Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their 2-year Voyage of Discovery in 1804 equipped with the finest weapons and equipment the state of the art could provide. Imagine how we might outfit an expedition to Mars today and you appreciate the parallel. Everything on a spaceship would represent the very flower of modern engineering prowess. So it was in 1804.
On March 14, 1803, Henry Dearborn, then-Secretary of War, directed Joseph Perkins, the superintendent of the Harpers Ferry Armory, to "make such arms and iron work, as requested by Captain Meriwether Lewis." Lewis subsequently requested 15 flintlock rifles with slings and sundry spare parts.
On July 8th of the same year Captain Lewis wrote to President Jefferson, "Yesterday I shot my guns and examined the several articles which have keen manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well-executed."
Each man's rifle had to have a tompion, or barrel stopper, a device resembling a wooden clothespin and served to keep out snow, mud, rain, and dirt. They also included a "cow's knee," a rawhide cover actually harvested from the skin over a cow's knee, to keep the lock, pan, and frizzen dry and free of contaminants. So equipped, these weapons were deemed adequate for the task of arming and feeding expedition members during their trek across some of the world's most untamed wilderness.
In addition to these fairly conventional arms, Lewis and Clark brought along a state-of-the-art .46-caliber Girardoni repeating air rifle. Designed by Bartholomaus Girardoni in 1779, this remarkable weapon included a 22-shot gravity-fed magazine and typically managed about 30 rounds per charge of air. The rifle weighed about what a comparable musket might and required around 1,500 strokes on a hand pump to charge its air reservoir. Muzzle velocity hovered around 450 feet per second and the weapon's maximum effective range reached out to 150 yards. However, it could be fired as quickly as balls might be indexed into the breach, an extraordinary feat for its day. Expedition members armed with the Girardoni frequently put on firepower demonstrations that awed onlookers. A repeating rifle not using powder or producing smoke was otherwise unimaginable for folks of this era.
The Girardoni was referred to as a Windbuchse or "wind rifle" in the original German. At a time when rifled barrels were the next great thing in small arms technology, this air rifle was considered sufficiently indispensable to...