A Brief History
On December 8, 2018, we take a look at some of the really nifty air powered weapons available for adults and kids, usually called “BB Guns” in a generic sort of way, but in these modern times so much more than that name implies. For one thing, air (or other gas) powered rifles and pistols do not always shoot little round metal BB’s (.177 of an inch in caliber) at moderate velocities like the BB guns of the past. Some of these air guns are high powered weapons capable of launching large caliber (.22 to .50 caliber or more) projectiles and even arrows! These high-powered varieties can take down even Deer and feral Hog sized game. In the event of a Zombie Apocalypse, these guns would come in handy as you would not have to find loaded ammunition, just the right caliber projectile. Air guns are cool, often less costly (not always) than gunpowder powered firearms, and much quieter (though not silent) than conventional firearms. In places where firearm use is illegal, you may be allowed to shoot air guns to hone your shooting skills, perhaps even in the basement or backyard. Today we list some of the nifty pneumatic weapons that are available for nice people to buy me for Christmas. (Not a Christian? Ok, buy one for me for Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or whatever!)
The history of air powered guns goes way back, and even Lewis and Clark famously took them (Girandoni guns, circa 1780) on their expedition to explore the Western part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804-1806. In fact, these .46 caliber guns carried a magazine full of 22 lead balls and could fire all 22 rounds without having to be pumped up again in a mere 30 seconds! Compare this to the agonizingly slow rate of fire and reload of conventional muskets, although the Girandoni guns were not as powerful as conventional guns, they could still easily kill a human or human sized critter at relatively close (100 yards or less) range.
Today’s air powered guns include pistols and rifles, some of which can legally fire BB’s in a full automatic/machine gun style mode, great fun for “killing” empty pop cans! Other modern air guns can use commercially purchased compressed Carbon Dioxide capsules of various sizes, may have a single lever pump to charge the gas cylinder, or can be pumped several times to provide a varying degree of muzzle velocity to the projectile. Prices vary widely, and so do the prices on the scopes made for these weapons. Some of the available air guns are decidedly non-lethal, as they shoot soft projectiles at low enough velocities to avoid lethal injury (Nerf and Airsoft brands come to mind.) Others fire little metal darts, steel BB’s, lead or alloy metal pellets or other assorted stuff. Some of the air guns look just like the real gunpowder counterpart, so be careful not to cause a panic or get shot by the cops or an armed citizen that thinks you have a “real” gun. Other varieties look more like toys or space weapons from the future. Paint ball guns are also air powered (usually with Carbon Dioxide cylinders) and can be great fun, especially the fully automatic versions.
Questions for Students (and Others): Have you ever owned an air gun? Do you think a BB gun is an appropriate gift for a child? What age do you think is old enough to own an air gun? Did you know that air guns could be lethal, even to humans. What sort of air gun would you like to have?
1. Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun.
The prototypical BB gun, the one that the film A Christmas Story (1983) referred to when the line “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” or words to the effect (“You’ll shoot your eye out!” That deadly phrase honored many times by hundreds of mothers was not surmountable by any means known to Kid-dom, but such as my mania, my desire for a Red Ryder carbine, that I immediately began to rebuild the dike. The character Ralphie, as an adult.) were uttered, words parents have been telling kids (boy AND girls) that beg for a Red Ryder for Christmas have been saying since Day 1 of BB gun history. I was one of those boys that regularly asked to get a BB gun, and never did until I was 18 and could buy one on my own! The Daisy Red Ryder has been around since 1938 when the Daisy Company came out with the lever powered BB gun that looked superficially like a Winchester lever action rifle in order to take advantage of the mania for all things related to Cowboys. With a smooth bore barrel and a relatively low muzzle velocity of about 270 feet per second (though advertising claimed 350 fps), the Red Ryder is good only for goofing around and not serious hunting, although you certainly could put out an eye with one! A kid could fill up the reservoir with 650 BB’s and fire them all day for pennies. If you want to buy a new one today, it will cost only around $29 to $39 or so (Amazon) or even less (I checked the Walmart website and found them on sale for $23). Accurate range is about 10 yards. Caliber .177. I sure do not “need” a Red Ryder, but years of wanting one would make a Christmas surprise gift appreciated.
