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Air pistol

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Air pistol

For other uses, see Air gun (disambiguation).

An air gun or airgun (also called pellet gun) is any one of a variety of guns that propel projectiles by means of compressed air or other gas, in contrast to firearms which use a propellant charge. Both the rifle and pistol forms (air rifle and air pistol) normally fire metallic projectiles, either pellets or spherical balls based on the BB size of birdshot - although a few fire darts.[1][2]

Air guns that only use plastic projectiles are classified as airsoft guns.

The earliest airguns were more effective compared to contemporary early firearms for many hunting and military uses, but as firearms improved the airgun became largely relegated to sport target shooting and plinking. Neither of these uses required much power, and so airguns came to be seen as a safe, less threatening alternative to firearms, and typically treated differently by legal systems.

In recent times there has been an upsurge of interest again in more powerful airguns.


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 wagons, 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[3] 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"[4] or "Girardoni".[5]) 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.


Air guns are used for hunting, pest control, recreational shooting (commonly known as plinking), and competitive sports, such as the Olympic 10 m Air Rifle and 10 m Air Pistol events. Field Target (FT) is a competitive form of target shooting in which the targets are knock-down metal silhouettes of animals, with a 'kill zone' cut out of the steel plate. Hunter Field Target (HFT) is a variation, using identical equipment, but with differing rules. The distances FT and HFT competitions are shot at range between 10 and 50 metres (33 and 164 ft), with varying sizes of 'reducers' being used to increase or decrease the size of the kill zone. In the UK, competition power limits are set at the legal maximum for an unlicensed air rifle, i.e. 12 ft·lbf (16 J).

Legal issues

Main article: Air gun laws

While in some countries air guns are not subject to any specific regulation, in most there are laws, which differ widely. Each jurisdiction has its own definition of an air gun; and regulations may vary for weapons of different bore, muzzle energy or velocity, or material of ammunition, with guns designed to fire metal pellets often more tightly controlled than airsoft weapons. There may be minimum ages for possession, and sales of both air guns and ammunition may be restricted. Some areas require permits and background checks similar to those required for firearms proper.

Air gun power sources

There are different methods of powering an air gun. These methods can be broadly divided into 3 groups: spring-piston, pneumatic, and CO2. These methods are used in both air rifles and air pistols.[6]


Spring-piston air guns are able to achieve muzzle velocities near or greater than the speed of sound from a single stroke of a cocking lever or the barrel itself. The effort required for the cocking stroke is usually related to the power of the gun, with higher muzzle velocities requiring greater effort.

Spring-piston guns operate by means of a coiled steel spring-loaded piston contained within a compression chamber, and separate from the barrel. Cocking the gun causes the piston assembly to compress the spring until a small hook on the rear of the piston engages the sear; pulling the trigger releases the sear and allows the spring to decompress, pushing the piston forward, thereby compressing the air in the chamber directly behind the pellet. Once the air pressure has risen enough to overcome any static friction and/or barrel restriction holding the pellet, the pellet moves forward, propelled by an expanding column of air. All this takes place in a fraction of a second, during which the air undergoes adiabatic heating to several hundred degrees and then cools as the air expands.

Spring-piston guns have a practical upper limit of 1250 ft/s (380 m/s) for .177 cal (4.5 mm) pellets. Higher velocities cause unstable pellet flight and loss of accuracy. This is due to the shock wave generated as the supersonic pellet contacts the air. Shortly after leaving the barrel, the pellet falls below the speed of sound and the shock wave overtakes the pellet, causing it to tumble. Drag increases rapidly as pellets are pushed past the speed of sound, so it is generally better to increase pellet weight to keep velocities subsonic in high-powered guns. Sonic crack from the pellet as it moves with supersonic speed also makes the shot louder sometimes making it possible to be mistaken for firearm discharge and drawing unwanted attention. Many shooters have found that velocities in the 800–900 ft/s (240–270 m/s) range offer an ideal balance between power and pellet stability.

