An Introduction to Air Gunsairgu
Air guns have a long and colourful history. They have provided centuries of shooting and over the years have evolved from being rather unsophisticated and somewhat unreliable to what they are today. In some instances air rifles, for example, are such high performance weapons that you would be stretched to think it was not powered by air.
Air guns, whether they are pistols or rifles, are powered by compressed air. The compressed air is released and fires a projectile. The most common, or most commonly known mechanism for a rifle is the spring loaded cylinder typically charged when a break barrel rifle is cocked. Over the years this has evolved into much more sophisticated systems and now rifles use compressed air from canisters or even from external bottled sources.
Air guns have a variety of uses which range from plinking, that is shooting a fixed target, to hunting. Modern air rifles are so powerful that they can be used as hunting rifles and are frequently used for controlling vermin. They are fun and easy to use and can provide hours of entertainment.
A Short History
The oldest known air gun dates from 1580. Operated on a bellows system this is generally accepted as the earliest pneumatic rifle. Pneumatic for the uninitiated simply means powered by air. So the history of the modern air rifle dates from 1580.
By the late 1600s air rifles had become so powerful, reaching velocities of 1000 feet per second (ft/s), and were of such a large calibre, up to .5 inches (.5cal) that they were used to hunt wild boars and even deer. The system employed to power the rifle used an air pump that filled a reservoir, and proved so successful that their use extended into warfare. Because they were silent they were ideal for snipers, but that was not the only advantage air rifles had over their contemporaries.
It is worthwhile noting that there were many compelling reasons to favour a pneumatic system over other weapon systems of the time. For one black powder, which was commonly used, created a great amount of smoke. This made it hard to fight battles. One is reminded of the naval scenes painted by Turner where all the ships are either entirely or partly shrouded in smoke. A further disadvantage of powder was the fact that it had to remain dry, hence the saying ‘keep your powder dry’. Air rifles overcame this disadvantages and for a spell looked like they would forge ahead of their peers. However, the reservoirs used to power air rifles were unreliable and often broke. They were difficult to seal and ultimately proved mechanically unsound.
There were of course happy exceptions and moments of inspired engineering and design. One of the most famous examples of a success came in 1780 when the Austrians joined the race with their aptly named Windbüchse (In German ‘wind rifle’) also known as the Girandoni Military Repeating rifle. At a calibre of .51cal and capable of shooting through an inch thick plank at 100 paces, this rifle proved to be a serious contender. When measured up against the muskets of the time it was faster, often more powerful and in real terms quicker to use.
Other examples that are worth reading up about are the Japanese rifle developed by Kunitomo Ikkansai in around 1820 and the rifle used in the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 believed to be a Girandoni Military Repeating rifle.
The late 1800s saw the popularisation of the the air rifle. It was often being used for target shooting and in 1890 in the United Kingdom led to the formation of the National Smallbore Rifle Association. At the time as many as 4’000 clubs and rifle associations existed in the UK alone.
It is from these colourful roots that we enter the 21st century and have the rapid advancement of technology to deliver the modern air rifle and air pistol.
The modern air rifle has evolved from the spring-piston mechanism. The piston is charged by breaking the barrel and cocking it. This has proved a high successful mechanism and is capable of achieving velocities that near the speed of sound.
There are numerous steps in between but the most noteworthy advance revolves around the introduction of pre-compressed air and the gas ram systems. Gamo has been a leader in the introduction of this technology with the creation of the Gamo IGT system. The gas ram system replaces the mechanical spring and essentially employs a compressed chamber of gas (typically nitrogen) which is charged further by cocking. The effect of using this pneumatic system with a compressed air cylinder is greatly reduced friction which improves the overall accuracy of the rifle.
Pre-compressed canisters, and in this category should be included canisters that are loaded from compressed air bottles, are a further enhancement. Using this technology has allowed for the rapid growth and advancement not only in the development of air rifles but also air pistols. The great advantage here is the rapid reload time and firing speeds are such that the weapon will discharge as quickly as one is capable of pulling the trigger. It has also lead to the creation of rifles that are fully automatic. The typical canister used today is a disposable CO2 cylinder.
Air Guns and the Law in South Africa
Their Lasting Popularity
Airguns may have started out life with the intention of being used to wage war. While they are, and as they advance and become increasingly powerful and accurate, used for hunting (particularly vermin) for most an air rifle is a source of recreation. Whether it is plinking or just old-fashioned target shooting they really are ideal for recreational shooting.
They have lasted for centuries and today are more popular than ever before. They are easy to use and costs are modest – even if you go and buy top of the range equipment – they are certainly cheaper than their powder counterparts. And even if they are not the enthusiasts will tell you how much more fun and enjoyment they inspire.
Air guns have advanced over the centuries and now with world class manufacturers like Gamo, who are recognised as the industry leaders in the design and manufacture of air guns, they will certainly continue evolving and keep getting ever better.