Years ago, when I was reading a Sherlock Holmes story — “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes famously returns from his supposed death — I was shocked to find the villain — big-game hunter Colonel Sebastian Moran — using an air gun.
The technology didn’t seem very Victorian to me — so imagine my surprise when I found out that Lewis and Clark brought an air rifle on their expedition, back in 1803-06 — it gets mentioned repeatedly in their journals — and that air guns in fact go back 400 years.
Air guns were much, much more difficult to produce — and thus much, much more expensive — than ordinary flintlocks that ignited gunpowder, but they had their advantages, as this passage from 1803 explains:
Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the airs escaping, and then she fired seven times; but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.
So, in 1803, an air gun can shoot 22 rounds per minute! (And it could shoot 40 rounds from one “load” of compressed air.) By comparison, a trained soldier was expected to manage 3 rounds per minute from a musket.
One advantage the air gun did not possess though — Sherlock Holmes stories aside — was silence. It was quieter than a powder-based gun, but not very quiet. Authorities nonetheless feared poachers with silent guns — which isn’t so different from the hysteria over “plastic guns” a few years ago. (No, a Glock can’t pass through a metal detector without setting it off.)
I love this passage — from the journal of one Private Whitehouse — about Lewis and Clark impressing the Yankton Sioux with their magic gun that obviously had infinite ammunition and needed no powder:
Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter told them there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution. They all stood amazed at the curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. At finding the balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that was done suprized them exceedingly.
Now, if your only experience with air guns is with children’s BB guns, you may wonder how dangerous these air rifles were. Very. The Girandoni was no .177 caliber BB gun. It shot a large-caliber (.463) lead ball, and it was considered lethal out to 150 yards. This was, after all, an Austrian military weapon — if not an entirely successful one:
Emperor Joseph personally was involved in the most detailed matters of the Austrian military airgun project and their use in combat. He realized early that the air guns must be “deployed correctly and maintained at the best standard. It is necessary that the simple soldier, whose intelligence is generally quite limited, is given this training immediately upon receiving the gun — and that the training is delivered in individual parts and not too much at once.”
It was determined that two corporals would have to be especially trained to train and supervise the rank soldiers in the use of the Girandoni airguns. Thus every 20 air-riflemen would be supported by these two special corporals plus a specially trained officer. In addition, there would be a specially trained journeyman gunsmith for each 100 airguns and a supply of replacement seals, air reservoirs, mainsprings, etc.
Even with this intense support, there was considerable malfunctioning and poor maintenance of the airguns. Emperor Joseph was soon complaining that “we appear to have a miserable bunch of riflemen, none of who is suitable for service with the air rifles.” By end of November 1788 the Emperor seems to have ordered that the air rifles be taken away from the troops. The General Artillery Director, the Duke of Colloredo himself, reported on July 21, 1789: “Due to their construction, these guns were much more difficult to use effectively than normal, as one had to handle them much more cautiously and carefully. In addition, the soldiers using them had to be supervised extremely carefully, as they were unsure about the operation. The guns become inoperable after a very short time — so much so that after awhile no more than one third of them were still is in a usable state. We needed the whole winter to repair and replace them.”
After this it was deemed wise to take back the airguns and issue them only to select, specially trained Tyrolean sharpshooter units. The last order given by the Emperor prior to his death was “to select the most promising and skilful soldiers to use these guns.” Because of extensive service work, and most importantly, the lack of Emperor Joseph’s interest and involvement, the airguns still had not been issued on December 16, 1792. However, the Tyrol Sharp Shooter Corps indicated “that these weapons were really accurate and effective” in the Turkish War and in 1790 against Prussia. (Contrary to many accounts, they never saw service against any of Napoleon’s troops.) The air rifles were later supplied only with the wheeled and short hand pumps behind the lines — the idea being that captured airguns would not be very useful without the pumps!
At any rate, it’s a fascinating technology: