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.

Designed in Italy and made in Austria, it's a mystery how the Girardoni air rifle ended up with Lewis and Clark.
Designed in Italy and made in Austria, it’s a mystery how the Girardoni air rifle ended up with Lewis and Clark.

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.

The NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri displays a complete Lewis and Clark exhibit with the Girardoni air rifle.
The NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri displays a complete Lewis and Clark exhibit with the Girardoni air rifle.

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.

Images courtesy National Rifle Association

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11 thoughts on “Lewis and Clark’s Girardoni Air Rifle: The Gun That Helped Discover the West

  1. What a cool story! I can never get over the ingenuity of those times. Everything people owned had a logic process behind it, and it all worked, even down to the fringe on their buckskin coats……

  2. Good article and it has more importance than many people realize.
    Often one hears the very uninformed comment that the writers of the 2nd amendment could not have envisioned the weapons of today, specifically semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Nothing could be further from the truth!
    Large magazine and self feeding weapons were most definitely on their radar when they wrote the 2nd amendment! They were a known quantity at the time and a great deal of work was going into both the technology and metallurgy required.
    This rifle represents one working and successful example of the period.

  3. I love stories like this. I’m a history buff and I’m always amazed at what it took for us to arrive where we are today.
    Just last week, while going thru a cemetary near here, I came across 2 graves with stones marking Revolutionary war veterans. I was impressed that these graves are still tended to by some veterans org with the bronze flag holder and medallion. I stood back and saluted each of them.

    1. None of the weapons available at the time did much to impress Grizzlies.
      Grizzlies were avoid if at all possibly by people. Even today, they are best avoided, and most firearms are not up to talking to a Grizzly! Does not matter is it burns powder or uses air.

  4. Interesting read….on a technical side note, the Corps of Discovery’s expedition actually began at Camp Dubois near present day Hartford, IL. Hartford is near the mouth of the Wood River and nearly opposite of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Lewis and Clark were not allowed to set up a camp in or near St. Louis at that time because the actual legal transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States had not occurred. At the time of the Corps arrival the Louisiana Territory was still under Spanish rule and Lewis and Clark were denied their request to quarter their men on the western side of the Mississippi river. After Camp Dubois had been built on the Illinois side of the river…Captain Lewis attended the formal ceremonies where the Louisiana Territory was handed over from Spain then briefly the flag of France was raised and then finally the colors of the United States was raised to finalize the transfer of this huge territory to the US.

  5. i own a air gun book which has a story about
    the Austrian army around aboujt that time whi ch used airgun as sniper weapons which used 50cal ball, its pump system was as big as a canon which put air in to a ball about 150mm
    round then it was screw in to rifle , if they
    were caught using this gun in war time they were shot for been an assassin.

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