Classic Air Guns: The Girandoni repeating air rifle

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In the late 1700s, all the major armies of the world armed their infantry with inaccurate, muzzle-loading muskets. Just like modern BB shooters, the lead balls fired by muskets didn’t fit tightly within the smoothbore barrel (for example, the British Brown Bess musket fired a .67” ball through a .75” bore). Just as in a BB shooter, the musket ball could bounce erratically as it travelled down the bore (and, unlike BBs, musket balls weren’t always perfectly round). Contemporary tests showed that, in ideal conditions, a soldier shooting a musket from a range of 80 yards could be expected to hit a target 10 feet long and six feet high just 50% of the time. In combat, this hit rate might reduce to around 10%. During the Peninsular War (1807 – 1814), British troops were estimated to have fired more than 450 musket balls for each French soldier killed in combat.

Most of the muskets used in the Eighteenth Century were so inaccurate that they didn’t even have sights. Not that sights would have helped anyway because after a couple of shots, the black powder used in muskets produced clouds of choking smoke which obscured the target. The rate of fire wasn’t great either as a trained soldier could reload and fire a musket just two or three times each minute and depending on the weather, anywhere from 10 -30% of shots were likely to result in a misfire. In general, muskets were grossly inefficient weapons which were only effective when they were fired en-masse at large bodies of opposing troops. The pistols of this period were of even less practical use as they were universally muzzle loading, single shot weapons which were unreliable and inaccurate.

Re-enactors and actors are engulfed in smoke after firing blank shots from their muskets during the filming of "Making of an American Army." (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper)

These re-enactors are using modern replicas of 18th Century muskets. You can see what I mean about the smoke…

Now, let’s suppose for a moment that an army in the late 1700s was somehow able to arm its troops with assault rifles instead of muskets. Imagine powerful weapons, accurate to over 150 yards which produce no blinding smoke, hold up to 22 rounds in a magazine and are capable of firing of all 22 shots almost as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger. It all sounds a little like science fiction, doesn’t it? And yet this just what did happen around 1790 when the Austrian army equipped some of its troops with a super-secret new repeating rifle. And even more surprising, the weapons involved were PCP air rifles. OK, hands up, this article isn’t about a replica at all, but the development and use of Girandoni guns is such a fascinating piece of air gun history that I think it’s worth talking about.

Development

Relatively little is known about the early life of Bartholomäus Girandoni (his surname is also sometimes given as Girandony or Girardoni) other than that he was born in Cortina dAmpezzo in what is now the Veneto region of Northern Italy. In the 1700s this area was under the control of Austria (it didn’t become part of Italy until 1919) and by the 1770s, Girandoni was living in Vienna. He was an inventor and gunsmith who first attempted to design a repeating musket for military use. When this proved to be as potentially lethal to the shooter as to the target, he switched instead to the design of a repeating air rifle for military use.

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18th Century German hunting air rifle

Air rifles were very popular as hunting weapons in Europe at this time (generally referred to as Windbüchsen in German). Many were extremely powerful and, compared to contemporary black powder weapons, accurate, relatively quiet and unobtrusive. However, few were used as military weapons. The main problem was that, in order to shoot an air rifle in the 1700s, a bulky air reservoir had first to be pumped by hand to achieve sufficient pressure to fire. This was a fairly slow and tiring process. Which was fine if you had a servant or team of servants pumping reservoirs ready for you to take shots at game but not particularly suited for use by a soldier who would have to spend long periods pumping between shots. What was required to make the air rifle a viable military weapon was a system whereby multiple shots could be fired from a single charge of air, and this is what Girandoni began working on sometime around 1779 or 1780.

Early prototypes presumably showed some promise because the Austrian army began a secret project for the procurement of these weapons with which to equip its troops. The fact that it was secret makes it very difficult to be sure when these rifles were first used by Austrian troops, but it would appear that by around 1790 as many as 1,500 Girandoni repeating Windbüchsen may have been in use by Austrian forces.

Design and Operation

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The pressurized air required to power the Girandoni air rifle was stored in a removable, leather covered iron reservoir which also formed the buttstock. The reservoir could be pressurized to around 800psi by using the hand pump with which this weapon was supplied (though it took around 1,500 strokes of the pump to fully pressurize the reservoir). Once fully charged the reservoir would allow around 30 – 40 shots at useful power, though decreasing pressure meant that shots were progressively less powerful – it has been estimated that while initial shots from a charged reservoir had a useful range of over 150 yards, decreasing pressure could drop this to 75 yards for later shots. The Girandoni rifle was 4 ft (1.2 m) long and weighed around 10 lbs (4.5 kg), roughly the same as a contemporary musket.

