Lewis and Clarke's Air Rifle
This is NOT your old Daisy Air Rifle.
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The Wind Rifle
I never put myself out there as any kind of gun expert—old time or new. However, I know what I like to shoot and see a lot of stuff in pursuit of the western/frontier/apocalyptic, and contemporary novel. I get surprised once in awhile.
Some firearms you just use and never think about their origin. I have an air rifle that I like a lot. It’s not your normal pellet gun or BB gun. It’s a break-barrel Gamo Whisper with a scope and suppressor (sort-of). Now this sweet little gun pops out a .177 pellet and 1275 feet per second. For a rough comparison, my trusty old .22 long rifle travels at roughly 1200 feet per second. Yeah, I know the bullet is heavier and it has more power behind it—but, you get the idea. To hit a target fifty to a hundred feet away with a pellet half the size of a pea (Little Marvel or Snow King for those with their caliper out) is no easy endeavor, but it’s easy with the right air rifle.
Imagine my surprise when I read that the Lewis & Clark expedition, circa 1804, used an air rifle. Ok, my feeble mind tried to wrap itself around that tidbit. Was it kind of like my air rifle? Knock down the occasional rabbit or squirrel? Oh, I don’t think so.
The Girandoni air rifle was the real deal. Designed by Bartholomaus Girandoni (we’d call him Bart around here) around 1779. The German’s called it a wind rifle and no, I won’t go there. The Austrian army used this thing until around 1815, before they scrapped it for more reliable weapons that go boom instead of pffft. Napoleon sure didn’t like it used against him. It is said he ordered the execution of any soldier caught with one.
For those who think it might’ve been a toy, think of this. Capable of firing 20 shots as fast as they could work a little lever and drop another ball into the firing chamber. I’m thinking one shot every five seconds would be a good number—compared to about one a minute by a very good operator with any of the muzzle loaders or other contemporary firearm. Think of this—a person with one of these rifles firing fifteen shots a minute( I’m sure that number is VERY arbitrary ) could be devastating to any attacking force, especially in the rain or snow when it’s hard to ‘keep your powder dry’. And, it came with extra air chambers that could be changed very quickly. Not charged quickly, but changed.
How powerful? It would shoot a .46 caliber ball through a one inch pine board at 100 yards. However, with each shot, the power would drop. After about 20 shots you might as well start throwing lead balls by hand, or start running.
Unfortunately, this instrument needed a lot of care and support system. The slightest ding in the air bladder could cause it to lose air, and the leather seals were prone to drying up and not working. It also took about 1500 cycles with a pump, similar to a bicycle pump, to fill the chamber. Imagine having the bad guys coming over the wall with you holding up your hand and yelling, “Hang on, guys. I’ll be with you in just a minute. Only got 500 pumps to go.” No, not good.
I won’t go into all the technical aspects of this gun, but if you’re interested, look it up. It’s fascinating reading. There’s a lot of supposition about how the gun was used by Meriwether Lewis, but anything is possible.
There are also many powerful air rifles on the market today that can be used in large game hunting—deer, wild boar and buffalo were mentioned.
One thing to consider. In the forests of the frontier 1800’s, or in an apocalyptic world in the future, the key to survival is silence. You don’t want anyone to know where you are or that you exist, especially when you’re hunting for food. So, if you’re trying to pull a sneaky Pete, slinking through the landscape, high tech bow and arrow notwithstanding—would you rather have something that goes Boom or pffft?
Note: A really great video of this air rifle is shown on the NRA website.
That’s all for now.
Darrel Sparkman, Frontier Writer
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