Did you know that the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition was accompanied by a BB gun? Not a lot of folks do. To be more precise, it was actually a high energy, compressed air powered, rifle. To be not well known as a historical item is quite odd, as this is the single most significant individual rifle in the history of the American West! Many people simply view the air rifle as nothing more than a novelty, or as an insignificant supply item brought along without rhyme or reason. Although the reasoning behind bringing the air rifle along on the expedition will never fully be understood, it played an important role along the way. Captain Lewis’ air rifle had a larger and more profound impact on the Native Americans, mentally, than any other weapon possibly could have. The air rifle was also far from a novelty, dare say toy. It actually used extremely superior technology for its time, as well as being quite deadly, ballistically speaking. Explain the single most frequently mentioned rifle of the expedition, the gun that won the west, fading away into history, relatively unheard of in modern times.
Sec 1 Identification, operation and non-novelty status (ballistics)
To understand the significance of Captain Lewis’ air rifle, there must be a simple understanding of what it is exactly. This air rifle brought along on the Corps of Discovery expedition was of Italian origin, designed by one, Bartholomäus Girandoni of Vienna for the Austrian military. (Beeman, PhD., et al. 2008) The term “firearm” is used to reference guns that use fire, through the use of gunpowder, to propel their projectiles, and therefore is not be used at any time to describe the Girandoni air rifle. The best evidence of this identification is the account of one Thomas Rodney, as a journal entry as follows;
Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her … when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it. (Smith and Swick, 1997)
This description actually had some historians puzzled, as they found that a typical Girandoni military air rifle of .51 caliber would not hold 22 rounds. They had not discovered yet, that the actual Girandoni air rifle that Captain Lewis carried was in fact a .46 caliber gun and would hold 21 rounds in the magazine tube, as well as one in the chamber, equaling 22. The air rifle operated on just that, air, although compressed to an estimated 800 psi at full charge! (Beeman PhD, et al 2008) For comparison, think of a modern automobile tire carrying several thousand pounds of weight with 32 psi typically. The rifle had a butt stock made out of metal that formed the air reservoir. This reservoir, covered by leather and coupled by screw threads to the firing mechanism and release valve, would discharge air in a short burst each time the trigger was pulled, propelling each consecutive bullet chambered. These bullets, weighing an approximate 145 grains (9.4 grams) could be propelled at upwards of or exceeding 800 feet per second, producing around 200 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle. This is very comparable to a modern .38 special cartridge in energy, although the .46 caliber ball would make a considerably larger hole. The estimated effective range of the air rifle at full charge was 150 yards. Inherent in the design, each consecutive shot would be weaker and weaker until the air charge was less than would remain effective. At this point, the reservoir could be exchanged for a fully charged one, or simply recharged with the hand pump. This is indeed a weapon fully capable of delivering fatal wounds to its intended target.
Sec 2 Superiority over firearms of the era
Many firearms were brought along on the expedition to discover and document the American West. Among these firearms were; a pivot gun (small canon), two blunderbusses, several pistols, rifles, muskets, and shotguns, along with the many personal firearms of the crew. (Weir 2010) Although varying in design, style, and purpose, they all had one factor in common, the use of black powder to propel their projectiles. One of the major inherent faults of black powder firearms, is faulty or lack of ignition, caused by poor spark from the flint, or much more commonly, damp or moist powder. Also, black powder is not something the expeditioners would make along the way. They had a finite supply, and could only restock when available. This is really where the Girandoni air rifle shines. Without the need for black powder to launch its bullets, the Girandoni, could fire rain or shine, and for as many shots as you had bullets and the energy to operate the air pump. A seemingly infinite amount for sure. Another common factor with the firearms of the expedition is that they are all single shot, muzzle loading varieties. The Girandoni air rifle is a repeating rifle, with an attached tubular magazine. Reloading the air rifle was as simple as raising the muzzle end, and pushing a transfer bar to put a new round into battery. (Beeman, PhD., et al. 2008) The muzzleloaders are reloaded after each shot fired, by means of pouring black powder, followed by a projectile, or shot load, down the muzzle of the gun. Then a powder charge was poured into the ignition pan, or possibly a fuse (black powder infused rope) inserted in the case of the pivot gun. Only then could the weapon be cocked and fired. A well trained and level headed individual can fire anywhere from one to three shots per minute from a muzzleloading weapon. Compare this to the Girandoni’s rate of fire of up to 22 shots per minute, and the quick realization of superior firepower is attained. One more advantage of the air gun over the black powder firearm, is the lack of smoke cloud upon firing. A black powder firearm will produce a large thick cloud of smoke with each shot, limiting vision for succeeding shots. The air gun produces no such cloud and therefore one can continue to fire as fast as they can reload and aim.
