Air guns represent the oldest pneumatic technology. The oldest existing mechanical air gun, a bellows air gun dating back to about 1580, is in the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm. This is the time most historians recognize as the beginning of the modern air gun.
In the 17th century, air guns, in calibers .30–.51, were used to hunt big game deer and wild boar. These air rifles were charged using a pump to fill an air reservoir and gave velocities from 650 to 1,000 feet per second (200–300 m/s). They were also used in warfare; the most famous example is the Girandoni Military Repeating Air Rifle.
At that time, they had compelling advantages over the primitive firearms of the day. For example, air guns could be fired in wet weather and rain (unlike matchlock muskets) and with greater rapidity than muzzle-loading guns. Moreover, they were quieter than a firearm of similar caliber, had no muzzle flash, and were completely smokeless, thus not disclosing the shooter's position or obscuring his view. Black powder muskets of the 18th and 19th century produced huge volumes of dense smoke when fired, a disadvantage compared to air rifles.
Although some enthusiasts suggest air guns posed a serious alternative to powder weapons, that was never proved to be the case, as valve leaks and bursting reservoirs were known problems. Air guns also were delicate, and peasant-soldiers, many of whom had never seen any mechanical tools more complex than horse-drawn carriages, could not have operated or maintained them properly. Later improvements in valve designs and reservoir strength either came too late or were too complex for the few air gunsmiths of the day.
But in the hands of skilled soldiers, they gave the military a distinct advantage. France, Austria, Japan and other nations had special sniper detachments using air rifles. The Austrian 1780 model was named Windbüchse (literally "wind rifle" in German). The gun was developed in 1778 or 1779 by the Tyrolese watchmaker, mechanic and gunsmith Bartholomäus Girandoni (1744–1799) and is sometimes referred to as the Girandoni Air Rifle or Girandoni air gun in literature (the name is also spelled "Girandony," "Giradoni" or "Girardoni".) The Windbüchse was about 4 ft (1.2 m) long and weighed 10 pounds (4.5 kg), which was about the same size and mass as a conventional musket. The air reservoir was a removable, club-shaped butt. The Windbüchse carried twenty-two .51 in (13 mm) lead balls in a tubular magazine. A skilled shooter could fire off one magazine in about thirty seconds, which was a fearsome rate of fire compared to a muzzle loader. A shot from this air gun could penetrate a one-inch wooden board at a hundred paces, an effect roughly equal to that of a modern 9 mm or .45 ACP caliber pistol.
Around 1820, the Japanese inventor Kunitomo Ikkansai developed various manufacturing methods for guns, and also created an air gun based on the study of Western knowledge ("rangaku") acquired from the Dutch in Dejima.
Air guns appear throughout other periods of history. The celebrated Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804) carried a reservoir air gun, later believed to be the Girandoni Military Repeating Air Rifle in Dr Robert Beeman's Collection. It held 22 .46 calibre round balls in a tubular magazine mounted on the side of the barrel. The butt stock served as the air reservoir and had a working pressure of 800 psi (5,500 kPa). The rifle was said to be capable of 22 aimed shots in 1 minute. That air rifle is measured to have a rifled bore of 0.452 in (11.5 mm) and a groove diameter 0.462 in (11.7 mm).
During the 1890s, air rifles were used in Birmingham, England, for competitive target shooting. Matches were held in public houses, which sponsored shooting teams. Prizes, such as a leg of mutton for the winning team, were paid for by the losing team. The sport became so popular that in 1899, the National Smallbore Rifle Association was created. During this time over 4,000 air rifle clubs and associations existed across Great Britain, many of them in Birmingham. During this time, the air gun was associated with poaching because it could deliver a shot without a significant report.
Today's modern air guns are typically low-powered because of safety concerns and legal restrictions. High-powered designs are still used for hunting. These air rifles can propel a pellet beyond 1100 ft/s (330 m/s), approximately the speed of sound, and produce a noise similar to a .22 caliber rimfire rifle. Using lead pellets, some current spring powered .177 pellet guns can break the sound barrier. Most low-powered air guns can be safely fired in a backyard or garden, and even indoors, with a proper backstop.
In some countries, air guns are still classified as firearms, and as such it may be illegal to discharge them in residential areas. Air guns can be highly accurate and are used in target shooting events at the Olympic Games, governed by the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), where they are shot at a range of 10m or 32.8 feet.
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