History In The Air

Most people have heard of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Most people know that they were instrumental in exploring, mapping, and ultimately paving the way for the settling of the western half of North America by non-native people. What most people don’t know about is the amazing piece of weaponry that traveled with Lewis and Clark on their journey.

The Girandoni Air Rifle, ca. 1803
The Girandoni Air Rifle, ca. 1803

Who would have thought that in 1804 there would have been an air rifle in existence? But that’s precisely what Captain Meriwether Lewis chose, from the company of his many other rifles, to use in demonstrations to impress – and intimidate – the natives.

The Girandoni air rifle, used from 1780 to 1815 by the Austrian Army, fired .46 caliber lead round balls at velocities around 1,000 fps out to a useful range of about 150 yards! What’s more, it could send those fast lead balls across the battlefield 21 times without reloading. Truly an incredible piece of weaponry for the day it was used, it would be impressive even today if such a rifle were on the market.

The typically single shot air rifles today boast about their .177 or .22 caliber pellets screaming at 1,000 to 1,200 fps. “Enough to easily take out a squirrel or small vermin at 100 yards or more!” they tout on their websites and box art.  Let’s see them fire .46 caliber, probably 120 grain lead balls at those velocities – 21 times! – boasting enough power to take down a whitetail deer! 210 years after Captain Lewis used it to scare the crap out of Native Americans, the Girandoni still stands as a formidable weapon, and something to rightly be impressed and intimidated by.

Learn more about it:

  • From the wiki page here,
  • From a report by S.K. Wier titled “Firearms of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” (PDF. Go to page seven to learn about the Girandoni),
  • From this cool video from the National Firearms Museum (Special thanks to Andrew Bellware and his dad, Dan, for sending me this video. I had read about Lewis’s air rifle in the past, but had never seen this video until it was forwarded to me recently.):

Update: For some reason the embedded YouTube video is not working or even appearing on my mobile phone. If you cannot see it below, please click here to watch it directly in YouTube.

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