When one thinks of the guns that won the West, one naturally envisions such familiar weapons as the Winchester, Henry, and Spencer repeating rifles, the trapdoor Springfield, the Smith & Wesson revolver, and the Colt Peacemaker.
Thinking back even further, there were the older percussion-cap rifles such as the Hawken buffalo gun or its flintlock predecessors, the Kentucky and Pennsylvania long rifles. Largely unknown to the general public is a singular weapon that never belched out gunpowder or killed a single human being in the United States, but that was perhaps the single most influential weapon in the opening of the American West: the Girandoni air rifle.
The earliest known example of the Girandoni is currently on display at Stockholm, Sweden’s Livrustkammeran Museum and dates to around 1580. Featured in fairly large calibers, these pneumatic weapons were employed by the very wealthy in hunting large game such as deer and wild boar. But around 1780 an enterprising Tyrolean gunsmith named Bartolomeo Girandoni developed a rugged new model air rifle that was soon adopted by the Austrian military. Produced in .46-caliber, the Girandoni was a quantum leap forward in weapons technology.
The Rapid-Fire Windbusche
The rifle was four feet long and weighed 10 pounds. The butt of the weapon was an iron flask that could be detached, pumped full of air, and then refitted to the weapon. Each rifle was issued with three such air reservoirs. The Girandoni was approximately the same length and weight of a conventional musket and was loaded with 22 lead rifle balls that were propelled out of the weapon individually by controlled bursts of compressed air. Fed into a loading tube alongside the barrel of the weapon, these rifle balls were loaded into the weapon individually by a simple steel block, which slid back and forth at the base of the breech. Much like the popular modern-day Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, the rifle balls were fed into the breech with the aid of gravity, the muzzle of the weapon being held upright as the bullets rolled down toward the breech. One crucial advantage to this loading mechanism was the fact that the rifleman, rather than having to stand upright to load, could actually lie on the ground and simply hold the weapon up vertically.
With a muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second, the windbuchse, literally “wind rifle,” could put a lead ball clean through a one-inch pine board at 100 yards. Its full magazine could be discharged completely in less than 30 seconds. In comparison, its contemporary gunpowder driven musket was considered accurate to only about 50 yards. In the European theater of war, this made for a fearsome weapon that discharged no dense smoke to obscure the battlefield or loud report to betray the position of the rifleman. It was also impervious to rain, which would quickly negate the usefulness of gunpowder.
Logistical Challenges of the Girandoni Rifle
Austrian Emperor Francis II was especially intrigued by the technology and was intimately involved in fielding the Girandoni with the Austrian army. Early on, the emperor wrote that it was critical that the air rifle be “deployed correctly and maintained at the best standard. It is necessary that the simple soldier, whose intelligence is generally quite limited, is given this training immediately upon receiving the gun—and that the training is delivered in individual parts and not too much at once.”
Due to the weapon’s complexity, there were some significant logistical challenges to be overcome. Hand-operated air pumps (it took some 1,500 strokes to fill each air canister) were issued one per two riflemen with additional large scale, wheeled air-pumping carts placed behind the lines. Specially trained gunsmiths were also a necessity, one for each 100 riflemen, and they required a very specialized supply of spare parts—mainsprings, replacement seals, and extra air flasks. It was not an easy task. Many simple conscripts, frequently peasant lads with no understanding of technology, were incapable of grasping the concept of the weapon or maintaining it properly. Air flasks were frequently mishandled. Some fully charged flasks actually exploded when exposed for long periods to direct sunlight, and leather seals were allowed to dry out, rendering the weapon useless. Even with these challenges, the weapon proved exceptionally effective on the battlefields of the Austro-Turkish War (1787-1791), but despite some allegations to the contrary it never saw service against Napoleon.
Despite the deadly accuracy and firepower provided by the Girandoni, it proved to be a technological leap too great for the military minds of the period to handle. Austria-Hungary’s general artillery director summed up the problems in his correspondence of July 21, 1789, when he reported: “Due to their construction, these guns were much more difficult to use effectively than normal, as one had to handle them much more cautiously and carefully. In addition, the soldiers using them had to be supervised extremely carefully, as they were unsure about the operation. The guns became inoperable after a very short time—so much so that after a while no more than one-third of them were still in a usable state. We needed the whole winter to repair and replace them.”
The Air Rifle of Captain Meriwether Lewis: “Something From the Gods”
By 1810, the Girandoni had been entirely phased out. The Austrian military collected some weapons for its museums, while others were acquired by private individuals or simply lost. At least one, however, crossed the Atlantic and played a major role in a pivotal period of American history.
It is unclear how the weapon now on display at the Pentagon first came to the United States—possibly it was a surplus rifle that had been phased out of Austrian military service. Whatever its provenance, historians have determined that it was most likely purchased by Captain Meriwether Lewis between May 9 and June 9, 1803, at Isaiah Lukens’ instrument shop just outside Philadelphia. Lewis was en route to Pittsburgh at the time for the final construction and fitting out of the Corps of Discovery’s keelboat. On the very first page of Lewis’ personal journal kept on the trip, he recounts how he demonstrated the weapon’s capabilities to the wonderment of the crowd. The Indians, he said, considered the rifle “something from the gods.”
It was during its service with the Corps of Discovery that the Girandoni came into its own. Whenever a new tribe was encountered by the expedition, Lewis and Clark staged a grand entrance calculated to impress (or intimidate) the natives. Such pomp and ceremony, they believed, would dissuade potentially hostile actions by the Native Americans while they tried to understand who or what they were confronting. Lewis and Clark did their utmost to impress the tribesmen. The explorers donned their most colorful military uniforms—frock coats, sparkling swords, formal headgear, polished muskets and bayonets—and with flags flying and fifes whistling, they marched boldly into each meeting. The explorers greeted the assembled tribesmen with formal gravity and then proceeded to hand out gifts such as bolts of colored cloth, beads, and commemorative medallions.
At some point in the proceedings, Lewis would confidently display his Girandoni and demonstrate its remarkable power. In his journal, Private Joseph Whitehouse described one such event on August 30, 1803, at a Yankton Sioux village located along the Calumet Bluffs of the Missouri River: “Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter, told them that there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution,” wrote Whitehouse. “They all stood amazed at this curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged was done the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. At finding the Balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that suprized [sic] them exceedingly.”
Lewis would repeat this demonstration for every tribe encountered (there are no fewer than 39 separate entries in the expedition’s journals mentioning the Girandoni), leaving all onlookers in doubt as to how many of these weapons the expedition carried. As much as the Indians coveted the guns and goods which the Corps of Discovery carried, none was bold enough to make an outright grab for the goods. If each of the explorers had a Girandoni, with the capability of firing two dozen shots in seconds with deadly accuracy, any hostile acts could be handled easily by the small band. The leadership of the various tribes encountered must have reasoned that any possible gain was not worth the risk of losing scores of warriors.