Jonathan Young gasses on about the history of CO2 guns and offers a closer look at some of his personal favourites.
While most airgun shooters know they can drop a 12g bulb into their pistol and get shooting, few realise just how long CO2 has been around. The existence of CO2, or carbon dioxide, had been suspected as far back as the early 1600s. But it was actually properly discovered in the mid-1700s right here in Britain.
Then we nearly lost CO2 – and electricity – thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, a Cornish chemist called Humphry Davy travelled with his colleague Michael Faraday to France to accept a science award. Managing to dodge the musket balls, they got home safely. Later, while experimenting in the lab, they created liquid CO2 under pressure – and Faraday went on to become rather a big name in electricity.
By this time the steam engine had arrived, ball and butt reservoir precharged airguns had already been around for years, and the famous Girandoni air rifle had seen military service during the Wars. In France a scientist called Thilorier made a machine for manufacturing liquified CO2 as well as a compressor. Talk of using this tech to power cannons was even rumoured.
Fellow Frenchman Paul Giffard arrived on the scene only a little while later. He had made pneumatic pump-up air rifles and the earliest form of tandem air cartridge. But he’s best known for his superb CO2 air rifles, air shotguns and air pistols that used pre-filled gas canisters. These could be swapped for a fresh unit just like an 88g canister in the present day, then be refilled by the manufacturer.
Things slowed down here for a while as the modern springer appeared. America later took the lead with CO2, but again with bulky bottle-filling. At this point it’s worth remembering CO2 was being used for welding, tyre inflation and in beer and beverage production. Eventually the tiny 8g CO2 soda bulb was invented and someone thought: “Let’s stick that in an airgun!” The modern 12g capsule then to drop in a bulb, close the cover and shoot.
Buying gas bulbs in bulk helps running costs, but keen airgunners sometimes opt for other sources such as 16g bulbs, the larger 88g bulb and a few odd sizes in between, which are often used for life jacket and dinghy inflation. Owners are even being tempted back to bulk external filling, and some popular airguns now have bulk fill adapter kits available off the shelf.
But there are some limitations to using this gas that go unnoticed. It takes time after each shot for the remaining gas to expand to fill the same volume of space inside the tank, bottle or bulb reservoir, and thus to maintain the same pressure over a string of shots.
It’s said the larger the tank (and hence volume) of CO2, the less variation in velocity there’ll be between shots. One could conclude that CO2 works best in single-shot airguns with a larger reservoir or canister, where the user allows the gas time to expand between shots. The reality, though, is that when you’re blasting away with blowback BB pistols you’re not going to be target-shooting!
If you are target-shooting, however, then loading, aiming and releasing your shot will naturally be much slower. There have been many CO2 pro match-grade air pistols; and if you’re hunting with a CO2 rifle, you will naturally be shooting much slower, even if using a multi-shot.
Crosman and other manufacturers have been making guns using a 12g bulb for decades, and today we are spoilt for choice with some stunning classics. The single-shot bolt-action Crosman 160 in .22, or its .177 brother the 167, both use twin 12g bulbs and have a sizeable fan base, but there are other models too.
The wood-stocked Crosman 400 Repeater is similar, but it’s a multi-shot. Ten pellets are loaded into a steel ammo tube that locks into the breech block neatly to one side. The 400 is cocked separately by pulling back on the valve knob to the rear of the body tube. The bolt handle links to a pivoting pellet block, which flicks over and back faster than you can blink, lining up a pellet into the breech.
Later airguns such as the superb Model 70 Pellgun arrived. This is a single-shot .177 bolt action air-rifle, again in a real wood stock. It has an outer barrel casing which reproduces the profile silhouette of a fullbore barrel perfectly, with a reducing diameter from breech to muzzle. A trapdoor-like lever drops down from the underside in front of the trigger guard and a bulb is loaded in. The lever is closed, applying pressure to pierce the bulb, like many modern designs today.
The Crosman 700 Pellmaster is a .22 single-shot fed by a 12g bulb. Very oddly, it’s a tap loader operated by a round wheel to the side of the action. Side-bolt cocking primes the action, and on firing, the gas shoots through the mechanism to behind
the pellet in a similar fashion to some CO2 Hammerli airguns.
The original Industry Brand QB78 air rifle made in China was, as legend claims, based on the old Crosman 160. While not quite the same, shooters still loved them. This was then superseded by the second generation XS78. Over the years there have been many variants such as an 88g bottle version, with a shortened stock to accommodate the larger bottle, and also a target model.
A whole tuning scene and custom cottage industry has grown up around these guns. There are new add-ons like multi-shot magazines, replacement tuning parts and even custom stocks. It’s the best bargain airgun this century – not that I’m biased or anything.
Fast forward to today and there appear to be more CO2 air pistols made than air rifles, due perhaps to the interest in PCP. I’ve no complaints, as in the 1960s it was a case of running around the garden with a diecast Luger paper roll cap gun, while today we have blowback BB P08s! But while the current blowbacks are good, it takes a lot to outshine some of the old classics.
Classics such as the Schimel Arms Gas Pistol, which is hailed as being the first air pistol to use drop-in disposable bulbs. Imagine getting that on Christmas morning in 1950. This neat little interpretation of a Luger P08 even has a lifting toggle with an attached pellet probe.
The Schimel came in .22 only and used the original 8g bulb which is still available today. That it’s not blowback doesn’t matter. That it is necessary to even mention this, however, underlines
the current trend for action rather than accuracy in air pistol design.
The Smith & Wesson name goes back a long way in American shooting sports. In the 1970s it released the .22 Model 78G and .177 Model 79G air pistols. One 12g bulb is inserted upside down – the piercer is actually in the cap, and the gas expands into the grip area and then up into the valve. There is a locking pellet probe assembly and a long barrel. It’s a personal favourite and worth seeking out. Daisy later took over production, just in case you ever see similar pistols marked as Daisy.
Finally, no mention of CO2 airguns can be complete without some reference to those antique Giffards. In France, hunting was a big part of rural life and the Giffard Fusil de Jardin guns shown here are both 8mm air shotguns, which used small card tubes filled with lead shot. With France being occupied during two World Wars, these guns were often
hidden away quickly and then forgotten about, so today these beauties can sometimes be found stashed in attics or jammed up old chimneys.
Giffard may have started off the CO2 scene, but oddly today hunting with airguns is not allowed in France. Monsieur Giffard would be turning in his grave. C’est la vie!
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