September 30, 2022
By Garry James
Though records are sketchy, and often contradictory, it appears the basics of air guns precede those of firearms by a millennium or so. References have come down from circa 200 B.C. describing bellows and compression devices being used to power primitive engines. Still, there is no specific evidence to positively prove air-powered devices — other than blowguns, perhaps — were used to shoot projectiles.
It appears what we now recognize as an air gun, per se, likely emerged from Germany or France in the early- to mid-16th century. Spring-operated bellow mechanisms as well as pneumatic (pump-up) types both came on the scene early.
For the next couple of centuries, air-gun development proceeded apace, to the point they were not only used for amusement but as serious hunting tools and weapons of war. One of the most notable early martial-rifled air guns was a repeater fielded by the Austrians in the latter 1700s when it was used by specialized troops for sharpshooting. This remarkable gun, invented by Italian Bartolomeo Girardoni, was reported to be able to fire a remarkable (at the time) 20 shots per minute.
Though particularly popular in Europe, air guns were also seen in the New World. The most noteworthy one in early America was a pneumatic repeater with butt reservoir (probably a Girardoni) that was included in the arms carried on the 1803 to ’06 Corps of Discovery Expedition from Camp Dubois, Illinois, to the Pacific coast, led by U.S. Army Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lewis and Clark’s air gun was a source of wonder to various Indian tribes who were used to the slow-loading muzzleloading rifles and muskets of the period. They were dumfounded during demonstrations of the piece at its 22-shots-per-minute rapidity of fire, accuracy, and deadly effectiveness.
As the air gun developed, three basic systems evolved: The aforementioned bellows, likely the earliest, which was operated by a crank or similar mechanism; compression wherein a plunger under spring tension is released into a cylinder to compress the air and provide propelling power; and the type we are principally concerned with here, pneumatic.
Pneumatic guns relied upon compressed air introduced into a reservoir by means of some form of pumping device. First pumps were usually separate from their guns, however, later it became common to find them attached.
The two most common sorts of reservoirs were buttstock styles and ball type — the former, as its name implies also serving as a shoulder stock, and the latter involving large globular metal (iron, copper or brass) air flasks, which depended from a rifle, shotgun or pistol barrel, though some few were also top or side-mounted. Both ball and stock types were usually removable so spare charged reservoirs could be carried to replace ones that had expended their air supply. The buttstock variety was the first, most likely appearing in the 1600s, followed by the ball that debuted about 100 years later. Firing mechanisms normally employed external cocking pieces that resembled later percussion hammers or contemporary flintlock cocks.
As air gun development progressed, the arms became more mainstream and proved popular for small- and medium-game getting, targeting and even bird shooting. Period gunmaker trade labels showed they soon became common wares alongside flintlock, percussion and cartridge arms.
Sometime around the late 1840s to early 1850s, a new pneumatic novelty appeared: The air cane. For at least two centuries prior to the air cane’s appearance, normal canes and walking sticks had been principal accessories for gentlemen. In the uncertain streets and avenues of 18th- and 19th-century towns and cities, as well as being a fashion statement, a cane could serve as a handy self-defense weapon, either as a bludgeon or, in specialized pieces, by the implementation of concealed blades or bullet-firing mechanisms.
Canes fitted with flintlock or percussion ignition normally relied on some sort of external appliances, an arrangement that was oftentimes cumbersome and obvious. With the introduction of pneumatic canes, which cleverly enclosed their works within the confines of the “sticks” themselves, this problem was effectively eliminated.
The normal air cane was made in two parts: A rear reservoir portion with release valve, and a forward section that included the barrel and lockwork. Because of the pressures required to provide power to a projectile with any kind of lethality, normally in the 750 to 1,000 pound-per-square-inch (psi) range, a cane had to be constructed of steel, normally resulting in a weight of several pounds. It was hardly suitable for a casual stroll.
The method of loading and discharging an air cane, while economical and reliable, also put some constraints on portability and spontaneity. Most operated thusly: First, two halves were unscrewed, and a hand pump fitted onto the rear reservoir section. One then stood on the pump’s handle and, using full-body force, gave the pump 350 to 400 hard strokes. The pump was then removed, and the two halves rejoined.
A brass tip with attached ramrod was then unscrewed from the muzzle. Next, a round ball was rammed down the bore and seated at the base of the barrel. The shooter then took a key, inserted it in a square hole at the rear part of the forward section, and turned it to cock the piece. This also allowed a small button “trigger” to pop out of the side of the cane at the proper position where it could be naturally accessed by the thumb of the left hand when the cane was aimed.
The lock mechanism employed a V-style mainspring, which activated a small hammer that hit a striker when the trigger was pushed. The striker, in turn, impacted a plunger in the reservoir valve allowing it to release a measured amount of air. Seals on these valves were normally made of horn.
There were some variations on the works and occasionally, instead of a hammer, a simple coil spring/striker arrangement would be employed. Interestingly, both arrangements anticipated the firing mechanisms seen on semi-automatic pistols and rifles by over half a century.
Barrels were traditionally made of brass and featured polygroove rifling. Bullets — round balls of soft lead — were normally loaded naked, though if a ball of the proper diameter was not available a smaller one could be substituted by using a patch. Calibers on air canes varied from the .20s to a half-inch or more; most seem to lie in the .30- to .40-caliber range. Some guns came with two barrels, an inner removable rifled one and an outer one for shot.
