The first air guns were seen in the 1500's, and they reached the peak of popularity in the 1600's and 1700's. Later, the invention of cartridge bullets drove down the demand for air guns.
During their heyday, they were preferred over black powder guns because they were smokeless (black powder created clouds of smoke that both blinded the shooter and gave away his position), they could be loaded faster than black powder guns, they could be used in damp weather, they never burned the shooter,
and they were quiet and did not scare away the game. This silence, however,
led them to be a chosen weapon of snipers throughout their history. The nobility tried to keep them out of the hands of the poor, fearing crimes committed with the weapons would be too
easy to get away with.
Air guns were generally more expensive than black powder guns. Pricey models geared toward the rich came with two barrels, one a shotgun barrel, and the other a high caliber barrel.
During that time period, there were calibers ranging from .30 to .51. They were charged using pumps and effective up to 150 yards. After charging the tank anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times, the gun could fire up to 20 times in a row at speeds ranging from 600 to 1,100 feet per second.
The Austrian Army used air guns against Napoleon in the late 1700's.
Though Napoleon was ultimately victorious, the silent killers demoralized his troops and became so feared that any enemy soldier captured with an air gun was executed as an assassin.
The most famous air gun was carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meriwether Lewis purchased it with his own money before leaving in 1803. It was used for hunting on the expedition, but mostly was used to impress the Indians who only had experience with black powder guns. Lewis wrote in August 1804, "We showed them many curiosities and the air gun which they were much astonished at."