FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF TRADITION
by Robert D. Beeman (modified from copy in a Beeman Precision Airguns catalog)
"James, pump up my new air rifle for the boar hunt tomorrow." These might well have been the words of a wealthy Highland Scotsman to his gillie manservant in the late 1700's. It comes as a considerable surprise to most present-day sportsmen that airguns were among the powerful, and certainly among the most elite of, large-bore rifles over 300 years ago! This modern lack of awareness is understandable when one discovers that powerful airguns were very uncommon, even then.
The special skills, knowledge, and great amount of time necessary to make the complex valves, locks and air reservoirs of airguns meant that generally only the most wealthy shooters could afford them. Some of the finest gunmakers of the history, including Thomas Bate of England and Johann Kuchenreuter of Germany, were proud to put their names on elegant airguns of old.
Airguns reached their zenith as serious weapons before the advent of the cartridge firearms. Airguns then often equaled the power of the best contemporary big-game or military and waterfowl guns. Moreover, they offered certain advantages to the early shooter who could afford them: Some could be fired many times per minute from a single charge - a striking contrast to the front-feeding powder burners. Such rapid fire was further more practical with airguns because they did not obscure their own line of sight with clouds of smoke. And, although the oft-told tale of their silence is not true, they did have less discharge sound and their lack of smoke and fire did help to make it more difficult to spot the position of the marksman. An especially appealing feature was the great dependability of the air weapons. Modern workers who have experimented with these old airguns have found certain problems, but misfire was certainly not among them! The matchlock, wheelock, flintlock, and to a lesser degree, even the percussion gun, were constant victims of the elements. The infamous ignition problems of flintlock firearms have given rise to such lasting expressions as "keep your powder dry" and "just a flash in the pan". Numerous other advantages of air weapons such as lack of residual sparks, faster shot time, more consistent power, etc., have been noted. The black-powder shooter of today can well understand the delight of one of the final advantages of the airgun - not having to clean the bore after each day's shooting!
A big disadvantage of the ancient airguns, and one of the major reasons why their historical position is so little known today, was cost. As noted, only the most skilled gunsmiths could accomplish the painstaking handwork to make the special valves and the locks necessary to these non-powder guns. Consequently only the wealthiest shooters could afford the early airguns. Good airguns then, as now, cost more to make than equivalent quality firearms. The status of early airguns is further borne out by the engraving, carving and inlays or platings of gold and silver found on many of these interesting ancient guns.
Observation of this nature and quality ought to finally put to rest a recurring notion that early airguns were primarily used by poachers and outlaws. Of the hundreds of antique airguns I have examined, only a handful were of the sort that one can imagine a poacher using. The rest were just too fine, obviously too expensive for the likes of an early poacher. More likely they were prize items in the gun cabinet of the lord onto whose land the poacher was sneaking with a cheap, mean powder burner or set of snares. One of the few ancient airguns that I have seen that might well have been a "poacher's gun" is an external lock type now in the Beeman collection. Its simple construction, shortness, and black paint finish seems to fit the role suggested.
The exact origin of airguns is lost in the mists of time. Their origin is by no means as clear as some oft-cited authors would lead us to believe. The oldest existing airgun, apart from blowguns, evidently is a specimen in the Royal Danish Arsenal which dates from about 1590. The very first mechanical airguns appear to have been bellows guns. These arms used a spring-loaded propulsive blast of air to a special large dart when the trigger was tripped. Interestingly, those early airgun triggers were basically very similar to trigger mechanisms of crossbows of the period. Airguns which employed a spring to drive a piston, which also compressed air only at the moment of firing, appear in the historical record as early as the bellows guns. And, amazingly enough, it was also about 1600 that one of the first known pump-up airguns or pneumatics appeared - an experimental gun made for King Henry IV of France. Like many of the airguns to follow, it was powered by compressed air pumped into a reservoir in the buttstock.
Other pneumatics used a reservoir around the barrel or a detachable reservoir ball attached under, or even beside or over, the barrel. Some of these pneumatics had amazingly long bores; I have a specimen of the around-the-barrel-reservoir type by Bate which is a .56" (14 mm) caliber repeater! The strong, valved reservoirs of these guns were charged by pumping air into them. The pumps were sometimes built into the gun but were more often separate. These pumps were usually quite small and easily carried in the field, but some used a large hand wheel for speed and mechanical advantage in movement of the pump piston.
Charging an air reservoir could take from 100 to 2,000 strokes of the pump. This pumping produced from about 600 to well over 1,000 pounds per square inch pressures. The pressure of compressed air is evidently much more efficient than that of the nascent gas of burning or exploding gunpowder. One experiment compared an antique airgun containing a pressure of 750 pounds of carbon dioxide with a similar Kentucky rifle charged with 35 grains (227 mg) of FFC black powder. The Kentucky gun's bullet penetrated two and a half inches (64 mm) of hard pine. The air rifle's bullet went two inches (51 mm) into the test blocks despite a far lower breech pressure. How much the airgun would have beaten the Kentucky if the modern testers had had the nerve to fully charge the antique air rifle is indeed interesting to contemplate.
The powerful, big-bore pneumatic airgun carried by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition in the northwest U.S. has been the subject of a great deal of study. This gun may have been chosen by Captain Lewis because good airguns of that period were generally more dependable, and could be fired more rapidly, than firearms of the same period. However, its ability to astonish the Indians with its smokeless discharge and repeated firing without powder could have been even more important. This gun is mentioned 18 times in the expedition journals. It was reported to have fired at least 40 times from a single charging.
