catapult gun is a type of spring. What kind of “spring” will have the greatest effect on the velocity of the gun — a big thick one or several smaller ones?

Think about this — which spring will toss you higher: A normal one found on a pogo stick, or a coil spring from a car suspension? The pogo stick spring works well already because it’s been selected to work within the parameters of weight for which the pogo stick is designed. The car spring is rated to many hundreds of pounds, which makes it more powerful, but not a better choice for a pogo stick.

pogo stick
The spring on a pogo stick was selected to work with the weight range for which the stick was design.

automobile suspension spring
There’s no argument the car suspension spring is more powerful than the pogo stick spring. But will it improve the operation?

Sure, you say, it’s obvious the bigger spring won’t work as well on the pogo stick, or even at all. But what if it wasn’t that big? What if it was only a little larger than the spring that’s on the pogo stick now? The answer is that it might work, but maybe not as well as you think. The pogo stick spring was chosen to do its job with weights inside a certain range, and a heavier spring may not improve things.

The same holds true for airguns. Whether we’re talking about coiled mainsprings driving pistons or just compressed air inside a reservoir, there’s an optimum that works well with the other parts of the gun; and anything outside that range is probably not going to work as well.

I’m going to examine that thought using the Sharpshooter catapult pistol.

The toll booth gun

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

“Shirley, you jest!”

No, I don’t — and don’t call me Shirley.

Back in the 1960s, when gadgets ruled the day and turnpike tolls were paid with coins instead of folding money (or by simply attaching your bank account to the state treasury via an electronic snitch), there was a way cool thing called a Turnpike Toll Gun that shot coins into the hopper at the toll booth. Yes, I said shot.

If such things existed today and teachers used them, they’d be tackled by the security guards at their school when they passed through the metal detector — at least in states along the Eastern Seaboard. In Texas, several communities are requiring some of their teachers to be armed and to take special defense classes as an added measure of school safety. So, their toll booth guns would not be confiscated. In fact, they would probably be belt-fed!

Toll Booth gun
Yes, it exists and yes, it’s cool! The Turnpike Toll Gun.

When Edith and I published The Airgun Letter, John Steed, one of our subscribers, first told us about the existence of this gun and then he sent us one. Until then, I had no idea it even existed. I’m guessing that the gun is from the 1960s on the basis of the appearance of the literature that came inside the box and the fact that the two patents for the gun date to 1965 and 1968.

The gun was made by Lyman Metal Products of Norwalk, Connecticut. You can find these guns on Ebay, but the starting prices are completely unrealistic. The cheapest one listed now starts at $169.99. They should be worth about $25 to possibly as much as $50 in pristine condition. I’m sure when they were new they sold for well under $10.

The gun comes in a cardboard box that also contains a set of operating instructions that I don’t have and a one sheet promotional sheet that I do have.

Toll Booth gun box
The box is plain but has the name of the gun in gold letters at the lower left.

Toll Booth gun literature
Promotional sheet looks ’60s to me.

Is it an airgun?
Strictly speaking, the Turnpike Toll Gun does not use air to propel the coins. It uses a spring. So it is a catapult gun. But we’ve included catapult guns with airguns for so long that they have become identified with them by this time. The Daisy 179 pistol is a catapult gun, as are the Johnson Indoor Target Gun, the Sharpshooter pistol and the Hodges gun. Unlike any of those guns, however, this gun shoots a very heavy projectile. An American quarter coin weighs 87.5 grains, which would be a lightweight big bore bullet weight for a .308 rifle.

You don’t want to launch a quarter so fast that it bounces off the toll booth basket and bounces into the street. No points for that! So, this gun will launch a quarter about 6-8 feet, maximum. And not every quarter leaves the gun at the same speed. I tried to chronograph the quarters, but the instrument could not read the quarters. Indeed, 4 out of 8 of them didn’t make it past the second skyscreen! I estimate the velocity of the quarter at between 20 and 30 f.p.s.

Toll Booth gun apart
The magazine has a coiled spring pushing a black plastic follower against the quarters.

Toll Booth gun loading
Fill the magazine with quarters, then insert the spring-loaded cap and lock it in position.

