Pritchard’s 19th Century Precharged Air Gun

William Pritchard was a Birmingham gunsmith in the mid 1800s who offered both firearms and air guns, and this particular ball-reservoir air gun is a fine example of the latter. Air guns have existed in Europe nearly as long as firearms, although they have never had the popularity of their powder-burning cousins. Air guns offered a cleaner, quieter, and more rapid firing option than firearms (and also one that would work in the rain), but at the cost of power and cost. That is not to say that early air guns were weak; they were not. A large-bore air gun like this one would have held 700 or 800 psi in its tank, and produced a muzzle velocity probably around 550-600 feet per second (170-180 m/s). A round ball of .50 caliber at that speed was certainly lethal with a well-placed shot, and these weapons were just fine for hunting as well as sport shooting.


  1. Austrian army used the air guns againts Napoleon army. BUT French considered air guns to be “unfair” guns and if they captured an austrian soldier with an air gun he was executed

    • The French in this case considered air guns to be “assassination” guns for taking out political figures. Who did the Austrians target? Probably the generals and Napoleon himself! Either that or the French, like the British, wanted everyone to fight by traditional rules (and half a century later, Prussia said “screw that, we have industry!”). Do not expect the other team to fight by the rules in your drill book!

  2. I recall an attempted murder done with an air gun. The weapon was a takedown air rifle with soft revolver projectiles, and the intended victim was none other than someone who lived at 221B Baker Street…

    • Yes, that was after the murder of the Honorable Ronald Adair with the same weapon.

      One of the big problems with “ancient” airgun technology was that before the advent of industrial uses of rubber in the 19th Century, it was difficult to come up with gaskets or etc. that could achieve a good air seal at the pressures involved.

      Nevertheless, some fairly odd variants were tried. One German design of the 17th Century used a bellows concealed in the stock, which was compressed by leaf springs when the trigger was pulled. BTW, the old German term for an air gun was Windbüchse, literally “wind rifle”.

      Probably the oldest “air gun” other than a blowgun was one re-created on the Ancient Discoveries TV program. it was a ballista which substituted two syringe-type air-compression cylinders for the usual sinew torsion “springs”. Its main drawback seems to have been that the machining of its day could not create a piston with an adequate seal gland that would stand up to weather.

      Worst of all, it was conceived in Egypt under the later Ptolemies; the weather in Khem wasn’t exactly friendly to such technology.



  3. Meriwether Lewis was accidentally shot in the buttocks by one of his expedition members using an air gun. He fully recovered.

    • They also managed to accidentally shoot an Indian woman with one as well. No word on her condition.

      The natives were not really all that impressed by the Company of Exploration’s “Wind guns”. (Reportedly, they had one like this in addition to the Girandoni-type repeater.)

      After all, their bows didn’t make much noise and had about the same rate of fire. Worked perfectly well in the rain, too.

      Not to mention being a lot cheaper and easier to maintain.



      • Actually, native tribes were quite impressed with Clark’s air rifle. He made a point of demonstrating it to every tribe they met. The Girandoni could fire 21 shots without recharging. I’m sure that Clark fired it 10-15 times, which made it appear to shoot forever. Would you want to take on an expedition where everyone might be armed with these magic guns that never stopped shooting

  4. And pair pressure can even be used to ignite gunpowder
    Look at tha Pauly gun from the early 19teenth century and the daisy VL rifle and caseless ammo from the 1960’s

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