VISIER - Lewis and Clark Airgun Article
Wohner der Wind weht
by Dr. Robert Beeman and Ulrich Eichstädt
VISIER, Das internationale Waffenmagazin, April 2002, vol. 4, pp. 134-142.
To see the absolutely wonderful original article, which has great color illustrations, please click: VISIER - Lewis & Clark Airgun. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader program on your computer to download this .pdf file. If necessary, download that free program from www.Adobe.com.)
PLEASE NOTE: New evidence, uncovered in late 2004, well after this article was published, has now indicated that the air rifle carried by Captains Lewis and Clark was a Girandoni-system repeating air rifle. Please see the section on Lewis Air Rifle - New Evidence on this website!
Americans are fascinated by stories involving guns and guns which have a history, such as Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun and other such historical guns. Another historical gun, often wondered about, is one which Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took with them on their famous expedition.
Between the years 1803 and 1806 Lewis and Clark, on behalf of President Thomas Jefferson, scouted out the Louisiana territory, recently acquired from France. From there, Lewis and Clark searched for a way to the Pacific. They put together a 45+ man expedition, known as the “Corps of Discovery” and proceeded to make their way west to the Pacific Ocean and back. Lewis and Clark became national heroes and the newly explored lands were developed as important areas of the United States.
Only a few artifacts from this expedition have survived the last 200 years. This is partially due to governmental pressure of that time. The original cost of the enterprise was estimated at US $2,500, but instead it ended up costing over US $38,000 (Of course, the Corps grew from about 10 men in the original plan to about 45 to 48 men who actually formed the Corps and finally began the main part of the trip with about 30 tons of supplies!). In 1806, Lewis was forced to auction off virtually all the items, except the journals and specimens, that the Corps had brought back from the expedition (for a total sale income of US $408.62!). Other items from the journey were lost over time and yet other items became private property due to their historical worth. Next year, the United States will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the inception of the expedition; unfortunately the celebration will have extremely few authentic artifacts of original Lewis and Clark expedition equipment.
Recently, the famous airgun expert, Dr. Robert Beeman, published a report which has attracted a lot of attention. He maintains that the airgun Lewis and Clark took with them on their expedition was a powerful airgun which they probably used to hunt for game for food and especially used to impress the Indians. This gun, Beeman notes, was mentioned at least 19 times in Lewis and Clark’s travel logs – Beeman’s reports reveal that he surely has determined this historical gun and has quite conclusive proof that this was indeed the airgun used by Lewis and Clark.
In the last decades, other guns have surfaced, thought to be likely candidates as the authentic gun of Lewis and Clark. Beeman, as a leading airgun expert and as the owner of one of the greatest collections of airguns, has agreed to give this exclusive interview to VISIER magazine.
Beeman’s interest in the Lewis and Clark airgun was first awakened in 1976, when he first visited his friend and fellow collector Henry Stewart in Philadelphia. Very excitedly, Stewart showed Beeman an antique airgun, which he noted had been built by a fellow Philadelphian, the clockmaker and gunsmith Isaiah Lukens, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Stewart then felt that he was close to proving that this gun was the legendary airgun of Captain Lewis. Its most unique feature was a most puzzling hammer which had a heart-shaped opening through its upper arm. We’ll refer to this gun as the Lukens “Double Neck Hammer” (DNH) airgun. (Double neck hammers are sometimes referred to as "double throat cocks".)
Stewart’s thesis was believable even among experts. Before Stewart’s death in 1988, Beeman tried to acquire the gun. However, Stewart obtained it and willed it, together with more than 800 other rare guns in his collection to his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute, where he had studied in 1935. VMI, naturally, did not want to part with the gun. Not long before his death Stewart stated that he felt that Lukens was the maker of the fabled air rifle of Captain Lewis, but after his earlier enthusiasm, he had expressed great doubt that the Lukens DNH airgun was “the” Lewis air rifle.
In 1988 Dr. Beeman received a call from Doug Wicklund, the curator of the gun collection of the new, excellent National Firearms Museum of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Virginia. Mr. Wicklund proposed that diary entries from the expedition may have indicated that the Corps’ airgun probably had the same caliber as its military rifles. Until then, there had not been any clues about the caliber of the lost airgun. It was then thought that the military rifle of the Corps was a U.S. Model 1803 (Harper’s Ferry Rifle), caliber .54. It had also been said that Lewis himself had worked on the development of the Model 1803 before he left. The NFM museum thought that it may have the .54 caliber airgun of Lewis and Clark.
However, in June of 1999, Frank Tait, claimed, in the journal “Man at Arms” that the Corps did not take along Model 1803s but instead had 15 “U.S. Contract Rifles of 1792” which had a caliber of .49. His arguments were so compelling that the experts accepted them. Tait’s conclusions weakened the argument that the NFM airgun was Lewis’ airgun, after all. (Beeman later found other problems with the idea that the NFM airgun was the Lewis airgun and dated the origin of the NFM airgun in the mid-1800s).
