A Great Curiosity
he history of the air gun began among primitive tribes with the lung-powered blowgun, a hollow reed through which a missile such as a poison-tipped dart was propelled by lung power. The first trigger-operated weapon powered by compressed air from a tank attached to the gun was built in the 1580s.1
When the fact that Lewis carried an air gun came to the attention of gun historians around the middle of the 20th century, the initial guess was that it was powered from a ball-shaped tank suspended beneath the gun's breech, a design that apparently was used in many popular sporting air guns made in Europe during the 18th century. For some years air guns of that design were exhibited in various museums as illustrations of the type Lewis was thought to have carried.
In 1977, however, gun historian Henry M. Stewart, Jr., made a discovery at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia that seemed to point to a different make of air gun. He found an auction catalog for the estate of Isaiah Lukens, a Philadelphia clock maker who died in 1846. It included several air guns, one of which, listed as item 95, was a large gun "made for, and used by Messrs Lewis & Clark in their exploring expeditions." It was "A great curiosity."2 The maker was not named, and no record of the disposition of the item after the auction has yet been found.
Catalog item 78, evidently not an air gun, was "1 superior Rifle, silver mounted, telescoping and graduating sights, &c., with mahogany case. Made by Isaiah Lukens for his own use." The twelve items numbered 79 through 90 were collectively identified as "Air Cane Gun, complete" (which today might be considered an even greater "curiosity" than item 95). Item 93 was "1 large Air Gun, in order," which no doubt meant working order; item 94 was a small air gun, similarly "in order." Some gun historians have inferred from this document that some or all of the weapons listed could have been made by Isaiah Lukens, and that item 95 might have been made expressly for Meriwether Lewis, and either sold or loaned to him.
An air gun purportedly manufactured by Lukens, which is now in the collection at Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Virginia, is still believed by many authorities to be the kind that Lewis carried, and some believe it shows direct evidence that it was the very one. At the mouth of the Marias River on 9 June 1805 Lewis recorded: "as we had determined to leave our blacksmith's bellows and tools here it was necessary to repare some of our arms, and particularly my Airgun the main spring of which was broken, before we left this place." The next day, the Corps' gunsmith, Private John Shields "renewed" it. The main spring of the air gun at VMI appears to have been broken, and repaired.
However, in 2002 another gun historian, Michael Carrick, determined through research at the Library Company of Philadelphia that Lukens is not known to have been in business in Philadelphia before 1814.3 In 1803, at 23 years of age, he was still an apprentice to his father, a horologist (clock-maker), in Horsham Township, fifteen miles north of Philadelphia.
--Joseph Mussulman; David E. Nelson, technical advisor, 11/03
1. See Robert Beeman, "Airguns Throughout the Centuries," at http://www.beeman.com/history.htm/
2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related
Documents, 1783 -1854 (2nd ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978,
3. Personal communication from Michael Carrick, 7 August 2003.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge-Cost-Share Program.