In the Metro series of video games, there exist various pneumatic weapons, essentially air-powered rifles. It seems like these weapons are supposed to be easier to produce/maintain in a post-apocalyptic setting, as they use air and ball bearings instead of bullets. They also seem to be more silent than traditional firearms.

What I'm wondering, though, is if this is realistic. Is it possible to create an air-powered rifle of a similar size/weight to a normal rifle, that can fire with deadly force? Can such a rifle be semi- or even fully automatic?

I know there exist things like airsoft rifles that fulfill most of these criteria, but as they are not designed to be deadly I wonder if that is an insurmountable limitation. It's also possible there are other problems I have not considered; if so I would like to know about them.

If deadly air rifles are possible, I am wondering why no one seems to be using them.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Oh, yes indeed. There are "air rifles" out there capable of putting a .45 caliber slug through a bull's eye at 1 KM. There's video's on youtube. Those things are deadly, and actually meant for hunting. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ I'm surprised no one has mentioned potato cannons. When built with an irresponsible disregard for safety and "limits" psh they can do some pretty crazy stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Culyx
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Downvote because of the zero research made before asking, sorry! $\endgroup$
    – DraxDomax
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ Agree: google turns up results for “deadly air rifles” even better! So it’s not the case of the exact variation on terminology making a difference. If the very title typed into Google gives the answer, and the body of the Q doesn’t reference the general results and ask for something more spedific or creative, then it's insufficient research. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz "Insufficient research" is a downvote reason (see the hover text), not a close reason. The question is asking about the feasibility and design of a particular device, which is on-topic. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 5:00

8 Answers 8


Yes, such a gun is absolutely possible, but I'm not sure if it would actually be used in your scenario.

Air rifles were not only real, but deadly. As another poster mentioned, the Girandoni air rifle was a weapon used by Austrian forces during the Napoleonic Wars; Napoleon so despised the gun, considering it an assassin's weapon, that any soldier captured with one was to be executed as a spy and not treated as a prisoner of war.

The Girandoni had its flaws, leading to it being dropped from the armed forces of Austria, but it wasn't discontinued for anything to do with its lethality. It was, in fact, far deadlier than any musket of the time; more range (up to around 125 yards on a full air reservoir) and being a rifle was more accurate at range as well. It was also silent and smokeless, so firing the thing would not betray one's position: a very useful aspect when considering flanking strikes, ambushes, etc. And perhaps most importantly, it was a repeating weapon; muskets had to reload after every shot and got three to four shots a minute (normal rifles were harder to load and had perhaps half the firing rate), but the Girandoni could fire every few seconds out of a 20-shot magazine, and a full air reservoir was good for about 30 shots before pressure dropped too far to be useful.

For the downsides: the air reservoirs were expensive and difficult to craft with available techniques and as such were never in adequate supply, and were delicate: one crack rendered them worthless. They could be refilled in the field in theory, but that took a preposterous amount of hand pumping (or a wagon-operated pump) to accomplish. Intensive training was required to use the airguns properly. Basically, they were too expensive for mass production and too delicate for rough use on the battlefield; fine for well-trained elite forces, but not for the general soldier.

The problem here is that the downsides are exactly what you need to be strengths to make it a viable weapon in a post-apocalyptic environment; "Powerful but delicate and expensive" is a very bad fit, at first glance. If, however, you were writing in an environment that still possessed precision manufacturing techniques and effective air pumps but lacked certain critical supplies, specifically gunpowder, airguns would probably become the dominant ranged weapon.

In short, you need an environment with access to at least Industrial Revolution-era technology, yet where gunpowder is too rare or difficult to obtain/produce for general use, if you want to run with this idea. That's a fairly tall order, but with enough ingenuity you can probably set up such a world.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if it a post-apocalyptic setting you could rely on scavenging the pressure vessels. CO2 fire extinguisers are common and reasonably portable, for example, or maybe you could get hold of large numbers of CO2 tyre inflator cartridges; they should be worth a few shots each. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 8:11


enter image description here

The Air gun was a pressurized gun created in the early 19th century, its modern day counterpart is a BB gun, but that's because gunpowder guns are just more effective. If for some reason, gunpowder guns are not feasible, the it is safe to assume that the air rifle would evolve along a more lethal path.

Nobody uses them because, simply put, gunpowder is easier for gun making.

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    $\begingroup$ I can confirm BB guns are certainly deadly to radroaches. $\endgroup$
    – xDaizu
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ I can also confirm that an air powered pellet rifle (17 caliber) is quite deadly to ground squirrels and such. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 4:30

Is it possible? Well, given that they were used in real warfare, I would say that they are possible.

Of course, as the article explains, as every other pneumatic system (specially if it works with gases), keeping the chambers sealed was a critical point, making them weapons that are both difficult to produce and to maintain (specially given the improvements in gunpowder rifles).

Nowadays, making them automatic should not be very complicated in theory, all you need is something that keeps providing gas at high pressure. The problem is that the available means (compressed gas canisters or a pump with a motor) are not practical when you compare them with regular, gunpowder automatic weapon.

Nowadays, the most close relatives would be the captive bolt guns used in slaughterhouses to stun animals. You could have seen one of those in action in "Fear the Walking Dead" (where they "rekill" dead patients to avoid them becoming zombies") and in "No country for old men".


Lethal air rifles have existed in the past and could certainly be made more reliable and effective with modern technology and industrial processes. Around 1780, the Girandoni air rifle saw service with the armies of Austria. Famously, one such weapon was brought on Lewis & Clark's expedition to the Pacific Northwest. It had several advantages over blackpowder weapons, but also some significant disadvantages that led to it being removed from military service.