The gun is a repeater, but it must be cocked for every shot. It’s really no different than a bolt-action repeater in that respect. To cock the gun, you simply push back the spring-loaded rod in front of the gun. A black plastic ball cushions your hand while doing this. It takes 11 lbs. of force to cock the spring.

Toll Booth gun uncocked
The gun is uncocked.

Toll Booth gun cocked
Push the black ball, and it cocks the gun and readies the next quarter to be fired.

The gun
The gun is very small, but also very wide. Overall length is just 5-3/4 inches, while the width is 1-5/8 inches. The width is largely dictated by the ammo, which is 0.955 inches wide. The gun weighs 8 oz. when empty.

The lower half of the gun appears to be electrostatically painted a medium green, while the upper cover is bright aluminum and held on by 4 screws. Most of the gun’s frame is made of aluminum, and the small parts are steel.

Toll Booth gun cover printing 1
All the lettering is on the top cover of the gun. This is the right side.

Toll Booth gun co0ver printing 2
And this is the left side.

The trigger is single-stage and very light. Mine releases at a crisp 1 lb., 9 oz. The gun uses the quarter as the sear. The quarter is under spring pressure from the mainspring, but the trigger blocks it until it is pulled down, out of the way. Then, the mainspring sends the quarter on its way and covers the magazine until the gun is cocked again, allowing the next quarter to rise and be blocked by the trigger again. When there are no more quarters in the magazine, the gun cannot be cocked; so, dry-firing is impossible.

The barrel is not rifled, as you might have guessed, but there actually is a short barrel. It’s really just a quarter-sized slotted tunnel that starts the missile on its path to the toll basket.

There are no sights, so this is an instinct shooter. But it takes only a couple shots before you can hit a one-foot circle every time from 6 feet. That’s all the accuracy you need to do the job.

As odd as it is, this isn’t the only gun that shot money. Apparently there have been others, though they may not be easy to find.

I remember when I reported on this gun the last time. There was a small rush to locate them. They aren’t very sporting, of course, but if you don’t shoot at the intended targets (toll booth baskets), you can reuse the ammunition countless times. Perhaps that’s what caught the attention of airgunners.

2012 Arkansas airgun show

by B.B.Pelletier

Every airgun show is unique. I’ve said that many times before, but it’s always true — and this one was no different. What I look for when I try to describe an airgun show is how it stood out from all the others. That’s what I’ll do today.

An airgun show is small, in comparison to0 a regular gun show, but there are more airguns on a single table then you’ll see at most big gun shows. And the guns range from inexpensive Daisys and Crosmans to then most exotic airguns imaginable. So go to gun shows for and crowded aisles, but to airgun shows to find airguns.

I didn’t get away from my table for the first half of the first day. When I finally did, the show immediately began to reveal itself. It was jam-packed with big bore air rifles! I mean jammed! Dennis Quackenbush and Eric Henderson are always the mainstays of the show; but this time I met Robert Vogel, whose business is Mr. Hollowpoint. Robert casts each bullet by hand from lead as pure as he can make it. His bullets mushroom on game perfectly and rip huge holes in living flesh, making the most humane kills possible. I bought a bag of 68-grain .308-caliber hollowpoints for the Quackenbush .308 test I’m conducting, and he threw in a second bag of .22 pellets for free. These will have a special debut in a smallbore test in the near future.

Robert Vogel (standing) is Mr. Hollowpoint. He has thousands of different bullets for big bore shooters to try.

But Mr. Hollowpoint wasn’t the only bullet maker at the show. Seth Rowland, the show’s host and promoter, also supplies the big bore airgunning community with cast bullets in numerous sizes and shapes. And their customers can hardly appreciate the untold hours they spend at the lead pot, casting and sizing these silver slugs one by one.

Need bullets? Seth Rowland has them in different sizes, shapes and weights.

10-meter guns
Another theme that’s common to all airgun shows is 10-meter target guns. This year’s Arkansas show had plenty of them, both from dealers like Scott Pilkington of Pilkington Competition Equipment in Tennessee, as well as numerous private individuals. I mentioned several weeks ago that Mac was bringing some recently overhauled FWB rifles to this show, and on day one an interested buyer sought him out. This man was serious about buying a target rifle, and he had done his research on the internet. But this was the first time he’d seen, felt and shot these rifles.

