This scene recreates Lewis demonstrating the air gun for the Indians on August 30, 1804. The Indians rushed to the target to see if anything actually came out of the rifle since he had fired multiple rounds without visibly reloading the gun with no usual smoke and report of the firearms of his day.
Commissioned and copyright 2005 by Robert Beeman
Painted by Lee Warren
From copy of painting presented to us by Dr. Beeman.
SN 1 with “air-gunners” pouch – From excerpts the “Rodney Journals” we know Lewis carried one on his travels.
All spellings in this story are taken from period documents and journals (Lewis’s and the Sergeants) and left verbatim (often spelled differently in the same accounts) since it adds to the charm of the narratives. In this period of history there was no “correct” or “incorrect” spelling as it was done phonetically – by the sound of the word. In short – if you could understand it you were literate. Lewis spent a great deal of time with President Jefferson working on this “education” in preparation for the journey.
When we decided to take on the M1800 rifle project Ernie became fascinated with the air gun. That led to a new project – the most difficult one of them all.
It took 13 months to back engineer the weapon using the same materials found on the original gun, viz. horn and leather gaskets. To give one an idea of just how difficult as was, the wedge (breechblock) has a .001 taper. It falls open by its own weight but is airtight when closed. No machine can do that. The horn gasket on the air bottle seals 800 pounds of pressure. It too had the be hand filed and fitted for a perfect seal. Builders worldwide have tried to duplicate the gun using modern materials and methods for many years but without success. That says it all.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter II THOMAS RODNEY AND THE “AIR GUN”
Chapter III WHO WAS THOMAS RODNEY ?
Chapter IV THE GIRARDONI MILITARY M1780 AIR GUN
Chapter V MERIWETHER LEWIS AND THE “AIR GUN”
Chapter VI THE LOST “AIR GUN”
Chapter VII THE AIR GUN RIFLEMAN’S POUCH AND ACCESSORIES
Chapter VIII AIR GUN JOURNAL LISTINGS
Chapter IX FINDING THE LEWIS & CLARK AIR GUN
CHAPTER X FOOTNOTES
CHAPTER XI CREDITS & EPILOGUE
CHAPTER XII MISCELLANEOUS – NOTES OF INTEREST
Lewis’s best comment on the value of the airgun to his expedition:
“My Air Gun also astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends everything that is to them incomprehensible.” Meriwether Lewis, January 24, 1806
Until recently, the type of “airgun” (also spelled “air gun” in various periodicals) mentioned by Lewis in the journals of his famous 1804-1806 “Voyage of Discovery” was open to a wide range of speculation. Two specimens, both single shot, already rested in museums labeled as such but there were many gun scholars, including us, that believed several passages in the journals hinted at something other than those single shot rifles.
The accounts of the expedition record many details of their discoveries, but the information pertaining to their personal gear, equipment, and weapons is greatly lacking. The fact that there are many gaps in Lewis’s journals for almost 20 months out of 36 (September,1803 to September,1806) is disheartening. Those missing notes may have shed valuable light upon many unsolved mysteries of the expedition to include more details of his air gun and “short rifle”. Lewis’s purpose of the demonstrations is well recorded – it showed the superior technology of his nation and discouraged hostile acts against his party. On a positive note, the Indians were also told that this technology could be used to protect them from hostile neighboring tribes should they become part of their “17 nations” (states) allied under one great ”Chief” in Washington who commanded an Army of braves (soldiers) that “numbered the stars in the heavens” (and possibly all armed with air guns). If any Indian tribe could have overwhelmed the expedition, they would have dominated their Indian neighbors with the firearms alone for 50 years or more. The presence, as well as the mystery of the air gun to the Indians, is credited today as having played a major role in the survival of the expedition. Knowing its power to inspire awe in audiences, Lewis took every opportunity to demonstrate it in front of each new tribe he encountered. When we shot the air gun at our talks and demonstrations, it’s workings were still “incomprehensible” to our audiences 200 years later.
The story of the discovery of Lewis’s air gun is one of fate, if one really believes in that sort of thing. Our keen interest in controversial and rare historical firearms eventually led us not only to one of his Model 1800 rifles carried on the expedition, but his personal air gun. To date, these are the only two weapons known to have survived. We thought it best to cover the air gun in the order it appears in the journals, then take the story through its discovery to include the people, past and present, who played an important role in making this project possible.
THE BRUNO ISLAND INCIDENT
Lewis mentions that he had acquired an “air gun” on the very first page of his journal, August 30, 1803. We can only speculate about it’s origin. Having studied the history of this gun in great depth, we believe it came from a French immigrant, an ex-military man of some wealth and note, escaping the French revolution. Landing in New Orleans, he found his way to Pittsburgh to settle. To date we have found no connection to Lewis and Lukens’s shop in Philadelphia based upon Mike Carrick’s research into Lukens. We are certain he acquired it in the Pittsburgh area and possibly from one of Bruno’s relatives. How it ended up in Luken’s shop is stillunsolved.
Lewis had to learn how to shoot and maintain the air gun, something that would have taken more than one or two sessions with the previous owner. The fact that he took time to stop at Bruno Island (owned by Dr. Felix Bruno) when only a few miles into his journey hints that he was doing Bruno a favor, perhaps for connecting him to the gun. Entertaining some “gentlemen” friends of Bruno on his island estate with his air gun may have been the repayment for this assistance. Bruno was a person of note in the area and would have known everyone of prominence, to possibly include a French gentleman with an air gun that found its way into Lewis’s hands.
Lewis writes – “Arrived at Brunos Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes. went on shore and being invited on by some gentlemen present to try my air gun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired it myself seven times fifty-five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her to discharge herself accidentaly the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cutting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball,,”(#1/V2/65).
This was Lewis’s first demonstration in public with the air gun. He had charged the bottle reservoir with a full charge and fired seven shot. Our Mr. Cenas pushed on the horizontal spring at the breech of the rifle, and upon release, it moved back into place, having picked a ball from the tube reservoir and aligning it to the bore for firing. Lewis’s journal entry was “being unacquainted with the management of the gun, he pulled the trigger and the gun fired.” It is interesting to note that Blaise Cenas was an immigrant from Marseilles, France and nephew of Bruno my marriage. It may well have been his gun that he had never actually used.
Thomas Rodney remarked “It is a curious piece of workmanship not easily described and therefore I omit attempting it”. When the original air gun surfaced the safety position (1st position) on the tumbler was found to be broken off. The tumbler has 3 positions: 1st (a carry safety), 2nd (a half cock safety needed to set the internal works for firing), and a 3rd (firing position). This broken half cock caused the accidental firing of the gun. Lewis had put the gun on what looked like half-cock safety for a normal two position lock on any firearm of that day, but with the damaged tumbler the gun could fire in that position. Fortunately the ball only grazed the lady’s head with no complications. This event, along with the broken safety, were just two of many things that helped identify the gun as being Lewis’s.
Top photo is the tumbler on Lewis’s air gun showing the broken first position (safety) on the tumbler.
Bottom photo is the first position on our SN 1 air gun as it should be. The far-right deep notch is the one that was broken off of the original tumbler.
THOMAS RODNEY AND THE “AIR GUN”
One week after the Brunos Island incident, Lewis stopped at Wheeling (now West Virginia)on the evening of the 7th and went on shore to meet a merchant with whom he had consigned part of his goods sent by land from Pittsburgh. Lewis writes the same day, “..found the articles in good order; her(e) met with Colo. Rodney one of the commissioners appointed by the government to adjust the landed claims in the Mississippi Territory. In his suit was Majr. Claiborne and a young gentleman who was going on to the Territory with a view to commence the practice of the law. he is a pupil of Czar Rodney of Delaware .. remained all night”.(#1/V2/74).
Lewis makes no mention of the air gun incident since it did not occur until the next day. Lewis’s entry confirms that he was impressed enough with his honored guests to include them in his daily journal.
Major Claiborne accompanied Rodney to Mississippi and served as clerk of the Board of Commissioners to settle land claims in the territory, a board headed by Rodney (#1/V2/74 Footnote #5). The “young gentleman” was William Bayard Shields, who studied law under Thomas Rodney’s son Caesar Augustus Rodney. Lewis would have known him as a member of the House of Representatives and a supporter of Jefferson. He did become a lawyer and judge in Mississippi and was counsel for Aaron Burr at his first trial in Mississippi (#1/V2/75 Footnote #6).
