In 1803, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had just completed the Louisiana Purchase which entailed purchasing 828,000 square miles of land from the French for a mere 15 million dollars. This investment made necessary one of the most important expeditions in our history, the Corps of Discovery Expedition, circa1804-1806, more commonly known as the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Lewis and Clark navigated and mapped their way across the entire continent, from the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific Ocean. One of the many firearms accompanying the expedition was the Model 1780 Girardoni Air rifle, and it was possibly the most useful and important rifle used.
Many folks might be wondering why the Girardoni rifle was so important and how an air rifle could be so useful. The Model 1780 was not a design like the Daisy air guns we all grew up with, it was actually a .46 caliber repeating rifle capable of firing 22 shots to an effective range of about 100 yards!
The 22 lead balls where housed in a gravity-fed tubular magazine located beside the barrel. The balls were individually loaded into the chamber by a manually operated feeding system. The rifleman could shoot around 40 shots before the gun began to lose muzzle velocity and the reservoir would have to be changed after around 70 shots.
This was quite a feat for its time, and just about anyone who saw a demonstration of the Girardoni rifle would have surely been amazed! One of the first entries in Lewis’s journal was describing a demonstration of the air rifle to a group of frontiersman and how they were astonished by a rifle that did not produce any smoke, omitted very little sound and could shoot so rapidly and accurately.
Imagine Lewis and Clark demonstrating the air rifle for the Native Americans. This firepower would certainly make a tribe think twice before attacking the explorers. Keep in mind they didn’t know if the explorers were packing one or one hundred of these rifles, which could take down their foes at an alarming rate. The rifle and its capabilities would have greatly contributed to the fact the explorers were never attacked and overrun by the Indians during the entire expedition.
Aside from being a great psychological deterrent against being attacked, the repeating air rifle was a valuable hunting tool, as you could actually make a follow up shot if needed. The accuracy and muzzle velocity would have been competitive with the other firearms used on the expedition. I know if I was on this expedition, having a Girardoni air rifle by my side would have provided me with some peace of mind.
Meriwether Lewis purchased the Girardoni air rifle from a gunsmith named Isaiah Lukens in Philadelphia; however the design and manufacture of the rifle is Austrian. The Girardoni air rifle was invented in the Tyrolian region of Austria by Bartholomäus Girardoni around 1779. In this region of the world, the rifle was known as the Windbüchse, which means “wind rifle” in German.
The Austrian Army used the air rifle from 1780-1815 as a skirmishing weapon. Special troops were highly trained in the use and care of the air rifle, as it was delicate by the standards of other rifles being issued at the time and its operation was not like any other rifle used during that time period.
On the battlefield, there were clear advantages to having a rifle with a low muzzle report and no smoke, as the troops would better be able to hear and see what was actually transpiring downrange, unlike the thick smoke and loud report of a muzzle loading firearm. Once again, the obvious battlefield advantage of having a repeating rifle that was gravity-fed, it just needed to be pointed upward to load, compared to a single shot muzzle loader that was difficult and time consuming to load. The soldiers who carried the Girardoni rifle also carried a bag of accoutrements that contained an air pump, extra air reservoirs, leather gaskets, wrenches, a ladle and bullet molds.
Although there were significant advantages to the use of the air rifle, there were also a few disadvantages which ultimately caused the gun to be taken out of service. Though the air canister/reservoir held enough pressure to shoot around 30 lethal shots, it took 1,500 strokes of its hand operated air pump to refill (pressurize) the canister/reservoir, just what you want to do while being shot at or at the end of a long day of war fighting.
These highly pressurized canisters would sometimes explode when carried around in extremely hot weather. Other times the leather gasket/washer in between the air canister and the receiver would wear out and the air would slowly leak out, rendering the rifle under charged or completely useless. The canister/air reservoir that holds the air is extremely delicate and very time consuming and expensive to manufacture, so they were always in short supply. Having delicate equipment that causes critical failures is something that will get you killed during battle.
Around 1,500 Girardoni air rifles were built and used by the Austrian Army before the gun was taken out of military service. A number of skilled gunsmiths and gun makers embraced the design and the air gun was used to good effect as a hunting rifle, for which it was better suited anyway. Some gun builders made single shot rifles, pistols and shotguns that incorporated the Girardoni design. There have even been some working modern reproductions of the air rifle that have been built in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The rifle itself is very interesting. The gun weighs 10 pounds and is 4 feet in length. The air reservoir that contains all of the highly compressed air (around 800 psi), also functions as the butt stock and was usually covered in leather.
Each lead ball is loaded from the tube magazine via a spring-loaded loading bar that would allow one ball to drop into the cavity of the loading block when the bar was moved to the right and when the bar was released, it would return to the left, thus moving the ball in line with the breech. The hammer would then be cocked in a traditional manner, using a sear system that used a tumbler and sear to retain the hammer in the full and halfcocked positions.
One pull of the trigger would release enough compressed air to launch the ball down the rifled barrel at around 850 fps. By the way, that could kill a man right quick if you were within about 100 to 150 yards, depending on how much air/pressure you had left in the canister.
I was fortunate enough to actually be able to see and touch this historical air rifle while attending the 2017 NRA Show in Atlanta. The owner of the rifle, Mike Carrick, is a fellow Oregonian who is quite a historian and collector of rare firearms. It was a pleasure to be able to speak with Mike at the show. The time and knowledge he shared is greatly appreciated.
This is the kind of gun I would enjoy having in my collection, but it is doubtful I can afford the $25,000 or so they go for when they occasionally go to auction. The Girardoni air rifle was thrilling to see and learn about, as I love antique firearms as much as American history.