Mac took him out to the shooting range to try out an FWB 150 and a 300; and from his testing, he decided the 300 was the gun he wanted. Because it lacks the barrel jacket, it’s lighter than a standard 300S. He was buying the rifle for his wife to shoot in competition. They made a deal, and he went home with the exact target rifle he wanted — an overhauled ex-club rifle at a price that was several hundred dollars below what he would have paid for a gamble on the internet. For this man, driving all the way to Arkansas made good sense.

I’m sure that same scenario was played out numerous times at this show, because that’s what happens at an airgun show that also has a shooting range. You get to try out the guns before you buy — something that’s impossible at a regular gun show.

The odd and wonderful
You never know what you’re going to see at one of these shows, but there are a few people who always seem to have interesting things. Larry Hannusch, the top airgun writer for the past 30 years, is one person who can always surprise you. This year, our tables were together, giving me the opportunity to look at his guns more closely than normal. He had a Crosman 113 bulk-fill CO2 rifle, which isn’t unusual, except the owner of this one had inlet a pellet box into the right side of the stock — much like the patchbox found on certain muzzleloading rifles.

Some owner made this patchbox in the stock of his Crosman 113 bulk-fill rifle.

He built the “patchbox” with a built-in spring. There were pellets inside.

When was the last time you saw one of these? A French ball-flask pistol from the 1700s.

The big find
Often there will be a big find of some certain airgun that shows up at a particular show. I remember one year someone was selling piles of brand-new-in-the-box S&W 78G and 79G pistols. There were at least 50, but as my memory serves there might have been as many as 100 brand-new guns that were at least 20 years old at the time. Another year, it was Scott Pilkington who brought almost 300 club target guns for sale. You could buy an FWB 300 for $150-$200! Of course, it would have been a beater and would have needed to be resealed, but it certainly was the budget way into a 10-meter gun.

Then there was the year that someone had over 20 Johnson Target Guns, the submachinegun-looking plastic catapult BB gun from the late 1940s. They were all new in the box, and the cloth backstop that was in the box to stop the BBs inside the box lid that also served as a backstop had turned to dust. But they were complete. To collectors, they were a wonderful find. I actually saw two of these at this year’s Arkansas show; so even after more than 10 years, they’re still slowly dissolving into the collector population.

Two brand-new Johnson Target Guns in the box with all the literature and accessories.

When I walked into the second large room in this show and turned the corner, I ran into Randy Mitchell’s booth, where he was selling a pile of recently discovered TS45 sidelever air rifles for $20 each! I blogged this rifle several years ago, and Vince also wrote a guest blog about the same rifle. Until now, there were no new guns you could buy. You had to find one by chance and would always be one somebody had owned and possibly modified. Now, Randy Mitchell, who runs his Adventures in Airguns store, has a huge pile of these rifles to sell. They aren’t very safe and are the very guns that chopped off thumbs when their anti-beartraps failed; but if you cock them safely and load while restraining the sidelever, they’re fun to shoot and are often accurate.

Randy Mitchell found these old/new TS45 sidelevers and brought them to the show. It’s stuff like this that keeps me going to every airgun show I can make!

Of course, there are too many modern guns to name here, but know that at any show you’ll find almost every modern classic airgun for sale. If you’re looking for good TX200s or old R7s, they’re usually available — and they were at this show, too. But what you also see are airguns that are so rare and hard to find that some of them won’t even be seen in airgun books. This yearm Ingvar Alm had both a Winsel CO2 pistol in the box and a Giffard CO2 pistol from the 1870s on his table. Giffard invented the application of CO2 for gun use, and Winsel made only 50 guns in the early 1950s. Neither gun is represented well in any airgun book I know.

The Winsel pistol was a bulk-filled CO2 pistol that required the owner to mail his tank back to the company to be filled. Yeah, that’s going to work! They made 50 and quit. Today, they’re a prized collectible.

Giffard pioneered the use of CO2 in guns in the 1870s. His pistols are many times rarer than his rifles. The empty pop bottle is for contrast — like Cindy Crawford’s mole.

