Airguns have developed into a powerful weapon, but can hunters use the airgun in Alabama to harvest deer?
Clutching my BB gun tightly, I crouched, lay down, and scooted under the bottom strand of the barbed wire fence. All the things I had been told not to shoot were running through my head. The bird crisscrossing the sky above the pasture was not on that list. As I lay in the middle of the small field, I wondered if the buzzard would come down close enough for me to shoot. The airgun lay hidden under my right leg. Maybe if I looked dead for long enough…..
Those are the earliest memories of my first Daisy airgun. I was five. I have long since learned that it’s illegal to shoot a buzzard. But what about legal wild game? Is the modern airgun powerful enough to drop a deer? And is hunting with airguns legal in Alabama?
Legacy of the airgun
The Daisy airgun actually began its legacy in 1882 as “Plymouth Iron Windmill Company,” a manufacturer of windmills in Plymouth, Michigan. By the mid 1800s, the demand for metal windmills began to slow and the company searched for new ways to increase sales. In 1886, an inventor named Clarence Hamilton demonstrated his metal gun that shot lead balls using compressed air.
Lewis Hough, then president of the firm, gave it a try and exclaimed, “Boy, that’s a daisy!” The name stuck and it was given to farmers as a gift when they purchased a windmill. It was such a big success that they stopped making windmills and focused their production on the airgun. On January 26, 1895, the company’s board of directors voted to change the name to “Daisy Manufacturing Company, Inc.”
An untold number of kids have been introduced to shooting with a Daisy, but the actual history of airguns reaches farther back into history. Much farther.
Mechanical airguns begin in Europe
By definition, the blowgun is the oldest known air-powered weapon. Its use dates back to at least 125 A.D. They are still used in South America to harvest birds and small game. Sometimes the tip of the dart is coated with poisonous secretions from frogs, or an extraction from plants called curare.
One of the earliest mechanical airguns dates from about 1580. It’s a bellows gun and resides in a museum in Sweden. This rifle used a spring-loaded bellows in the stock to propel a dart. It was very accurate and used mainly for target practice and indoor sport. Airguns using a spring and piston appeared soon afterwards. Around 1600, the first pump-pressurized, reservoir airgun appeared. Air pistols were also manufactured as the sophistication of the mechanical processes evolved.
Ingenious and elaborate developments
By 1800, the airgun was a serious weapon. The modern lack of awareness of airguns is understandable. They were very uncommon, even back then. Good airguns have always been very expensive to make. The special skills and extensive time necessary to make the complex valves and reservoirs of the early airguns meant that only wealthy shooters could afford them. Airguns were seldom seen by anyone but royalty. Rich Europeans were killing stag and wild boar with airguns in the 1700s.
Some innovative airguns were made with multiple barrels that could be switched to fire as either rifle or shotgun. Another ingenious invention came in the form of the air-cane. It had pressurized chambers that could fire a lethal projectile in various calibers. The projectiles varied from lead balls to special spears for fish or frogs.
One of the more elaborate European creations is an ornate double-barreled rifle in the collection of Dr. Robert Beeman. It has beautifully detailed gold and silver inlaid scroll work. One barrel is black powder while the other is air powered.
Advantages of the airgun
Air rifles had some inherent advantages over the black powder single shots of that era. The discharge of black powder weapons created a thick cloud of smoke that disclosed a shooters position. Airguns could be used in the rain and had longer range. Some were semi-automatic. By 1790 an Italian inventor, Bartholomäu Girandoni, had developed a .46 caliber rifle that held 21 lead balls in a tubular magazine. It was accurate and could penetrate a one-inch board at 100 yards. In less than one minute, a shooter could fire twenty-two shots. The air was compressed to about 800 psi and stored in a detachable metal stock. Emperor Joseph of Austria ordered about 1,500 guns with accessories for his army.
The guns were charged with a hand pump that resembled an elongated bicycle pump. The Austrian Army had horse-drawn pumps that were operated by horses attached to a revolving arm. The pumps were kept well behind the front lines. Pressurized spare reservoirs were carried to the front lines and exchanged for empties. The guns were initially issued with a leather “kit” that contained extra air reservoirs and several tubes filled with twenty lead balls that served as “speed loaders.”
Advancements take hold
Airguns required special training to operate and were much more complex and delicate than black powder weapons. Many of the guns were out of commission after the initial training phase and the frustrated Emperor took the remaining serviceable guns and issued them to an elite unit of highly-trained soldiers known as the “Tyrol Sharp Shooter Corps.” These soldiers indicated that these weapons were really accurate and effective both in the Turkish War and in 1790 against Prussia.