Thomas Rodney’s entry of September 8, 1803 reads, “The weather clear and pleasant, wrote another letter to my son. Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which he fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then he loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the air escaping, and then she fired seven times; but 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 dropped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the trigger is pulled just so much air escapes out of as serves for one ball. It is a curious piece of workmanship not easily described and therefore I omit attempting it”.
Later in the entry he writes “. Then I dined at Mr. Banes with the Major and Shields and Captain Lewes on the great Ohio Pike which was not dressed yesterday, and I found it to be a very good kind of fish …… went on board Captain Lewes’s barge to eat watter millons and then returned to coffee.”(#2/50)
We now know that Lewis had a rifleman’s pouch in order to replace the flask with another charged one and also mention the use of a “tube” of balls (Rodney’s mention that he loaded all the balls at once). If he had only one flask, he would have had to recharge that cylinder which would have required about 2000 strokes. Rodney, a stickler for detail, would have probably mentioned the lengthy process needed to recharge a single flask.
Lewis’s entry of September 8th included “..dined with Colo. Rodney and his suit, in the evening they walked down to my boat and partook of some watermelons”. (#1/V2/75). Lewis had decided to give his men a day’s rest and leisure, setting the stage for an air gun demonstration to follow. It is logical that he would not have passed up an opportunity to impress such important guests (especially a personal friend of Jefferson) with his new toy. Why he did not mention the rifle incident we shall never know, perhaps because it was uneventful to him, unlike the Bruno Island incident.
Rodney recorded in his journal that he wrote his son a letter on the 8th in which he described their chance meeting with Lewis, a portion of which is included in a footnote to the above entry and is as follows – “Meriwether Lewis had arrived in Wheeling the day before “in his Barge .. and Canoos which he had to draw by Horse or Oxen over several riffs in the Ohio before he got here …he Dines with us today – his Barge draws 2-1/2 feet water but our Batteau will draw only 8 Inches so that there is no riff below that will stop us…. Lewis offered me a berth in his Barge but as he goes only to the mouth of the Ohio and then turns up the Misisipi it would not sute us – and our Boat will be Equally Comfortable”(#2/215/Note 10). Rodney makes no mention of the air gun incident in this letter.
Indeed Lewis did encounter trouble with shallow water on September 6th, the day before he met Rodney, and was forced twice to hire horses and then oxen to drag their barge overland..(#1/V2/73) During the course of their meeting Lewis must have told Rodney of his latest river experience only because the man with the horses had charged him “the exorbitant price of two dollars for his trouble”.
Rodney’s entry in his journal for September 9 includes a detailed description of Lewis’s intended journey, his barge and even his iron framed boat. They must have spent a lot of time together for Rodney to gather such information. His final meeting with Lewis is described also – ” Just after diner Captain Lewis called on me to bid farewell. The Major, Shields, and I went down and took a parting drink and part of a water mellon on board his boat and then bid him adieu and stayed on shore to see him depart, and I waited till I saw him over the first riffle”. Lewis does not include their farewell in his entry of the same day but does write that they “waited untill this evening and then set out”. This would put it after “diner”, which was the noon meal in those days, with enough time to walk to the boat, have a drink, eat some mellon and bid their farewell. Lewis records that he had “some difficulty in getting over a riffle one mile below the town”. (#1/V2/P76). This matches Rodney’s description of seeing him over the first “riffle”.
Lewis’s trouble with the air escaping all at once also has merit. He had fired the rifle just over a week before and probably did not clean the internal mechanism since he was unfamiliar with the rifle and the importance of doing so. The slide bar with pin that releases a momentary burst of air from the reservoir are both made of iron as well as the tiny guide tube through which the pin passes. If he had not cleaned it after using it on August 30th at Bruno Island, the iron pin and tube could have become rusted from the cold air rushing through the mechanism (such action creates condensation and eventual rust) causing it to stick in the air release position, resulting in a partial or full loss of air. After cleaning it, the rifle functioned as expected. One has to remember that Lewis was also just learning the workings of the air gun. These first experiences served him well, making it possible for him to maintain the gun in working order throughout the journey despite the main spring breaking (which was replaced by Shields) and the damage caused by one of his canoes overturning.
It is also important to note that we have had similar occurrences befall the rifle after leaving it set for a period of time without use. The neat’s-foot oil that lubricates and seal the gaskets of the gun tends to gum up the firing pin for the air release mechanism. Once fired, it corrects itself. The guns have to be shot on occasion just to keep them operational, which is exactly what Lewis did at every opportunity.
From the information Rodney provided, we concluded that the most likely candidate for Lewis’s air gun was one of the almost 1500 repeating Austrian air rifles made by Girardoni (also spelled Girarndoni in many books but the family spells it “Girardoni” so we will use it out of respect) in Vienna, Austria in the 1780 to 1799 period for the Austrian Army. Today it is a rare gun, but in 1803, it was relegated to the “curiosity” stage. Recorded in history as only a 20-shot repeater (not the 22-shot mentioned by Rodney), it was made in such numbers that it became the logical choice to have found its way to the United States and into Lewis’s hands. Lukens did not move to Philadelphia until 1811, so his long thought early connection with the air gun has no merit, only long after the expedition was over and in whose hands it ended up.
The gun disappeared into history from Lukens’s estate sale for over 150 years. Although the entire air gun community seemed to ignore the Rodney journals, we were convinced that it pointed to the military Girardoni, so the search began for such a rifle in an American collection. When we did eventually locate a specimen to copy for our project in 2004, we were totally unaware that Lewis’s long-lost rifle was about to resurface.
WHO WAS THOMAS RODNEY?
The 200 plus year mystery of what type of “air gun” Lewis carried would not be answered until the publishing of the Thomas Rodney Journals “A Journey Through the West”, by Smith and Swick, from which the information about Rodney is taken. Mike Carrick played a key role in uncovering the Rodney connection to Lewis. While giving a talk on the expedition and the air gun, mentioning that Lewis never described the gun, he was approached by someone in the audience that put him on to the Rodney journals in which the rifle was described in great detail. Only one air gun in history could have fit the description (even with the 22-shot discrepancy) – the military Girardoni model. Once we were certain of the type of air gun Lewis carried, not only did the few incidents in Lewis’s journal hinting at a multi-shot weapon become clear but also the recorded Indians’ reactions. Since Rodney gave us the key to unlock this mystery, we looked into his life.
So who was Thomas Rodney? To say he was quite a character is an understatement, but he passes from a young boastful man through many trials and tribulations to land a Presidential Appointment to a very trusted position in the new Louisiana Territory, and it was during his journey West to begin his new career that he had a most fortunate chance encounter with Meriwether Lewis.
Thomas Rodney, born in 1744 was the brother of Caesar Rodney, a politician of our American Revolution, serving several terms in the Colonial Legislature and Delaware’s Chief Executive Officer (President) from 1778-1782. He was a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, winning him a place on our new United States Quarter coinage series for Delaware. Thomas Rodney, following in the footsteps of his brother’s success became a justice of the peace and a member of the County Common pleas & Orphan’s Court in Dover in 1770. During the Revolution, Rodney became a Captain in the Dover Company, maintaining his patriotic zeal and resistance to England in the American cause. His militia crossed the Delaware with Washington and he saw action in the Battle of Princeton, and as the ranking officer in his regiment, guarded Washington as he moved to Morristown for the winter of 1776. After the war he was not bashful about his part in the Revolution, often being accused of exaggerations in telling his Revolutionary War experiences – even to the point that it was he who convinced Washington to cross the Delaware and attack the Hessians at Trenton.
Upon leaving the service in 1777, he succeeded his brother as Admiralty of the Court in 1778 and was promoted to Colonel of State Militia. In 1781 he was chosen to represent Delaware in the Confederation Congress, to which he was reelected 4 more times and ended up being appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. In 1786 and 1787 he was elected to the lower house of the state legislature. His star declined after the death of his brother in 1784 upon whom he had relied so much to maintain his political and financial status. In 1791 he found himself in debtor’s prison, from which he was freed in 1792.
With the help of influential friends his star rose again when his son became the Secretary of Delaware and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1802. The same year the governor of Delaware commissioned Rodney as a state Supreme Court Justice, carrying with it a judgeship on the appeals court. In July of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, appointed Rodney a territorial judge in Mississippi and Land Commissioner for the district of the territory west of Pearl River. Rodney, now 59 years, left Dover for his new appointment and his chance meeting with Lewis on September 7, 1803.
