The Lewis and Clark Air Rifle

"...we showed them many curiosities and the air gun which they were much astonished at."      - William Clark, August, 1804

Clock and gun maker Isaiah Lukens of Philadelphia, PA, provided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark one of his air rifles for their 1803-1806 expedition to explore the northwest. Unlike most rifles which used black powder, the air rifle used compressed air to shoot its .31 cal. bullet.

Unlike black powder rifles, an air rifle made little noise when fired. It did not make smoke and had very slight "kick." And, you didn't have to "keep your powder dry!"

The butt of the rifle is actually a metal canister designed with a needle valve to hold compressed air. The air was stored under pressure --between700 and 900 pounds per square inch! (A modern car tire carries a pressure of 35 pounds per square inch.) When the trigger is pulled, just the right amount of air is carried from the butt to the bullet chamber and the round leaves the barrel with a whish.

This is an air rifle butt reservoir screwed to the pump used to compress the air. The auger end (to the right) could be screwed into a tree. A few hundred strokes on the pump and you were ready to go hunting.

Although the rifle was used in hunting, its main purpose was to impress the Native Americans Lewis and Clark would meet. Upon returning home Lewis and Clark presented the history making air rifle back to Isaiah Lukens.

More on the Lewis airgun...