As I recall, Sherlock Holmes feared that Sebastian Moran, the chief henchman of his archfoe Professor Moriarty, was hunting him with an air rifle.


They exist today. There are air guns used in small and big game hunting.

This company sells air rifle that can fire a .45 cal projectile from 900fps to 1500fps. Check Air Gun Depot.

For example this gun actually is a double barrel .50 cal air gun that shoots each projectile out at 1130fps.

Seneca Double Shot .50 cal Air Gun

And this was just a quick web search for air guns that are capable of hunting large game. I would probably bet you could find airguns set the fire such a deadly projectiles such as 30 cal outwards of 2000fps.

EDIT: below is an image of the US Air Force is air gun that can shoot a 30 caliber projectile from 1000fps to 1300fps, depending on whether you get the long barrel or the carbine. Pictured below is the long barrel version which is also available in 45 caliber and it shoots that at 930fps.

[AirForce Texan SS[3]

Here is part of the description of this rifle:

The US AirForce Texan made headlines throughout the firearm industry when upon release it was billed the world's most powerful production air rifle. The Texan turned heads then, and AirForce building upon that success with the AirForce Texan SS big bore air rifle!


It depends on the type of air gun, if it a single shot spring powered air gun, than easily. Because they have a vertu simple mechanism and so would be easy to maintain, are reliable, and on the most part silent, so long as the gun does not shoot at super sonic speeds. Disadvantage over conventional fire arms is that they spit slower, and require more movement to operate, they are hard to operate while prone.

Also they cam have problems with accuracy of nor proteolytic made.

Multi shot air rifles are more difficult to maintain than a bolt action rifle, or an ak-47


At first : The other answers already showed the existance of such a deadly weapon, mentioning the Girandoni. I would like to write about the disadvantages.

I think that you should take armor into account. Finding armor that is strong enough to protect you from being killed by a bullet fired from an airgun is far easier than finding armor to protect yourself from a firearm.

Also, in fights involving masses of people, a firearm is very likely more useful;modern assault rifles could fire bullets piercing through up to 3(?) people - your airgun would very likely only kill at most(as it's not very lethal from what I found, see below) one per shot.

Furthermore, I consider regular bullets to be far more devastating; what if you would hit your enemy at - let's say - the knee ? The hit by the airgun wouldn't pose a big problem; but when shooting somebody's knee with the power of firearm, he would very likely not be able to walk anymore.

From Wikipedia "Projectiles" :

Projectile energy air gun : 11,000 to 29,800(air rifle, for example Girandoni)

Projectile energy firearm : 58,000(pistol) to 470,000(AR)

all values in J/kg

This means, a lightweight easy to use pistol has about twice the energy of a 4kg Girandoni. And an AR even got about 16 times(!) the firepower.

And from this article :

2,300 newtons of force would be needed to crush a human skull

So let's suppose the stop distance of the projectile is 6,5 mm(average male skull thickness). We calculate F = KE ÷ 0.65 centimeters, where KE is one of the values mentioned above.

So for our Girandoni : 45846,15 J/cm are 458,46 Newton

And for the ARs : 458,46*16=7335,36 Newton

So as a rough estimation : The AR could crush more than one skull, while our air rifle cannot

Herein, take the skull only as an example. Think of somebody protection himself with thin steel plates. An AR could pierce, while your Girandoni would struggle.

Concerning weight, the Girandoni which has been previously mentioned is quite similar like a typical AR(M-16 is even less heavy). In this point, pistols are better.

The only advantage I see for air rifles is stealth. As mentioned in other answers, they are much harder to spot than conventional firearms. And if - in your post-apocalyptic world - still some remainders of society exist, like forensics or police, they may draw many conclusions from an advanced ballistic research - such a thing isn't really possible when you use an air rifle.

So in the conclusion, a firearm is reasonable if you have only a few poorly armored enemies and are good at aiming.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is accurate. Consider posting some hard numbers (bullet weight, velocity, force) to show the difference. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, LMD. Please note that the Worldbuilding SE is dedicated to providing detailed answers to specific questions a user has while developing his/her world. We try to avoid guesses and conjecture in answers, as these may be misleading or false. If you could provide supporting citations for the ideas presented here, the community would appreciate it. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre : Ok, placed some citations ;) $\endgroup$
    – Luatic
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe posted some kinetic energies and tried some estimations $\endgroup$
    – Luatic
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ You can check my answer, as a quick web search I was able to find a company that can furnish and air gun back and shoot a 50 caliber projectile at 1150 FPS. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:51

Plausibility of deadly air rifles.

Well, I'm not an expert, not even an initiate on hand guns and rifles, but when I was younger I went to summer camps with an organization similar to the scouts or the YMCA, and I remember that one of the activities done once every summer was shooting with carbines.

They were pneumatic guns that looked like this:

Carbine Image from Google

And the way of reloading was putting the shoulderpad on your knee, hold hard on the end of the rubbery/wooden part and with the other hand push hard away and down the tip of the barrel. Then the barrel hinged down while (I guess) compressing a load of air. Then you could see down the open barrel, you where supposed to put a lead pellet in the barrel and then close the carbine back until you heard the carbin made a CLICK sound. Then you shot.

I think that this gun is deadly if aimed at people. Usually we shot at pellet catchers

A friend once bought one (pneumatic carbine) and used whatever he found for his targets (beer cans, coke cans, mostly cans) (yes, he used the gun with proper protection, behind the things he shot was always a reinforced concrete wall. It was a basement). I remember that he tried to shoot once at a plastic bottle full of air, and the pellet ricocheted off the bottle. He tried to shoot again but with the bottle full of water and this time around the pellet made the expected hole on the bottle. I didn't know that that could happen.


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