Army Officers, Journals, and an Air Rifle

By Jessica J. Sheets, U. S. Army Military History InstituteSeptember 14, 2009

"my Air-gun also astonishes them very much..."
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – "my Air-gun also astonishes them very much..." Shown is a Girandoni System Austrian Repeating Air Rifle, Circa 1795 This rifle is believed to have been carried on the Lewis and Clark Army Corps of Discovery Expedition 1803-1806. The rifle has a maxim... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Essential Equipment.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Essential Equipment. Shown is a recreation of an Austrian Girandoni system Accouterments Bag This bag includes spare air flasks, air pump, wrenches, bullet mold and ladle. Although the Lewis and Clark journals do not document the type of tools that ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Thursday, September 23, 1806, sounded mundane in Aca,!A"CaptainAca,!A? William ClarkAca,!a,,cs journal entry: Aca,!A"Took an early breckfast with Colo. Hunt and Set out decended to the Mississippi and down that river to St. Louis at which place we arived about 12 oClock.Aca,!A? However, it was the final day of the Corps of Discovery journey, a U.S. Army expedition that began on May 14, 1804, and traveled to the west coast and back.

Before the trip, President Thomas Jefferson had selected Captain Meriwether Lewis, 1st Infantry Regiment, to lead the Corps of Discovery into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Lewis was in his late twenties at the start of the trip. The Corps varied in size throughout the trip but generally consisted of the two officers (Lewis and his personally-selected assistant Clark, who actually received only a second lieutenantAca,!a,,cs commission), three to four non-commissioned officers, twenty-three to thirty enlisted men, and three to fourteen civilians.

Jefferson instructed Lewis to travel the Missouri River and preferably other rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and his men were to note landmarks, climate, vegetation, animals, and measurements of the waterways (using latitude and longitude), and were to learn the ways of the people they met. A great deal transpired in their Aca,!A"absence of two years, four months and ten days,Aca,!A? as noted by Sergeant Patrick GassAca,!"struggles on rivers and over mountains, confrontations with grizzly bears, days of boredom, discoveries of unique creatures and plants, meetings with Native Americans.

One particular item they took along was at least one air rifle, which Lewis often demonstrated to Native Americans. Before the trip, Lewis wrote that shortly after leaving Pittsburgh by river in August 1803, he Aca,!A"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.Aca,!A?

Lewis noted in his journal the numerous times he showed Native Americans how the rifle worked and how they reacted. He recorded that on January 24, 1806, Aca,!A"my Air-gun also astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend its shooting so often and without powder.Aca,!A? Simply seeing the impressive action of the rifle may have deterred some who thought of attacking the Corps. One type of rifle and a lot of air may have helped free the way for Lewis and Clark across the continent and safely back home on one of the most famous exploratory expeditions in history -- an expedition conducted by the U.S. Army that alerted the nation to the wonders and riches of the Louisiana Territory and the Columbia River basin.

An air rifle believed to have been on the Lewis and Clark expedition, now owned by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle, Pa., is currently on display at the Pentagon.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Related Links:

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION, 1804-1806