Commentary
5:42 am
Tue July 30, 2013

Into It: Air Guns Were Once More Than Just A Christmas Gift

A Girandoni System Austrian Repeating Air Rifle, Circa 1795, believed to have been taken on the Lewis & Clark Army Corps of Discovery Expedition 1803-1806.
Credit Wikipedia

The air gun has played a bigger role in American culture than you might of imagined.

The Red Ryder BB gun was introduced in 1938 to imitate Winchester rifles of popular western films, and it soon became an American Icon. But the air gun has much deeper roots in American history.


Going back to the beginning of the 19th century, Lewis and Clark depended on an Austrian-made repeating air rifle called the Girandoni. The gun famously served as a demonstration piece for their many encounters with Native Americans.

The Girandoni was a rare, powerful weapon. The butt of the rifle was a detachable metal cone that could be pumped to an amazing 800 lbs of pressure per square inch. Compare that to the 35 pounds your tires hold. But to do this it took 1500 pumps.

The expedition’s gun was likely acquired in Philadelphia from a family called the Lukens. They were clock makers by trade, but also notable air gun enthusiasts.

At a time when many struggled with muzzle-loading rifles, the Girandoni was amazingly quiet, smokeless, and rapid-firing. And it was powerful, the bullets firing at 1,000 feet per second.

What’s amazing is how, over the past two hundred years, the air rifle’s role has changed. It’s gone from an awe-inspiring contraption to a leisure item, a toy you’d find stacked on pallets at a superstore.