Big bores
There were more big bores at this show than I see at other shows. Perhaps, that’s because the focus of big bore airgunning seems to center around Texas, where the LASSO match is held. Dennis Quackenbush delivered his guns to eager buyers, but the only rifle he had to show was his own .308, which he doesn’t want to sell. Eric Henderson and Big Bore Bob Dean were both there with some guns to sell, as well as Robert Vogel. But the one maker with a lot of guns on display was Jack Haley, whose table was a rainbow of laminated stocks.

Jack Haley’s table was a colorful display of big bore rifles.

Then there was the big bore that has been a joke in the airgun community for many years. The gun itself is fine. It was made back in the 1980s by Ben Patron, whose name is clearly on the side of the receiver. Somewhere along the line, some person got ahold of it and displayed it at the Springfield, Missouri, gun show as a “U.S. military .50-caliber sniper air rifle.” The label for that display was still inside the guitar box that held the gun, and Dennis Quackenbush remembers seeing it at the Springfield show. After that, it somehow ended up in an Arkansas pawn shop where Big Bore Bob found it and bought it.

Some previous owner had concocted a colorful background story for the Patron big bore of the 1980s.

The drawing
Many shows have a drawing, but airgun shows are so lightly attended that you actually have a chance of winning! This year, they gave away several very nice prizes at the close of the show, including a scoped TalonP pistol from AirForce! Then came the drawing for the frame-extended silencer for the Talon SS. I knew before the little girl picked my ticket that I would win it. How ironic is that? I’m testing a Talon SS with a bloop tube right now, so of course I’m going to win another one! But the supreme irony came when Randy Mitchell, a big bore hunter, won the .50-caliber Dragon Claw donated by Pyramyd Air.

Randy Mitchell (right) won the Dragon Claw. Show host, Seth Rowland, standing, ran the drawing. The young lady added a lot of sparkle and enthusiasm to the show. I see an airgunner in the making!

On the trip home, Mac and I relived the show many times. That’s another benefit. I can remember snippets from most past shows, and this one will now be filed away in the library.

What IS an airgun?

by B.B. Pelletier

Simple enough question, no? Maybe you get confused by certain air-powered tools or perhaps a slang reference to a paint sprayer, but most folks know exactly what you mean when you say airgun.

Think so? Think again.

The term airgun isn’t found in most dictionaries, yet. You’ll find your spell-checker wants you to write it as two words, but that’s not what today’s blog is about. I really want to know if you know what’s encompassed by the term airgun.

Some of you have already stopped reading to formulate an official-sounding definition that goes something like this: An airgun is any smoothbore or rifled gun that propels a projectile by means of compressed air. As you stand back to admire your work, it suddenly dawns on you that your definition doesn’t encompass any of the guns that are powered by CO2. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Airguns, it turns out, can be a great many different things. Air is only one of their defining characteristics.

Carbon dioxide
Before we move on, however, let’s deal with the CO2 issue. Clearly carbon dioxide isn’t air. If you doubt that, try breathing it for 20 minutes, and then we’ll talk. I’ve had arguments at length with airgun collectors who were stubbornly opposed to labeling CO2 guns as airguns. While that’s a fun subject for two people to banter about as they watch the fireflies rise on a warm evening, it doesn’t serve a person who is drafting state legislation regarding new hunting laws!

So, are CO2 guns airguns, or not? Well — let’s see. They’re sold by airgun dealers, they travel under the same restrictions as guns that do operate on air, they use the same ammunition and they perform similarly. And, heck, there are even a few amphibious models such as Benjamin’s Discovery that operate on either compressed air or CO2. Wasn’t it Robert Kennedy who observed that if something quacks like a duck it probably is a duck? So, yes, guns that use CO2 are also airguns.

Green gas/red gas
Wouldn’t it be nice if it ended there? Well, it doesn’t. There are other propellant gasses that power guns that must also be considered, now that the door has been opened for CO2. I’m talking about green gas and red gas. The airsoft industry hates to admit it publically, but green gas is actually propane. A tiny bit of silicone oil is added to the gas to lubricate the gun’s parts as it functions, and they leave out the odor that’s added to commercial propane to identify gas leaks (real propane doesn’t smell like onions; it has no smell at all).

The same dealers who tell you green gas is special will even sell you adapters to fill your green gas guns from five-pound propane tanks, all the while backpeddling on admitting that green gas is propane! The Orient, where a lot of airsoft guns are made, is quite good at doublespeak!