Sec 3 Mental impact on Native Americans
The air rifle is identified and explained, and the superiority is established, but how is that significant to its importance in history? The answer to that is simple. Intimidation through “smoke and mirrors.” Throughout the expedition, Captains Lewis and Clark, encountered and engaged with many native tribes of America. Part of the Corps of Discovery mission was to convince these tribes that they were part of the United States, and they would have a new leader, Thomas Jefferson. The ultimately necessary method of convincing these tribes to comply was intimidation through display of superior technology, man power, and firepower. To simplify, a display of power. This technique obviously succeeded as the Americas have become what they are today. Still, how does this single individual firearm play such an important role? Through displays of perceived power. Ernie Hudson, playing the role of Principal Claude Rolle, stated, “Power perceived is power achieved” (The Substitute 1996) On August 30, 1804 Private Joseph Whitehouse documented one of these displays of power. Whitehouse wrote this of the air rifle…
” After they had finished dancing Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter, told them that there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution, They all stood amazed at this curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see 〈if to see〉 the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. at finding the Balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that was done surprized them exceedingly.” (Lewis and Clark, et al. 2005)
Showing such an amazing spectacle of technology would be truly amazing to these native people, having never seen or heard of such devices before. Again on April 3, 1806 the air rifle is mentioned in this manner by Captain Clark. “And at one time there was about 37 of those people in Camp Capt Lewis fired his Air gun which astonished them in Such a manner that they were orderly and kept at a proper distance dureing the time they Continued with him” (Lewis and Clark, et al 2005). The lack of smoke, the quiet report, rapid rate of fire, and the seemingly endless supply of ammunition, would be intimidating in and of itself, but what if the expeditioners, led on to the idea that they had an entire arsenal of such weapons? This is exactly what Captains Lewis and Clark did. According to “Captain Clark, and undoubtedly Captain Lewis as well, clearly realized the potential of the airgun, backed up by an assumed further inventory of them, as a tool of “firepower diplomacy”. The presentation of the airgun by Captains Lewis and Clark certainly was not a casual matter, but rather a calculated, considered strategy that apparently paid enormous dividends.” (Beeman, PhD., et al. 2008) No other weapon of the time could come close in comparison to the intimidation factor of the Girandoni repeating air rifle.
Had this weapon not been present on the expedition, the American West as we know it could be vastly different. The expedition may very well have failed, or worse, the expeditioners may have never returned. The air rifle of Captain Lewis was far superior in design and function to any firearm of the time, and could not have been more intimidating, had they tried. Although the air rifle was displayed and shown as a powerful weapon, it actually was a powerful weapon, capable of delivering fatal wounds at respectable ranges, and more rapidly than anything else of its time. Through a façade of “no smoke and magic” the Corps of Discovery mission was a success in not only documenting the American West, but also in establishing ties with native peoples. The west was won with lever action Winchesters. Nay, the west was won with careful planning and a BB gun.
Jonathan James Todd
Beeman Ph.D., Robert D., et al. “New Evidence on the Lewis and Clark Air Rifle – an “Assault Rifle” of 1803. “, last modified, May 15th, 2008, http://www.beemans.net/lewis-assault-rifle.htm#_ftn1
Lewis, Meriwether. Clark, William, et al. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Gary Moulton. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, 2005. http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu.
Smith, Dwight L. and Ray Swick, editors. “A Journey through the West. Thomas Rodney’s 1803 Journal from Delaware to the Mississippi Territory.” Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio. 1997
“The Substitute” Director, Mandel, Robert., Performer, Berringer, Tom.,et al. Dinamo Entertainment, April 19, 1996. DVD
Weir, S.K., “The Firearms of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” August 11, 2010 http://www.westernexplorers.us/Firearms_of_Lewis_and_Clark.pdf