Meriwether Lewis - Girandoni Air Rifle

The rifle featured in this video clip, from the National Firearms Museum, is a Girandoni System Austrian Repeating Air Rifle.  Historians believe Meriwether Lewis carried it - or one like it - as he and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery on their great expedition between 1803-1806. 

Likely made around 1795, the rifle may have changed the history of the U.S.  It was also used in the Napoleonic Wars.  No one is sure how it arrived in America, but Lewis got it from a Philadelphia gunsmith named Isaiah Lukens.

In his book, Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose wonders how Lewis and Clark were able to make their treacherous journey without a major loss of life.  This rifle may, in part, answer that question.

Lewis had one - and only one - of these rifles, but the Native Americans whom the Corps met along their route of travel did not know that.  In his first journal entry, Lewis notes that he demonstrated the rifle to a gathered crowd - and it filled the onlookers with wonderment.  Native Americans responded to the gun in the same way.


The rifle needed about 1,500 pump strokes to be completely charged (pressurized).  When it reached operating pressure - about 800 pounds per square inch - the gun could fire up to seventy shots before the reservoir of air had to be replaced.  

A metal tube, along the barrel's side, held up to twenty-two .46 caliber balls.  That ammunition would be fed into the firing chamber, one at a time, by a sideways push of the plunger (as demonstrated in the clip).  Around 40 shots could be fired before the rifle started to lose its muzzle velocity.

The gun didn't smoke, it didn't need powder and it didn't "go bang."  People were stunned when they first saw how it worked, and Native Americans thought it was "something from the gods."

Although Meriwether Lewis never identified his airgun, someone who saw it recorded how it worked (and how many times it could fire). Thomas Rodney, a judge, visited Lewis on September 7, 1803 in Wheeling, Virginia. He recorded the following account in his personal journal:

...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 the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious piece of workmanship, not easily described. (Thomas Rodney, quoted by Stuart Wier in his article “The Guns of Lewis & Clark," published in the May 2006 issue of “We Proceeded On,” at page 15.)

Experts believe that Judge Rodney was describing a Girandoni air rifle.  

Because the various tribes which Lewis and Clark encountered never knew whether the Corps of Discovery had only one repeating air rifle - or many - they likely believed the explorers had vastly superior fire power.  Historians therefore believe it was this gun - and peoples' reaction to it - which helped Lewis and Clark to be so successful.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jan 27, 2020

Media Credits

Clip of the Girandoni air rifle, online courtesy the National Firearms Museum and YouTube.


In-text image, by N. Myrah, entitled "Bartering Blue Beads for Otter Robe," part of the National Park Service Collection, Catalog No. FOCL 698. The scene is an artistic interpretion of what may have happened between 1805-1806 at Fort Clatsop.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Meriwether Lewis - Girandoni Air Rifle" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 27, 2020.
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