Adult Airguns in America
By Robert D. Beeman
Revised only to Dec. 31, 2001
Airguns in America go back at least to the American Revolution and the late 1700’s. Lewis and Clark carried a big bore airgun, almost surely made in America, on their famous expedition of 1802-06, for impressing the Indians and perhaps hunting. Very solidly made American air rifles were popular around the period of the U.S. Civil War and there were some 19th century American gunsmiths making large bore air rifles and air canes. In the late 1800’s a curious trans-Atlantic switch took place. Interest in adult airguns largely returned to Europe while airguns in America, under the Daisy name and a host of other brands, mainly became the province of children and youth. While European airguns primarily remained as serious, well built guns for adults, most American made airguns took on the characteristics of such items for youth and children: low cost and low power. During the early and middle 1900’s, American pump pneumatics and CO2 guns appeared, most under the trademarks of Daisy, Benjamin, Sheridan, and Crosman. Despite their partial step up in quality and power, and some marketing directed at adults, the overwhelming majority of these airguns were sold into the youth market. Even today, the primary view of most Americans is that airguns are associated with youth.
Prior to World War II, some of the European adult airguns began to appear in the United States. Stoeger Arms, with their famous Stoeger’s Shooters’ Bible, listed some of the German and English airguns, most notably airguns from Dianawerk under the Peerless trademark. Winchester, reacting to an anti-firearm scare, brought in 19,259 German airguns between 1969 and 1975. Harrington and Richardson tried some of the Webley air pistols, from England. The HyScore Company, founded by the late, inimitable Steve Laszlo, not only brought in several models of European airguns in the post WWII period, but produced an American air pistol of their own design. Liberty Arms in Southern California quietly stocked some of the BSF (Wischo) airguns. In the 1960’s an airgun enthusiast, Robert Law, operating under the name of Air Rifle Headquarters, primarily a direct mail order operation, sold some of the products of these importers and directly imported very small numbers of airguns in their European versions, especially under the Weihrauch and Wischo labels. Daisy attempted to develop an American market for the expensive, world class Feinwerkbau match airguns and less expensive Scottish "Dianas". Stoeger’s and several other companies also brought in very small numbers of the European adult airguns. However, as Steve Fjestad and Dennis Adler noted in 1998, in the airgun section of the 19th edition of the Blue Book of Gun Values, none of these firms really were very successful in marketing adult airguns in America or in developing understanding and acceptance of these guns with the main mass of American gun dealers and consumers. So, prior to 1975, as others also have observed, there just wasn’t a significant adult airgun market in the United States.
In 1972, Mrs. Beeman and I founded Beeman Precision Airguns and began a new approach to develop the American adult airgun market. Instead of a standard marketing approach to just one area of the market, we launched an information intense blitz to promote adult airgunning on many fronts: A key part of the new program included producing and stimulating publications on adult airguns from the consumer level through dealers, and shooting organizations, to the largest distributors. We started the first adult airgun advertising campaign in all of the American gun magazines. I edited, and wrote much of, the first Airgun Digest in the worldwide Digest Book series and wrote articles explaining and extolling adult airguns for several other publications. We became part of the National Rifle Association’s Airgun Committee and the U.S. Non-Powder Gun Products Committee, both of which had mainly been oriented towards airguns for youth, and pushed to have adult airgunning considered as a serious part of their programs. A nationwide network of Beeman representatives visited virtually every locality in the country. We established the first adult airgun displays at the major shooting trade shows and fairs and very successfully campaigned all of the top gun writers. All of this was reinforced, with that same information intense focus, by our big, “instructional” catalogs and scores of technical bulletins, plus separate newsletters to consumers, dealers, distributors, sales representatives, and even an Airgun Journal to airgun shooters/collectors. Hundreds of regular dealerships were established across the country. These dealers were then very actively encouraged to join a new national network of Beeman Five Star Dealers and to utilize the new network of shooting sports distributors who we finally had enticed to stock adult airguns. The emphasis always was on quality and how adult airguns differed from the American concept of airguns only being for youth.
We supplemented our retail, dealer, wholesale, and international sales and promotion programs by expounding the adult airgun concept and exhibiting this “new kind” of airguns in sport and boat shows, gun shows, game fairs, mercenary conventions, pest control programs, all levels of shooting events from local shoots to the Olympics, programs for handicapped shooters, and even to such esoteric things as promoting adult airguns for forestry studies of injecting DNA into tree cells.
Although Weihrauch, Webley, Feinwerkbau, Diana, Wischo, H&N, Hakko Optical, and several other key international factories, all gave us exclusive, long term, distribution contracts for America, we began to realize that part of the marketing problem here was that a good part of the mainstream American shooters were resisting the European styling and features, and even the unfamiliar foreign names, of many of the overseas adult airgun products. So we started to change the cosmetics of regular models and put them under our American name. When our volume became large enough to really interest the European factories, we began to design our own “American style” model adult airguns, pellets, and scopes. The introduction of these new models, and our big increases in airgun velocities, resulted in a quantum leap in acceptance by American shooters and dealers. Foreign interest in these special models led to sales, sometimes in ship container quantities, to 31 other countries.
This wide spread program of development was like throwing stones all over a pond, and watching the ripples merge. In the 1980’s, after almost a decade of this intense activity, we were very satisfied, and even rather surprised, to see that the various approaches had begun to reinforce each other: A nationwide acceptance of adult airguns finally had started to develop. Our first significant market competition appeared: Dynamit Nobel of America began to distribute the Diana airguns under their RWS label - many models now bearing “American” features - not surprisingly which often greatly resembled design features which Beeman had introduced. Crosman again tried to enter the true adult airgun market with their Challenger line of adult air rifles from Germany. However, as Fletcher noted in 1998 , “The Challenger line, caught between RWS on the low end and Beeman on the high end, never really had a chance and is dropped in 1988”. Several other companies also entered the adult airgun market, and although, as of 1989, all the others combined had not come near to the volume of Beeman and now RWS also, adult airguns clearly had become part of the mainstream of American shooting. We surprised even ourselves by selling over one hundred million dollars worth of airguns and related items. In 1993, Mrs. Beeman and I felt that we had earned our retirement and sold Beeman Precision Airguns to S/R Industries of Maryland. It was an interesting trip!
P.S. A statement by Steve Fjestad, the publisher and editor of the Blue Book of Gun Values and First Edition of the Blue Book of Airguns, which gave us some nice support, is shown in the Blue Book Dedication section of this website. And Tom Gaylord, publisher and editor of the Airgun Letter and Airgun Revues, gave a further perspective of the growth of adult airgunning in America in his introduction to the Beeman R1 book.