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November 21, 2023

The Girardoni Air Rifle

By Joe Engesser

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The Girardoni repeating air rifle stands as the most famous type of antique air gun platform thanks to its close association with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. After decades of research, Dr. Robert David Beeman, author, arms collector, and America's father of modern airgunning, discovered what many historians consider the very gun carried by Captain Meriwether Lewis, a Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle.

An extremely rare 18th century Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle like the kind that was likely carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The scarce few surviving examples of the Girardoni air rifle are highly desirable today, with most being institutionalized. We'll examine several unique examples of the Girardoni platform, as well as a multitude of other rare antique air gun models that would make worthy additions to even the most advanced arms collections. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each of these fascinating firearms.

Three rare Girardoni air guns for sale. From top to bottom: A Girardoni air pistol, an Austrian Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle, and a Girardoni-style Mortimer air rifle with its case and accessories.

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Air Gun Development

Invented in the late 16th century, air guns were a type of firearm that used gas confined under pressure to power their projectiles instead of gunpowder. Though often more complex to produce, air guns were much quieter than their black powder contemporaries and didn't create obstructing smoke, didn't foul easily, were less affected by the elements, offered a more reliable "ignition" system, and in almost every case could be reloaded faster than conventional firearms, with some models offering the user the ability to load from a prone or sitting position rather than standing.

An 18th century Bohemian crank handle tip-up barrel air pistol by Georg Lippert of Eger.

Antique air guns were constructed in a myriad of configurations and were powered by a number of distinct mechanisms, including bellows, cranks, side levers, and compressed air stored in ball reservoirs. The latter ball reservoir mechanism, a type of pneumatic system, emerged in the late 17th century and would serve as a predecessor for detachable stock systems like the famous Girardoni air rifle.

A documented 18th century, English flintlock style, ball reservoir muzzleloading air rifle by George Wallis of Hull.

The Girardoni Air Rifle

Gun designers had been experimenting with ways to achieve multi-shot firearms since the earliest matchlocks and volley-fired systems. The pneumatic reservoir offered an ideal platform for the repeating firearm since a ball, barrel, or stock reservoir could store enough compressed air for numerous charges. Perhaps the most prolific pneumatic system was the Girardoni air rifle.

A relief carved and engraved Girardoni system repeating stock reservoir dual caliber sporting air rifle/shotgun by Stormer of Herzberg.

The Girardoni (sometimes spelled "Girandoni") was a stock reservoir air rifle design introduced around 1778 by Austrian master gunsmith Bartolomeo Girardoni. Like other stock reservoir air guns, the Girardoni air rifle employed a detachable butt reservoir, a metal canister that could be unscrewed from the gun and filled with compressed air through a needle valve using a stirrup pump. The air was stored under pressures upwards of 800 psi. Each trigger pull released just enough air from the reservoir to propel a bullet.

The Girardoni air rifle system utilized a gravity-fed magazine tube on the right side of the barrel that could be quickly loaded, and new rounds could be chambered by elevating the muzzle and pressing a spring-loaded slider sideways. The Girardoni air rifle was chambered in fairly large calibers suited for hunting deer, boar, and other medium-sized game, with an effective lethal range of up to 150 yards. According to Dr. Beeman's research, a large-bore Girardoni air rifle could produce "200 ft lbs. muzzle energy at 750 psi pressure, but that a muzzle energy of up to 150 ft. lbs. would be more typical at conservative pressures."

An immensely rare Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle.

The Girardoni air rifle system was widely copied, as illustrated by the example below from London gunmaker Jackson Mortimer that was manufactured sometime between 1811 and 1818. This Mortimer sporting piece shares numerous similarities with the Austrian military pattern 1780 Girardoni air rifle, and its green felt-lined walnut rifle case is stocked with an assortment of accessories typical for the Girardoni platform, including two extra buttstock air reservoirs, a bullet mold, an air pump with a combination wrench/pump handle, an extra trigger, and a canvas bag containing .46 caliber lead balls.

An engraved Girardoni system repeating stock reservoir sporting air rifle by Mortimer of London, with case and accessories.

The Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni Air Rifle

Though initially designed for the sporting market, a military model of the Girardoni air rifle was produced for the Austrian sharpshooters in 1780. More than 1,300 of these Model 1780 Girardoni air rifles were manufactured in Penzig, Austria, though fewer than 25 are known to exist today according to Dr. Beeman.

The Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle pictured below is chambered in .46 caliber and features an octagon barrel with 12-groove rifling, a dovetail mounted blade front sight and notch rear sight, a 21 shot gravity-fed tubular magazine, a screw-off metal buttstock air reservoir, and a walnut stock with incised border carvings.

One of the scarce few surviving Model 1780 Girardoni air rifles.

The Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle served the Austrian military from 1780 to 1815. These advanced air rifles were arguably the first widely issued repeating martial firearms. Decades before the Colt and Winchester became synonymous with the fast-loading repeater, the Girardoni rifle introduced the concept of rapid-fire to the European battlefield in an era when the standard service weapons were muzzleloaded flintlocks.

This desirable Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle would be a prized centerpiece in any advanced firearms collection.

The Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle was capable of 30 to 40 shots on a single charged air tank, although original instructions to Austrian soldiers advised them to only fire one loaded tube of 20 balls before switching to another full air reservoir due to loss of power as the air tank's pressure dropped.

The Austrian riflemen traveled with assistants who repressurized the stock reservoirs. Refilling Girardoni air rifle tanks with a hand pump took around 30 minutes, and in later years this process was significantly accelerated with more efficient wagon-mounted pumps.

The Girardoni Air Pistol

The versatile Girardoni air gun system could be applied to handgun designs as well, like this superbly crafted presentation-grade embellished Girardoni pistol featured in 'Blue Book of Airguns, Thirteenth Edition' by Lisa Beuning, Dennis Adler, Tom Gaylord, Dr. Robert Beeman. The authors note that the pistol is only one of two examples physically signed with Girardoni's maker's mark and further state, "Its elegant construction suggests an important, perhaps royal, customer."

A rare presentation quality, gold plated and silver inlaid, one of two pistols known as signed by Girardoni.

Long guns using the Girardoni repeating system were far more common due to a pistol's more limited air reservoir capacity. Girardoni-style air pistols were expensive to produce and often lavishly embellished like the German example pictured below. Closely modeled after the Girardoni system, this rare air pistol features a round barrel chambered for .34 caliber with fine-groove rifling, a dovetail mounted blade front sight and notch rear sight, walnut stock, and a leather-wrapped metal stock reservoir.

An engraved Girardoni system repeating air pistol by E.A. Stormer of Herzberg.

What Air Rifle was used by Lewis and Clark?

According to decades of evidence, the Girardoni air rifle was the famous air gun model carried during the monumental Corp of Discovery expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1803 to 1806.

In preparation for the dangerous journey to chart the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, Captain Lewis acquired an abundance of supplies and weapons, including 15 flintlock rifles, 176 pounds of gunpowder, and "one long-barreled rifle that fired its bullet with compressed air, rather than by flint, spark and powder."

This extremely rare Austrian military Girardoni repeating air rifle is of the exact kind believed to have been carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition spanned 8,000 miles in 28 months, and their air rifle proved instrumental in keeping the party safe. Though their air rifle was used to take game during the journey without expending precious gunpowder, it also served as a means to impress the numerous Native American tribes the expedition encountered with its remarkable rate of fire and seemingly mystical properties.

The air rifle is mentioned frequently in Lewis' Journal, including at least eight separate occasions between August of 1804 and May of 1806 where the weapon was demonstrated to Native Americans. In an account from August 17, 1805, Lewis wrote, “I also shot my airgun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine.”

An entry about Lewis' air gun that was recorded prior to the expedition by Thomas Rodney, politician, federal justice, and Revolutionary War veteran, describes a weapon that closely matches the properties of the Girardoni air rifle.

Sept. 8, 1803. “… He showed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He showed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; … but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then dropped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the trigger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the breech of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious piece of workmanship not easily described and therefore I omit attempting it.”

(Left) Captain Lewis demonstrates his air rifle in a painting by Warren Lee. (Right) Dr. Jeffrey Clarke, Chief Historian of the Army, receiving the Beeman Girardoni air rifle from Dr. Robert D. Beeman and Mrs. Toshiko K. Beeman in 2007.

Dr. Robert Beeman dedicated significant research to the Lewis and Clark air gun. After a five-decade search and an international review of his findings in 2006, Dr. Beeman and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Association announced the apparent discovery of the Lewis air rifle. Dr. Beeman summarizes his findings on page 599 of 'Blue Book of Airguns, Thirteenth Edition' as follows:

"There is strong evidence in the Lewis and Clark Expedition journals suggesting that this specimen is the air rifle carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Many arms and historical experts consider the Lewis Airgun, ca. 1790, as the world's most important and most valuable airgun."