Certainly one of the most famous of the butt-reservoir guns was the Austrian military air rifle designed by B. Girandoni in Austria about 1779. Here the buttstock is a detachable air reservoir which could be quickly unscrewed when empty and replaced by a full one. Each reservoir pumped by portable hand pump, or a pump machine behind the lines, held enough air to fire a series of 20+ heavy lead balls fed from an ingenious rapid feed magazine. These formidable weapons could put out 20+ smokeless shots in a minute; these heavy lead balls were deadly to 150 yards (137 m)! A corps of 500 soldiers so armed had a potential firepower of 300,000 shots in a half hour; incredible for military rifles of the 1790 period! Emperor of Austria Joseph II became excited about these guns as early as 1779 and both he and his successor, Leopold II in 1790, had corps of Jaeger and Tyrolean troops armed with these air rifles. Perhaps 1500 such air rifles actually were produced and they did see battle repeatedly against Turkey, France, and the Confederation of the Rhine.
Careful investigation has shown that the oft-told tale, originated in a German article by K. Maleyka in 1937, that the Girandoni air rifle saw action against Napoleon and that he issued orders for the execution of Austrian soldiers found carrying airguns is just not true. These rifles were used in the Wars of the First Coalition against revolutionary France from 1792 to 1797 and also were used in Turkey and Hungary.
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The variety of early hunting airguns reflected the variety of hunting. One 18th Century specimen is a solid .39" (10 mm) caliber carbine, only 40" (10.2 cm) long, perhaps intended for use in heavy brush or on horseback. Another handsome specimen, made by I. Hass in Neustadt, Germany about 1750, has a beautiful 33" (8.5 cm) shot barrel, about 33" (8.4 mm) caliber, which can be unscrewed and drawn out of the gun to reveal a very menacing .46" (11.7 mm) caliber barrel with seven extremely deep rifling grooves. In just moments, the owner of this gun could switch from doves to deer! One of the fine-cased English air rifles (made about 1850) in the author's collection was regularly used for deer hunting in the U.S. as recently as 1950. It was claimed that it can throw a 265 grain (17.2 gm), .44" (11 mm) caliber bullet at about 950 fps per second (290 mps) when fully charged.
Louis VIII of had a special fondness of hunting with pneumatic rifles. He even had a court artist who drew lifelike pictures of the animals he took with his airguns! These records include a stag, taken in 1747, which weighed 480 lbs. (218 kg) and sported 22 point antlers! It was noted that many other great deer and wild boar fell to his unerring airguns.
One interesting type of airgun which appears very early is the external lock type. Although more complex than contemporary firearms, many of these guns probably were affordable by some shooters of the landed gentry. Most were a fairly simple sequence of a buttstock air reservoir, a lock-trigger block unit and a barrel and were entirely metal, except for the valve seat of horn and an occasional leather cover for the buttstock air reservoir.
Especially rare are versions with wooden barrels - a quite suitable arrangement, since most external lock airguns are smoothbore and operate with very low barrel pressure and temperature. Bores of this type of airgun average about .40" (10 mm) caliber.
Among other ancient airguns that I have examined are beautiful specimens of air carbines, about .45" (11.5 mm) caliber, apparently for boar-hunting from horseback, long rifles for deer hunting, and especially beautiful English cased sets with richly engraved receivers and interchangeable rifle and shot barrels for big-game or waterfowl. The ultimate in mechanical airgun development was the fearsome aircanes with their jewel-like internal locks. Evidently no well dressed English gentleman of the late 1800's would be seen without one of these weapons - which ranged from about .30" to .53" (7 to 14 mm) in caliber and perhaps had the power of a modern police revolver!
An interesting trans-Atlantic switch in airgun evolution occurred about the start of the 20th century. In America, the spring piston gun had developed to a rather sophisticated level, especially in the form of expensive gallery guns popular after the Civil War. The pneumatics had reached their peak in Europe with the advent of the cased hunting set, and the air canes, and finally the first C02 rifle - the handsome and elaborate Giffard. The introduction of the firearm cartridge and smokeless powder killed the development of airguns as powerful weapons. The evolution of the pump pneumatics and C02 guns largely left Europe and appeared in the U.S. as the now familiar youth-type Benjamin, Crosman, and Sheridan.
The development of the spring-piston gun almost simultaneously left America, except for its simple retention in the American "BB" gun, for Europe where it has been perfected into the most sophisticated and accurate target and light hunting airguns ever known. One of the sad and interesting results of these events is that most modern Americans have grown up knowing of airguns only as toys or as youth-level, mass production guns!
This article can give only a glimpse of the rich history of airguns. The collecting of airguns, antique, vintage and modern is a rapidly growing field but can't be covered here. I am planning another book or so on these subjects. I refer the reader who wishes to learn more of these matters now to Airgun Digest by Robert Beeman (1977), Airguns and Other Pneumatic Arms and Windbüchsen und andere Druck Luftwaffen by Arne Hoff (1972 and 1972), The American BB Gun by Arni Dunathan (1971), Gas, Air, and Spring Guns of the World by W.H.B. Smith (1957), Airguns by Eldon G. Wolff (1958), and a series of articles on vintage American airguns which appeared in "The Airgun Journal", first published in 1979 by Beeman Precision Airguns Inc.
NEW!! To view our major new presentation on this website about our Girandoni Airguns and Girandoni-system airguns just click on this title: Austrian Airguns.