Here’s where it becomes interesting. Green gas develops a pressure of around 115 PSI at room temperature. That’s plenty of push to propel a 3-grain plastic ball (they call them BBs) out the spout at a fairly good clip.

Red gas is more exotic. It has a higher vapor pressure than green gas, so the guns that use it require some modifications. If you read all the warnings, you’ll get the idea that red gas is like nuclear fuel, but for one thing. Some airsoft guns also operate on CO2, which has a vapor pressure of 853 PSI at room temperature, which goes way beyond the pressure of red gas. To operate on CO2, airsoft guns have to be modified even more, and this is done by restricting the gas flow through special valving that has very small gas ports. There you are. Guns that run on green gas, red gas and CO2, none of which is air — yet they fall into the airgun category because there’s no other category for them.

Airsoft guns do receive special legislation of their own because many are built to simulate firearms (called “real guns” by some folks), and they’re used in force-on-force skirmishes, with people shooting at each other. There are legal issues concerning brandishing in public and special markings on the guns that are not as applicable to the kind of pellet guns I generally write about. But airsoft guns are sold by the same dealers and often made by the same companies who make conventional airguns. Again, they quack like ducks.

Catapult guns
We’re not finished with the non-air powerplants, yet, Sparky. There are still catapult guns to consider.

Catapult guns propel their projectiles by means of a spring in the form of an elastic band or even a conventional coiled steel spring. If you think CO2 guns cause controversy among the anal airgun collectors, try raising this subject and see what happens!

The most common catapult guns are the Sharpshooter-series guns dating from 1923 and produced as toy novelties in the U.S. through at least the 1980s. These guns all shot .118 lead shot, which is more commonly known as No. 6 birdshot.

This Bulls Eye pistol was the first of many so-called Sharpshooter pistols powered by rubber bands. It fired No. 6 birdshot up to ~150 f.p.s. when multiple rubber bands were used.

In most airguns, the use of dropped shot (shotgun shot is made by either dropping it from a high tower so that it forms a ball as it solidifies or forced through small holes by centrifugal force) can be a problem, because of inconsistent size. The shot can easily get jammed in barrels when it’s oversized, which is why we seldom see real BB-sized shot (shot size BB is nominally 0.180 inches in diameter) used in antique BB guns. It simply isn’t regular enough. But catapult guns seldom use barrels. They usually place the shot to be fired in a shaped seat to hold it during acceleration, then release it cleanly at the end of the acceleration phase.

The Johnson Indoor Target Gun shot conventional steel BBs from a submachine gun-looking plastic frame. It used tubular elastic bands much like modern surgical tubing to launch a 5.1-grain BB at 100-150 f.p.s., depending on the strength of the bands.

The Johnson Indoor Target Gun sold for $15 in 1949. It shot steel BBs at 100-150 f.p.s.

But Daisy made a catapult gun that used steel springs. Their model 179 is a Spittin’ Image replica of a Colt single-action revolver that I reported in this blog some time back. Instead of just flinging the BB with the force of the spring, the spring in the 179 pushed a paddle that actually hit the BB like a croquet mallet smacks a ball. Instead of just pushing the BB out the barrel (and this is one of the few catapult guns that really does have a smoothbore barrel), it was whacked out like a line drive off a baseball bat.

Daisy’s 179 was an early Spittin’ Image gun. Production began in 1960.

Rigid airgun collectors are really challenged by catapult guns, because of the Daisy connection. They don’t want to include them in the body of legitimate airguns; but with Daisy being such a key player, they usually cave.

That sets them up for a huge disappointment when they suddenly learn that in the 1840s there was another catapult gun that launched lead balls of approximately .43 caliber with sufficient force to kill small game. The Hodges catapult gun is a long gun with no barrel but with all the Victorian styling expected of a naval weapon made in the 1840s. The thought among advanced collectors is that it was a foraging gun made for naval vessels. Except for the few parts that absolutely had to be made of iron for durability, the rest of the gun is fashioned from bronze and English walnut!

The Hodges catapult gun dates from the 1840s. It was a ship’s foraging gun that made little sound, yet could take game of reasonable size without alerting hostile natives. The Roman soldier statues at the front are for anchoring the elastic bands.

