The Big Bore Air Rifle – Not Much Has Changed in 230 Years
By Barr Soltis
It is accurate to say that one my fondest recollections of television watching focused on the series named Combat, featuring Vic Morrow (Sergeant “Chip” Saunders) that first aired in 1962. This one-hour TV series became my favorite, replacing Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges.
I had been waiting for years for my first BB gun, albeit not a big bore. To me it seemed a lifetime. I suspect that my parents were waiting until I had established a noticeable sense of responsibility and that day came to pass when I was about 12 years old. It is with this rifle that I honed my shooting skills at the expense of many a small bird, as Sergeant Chip and I protected my neighborhood from the invading German war-machine in the wooded areas of Shrewsbury, NJ. I was a force to be reckoned with in those dark and scary woods, at least in my imagination.
In contrast to my imaginary protection of the homeland from foreign foes with my BB gun, today I ponder the question: is the modern air rifle up to the task of serious big game hunting? Cutting against the grain in terms of the traditional and established use of firearms for hunting can evoke some controversy, for sure. So, let's see.
It was circa 1779 that a repeating big bore air rifle, based on the design of the Italian Bartholomaus Girandoni, was manufactured for the Austrian Army. It was known as the “Windbuchse,” meaning “wind rifle” in German. Reportedly, this four-foot long rifle was used by Austrian military forces from 1780 through 1815 and weighed about 10 pounds. It shot .46 caliber round balls through its rifled barrel. There was a gravity fed tubular magazine with a capacity of about 22 balls that were mechanically dropped into the breech. A cast iron tank, which doubled as the but stock, contained 800 pounds per square inch of pressurized air, enough to dispatch about 40 shots. Muzzle velocity was reportedly at .45 ACP velocities, but let us not forget the probability of diminishing returns, as the pressure in the tank decreased with each shot. The tank required about 1,500 strokes of a hand pump to refill!
For Americans, this air rifle has significant value in history, particularly for its contribution to the success to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis and Clark had at least one of these rifles with them as they journeyed from east to west and back again. According to historians, the Lewis and Clark journals noted the Girandoni air rifle on the very first page and mentioned it 38 more times throughout.
As the story goes, whenever Lewis and Clark came across a group of Indians, the first thing that they did was march into their camp and demonstrate the Girandoni. Reportedly, the Indians were amazed by its very low report, as well as the rifleman's ability to fire at will and its lack of smoke that would mark the shooters position. A snipers dream, if you will. Apparently, the Indians thought the rifle would fire endlessly and if there had been any thoughts of attacking the small expedition, they were quickly dismissed.
Jump to the present day. There has been a resurgence in the use of large bore air rifles for hunting big game animals. However, I discovered that little progress has been made in 230 years. As I read about these new rifles, I noted that the reservoir systems have improved in terms of pounds per inch of pressurized air capacity. I had expected a substantial increase in muzzle velocity and energy, but that does not seem to be the case. Assuming 380 foot pounds of energy from the original .46 caliber Girandoni, the modern big bore air rifle shooting approximately the same diameter bullet has realized a less than stellar improvement. The answer can be found in an article written by Tom Gaylord in 2003.
Mr. Gaylord wrote, “The reason vintage guns were able to do as much as they did with such limited air pressure was their combination of extra-long barrels and timed locks. Instead of the hammer just knocking the valve open by brute force, the timed lock opens it with a set of cams that hold it open for a specific length of time. This allows a larger charge of lower-pressure air to escape. The longer barrel increases the amount of time the lower-pressure air has to push on the bullet. Together, these two features (longer valve time and longer barrel) make it possible for 500 psi to do almost the same work as 2,000 psi in a modern slam-fire system with a shorter barrel.”
There are some contemporary air rifle designs that boast the ability to harvest large game, but at very short range. I admit that I am not in the position to argue the merits of these claims with my limited knowledge of the subject, but from a historical perspective I have to say that this is entirely possible. I will conclude by saying that the big bore air rifle has not changed much in 230 years, unlike the woods in Shrewsbury, NJ where I served both my country and imagination with my small bore BB gun.
Copyright 2011 by Barr Soltis. All rights reserved.