SA JAGTER/HUNTER | May 2015 | By DALE FOSTER

Airguns – a brief history

It is likely that a great many target shooters and hunters made their first foray into the world of shooting using the humble airgun. For many of us that would mean a simple spring-powered air rifle or pistol. For those of us who have maintained an interest in airguns as a shooting discipline in its own right, we may consider that the current generation of pre-charged pneumatic airguns represent the peak of airgun technology.

However, delving into their history of airguns reveals some interesting facts. Probably the earliest form of the airgun is the simple blowpipe that has served humanity from ancient times as a means to hunt and even as a weapon. It is not known when these implements were first invented, but evidence does suggest simultaneous development in a number of countries. When used in conjunction with poison-tipped darts, such weapons are capable of bringing down relatively large game.

 

In terms of the earliest recognisable gun that was powered by air, this would appear to be a device built by a gunmaker in Nuremberg in around 1530 and called the Windbusche. This airgun was a pneumatic, featuring a butt that comprised an air reservoir that would have been pumped up using a separate pump system. When fitted to the gun it would appear from the limited descriptions available that all the air would have been used for the shot.

 

In 1600 a French gunmaker called Marin, from the town of Lisieux, developed a so-called repeating airgun, however this merely referred to the capability of the air reservoir to fire several shots before requiring re-filling. The ammunition was loaded singly. In essence this is likely to be the first of the precharged pneumatic rifles.

 

The calibres of these early airguns tended to be somewhat larger than we are commonly used to, nowadays varying from .250” up to .50” and in rare examples even larger.

 

Between 1600 and the 19th century the design and quality of airguns increased considerably. Possibly the peak of the design appeared in the 1780s by Girandoni, who developed a superb repeating air rifle of .44” calibre with a side-mounted tube magazine capable of holding 20 round lead balls. A variant of this design was renowned as being used for a brief period by the Austrian Army. A Girandoni air rifle was also carried by the Lewis & Clark expedition to chart the American west between 1804 and 1806.

 

During the 19th century a form of pneumatic airgun, known as the air-cane, was quite popular. This was basically an air rifle disguised as a walking stick. These airguns used a reservoir that could be detached for filling and were capable of firing a number of shots. A clever concealed lock mechanism was employed that required the use of a special key to set the mechanism. Calibres of these guns would range from around .30” to a monstrous .75” calibre example. Some years ago I had the good fortune to fire a .32” calibre airgun that belonged to a late friend and can attest to the power and accuracy of these superb instruments.

 

Another late 19th century innovation was the development of the CO2-powered “airgun”, in my opinion the finest example of these being the guns designed by Paul Giffard of Paris. Giffards rifles appeared in two variants, the earlier hammer-operated models and the later hammerless guns. The quality of the engineering in these rifles was superb. They were available in 4.5mm, 6mm and 8mm calibres. The latter

being exceptionally potent when adjusted to maximum power. These rifles are the predecessors of the current CO2 guns that can be purchased today.

 

Towards the end of the 19th century and at the turn of the 20th century a new system for airguns rose to prominence – the spring and piston system, where a powerful spring drives a piston to compress the air at the moment of firing. This system remains with us today largely unchanged in its basic principles, but dramatically refined with the march of technology.

 

In the last 30 years or so the concept of the pre-charged pneumatic has also risen from being an expensive historical curiosity to a major force in modern airguns. Today it is used in target shooting and is popular in other sporting areas such as the control of vermin in areas where conventional firearms and or poisons would not be acceptable.

 

• Should the reader wish to delve more deeply into the history of the subject, there is a wealth of information available on the internet. I would also strongly recommend the book Air-Guns and Air-Pistol by Lesley Wesley. This book, while published in 1971, helped to fire my own interest in airguns that has been ongoing for over 30 years now.

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