Did Lewis and Clark carry the first AR-15? Obviously not, but compare Lewis and Clark’s firearm of choice, the Girardoni .46 caliber airgun, with a traditional Kentucky rifle of the early 1800s and you might see the similarities.
The Girardoni enjoyed a higher-capacity magazine than other rifle designs of the time, and their gun was anything but lovely compared to the brass-plated patch boxes and beautiful engraving on the flintlocks. You can see this model of air rifle at both the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia and the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri. Perhaps when you do, you’ll see why it forged new territory in firearms, much like the AR-15 has done in the past fifty-some years.
One could argue the Girardoni airgun is the most historically significant gun in the NRA’s collection of historic firearms.
“It could be said this air rifle changed history,” said Jim Supica, director of NRA museums and co-host of NRA Gun Gurus on The Outdoor Channel. “These are incredibly rare and we are honored to have one at two of our museums, with a full Lewis and Clark display in Springfield.” The airgun boasts a detachable buttstock, covered in leather and made out of cast iron. They were expensive to make and required advanced training to shoot.
It would take 1,500 pumps (think hand bicycle pump) to reach a whopping 800 psi, allowing approximately 40 discharges before losing muzzle velocity. Captain Lewis may have carried spare tanks; they were designed with that in mind. One can imagine the lowest-ranking member of the crew receiving the job to pressurize three or four tanks. The compression in a Girardoni was more than 20 times today’s automobile tires.
“There has been some debate on the spelling of the Italian maker’s name, but we are convinced there is a second ‘r,’ not an ‘n,’” stated Supica as a side note, hoping to clarify previous ways the museum published information about this weapon. “We said Girandoni [sic] air rifle for years, however, we believe the proper spelling may be, in fact, with a second ‘r’ and Girardoni is correct.”
How this Italian-designed, Austrian-made rifle that was originally intended to be used in the Napoleonic Wars made its way to America in 1803 is a bit of a mystery. But its contribution to the successful Western exploration of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark cannot be denied. In every encounter with the natives, Captain Lewis prepared a grand demonstration of the Girardoni rifle. The Native Americans never saw the excruciating effort of preparation, but they were in awe of the impressive result.
The display of rapid-repeating fire was unlike anything the indigenous people had ever seen before. Guests saw a gun (without the use of gunpowder or any fire) shoot with enough velocity kill a deer. And the .46 caliber lead balls just kept on coming, with 22 rounds in a gravity-fed, tubular magazine. After firing, the marksman simply tipped the gun to drop the next round, then a lever opened to chamber the lead ball into the action. Imagine the wide-eyed encounters after the display of superior weaponry. Peace through strength, indeed.
There is no evidence this air rifle was ever fired in anger or with malicious intent during the Corps of Discovery Expedition from St. Louis, Missouri to the Cascade Mountains of Oregon from 1804 to 1806. Used for demonstration purposes and hunting, one could argue the Girardoni also supplied intimidation.
Captain Lewis understood the importance of mystery around his tools of trade. Not only did he preserve the mystique of how the rifle worked, but he also carefully kept the quantity in possession a secret. In spite of many requests, Lewis concealed his cargo from curious eyes. The natives were left to wonder if every man in the expedition had such a miraculous fighting tool at the ready—they didn’t, in fact. The Girardoni air rifle helped Lewis and Clark explore the West and return with valuable information. In many ways, it helped secure a peaceful exploration.
Luckily for us today, we can see this display at two incredible NRA museums. The NRA National Firearm Museum at NRA headquarters at Fairfax, Virginia is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, and a larger Lewis and Clark exhibit appears at the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri, home of the company’s flagship retail store.
“If you had to pick a single gun that won the West,” concluded Supica, “you could make a pretty good argument for the Girardoni airgun that Lewis and Clark carried with them. It was the key to their success and the West was key to America’s expansion.”
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.