Looking at this Girandoni air rifle doesn’t reveal anything remarkable. But in fact, it’s one of the most historically significant guns in the NRA National Firearms Museum collection. You could almost go as far to say that it changed the entire history of our nation.
This gun was carried by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1803 to 1806 during their Corps of Discovery expedition that took them from St. Louis to the Cascades in Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean and all the way back. How did they make this trek and back again without any major loss of life? There were only three dozen men or so in the expedition, so they could have been easily overwhelmed at any time.
With a large air cylinder in the buttstock, the Girandoni air rifle traveled the American West with the Lewis & Clark expedition. Photo by Michael Ives
Every time they came across a new tribe of Indians, who vastly and overwhelmingly outnumbered them, they performed the exact same routine—they put on their swallowtail coats, unfurled the flag, got the drums beating and the fifes fifing, and paraded into the Indian camp in their full Class A uniforms. They gave the chiefs bolts of cloth, beaded necklaces and large coins. And then, without fail, Lewis demonstrated the air rifle—a large-caliber, highly accurate and effective repeating gun that doesn’t smoke or go bang when it fires.
After this demonstration, the Indians were always interested in seeing what kind of provisions and supplies Lewis brought with him, but he defended the secrecy of the cargo almost at the point of firing. So ultimately, the Indians never know whether there was one air rifle or three dozen air rifles. But they knew that if there were three dozen and each fired 22 shots in 30 seconds, any attempt to overwhelm the small band of intrepid explorers would be unsuccessful.
In essence, Lewis & Clark went from east to west and back east again, basically using a parlor trick. The Girandoni air rifle created an illusion of superior firepower that enabled the small band of explorers to claim an area greater than one-half of the landmass of North America for the United States.
This gun, plus many other historic treasures, can be seen at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., located on the first floor of NRA Headquarters.