Subsequently, and with the 200-year celebration of the expedition just two years away, Dr. Beeman continued his research attempting to figure out which gun was the real Lewis and Clark airgun. At that time there were four contenders: the Lukens DNH airgun, the NFM gun, and yet two more. The U.S. collector Charter Harrison argued in the 1950s that Lewis’ airgun may have been a “Kentucky-style” specimen with a “flask”, a spherical air container (ball reservoir) under the forearm. Interestingly enough, Harrison had owned the Lukens DNH airgun, but when he acquired this ball reservoir air rifle, he was so convinced of its authenticity that he sold the DNH gun to Stewart and presented this “Harrison” airgun to the Smithsonian Institute as the real, authentic Lewis and Clark gun.
The fourth contender was a gun currently in the Lewis & Clark museum in Fort Clatsop, Oregon. Even though this ball reservoir airgun eventually did not make the final list, the museum obtained a hand pump which, according to function and appearance, may be very similar to the missing pump of the Lukens DNH gun. Such original pumps can give valuable information about the matter of charging air into these old airguns.
Dr. Beeman attempted to get to the truth by gathering all the known facts, and carefully matching them with the historical dates. He established four criteria:
On 31 August 1803, the first day of Lewis’ expedition journal (listed in error by Lewis as 30 August) and the very day that Lewis began his expedition by setting sail from Pittsburgh in the Ohio River, there was an accident on Bruno’s Island, only three miles out. Lewis showed some visitors the airgun “which he had bought” and he shot seven times to 55 yards with good success. Shortly thereafter, the gun was picked up by a visitor named Blaze Cenas. Without permission, he began inspecting the gun and, and since he was inexperienced with the operation of the airgun, discharged it. The bullet, according to Lewis’ diary entry, hit the hat of a woman about 35 meters away and caused a blood-gushing wound along her temple, a groove about one quarter of the diameter of the ball (unfortunately, the caliber was not mentioned). The woman was stunned, but recovered shortly thereafter. (Note: contrary to several stories, the hat-bearing “woman” very probably was a white woman.)
The journals also reported the airgun amazed the Indians by firing its lead balls into target trees. At one point Captain Lewis laid it out with his other guns to be used in his own defense.
As is described in the travel journal, the airgun could be fired forty times without recharging, and very exactly. This excludes a model with a spring-piston action or a bellows action, wherein the compressed air is suddenly produced by action of the contained mechanism. In such airguns, the mainspring must be recocked for each shot. Even a model with a ball reservoir is excluded here- even a ball reservoir 15 to 20 cm in diameter would not have held enough compressed air. Gary Barnes, one of the well known makers of big caliber airguns, ascertained that the airgun which Lewis had probably would have had a fill pressure of 55 to 70 bar. At 70 bar with a caliber of .54, as in the NFM gun, it could only have shot ten shots, one after the other. A .45 caliber gun would have been able to shoot 25 shots, one after the other. The most efficient would have been a system with a .31 or .32 caliber gun like the DNH gun. It could have fired forty shots. The gun’s muzzle energy probably would have been about 75 Joules, enough to down small to medium game and birds. In order to hit these birds, a rifled barrel and front and rear sights would have been necessary. The Lukens DNH gun has an 86 cm long brass/bronze barrel, rifled and with both front and rear sights.
Considering the time line, there was only the one month between 9 May and 9 June 1803 when the airgun could have been purchased. The guns which Lewis obtained during that period arrived in Pittsburgh on 22 July 1803 and were loaded onto his river boat on 31 August 1803. The airgun probably was not custom made; there simply was not enough time, and surely Lewis would have specifically mentioned such an arrangement in his journals. In the Philadelphia area there was only one shop where such an airgun could have been made at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the shop of Isaiah Lukens and his apprentice/associate Jacob Kunz. Captain Lewis had friends in Philadelphia, especially among the members of the American Philosophical Society and around the circle of the famous portrait artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale’s son-in-law, Coleman Sellers, is said to have often met with Lewis. Since Sellers had an airgun, marked with his name, made by Lukens, it is plausible that he acquainted Lewis with the gun and Lukens. The idea of taking a gun with him which did not need precious gunpowder and needed relatively little lead might have convinced Lewis that this was a gun for him. Peale and Lukens knew each other well. Peale later made paintings of Lewis and Clark. After Isaiah Lukens’ death in 1846, many of the items from the Lukens' shop were auctioned off. However, before the auction began, a friend of Lukens may have pulled back a few items, among them the Lewis airgun and instead gave these to Peale’s museum. (Eichstädt: The reason that the Lewis gun was back in Lukens’ shop may have been related to the lack of money after the expedition.) On the request of Lewis in 1806, a certain Lieutenant Peters was to take the airgun to Washington, D.C., but instead he evidently returned the gun to its original maker (perhaps via Peale). There it lay for forty years until the auction.
