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Air Rifle used by Lewis and Clark.


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I wonder why we didn't keep going with that technology. Air rifles now seem limited to about 1140fps for .177 pellets. Just enough to reliably kill a squirrel or small dog. I shoulod also mention however that two small children have been killed by them recently in separate accidents. Oddly, one of the accidents was a grandfather who thought he was putting on the safety when the gun fired.






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I really like air guns of all sorts.

They are fun to shoot, you can do it in your house, ammo cost is really cheap (even match grade stuff).

I currently own 2 of the things, a rifle and a pistol. Both by Feinwerkbrau. The damn pistol costs more than a Kimber 45. The rifle was nearly as much but either will shoot 1 hole 5 shot groups at 10 yards.

In my old apartment, I used the pistol with the little felt cleaning pellets to pick off palmetto bugs. I use the rifle for ants.

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Paul Mihalka

Memories... when I was seriously into pistol target shooting competions, I also had my Feinwerkbau air pistol. Used it for competion and train at home on the 10 meter target. My specialty was freepistol 22lr on 50 meter targets.

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I'm having some trouble envisioning charging this rifle to 800 psi using a bicycle pump. I can barely fill a bicycle tire with the one I own. Any thoughts on this one?

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I was looking for a little more. Here we have a rifle manufactured in 1790 which could launch a .46 cal ball 100 yds., punch a hole in a 1" pine board and kill multiple soldiers. The best we can do is a .177 or .22 cal with the .177 pellet barely going thru a 1/4" plywood? What's different or functionally different for a 1790 pump and an air pump from this century? Seems like our "modern" ideas are just rediscoveries.

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Here's a little more.......Theoben Engineering

Origins.The invention of the air-gun is often ascribed to the celebrated inventor and painter Leonardo da Vinci. That da Vinci was an outstanding genius in mechanical matters no one will deny, nor is any one likely to dispute the many inventions which were without doubt products of his fertile brain. Nevertheless there is no proof that he invented the air-gun.

The earliest known record of any such weapon was a 'Windbüchse' made by Guter of Nuremberg in 1530, and it is therefore probable that Guter could be named as the true inventor.

Guter's air-gun was constructed with a hollow stock in which air was contained. Such hollow stocks were usually flask shaped and were brazed down their length and riveted. They were of crude workmanship as would be expected of the period, but they were enormously strong. An 'air stock' of around 1600 vintage was tested by means of increasing air pressure and withstood six thousand pounds per square inch before failing, then only by leaking at one of the rivet holes.


Development. A number of German gun makers made air-guns around 1550, while in 1600 Marin of Lisieux made a repeating air-gun. This was a repeating weapon only in that the air-chamber contained enough air to fire several shots. It was not a true repeater as it had no bullet magazine.

In 1607 a Nuremberg gunsmith named Dumbler made an air-gun which according to contemporary records 'shot through a thumb-thick plank'. The Town Council refused to allow him to market it because is was a 'murderous weapon which might kill a man and he not know what hit him'. Air pumps were not separate units, but were built into the stocks of the weapons and were not visible when in the closed position. Calibres varied from .375 to .500.

Between 1700 and 1750 air-guns were being made by many gunmakers in North Germany and a peculiarity of their construction popular in this period was the positioning of the lock mechanism on the outside of the lock-plate. There appear to be two possible explanations for this, one being that repair would be possible without dismantling the gun and the other that with the offset the air could pass from stock to barrel without a separate tube. Calibres varied from .250 to .500 although a few were made with calibres up to .750 .








Abridge Armoury Stealth

About 1720 the 'flintlock' air-gun was invented, a very peculiar weapon. Externally they looked exactly like the gunpowder guns of the period with an external cock or hammer and a pan and frizzen. On many the pan could be primed and fired but the powder had no effect on the bullet as there was no communication between the barrel and the pan. The bullet being propelled solely by compressed air. The flash from the pan did give the impression that the weapon was a firearm.

Reasons put forward vary - at that time air weapons were regarded as the weapons of assassins and poachers, so a good reason for the camouflage. On the other hand it may have been done purely for novelty.


Crosman 75th Anniversary Model


There followed the appearance of the 'ball type' resevoir weapon which had the air stored in a large metal ball, at first placed on top of the gun and later underneath the barrel just in front of the trigger guard. The ball on top type had the ball slightly offset to allow a line of sight.

Many of the early pneumatics had 'hair' or 'set' triggers, actuated by pressing the trigger foward, while others used the two trigger system. The ball-type weapons were in vogue from about 1730 to 1810. The ball was screwed to the gun and detached to be charged with air. Separate pumps were always used and extra balls could be carried so a great number of shots could be fired without recourse to the pump. Each air-ball would contain enough air for ten to twenty shots depending on size.Quite common was the use of bullet magazines ensuring a rapid rate of fire, often far in excess of the firearms of the period.


Military Use. The next type of any importance were the repeating air-rifles made by Giradoni of Vienna in 1780. So successful and powerful were these weapons that they were used by the Austrian Army in war. They were just over 48 inches in length and weighed nearly 10 pounds. Their calibre was .44 and the barrels had twelve grooves with a twist of one and a quarter turns in their length.

Four men from each company of infantry were equipped with air-rifles and were known as the Croat Sharpshooters. In 1790 a complete corps of 1,300 men were so equipped and the air-rifle remained their weapons until 1815. Opposing armies considered them as assasins, and if captured were given no quarter.

