Although air guns have a long and interesting past, many are unaware of this fact. It should come as no surprise though, that formal air pistol competition is still a very young sport. The first World Championship was held less than twenty years ago, and it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1988! But already it has a rich and full history of thrilling finals with come from behind victories, and agonizing defeats at the last possible moment. What follows is a brief historical look at the development of the sport from the 1940s through today. I would appreciate any additional information or corrections you see are needed on this page.
The German company Diana, produced a series of early spring piston air pistols. The power from this type of air gun is developed by cocking the lever, which pushes a piston and compresses a spring inside a cylinder. Upon release, the piston is driven by the coiled spring, compressing the air as it travels forward. The Dianas typically had a barrel break action and achieved very good accuracy. But there was not yet a true match quality air pistol offered. One of the first was produced by Feinwerkbau (pronounced fine-work-b-ow) FWB for short, who scaled down the spring piston works from a hugely successful air rifle they produced into a size suitable for a pistol - The model 65. A problem with spring piston power for propellant, is the extreme "recoil" which is felt at the moment of firing. Since this effect is taking place while the pellet was still traveling down the barrel, an ingenious design was created that had the whole mechanism and barrel moving on a sliding rail mounted to the frame. This did much to counter the push that was felt when using the gun. For many years, this was THE air pistol of choice for competitive shooters, offering the pinpoint accuracy and reliability that the German maker is famous for.
Another German firearms maker also turned it's talents toward the air gun. Walther developed a pre-charged pneumatic system, in which the cocking force was used to compress the air with a piston. It was introduced in the LP3 (LP for luft pistol - luft is air in German) model. Therefore, when the trigger was pulled and the sear disengaged, only a slight amount of movement was felt as the pellet left the barrel. This was obviously a step in the right direction, as it did away with the rail system and the spring's bulk and weight entirely. But the early Walther air pistols did not have quite the same level of reliability as their FWB counterparts and the M 65 continued to rule. A further development in the M 65's lineage came from an unexpected source. In the early 1980s an American shooter, Don Nygord, found that shortening the barrel length greatly improved the balance and inertial envelope of the gun, and this reduction in length did not adversely effect velocity or accuracy. Nygord used his shortened version of the M65 to win the World Championship at Santo Domingo in 1981. After his performance at this match, FWB saw the obvious virtues of this barrel cropping, and were quick to release their own version - the M 65 Mk II which is still in production today. An electric trigger was fitted to the gun and released as the M 90. Basically, this was a standard trigger blade fitted to an electric switch, which when activated released the sear and spring piston. This model remains the ultimate development of spring piston air pistol technology, but was only in production for a short time.
On the pre-charged pneumatic front, a few different cocking methods had developed. Walther retained it's under lever method, with the lever forming a trigger guard after the power stroke. Powerline and later Daisy in the late 1970's produced a side lever cocking model that is still the best, in my opinion, choice for juniors or adults new to the sport - the model 717 family. The 717, 747 and 777 all share a long sight radius, and increasingly better barrels, sights, grips and triggers as they increase in price. The 717 entry level model is inexpensive to purchase, and the effort required to cock the pistol is not extreme. If anyone doubts the ability of these guns in a match situation, I personally have seen 550+ scores fired with a 717 right out of the box! A few Italian companies such as Domino, and Airmatch had some significant offerings as well. With better ergonomics than the Daisy 777, at about three times the price, they were and still are a good choice for pre-charged air pistol aficionados. Beeman began to import the Model 10 (later the Model 900 and RWS Model 10), which was a fine quality barrel break action pistol. It had excellent grips, trigger and sights and a similar design endures to this day as the RWS Model 6M.
Many manufacturers were working with CO2 as a method of propulsion, and for obvious reasons. A pistol that required no cocking effort would be a big advantage over the course of a grueling two hour match. Believe it or not, a patent for a CO2 match pistol was granted in France to Paul Giffard in 1889! It was called the "Giffard Carbonic Gas Target Air Pistol". I only learned of this gun's existence after visiting a firearms musuem and by chance seeing it in a display case.