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The Girandoni fired .464” (11.75 mm) caliber lead balls at around 800 -900fps (that’s about the same power produced by a Colt 1911 firing .45 ACP!) and it was claimed that this air rifle was capable of shooting completely through a 1” pine board at 100 metres. Up to 22 lead balls were stored in a tubular magazine on the right side of the rifle. In order to re-load after firing, the movable loading bar set in the receiver was moved to the right and the rifle pointed upwards, allowing a ball to roll from the base of magazine into a cavity in the loading block. The loading block was then allowed to spring closed to bring the lead ball in line with the breech and the rifle was cocked using the hammer. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer fell, releasing a measured charge of air to propel the lead ball down the 30” rifled barrel. All this could be done in a couple of seconds by a trained soldier, giving a huge advantage in rate of fire compared to a conventional musket.

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The loading bar, shown here in the closed position. Pushing it to the right against the leaf spring allowed a ball from the tubular magazine to roll down into a cavity in the loading bar. Releasing it moved the bar back to the left and placed the ball in the breech.

The video below shows the loading and shooting of a modern reproduction of the Girandoni repeating air rifle.

Each soldier using the Girandoni rifle was issued with a special knapsack containing tools, two spare air reservoirs and two metal tubes containing lead balls (which were basically used as speed loaders which allowed the tubular magazine to be quickly re-filled). The riveted iron reservoir screwed into the rear of the brass receiver and when air pressure dropped, a fresh pre-charged reservoir could be exchanged for the empty one. A leather washer provided sealing between the reservoir and the receiver.

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The leather washer which provided sealing between the reservoir and receiver worked best when it was wet. If it dried out, it could leak.

All of which sounds very impressive and you may be wondering why more troops weren’t using repeating air rifles in the late 1700s and why the Austrians weren’t able to easily defeat their enemies? There are several answers to this. The first is that the Girandoni repeating air rifle had a few problems. Manufacturing technology in the late 1700s meant that the riveted iron air reservoir was far from perfect. In particular, these could explode, especially if they were pumped to capacity in the cool of the evening and then exposed to higher temperatures the following day. The leather washer that sealed the join between the reservoir and the receiver was also prone to leaks, meaning that it was possible to discover that all pressure had been discharged when a soldier came to fire the rifle. The reservoir was also fairly fragile and dropping the rifle on its butt could damage the reservoir and discharge all air pressure. And pressurizing the three reservoirs supplied to each soldier required 4,500 strokes of the hand pump, not a popular chore after a hard days’ campaigning. To ease the need to hand pump reservoirs, mobile pumps mounted on carts were later introduced to charge Girandoni reservoirs. However, these tied the soldiers using these rifles to the vicinity of the pumps which further limited their usefulness..

However, the greatest disincentive to using the Girandoni was that it simply didn’t fit with the strategy and tactics of the period. In the late 1700s, troops tended to face one another at short range and in line formations which provided the greatest chance of achieving the maximum number of hits from a volley of musket fire. Firing from concealment or cover was considered cowardly and underhand and was rarely used as a tactic by large forces. Using the Girandoni rifle also required specialist training, something that was difficult to achieve in a conscript and largely illiterate army. For all these reasons, the Girandoni rifle was only ever used in very limited numbers by the Austrian army.

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A 9mm repeating air pistol from the early 1800s which used the Girandoni system

A number of repeating air pistols using the same operating principles were also produced in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Like the rifle, the repeating pistol used a tubular magazine and a riveted iron reservoir as a grip. Little is known about these repeating pistols other than that they fired a ball of around 9mm diameter and held up to 13 rounds in the tubular magazine – was this the first 9mm semi-auto pistol?

As was common in the early 1800s, copies of rifles and pistols using the Girandoni system were produced by a number of other manufacturers, especially in Vienna. This included Cantarini, another well-known Italian born gunsmith based in Vienna.

Use

The Girandoni repeating air rifle remained in service with the Hapsburg Army until 1815 after which it was abandoned. It seems likely that there were never more than around 1,500 Girandoni rifles in service at any one time (out of a total army of up to 500,000 men). There is continuing debate as to whether the Girandoni rifle was actually used in combat during Austria’s many battles with France during the Napoleonic wars. There is certainly some evidence for this: a message from Austrian General Josef Alvinczy to Emperor Frances II has been discovered, dated December 1796 and which includes a request for “30 pieces Girandoni airguns”. However, given the very limited numbers of these air guns available to Austrian forces, they can hardly have made a major impact if in fact they were ever used against the French.

