The Lewis And Clark Air Rifle: A Blast From The Past

Sacajawea guiding the expedition from Mandan through the Rocky Mountains. (Photo Credit: Bettman/ Getty Images)

When one thinks of guns and colonizing the West, violence is often the notion that comes to mind. However, the secret weapon (no pun intended) of the Lewis and Clark expedition was an air rifle that played a significant role in the opening of the American West. The Lewis and Clark air rifle had the capacity to be a devastating weapon, yet it never once harmed another human being during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Portraits of Lewis and Clark
Portraits of Meriwether Lewis (left) and William Clark (right). (Photo Credit: Jean-Erick PASQUIER/ Getty Images)

Origins: The Girandoni air rifle

The air rifle that Lewis and Clark used on their expedition originated in Austria around 1778. However, air guns had been a prominent hunting weapon in Europe since the 16th century, primarily to hunt small animals. They were an optimal hunting weapon as they didn’t make noise and smoke when shot. The earliest example of a mechanical air gun dates back to 1580 and is currently on display at the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

In 1778, an Austrian master gunsmith named Bartolomeo Girandoni (1729–1799) capitalized on early air guns and created an air rifle that would later become known as the Girandoni air rifle. The Girandoni rifle had significant innovations that would eventually help categorize it as a military weapon rather than a hunting weapon.

The Girandoni rifle was a breech-loader, with a 20 round tubular magazine alongside the barrel. This made loading the gun very easy, as the user simply had to elevate the muzzle and press a spring-loaded slider, which would, in turn, pick up a ball and snap it into place. Riflemen, who usually had to stand up to load their rifles, could actually lie on the ground and hold the Girandoni air rifle vertically to load it.

Furthermore, the weapon used air rather than gunpowder to shoot the bullets loaded in its barrel. The air reservoir was pressurized to about 800 pounds per square inch. To put this into perspective, a modern automobile tire is typically pressurized at around 35–40 pounds per square inch. When the pressure flask on the air rifle was fully charged, it was good for up to 80 shots.

Austrian Girandoni system accoutrements bag,
Austrian Girandoni system accouterments bag, which includes spare air flasks, air pump, wrenches, bullet mold, and ladle. (Photo Credit: Army Heritage Museum, U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons)

The Girandoni air rifle was in service with the Austrian army from 1780 to around 1815. The army initially adopted it because it had a high rate of fire, no smoke from propellants, and a low muzzle report.

However, it eventually fell out of use, primarily because of the disadvantages associated with it. The first major disadvantage was that to get the air rifle fully charged with pressurized air, 1500 strokes of a hand pump (similar to a modern-day bicycle pump) were required. Not only was this practice time-consuming, but it also meant that if the air pump was lost or damaged, the weapon was useless.

Another major disadvantage of the Girandoni air rifle was that it required extensive training for it to be used optimally because it was so different from any other weapon at the time. Finally, the Girandoni air rifle was very expensive. Each one had to be crafted by master gunsmiths, which took both time and money. It is estimated that probably no more than 1500 were ever made.

Although the Girandoni air rifle eventually fell out of service, there are some important characteristics associated with it. It was the first repeating rifle to enter into general military service, and one of the first rifles to use a tubular magazine. It has, however, gone down in history because of its usage during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Historical Controversy about the origins of the rifle

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis wrote that he had purchased an air gun, but did not allude to where or from whom he bought it. Historians have debated between two possibilities surrounding the origin story of the Lewis and Clark air rifle: the first possibility is that the gun was made in America and later sold to Lewis. The other possibility is that the weapon was a Girandoni air rifle made in Europe and somehow brought to America.

Initially, the conclusion from historians and researchers was that Lewis bought the air rifle from Isaiah Lukens of Philadelphia, who either made the rifle himself or it was possibly made by his father, Seneca Lukens.

In 1846, 40 years after Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition, an auctioneer’s pamphlet advertised the sale of Isaiah Lukens’ possessions. This pamphlet included several air guns and air canes and “one large air gun made for and used by Messrs Lewis & Clark in their exploding expeditions. A great curiosity.”

It should be noted, however, that this pamphlet never states that Lukens made the rifle himself. Furthermore, in 2002, gun historian Michael Carrick determined that Isaiah Lukens was not known to have been in business in Philadelphia before 1814. In 1803, when Lewis purchased the air gun, Isaiah Lukens was still an apprentice to his father in a small town (Horsham Township), located 15 miles north of Philadelphia.

Portrait of Isaiah Lukens
Portrait of Isaiah Lukens, circa 1840-1841. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Historians now believe that Lewis took a Girandoni Air Rifle from Europe on his expedition. An Austrian government report from January 20, 1801, states that 399 air guns had been lost in battle, meaning that there was an increased possibility of higher circulation of air guns circulating in Europe and America. Furthermore, although there are no descriptions of the air gun provided by Lewis, other eyewitness descriptions of the gun seem to have major similarities to the Girandoni air rifle.

How Lewis and Clark used the air rifle

Regardless of how Lewis acquired his air rifle, it became an essential tool in their expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition moved across the newly acquired western portion of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The purpose of this expedition was to explore, chart, and map this new territory. Captain Meriwether Lewis and his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark led this expedition from August 31, 1803, to September 25, 1806.