One of the first of the modern era was from FWB in their Model 2. But they were closely followed by Walther's CP2 and others. Hammerli had two CO2 offerings in the late 1960's with their "Single" and "Master" models, which used the disposable cartridges found in the inexpensive plinking guns of the day. The best models offered refillable cylinders and weights that could be added to the gun for balance. The lowering of the power source also lowered the center of gravity and sight axis of the gun as further benefits, and the CO2 guns were quick to gain acceptance in match circles worldwide. In the 1980's, many other companies joined the fray and soon competition from manufacturers such as Steyr of Austria, Morini of Switzerland and Italian offerings from Pardini Fiocchi, Domino and FAS were in the ring as well. Once again, innovation from an individual helped shape the course of air pistol development. And once again it was Don Nygord - who in 1991 found that the application of a compensator onto the barrel of the CO2 guns helped to break up the turbulent gasses that tended to disturb the pellet at the instant of it's leaving the muzzle. His "Turbo-Comp" also countered the slight muzzle flip felt with the gas guns and helped the shooter obtain a smoother follow through. Both of these points led to greater accuracy and control of the pistol. As before, manufacturers were quick to follow Don's lead, and practically all now produce their own guns with factory "comps". With so many excellent models and manufacturers to choose from, like the Pardini K2, K60 & K90 CO2 and K58 pre-charged models, the FWB Model 10 CO2 and Model 102 pre-charged offerings, and Steyr's gold standard Model LP1C CO2 just to name a few, you would think that this would be the final chapter in development. Not so dear reader.
You see, the gas CO2 is highly susceptible to temperature fluctuations which effect the zero, or point of impact of the pellet. At the highest levels of competition, and for anyone who is serious about improving their air pistol shooting as much as possible, this one flaw was unacceptable. So companies again turned to the drawing boards of their best designers and lo and behold a new type of propellant was born. Air! That is to say, compressed air like you find in SCUBA diving tanks. A non polluting, stable gas that is easy to work and live with. You get more shots per filling, and the weight is less and varies less from the start to finish of a match. Morini came through with the first model, and their 162E1 is a fine choice featuring SCUBA technology with an electronic trigger. Hammerli reentered the air pistol race with their fantastic Model 480. Utilizing space age composites and breathtaking design and style, they put themselves at the top of competition air pistol development. Walther also chimed in with the new LP200. It features the SCUBA drive with integral barrel weights and an incredibly low sight axis. Steyr very smartly adapted the new technology of SCUBA to their already excellent LP1C to make the new LP1CP model. FWB has an entry as well with their P30. This pistol has without a doubt the most comfortable grips I have ever experienced in my life. When I upgrade, the P30 may well get the nod. A cooperative effort between designer Cesare Morini and firearms giant Anschutz has produced the just released M10. I have yet to see one in person, but on paper it looks to be a first class gun all the way. Anything with the Anschutz name on the side has to be. The M10 features adjustable grip angle, dry fire mechanism, and a beam type system of balance weights.
So now you would think that CO2 guns are a thing of the past? Maybe, except for one small hiccup in the works. With all of the new SCUBA pistols on the market, Roberto DiDonna won the Olympic Gold medal with ... a CO2 powered Pardini K2. Go figure.
And along with the rapid development of the guns themselves, the competition that they are made for has come a long way as well, let's take a look.
It is certain that soon after the first of the Diana, FWB and Walther pistols hit the market, a formal type of competition was developed to take advantage of their incredible accuracy and precision. Although initially contests were fired at a variety of distances, soon the 10 meter standard we all use today was confirmed. The targets developed as well, and with each new edition the scoring rings became smaller. What we have today is a target such as this:
The outside scoring ring has a diameter of 16.5 centimeters ( 6 1/8" ). The 10 ring has a diameter of just 1.15 centimeters
( 7/16" ). That doesn't leave much room for error now does it! Inside of the 10 ring is a still smaller X ring with a mere 5.2 mm diameter. It is possible to shoot a pellet so perfectly on center, that you punch out this ring and leave the white visible around the hole. I know because I have done it, but only twice in five years!
