Firearms of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: a Summary
by S. K. Wier
by S. K. Wier
The Lewis and Clark Expedtion rifle: the "contract rifle of 1792."
(Harpers Ferry National Historical Park)
Firearms were essential to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They were used daily for hunting for food, and for natural history collections. Traveling across an unmapped and unknown wilderness, remote from familiar sources of aid and supply, guns were one of the indispensable tools of the explorers. During the entire expedition, lasting 2 years and 4 months, more than 30,000 dinners were required. Even though they departed with tons of supplies, during most of the journey they relied on hunting for food. Hunters went out virtually every day. Also, discoveries and collections of new animals were a goal of the expedition, as directed by the President Thomas Jefferson, and dozens of new animals were discovered and preserved specimens sent back east. There was no intention to use guns for conquest; in fact Jefferson directed the expedtion to make peace with all the tribes they met. The good record of the expedition, living among the native Americans for more than two years, is remarkable in the history of the United States in the west.
The journals and records prepared by the expedition members show that they carried U.S. military rifles obtained from the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and service muskets brought by soldiers posted from other units. Personal firearms were brought by Captains Clark and Lewis, and some of the hunters enlisted for the journey may have used their own rifles. The French-speaking boatmen may have carried “trade guns,” a common type of musket. Lewis brought an “air gun,” a case of matched pistols, and a fowler, and Clark brought his personal .36 caliber long-rifle, and an "elegant fusil.”. A “swivel gun,” a small cannon, was mounted on the keelboat, and the two pirogues each had a blunderbuss, each also mounted on a swivel. All the firearms of the Lewis and Clark expedition were single-shot, muzzle loading, black powder guns with flintlock ignition, the notable exception being Lewis's air gun, which on several occasions astonished native Indians with its repeating operation.
Two kinds of guns were the main reliance of the explorers, military muskets and rifles. Lewis obtained fifteen rifles at Harpers Ferry Arsenal in the spring of 1803. Convincing evidence indicates that these rifles were the "1792 Contract Rifle" (see note 1 below).
The contract rifles were plain, Pennsylvania-style, single shot, muzzleloading flintlock rifles, with no ornamentation, hand-made by gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. Full stocked, they had an original barrel length of 42 inches. Lewis says that he had the rifles "prepared" for the exepdition. No note was made of what was done, but it may have included shortening the long barrels a bit to make them more handy in boats, and the rifling may have been refreshed, increasing the original caliber of the contract rifles, 0. 49, somewhat.
The "Charleville pattern" U.S. musket of the 1803 period.
The other gun of daily use was what was then called the “Charleville pattern” musket, the standard firearm of US soldiers of the period (all but a few men on the expedition were US Army personnel). It is a 69 caliber smoothbore, and is now called the “Model 1795 Springfield” musket. Since there were some 30 privates and sergeants in the Corps of Discovery, and since Lewis had obtained 15 rifles, there were probably about 15 of these muskets on the trip.
Both the rifle and musket weighed nearly ten pounds and required most of a minute to load a single patched shot. Powder horns, powder measures, patching, and lead balls were required accessories. Lewis devised lead powder canisters, each holding 4 pounds gun powder and made with 8 pounds of sheet lead which was used to cast into bullets. The expedition began with 51 of the powder canisters (mostly with rifle grade powder; others musket grade) and some wooden kegs of powder, size not known. The captains' notes of powder usage in their journals indicates that the rifles were fired a lot more than the muskets. Certainly the rifles would have been prefered for hunting.
Clark brought some personal guns, including a small 36 caliber “squirrel rifle,” and an “elegant fusil,” a light-weight gentleman's sporting smoothbore. Lewis brought a case of matched pistols, one of which he traded for a horse, and a "fowler," an extra-long smoothbore, also traded to the Indians for supplies. Both captains carried a military-issue “horseman's pistol” either the “US 1799 North and Cheney” model (similar to the French Charleville 1763 pistol), or the “US 1799 Contract” pistol (McCormick model), both now great rarities.
Lewis's air gun was an unusual property of the expedition. Widespread agreement is that it was a Girandoni-style air rifle, a design originally designed and built for the Austrian army. Girandoni-style airguns were made by several European gunsmiths. They were typically about .46 to .49 caliber, had a magazine for 20 round bullets, and were repeaters. The air reservoir is the hollow steel butt, and hundreds of strokes of a pump were needed to give it a full charge of air. Lewis used his personal air gun to impress Indians in council. It was smokeless, and could fire 20 shots in one minute. The Indians were impressed, except for the Teton Sioux. The air gun was the most unusual piece of equipment on the expedition, and served some role in negotiations with the natives, but was otherwise not an essential part of the expedition in any way. It was then, and remains, a curiosity, not "the gun that opened the west." Lewis and Clark could have done all they did without it. Incidentally air guns of that period and caliber are not silent and make a very loud crack; what impressed the Indians was the air gun's repeating operation, not silent operation.
