Firearms appeared in Europe in the 14th century, but there is little evidence that they immediately replaced the existing projectile weapons that were then in use. The inaccuracy of these early guns, and the noise and the smoke they produced, would have made them less successful than bows or crossbows as hunting weapons.
Improvements in gun making gradually made them more effective. However, their use in hunting, until at least the end of the 17th century, was restricted to birds at rest. Shooting at flying birds required an effective ignition system, and by around 1700 flintlock guns designed to shoot birds on-the-wing had been developed.
The flintlock did have a problem though: the puff of smoke from its priming powder often gave the birds enough warning so as to avoid being hit. It wasn’t until the invention of percussion ignition, by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Forsyth in the 19th century, that there was a major breakthrough in smokeless ignition. Percussion ignition is still used today in modern small-arms cartridges.
Airguns of considerable power and sophistication were used both militarily and for hunting, since the absence of powder smoke and noise ensured their intended target was not disturbed.
Rechargeable reservoirs containing compressed air allowed for a number of discharges, but the complexity and cost of such weapons meant that they did not achieve the same widespread use of the more powerful, and less expensive, black-powder sporting guns.
Hunting wildfowl with a Punt gun
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