The Hodges ball carrier is pushed back until the sear hooks it. Then the elastic bands are stretched one at a time to increase power. This way, the shooter can build in a lot more power than he can possibly handle when cocking the gun.

The elastic bands were anchored at the forward end by two Roman soldiers cast in detailed bronze relief. I’ve seen two such guns — the one pictured here is in remarkable preservation and the other one has been restored to working order and shot by its owner, who reports velocities in the mid-400 f.p.s. range with 122-grain swaged lead balls.

The next branch on the oddity tree deviates toward those guns that shoot BBs and shot by means of the power of an exploding toy cap. Wamo made a minimum of five different models, and new ones surface every couple years. The most recent I’ve discovered shoots potato plugs!

The Kruger ’98 was a cap-firing gun that shot No. 6 birdshot. The same gun also shot BBs and was called just Kruger. Wamo (also spelled Wham-o) made them both.

The Western Haig used toy caps to launch No. 6 shot. It sold for $2.98 in the 1960s. Sold by the founders of Wamo under a different company name and only from a P.O. Box.

If a toy cap can launch a BB, what’s to prevent it from igniting a small charge of black powder? And who decides what’s “a small charge”? There have been .22-caliber, .36-caliber and even .45-caliber rifles made by Rocky Mountain Arms Corporation in modern times that operate by means of exploding caps igniting black powder. If you go back 100 years, there were some made then, as well. They’re clearly firearms when they use black powder, but what about those using caps only?

This .22 rifle from Rocky Mountain Arms Corporation uses toy caps to ignite black powder behind a .22-caliber lead ball. They also made this in .36 and .45 calibers!

As long as we’re talking about caps, what prevents someone from using percussion caps and even primers to propel pellets and BBs? Apparently nothing, because it’s been done. Are these all airguns, as well?

Not the end!
As you now can see, the question of what constitutes an airgun is far from clear. Once you accept any of these deviations, the rest will come streaming through the same loophole. For instance, is a gun that also launches an arrow then considered a bow? And if so, is it legal to use during bow season?

It is for reasons like this that Edith and I are sometimes so rigid and precise in our terminology — because you never know what’s waiting in the wings.

Chronograph instructions and tips

by B.B. Pelletier

I need to be humbled periodically to maintain my perspective on things. Fortunately, for me, I was created with many imperfections that make frequent humbling a certainty.

I was taking a .22 semiautomatic rifle apart several days ago to clean the action, and I got to the part where you remove the last drift pin and all the major and minor parts fly apart like a satellite that’s been hit by a particle beam. No chance to see where everything went because they all got disassociated at the same time.

When this happens, I have several mantras to address the situation. No. 1 is I imagine the item was assembled by a 19 year-old girl named Tiffany, while she is also talking to her coworkers, drinking a Slurpee and texting her best friend. Tiffany can put this thing together in 27 seconds and can spot (without thinking about it) when part 51b has been reversed in its slot, which is good because Tiffany isn’t really into thinking.

If that one fails and I still have parts lying all over the table, I think of Ishmael, who uses no special tools to assemble this item. He has a hole in one of the upright girders supporting the roof where he assembles these items all day long. It was blown through the steel girder 37 years ago with an acetylene torch, and it isn’t quite round; but time and use have polished the edges of the hole, and it’s the perfect assembly tool that was used by Ishmael’s father for the same purpose. With it, he can assemble a pallet-load of these things, whatever they are, before tea time.

When that one fails me, there’s only one thing left — the Machtar chant of assembly (see the movie Galaxy Quest). As it happens all too often, even this potent bit of magic refused to work, leaving me with a pile of parts that purportedly had once been a semiautomatic rifle. Had I not seen it in that condition, I would have doubted it.

I got the gun back together by scrutinizing each part and imagining the relationship it had with the other parts (see, mom, I can use that lump on my shoulders for something other than a hatrack!), but I hate it when that happens. Complex parts should self-assemble, like a wine glass filmed in reverse after shattering.

But this isn’t about me fixing a gun. It’s about me being humbled, so I’ll remember what it’s like to approach something new for the first time. Trepidation, you are my middle name!

