Dr. Robert Beeman, founder of Beeman’s Precision Airguns, has produced a fascinating paper on the intriguing question of the identity of the repeating air gun, mentioned 39 times in the expedition’s journals, carried on the 1804-1806 Voyage of the Corps of Discovery by Captain Merriwether Lewis.
Colonel Thomas Rodney, en route to the Mississippi Territory where he had been appointed by Thomas Jefferson as federal judge, met Lewis at Wheeling (now in West Virginia) on September 8, 1803, and witnessed a demonstration of the air gun, which he recorded in his diary.
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.
Beeman concludes that the Lewis’ air gun must have been one of the 1500 air guns produced for use by the Austrian Army upon the design of the Tyrolean clockmaker Bartolomeo Girandoni between 1787 and 1801, when the weapon was withdrawn from service.
A repeating rifle capable of firing 22 balls from a pre-loaded magazine was a revolutionary advance, but this complex technology undoubtedly required more maintenance and care in operation than the ordinary soldier operating in the field could typically supply. Perhaps, also, threats from the French adversary of denial of quarter to troops found using this unconventional weapon helped bring about its withdrawal from service.
The Beeman article.
A Curious Piece of Workmanship by Joseph Mussulman.