How Tattoo Guns Work


Tattooing is an ancient art form, practised long before there were tattoo guns. Tools found in parts of Europe dating as far back as 12,000 years show evidence or early tattooing art. Egyptians tattooed their mummies in cultural burial rituals as late as the second millennium BCE. Early Asian cultures also incorporated skin art very similar to modern tattoos, as did Africans.


Humans have been obsessed with skin art since the very beginning. Whether it’s an expression of beauty, or for cultural and religious purposes, we have come great lengths to perfect and appreciate its significance. At the heart of years of advancement in skin colouring lies the modern tattoo gun.


The tattoo gun completely revolutionised tattooing, as both an art and a trade. New designs became possible, as did new pigments and finer detailing. The tattoo gun brought about the birth of a profession and an art form. Modern tattooing, as we know it, would not exist without it.




So, how do tattoo guns work, and how did this incredible invention come to be?


The Origin Of The Tattoo Gun


Early tattooing was a painstaking and lengthy process, limited by the crudeness of the methods, which involved using hammering tools and long needles.


Samuel O’Reilly, a former convict, patented the first electric tattoo gun in 1891 in the US. O’Reilly based his invention on Thomas Edison’s Electric Pen, a failed 1875 idea for a pen that would make duplicate copies of text by piercing through the master copy over a stencil with an inked roller to blank sheets underneath.


The electric pen suffered several drawbacks at a time when electric batteries were still rather crude, leading to its failure shortly after launch. O’Reilly added multiple tattoo needles at the tip of the pen, as well as an ink reservoir. That's how the modern hand-held tattoo gun was first designed.


The gun used the original high-speed reciprocating DC motor mechanism to turn circular spin into an up and down piercing movement of up to 50 times a second. At the time, the speed and precision of the machine were utterly impressive. The innovative device rapidly grew in popularity and soon established tattoo artists as professionals. The tattooing culture also grew in turn.


In 1929, another significant improvement came about. Percy Waters, a tattoo artist from Detroit, patented a new tattoo gun design that featured two parallel electromagnets to move the needles instead of the motor. His invention very closely resembled the modern tattoo gun.


How Tattoo Guns Work


As you probably know, tattoo guns work by injecting ink just below the skin’s epidermis layer. Needles moving up and down at a high frequency do the ink injection. The mechanism of exactly how the needles are moved electrically sets apart the different types of tattoo guns. The three most popular types are the coil gun, rotary gun and the pneumatic gun. The fundamental design of the three is the same: they are handheld, have a foot-controlled pedal and include an ink supply.




However, they run on entirely different mechanical principles:


Rotary Tattoo Gun


Rotary tattoo guns are the most popular of the three types of gun. The machine utilises the concept at the heart of the first tattooing machine. A small high-speed motor moves the needle up and down at a very high rate. A rotary mechanism converts the circular motion of the motor into a vertical oscillation of the needle. The design is rather simple and comprises relatively few moving parts.


The rotary tattoo gun is smooth and quiet, owing to improvements in the efficiency and reliability of DC motors. The needles are drawn in a fine, cyclic pattern, resulting in a more fluid movement. The machine weighs very little due to the low number of components.


Coil Tattoo Gun


The coil gun uses a solenoid to create an electromagnet to move the needles. Typical guns have a pair of coils, but some have three while others have only one.


An armature bar suspends above the active poles of the electromagnet. The needles actuate from the armature bar through a retracting spring load. When DC is applied to the electromagnet, they charge and pull down the armature and with it the needles. This movement of the arm disengages a contact switch that cuts off power to the electromagnets, and the spring pulls up the needles and arm. The upward movement re-engages the electromagnets, and the process repeats several times a second.


The machine works on the same principle of an electric bell, using a positive feedback loop for continued operation.


The needle movement in coil guns is a lot choppier compared to that of rotary guns. The tattooing movement of the gun has a characteristic hammering feel from the abrupt push and pull of the needles. The gun is also heavier, vibrates considerably and produces that distinct buzzing sound customarily associated with tattoo shops. Despite these considerable shortcomings, the traditional coil gun remains a favourite among tattoo artists.


The coil gun gives greater control to the artist, since you have to put in a lot of effort to use it. It has a softer hit and a lot of give, allowing for a much larger margin of error. The coil gun is mostly preferred for greys and the ability to fine-tune it to individual hand movements and stroke adjustments.


Pneumatic Tattoo Gun


The pneumatic gun concept, introduced in the early 2000s, was a revolutionary idea in tattoo gun innovation. The machine uses compressed air to drive the ink-injecting needles. The design is quite advanced, making it the most expensive of the three common types of tattoo gun.


The primary upside to the pneumatic gun is the fact that it's lightweight. The gun is also fully autoclavable; you don’t have to disassemble the unit to sterilise in an autoclave. These features make the pneumatic gun a convenient tattooing tool, but some may be put off by its cost.


Liner and Shader Tattoo Machine


Tattoo guns are broadly divided into two categories, depending on their purpose.


Liners are short-stroke machines that let the artist make solid lines in a single pass. While drawing lines, tattoo artists avoid stopping, which could break the continuity of a line. Lines, therefore, need a fast gun. The machines vary from fine liners to standard liners with different needle configurations and speed. Depending on the tuning, liners have between one and seven needles which are usually arranged in a circle.


Shaders, on the other hand, are mostly long-stroke machines for a subtler gradient and ink saturation. They are best for colour fills, shading and line sculpting. Shader guns are much stronger to accommodate more needles in their configuration, and kinder to the skin due to the larger puncturing area. However, they are much slower compared to liners. Shaders equip a minimum of four needles arranged in a line resembling a comb.


The Takeaway


For new or even experienced tattoo artists, understanding how tattoo guns work gives a unique insight into the making of the art. In addition, you can learn to tune the machine to suit your artistic style. This knowledge also helps you narrow down your choice of tools from the various types and brands.


Take some time to view our selection of the best quality tattoo guns for aspiring and veteran artists at Body-Shock. We have a wide range of world-popular specialist tools in both rotary and coil models. We will also supply you with everything you need to keep going, from quality inks and spare parts to needles and other tattooing products.


Here at Body Shock, we believe in spreading body art and have been dedicated to its growth for over 25 years. If you’d like to learn more about tattoo guns and supplies, we are always ready to lend a helping hand to a fellow art-lover.