2. Crossman Pumpmaster 760.
The Crossman Pumpmaster 760 is the BB gun I finally bought myself, and I still have it and it works great. Capable of launching a steel BB at a muzzle velocity of about 645 feet per second or a lead pellet up to 615 feet per second, this BB gun is plenty capable of firing accurately enough to kill vermin and small game up to about 20 yards away. The 760 fires one shot at a time and is loaded by a 5 round clip (pellets) or an 18 BB magazine fed from a 200 BB reservoir with a bolt action loading method. The forearm is pumped from 2 to 10 times to provide the level of power desired. Although the barrel is not rifled, the gun is accurate and costs about $29.92 on the Walmart website. It is powerful enough to zing pellets right through an empty tin can, so be careful. Caliber .177. (Since I already have one, you can get me an air gun scope if you want.)
Alternative: Benjamin Wildfire Pump Combo (only $249.99 at Air Gun Depot), a PCP style air gun (see explanation below) that comes with a hand pump. It can shoot 60 .177 caliber shots at a velocity of 800 feet per second on a single charge and has a 12 round magazine. It fires in the semi-automatic mode and is grooved for a scope but does not come with one. An alternative to the alternative would be a “break barrel” style air rifle of .22 caliber capable of at least 1000 fps.
3. Umarex Steel Storm CO2 Gun.
This nifty looking sub-machine gun pistol shoots conventional .177 caliber BB’s at a velocity of a respectable 430 feet per second. It can fire its 30 round magazine in either semi-automatic or full-automatic (machine gun) mode in 6 round bursts. Looking like a real sub-machine gun, caution is advised to avoid being shot by a trigger happy person with a firearm. It not only looks cool and seems like it would be a lot of fun, it only costs $99.99 on the Pyramid website so you could easily afford to buy me one! Umarex makes a line of many different air guns that look very much like their firearm counterparts, providing those interested in military history with a far cheaper alternative to buying the real war relics.
4. Pioneer Airbow.
This baby is built by Crosman, one of the main competitors in the air gun field. Looking more or less like a centerfire bullpup rifle, this sweet piece of gear launches arrows at a blazing fast 450 feet per second (with a 100 grain tip or broadhead)! (My conventional crossbow shoots arrows at just under 300 feet per second and the bolt/arrow goes right through deer.) Effective range is as much as 75 yards and it comes with a carefully matched scope. The manufacturer claims 8 arrows can be fired in the amount of time it takes to fire 3 conventional crossbow bolts. Accuracy is a claimed 2 inch spread at 50 yards, pretty darn accurate. This Airbow is powered by the PCP method, which means “Pre-charged pneumatic.” This is the high pressure system used for serious air powered weapons and normally is charged by using an air tank from a scuba rig that has been professionally filled and is used to refill (recharge) the compressed air supply of the air weapon. (In some cases, these PCP weapons can also be charged by using a handpump similar to a bicycle pump, but that method is backbreaking and exhausting from what I have heard.) About 33 inches long and only 2 inches wide, the Pioneer allows the hunter to slip through the woods much more easily than a hunter equipped with a conventional crossbow.
5. Seneca Dragon Claw Dual Tank Air Rifle.
Here is where we get into the big boy’s air rifles! This model looks a lot like a normal centerfire shotgun or rifle, while some of the other brands offer models that look more exotic. Boasting a whopping .50 caliber bullet sent at 679 feet per second, this entry level PCP big bore costs $699.99 at Air Gun Depot. If that sounds like a lot, be prepared for a shock when you see the prices on other high powered PCP air guns in the .22 to .50 caliber range, prices often exceeding $1200 and reaching beyond $2000. These are the air rifles capable of big game hunting, or at the very least impressing your envious friends at the range. Be sure to check state and local laws before hunting with an air gun or target shooting in your yard.
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For more information, please see…
Markwith, Steve. Air Rifles: A Buyer’s and Shooter’s Guide (Survival Guns Book 3). Prepper Press, 2015.
Wadeson, Pete. Total Airguns: The Complete Guide To Hunting With Air Rifles. Quiller, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Hustvedt of a BB pistol with CO2 cartridges and BBs, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. You are free:
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This pistol can shoot at up to 480 feet per second. The cover on the grip is removed to show the CO2 powerlet in the handle. The gap along the barrel is the magazine, which holds 15 BBs.