Most spring piston guns are single-shot breech-loaders by nature, but multiple-shot guns have become more common in recent years. Spring guns are typically cocked by a mechanism requiring the gun to be hinged at the midpoint (called a break barrel), with the barrel serving as a cocking lever. Other systems that are used include side levers, under-barrel levers, and motorized cocking, powered by a rechargeable battery.

Spring guns, especially high-powered ones, have significant recoil resulting from the forward motion of the piston. Although this recoil is less than that of a cartridge firearm, it can make the gun difficult to shoot accurately as the recoil forces are well under way while the pellet is still traveling down the barrel. Most guns seem to respond well to a light, repeatable grip that allows the gun to vibrate the same way from shot to shot. This method is commonly referred to as the "artillery hold", in reference to the way large military artillery pieces like the M777 howitzer often recoil. Spring gun recoil also has a sharp forward component, caused by the piston as it hits the forward end of the chamber when the spring behind it reaches full expansion. This sudden forward acceleration helps to counteract the recoil, since the recoil and "forward recoil" forces happen within milliseconds of each other, but it is infamous for the loosening or breaking of lenses and reticles found in low- and medium-priced telescopic sights. All mounted telescopic sights for air guns should be rated as such.

Spring guns can also suffer from spring vibrations that reduce accuracy. These vibrations can be controlled by adding features like close-fitting spring guides or by aftermarket tuning done by "air-gunsmiths" who specialize in air gun modifications. A common modification is the addition of viscous silicone grease to the spring, which both lubricates it and dampens vibration.

The better quality spring air guns can have very long service lives, being simple to maintain and repair. Because they deliver the same energy on each shot, their trajectory is consistent. Most Olympic air gun matches through the 1970s and into the 1980s were shot with spring-piston guns, often of the opposing-piston recoil-eliminating type. Beginning in the 1980s, guns powered by compressed, liquefied carbon dioxide began to dominate competition. Today, the guns used at the highest levels of competition are powered by compressed air stored at very high pressures of 2000 to 3000 psi (14 to 21 MPa).

Gas Spring

Some makes of air rifle (e.g. Weihrauch, Theoben) incorporate a gas spring in some models instead of a mechanical spring. Pressurized air or nitrogen is held in a chamber built into the piston, and this air is further pressurized when the gun is cocked. It is, in effect, a gas spring commonly referred to as a "gas ram" or "gas strut". Gas spring units require higher precision to build, since they require a low friction sliding seal that can withstand the high pressures when cocked. Gas spring units are available as an upgrade for some popular models such as the Weirauch HW80, the Crosman 766C American Classic air rifle and the Arowsmith 876 Magnum rifle. The advantages of the gas spring include the facility to keep the rifle cocked and ready to fire for long periods of time without harming the mechanism. Also, since there is no spring (and therefore a reduction in moving mass during firing) there is less (although some say slightly sharper) recoil. There is also an elimination of the associated problems of long-term spring fatigue and a faster "lock time" (the time between pulling the trigger and the pellet being discharged). The improvement in lock time makes for better accuracy since there is less time for the gun to move off target. Finally, gas springs are practically maintenance free and last longer than conventional metal springs (research test ch1208); they are an order of magnitude more expensive when they do need replacement.


Pneumatic air guns utilize pre-compressed air as the source of energy to propel the projectile. Single-stroke and multi-stroke guns utilize an on board pump to pressurize the air in their reservoir, Pre-charged pneumatic guns' reservoirs are filled using either a high-pressure hand pump (often capable of attaining pressures of 30 MPa) or by decanting the necessary volume/pressure of air from a diving cylinder. Because of this design, having no significant movement of heavy mechanical parts during the firing cycle, the recoil produced is only the 'true' recoil, equivalent to the equal and opposite reaction to the pellet and air volume's acceleration up the bore.