In 2007, Dr. Beeman donated the Lewis and Clark Girardoni air rifle to the U.S. Army War College, Army Heritage and Educational Center, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Girardoni air rifle for sale at Rock Island Auction Company is a close match to the Lewis and Clark gun and was owned and studied by Dr. Robert Beeman during his years of extensive research on the topic.

(Top) The Beeman Lewis and Clark air rifle displayed in the U.S. Army War College Army Heritage and Educational Center. (Bottom) An Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle sold in RIAC's December Premier Auction.

Girardoni-Inspired Air Guns

The Girardoni air rifle design was copied by numerous gunmakers from continental Europe along with a rare few from England such as the previously discussed Mortimer example. The three air rifles pictured below illustrate the similarities and differences encountered in iron stock reservoir air guns styled on the Girardoni air rifle system.

Three stock reservoir air guns. From top to bottom: An Austrian muzzleloading air gun by Joseph Lowenz, an engraved and carved stock air gun by Ludwig Zeer, and a panel scene engraved and silver inlaid tip-up barrel sporting air gun.

Many antique pneumatic air guns incorporated features from their flintlock contemporaries. This was usually done to offer users a firearm that felt somewhat familiar, with some flintlock-style air guns employing a hammer to cock the weapon and concealing the reservoir with a traditional wooden stock. A concealed reservoir could only be easily accessed through a trapdoor on the buttplate and couldn't be quickly swapped out and filled detached from the gun. However, traditional wooden stocks would have made the air guns more comfortable to shoulder and handle, particularly in extreme heat or cold.

Three 18th century "flintlock" stock reservoir air guns. From top to bottom: a carved and silver inlaid air gun by Schirmann of Germany, a carved and silver inlaid air rifle by I. Haas, and an engraved and relief carved European air gun.

Girardoni Air Rifle: End of an Age

Though the Austrian Military Model 1780 Girardoni air rifle offered numerous advantages over conventional arms of the day, it was a costly weapon to produce and upkeep. Girardoni air tanks could also be relatively fragile in the field, the weapon required specialized training to operate, and rapidly improving conventional rifle technology in the early 19th century was capable of substantially out-ranging the Girardoni.

Stock reservoir air guns like the Girardoni air rifle continued to be produced for the sporting market in meaningful quantities through the 1850s, when repeating firearms like the Colt revolving rifle and fast-loading breechloaders like the Sharps began hitting the scene.

A rare Sharps Model 1849/First Model "Nippes" breechloading sporting rifle, serial number 25.

Low-velocity air gun designs like the bellows system continued to find favor in the sport of indoor gallery shooting, more often loaded with wax bullets or reusable darts in place of conventional lead balls. The mid-19th century crank handle tip-up barrel air pistol pictured below follows the wheellock-style aesthetic observed in many Germanic style bellows designs.

A rare 19th century relief carved Germanic bellows crank handle tip-up barrel air pistol.

America also saw its fair share of air gun models produced for target shooting. One such style, the lever air gun system, operated by filling a cylinder reservoir each time they were pulled back for cocking, like the three mid-19th century examples below manufactured in the Northeastern United States. Though firing at low velocities, gallery-style air guns offered ample accuracy for indoor target shooting and became a popular form of entertainment.

Three 19th century gallery guns. From top to bottom: A tip-up barrel underlever air gun, a New England side lever gallery air gun, and a New York side lever revolving cylinder air gun.

The Girardoni Air Rifle For Sale and More

Finding any Girardoni air rifle for sale is a rare event, but five examples in a single auction is nearly unheard of. The exceptional variety of air guns featured here represents a small sample of the scarcity, history, and condition on display at Rock Island Auction Company.

Three fascinating air guns for same from the Beeman Collection demonstrate the impressive variety found within the genre. From top to bottom: A 19th century European stock reservoir muzzleloading air gun, an 18th century Bohemian crank handle tip-up barrel air pistol, and a finely engraved and gold plated Harper classic air rifle cane engraved "TKB", for Dr. Beeman's wife Toshiko K. Beeman.

The Lewis and Clark Girardoni air rifle is one of the iconic arms of American history, and you can subscribe to Rock Island Auction’s newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that cover some of the most significant guns in gun collecting, from the famous to the infamous. From the revolvers of Pancho Villa, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Elvis Prestley, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jefferson Davis, to rifles connected to Abraham Lincoln, Geronimo, Buffalo Bill, Jonathan Browning, Brigham Young, and more, we examine some of history's most significant firearms.

The antique air gun was produced in a stunning variety of configurations, including the rare Girardoni air rifle.

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