So, when a Pyramyd Air customer asked for some pointers on the use of a chronograph the other day, I felt I had to spring into action. Here is his exact request:

I’ve read a good percentage of your BLOGs & articles (plus videos), but no-where do I see the distance specified to set-up a chrono for muzzle velocity for springer airguns, pistols & rifles. I use a ProTach Classic Chrono, with 36″ between “start” & “stop” sensors (originally for hand-loading). I’ve searched the net for an airgun industry std. (like for fire-arms), with no success. One article, on the net, said set the “stop” sensor @ 3 ft. from the muzzle ~ that’s impracticle!! How-about-it, B.B., Tom or Robert B.!! Rich

Where to place the start screen
Rich, if this was five years ago, I wouldn’t have a clue what to tell you. That’s because you’re coming from the world of firearms. I began using chronographs with airguns. Only very recently have I started using a chronograph for my firearms, and only recently have I learned the difficulties of figuring out where to place the start screen.

I typically place the start screen about one foot from the muzzle of the airgun. That’s almost ANY airgun, mind you, except for a big bore and one other exception I’ll mention in a moment. A couple months ago, while I was chronoing some centerfire handloads, I rediscovered why my Oehler 35P came with 15-foot cables. Even when the skyscreens are placed 10 feet from the muzzle, the muzzle blast from a .43 Spanish round will move them like a slinky in Shakeytown!

When it came time to test the Benjamin Rogue, I was prepared to move the skyscreens way downrange from the muzzle to keep from blowing them apart from the air blast. Even though the start screen was situated about 10 feet from the muzzle, the entire skyscreen assembly shook violently every time the rifle fired. So, I understand Rich’s question at the most visceral level.

Rich, a spring gun discharges only the tiniest fraction of pressurized air that a pneumatic puts out, so you can place the start screen a foot from muzzle of the most powerful spring rifle or pistol you can find, which would be a Whiscombe JW80 generating 32 foot-pounds in .25 caliber. Ain’t nothin’ badder than that out there (in spring guns, that is), and your chrono will never miss a beat!

CO2 guns — the other exception
CO2 guns, however, often have a visible exhaust that can fool the skyscreen. Whenever I chrono one of them, I back up about 18 inches from the start screen. This holds true for the weakest pistols as well as the more powerful rifles. You don’t get an incorrect number from them, at least not from my Shooting Chrony Alpha model. What you get is an error message that screen one, the start screen, was unable to detect the passage of the pellet accurately. Back up a few inches, and the problem is solved!

The rest of the smallbores
As far as the other smallbore air rifles and pistols are concerned, 12 inches is all the distance you need between the muzzle and the start screen. This holds true for a catapult gun throwing a 3-grain lead shot at 86 f.p.s. as well as an AirForce Condor belting out a .25-caliber 43.2-grain Eun Jin pellet at nearly 1,000 f.p.s.

Watch where you’re shooting!
A funny story that is directly related. Many years ago, I was running an M203 grenade launcher range for my company at Hohenfels training center, West Germany. The M203 is an underslung weapon that attaches to the bottom of the M16 rifle. It lobs a 40mm grenade out several hundred meters and has been called the hip-pocket artillery of the infantry.

Attached under the rifle, the M203 grenade launcher lobs 40mm grenades out to 350 meters. It uses special high-angle sights, which the firer must not forget to use!

Here’s the thing about the M203. It shoots only a few hundred yards, while the M16’s 5.56mm cartridge can shoot several miles. Naturally, the rifle shoots much flatter than the grenade launcher, so the grenade launcher comes with its own set of sights designed to elevate the weapon to a very high angle to get the needed range. If you were to use the rifle’s sights, the grenade would hit the ground just a few yards downrange — and that would be a bad thing.

This young man demonstrates the correct angle for the M203 grenade launcher.

The firing positions on the M203 range were simulated foxholes with bermed bunkers in front and on both sides of each shooter. These berms were made of railroad ties that held back mounds of compacted dirt. Each firing position was protected from the others so that if anything bad happened, only the one position would suffer the consequences. On this day, I found out why — to my chagrin.

Even though I briefed each relay of shooters before they went to the firing points about using the M203 quadrant sights and not the rifle sights, and even though each firing position had an NCO to watch the shooter, we had an incident where a shooter forgot and used his rifle’s sights to engage a target. The grenade came out of the launcher and hit the railroad ties that were about 12 inches in front of him.