THE GIRARDONI MILITARY MODEL 1780 AIR RIFLE
It is important to know a little about the repeating air gun Lewis carried and the man who invented it. Barthomeo Girardoni was born in 1744 and was a clock maker and mechanic by trade. In 1778/1779 he convinced the Austrian Emperor and leading military authorities to place an order for 500 “air rifles” (the Austrian military term since some air guns were smoothbores) to be designated the Pattern 1780 air rifle for use as sharpshooter’s weapons. He moved to Vienna, Austria in 1779 and set up shop. By November of 1784, only 274 air guns had been produced due to the difficulty in obtaining good quality material for the 2MM thick air reservoirs, however, by the 1788/89, 1300 had been made just in time for the escalating war with the Turks. (#4)
The gun weighs in at about 10 pounds (empty of balls) and is about 48-1/2″ overall (they vary slightly). The 32-3/4″ barrel has a bore size of 11.75 mm (.464 calibre ball being forced through a .462 bore (#12), rifled with 11 grooves with a 1 in 26-1/4″ twist (2/3 meter) and .005 deep rifling. This was a common muzzle-loading ball size in 18th century Europe. The butt reservoir was iron forged, riveted and brazed together, and then copper coated inside and out to dispel rust. It had a removable leather cover for use as needed in the field. The gravity fed tube magazine was mounted on the right side of the receiver forward of the cock, with a swivel spring cover that allowed quick loading from the front from 20 round tubes. All period writings list it as a 20-shot repeater with the reservoir being changed after firing 20 rounds (#7) but Rodney wrote that it held 22 rounds, a very important detail that confirms he saw the rifle in action. If one ball is placed in the breech block, the magazine will hold an additional 21 balls, making it the 22-shot rifle described by Rodney. Lewis was really “showing off” and shooting the rifle at an increased capacity over what was known then and now.
To fire the rifle, the hammer was first cocked to the 2nd position (the 1st being a safety), then with the muzzle held vertical and the breechblock pushed to the right, a ball would drop into it by gravity from the side loading tube. Upon release, the breechblock spring (mounted on the tube) repositions the bar in line with the bore with a ball in firing position. One more click of the hammer (a 3rd one) places the hammer into firing position. When the trigger is pressed, the falling of the hammer releases the internal spring-loaded plunger, momentarily depressing the valve in the reservoir (which then resets for the next shot), allowing a short burst of air into the chamber, propelling the ball down the bore. This action could be repeated until the ball reservoir was empty. It was possible to fire the entire 22 balls in well less than a minute if one was well acquainted with the rifle.
Each rifleman carried four 20 round chargers and two spare air bottles, so they had at their disposal 60 immediate shots (with change of bottles) with one spare tube of 20 balls. The gun could fire more than 20 shots to great effect on one bottle. We fired up to 30 to discover that any shots over 20 would have still incapacitated a person. The availability of 80 rounds of ammunition in those days was sufficient to fight any battle. The mechanical pumping machines to refill their flasks on campaign never made their appearance as planned, so in practicality the riflemen went into the field with three hand charged flasks and could expect no assistance once they were emptied. It became a very difficult weapon to logistically support and maintain it in the field. It all looked great on paper, but implementation of such grandiose plans was another story. A dent in the loading tube would make the gun useless, so the early brass tubes were replaced with iron tubes on later guns. Beeman’s rifle has an iron tube, while one in our collection (SN 1636) has the brass tube. Another change was the cap on the tube on the air gun. Originally it was solid, but it must have come open too easily in the field so they made a tighter cap with spring catch for the iron tube models.. We also believe the spare air flasks were unnumbered, while the early guns with one flask were serial numbered to match the gun. Beeman’s gun had an unnumbered flask, so it was probably one of the “spares” carried in his gunner’s pouch. The spare reservoirs must have interchanged with any gun, but they did not show up until much later (by request from the Emperor) in the gun’s history. We do not believe Girardoni ever completed the task of supplying each air rifle with two spare flasks due to the poor-quality iron at his disposal.
The first actual delivery of the air rifles to the Army was made in 1788 when war between Austria and Turkey broke out, with each of 24 chosen Battalions of riflemen given 22 air rifles, creating an “air-gunner platoon” of 22 privates, one officer and two corporals for each battalion. The gun may have seen use on the battlefield, but due to its secrecy, nothing has ever been found to confirm it. It was a fragile weapon that could not be treated as roughly a musket, and as such, were constantly in a state of disrepair.
In 1790, the difficulties encountered with the air guns could not be overcome and the remaining 1313 rifles were turned over to a specially raised and trained rifle corps of mixed riflemen. Due to the sad state of the weapons, none could be fielded until December of 1792. That same year Leopold II died and Franz II took over the empire with little enthusiasm for the new rifle. Forty rifles were issued to each company of Tyrolean sharp-shooters and saw use, or were at least present, in the Wars of the First Coalition (1792-97) in the Rhinelands. The rifles continued to be used by various other units throughout this period.
When this war ended, a report of the War Council of September 21, 1799 noted the loss of 308 of the 1500 rifles produced to that date. Of the number remaining, 1091 had been returned to stores. Of the original 500 issued, 399 were reported lost in battle but 101 were still in service with the Tyrolean Corps. An official order of September 21, 1799 by Franz II ceased production of the rifles, with only 41 made in the 1799/1800 time period, bringing the total in stores to about 1150. We recently acquired Serial Number 1636 Girardoni military air gun, which shows they made more than 1500 guns. Exact numbers of those lost in battle, stolen or just discarded varies considerably. Girardoni also passed away in 1799. On March 6, 1801, the remaining 101 rifles still with the Tyrolean Sharpshooter Corps were exchanged for conventional M1795 flintlock rifles, ending all practical use of this weapon. The delicacy of the rifles and the inability of normal armorers to fix the weapons in the field became the rifles’ downfall. (#4)
As Napoleon’s forces neared Vienna in 1804, the rifles and accessories were moved to Komorn in Hungary for safe keeping, but taken back in 1806. They were still stored in Bohemia in 1815, but from there they vanished into history, most likely pilfered or sold off as curiosities over the ensuing years. There are at least 8-10 known worldwide with probably many more in museums and private collections throughout the world.
The tale of Napoleon ordering the execution of Austrian soldiers found with one of these rifles has never been substantiated. The story came from an account written by Colonel Thornton in his “Sporting Tour Through France” in 1802. French General Mortier told of a man struck and killed by a ball from an airgun, after which they hanged any air gunners they captured, considering them “assassins”. (#11)
We do know that the manufacturing of compressed air rifles by unlicensed firms in the Austrian Empire was strictly forbidden as early as 1766, mostly to discourage poaching with a silent arm. An edict of 1796 forbade the carrying of compressed air cane guns and another edict of 1802 reaffirmed the strict licensing and control of guns, pumps and accouterments. This time it was to control the use of such silent arms being used by civilians against the establishment for nefarious purposes. Air rifles of all sorts continued to be made by other gunsmiths in Europe such as Contrainer, Fruwirth, Zana, Stuetsinger, Senger, Colnutt, Lancedelli, Lowenz and others well into the mid 1800’s.
Some of these used the “Girardoni” system in varying degrees. Our research into the Girardoni has confirmed that there is only one caliber of the Austrian military rifle. Mention of two calibers in old articles is a result of improper bore measuring and incorrect translations from foreign sources. The Austrian military air rifle should be properly called the Model 1780 rifle and not the Model 1799 as found in other writings.
Exactly how effective were these guns? Upon completion of our copy of the air rifle we had a chance to test it. The amount of pressure that a soldier could put into the reservoir is limited by the hand pump, resulting in a “built in” safety factor. The rifle works ideally at 800 PSI, which also corresponds to the maximum the hand pump can produce (which is about 2000 strokes). If pumped beyond this figure, the mechanism will not function properly due to back pressure on the firing mechanism. After firing 20 shots, the soldier only had to “top off” the flask (about 500 strokes).
