When tales of the Wild West are told, it is usually tales of great gun battles that were won by celebrated weapons such as the Smith and Wesson and Colt revolvers and repeating rifles such as the Winchester, Henry, and Spencer. These trailblazing weapons have a number of victories attributed to them and they exaggerate not their fame.
But there is one weapon that may win silent wars and opened up the way to the West – without being discharged in battle or killing a single soul. It’s the historic Girandoni air rifle.
The oldest air rifle known to man is on display in the Livrustkammeran Museum in Stockholm, Sweden dated back to 1580.
After centuries without any further advancements in the weapon, the silence broke in 1780 by an innovative gunsmith. A Tyrolean gunsmith named Bartolomeo Girandoni. Girandoni developed a new type of air rifle that was way ahead of its time and was so impressive. The Austrian army quickly adopted it as one of the main weapons in their armory. They christened the rifle as the Girandoni air rifle.
The Girandoni air rifle was 4 feet long and weighed 10 pounds. It is approximately the same weight as the conventional gunpowder muskets of its day. The butt of the rifle was an iron flask that contained pressurized air. You could detach it to pump air into it again before reattaching it to the rifle. For ammunition, the Girandoni was loaded with 20 .46 caliber lead rifle balls. These bullets were ejected out of the rifle by controlled bursts of compressed air. The rifle was capable of firing 30 shots before needing a refill of compressed air.
The Girandoni air rifle was a very powerful and popular weapon in its day. It was capable of reaching lethal combat ranges of up to 125 yards. It also had the advantages of a high rate of fire, no smoke upon firing like its gunpowder powered counterparts. Also, it had a very low muzzle report that made it possible for riflemen to fire it without compromising their position.
To further showcase its superiority over other weapons of its day, the Girandoni air rifle utilized an advanced loading mechanism. The .46 caliber lead balls were individually fed into a loading tube alongside the barrel of the air rifle by a simple steel block which slid back and forth at the base of the breach. The lead rifle balls were fed into the breach with the aid of gravity. With the muzzle of the rifle held upright the bullets roll down toward the breach and enter the chamber. This mechanism was more advantageous than the loading mechanism of gunpowder powered muskets that they could only load it in a standing position, exposing the rifleman to danger.
In 1803, Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend and brother in arms, Second Lieutenant William Clark, were assembling the famous Corps of Discovery. As mandated to go on an expedition, they map out and investigate newly acquired territories in the Western portion of the United States.
Historians are still uncertain as to how Captain Lewis got a hold of his famous Girandoni air rifle that he went with on the expedition. They believed that he purchased it at Isaiah Lukens’ instrument shop just outside Philadelphia en route to Pittsburgh at the final construction of the keelboat that they used on their expedition.
The Girandoni air rifle proved very useful on the expedition. The captain and his crew used it to demonstrate their “gift from the gods” to the native Indian tribes they met along the way. This makes the tribes so enthralled. They are fearful of this powerful “gift” that none dared attack the expedition where ever they went. Instead of being a weapon of aggression, the Girandoni air rifle actually became a peace pipe. It opened up communication channels between Captain Lewis and the tribesmen they met along the way.
The Girandoni air rifle afforded this small 38 man expedition peaceful and fruitful passage through every village they encountered on their route. A miracle since these were very hostile territories with very capable warriors.
Sadly though, the Girandoni air rifle disappeared after the Lewis and Clark Expedition. That is until recently when they accidentally discovered it in the possession of Dr. Robert Beeman. He is a distinguished university professor and an avid rifle enthusiast. Master gunsmith Ernie Cowan asked him if he could investigate the Girandoni air rifle in his possession, Dr. Beeman agreed. What they found inside was incredulous. Evidence says, that this was the exact Girandoni air rifle that was used by Captain Lewis on his expedition.
From that investigation, Cowan and his partner Keller, have made 4 exact replicas of the legendary Girandoni air rifle. And to date, its performance is still impressive. You can also READ HERE on how to select the most reliable rifle that will suit your needs.