Thursday, April 26, 2007

High Technology from Days of Old

I saw a fascinating show last night on the Outdoor Channel, part of which was about the air rifle that Meriwether Lewis carried on the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804. This was a 22-shot weapon, a Girandoni-system rifle, and would have been so far in advance of any other long guns being carried then as to seem the ultimate weapon at the time.

It's still not a bad weapon. Essentially, this was a pre-charged airgun, not too different from those being made and touted as state-of-the-art today. It held twenty-two lead balls, one the chamber and twenty-one in a magazine. The air reservoir, which served as the butt-stock, was filled by a hand pump, it took fifteen hundred strokes of the portable pump to do it, to what was probably about 800 psi. (They measured such things in "atmospheres" back then.)

Today, you can fill one with a compressor in about two seconds ...

How it worked was, you chambered a round and fired it, then you could jiggle a control, feed another round from the magazine into the chamber, fire that one, and so on, until you ran out of ammo.

It would have been so much faster than a flintlock as to seem magic. Quieter, and no smoke.

It was supposedly powerful enough to drive the ball (a little bigger than a .45 caliber) through a one-inch pine board at a hundred yards. It could fire between 25 and 35 shots per air charge, though the last few would have been noticeably weaker.

Why didn't they catch on?

They were handmade, labor intensive and very expensive, and required an expert gunsmith to produce -- and maintain. If it broke, the local blacksmith couldn't fix it, he wouldn't have either the knowledge or the tools. If you weren't well-off, you couldn't afford to buy and maintain one, and on the frontier, most people were cash-poor.

Lewis apparently used his air gun to impress the Native Americans and to convince them that his party was not to be trifled with. Must have worked -- they made it there and back and lost but one man the whole trip.

This is amazing stuff, and a lot of it was sussed out by the folks at Beeman, who make air rifles. To see the thing, and a long article on it, go here: Meriwether Lewis's Assault Rifle


Mike said...

I think you'd still need a pump today: most compressors for home/shop use are 125-175psi and anything that would put out 800psi would be specialized industrial equipment. But even lower pressures (with the right sort of round) can be impressive. I once made a blowgun that would shoot a wire dart entirely through a piece of 3/4" plywood using
175psi shop air controlled by a solenoid valve, a 2-liter soda bottle and a piece of aluminum tubing. Soda bottles, according to my tests, will take about 300psi. Kids, don't try this at home...

Steve Perry said...

I think they were using a scuba-tank filler on the show, which is how they do the modern air rifles.

You can buy hand pumps for them, too, from the air gun makers.

There's apparently a guy somewhere in the U.S. who tricks out 9mm air rilfes for Delta Force, pre-charged and with silencers and scopes. No flash, no smoke, hypersonic velocities with the right projectiles.

There's a Korean .50 caliber, single shot that runs about $600, unscoped, called Dragon Slayer.