Girandoni air rifle
|This article relies too much on references to primary sources. (May 2011)|
|Girardoni air rifle|
Girardoni system Austrian repeating air rifle, circa 1795, believed to have been taken on the Lewis and Clark Expedition
|Place of origin||Holy Roman Empire|
|Used by||Holy Roman Empire
|Designed||1779 or 1780|
|Weight||4.5 kg (9.9 lb)|
|Length||120 cm (3.9 ft)|
|Feed system||20 round vertical hopper|
The Girardoni air rifle was an airgun designed by Tyrolian inventor Bartholomäus Girardoni circa 1779. The weapon was also known as the Windbüchse ("wind rifle" in German). One of the rifle's more famous associations is its use on the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and map the western part of North America in the early 1800s.
History and use
The Girardoni air rifle was in service with the Austrian army from 1780 to around 1815. The advantages of a high rate of fire, no smoke from propellants, and low muzzle report granted it initial acceptance, but it was eventually removed from service for several reasons. While the detachable air reservoir was capable of around 30 shots it took nearly 1500 strokes of a hand pump to fill those reservoirs. Later, a wagon-mounted pump was provided. The reservoirs themselves, made from hammered sheet iron held together with rivets and sealed by brazing, proved very difficult to manufacture using the techniques of the period and were always in short supply.
In addition, the weapon was very delicate and a small break could make it inoperable. Finally, it was very different from any other weapon of the time and any soldier using it needed to be highly trained.
Design and capabilities
The rifle was 4 ft (1.2 m) long and weighed 10 lbs (4.5 kg), about the same basic size and weight as other muskets of the time. It fired a .46 caliber ball  (caliber is contested, original sources such as Dolleczek  describe the caliber as 13mm) and it had a tubular, gravity-fed magazine with a capacity of 20 balls. This gravity operated design was such that the rifle had to be pointed upwards in order to drop each ball into the breech block. Unlike its contemporary, muzzle-loading muskets, which required the rifleman to stand up to reload with powder and ball, the shooter could reload a ball from the magazine by holding the rifle vertically while lying on his back and operating the ball delivery mechanism. The rifleman then could roll back into position to fire, allowing the rifleman to keep a "low profile". Contemporary regulations of 1788 required that each rifleman, in addition to the rifle itself, be equipped with three compressed air reservoirs (two spare and one attached to the rifle), cleaning stick, hand pump, lead ladle, and 100 lead balls, 1 in the chamber, 19 in the magazine built into the rifle and the remaining 80 in four tin tubes. Equipment not carried attached to the rifle was held in a special leather knapsack. It was also necessary to keep the leather gaskets of the reservoir moist in order to maintain a good seal and prevent leakage.
The air reservoir was in the club-shaped butt. With a full air reservoir, the Girardoni air rifle had the capacity to shoot 30 shots at useful pressure. These balls were effective to approximately 125 yards on a full load. The power declined as the air reservoir was emptied.
The Girardoni air rifle was an important first. It was the first repeating rifle of any kind to see military service. It was one of the first uses of a tubular magazine. And, although it saw service for only 35 years, it predated and was more advanced in design and mechanical technology than the Henry rifle which arrived fifty years later.
- Wier, S.K. (2005). "The Firearms of the Lewis and Clark Expedition" (PDF). p. 12. Retrieved March 12, 2013.
- Girardoni air rifle as used by Lewis and Clark. A National Firearms Museum Treasure Gun. at YouTube
- The Beeman article on Girardoni air rifles in the sources section and an article in the German gun magazine Visier (issue 1/2007, page 141) claim the caliber was actually .463" (11.75 mm).
- Die Entwicklung der Handfeuerwaffen im österreichischen Heere, 1896, Anton Dolleczek
- A letter detailing regulations, "Signed, Vienna, 24th January 1788"; reproduced in Baker, G; Currie, C. The Austrian Army Repeating Air Rifle 2nd Ed., 2007.
- Military writer August Haller claimed in an 1891 treatise Die österreichische Militär-Repetier-Windbüchse that the first ten shots would be effective to about 150 paces, the next ten shots up to 120-125 paces, the next ten out to 100 paces, and then the remaining air pressure in the reservoir would be too low.