Multi-stroke pneumatic air guns require 2–10 pumps of an on-board lever to store compressed air within the air gun. Variable power can be achieved through this process, as the user can adapt the power level for long, or short-range shooting. The design of higher quality and match-grade multi-stroke air rifles can propel a pellet to speeds in excess of 1,000 feet per second (300 m/s).

For beginners and intermediates, multi-stroke air rifles have been a cost-effective choice as they are generally the cheapest form of air gun available. Several manufacturers make multi-stroke air guns including, to name a few, Sheridan, Benjamin, Daisy, and Crosman. Modified multi-pump guns, with stronger pump linkages and improved valves, can produce muzzle energies in excess of 30 foot-pounds force (41 J).


As the name implies, one motion of the cocking lever is all that is needed to compress the air for propulsion. The single-pump system is usually found in target rifles and pistols, where the higher muzzle energy of a multi-stroke pumping system is not required. Single-stroke pneumatic rifles dominated the national and international ISSF 10 metre air rifle shooting events from the 1970s up to the 1990s.

Pre-charged pneumatic (PCP)

Pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air guns are usually filled by decanting from an air reservoir, such as a diving cylinder or by charging directly with a hand pump.

Because of the need for cylinders or charging systems, PCP guns have higher initial costs but very low operating costs compared to CO2 guns. These guns are often used for hunting purposes in countries with restrictive firearms laws. A distinction is sometimes made between true PCP guns and high pressure air (HPA) guns. The distinction being that true PCP guns are an integrated high pressure design while an HPA application is an adaptation of a high pressure, regulated air supply to function with components not designed for high pressure—e.g. CO2 guns. The RWS/Hammerli 850 is a CO2 designed gun, which is often adapted to HPA.

PCP guns have very low recoil and can fire as many as 500 shots per charge. The ready supply of air has allowed the development of semi-automatic and fully automatic[7][8] PCP air guns. PCP guns are very popular in the UK and Europe because of their accuracy and ease of shooting. They are widely utilized in ISSF 10 metre air pistol and rifle shooting events and the sport of Field Target shooting,[9] and fitted with telescopic sights.

Earlier hand pumps for charging carried with them problems of fatigue (both human and mechanical), temperature warping, and condensation. None of those is beneficial to good shooting or the longevity of the rifle. Modern hand pumps have built-in air filtration systems and have overcome many of these problems. Using scuba-quality air decanted from a scuba cylinder also provides a clean, dry, high-pressure air supply that is consistent and available at low cost.

During the typical PCP's discharge cycle, the hammer of the rifle is released by the sear to strike the valve. The hammer may move rearwards or forwards, unlike firearms where the hammer almost always moves forward. Prior to being struck by the hammer, the valve is held closed by a spring and the pressure of the air in the reservoir. The pressure of the spring is constant, and the pressure of the air decreases with each successive shot. As a result, when the reservoir pressure is at its peak, the valve opens less fully and closes faster than when the reservoir pressure is lower, resulting in a similar total volume of air flowing past the valve with each shot. This results in a degree of self-regulation that gives a greater consistency of velocity from shot to shot than would otherwise be expected. A well-designed PCP will display good self-regulation properties, meaning good shot to shot consistency over a range of pressures as the air reservoir is diminished.

More expensive PCP rifles and pistols are often pressure regulated, i.e. the firing valve operates within a secondary chamber separated from the main air reservoir by the regulator body. The regulator maintains pressure within this secondary chamber at a set pressure lower than the main reservoir's. This occurs until the main reservoir's pressure is diminished to the set pressure, after which the PCP behaves in an unregulated manner. Thus shot to shot consistency is maintained for longer than in an unregulated rifle, at the expense of efficiency, shots per fill and often at a lower velocity.


Most CO2 guns (e.g. Beretta Elite II) use a disposable cylinder, a powerlet, that is purchased often pre-filled with 12 grams of pressurized carbon dioxide, although some, usually more expensive models, use larger refillable CO2 reservoirs like those typically used with paintball markers.

