The use of compressed air to propel a projectile is an old concept dating back to 250
Ktesbias II of Egypt drew plans and wrote of a weapon that would operate on mere air pressure. Whether this gun was actually built is unknown.
1560, Hans Lobsigner produced a hand held air rifle that worked flawlessly.
He reportedly produced a large number of them in the
late 1500's. The oldest existing airgun is in the Royal Danish Arsenal in Copenhagen and dates from around 1580.
France, Holland, Italy and several other countries were producing
airguns by the early 1600's and supplying them as arms for personal protection.
Otto Von Guerick (1602-1686) established the principle of the vacuum with the Madgeburg
spheres. He designed and built an air rifle using this surge principle.
His device, according to an article written by J.T.
Haynes, was actually a type of cannon that used a detachable air reservoir connected to the cannon tube. These
"wind chambers", as they were called, generated considerable force, capable of propelling a four pound lead ball
up to 500 yards.
One of the first mass produced airguns was of the bellows chamber design,
a spring loaded bellows was used for power with an expanding ratchet device housed in the
stock that was cranked or keyed to rewind the spring. All bellows type guns were smooth bores according to James W.
Harrom (Beeman Precision) and many shot tufted large diameter darts up to
.50 caliber. They were all breech loading in design with the
barrel opening at the breech and tilting downward for loading.
Most of the bellows guns were of the long gun configuration, very few
pistols were produced. Most of the guns were very elaborate in
design. Bellows gun production was short lived in the 1500's, but regained popularity in the mid to late
1700's. According to Mr. Harrom, most bellows guns date from 1740 to 1790 and seem to come from a small area bounded by Munich, Prague and Vienna. The bellows airgun had all but disappeared by the late 1800's,
but a few appear to have been made as late as the 1870's.
Another design that appeared on the scene around 1600 was the spring piston gun, with several variations of springs used in their operation.
From the zigzag shape to the helical coil spring, they
were much like what is used in modern spring piston
airguns. A ratchet device is used to pump or crank the spring into a compressed position when loaded, then released by a trigger
or unlatching mechanism. By the early part of the 19th century the spring piston gun had established
itself throughout Europe as an indoor target weapon. By the mid 1800's this airgun had found it's way to the
indoor shooting galleries on the North American
continent, fast becoming a popular
sport. As weapons improved, they were placed into a number of classes for competition, from small caliber,
smooth bore to large caliber, rifled.
The pump pneumatic gun has been worked on by inventors since the early 1600's, with a number of mechanism designs that were so involved that the system developed slowly when compared to the other systems mentioned. The size ranged from .30 to .68 caliber,
both smooth and rifled bores. These weapons
required a large volume of compressed air in a large reservoir. They produced pressures from a few hundred pounds per square inch to several thousand pounds per square inch. This much pressure would fire a .40 caliber lead
ball forty times without resupplying the reservoir, and
was able to penetrate 2.5 inches into a hard pine board.
There are a number of other manufacturers from other parts of the world that have had success with the airgun. For example, an Austrian firm using a design by Bartolemeno Girandoni in 1779 made weapons that ranged from .40 to .52 caliber and
were capable of firing 15 to 20 rounds per minute by a gravity feed magazine.
Louis VII Landgrave of Hesse (1691-1768) used a
large bore air rifle to kill a 500 pound elk at 150
paces in 1746-1748. In North America, the journals of
the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) show their
.31 caliber pneumatic rifle, made in Philadelphia by Issaih Lukens, capable of 40 full power shots at 900 PSI with
1,000 pump strokes for raised pressure. As late as the 1890's we saw pneumatic weapons disguised as walking sticks and canes ranging from
.40 to .50
caliber which were capable of killing a man at fifty yards.