Prepper’s Armory: Air Guns

Air guns have a much broader and more interesting history than the .177 and .22 caliber target and pest control arms most people are familiar with today.

There’s considerable debate about the initial development of the air gun. Many historians consider them to have come on the scene sometime in the mid-1500s; few examples have survived from that time, of course, and those are mostly in museums.

The earliest air guns fell into the same two categories used in modern designs: spring powered and compressed air. 
  • Spring powered guns were fairly low power, but could be extremely accurate at short range. Therefore, their use was generally relegated to indoor target ranges.
  • Compressed air (or pneumatic) guns were another story. Over the years, their power and reliably improved to the point they could be used for hunting. In fact, this became the fashion among European nobility of the time, and compressed air guns powerful enough to cleanly take stag and wild boar were produced to meet this need. 

Their chief advantages over black powder were resistance to weather and near silent operation. Because of these advantages, in many parts of Europe, commoners were specifically forbidden from owning air guns. 

Fast forward to the 1780s, when the Austrian Army equipped an entire regiment with Girandoni .46 caliber repeating air rifles. The effectiveness of these soldiers was so great that it has been stated Napoleon ordered any Austrian soldier captured with an air rifle to be summarily executed. France, Japan, and several other countries also armed soldiers with advanced air guns, though in smaller numbers.

Girandoni Air Rifle

At the recommendation of President Thomas Jefferson, a Girandoni air rifle was brought along on the 1803 Lewis and Clark expedition. The Indians they met along the way were very impressed with the “smokeless thunder stick” that could fire 20 aimed shots without reloading, each of which was nearly silent and still powerful enough to take large game at reasonable ranges. On top of all that, the Girandoni could be fired almost as fast as the shooter could pull the trigger. 

After this heyday American and European air guns reduced in size and power, once again becoming curiosities used for shooting paper targets, primarily indoors, and generally at short range.

Following World War II, air guns saw another resurgence. Many of the German arms companies, specifically prohibited from manufacturing firearms, turned their ingenuity to air guns instead. In 1984, air guns were added as an official event to the Olympic Games, partially due to the increasingly restrictive firearms regulations in Europe but also because of the ever-increasing accuracy, quality, and popularity of air guns.

This brings us to the current day. Spring and pneumatic air guns of every style, size, and power level abound. Pneumatic guns are also divided between pump and pre-packaged compressed air cartridge styles.

Now, as then, the benefits of the air gun remain the same:

  • Very quiet in operation
  • Reasonably to extremely accurate
  • Economical in comparison to cartridge firearms
  • Nearly immune to weather (though this point is less of an issue when using modern metallic cartridge ammunition)
For dispatching pest (or food) animals quickly and quietly, especially in more urban environments, it's hard to beat a small caliber air gun. In addition to the more common .177 and .22 caliber air guns, there are also larger caliber options available on the market capable of taking big game. 

As an added bonus, air guns are legal to own in nearly every state and city in the USA. I'm less familiar with laws outside this country.

There are even options for the do-it-yourself crowd, with books and guides available for making an air gun at home.

Take a look at what’s out there -- there’s an air gun for everyone.

(Editrix's Note: Air rifles are a popular topic at Blue Collar Prepping. You can find more information on them from several different authors here.)
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