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A recreation of the knapsack issued to Austrian soldiers using the Girandoni rifle. It contains spare reservoirs, metal speed loaders containing lead balls and a handpump.

One of the most persistent myths about the Girandoni rifle is that Napoleon was so concerned about this weapon that he issued orders that any Austrian soldier captured with a Girandoni rifle should be executed. There seems to be no truth in this at all. There were so few Girandoni rifles in service that they could not possibly have had a major impact during combat between Austrian and French forces and there is no evidence that Napoleon took any interest in this weapon at all.

Very little is known about the use of Girandoni repeating air pistols. Several examples survive and these range from very plain, functional pistols which look as if they may be military issue to extremely ornate examples featuring gilt and engraving which seem to have been commissioned by wealthy individuals.

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Lewis and Clark

Probably the most well-known use of the Girandoni repeating air rifle was when an example was adopted by Captain Meriwether Lewis on his expedition to explore what is now the western USA with his friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark in 1804. The exploration carried out by Lewis and Clark was massively influential in opening the western US to settlers and traders and it would appear that one of the weapons carried on the expedition was a repeating air rifle which sounds very like the Girandoni rifle. There has been an on-going and lively debate about this amongst historians for some time, but there now seems to be some agreement. One of the pieces of evidence was the publication in 1997 of a travel diary written by Thomas Rodney describing a meeting with Captain Lewis on the Ohio River in September 1803 (all spelling is as per the original):

Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. … when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.”

Another member of the expedition, Private Whitehouse noted the use of the airgun in a demonstration for members of the Sioux tribe on August 30, 1804:

“Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter told them there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution. They all stood amazed at the curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. at finding the balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that was done suprized them exceedingly.”

It now seems very likely that a Girandoni air rifle was used by Lewis and that demonstrating its awesome firepower to the Native Americans the expedition encountered may have been a factor in avoiding attacks. The question of how an Austrian secret weapon found its way to the US has never been satisfactorily answered, but most people accept that the Girandoni air rifle now displayed at the NRA museum is most probably the actual weapon used by the expedition.

The video below is a short presentation by the NRA Museum about the Girandoni repeating air rifle.

Owning a Girandoni

There are a number of surviving examples of Girandoni repeating air rifles and pistols including contemporary copies by people like Cantarini of Vienna. Most are held in museums or private collections but these air guns do occasionally turn up at auction. You can expect to pay somewhere north of €20,000 ($22,000) for a Girandoni repeating air pistol in good condition and considerably more for a rifle. Just don’t expect to be able to fire one of these originals unless you really want to find out what happens when you try to pressurise that 200 year old riveted iron reservoir to 800psi…

Several people have produced modern recreations of the Girandoni rifle (many using much safer turned alloy reservoirs instead of riveted iron) but sadly none appear to be available commercially. As far as I am aware, no-one has produced a modern reproduction of a Girandoni repeating pistol. Which seems a great pity. Wouldn’t you just love a CO2 or green gas powered replica of this pistol? I know I would.

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Replicas (or reproductions…) of this pair of Cantarini repeating air pistols based on the Girandoni design would do very nicely, thank you…

Alternatively, you could consider a modern large calibre air rifle. The Career Dragon Slayer by Shinsung for example, is a Chinese made PCP air rifle that shoots a .50” lead bullet. However, it only gets around 5 shots per charge and it produces 190 foot-pounds (260 Joules!) of muzzle energy which unfortunately means that it is illegally powerful in many parts of the world.

If that sounds a bit underpowered, you could always consider the Texan PCP air rifle by US manufacturer AirForce Guns (“Serious guns for serious shooters”). The Texan has been described as a “modern Girandoni” and flings a .45” projectile downrange at up to 1,000fps, producing over 500 foot-pounds (680 Joules) of muzzle energy.

Conclusion

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The Girandoni repeating air rifle was a stunningly advanced military weapon when it appeared in the late 1700s. There is no doubt that an air rifle can make an effective military weapon – during recent conflicts in the Middle-East, 9mm PCP air rifles have been used as sniper weapons. However, the Girandoni was unreliable simply because the concept was too advanced for the metallurgy and technology available at the time. It was also not widely used because it did not fit with the military tactics then in use. It wouldn’t be until almost 80 years later that the Spencer and Henry repeating rifles would produce a viable military repeater which would change the face of modern warfare forever. But a large calibre air gun got there first. Now, if only someone would give us a modern replica of this historic air gun…

Links

Fascinating article on the Girandoni air rifle by Dr Robert Beeman.

Review of the Career Dragon Slayer air rifle on the Pyramyd Air website

Texan PCP air rifle on the AirForce Guns website

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