Sacajawea guiding Lewis and Clark
Sacajawea guiding the expedition from Mandan through the Rocky Mountains. (Photo Credit: Bettman/ Getty Images)

Lewis did not see his air rifle as a weapon; rather, he saw it as a way to impress the various Native American groups they would likely encounter on their journey. In fact, the Lewis and Clark air gun is mentioned at least 39 separate times in journals written during the expedition.

When the men involved with the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered a Native American tribe, they did their best to impress them through pomp and ceremony. Lewis and Clark would often wear their most colorful military uniforms with their flags flying and fifes whistling. They would then meet with the gathered tribesmen and proceed to hand out different gifts, including colored cloth, commemorative medallions, and beads.

At some point during this “ceremony,” Lewis would take out his air rifle and shoot it a few times, confident he would impress his audience. Take, for example, the reaction of the Teton Sioux tribe who witnessed Lewis shoot his air gun in a ceremony held on August 30, 1804. The diary account of Joseph Whitehouse, who served as a tailor on the Lewis and Clark expedition, states, “Captain Lewis shot his air gun and told them there was medicine in her and that she would do great execution. They were all amazed at the curiosity and soon as he had shot a few times, they all ran hastily to see the ball holes in the tree. They shouted aloud at the site of the execution, they were all amazed at the curiosity.”

Illustration of explorers Lewis and Clark being treated by Native Americans
Illustration of explorers Lewis and Clark being greeted by Native Americans, circa 1914. (Photo Credit: GraphicaArtis / Getty Images)

Native American tribes were most likely so impressed by this rifle because it was a technology they had not yet seen. The gunstock reservoir was pumped up before the ceremony occurred, meaning there was hardly any evidence that the weapon’s power was man-made. There was no ramming of the ball into the barrel, no primer in the pan, no flash when shot, no smoke after the shot was made, and several bullets were able to be placed in a target without any pausing for reloading.

Perhaps it was for this reason — the curiosity and wonder surrounding the air rifle — that the men of the expedition were able to pass through Native American villages safely. However, as air rifle and Lewis and Clark expert Robert Beeman points out, “we must avoid the very misleading thought that the Girandoni rifle opened or won the West. Rather, it was the key to Lewis and Clark returning alive and promoting the West.”

Intimidation and close calls

Lewis and Clark’s air rifle was not just used to impress Native American groups, but also to intimidate them. One such instance occurred on April 3, 1806, along the banks of the Columbia River (near modern-day Portland). According to Clark’s diary, several canoes of men, women, and children came into their camp. There were about 37 people at camp at one time, so Lewis fired his air gun, which “astonished them in such a manner that they were orderly and kept at a proper distance during this time.”

Map of Lewis and Clark's travels
Map of the Northwestern United States depicting the route taken by Lewis and Clark on their first expedition. (Photo Credit: Stock Montage / Getty Images)

There was only one time in the entire three-year expedition that the air rifle was nearly used in the way it was supposed to be. On August 11, 1806, Lewis was struck by a stray bullet in the leg and believed that they were being ambushed by a group of Native Americans.

In response, he grabbed both his rifle and his air gun to protect himself. However, the stray bullet had come from one of his own men rather than a surprise ambush, and the air rifle continued to be used for ceremonial purposes only. Coincidentally, this was the last mention of the air gun in expedition journals.

When the expedition ended in late August 1806, Lewis and Clark returned home feeling excited about their successful mission. Soon after the expedition ended, however, the Lewis and Clark air rifle disappeared. For over a century, historians only had the descriptions of this air gun from the expedition’s journals. However, it wasn’t until recently that the rifle has reappeared, seemingly out of thin air.

Rediscovering the Lewis and Clark air rifle

When it came to the attention of historians that Lewis had carried an air rifle on the expedition, their initial guess was that it must have been powered from a ball-shaped tank suspended beneath the gun’s breach. This design was used in many popular sporting air guns made in Europe during the 18th century. It was not until 1977 that gun historian Henry M. Stewart Jr. discovered the auctioneer’s pamphlet for Isaiah Lukens’ estate. This pamphlet gave historians more direction in the type of gun they should be looking for.

As previously mentioned, gun historian Michael Carrick disproved the theory that Lukens was the creator of the Lewis and Clarke air rifle in 2002. Enter Dr. Robert Beeman into the mystery two years later, in 2004.

Beeman, who was an expert on air guns, was contacted by a master gunsmith, Ernie Cowan, who wanted to duplicate a Girandoni weapon in his collection. When Cowan and his collaborator, Rick Keller, disassembled the weapon, they found evidence of previous repairs done on the weapon. The group contacted Michael Carrick, who confirmed that these repairs corresponded precisely to entries in the Lewis and Clark expedition journals recounting such repairs.

Girandoni air rifle
The Girandoni air rifle that is believed to have been brought on the Lewis and Clark expedition. (Photo Credit: Army Heritage Museum, U.S. Army/ Wikimedia Commons)

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Beeman, who recognized the historical significance of the air rifle he now had on his hands, donated the weapon to the permanent collection of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Lewis and Clark air rifle, which had the potential to be deadly, was actually a peaceful instrument essential in the opening of the American West.