A ten-shot string produced a muzzle velocity of 460 FPS for the first shot and 380 FPS at the 10th, with 635 PSI remaining in the reservoir. Surprisingly, shots #11-20 only used up an additional 85 PSI from the reservoir with a total average muzzle energy drop of only 55 FPS. After continued experimenting with 10 and 20 shot strings, we discovered that the AVERAGE amount of air used for each shot fell within the 7-8 PSI range (slightly higher with the first shots, then dropping off toward the end), proving that the mechanical spring-loaded air discharge mechanism was surprisingly efficient. The maximum number of shots that could be fired from a full cylinder (to completely empty it) was 62. The number of EFFECTIVE lethal shots was about 30. This means that a soldier could, under extreme circumstances, have 120 deadly shots at his disposal with three air cylinders. (#8)
Although these velocities seem low by modern standards, our tests showed, after shooting into various backstops at about 75 yards that it was a very lethal gun. Considering the fact that it was designed to be used against the fragile human body, any of the 20 shots would prove just as deadly as any other weapon on a battlefield without giving away the shooter’s position. The low velocity of the ball may explain why Lewis never used the gun for hunting (at least it is not mentioned in the journals), deciding it was far too fragile to risk damage for such purposes. Its original intent was for use against human targets where a strike in any part of the anatomy would put a person out of action.
LEWIS AND THE AIR GUN
On August 7, 1805 Lewis had to reset and “regulate” the sights which had “been removed by some accedent”. #1/V5/55). This was probably the result of a canoe accident on August 6, 1805 in which Lewis wrote that “a great part of our most valuable stores were wet and much damaged on this occasion”. (#1/V5/53)
Below is a photo of the “scarf” joint used to repair the stock of the rifle. When the repair was made we do not know but the damage was obviously a result of the accident described above. Shields may have just rounded the stock where it was broken and Lewis continued to use the gun “as is” since it would not have affected its operation, or he may have done the repairs of which he was quite capable. Other option is that the repair was done in Lukens’s shop many years later and could possibly be the reason it ended up in his hands and thus sold at his sale.
Below photo shows that the damage done to the gun – it actually tore the key from the rifle.
Above right photo shows the crude had made replacement ramrod pipe on Lewis’s air gun.
Above left is our copy of the solid cast pipe found on all of the original military air gun. The original must have been lost during the accident.
Shields had repaired the mainspring in June of 1805 (#1/V4/Pgs. 271/275) which, being a flat spring (and thus fortunately easy to make), either broke from the repeated flexing of the spring at the pivot point or, more likely, while trying to remove the spring for cleaning, which is difficult, so Lewis wisely restricted it’s use to impressing the Indians with its firepower, which it did in grand fashion.
Photo below shows the original mainspring in Lewis’s air gun. Note the traces of the farrier’s file surface remaining on the spring (an example shown at top). He would have had to soften the file, make the spring and then re-temper it for flexibility. Shields was very good at what he did.
Bottom photo shows the placement of the spring in the lock.
Another misconception is that the air rifle was silent. Private Whitehouse noted in his journal for August 7, 1805. that Lewis “…fired his air gun several times in order that the Man that went out a hunting from the party…. & who we suppose is lost might hear the report…”. (#1/V11/P259) The air rifle is reasonably quiet compared to other rifles of the day when shooting live ball but is slightly louder when fired empty. The only explanation for this entry is that they wanted the lost hunter to know it was indeed the main party with the air rifle, so by firing the air gun in rapid succession in an area where sound carried well, such as the steep confines of a gorge or river bed, it would let someone know if they were above or below the main party and the sound was from the rapid fire air gun.
Many of the entries in the journals were somewhat puzzling until the fact was revealed that he carried a repeater instead of a single shot. The Indians were familiar with muzzle loading weapons and the fact that it worked on air may have impressed them a little but even that gave no great advantage over any other muzzle loader of their day had it been a single shot. The following are just a few examples of the many entries regarding the air gun’s effect upon the Indians. The most important detail to be gathered from all of these entries is that they never saw Lewis load or charge the gun as was required with single shot weapons of their day. . To them the air gun was magically loaded at all times and never needed reloaded refilled. This was truly a great feat and “incomprehensible” to anyone who saw it in operation.
They exploited this “great medicine” to its full potential. On September 25, 1804, Patrick Gass recorded Clark’s words to about 50 Sioux Indians, a few of whom would not let go of Clark’s perogue, demanding more tobacco, and bragging about the many braves they had in the tribe to possibly take by force what they wanted. He wrote “He told them his soldiers were good, and that he had more medicine on board his boat than would kill twenty such nations in one day”. Lewis had already successfully demonstrated the air gun’s capabilities prior to this confrontation (see below). Clark was not only reminding the Indians of the danger they faced if his men were forced into fight, but his threat hints that there were more of the deadly air guns on board ready for immediate use. The Indians backed down and made no more threats.
Whitehouse, August 30, 1804, “..Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter told them there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution, They all stood amazed at the curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily 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 suprized them exceedingly”. \
The Indians ran to the tree to look at the holes because they could not comprehend the gun shooting more than once without reloading from the muzzle as a normal gun would require. They had to assure themselves that a ball was actually be fired from from the rifle at each discharge and struck the target.
Ordway, October 10, 1804, “they appeared to be astonished at the Site of it & the execution it would doe'(#1/V9/79).
The “execution” referred to its ability to fire multiple rounds in rapid succession, which would indeed do great “execution”. If only a single shot, the “execution” would have been no more impressive than that of a single shot weapon.
Lewis, August 17, 1805, “I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine”.(#1/V5/112) Again, the “incomprehensible” was the fact that they near saw him put anything into the gun.
Clarke, April 3, 1806, “Lewis fired the Air gun which astonished them in Such a manner that they were orderly and kept a proper distance during the time they Continued with him..”(#1/V7/66). The Indians had a habit of rushing in upon their enemy after single shot guns were discharged. With this disadvantage overcome, any attack upon the party by the Indians would have been foolish and deadly. Also Lewis never allowed the Indians on the boat and he always hinted that they had more of these weapons at their disposal on board the boat.
Lewis, April 18, 1806, “I shot my airgun in the presents of the natives at the village which excited great astonishment”.(#1/V7/136)
Lewis, January 24, 1806, “My Air-gun also astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends every thing that is to them incomprehensible..”(#1/V6/233)
This is an interesting statement since he makes a distinction between the amount of rounds the rifle shoots and the lack of gunpowder as a propellant. It would have been easier to write ” “its shooting so often without powder”. Thus he is referring to the repeating action of the gun coupled with its use of air instead of gunpowder, both of which would be “incomprehensible” to them.
Lewis, upon his being wounded by Cruzatte on August 11, 1806, “I now got back to the perogue as well as I could and prepared my self with a pistol, my rifle and air-gun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as deerly as possible.” (#1/V8/155).
Lewis, thinkin he was fired upon by Indians, immediately made his way back to where he kept the air gun which held 22 shots, giving him a better chance of survival in a fight. This was another strong clue that he carried a repeating rifle . If it was a single shot he would have provided no such advantage.
THE LOST “AIR GUN”
The mystery of the type of air gun carried by Lewis has finally been settled but its final disposition after the journey eluded scholars. In some of the last entries of September, 1807, Clark would write in the journals and makes note that “Capt. Lewis forward to Washington by Lieut. Peter in – Box No. 1 -” and lists, among many articles, the “air gun”. It now leaves Lewis’s possession for good, ending any theory they he may have had it with him when he died. (#1/V8/419)
From that last Journal entry the trail goes cold until it shows up at Isaiah Lukens’s estate sale of January 4, 1847 in Philadelphia, Pa. Listed on the sale bill was “#95 – 1 large air gun, made for, and used by Messrs Lewis & Clark in their exploring expeditions – a great curiosity”.(#6) Lukens’s possession of Lewis’s air gun was probably well known in his circles, thus it shows up at the sale tagged with a history. It is coincidental that this “great curiosity” was also described by Rodney as “a curious piece of workmanship” and Whitehouse writes that the Indians were “amazed at the curiosity” – all due to its repeating capacity. Being a repeater, it was indeed “a curiosity” when compared to most other single shot air weapons of the day of which Lukens was very familiar. The sale bill listing is the only hard evidence linking Lewis’s air gun to Lukens in Philadelphia. How it came into Lukens’s possession will remain a mystery along with whose hands it passed through until eventually purchased by Dr. Beeman from a California gun shop many years ago. The real mystery is how the gun lost its historical pedigree, thus the many people whose hands it passed through after that were totally unaware of this historical treasure.
Lewis died by his own hand on October 11, 1809, but, amazingly enough, his air gun survived the passage of time for all to now enjoy. In 2006, Dr. Beeman generously donated the rifle to the Army Heritage and Education Center(AHEC) at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, due to the fact that the expedition was Army connected. It was donated with the stipulation that it remain there on public display for all to enjoy. Unfortunately that has not happened but that is another story. From my Army sources it will ultimately reside in the U. S. Army Museum.
