lewis hepburn

Lewis Hepburn Gun

The history of airguns is a broad and interesting one, but like with any popular invention, there are a couple of misconceptions and myths about them.

First, wide audiences often consider air guns a modern invention, but the first mechanical air rifles were developed as early as the 16th century, representing the oldest pneumatic technology.

Second, today, most people still perceive air guns as toys, ignoring that developments over the last few decades resulted in some powerful weapons in calibers up to .72, achieving velocities as high as 1,000 fps and muzzle energy more than 1,500 fpe.

From its early steps, air guns were developed as deadly tools designed for hunting and even warfare. It was only later that they started to be used for entertainment purposes.

Speaking of air guns, it is inevitable to compare them to firearms and follow their evolution and development. While the very first firearm dates back to the 15th century, the first practical air gun was invented a hundred years later, during the second half of the 16th century.

1580: The Air Rifle is Born

Early mechanically operated airguns worked on the bellows system, and they do predate the butt reservoir big bores.

Known as the earliest form of airgun, the bellows guns dating back to around 1580 are using bellows hidden in the butt and powered by two strong leaf springs. Today one sample exists in the arms collection of the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

One can find different inventors depending on sources, but the German city of Nuremberg is frequently mentioned as the birthplace of airguns in the middle 1500s. The names like Guter of Nuremberg and Hans Lobsinger (c.1510-1584) are quoted more than once in a document of that period.

Watchmakers and Airguns

Although the first air guns shared many common features with early long-barreled firearms, they had few basic differences. Whereas the gunsmiths and blacksmiths were in charge of firearms, for manufacturing and maintenance of a highly complex mechanism of air guns were responsible goldsmiths and clockmakers!

It’s the main explanation why these pneumatic weapons cost a lot of money and took a long time to produce them. So, it is quite understandable that early air-powered weapons were employed by the aristocracy and upper class and were mainly used for small-game hunting and target shooting.

Since the inherent weakness of bellows was the low-quality material of the time, a whole series of great inventors and gunsmiths were engaged in further airguns development throughout the 17th to 19th centuries.

These pneumatic arms were in larger calibers (.30 – .51) like firearms from that era, simply because larger caliber barrels were easier to manufacture. The other reason is the intended use of the airguns since people in that period did not make guns for pleasure but for hunting large game such as deer and wild boar.

The Windbüchse

The airguns were known in German as ‘windbuchse’, meaning a “wind rifle,” and they were mostly in a caliber larger than .25, something that we call a big bore today.
With an initial velocity of 1,000 feet per second (310m/s), the “wind rifle’ could put a lead ball clean through a one-inch pine board at 100 paces, an effect roughly equal to that of a modern self-defense caliber pistol.

Hunters, marauders, and poachers, alike lauded these early, high-caliber air guns. Several reasons were favorable to such a development of air guns. The demand for alternative weapons was high because ordinary citizens were forbidden to buy gunpowder. Moreover, air rifles proved very useful for poaching, because they could deliver a shot without a significant muzzle report.

An attempt to legally regulate the airguns can be found in an order of the District Captain’s Office in Linz from 1766, which threatens large fines and even the death penalty to all manufacturers and owners of air rifles that do not have valid licenses.

During the 17th and 18th centuries at least twenty manufacturers in Central and Northern Europe developed various principles of air compression but most of these hunting “wind rifles” shared one same feature – a fake flintlock mechanism. It was a camouflage trick to make the authorities think it was a regular firearm.

All the air rifles of that time had a rifled barrel, a trigger mechanism, and an air tank, as a rule, placed in the stock. A hunting yearbook in 1779 states that with three hundred pump strokes, the hunter achieved enough pressure to knock down a deer at a distance of 50-60 meters.

The Girardoni Repeating Air Rifle of 1780


Militaries were also interested in air guns, but the only air rifle that was adopted as an official weapon in the army was the repeating air rifle invented in 1780 by the Tyrolean watchmaker and gunsmith Bartholomäus Girandoni (1744–1799).

Girardoni rifle is also very important for American history, as one repeating air rifle was carried by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition of 1803.

Industrial Revolution and New Technologies

As a result of the rapid technological progress in the nineteenth century, mass-produced air guns became affordable to the wide public and the first matches and competitive target shooting were held at outdoor and indoor ranges.

With 20th century air rifles have evolved massively on both sides of the pond and established well-known airgun manufacturers like Crosman, Daisy, Daystate, and Weirauch. Along the classic spring-powered guns and weapons using compressed CO2 gas to launch steel BBs and lead pellets, airgun aficionados were offered with Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP) powered air rifles.

These air guns are mostly used for small game hunting and self defense.

A pre-charged pneumatic (compressed-air) guns are the pinnacle of air gun technology and today’s high-tech offerings. They come in a wide range of styles and designs and gun enthusiasts can use the air rifles for a variety of applications.