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The CorpsMilitary Profile of the CorpsCaptain Lewis's Air Gun
A Great Curiosity
Incomprehensible
 

A Curious Piece of Workmanship

even days out of Pittsburgh, on 7 September 1803, Lewis docked at Wheeling, (now West) Virginia, a "pretty considerable Village" of about fifty dwellings. It was, Lewis wrote, "remarkable for being the point of embarkation for merchants and Emegrants who are about to descend the river, particularly if they are late in getting on and the water gets low as it most commonly is from the beginning of July to the last of September, the water from hence being much deeper and the navigation better than it is from Pittsburgh or any point above it." In fact, he himself had sent a wagonload of supplies by land to a merchant named Caldwell, and found themin good order on arrival.1 There at Wheeling he also chanced to meet Colonel Thomas Rodney, who was en route to Mississippi Territory to assume a federal judgeship, by appointment of President Jefferson.


Wheeling, Virginia
Victor Collot, A Journey in North America (1796)

Rodney himself recounted their meeting on the eighth. He and his friends William Shields2 and Major Richard Claiborne,3 visited "Captain Lewess barge," and the captain showed them his air gun,

. . . which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the airs escaping, and then she fired seven times; but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the trigger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch [breech] of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious piece of workmanship not easily described and therefore I omit attempting it.4
Rodney's account that Lewis was still imperfectly acquainted with the operation of his exotic weapon, which might have been a contributing factor toward the accident on Brunot's Island. Rodney also makes it clear that the gun was a repeater. In fact, his description indicates it might well have been the type originally designed by the Tyrolean clock-maker Bartolomeo Girardoni (b. 1744).

5 The Austrian Army ordered 1,500 air rifles of the Girardoni design between 1787 and 1806, when the weapon was withdrawn from the Austrian arsenal. Meanwhile, the Girardoni rifle was copied by manufacturers of weapons for wealthy sportsmen, and some of those guns might have been brought to the United States. Indeed, item 95 in the catalog of Lukens's estate might just as well been of the Girardoni type, which certainly would have qualified as "a great curiosity," which was to say, a rarity.

If Lewis's air gun was of the Girardoni type, then Blaise Cenas, "being unacquainted with the management of the gun," may have unwittingly set up the accident himself. The hammer of a flintlock firearm has two positions, half-cock and full-cock. The first, or half-cock, position raises the frizzen so that flash powder can be poured into the pan. A powder-and-ball weapon can only be fired after the hammer, or cock, is pulled all the way back to full-cock position; it can't possibly "go off half-cocked." Repeating air guns of Girardoni's design could have had either a one-position (full-cock only) or a two-position (half-cock and full-cock) tumbler. If Lewis's gun was the first type, perhaps Cenas pulled back the hammer until it caught, and assumed it was at half-cock. A jolt, or an accidental touch on the trigger, might then have caused the gun to fire when the muzzle was pointed haphazardly—toward an innocent bystander—and Lewis had left a ball in the chamber.

--Joseph Mussulman; David E. Nelson, technical advisor, 11/03

1. Rodney and his companions hired two young men to build a "batteau" 30 feet long and eight feet wide, with four oars and a square sail, plus four berths covered with painted canvas. The boat was finished in eleven days, and they embarked down the Ohio on September twentieth. Dwight L. Smith and Ray Swick, A Journey Through the West: Thomas Rodney's 1803 Journal from Delaware to the Mississippi Territory (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997), 50, 62.

2. William Bayard Shields was also en route to Mississippi where he would become a lawyer and a judge. Shields had studied law under Thomas Rodney's son, Caesar (which Lewis spelled phonetically as "Czar") Augustus Rodney of Delaware, whom Lewis knew as a member of the House of Representatives. Shields later served as Aaron Burr's counsel in his first trial for the murder of Alexander Hamilton.

3. Richard Claiborne of Virginia became clerk of the board of commissioners headed by Thomas Rodney, which adjudicated land claims in Mississippi Territory.

4. Smith and Swick, 50.

5. An authentic Girardoni (see "An Air Gun of the Girardoni Type"), used a 20-ball magazine. Either Rodney—or perhaps Lewis—misspoke, or else the gun was a modified copy of a Girardoni that used a magazine of 22 balls. Charles McKenzie, a clerk for the North West Company of Canada, met Lewis and Clark at the Knife River villages during the winter of 1804-05. In addition to recording an impression of the two captains, he reported some of Lewis experiences. "The Indians admired the air Gun as it could discharge forty [sic] shots out of one load--but they dreaded the magic of the owners." Charles McKenzie, "First Expedition to the Missouri," in W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738-1818 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 232. Perhaps "one load" meant one full charge of air, though Mackenzie may have seen two magazine refill tubes, each containing 20 balls. The demonstration may have taken place on 15 January 1805, when Clark reported, "we Shot the Air gun, and gave two Shots with the Cannon which pleased them verry much."

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge-Cost-Share Program.

A Great Curiosity
Incomprehensible


 
From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)