THE AIR GUN RIFLEMAN’S POUCH AND ACCESSORIES
We are certain that Lewis had a full air gunner’s pouch and accessories. Lewis would have needed all of the tools in the pouch to maintain the gun and pump. Rodney wrote that Lewis put in all the balls “at once”, which suggests the use of the speed loading tube (#6 below). If they were present, then so was a complete bag. Based upon other incidents in the journal (his wounding by Cruzatte), we also know that he kept the gun charged and loaded to be ready for any emergency. We were most fortunate to locate a complete air gun rifleman’s pouch in the Museo Nationale Storico d’Attigliera in Turin, Italy. As far as we know it is the only one in existence. What happened to Lewis’s pouch remains a mystery. With the help of the museum (and thanks to Dennis Pazinni – another arms collector who had important relatives in that town), we were able to duplicate the leather pouch and contents and calculate the use of each item. .
An 1780 rifleman’s accouterment set consisted of:
1. HAND PUMP
2. COMBINATION TOOL & PUMP FOOT (which one would stand on it with both feet like a bicycle pump)
3. PUMP WRENCH
4. BULLET MOLD
5. LEAD LADLE
6. WRENCH (RESERVOIR VALVE)
7. FOUR 20 SHOT CHARGERS (could hold 21 balls)
8. TWO SPARE CHARGED AIR BOTTLES
Thus equipped, the riflemen could range at will without support, a concept that was already practiced by 18th century American Riflemen. The air gun was a deadly weapon for its day and, as the journals bear witness, it performed magnificently in Lewis’s hands.
AIR GUN RELATED JOURNAL LISTINGS
Although many have been cited in part, we thought it proper to list all of the air gun entries in full context as written in the journals.
Aug 30, 1803 (#1/V2/P65)/Lewis – “..Arrived at Brunos Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes. went on shore and being invited on by some gentlemen present to try my airgun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty-five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her to discharge her-self accidentally the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cutting her temple about a fourth of the diameter of the ball; she feel instantly and the blood gusing from her temple we were in great consternation supposed her dead by(but) in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous..”
Aug 3, 1804 (#1/V2/P439)/Clark – “..after Cap Lewis Shot his air gun a few times which astonished the nativs, we set sail..”
Aug 19, 1804(#1/V2/P492-493)/Clark – “..they were much Surprised at the air gun and Several curiosities which were Shown them none more than the magnet..”
Aug 30.1804 (#1/V3/P24)/Clark – “..the air gun astonished them verry much..”
Oct 10,1804 (#1/V3/P156 &157)/Clark – (156)”..after the council was over we Shot the Air gun, which astonished them, & they all (Departed)..”; (157)”..after the Council was Over we Shot the air guns which astonished them much, the(y) then Departed and we rested Secure all night..” These seem to be duplicate entries along with the following:
Oct 10th, 1804(#1/V3/P221)/Lewis and Clark – “..spoke to them shot my airgun..”(Footnote – remarks from Lewis’s Weather Diary, showing variations in Clark’s notes – another duplicate remark on the air gun.
Oct 29,1804 (#1/V3/P209 & 210)/Clark – (209)”..shot the air gun which Surprised and astonished the nativs, and Soon dispersed..”; (210) “..we Shot the Air gun which appeared to astonish the nativs much, the Greater part of them retired Soon after..”(Duplicate entry).
Oct 30,1804 (#1/V3/P216)/Clark – “..we Smoked and after my Shooting the air gun he departed..” (footnote – a loose sheet in the Voorhis Collection – date may not be correct and is probably a duplicate of above entry)
Jan 16,1805 (#1/V3/P275)/Clark – ” ..we Shot the Air gun..”
June 9,1805 (#1/V4/P271)Lewis – “we had determined to leave our blacksmith’s bellows and tools here it was Necessary to repare some of our arms, and particularly my Airgun the main spring of which was broken, before we left this place..”
June 10,1805 (#1/V4/P275)/Lewis – “..Shields renewed the main Spring of my air gun we have been much indebted to the ingenuity of this man on many occasions, without having served any regular apprenticeship to any trade, he makes his own tools principally and works extremely well in either wood or metal…”
Aug 7,1805 (#1/V5/P55)/Lewis – “..my air gun was out of order and Her sights had been removed by some accedent I put her in order and regulated her. she shot again as well as she ever did..”
Aug 17,1805 (#1/V5/P112)/Lewis – “.. I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine..”
Jan 24,1806 (#1/V6/P233)/Lewis – “..My Air-gun also astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends every thing that is to them incomprehensible -”
Jan 24,1806 (#1/V6/P235)/Clark – “..our air gun also astonishes them very much, the Cannot Comprehend its Shooting So often and without powder, and think that it is great medicine which comprehends everything that is to them incomprehensible..”
Apr 2,1806 (#1/V7/P55)Lewis – “..I shot my air gun, with which they were much astonished..”
Apr 3,1806 (#1/V7/P66)Clark – “.. Lewis fired his Air gun which astonished them in Such a manner that they were orderly and kept a proper distance dureing the time they Continued with him -“
Apr 18,1806 (#1/V7/P137)/Lewis – “..I shot my airgun in the presents of the natives at the village which excited great astonishment..”
May 11,1806 (#1/V7/P242)/Lewis – “..after the council was over we amused ourselves with shewing them the power of magnetism, the spye glass, compass, watch, air-gun and sundry other articles equally novel and incomprehensible to them..”
May 11,1806 (#1/V7/P244)Clark – “..after this Council was over we amused ourselves with Shewing them the power of Magnetism, the Spye glass, compass, watch, air gun and Sundery other articles equally Novel and incomprehensible to them.”
Aug 11,1806 (#1/V8/P155)Lewis – “..I now got back to the perogue as well as I could and prepared my self with a pistol my rifle and air-gun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as derely as possible.”
1806 (shipped gun)(#1/V8/P419)Clark “From St. Louis 1806″ – ” 1 air gun” in box No.2.
Aug 30, 1804 (#1/V11/P65-66)Whitehouse – “..Capt. Lewis Shot his air gun told them that their medicine was in hir & that She would doe Great execution, they were all amazed at the curiosity, & as 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 She would doe &c.” (This entry is the subject of the painting at the beginning of this story)
June 10, 1805 (#1/V11/P192)Whitehouse – “The black Smiths fixed up the bellowses & made a main Spring to Capt.(Lewis’s) air Gun, as the one belonged to it got broke.”
Aug 7, 1805 (#1/V11/P259)Whitehouse – “he also fired off his air Gun several times in order that the Man that went out a hunting from The party that was with Captain Clark up the North fork Yesterday & who we suppose is lost might hear the report, he having as yet not returned.”
Sept 25,1804 (#1/V9/P67)Ordway – “..Capt. Lewis Shewed them the air Gun. Shot it Several times.”
Mar 9,1805 (#1/V9/P121)Ordway – “..Capt. Lewis Shewed them the air Gun quadron & Spy Glass..”
June 10,1805 (#1/V9/P165)Ordway – “..the blacksmiths fixed up their bellows & repaired the air gun & Several other fire arms..”
Aug 7,1805 (#1/V9/P198)Ordway – “Capt. Lewis took an observation & Shoot the air gun.”
Aug 31,1804 (#1/V9/P50)Ordway – “..the Commanding officers Shewed them the air gun and a great many other curiosityes..”
Oct 10,1804 (#1/V9/P79)Ordway – “..after all was over our Capts. Shot the air gun. they appeared to be astonished at the Site of it & The execution it would doe.”
Oct 29,1804 (#1/V9/P92)Ordway – “Capt. Lewis Shot the air Gun which pleased them much..”
Aug 17,1805 (#1/V9/P205)Ordway – “..Capt. Lewis Shot the airgun, Which they thought a great medicine..”
FINDING THE LEWIS AND CLARK AIR GUN
Our story would not be complete without answering the most often asked question while giving our air gun talks and demonstrations – how did we find it? That story is quite unique and worth recounting since it has never been published and is only recounted in part at our talks.
The discovery of Lewis’s air gun was made possible only because of our keen interest in studying rare and unusual weapons of great historical value, especially if they are so rare that they are basically misunderstood and thus surrounded in controversy. The only way to solve such a mystery is to build an EXACT copy (using all of the same materials available at the time) of the particular weapon in question and see how it performs under trial.
