Girandoni Air Rifle: A Rifle Ahead of Its Time

Quite often, historical accounts contain a detail of historical events but also have a “history within a history” and the Lewis and Clark Air Rifle is no different.  These side stories often fall by the wayside of the principal narrative.  The Corps of Discovery and the expedition to the Pacific in 1804 contained many critical events which, to the casual reader, go unnoticed.  One such item on the Journey is that of the Girandoni (sometimes spelled Girardoni) air rifle in the possession of Meriwether Lewis.

The history of the air rifle begins in 1780 when an Austrian gunmaker, Bartholomaus Girandoni invented the weapon for the Austrian Army due of the threat of Napoleon in Europe at the time.  The Girandoni Rifle was an air rifle which held 22  roundballs of .46 calibre contained in a tube on the right side of the barrel.  Later, a gunsmith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania made yet another version which contained 23 roundballs in the tube.  Air pressure in the stock was achieved by approximately 1500 strokes on a pump system which brought the air chamber to approximately 800 pounds.1  On such a charge, 40 rounds could be fired without having to recharge the air chamber.  Such pressure brought the .46 caliber round ball to the level of an M1911A1  .45 caliber Thompson sub machine gun of 980 feet per second.  A tube of 22 rounds balls could be fired in about 30 seconds. 

Lewis and Clark Journal References on the air rifle

On August 30, 1804, Lewis demonstrated the capacity of the air rifle to the Sioux.  Joseph Whitehouse recorded the event: “Capt. Lewis Shot his air gun told them that their was medician in hir & that She would doe Great execution, they were all amazed at the curiosity, & as Soon as he had Shot a fiew 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.” 2

Girandoni Air Rifle
Lewis and Clark Air Rifle

August 17, 1805 after meeting with the Shoshone, Lewis noted in his journal: “I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine.    the idea which the indians mean to convey by this appellation is something that eminates from or acts immediately by the influence or power of the great sperit; or that in which the power of god is manifest by it’s incomprehensible power of action”. 3

Similar scenes as described by Whitehouse were played out when necessary along the Missouri River.  On October 10, 1804, to the Arikara and again on March 9, 1805 to the Minatare. The last entry in the Journals of Lewis and Clark concerning the air rifle was on August 11, 1806.  Members of the Corps had been hunting for game when Pierre Cruzatte, a boatman on the expedition who was mostly blind, fired at what he thought was an elk.  The “elk” turned out to be Lewis himself.  Wounded in the buttocks, Lewis believed the party to be under attack.   Making his way back to their boats he armed himself with the air rifle.  4

To Lewis, the air gun “manifested incomprehensible power of action”. This show of firepower was demonstrated various times to tribes along the Missouri – a good reason that the Corps of Discovery was not to be trifled with.  It never failed to impress the Native Americans who saw its capabilities – a vision into the future of the coming power from the east.

At the conclusion of the journey to the Pacific, no further mention is made of the air rifle.  As with most other relics of the Expedition, it disappeared into the basement of history.

Further Videos and Information on the Girandoni Air Rifle

The following is from the National Firearm Museum:

The following video is an example of an original one:

For further interesting links and articles about the rifle: — For full links to Lewis and Clark Maps and Journal Entries made available online — Journal Entry about August 17, 1805

Like More History around the Columbia Gorge?

See Also:

See Also in Hood River “Camp 1805 Distillery”, especially if you are a fan of the Lewis and Clark expedition and you happen to be in the Hood River area, check out this amazing distillery right next to the Columbia River:

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