Carbon dioxide-powered guns have two significant advantages over pre-charged pneumatic air guns:

  1. A simpler system for compact storage of energy—a small volume of liquid converts to a large volume of pressurized gas.
  2. No pressure regulator. Within a temperature range tolerable to humans there is little need to regulate the inherently suitable pressure for low-to-moderate-power air guns. The vapor pressure is dependent only on temperature, not tank size, as long as some liquid CO2 remains in the reservoir. So, as long as the CO2 cylinder is not allowed to cool significantly (through firing), the pressure will not decrease by a significant degree. However, at higher temperatures (e.g. on a hot summer day), this approximation does not hold true.

These two advantages allow CO2 guns to be constructed more simply than guns using a pressurized air reservoir. Some CO2-powered guns have detachable or fixed reservoirs that are loaded with pressurized gas from a larger cylinder. Most CO2 powered guns use the standard 12 gram Powerlet disposable cylinder invented by Crosman. Recently, the same company introduced a new 88 gram disposable AirSource cylinder that is used in some of their guns.

On the other hand, liquefied CO2 must be purchased, which costs more than a PCP gun/hand pump combination using "free" air, or when refilling from a diver's tank.

Furthermore, the pressure of gaseous CO2 at ordinary ambient temperatures is only around 850–1000 psi (6 to 7 MPa), which is only a third of the safe working pressure of a typical full PCP reservoir (20 MPa or 2900 psi or more). The effect of this is that generally speaking CO2 guns are lower powered and less efficient than PCP guns, which is why CO2 guns are usually pistols or semi-target type rifles, with few guns (none of commercial note) reaching even the 12 ft·lbf (16 J) licence-free energy limit for air rifles imposed in the UK.

CO2 guns, like compressed air guns, offer power for repeated shots in a compact package without the need for complex cocking or filling mechanisms. The ability to store power for repeated shots also means that repeating arms are possible. There are many replica revolvers and semi-automatic pistols on the market that use CO2 power. These guns are popular for training, as the guns and ammunition are inexpensive, safe to use, and no specialized facilities are needed for safety. In addition, they can be purchased and owned in areas where firearms possession is either strictly controlled, or banned outright.

Most CO2 powered guns are relatively inexpensive, although there are still a few precision target guns on the market that use CO2.

The CO2 system has been used in experimental non-lethal law enforcement weapons, where high power delivery systems launch rubber batons or bean bags out of a gas-powered launcher, much like a non-lethal shotgun system (but at lower velocities, thus being safer).


For safety, CO2 containers must be kept at temperatures below 120 °F (49 °C) ; at temperatures above this level, the pressure begins to increase very rapidly, and can cause the container to fail. CO2 containers with diameters at or above two inches (50 mm) have a pressure release "rupture" mechanism to release the contents over a certain pressure level and avoid explosion because of high temperature. These disks are generally calibrated to a minimum pressure corresponding to the 120 °F (49 °C) level at 100% of the rated CO2 capacity. Elevated temperatures, even those below the critical temperature, can cause increased leaking through seals.

Operating considerations

  • Re-filling Forcing more carbon dioxide gas into a reservoir of liquid and gas CO2 while maintaining a constant temperature would not raise the pressure but merely convert the additional gas into liquid. By chilling the vessel to be filled, the lower vapor pressure will pull CO2 from the source container. While the pressure in the reservoir is generally dependent only on the temperature, if the bottle is too full, that changes. The expansion of the liquid CO2 will take up all the space in the bottle, preventing evaporation. At this point, the pressure increase with temperature becomes dangerously high.[10]
  • Cooling Each time the gun is fired there is rapid evaporation of liquid to gas, which is an endothermic process in which the pressure drops until enough ambient heat is absorbed to restore the pressure. When shooting at a rate faster than the cylinder can absorb heat from the environment to counter the cooling of the evaporating liquid, the pressure will drop, and the velocity is likely to drop as well in a non-regulated gun.



