Airguns For Wild Boar?

A Historical Look at the Airgun
By Robert Beeman, Ph.D.
Reprinted from the Beeman Precision Airgun Guide, Edition 20

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"James, pump up my new air rifle for the boar hunt tomorrow." These might very well have been the words of a wealthy Highland Scotsman to his gillie in the late 1700's. It comes as a considerable surprise to most present-day sportsmen that airguns were among the more powerful, and certainly among the most elite, of large-bore rifles over 200 years ago! This modem lack of awareness is understandable when one discovers that powerful airguns were very uncommon, even then. Good airguns have always cost more to make than equivalent quality firearms. The special skills, knowledge and great amount of time necessary to make the complex valves, locks and air reservoirs of the early airguns meant that only the most wealthy shooters could afford them.

The origin of airguns 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 bellows in the butt of the gun to provide a propulsive blast of air to a special dart when the trigger was tripped. Airguns which employed a spring to drive a piston, which also compressed air only at the moment of fitting, appeared almost as early as the bellows guns. And, amazingly enough, it apparently was also about 1600 that the first pump-up (pneumatic) airgun appeared - an experimental gun made for King Henry IV of France.

All of the most powerful of yesteryear were pump pneumatics. That is, they were charged by pumping air into a strong, valved reservoir which was attached to, or made part of, the gun. The pumps were sometimes built into the gun but were more often separate. Charging a reservoir could take from 200 to 2,000 stokes of the pump and produce pressures to well over 1,000 pounds per square inch.

The old airguns offered numerous advantages to those early shooters who could afford them; some could be fired many times per minute, 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 are quieter than firearms of equivalent power and their lack of smoke and flash did help to make it more difficult to spot the marksman's position. An especially appealing feature was the great dependability of the airguns. Other advantages included lack of residual sparks, faster shot time, more consistent power; and extremely light barrel fouling.

The variety of early hunting airguns reflected the variety of hunting. One 18th century specimen in the Beeman collection is a solid .39 caliber carbine, only 40 inches long, perhaps intended for use in heavy brush or on horseback. Another, made by Hass in Neustadt, Germany about 1750, has a beautiful 33" shot barrel about .33 caliber, which can be unscrewed and drawn out of the gun to reveal a very menacing .46 caliber barrel with seven extremely deep rifling grooves. In just moments, the owner of this gun could switch from doves to dear! One of the fine-cased English air rifles (made about 1850) in the author's collection was regularly used for deer hunting as recently as 1950. It fires a 265-grain, .44 caliber bullet!

Lewis and Clark carried a .36 caliber pneumatic air rifle on their famous expedition of 1804-06. It served them well, both for deer hunting and to astonish the Indians.

Certainly one of the most famous of the butt-reservoir guns was the Austrian military air rifle designed by Girandoni about 1779. Its buttstock is a detachable air reservoir 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 their 20 smokeless shots in a minute; the .51 caliber (l3mm) bullets traveling almost 1000 fps were deadly to 150 yards - an energy nearly comparable to muzzle loading rifles of the time or a .45 Colt automatic of today! A corps of 500 soldiers so armed had a potential fire- power of 300,000 shots in a half hour - incredible for military rifles of the late 1700's!

During this same period, and for almost a century to follow, big bore airguns were extremely popular with the wealthy sportsmen of Europe. Among the ancient airguns in the Beeman collection are beautiful specimens of air carbines, about .45 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 gentlemen of the late 1800's would he seen without one of these weapons-which ranged from almost .30 to .49 in caliber and had perhaps the power of a modern police revolver!

An interesting transatlantic switch in airgun evolution occurred about the start of the 20th century. In America, the spring piston gun had developed to a powerful and sophisticated level -especially in the form of expensive gallery guns popular after the Civil War The pneumatics had reached a high level in Europe with the advent of the cased hunting sets, the air canes, and finally the first CO rifle - the handsome and elaborate Giffard. The introduction of the firearm cartridge and smokeless powder killed the development of air-guns as powerful guns. No longer could airguns properly be considered as weapons. The evolution of the pump pneumatics and C02 guns largely left Europe and appeared here as youth-level, low-power, mass-production guns, while in Europe spring piston airguns became extremely sophisticated and accurate target and light hunting small-bore guns.

Finally, in the 1970's, the Beemans blended American styling, increased power, and new features with the European developments and made the successful introduction of precision adult airguns and new pellet designs into the mainstream of the American shooting market. Now other companies have come into the precision adult airgun market, but the Beeman company 5 objective is to continue to earn your respect as that market's leader.


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