We had successfully accomplished this with the two British rifles used in the American Revolution – the “Ordnance Rifle” (known today as simply the Ferguson breech-loading rifle) and the two types of British “rifled carbines”(today called the Germanic and British Pattern 1776 rifles). In those cases, not only did the rifles perform beyond expectations, but the unusual breech-loading rifle Ferguson proved that it was 100 years ahead of its time both in reliability and accuracy. It served well and all evidence indicates it was at the King’s Mountain battle where Ferguson’s dream of an independent British Rifle Corps died with him. Our work with these rifles provided the credibility needed to readily gain assistance from other collectors when we entered into the air gun project.
The finding of Lewis’s air gun came about in conjunction with resolving a long-standing controversy over the type of “short rifles” carried by Lewis & Clark on the expedition. With the publishing of the complete journals by Gary Moulton and our own research, the evidence proved beyond a doubt that Lewis carried 15 “prototype” Harper’s Ferry rifles made especially for his expedition. This is now an accepted fact within the circles of serious, open-minded history scholars.
It was during our short rifle project that the Thomas Rodney Journals came to light, describing a visit with Lewis on his barge in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he saw Lewis demonstrate a 22-shot repeating air gun. Other clues in the journal suggested the use of a multi-shot weapon, but this new discovery confirmed these suspicions. We concluded that it could only have been one type of gun – the Model 1780 Girardoni military repeating rifle of which almost 1500 were made in Austria from 1780 to 1799.
Very little was known about the Girardoni rifle worldwide and as we were to discover. Almost all published articles contradicted each other to the point that we thought there might be two different models and calibers. It was the exact type of mystery we enjoy, so we set about to locate an original rifle for close study.
In mid-2003 Ernie talked with Colin Currie, an English air gun enthusiast, and asked if he knew where we could obtain an original Girardoni repeating rifle in the United States. He directed us to Dr. Robert Beeman who owned a Girardoni that was currently on display in a Lewis & Clark exhibit in Pittsburgh, Pa., a three-hour drive from Chambersburg, Pa..
This is where the story takes a very interesting twist. Colin warned us not to mention, under any circumstances, the connection of the Girardoni to Lewis & Clark because Dr. Beeman, an accepted air gun expert, had thrown his full scholastic weight behind a single shot Lukens air gun in the Virginia Military Institute Collection as “the” Lewis and Clark air rifle. In defense of his position, Dr. Beeman made an extensive and passionate argument in his 2004 Air gun book disputing the Rodney journal entries by attacking Rodney’s credibility. If you read the Thomas Rodney journals, it is very clear that although Rodney had a clouded past and was quite a “character” for his day, he was well enough connected and trusted to be appointed a Judge in the new Louisiana Territory by President Jefferson to settle previous land claims and the disputes that would obviously arise. It was during his trip to take this new position that he wrote the journal and just happened to meet Lewis on his was West. As the President’s representative, he was not about to fabricate stories. His star had risen again and he no longer needed to build on his character to gain prominence. World scholars accepted the Rodney journals – all except one – Dr. Beeman. It was apparent that he would defend his VMI air gun theory regardless of any and all credible evidence to the contrary.
With Colin’s warning in mind, we still decided to approach Dr. Beeman about borrowing his Girardoni rifle when it came off of display in Pittsburgh without mentioning the real object of our intentions. When Ernie called Dr. Beeman he asked how we obtained his phone number and we explained all the background information along with our desire to copy a Girardoni rifle just to see how it functions. Even though Dr. Beeman was somewhat hesitant to lend us his rifle, his wife convinced him to let us borrow it – viz. by letting the rifle make a detour via Chambersburg and then back to California. The generosity of Dr. Beeman to let us borrow the rifle for our research is fully acknowledged, otherwise we could not have settled the long-standing controversy as to what type of air gun Lewis actually carried.
Dr. Beeman had purchased the rifle about 30 years ago as an example of a Girardoni air gun and had used it in several articles, but was totally unaware of the history that lay beneath the surface of his well worn gun.
When we went to pick up the air gun in Pittsburgh the museum curator pointed out that although they were thoroughly convinced that a Girardoni type rifle was on the expedition (thus their interest in displaying it), Dr. Beeman insisted upon a “disclaimer” that the Girardoni could not be mentioned as being the type of air gun on the expedition – after all, the REAL one was at the Virginia Military Institute. As part of the loan agreement, a photo of the Lukens’s air gun and its reputed association with Lewis had to be displayed along with it. Thus, to obtain the Girardoni for their display, they complied to his request.
It was at this point we began to fully understand Dr. Beeman’s determination not to have the legitimacy of his VMI Lukens single shot air gun theory undermined. Our project now went underground – it had to be kept a secret until completed and this was BEFORE we knew the significance of the gun we borrowed.
Copying the air gun proved to be the most difficult challenge Ernie ever faced and consumed 13 months to turn out the first rifle. Every aspect of the gun and construction had to be reverse engineered and duplicated in the same manner as the original guns. He was restricted to materials available in 1790 – viz. leather and horn for gaskets. The problems encountered could fill a small book, especially the delicate internal mechanism, but all were overcome with time and perseverance. We both gained a healthy respect for the man who designed and built the rifles and now understood why it took almost 8 years for the first guns to come off of his production line for the Austrian Army.
While making the copies, we concluded that Girardoni took the .464 ball and reverse engineered the air gun to make it lethal at 100 yards. To do this stretched the limits of 18th century air gun technology. They had no idea of the actual pressure in the flasks during that time (almost 800 PSI – modern tools in garages run on about 135 PSI). His genius was in designing the air gun flasks to take no more pressure than needed to meet his demand with the hand pump provided. If the pressure goes over about 800 PSI, the gun will not function. Girardoni had serious problems getting quality iron for the flasks (a fact he presented to the Emperor when he complained about the slowness of providing of spare flasks for each gun) and they were constantly exploding on the test pumping machine (which counted only the number of “strokes” to charge the flask).
The first clue that we were on the right track as to the Girardoni being the gun Lewis carried was the confirmation of by Rodney of the rifle’s 22 shot capacity. This previously unknown and unpublished fact proved true. Published articles on the rifle called it a 20-shot repeater. We calculated the caliber (.46), cast some balls and discovered it would indeed hold 22 shots, one in the chamber and 21 in the side loading tube. This was significant discovery since Rodney could only have discovered this detail from one source – Lewis himself. We were on the right track.
We were 6 months into the project (July of 2004) before the second significant clue emerged that made us stand up and take notice. It was time to copy the lock so Ernie disassembled it and found that the main spring was made from an unusual piece of metal that retained faint cross hatches on the surface. He contacted someone to identify the material and it turned out to be made from a farrier’s file, a common tool used to trim horse hooves.
Now this was a very significant discovery. The world was well aware from the journals that Shield’s had replaced the mainspring in the rifle. If the mainspring had been replaced in “civilization”, they would not have used such material, but a farrier’s file was something that Shields would have carried in his tool kit. It was the exact thickness needed and of the perfect material to anneal, shape and re-temper into a spring. A few more swipes with a file would have removed the cross hatch markings. We now realized that we may be holding in our hands the actual replacement spring made by Shields in June of 1805. This made the hair stand up on the back of our necks. We were now in a big dilemma and decided to keep this finding to ourselves until we could do more research. We did however contact Phil Schreier at the National Rifle Association and informed him of our findings. He was a longtime friend and at the same time had been embroiled in the Lewis air gun debate for many years, contradicting the Lukens’s air gun theory for many arguable reasons that we cannot go into. He too had become rather frustrated over Beeman’s refusal to accept the Rodney journals when they were obviously beyond reproach. We invited Phil to the shop and he became the only person to whom we entrusted our findings. He agreed that it was a distinct possibility that Dr, Beeman’s rifle was “the” weapon, but he too strongly advised caution when dealing with Dr. Beeman for the same reasons mentioned earlier in the story.
In addition to the main spring. there were other clues that came to light. The rifle showed crude workmanship around the sights, matching another journal entry where Lewis had to reset the sights that had been knocked off (Lewis’s words “knocked off”) from an accident and had to “regulate” the gun, which means resetting both sights and shooting it back in. There was crude filing done on the barrel flats in the sight area, which would only have been done while accomplishing this task.