No, he didn’t blow himself up. The designers of the M203 grenade anticipated this event (it’s fairly common) and made the grenade to be armed by spin. It has to travel a certain distance downrange before the centrifugal force of it spinning from the rifling arms it, and 12 inches isn’t far enough. After the range was called cold and evacuated, I went to inspect the firing position, where I found a crumpled grenade lying in the dirt, next to the abandoned weapon. Just from the sheer velocity of the projectile, the grenade had dented the railroad tie about two inches!

Bad things can happen
I won’t tell you how I fixed the situation, but my point is this — when the sights and the bore are not aligned at close range, bad things can happen. The same is true with chronographs! If you’re shooting into a pellet trap that’s three feet away and you sight through the scope, you’re going to shoot your chronograph because the bore is three inches below the scope. Don’t think you’re smarter than that, because everyone who uses chronographs shoots them sooner or later. By sighting through the scope, you’re almost guaranteed to put a pellet through the guts of the electronics package.

Instead, sight by instinct, looking at the orientation of the barrel relative to the target, and of course to the skyscreens. Do this both for the elevation above the skyscreens as well as for the line the pellet takes across both screens.

Downrange problems
People sometimes place a chronograph downrange to calculate the terminal ballistics at a certain distance; or, if another chronograph is used near the muzzle, the ballistic coefficient of the projectile. But they forget that downrange the projectile can go wherever it wants. More chronographs have been ruined this way than any other. Figure that it is only a matter of time before the downrange chronograph is hit.

Lighting for a chronograph
The best light for skyscreens is an even light. A totally overcast day is perfect, as is a day with clear blue sky (as long as the sun does not shine directly on the skyscreens). But a day with puffy white clouds that move around is bad, and you’ll have to use the diffuser filters above the skyscreens.

For artificial light, incandescent bulbs that shine evenly are the best. Bulbs that shine by exciting either a gas or a phosphor, such as fluorescents, cannot be used. They will set off the skyscreens.

I personally have found that by reflecting a 500-watt incandescent light off a white ceiling, I get the optimum in indoor chronograph lighting.

Here’s a small lighting tip. Don’t use strobe flashes near the chronograph, because they will set off the skyscreens. So will the arc from an electric welding torch.

On the level
When you shoot through the skyscreens, it’s important to be as close as possible to perpendicular to the path of light to the screen. If you shoot on an angle — up or down doesn’t matter — the path through the screens will be longer than if perpendicular and the recorded velocity will be lower.

You’re in charge!
Most chronohraphs run on batteries. I should not need to say it, but always carry a spare for when the battery dies. It’s discouraging to be out on a range, only to have the battery die and not have a replacement — especially when the whole reason for going to the range was to use the chronograph.

Chronograph oddities
A few chronographs use infrared sensors in their skyscreens and need infrared light sources in order to work. If you lose one of these special-purpose bulbs, all the bright lights in the world will not make up for it. Keep spares close by.

What about that neat little Combro chronograph that attaches to the muzzle of the gun? How good is it? Well, I once owned one and can comment. It does work and you do get a number from it. And whenever there’s a number, people stand around and believe it.

But here is the deal. Oehler, which is admittedly the leader in commercial chronograph technology, separates his skyscreens (the third one in the middle is the stop screen for a second channel that checks the other one) by at least 24 inches. The machine’s clock speed (the frequency at which the crystal oscillates) is four megahertz. While the pellet flies between the start screen and the stop screen, the oscillator is counting at the rate of four million cycles per second. At that rate, it can parse time into small packets. The Combro has screens that are only a couple inches apart and a clock speed they don’t publish, but which must be slower than the Oehler. The number you get from this device is at best a close approximation — a best guess.

Aside from that, the Combro uses IR sensors, will not operate well in strong daylight and is difficult to fit to the muzzle of the gun. If it’s misaligned when mounted, it can be hit by the projectile. It’s not suited to use with firearms.

I answered Rich’s question in one paragraph in this report, then I went on to discuss other common problems encountered when using a chronograph. If you have any other questions or would like to know more, please make a comment to that effect.