Bullet velocities ranged from 600 to 850 feet per second (fps). At the extreme velocity, for example, a 65-grain .350-caliber round ball would have a muzzle energy of some 104 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.), about the same as a .32 S&W cartridge. Shot loads were kept the same weight as an equivalent ball of the bore caliber, the shot itself, of necessity, being small sized.
On full charge, a normal air cane could fire around 30 to 40 times before having to be re-pumped. The first 15 to 20 rounds would experience no decrease in velocity or accuracy. However, afterwards, power would drop dramatically. Depending on the gun, shooting ranges with bullets ran from 10 to 50 yards, with 20 to 25 not being uncommon. Shot was normally fired at closer distances.
Based on the configuration and method of operation, it can be seen that there are a number of factors mitigating against an air cane being carried for defense. Aside from the fact the average stick’s weight alone was a drawback, the tip had to be unscrewed and the ramrod withdrawn before the gun could be fired. This procedure eliminated any possibility of bringing a piece instantly into action. Also, the lack of protection for the button trigger was an open invitation for an accidental discharge.
What were they good for then? The main thing an air cane had going for it versus a more conventional weapon was its novelty value. As a vehicle for a natural philosophical demonstration, coupled with surprise and cleverness factors, the air cane achieved a remarkable popularity. They were certainly fun to shoot and impressive in their power and range. There are reports of some of the more powerful models at full charge taking game at up to 100 yards. The relative quietness of an air cane’s discharge was also often a source of amazement — though its report, while not as loud as one made by a normal firearm of roughly equivalent caliber — was far from the fiction writer’s description of “silent death.” Air canes still make a substantial “crack.”
Designs and styles of air canes were limited only by the designers’ and retailers’ imaginations. Some had removable wooden or reservoir shoulder stocks. Many were bent, others straight. Finishes varied, leaning mostly towards faux wooden or bamboo decoration. Handles ran from crooked or angled grips to fancy chased gold and silver, to carved ivory styles. Casing was common, a container being necessary to accommodate the pump, bullet mold, cocking key, oil bottle and tools required to keep the arm shooting and in good fettle. Period instructions admonish the user to keep his cane well-serviced and offered such helpful hints as:
“Always choose a clean place to pump the air into the top, for fear the piston should draw in grit, which, if forced into the valve, would cause the air to escape; therefore, if a little grit should get into the valve, put a few drops of oil in the hole in the pump, and fill the top sufficiently full of air, then shoot several times, which will very often prevent air from escaping.”
The vogue for air canes lasted a surprisingly long time despite being sold alongside more sophisticated self-contained cartridge walking sticks. This is interesting, especially in light of the fact that they were not exactly cheap. A good quality air cane setup (cane, pump, mold and key) in 1910 ran as much as £2 10s ($11), only slightly less than a Colt Police Positive.
For our shooting evaluation we rounded up a pair of circa-1860 vintage air guns, one a rifle .349 across the lands. Fashioned to look like a blackthorn stick as well as a hard rubber knob, it also had an attachable wooden buttstock. The other is a faux-bamboo rifle/shotgun combo featuring a .287 removable polygroove barrel inside a .400 smoothbore tube. Its handle is of fixed horn. As we had the proper sized bullets to fire the blackthorn sans patch (.350), I thought it would also be interesting to see how well some smaller (.323) balls wrapped in lubricated linen patches would fare.
Both guns were fully charged using a C02 canister with a proper adapter to fit the threads on the reservoirs. Fortunately, both threads were the same. The blackthorn was fired at 25 yards, from a rest using both unpatched and patched bullets. Loading was easy as was cocking the piece. The gun’s report was respectable but not prohibitive — around what one would hear from a .22 Short fired from a rifle. Recoil was nil. Given the cane’s rather skimpy sights and “different” hold, it took a few rounds to figure out where it was shooting. Five-round strings were loosed, with the gun’s charge being topped up after every quintet. Accuracy was decent, giving us groups averaging 33/4 inches, slightly low and to the left. At one point we did experience a bit of gas leakage, though this was easily corrected and we were able to continue the evaluation unabated. As it has been about 30 years since the valve was last worked on, I decided to retire the piece for the time being and give it a going-over before I take it out again.
We loaded the bamboo cane’s shotgun barrel with 20 No. 71/2 shot pellets on top of a .400 felt wad, the 50 grains of shot being contained by a paper wad. Fired at 10 yards, the pattern was surprisingly good, with all pellets printing within an 8-inch bull. Later spreads were not quite as tidy, but still respectable. Some recoil was experienced, but only enough to give me a bit of a rap on the cheek.
The pair performed up to expectations. I must admit they are a lot of fun once one gets used to their peculiarities. Despite being left-handed, I fire a rifle right-handed, and this was a decided advantage when shooting these canes. Accessing the trigger with the right hand requires the substitution of one’s forefinger for the thumb.
During the air cane’s heyday, considerable advances were being made in air gunnery, and by the turn of the 20th-century pneumatic cane sales were tapering off. Additionally, the sobering effect of the Great War took something out of the enthusiasm for novelties. By 1918, air canes were passé and their already-waning popularity and production drew to a close, along with other Victorian artifacts unceremoniously pushed to the sidelines by the heady pleasures of the 1920s.
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