The upper fore end of the rifle had been replaced with American walnut while the rear part of the stock remained European walnut. The stock had been repaired with a “scarf joint”, a method not used after about 1850, placing the rifle in this country before that date. When the actual repair to the stock was done is still undetermined, perhaps by Lukens at a later date (perhaps explaining why it was in his shop), but we know from Lewis’s praise of Shields’s expertise, he also could have done the job.
The safety cock (1st position of the air gun(and looking like the first position half-cock on any other weapon) on the tumbler was broken off, allowing the rifle to fire from that position. We finally had the answer to the Bruno Island incident where they almost killed a bystander when the gun went off by accident.
Another feature, which may seem insignificant, are the “lightning” bolts carved into the stock around the trigger guard that were obviously not original to the gun. These may have been added by Lewis to enhance its “visible” power in the eyes of the Indians who saw such things in nature as mysterious, invisible and deadly forces. The air gun was an “invisible” deadly force, having unlimited shots without powder flash, report or smoke since he never allowed them to see him charge or load it – becoming “the White Man’s Great Magic”. Thus Lewis wrote they could not “comprehend the incomprehensible” – a great choice of words to sum up the total effect the air gun had on the Indians. The below photo shows the additional carvings that did not exist on original military rifles. Note the 3 small “lightning bolts” on each side of the trigger guard tang possibly added by Lewis.
Most of all, the rifle showed extremely hard use and abuse – something uncommon in these rifles. Even in the Austrian Army, if any accidents or damage befell gun, it would have been returned for professional repairs by Girardoni. If in civilian hands it would have been even better handled as a prize (and expensive) weapon and never suffered such abuse. Since Lewis never used the rifle for hunting, we can conclude that he also determined it a far too valuable a weapon to chance damage.
Now we began to look at the gun in a new light. It had been hard used, roughly handled and field repaired. Most of all, the overall condition of the gun, combined with the damage and subsequent repairs matching incidents in the Lewis & Clark journals, made us realize that we were probably holding Lewis’s actual air gun. We decided to quietly continue with the project until we were far enough along that when we informed Beeman of our findings (and face the possibility of losing the air gun in hand), we could still complete the project.
Ironically, while we were moving along on our project, Dr. Beeman questioned us as to why we were not making a copy of the REAL Lewis and Clark rifle at Virginia Military Institute. We simply replied that we were only interested in the uniqueness of the Girardoni system – a small half-truth, but necessary.
We had decided to build only 4 rifles due to their complexity and expense, both in time and materials. Serial numbers 1 & 2 were to be retained for shows and demonstrations. Serial number 3 was promised to a collector and serial number 4 to be kept available for loan when requested. Ernie generously offered number 4 to Dr. Beeman since he was an avid air gun fan, but he declined the offer, so we went back to our original intent not to sell it.
We set a deadline of October 2004 to make an announcement to Dr. Beeman on our findings. We continued documenting and building the gun. Eventually we finished the first air gun and built an irrefutable case to prove the rifle was indeed Lewis’s. When October came, Ernie placed a phone call to Dr. Beeman and told him that he had some good news and some bad news about the air rile we had borrowed for our project. He first asked what the bad news was – expecting that perhaps something unfortunate had happened to his gun. Ernie replied that we know for certain that Lewis & Clark did not carry the Lukens air gun now in the VMI institute as he had so avidly proclaimed. Without comment, he asked what the good news was, at which point Ernie told him that there was overwhelming evidence that his Girardoni rifle we had borrowed was the REAL Lewis & Clark air gun.
Ernie asked him not to make any rush judgments either way based on just our conversation, that we would mail him a full report on our findings, to study them for several weeks and then get back to us. We knew up front that if we were to convince Dr. Beeman that his Girardoni was the one carried on the expedition we would have to lay out an airtight case. Only then would he consider making any concessions to his old arguments and change his mind on the type of rifle Lewis carried.
We sent a detailed report on our findings to him,.. Within several days after the receipt of our package, Dr. Beeman called to informed us that our argument was so convincing that he had to admit he had been wrong on the VMI air gun and that he probably did own Lewis’s gun. He also informed us that he was coming back to our shop to photograph the rifle and prepare an article based upon out findings. The fact that he owned the real gun was a bit of a shock to him but he realized the truth had to be told even if it meant admitting his error. Using our work, Dr. Beeman set about to introduce the world to our new discovery. All we asked from him was that proper recognition be given for the role we played in this most important discovery. The decision to let him be the one to make this historical announcement to the gun collecting world was the fair, proper and ethical thing to do since it was his gun. We never intended to, nor did we want to, profit from this important discovery, otherwise we would have kept it our secret and taken advantage of our knowledge at a much later date. The gun was just too important to our history to bury it for selfish motives.
It was at this point that Dr. Beeman asked if he could purchase Serial Number 4 air gun previously offered. Again, Ernie explained that we wanted it available for loan to museums for Lewis & Clark displays. After a lot of pressure by Dr. Beeman, Ernie finally conceded to let him have gun number 4, feeling it was the professional and gentlemanly thing to do.
The first introduction of the Lewis & Clark air gun for public viewing was at the Baltimore Maryland Arms Collectors Association gun show in Timonium, Maryland in March of 2005 where the display took the trophy for the best weapon for rarity and historical value.
We then set up the display in July of 2005 for the National NRA gun show held in conjunction with the Missouri Valley Arms Collectors Association in St. Joseph, Missouri where the display and weapon took the top two awards with unprecedented votes by the judges.
The honors presented by these two highly respected organizations, along with the broad acceptance by open minded and intelligent arms collectors in the world, brought the air gun the recognition and acknowledgement it deserved. It also settled a long-standing controversy over the type of air gun Lewis used and that Dr. Beeman’s Girardoni military rifle was the most likely candidate to date for the actual weapon carried by Lewis on the expedition. As Phil Schreier (NRA) said – short of having an actual photograph of Lewis holding the rifle, we had enough evidence to allow the court of public opinion to pass a favorable judgment on the Beeman Girardoni rifle. There will always be doubters, but all they have to do is find a better candidate.
The satisfying part of our efforts was that our accidental finding Lewis’s air gun was a gift to the country. Our copying and shooting of the Girardoni rifle was a complete success, resulting in answers to every question hereto unknown about the rifle and added greatly to the world knowledge of this unique weapon and the accessories carried by a rifleman of that era. Girardoni’s contribution to firearms history can now be seen in proper perspective – one of 18th century ingenuity, craftsmanship and simplicity in design. Ernie and I gave talks and demonstrations all over the East Coast and as far as the mid-west. At these talks we allowed everyone to actually shoot the air gun. If you were fortunate enough to attend one of our lectures and fire this unique weapon, you may count yourself very lucky indeed. Everyone walked away with a new, profound respect for this ingenious rifle.
#1 – The Definitive Journals of Lewis & Clark , Gary E. Moulton, editor, Nebraska Edition, 1986.
#2 – A Journey Through The West, Thomas Rodney’s 1803 Journal from the Delaware To The Mississippi Territory, Smith and Swick, Editors, 1997.
#3 – Smith’s Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air, & Spring Guns of the World, 1957.
#4 – “Napoleon was not Afraid of it”, Fred Baer, Arms & Armor Annual, Volume 1. 1973.
#5 – A treatise on Air Guns and other Weapons, Reilly, Junr., Gun Maker, London, England, 1850, reprinted, W.S. Curtis, 1995.
#6 – “The American Air Gun School of 1800-1830”, Monthly Bugle, Pennsylvania Antique Gun Collectors Association, 89,(1977), Pgs. 2-7.
#7 – Society for Historical Weapons and Uniforms/ Volume 6/ 1964/ Publication #2, article “The Austrian Military Repeater Air Rifle and its inventor, Barthomaus Girardoni” by Walter Hummelberger and Leo Scharer, Pg. 91.
#8 – An interesting anecdote of the shooting of a Girardoni rifle is found in “Air-Guns and Air-Pistols”, L. Wesley, 1976, on PP 31-32 and is worth printing, as it corresponds to our discovery about the effectiveness of the rifle. He found that 900 pounds air pressure almost shattered a ball when striking a steel plate and that it performed well at 100 yards with the leaf sight and would carry effectively to 200 yards. A friend of his, doubting his claims, asked for a demonstration so a fully charged rifle was put to the test for his amusement with the following results: “We hadn’t a target handy so my friend chalked a large white spot on the door of his outhouse, then retired a measured 60 yards and fired five shots at the chalk mark. So far so good. We walked leisurely back to the outhouse and examined the bullet holes, all of which were grouped well within the mark. When he opened the door however, he found that the bullet had passed right through the “7/8″ thick wood door, and much to his dismay had made five neat holes through his mackintosh which as hanging up behind the door, passing through both sleeves in the process. When the cussing had ceased, we noticed that there were also five holes through the weather boarded back of the outhouse. The climax came as my friend suddenly remembered that he had left his bicycle leaning against the wall at the back of the shed, right in the line of fire. We quickly ran around to see if any damage had been done, and there was the bicycle with the front wheel looking like a figure 8. My friend’s language was unprintable, but ever since that episode he has had a very healthy respect for antique air-rifles”.