Some major changes have taken place in just the last two decades. In 1980, the UIT changed the men's competition from a 40 to a 60 shot format. Women's competition stayed at 40 shots and has remained there since. Also in 1980 the firing of sighter shots was changed, allowing unlimited shots - but all had to be taken before the first shot for record. Before this change a maximum of 15 sighters could be fired, but they could be taken before or after any ten shot string during the match. These were accounted for on the two sighting targets each competitor was given. Now, according to UIT rules, a ten minute preparation period takes place before the match starts, and this prep period is broken into two parts - three minutes of general equipment preparation where you may not handle the gun, followed by seven minutes during which you may dry fire, etc. The length of time a competitor has during a match has been shortened from two hours, to just one hour and forty-five minutes including sighter shots. The X count is no longer used as a major scoring component. I believe that it is used as the third tie breaker, behind number of tens, and the last ten shot string's score.
One of the best developments in 10 meter competition came in 1986 with the advent of "finals". This is currently used in all major matches worldwide. The method is this: After the 60 shot match is complete, the top 8 competitors are placed in the order they finished the 60 shot match on the line - first place on position #1, second on #2, etc. They then begin a 10 shot final shoot-off. In this finals, the competitors have a 75 second time limit to fire each shot. After the last competitor has fired shot number 1, the targets are scored, and the score is given. The competitors then shoot shot number 2, after which the scoring is again done, and so on through all 10 shots. The scoring of each shot is given a numerical value to the tenth of a point. The lowest possible shot for score would be a 1.0 with the pellet just touching the outside of the lowest value scoring ring. The highest value shot would be a 10.9, or a perfect center shot. This 10.9 maximum value rule has been in place since 1989 when the 11.0 value was dropped by .1 of a point. The maximum score now possible is 709.0 with the 10 shot finals included. That would be sixty consecutive tens, followed by ten consecutive 10.9 shots. I can honestly say that I feel this will never happen. If it does, well ... we can make the target smaller still I guess?! To further illustrate this scoring method, here are a few samples of shots and how they would be scored.
So, you would think that this would do away with ties altogether right? Wrong. At one match I attended, there was a tie for third place. This is after 60 shots preliminary and 10 shots of final! Third place was decided by a sudden death shoot-off. Competitor #1 had a 10.1 and competitor #2 had a 9.3. So competitor #1 finished third. For the second competitor this was a heartbreaker, he even called the shot a 10.5 or better! Before 1989, the tie was broken by the shooter with the higher ten shot finals score (current National Pistol Coach Erich Buljung lost a tie in the 1988 Olympics under the "higher final" rule, and brought home the Silver). In another instance to show how close competitions can be, Roberto DiDonna of Italy beat the excellent champion from China, Yifu Wang by just .1 of a point to win the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta! One tenth of a point! No wonder Yifu collapsed and had to be taken from the Wolfcreek 10m range on a gurney.
With the advent of finals and the electronic scoring monitors used at world class competitions, air pistol shooting has become something of a spectator sport. One of the true injustices in sports broadcasting today, is that shooting gets no airtime at all during Olympic games. This is a sport that has drawn more athletes from more countries every Olympics than any sport except for track & field. Beach volleyball had 4 hours of total coverage, shooting - none. This is something that I really hope will change before the next games in Sydney. You can do your part to help this come about by writing to the major networks and letting them know how you feel. I have written to NBC, CBS, ABC & ESPN as well as writing to Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports magazines. To date I have not received any response. I will, however, keep on writing and I urge you to do the same.
Where will air pistol competition go in the future? With the explosion of personal computing and the amazing quality of the internet's communication, I can foresee a competition system whereby thousands of shooters could take part in global on-line matches, without leaving their hometowns. The days of the paper target must surely be numbered as well, if you can imagine a holographic bullseye which contains a grid work of lasers beams, able to measure the shots value to the .0001 of an inch (while at the Olympic Training Center in August of 1997, I had a chance to check out a target system that uses audio location to plot the value of shots that are fired on a strip of paper that scrolls through the frame after each shot - really interesting). But if these developments never take place, one thing will remain certain. Air pistol competition is an enjoyable sport in which to participate - young or old, male or female, standing or sitting in a wheelchair. And that is why we remain involved.