There are no known surviving guns from the expedition. Claims have been made for three guns, but the evidence is circumstantial, lacking any definitive proof.
Despite the lengthy journals kept by several members of the expedition, details about what was, to them, everyday equipment, was not worthy of note. They knew what they did was of lasting value and very important, but that did not include describing field gear.
Note 1. The evidence is that these rifles were the "1792 Contract Rifle" (Tait, 1999a; Tait 1999b). There has long been an assumption that the expedition was equipped with the Harpers Ferry Model 1803 rifle, because Lewis obtained his rifles at Harpers Ferry in 1803, the Model rifle 1803 has a date of, well, 1803, and the expedition got underway in May 1804. But no Model 1803 rifles were made prior to late 1803 or early 1804 (Moller 1993). (A parallel case is the "1795 Springfield musket" which appears to have been first made in 1799.) Lewis had selected his supplies and had them "in a state of preparation" at Harpers Ferry by April 1803, and had them shipped west in early July 1803. By the time the first Model 1803 rifle was made at Harpers Ferry Virginia, the expedition and its supplies were near Saint Louis, preparing to depart. The locks for the new model rifle were available in early 1803 when Lewis was at Harpers Ferry. Lewis enthusiastically detailed his preparations at Harpers Ferry in letters to Thomas Jefferson, such as work on his portable iron boat frame, but makes no mention of a new kind of rifle in any of his letters, despite his clear delight in new technical developments.
Perhaps the expedition rifles served some role in the development of the Model 1803 rifle. The specifications of what became the 1803 rifle were first detailed in a letter to the superintendent at Harper's Ferry from the Secretary of War in Washington D.C., in May 1803, obviously before any of that rifle were made at Harper's Ferry. If one wants to conjecture, perhaps Lewis, who was well acquainted with the Washington establishment, provided some ideas or guidence to the Secretary of War about a new rifle design, after he returned east from Harpers Ferry that spring. During his visit to Harper's Ferry he could well have considered firearm improvements, and had discussions with the staff there who would have been interested and knowledgeable. But there is no evidence for him having new rifles made at Harpers Ferry, or obtaining new rifles there .
There are some who would prefer the expedtion to have used the Model 1803 rifle for a number of reasons. The Model 1803 rifle is more flashy than the plain contract rifles. But there just is no sound evidence for that case, and very credible evidence otherwise. You don't need to take my word for it: see the sources listed below for more details about this matter. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park supports the contract rifle.
Michael Carrick, "Army Rifles of 1800", from Discovering Lewis and Clark, http://lewis-clark.org/content/content-article.asp?ArticleID=2356, downloaded 3 March 2011.
George D. Moller, American Military Shoulder Arms (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993), vol. 2. pp. 1930.
Frank A. Tait, "The U.S. Contract Rifle Pattern of 1792," Man at Arms, vol. 21, no. 3, (May/June 1999) pp. 33-45.
Frank A Tait, "Response to the letter of Michael H. Maggelet," Man at Arms, vol. 21, no. 6, (November/December 1999) pp. 78.
S. K. Wier, "Firearms of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," ( http://ww .westernexplorers.us/Firearms_of_Lewis_and_Clark.pdf).
S. K. Wier, "Guns of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," We Proceeded On," vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 10-17, May 2006. An illustration with the statement that a conjectural "Model 1800 rifle" was the rifle of the expedition were inserted in this publication without the author's knowledge or approval, and are completely contrary to his views. Essential corrections to other editing modifications of this publication are in Letters, We Proceeded On," August 2006, vol. 32, no 3. We Proceeded On is the journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Historic Foundation.
S. K. Wier, "Meriwether Lewis's Lead Powder Canisters," ( http://www.westernexplorers.us/Powder_Canisters_of_Lewis_and_Clark.pdf).
This report is online at http://www.westernexplorers.us/Lewis-and-Clark-Expedition-firearms-summary.html.
The assistance of Michael Carrick, a national gun collector who owns an original Girandoni airgun and other expedition type firearms, and Jack Riddle of Colorado, a notable gun collector, is much appreciated.
Photo of replica 1792 contract rifle courtesy of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, with permission.
Copyright © S. K. Wier 2005, 2007, 2011.
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March 27, 2011
St uart Wier has presented programs about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, from Indiana to Washington State.