Air guns: the automatic weapons of the 18th century
While researching For the King, I met air guns (fusils à vent) on several occasions. But I had long been familiar with these weapons as a reader of fiction—Conan Doyle’s works, more precisely. Remember The Adventure of the Empty House? In this tale, Colonel Sebastian Moran uses an air rifle to murder his victim. It was still a rather exotic weapon in the first years of the 20th century.
But air guns predate Sherlock Holmes by more than a century. They were invented in the 1780s by an Italian engineer, Girandoni. The same size as the regular muskets of the time, they used a completely different technology.
They were revolutionary weapons, powerful, noiseless, and smokeless, for the bullets were propelled not by the explosion of gunpowder, as in a musket, but by a removable compressed-air reservoir that gave the rifles their distinctive club-shaped butts. An automatic magazine, loaded from the breech, could shoot twenty bullets a minute.
They were extremely expensive, rather fragile, and not widely used by regular armies, except for the Austrians. However, they were certainly available—for the right amount of money—to anyone determined enough to acquire them. The Lewis and Clark Expedition may have been equipped with one such air rifle, in addition to muskets. Air guns were also much sought after by those bent on assassinating Napoléon Bonaparte, in particular the Chouans..
Napoléon traveled accompanied by a military escort, but he did not give much thought to his personal safety. He was, for one thing, a firm believer in his own lucky star and was used to facing death at close range on the battlefield. It is also possible that he, as an artillery specialist, was unconvinced of the threat of air gun technology.
Thus he apparently never considered equipping his guards with air guns, though he was well aware of the fact that his most determined enemies were purchasing these weapons. It turned out he was right: Air guns were never actually used in any assassination attempt, though they were purchased for that purpose.
I was so fascinated by these rifles that I could not resist giving them a part in the plot of For the King, both as a testimony to the ingenuity of 18th century inventors and as a modest tribute to Conan Doyle.
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