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I understand that, for example, Lewis and Clark carried an air rifle that could fire 30 shots without reloading and could kill a deer. Is a deer so different than a human that such a rifle would be useless? Could a version be made more powerful?

EDIT: Nice answer. I would suggest that the air rifle is an example of technology that most people severely over-estimate its year of invention. If you ask, which came first, air rifle or telephone? many would probably get it wrong as they would about several others.

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The same Girandoni Air Rifle used on that expedition was in service with the Austrian Empire before and during the Napoleonic Wars. It was difficult to manufacture and upkeep in the kind of volumes the army required, very slow to reload after a reservoir was spent, and required a lot of training.

The fragility of the rifle was a very serious problem, since many infantry battles were decided in hand-to-hand combat with bayonets. A fragile, expensive weapon had no place in such an environment. A regular musket fired often enough, was rugged and easy to make, and was very easy to use, so your average cannon-fodder line infantry kept using them.

For these reasons, the Girandoni was only really issued to small squads of elite sharpshooters and marksmen, who could sneak up on an enemy, unload their bullets in rapid succession, and then sneak away before the enemy was upon them. It was actually pretty effective at this job, and Napoleon famously decreed that any soldier captured with one of these guns should be executed as an assassin, and not afforded the dignity of a prisoner of war.

Eventually, technology such as rifled barrels, percussion caps, and breech loading made the air rifle obsolete.

  • Okay: 1. I assume rifling would not work with air weapons? Or if it would, why do rifled barrels obsolete air weapons? 2. Wasn't 30 shots in a row a huge advantage, so huge that even in Civil War such weapons would have had a place? – Jeff Apr 23 '17 at 1:54
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    We come back to the main issue - the guns were expensive, fragile, and difficult to use. An army could never supply every soldier with an air rifle. It seems that they continued to be developed for civilian hunting use, but I assume that armies were seduced by the idea of a "buy it once, issue it to everyone" rifle like the classic bolt action rifle, so that was the research that they funded. – SPavel Apr 23 '17 at 2:02
  • understood, seems like this might have been a mistake since i heard that repeating rifles were a huge advance. also, maybe shots fired were not as deadly? – Jeff Apr 23 '17 at 3:20
  • @Jeff Like SPavel said, when equipping an army cost and maintenance become paramount. Training too, you didn't have large standing armies then; recruits would have to be trained to use and maintain a fragile, complex rifle. Here's a video of its operation. The history of armies adopting rifles is littered with candidates that were too fragile, too complex, and too expensive. Finally, militaries did not appreciate large volumes of fire until well into WWI, as discussed here about the Henry repeater. – Schwern Apr 23 '17 at 16:36
  • @SPavel A few corrections. The air rifle was rifled, and there were muzzle loading rifles. Bolt actions came nearly 100 years later, but you're correct that it would take until then for militaries to really embrace repeating rifles... with continuing reservations. – Schwern Apr 23 '17 at 16:47

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