Main article: Pellet (air gun)

The most popular ammunition used in rifled air guns is the lead diabolo pellet. This waisted projectile is hollowed at the base and available in a variety of head styles. The diabolo pellet is designed to be drag stabilized, though is not as stable as some other shapes in the transonic region (272–408 m/s ~ 893–1340 ft/s). Pellets are also manufactured from tin, or a combination of materials such as steel-tipped plastic.

Most air guns are .177 (4.5 mm) or .22 (5.5 mm / 5.6 mm), and are designed for target practice, small game hunting and field target shooting. Cost per round is less than $0.02 (US) for Olympic-quality ammunition, and far less for cheaper grades. Though less common, .20 and .25 caliber (5.0 mm and 6.4 mm) guns also exist and are used predominantly for hunting.


Main article: BB gun

The BB was once the most common air gun ammunition in the USA. A BB is a small ball, typically made of steel with a copper or zinc plating, of 4.5 mm/.177" diameter. Lead "Round Balls" are manufactured in numerous calibers too; these are often 4.5 mm/.177" diameter and designed for use in .177 caliber rifled guns normally used for shooting pellets. Steel BBs can be acceptably accurate at short distances when fired from properly designed BB guns with smoothbore barrels. Lead number 3 buckshot pellets can be used in .25" caliber airguns as if they were large BBs.

Due to the hardness of the steel, they can not "take" to rifled barrels, which is why they are undersized (4.4 against 4.5 mm) to allow them to be used in .177" rifled barrels, which when used in this configuration can in effect be considered smoothbore, but with a poorer gas-seal. Were they 4.5 mm diameter, they would jam in the bore. Therefore BB's lack the spin stabilization required for long-range accuracy, and usage in any but the cheapest rifled guns is discouraged.

Typically BBs are used for indoor practice, casual outdoor plinking, training children, or for air gun enthusiasts who like to practice, but cannot afford high-powered air gun systems that use pellets. Some shotgunners use sightless BB rifles to train in instinctive shooting. Similar guns were also used briefly by the United States Army in a Vietnam-era instinctive shooting program called "Quick Kill" (Time magazine, Friday, July 14, 1967).

Darts and arrows

Air guns can also fire darts or arrows. With a similar mechanism of a pneumatic nail gun. [11] This type of air gun is usually homebuilt and typically uses various high-pressure tanks as its power source, ranging from oxygen tanks to fire extinguisher. Only Smoothbore barrels are recommended for air dart ammunition. These are usually limited to .177 cal.


The most common air gun calibers are:[12]

  • .177 (4.5 mm): the most common caliber. All official shooting organizations mandate .177 caliber for both pistol and rifle competition. Used in ISSF shooting events at the Olympic Games. It has the flattest trajectory of all the calibers for a given energy level, making accuracy simpler. Can be effectively used to hunt small quarry or vermin.
  • .22 (5.5 mm & 5.6 mm): for hunting small game this is the most common caliber as it delivers more energy than .177 onto the target animal.

Other less common traditional calibers include:

  • .20 (5 mm): initially proprietary to the Sheridan multi-pump pneumatic air rifle, later more widely used
  • .25 (6.35 mm): the largest commonly available caliber for most of the 20th century.
  • .357 Used in several new Crosman PCP airguns.

Larger caliber air rifles suitable for hunting game animals are now being made by major manufacturers. These are almost universally PCP guns. Although custom air guns are available in even larger calibers such as 20 mm (0.79") or .87 (22.1 mm), the major calibers available are:

  • .45 (11.43 mm)
  • .50 (12.7 mm)[13]
  • .58 (14.5 mm)


See also


External links

  • The Airgun Society
  • Robert Beeman's History of Airguns
  • Modern Airgun and Air Rifle Technology, & Sport
  • Trev's Airgun Scrapbook
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