Meanwhile, back in America examples abound of both airguns and air canes that date back to the early 1800s. One such maker was Isaiah Lukens, born in 1779. The son of a clockmaker who worked in Philadelphia, Pa., his mechanical mastery was not limited to clock mechanisms but included traditional firearms and airguns. It is estimated that one of his airguns could be charged to about 900 psi with an estimated velocity of around 800 fps for the .31 caliber lead balls.
How airguns tamed the West
In 1804, Lewis & Clark launched their expedition to explore, map, and catalog their discoveries in search of a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Thomas Jefferson organized the expedition and appointed its leaders to map the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase. Along with their supply of arms, powder and ammunition, their journals make 39 references to an air rifle carried on the expedition by Merriwether Lewis. The journals didn’t get published until 1904-06, and even then they were incomplete. The unabridged journals did not appear in print until 2001. It was then that interest began to grow as to the specifics of the Lewis airgun.
Historians assumed that the Lewis airgun was made by Isaiah Lukens, though it did replicate the Girandoni style. It amazed and intimidated the Indians who witnessed its discharge. The Indians dreaded the magic of the owners and referred to the rifle as a “smokeless thunder stick.” Some historians credit the airgun displays as crucial to the safe passage of the Lewis & Clark expedition through thousands of miles of potentially hostile territory. The Beeman/Girandoni, in fact, was declared by the US Army War College as the “Most important gun in American History.”
Mass production by Quackenbush
Airguns were still handmade in the U.S. until the late 1800s. One early company that produced airguns was the G.P. Gunn Co., also known as Haviland & Gunn. They created “combination” guns that functioned as airgun or .22 caliber rimfire rifle. The last company catalog was published in 1881. The next year, H. M. Quackenbush purchased part of the Haviland & Gunn Co. along with patent rights, machinery, existing stock, and equipment related to gun and bullet manufacture.
Henry Quackenbush was born in 1847 and at a young age served as an apprentice at Remington Arms Co. He was issued his first gun patent at the age of 24 and produced his first air rifle in 1886. The rifle’s spring/air design and its dedicated steam powered manufacturing plant were revolutionary. Some historians credit Quackenbush as the “father of the mass-produced air gun.”
Fast forward to Dennis Quackenbush, a distant relative, who has made his mark on the industry by crafting very functional and accurate large bore weapons. Dennis left a career as a Chicago tool and die maker to the more peaceful Ozark Mountains. His passion for airguns was fueled as a teenager after reading a book entitled, “Gas, Air, & Spring Guns of the World.”
More power with the PCP airgun
Today, Dennis and his wife produce custom, large-bore guns suitable for hunting or target practice. The difficulty in simply getting one’s name inscribed onto his waiting list is a testimony to the quality of his work.
The first American company to mass produce a PCP (Pre-Charged Pneumatic) airgun was the Crosman Corporation. In 1992, Crosman acquired Benjamin/Sheridan and in 2008 introduced their first PCP airgun, the Benjamin Discovery. In 2009, the Benjamin Marauder was introduced with a designed operating pressure of 3,000 psi. The .357 caliber Benjamin Rogue was introduced earlier this year with an adjustable electronic trigger and valve for regulating bullet velocities. This gun shoots bullet weights to 175 gr. and velocities are advertised up to 1000 fps. It’s considered powerful enough for small to medium game.
Are airguns legal for hunting in Alabama?
This brings us to the issue of the legality of hunting with airguns in Alabama. Kevin Dodd, Assistant Chief in the Law Enforcement Division of Game and Fish, states that “At this time the hunting of deer with air rifles is not addressed in the state hunting regulations.” He adds that using an air rifle to hunt deer falls under the restrictions that currently apply to muzzleloaders. Most muzzle loading airguns are custom made. The breach loading models are often modified (covered over) at the breach to make them legal in Alabama.
Alabama regulations require muzzleloaders to be .40 caliber or larger. The currently-defined method of loading a bullet is from the barrel end, so any air rifle that does not have breach loading capability and is the proper caliber is considered legal. Mr. Dodd also stated that if the public expressed enough interest in hunting with large-bore airguns, the state would address the issue with appropriate regulations.
There are several hunters who have been legally hunting deer with airguns in our state for several years now. At this time, some states (Missouri) allow hunting of game animals with airguns while others prohibit their use.
In view of these facts, it adds a whole new dimension to the term BB gun.
Dr. Robert Beeman