These Service rifles were not only extremeley powerful and accurate, but their rate of fire easily exceeded the maximum rate of discharge of the firearms of the period. They could fire about twenty shote with great rapidity using the previously charge 'air-stock', while the practice of carrying an extra reservoir doubled the capacity. They were fitted with a tubular bullet magazine holding twenty balls located parallel to the barrel.


Spring actuation. Mid-nineteenth century another type of air-gun and rifle apeared. These were know as crank-wound weapons and were the first air-guns to use the true spring, piston and cylinder arrangement we have today. The general outline of these crank-wound guns was similar to our modern air rifles and both breech and muzzle-loading systems were used.

To cock and compress the mainspring a crank was fitted into an aperture in the body of the weapon and then turned a several times. The springs were made from flat steel strip coiled in spiral form.The guns were never powerful as the spring chamber is not long enough to take a modern coil spring of more than four and a half inches. They were mainly used in indoor shooting galleries.


Gas Guns. The Giffard gas-gun created much interest when it first appeared on the English market. Paul Giffard was a civil engineer living in Paris and he had many inventions to his name.

In 1862 he patented a single-shot pneumatic air-gun having a long- stroke piston air pump, located underneath the barrel. These guns were made with 6mm. and 8mm. smoothbore barrels and were powerful enough to flatten a lead bullet shot at a steel plate.

They were designed with a springless valve which was held closed by the trigger- sear. Directly the trigger was pressed the valve was blown open by the compressed air and all the air released.

In 1872 next patented a system whereby air-weapons could be operated by using an 'air-cartridge'. This was a very ingenious idea, but it did not pass the experimental stage and none were produced commercially. A further patent was taken out in 1886 relating to an improved form of air-cartidge, but again, none appear to have been made commercially.

In 1889 Giffard filed a provisional patent which was completed the same year, outlining the system of guns and rifles operated by liquefied carbonic acid gas (carbon-dioxide). These were were commercially produced but not in any great quantity. Further improvements followed and later a London company was formed called the Giffard Gun Company to manufacture the Giffard gas-rifle. These rifles were beautifully designed and constructed, and were hammerless. The calibre was .295 and the weapons were extremely powerful and accurate.

The Giffard guns and rifles bring us more or less up to the time when pneumatic weapons were fast losing favour and being replaced by the newer spring operated rifles which were the forerunners of our modern air weapons.

Blowpipes. The blowpipe is the very simplest form of air weapon and has been in use from the very earliest times. No one knows when the first blowpipe was invented, but we have good reason to believe that it was invented simultaneously in several countries. Designs vary in different parts of the world but examples have been seen varying from two feet long to others nearly twenty feet long, the usual length varies between six and ten feet.

We are all familiar with the peashooter but would think of the blowpipe as the weapon of primitive peoples, but in fact it was once possible to buy in England weapons known as walking stick blowguns. These were sold by Lang of Cockspur Street, Jackson of Brewer Street and several other firms, and looked exactly like walking canes.

A brass tube ran down the centre of the stick, usually about three eighths of an inch internal diameter. The knob was removable giving access to the tube and a removable ferrule was fitted to the bottom end. They were sold with a bullet mould for making clay bullets and a quantity of darts. Ready made clay bullets and extra darts were available.





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.


NEW!! To view our major new presentation on this website about the Lewis and Clark airguns and our Girandoni Airguns and Girandoni-system airguns just click on these titles: Austrian Airguns and Lewis and Clark Airgun.


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.


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Richard_D Great article and thanks. I had no idea that air rifles were that sophisticated and so far ahead of their time. The thought of actually pumping a device, in those days, up to 6000 psi by hand is incredible. We use motors and pneumatic pumps to get pressures like that. As it is my air compressor runs for 10 minutes to get to 150 psi. They must have had some special sealing system to keep the pump from bleeding the pressure off. I would guess some type of oiled leather gaskets?

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Very interesting video about the Lewis and Clark riffle. thanks

While those European and expensive airguns are surely intriguing, I my self can not justify spending$$ on such because I just shoot invasive squirrels only. For that I use Gammo Silent Cat .177 (1000+ f/s) spring riffle. No fancy wood stock, just synthetic/plastic. It has an internal silencer at the end of the muzzle) that greatly reduces muzzle pop and mostly only the thump of the spring can be heard. So far it is accurate to pick out those fastly reproducing squirrels.

As a youngster back in the 70s I use to shoot an air riffle ( in a shooting club) that had a side cocking spring lever and pellet(s) loaded in through the top fixed barrel. I think it was a Czech made gun. It was interesting but heavy to be used by a kid.

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Great video. Thanks.


I've spent quite a bit of time shooting a match Feinwerkbau rifle. I think it was more accurate than my Anchutz .22 match rifle. But, the very slow lock time and muzzle velocity made it very challenging in comparison. You really needed to follow through after the trigger released. Most of my shooting with it was practice in the basement at 10m dot targets.


I really liked shooting that air rifle. No noise, no recoil, not much vibration. After quite a few years of shooting, the seals in the gun needed work.

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I have a Beeman.


I'm a Gammo man myself..


My current rifle 1200FPS.

Just about goes through 1/4 plywood at about 10yrds.


nOT mE - "RWS - Diana" model 48... friggen thing is so accurate

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