4. Fourth Criterion: the repairs
Before the expedition began, Lewis looked in the weapons arsenal at Harper’s Ferry for spare parts and it is evident from a sales receipt that he purchased fourteen spare flintlocks. He also had all the military flintlock rifles which he took on the expedition modified such that they could be repaired with interchangeable parts. Later, on the expedition, on 9 June 1805, Captain Clark noted: “The black Smiths fixed up the bellowses & made a main Spring to Capt. [Lewis’] air Gun, as the one belonging to it got broke.” When he examined the inside of the lock mechanism of the DNH airgun, it became apparent to Beeman that a very well made replacement mainspring was present. It would be surprising if John Shields, the Corps’ very talented gunsmith and blacksmith had not been the one to construct and install this mainspring during the trip. The DNH airgun’s mainspring, which is bright and clean even 200 years later (not an unexpected condition), quite surely was not installed by Lukens. The same is true for the double neck hammer. The lockplate of the DNH rifle shows the mark of a previous hammer, almost certainly a gooseneck hammer which was the standard style of the Lukens/Kunz shop. Lukens, who had a strong sense of aesthetics, probably would not willingly have installed a more stable, but more massive looking, double-neck hammer. Tait recently has reported that Lewis’ special modified Contract Model 1792 firearm rifles were equipped with special double neck hammer locks. Careful examination of the original plate of the full length figure of Lewis illustrated in this article, reveals a double neck hammer on the rifle that he is holding. There is excellent evidence that the flintlock rifle shown there was the very firearm that Lewis carried on the expedition. (Several other drawings of men of the expedition include rifles that apparently were not original.) Very possibly, John Shields, when he installed the new mainspring, also may have decided to exchange, or had to exchange, the hammer. The original gooseneck hammer could have been brought to him broken or he could have broken it when he was trying out the strong new mainspring; such breakage was common during such tests. (In use, or tests, the firing action of the Lukens’ airguns would have put unusually high stress on the neck of the hammer.) Undoubtedly, Shields possessed the technical skill to fit a replacement hammer and to fit it to the ingenious, but rather simple, firing system and also was fully capable of forming and tempering a new mainspring.
The front lockplate screw on the Lukens DNH airgun is heavily damaged; not something which either Lukens or Lewis would have tolerated when he purchased the gun, nor would have any gunsmith in civilized areas tolerated it if he were installing a new mainspring after the trip. It could only have been broken when someone removed the lockplate, as would be necessary to replace the mainspring. However, out in the wilderness, Shields more than likely did not have a means of duplicating this “civilian thread” lockplate screw and would have had to return the damaged screw to the gun after his repair. Lukens may have learned from this: when the DNH gun was brought back, it wasn’t repaired, but airguns which were made later by Lukens or Kunz (there are six specimens in the Stewart collection) have a lockplate with an additional screw.
Where did the double neck hammer originate? Several ideas exist. As Frank Tait suggests, probably not from the Model 1803, because this did not exist at the beginning of the expedition and therefore no Model 1803 spare parts would have been taken. (And such large rifle parts probably would not have fit on the air rifle.) The collectors Charter Harrison and Henry Stewart thought that the hammer was identical with that of the U.S. Model 1836 pistol and concluded that the double-neck hammer was replaced long after the expedition – this was one of the key reasons why they did not feel that the Lukens DNH was the real Lewis airgun. More likely is the idea that such a double-neck hammer arm already was in the spare parts supply, or could have been borrowed from a Model 1777 French flintlock pistol or, even more likely, from a North & Cheney U.S. military pistol Model 1799. The outer measurements of the hammers of the 1799 flintlock pistol and that of the DNH airgun are the almost the same. There are cosmetic differences, because at that time, small parts such as hammers were made by individual filers and delivered to the gun makers. Two “horse pistols” were obtained by Captain Lewis from the Schuylkill arsenal in Philadelphia. There apparently is no record of what model pistols these were, but that arsenal had a very large supply of the Model 1799 flintlock pistols at the time of Lewis’ visit.
To see the absolutely wonderful original article, which has great color illustrations, please click here. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader program on your computer to download this .pdf file. If necessary, download this free program from www.Adobe.com.). Note by Robert Beeman - there are a number of errors in the above paper as it was based on European references.
Editor's note: As of of 2004: To now get the latest perspective of the Lewis and Clark air rifle story, it is necessary to go to the two, much updated articles on this website by clicking on these titles: Proceeding On to the Lewis and Clark Airgun II and Lewis Air Rifle - New Evidence.
 In the original German manuscript there are two very different words for “airgun”: “Windbüchsen” – we have delighted in using this obsolete, but wonderful German word for “large bore airguns” for the antique airguns AND “Druckluftwaffen”, the modern German term for compressed air guns. In other contexts the words “Luftgewehr” and “Luftpistole” are used to refer to a modern air rifle and a modern air pistol, respectively. And since the German word for weapon is "Waffen", one might think that the general word for airguns, to include both air rifles and air pistols, would be "Luftwaffen" - and sometimes that word is used in that context, but go to a German library and ask for books on "Luftwaffen" and they probably will bring you books on the WW2 German Air Force! Verstehen Sie?
A Smithsonian photograph of Gunsmith, Instrument Maker, and Horologist Isaiah Lukens. This picture was taken much later than the expedition.
Time magazine produced a big L&C issue, dated 9 July 2002.