The American West was the subject of action, adventure, lawlessness, dime novels and daydreams of eastern citizens hungry for a wild and wooly lifestyle. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other characters lit up the pages of story after story. In later years they fanned the flame of the Colt 1873 Peacemaker, a gun largely hailed by enamored masses as the gun that won the west.
While the Colt .45 was a masterpiece in its own right and uniquely capable of equalizing with rapid, repeatable and accurate shots, by the time it came around, the west already was essentially won. With respect to long guns, other American West enthusiasts assign the same revered title to the Model 94 Winchester Saddle-Ring Carbine Lever Action Rifle. Ask any self-respecting firearm enthusiast or western history nut which firearm really won the west and you undoubtedly will hear about one or both, the Colt or Winchester.
The fact that they have reached an iconic status in western history in undeniable; they deserve such status. But while Colt and Winchester certainly own respectful places in the fabric of American history, they most assuredly did not win the west; that dubious honor rests solely on the shoulders of the air rifle.
A Brief Airgun History
To gain understanding of the air rifle in American history, a glimpse of the technology’s world history is invaluable. Airgun is defined as “a gun from which a projectile is propelled by compressed air.” Some semblance of airgun technology has captivated people for more than 2,000 years. Ctesibius, an ancient inventor in Alexandria, Egypt, developed an arrow-propelling airgun in 120 B.C., as described by the Roman author and military expert, Vitruvius.
Unfortunately, the technology fell to slumber for more than 1,500 years before an unknown Danish inventor resurrected the technology in a spring-loaded, trigger-activated firearm. In 1590, Marin le Bourgeoys, inventor of the world famous flintlock mechanism used for more than 200 years, further developed the technology in the form of an air rifle that would be recognized even today for its modern rifle attributes. Le Bourgeoys’ air rifle was gifted to King Henry IV, in 1600. Soon after, a “more perfect compressed-air gun was brought out by Guter at Nuremberg in 1656, which had attached to the stock, in musket form, all the appliances for charging and discharging by air compression,” according to historical sources.
Various versions and technology slowly emerged between the mid-17th century and dawn of the 19th century, most notably a single-shot air rifle developed by Isaiah Luken. Closely following is the primary subject of this topic, the 1779 repeating pneumatic gun, developed by Bartholomaus Girandoni; a rifle believed to have been used by the Austrians against Napoleon’s forces.
The Real Gun That Won The West
Much to the chagrin of Colt and Winchester fans, pneumatic big bore, repeating-fire air rifles, as we essentially know and use their technology today, showed up 70 years or more before either. One in particular had the dubious honor of being the chief tool employed to chart the northwest throughout Captain Meriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s famed expedition.
Lewis chronicled the three-year expedition in 13 volumes that comprise what is known today as the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Found within the pages of his 13 volumes are 39 references to his air rifle. While historians originally believed his airgun was built by Isaiah Lukens, evidence was discovered and is supported by Lewis’ first airgun journal entry made on Aug. 30, 1803, supporting that it was, in fact, the 1779 model Girandoni repeater.
“Left Pittsburgh this day at 11 ock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage. Arrived at Bruno’s Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes. Went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success.”
Proof emerged in a 2008 publication, New Evidence on the Lewis and Clark Air Rifle, by Robert Beeman, inclusive of a description of Lewis’ airgun by a day traveler, Thomas Rodney, who met Lewis in September 1803, in Wheeling, Ohio (misspellings are the result of direct quoting):
“Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us 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 triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.”
Blazing a Trail
Lewis and Clark blazed their own trail with loyal men, a keel vessel and supplies in tow, including 15 muzzleloading “Kentucky Rifles” and “one long-barreled rifle that fired its bullet with compressed air, rather than by flint, spark and powder,” according to stories of the time. Throughout their expedition, the air rifle proved to be the key element of survival, not simply to hunt for sustenance while preserving their precious, non-renewable powder supply, but to also demonstrate superior firepower when encountering tribes as a means of securing safe passage further west.
To be clear, while Lewis and Clark kept 15 muzzleloaders in their keel vessel and only possessed a single repeating air rifle, the natives certainly could have and likely would have believed a stockpile of these repeating rifles were in the vessel. Imagine then, natives keenly aware that Lewis likely had more of these guns in supply were frightened when they watched him shoot 20 rounds accurately in less than 30 seconds. Imagine the massacre they believed would ensue were they to incite conflict. The same shock and awe experienced by the natives certainly would have been Lewis’ purpose for such demonstrations; after all, his primary concern was being allowed to pass one encountered tribe after another in his effort to chart the west for his country.
Shock and Awe
The following excerpts are taken directly from Lewis’ journal to support his shooting demonstrations throughout the expedition:
August 3, 1804 – “Lewis Shot his air gun a few times which astonished the nativs, we set sail.”
October 10, 1804 – “After the Council was over we shot the air gun, which astonished them, and they all left us.”
October 29, 1804 – “Shot the air gun which both surprised and astonished the nativs, and soon dispersed.”
January 15, 1805 – “we shot the air gun, and gave two shots with the cannon which pleased them verry much, the little Crow 2d Chf of the lower village came & brought us corn.”
August 17, 1805 – “I also shot my airgun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine. The idea which the Indians mean to convey by this appellation is something that eminates from or acts immediately by the influence or power of the great sperit; or that in which the power of god is manifest by its incomprehensible power of action.”
January 24, 1806 – “My airgun also astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends every thing that is to them incomprehensible.”
April 3, 1806 – “Capt Lewis fired his air gun which astonished them in such a manner that they were orderly and kept at a proper distance dureing the time they continued with him.”
May 11, 1806 – “After this council was over we amused ourselves with shewing them the power of magnetism, the spye glass, compass, watch, airgun and sundry other articles equally novel and incomprehensible to them.”
To further demonstrate its value, on Aug. 11, 1806, Lewis demonstrated how much he believed in its ability in combat.
“I now got back to the perogue as well as I could and prepared my self with a pistol, my rifle and airgun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as deerly as possible.”
From 1803 to 1806, under order from President Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark undertook a mission that even today is regarded as one of the most dangerous in American history. They did so in duty to America as well as to fulfill their pioneering spirits. The remarkable truth that Meriwether Lewis purchased an airgun, took it on his expedition and counted on its performance to secure the team’s travel from the east, clear to the Pacific Ocean and back, is a marvelous testament to the regard he had for it as a formidable weapon.
Indeed, without the ability to demonstrate superior fire throughout the charting of the western half of our nation, the United States might reflect that inability in today’s landscape. Where would her border’s lie? Fortunately, because of the air rifle, we know the America of today. It is high time for what is widely regarded today as little more than a toy gun, to take its rightful place as the real “Gun That Won The West.”
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