Air Weapons are pneumatic rifles which are designed to look and function like ‘real’ firearms. However, they crucially do not fall under the same jurisdiction when it comes to their legalities.

While a firearm will utilise a propellant charge to project a bullet or shell, air weapons will by contrast make use of compressed air in their chambers to force a pellet or BB out of their shaft.

The two differing types of weapons were first classified as separate entities in the 1968 Firearms Act, which specified that a firearms certificate was not needed for:

“An ‘air weapon’ (that is to say, an air rifle, air gun or air pistol) which does not fall within the prohibited category and which is not of a type declared by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of the 1968 Firearms Act to be specially dangerous.”

The key differentiating factor between an air weapon and a regular firearm is that the latter can, under certain circumstances, be purchased legally by a member of the general public. While a firearms certificate is not needed, an alternate permit is required.

Air Weapon Origin and History

Somewhat surprisingly, air weapons actually outdate regular firearms – with the first recorded case of one’s use as far back as 1580. This makes them the oldest known pneumatic weapon in existence.

The Danish Arsenal was the first to possess said gun, which was triggered via a system of springs and would propel a dart forwards towards an intended target. Interestingly, these metal devices shared many similarities with crossbows of the time.

It would take just 20 years for the first pump-up air gun to appear, with Henry IV of France handed an experimental item – which would store compressed air in the buttstock before releasing.

In 1779 the weapons were developed for military use for the first time, with the Austrian army able to pump out 20 metal pellets in one shot.

Over time the weapons would evolve further, with the famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark using an air weapon on their expedition across the US. This gun could be fired 40 times without recharging – a miraculous feat and notably far more efficient than regular firearms of the time.

However, as time went on the development of firearms would progress, with the weapons becoming more efficient and deadly. Air rifles soon took a backseat to their more powerful brother, leaving them to be utilised primarily in hunting and for recreational purposes.

Different Types of Air Weapons Available

There’s a whole host of air weapons out there, with different styles catering to a user’s preference.

While many people think of a BB gun or air rifle as alternate variants, the truth is that the difference in classes comes not as a result of style, but rather how the weapon is powered.

  • Variable Pump – This brand of air weapon are useful owing to the versatility they offers their operator. The gun is powered by pumping a handle underneath the shaft, with there being no set amount of pumps needed to achieve enough power to fire. Whether someone is pumping up for five minutes or five seconds, they’re in control of the amount of power going into the rifle. Variable pumps are also traditionally lighter than most other styles.
  • Nitro Piston – This relatively modern invention sees a slight change to a classic design. When a gun is cocked, instead of a spring being compressed, a bubble of nitrogen gas is stored in the chamber. When fired, that gas is released – triggering a piston to come into action and fire a jet of air up the shaft. These weapons are quieter and can be left cocked for long periods of time (with no fear of deterioration to a spring).
  • Spring Break Action – A lever is pulled down to cock the weapon, with this handle serving to compress a spring. These rifles are most popular amongst hunters, owing to their high velocity and long-range accuracy. They do require more practice than the pre-charged pneumatic, however.
  • Pre-charged Pneumatic (PCP) – A PCP weapon utilises a pre-stored charge, but otherwise works in much the same way as a variable pump. This type of gun has both advantages and disadvantages. The key pro naturally comes as a result of rarely having to reload, with a long storage life (you can put the gun down and come back to it months later with basically the same charge). However, it does require a surface use air dive bottle to fill or a specialist stirrup pump. Some variants in this range also come with CO2 canisters, which also allow a charge to be stored.