Home A POTTED HISTORY OF THE AIR GUN
Whilst there are references to the concept of projectiles powered by compressed air as far back as the third century
B.C; the reality is generally accepted as appearing in the mid fifteen hundreds. The earliest of these models created
the required air pressure by the use of either spring loaded bellows or pre-compressed air in a chamber. The chamber
could be incorporated into the gun itself or attached as required. In this regard, most people will at some time or another
have seen the famous illustration of the ‘Magdeburg Spheres.’ These spheres demonstrated the principle of the
vacuum. However, what is not so well known is that their inventor, Otto Von Guerick also designed and built an air
powered weapon referred to at the time as a ‘wind chamber.’ It would be stretching the imagination somewhat to
describe this machine as an air gun, given that it propelled a 4lb lead ball distances beyond 400 metres. Cannon seems
rather more appropriate, but nonetheless it demonstrates an early (17th century) example of a gun
employing a detachable air reservoir.
In its earliest incarnation, the spring/bellows type weapon was employed principally as a target shooter for use
indoors. It more or less disappears for two hundred years (for no obvious reason) until resurfacing in the mid to late
eighteenth century when it regained popularity and continued to be manufactured for a further hundred years or so.
The pre-compressed version found continuous favour from its inception to the present day. Generally separate to the
gun, a strong reservoir was pumped by hand, often hundreds of times, and the resulting pressure, when connected to
the gun provided a powerful, efficient charge for the ammunition. In combination with the large calibres favoured at the
time it proved a favourite with the hunting fraternity. Large prey (deer up to 500lb, wild boar etc) could be taken at
surprising distances and, of course, these weapons had a significant advantage over their gunpowder cousins in that
they produced no flash or cloud of black powder smoke and, by comparison, produced very little in the way of noise.
Add these advantages to their efficiency and continued good performance in adverse weather conditions (rain, snow
- in an era that gave us the phrase ‘keep your powder dry’) and it is easy to see why they gained such poplarity. Indeed,
their use was not restricted to the pursuit of game - towards the end of the eighteenth century the Austrian army equipped
one of their regiments with .44 calibre repeating air rifles. It appears that these weapons were so effective, notably
against Napoleans army, that the Catholic church, amongst others, condemned them as ‘tools of the devil’ and
captured Austrian servicemen caught in possession of an air rifle were generally dispatched at short notice as assasins.
Given that these rifles were capable of twenty odd rounds per charge, a group of men thus armed would have produced
a devastating, sustained period of rapid fire. It is worth mentioning that these guns were highly complex mechanically
and thus extremely expensive to manufacture. The upshot of this is that they were owned exclusively by the wealthy.
Appearing at roughly the same time as the ‘pump up’ model, the spring powered air rifle appeared. Initially using the
spring to work a bellows for the required charge, the gun ultimately evolved so that the spring now drives a small piston
which in turn produces the necessary presure. This type of propulsion is now far and away the preferred method in
air gun manufacture.manufacture.
In late eighteenth century America, the Plymouth
Iron Windmill Company was in trouble. Virtually
nobody wanted their windmills and liquidation was
fast approaching liquidation. Into this situation walked
a man called Clarence Hamilton, an inventor
who lived close to the company H.Q. In the office
of general manager, L.C. Hough, Clarence
produced a prototype air rifle. He offered it to
a surprised Hough, suggesting that he give the
weapon a go. Hough promptly shot his waste bin
and, encouraged by the results, took the gun outside
and proceeded to blast a hole clean through a
wooden roof tile. Greatly impressed by its
performance, Hough exclaimed, “Boy, that’s a
daisy!” And a famous brand name was born.
The company agreed to make a few as give
aways with their windmills. However, potential
clients (farmers) showed considerably more
interest in the ‘Daisy’ than they did in the
windmills and eventually the company threw
all their efforts into production of the rifle. The
new product became a runaway success and
the Daisy became an American icon.
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