(#9) Baer, op. cit.: The Senior Director of the Imperial Kingdom’s Gun Factory in Vienna, I.K. Artillery Colonel Natalis de Beroaldo- Bianchini who used the weapon, noted that “numerous bottles burst in the hand” and that he personally knew of a number of workers who “had been seriously injured in this way”. He goes on to note that the bottle, when filled, attained the pressure necessary to fire 20 to 30 lead bullets to a distance of about 100 meters. (Translation of the paper by Erich Gabriel: “The Shoulder and hand Weapons of the Hapsburg Armies”).
(#10) Baer, op. cit.: General Artillery Director Joseph Count Colloredo reported to the Court Council of War on July 31, 1789 that “the air guns distributed amongst the infantry battalions in the last year’s campaign” was deemed to be unsuccessful, not only because the soldiers had been insufficiently trained in their use, but also because “the gun itself had to be treated with much more care and consideration than the conventional weapons … and thus became defective and unusable within a very short time”. It was he who proposed that a “special corps of air rifle marksmen” be established. His request went unheeded and the Emperor had the air rifles distributed to sharpshooters seconded to individual “Grenadier Regiments”. It was not until after the Emperor’s death that a specific corps was established to use the air rifles, but even they encountered problems with the complexity of the rifle with the most frequent problem being the valve mechanism. We discovered that the neat-foot oil would eventually dry out, gumming up the valve mechanism. The best way to avoid the problem is to shoot the gun constantly. If left set for an extended period of time unused, the valve would have to be disassembled and cleaned. The air-gunners tool bag contained everything needed to accomplish this task.
(#11) “Airguns and other Pneumatic Arms”, The Arms & Armour Series, Arne Hoff, 1972, P.68. (#12) UPDATE (06/20/17): We chose the .464 ball because all writings of the period described it as a 13mm which was .464, and it functioned well in our demonstrations. We have recently tested a .467 ball and found it to increase velocity (which WAS supposed to be higher in other writings than we were getting from our rifle). We intended to check the diameter of the bullet mold in Turin, Italy in the future but Ernie’s passing in 2018 prevented that. It is the only one known that we know was made specifically for the Girardoni rifle.v We also found out that the balls must be of pure cast lead. Any impurities (such as the slightest tin content) will cause the ball to hang up in the bore.
CHAPIER XI – CREDITS & EPILOGUE
We wish to thank Colin Currie of England without whose assistance the air gun project may have never gotten started. For those who desire a more in depth study of the air gun, its history and operation, you will need his book “The Construction and Operation of the Air Gun”, available at email@example.com if they are still in stock.
Also Philip Schreier of the NRA museum, for his encouragement and guidance in the air gun project, and Mike Carrick for his support in both the short rifle and air gun project. Without their avid interest in history, Lewis’s air gun would probably still be lost. We cannot call ourselves historians if we do not have the courage to and conviction to accept and recognize much-needed changes in history when laid at our door.
MISCELLANEOUS – NOTES OF INTEREST
FLASK VALVE ASSEMBLY
Fig.1 – AIR BOTTLE VALVE ASSEMBLY: This is the mechanism that allowed a short burst of air to enter the chamber through the oval openings at the bottom to propel the ball down the bore. All of the gaskets shown became airtight once the neat’s-foot oil dried and hardened.
Fig.2 – AIR BOTTLE VALVE ASSEMBLY DISASSEMBLED into 5 parts
The internal parts shown from left to right are:
AIR BOTTLE THROAT: This attaches to the air bottle, shown with leather washer air seal.
HORN SEAL: Made of cross sectioned COW HORN, it seals the air bottle throat to the air flask and was capable of holding 800 PSI in the bottle. We called it the “plastics” of the 18th century. It was the only material of that period that would hold such pressure. It took us a while to figure it out after trying numerous leather gaskets that would not work.
VALVE SEAT (PLUNGER MECHANISM) WITH RECOIL SPRING (consisting of right three parts – disassembled): This assembly thread into the bottom of the air bottle throat to make the complete assembly. When the gun is fired the striker from the lock actions pushes against the center of the valve seat, driving it downward, unseating the tapered leather valve seal for a split second to allow the required burst of air to enter the gun chamber. The spring then returns the valve seat to a position for the next shot.
Worthy of note is that brass coil springs were almost unheard of in the 18th century. Brass components were required to prevent rusting caused by condensation from the air passing through valve. The valve seat itself is made of stacked leather washers filed to a perfect 60-degree taper. It is the same taper used in air valve seals on tires today. Girardoni figured out (in 1780) that this was the best taper to use for an air seal. When new it is not a perfect seal, but with the use of neat’s-foot oil as a lubricant in the mechanism, the oil eventually penetrates the leather during use, dries and creates an airtight seal. The original valve seat on Lewis’s gun looked like glass on the surface from firing it repeatedly plus the 800 pounds constant pressure on its surface. It took us a while to figure this one out also.
The above photo is of an unfired ball (left), a fired ball (center) showing the micro-rifling from the barrel and a ball that struck a steel plate at 25 yards (right), proving that the air gun was a serious weapon of its day. At 50 yards, from a bench rest, one can easily hold a group the size of a half dollar.
1” pine board with 3 shots from the air gun, done for the NRA series“Gun Gurus” in 2015. The “P.S.” shot was made by Phil Schreier of the NRA who hosts the series. Other two (circled) were shot by Ernie Cowan. He was a dead shot with the air gun, which is amazingly accurate. Distance was about 35 yards off-hand.
As if stepping back to 1805, this flat main spring of the lock on gun #2 broke during one of our firing demonstrations – the same thing that happened to Lewis. The constant flexing of the spring during use caused it to happen. In “We Proceeded on” journal, May,2006, Volume 32, no. 2, Dr. Beeman wrote a very good article on the air gun based upon our research and shooting which also contains information and detailed photos as to how we connected his air gun to Lewis. In the same volume we covered the M1800 rifle story. In his article Dr. Beeman refers to a “pin” that is inserted into a hole on the lock-plate to retain the mainspring in place when removing the lock. Below is the lock with the hole referred (top photo) and the pin in place (bottom photo) in the lock to keep the mainspring from snapping down and breaking on the mainspring seat. The lack of use of this pin may have caused the spring to break, but since we had one break in use, we now believe it was caused by just normal flexing of the spring during use.
Mainspring pin hole in front of cock
Mainspring pin in place just before 2nd cock. Releasing it from 2nd cock down to 1St cock would release pressure on main spring to allow safe and easy removal.
Shooting the Air gun
We know that it took about 2,000 strokes of the hand pump to bring the cylinder to the required 800 PSI, but how well did it preform? We did some experiments with the rifle and discovered the following:
After shooting 10 shots from the cylinder we had 635 PSI left in the flask with shot #10 velocity at 381 FPS. After 20 shots 550 PSI remained with shot #20 velocity at 326 FPS. This averages out to about 12.5 PSI per shot. Velocity for the first shot was 463 FPS. So after 20 shots the flask only had to be “topped” off back to 800 PSI (about 625 strokes). It was still a lot of work!
We did notice that velocity drop was varied between shots probably due to slight inconsistency in ball sizes.
In combat it was recommended that the flask be changed after 20 shots, and since they had three flasks, that gave them an effective 60 shots. In a combat situation more shots could be fired per flask and still put an enemy out of action.
We tested our new air bottles to 2000 PSI with a special test rack for the bottles in case they burst. All of them passed the pressure test. When giving our talks we transferred the air from a scuba tank to attain the 800 PSI required.
2005 NRA TROPHIES WON WITH AIR GUN AT KANSAS CITY, MO SHOW
“BEST EXHIBIT AND BEST ARM OF THE SHOW ”
A NICE ENDING TO THE AIR GUN STORY
Ernest E. Cowan & Richard H. Keller 12/15/21 update