Steampunk Warfare – The Real Deal

Pistol2This pistol could have come straight out of the imagination of a tinker at a Steampunk Convention.  Actually, it really existed: it’s a rapid fire, compressed air powered weapon, as used by the Austrian army against Napoleon, at the end of the 18th century, and by Lewis and Clarke on their Corps of Discovery expedition in 1803.  The mechanism is called the Girardoni system, named after its Italian inventor.

Using only ratchets, levers, gears, and compressed air, eighteenth century Austrian troops, with the rifle version of this gun, could accurately discharge twenty lead balls per minute, to a range of 100 yards.  English and French troops, with their muzzle loaded powder and shot riffles, while having greater range, could manage only 3 shots per minute at best.

In Europe, for over a decade, this was the pinnacle of 18thC weapons technology—the not so smoking, smoking gun.  Tweet this!

RifleUnfortunately, this beautiful and elegant weapon, was soon surpassed by the more practical powder cartridge system we still use today.  However, with no muzzle flash, no smoke, and low noise, modern versions of the Girardoni gun have recently made something of a comeback among special forces—especially as a night-time sniper weapon.

As a writer creating a steampunk universe, consistency in the story world is one of my greatest challenges.  For instance, I know that not only does the world have a finite supply of Helium, but it is produced through industrial processes.  So in the post industrial age in which Gaia’s Brood is set, hydrogen is the only freely available gas which can be used to fill airships.

The safe handling of Hydrogen filled airships has developed significantly since the days of the Hindenburg airship disaster, but you still would not want to discharge a firearm anywhere near a hydrogen filled airship.

Not wanting to degrade my characters to only bows, crossbows, and swords, I needed to invent a fire-proof alternative.  In researching compressed air weapons, and much to my delight, I discovered the Girardoni rifle, and then the pistol version.  The perfect weapons for my heroine, Nina Swift to wield in her dystopian steampunk world.


The secret to the Girardoni gun is a high-pressure gas cylinder which doubles as the stock of the gun.  This air reservoir is filled and compressed by a bicycle style stirrup pump.  Fifteen hundred pumps to take each rifle stock up to a massive 800psi—enough for forty shots before any noticeable loss of power.  Each cylinder takes twenty minutes of hard pumping to fully pressurize—a process I’m sure my steampunk characters can mechanize.  When the pressure drops, the gun butt is simply unscrewed and replaced with one of two pre-pressurized spares.

Rapid breach loading is achieved via a tube running parallel to the gun barrel, filled with twenty-two, forty-six gauge round-shot.

When the gun is held vertically, a ball rolls down the tube to rest against the breach block.  A gentle squeeze, with the palm of the left hand, pushes the breach block across to the ammunition tube.  The lowest ball drops into the breach block, which returns to the gun barrel, together with the ball, via spring mechanism.  The gun is now loaded.Animation

To fire the gun, simply cock it with the right hand, aim, and pull the trigger, to release a controlled blast of compressed air from the stock canister.  Simple, elegant, mechanical.  The animation shows the motion much better than I can explain it.

Genl-Hal-Nelson-fires-GiranHere’s a short clip of a replica Girardoni rifle in use.  (Zip through the video until you get to the part where the guy in costume is firing the gun, at 1.30 and 4.00).  To me, the motion of loading, cocking, and firing the gun has a simple, almost poetic, elegance.  Very steampunk.

For the hydrogen filled world of Gaia’s Brood, this is the perfect weapon—no flashes, no fire, no flames.  Weapons with rapid firing capabilities, but not too devastating, together with a finite supply of ammunition and compressed gas to add tension and drama.

I have this image of my heroine, Nina Swift, performing a complicated, but elegant, dance as she fires a brace of Girardoni pistols.  To use them simultaneously, the pair of pistols would have to be mirror images of each other.  That way, the breaches could be slapped across with the wrist of the opposite hand, or the arm, or the thigh, or an opponent’s head as you knock them unconscious—the possibilities are endless.Parkour Gun Kata

All I need to do is punk up the guns a bit to achieve the sort of set piece gun actions seen in Parkour Gun Kata.  Parkour:  as in urban street running – a bit like this scene from Gaia’s Brood.  Gun Kata: a sort of Kung Fu with guns, as made famous in the Film Equilibrium (which is too violent for me to show a clip here, but I did find this rehearsal clip from the film 1000 Bullets – which, actually, I thought was better than the film itself, and will adequately demonstrate the sort of action I’m after).

Following the Girardoni trail online, I also discovered this bad boy:

AUT_0171In Coggler’s Brood, the sequel to Gaia’s Brood, Nina’s Airship, the Shonti Bloom, is now equipped with these compressed air cannon, making it the perfect ship for her airpirate nemeses, Annabella Steenkamph.

To save on the need to carry extra supplies, I have worked out a mechanism for air canisters to be re-pressurize on board during the heat of battle.

Not quite an example of fact being stranger than fiction, but certainly almost as strange.  Tweet this!

Who knows, if the Hindenburg disaster had not brought an end to helium filled airships, the Girardoni mechanism might have gone on to become the weapon of choice for twentieth century aviators.

Now I have a suite of weapons to work around, I’m just itching to get stuck into writing those exciting aerial battles, and fight scenes planned for Coggler’s Brood.

I wonder if you have discovered any real life steampunk gadgets?  If so, please share them in the comments below.

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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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