The Parlor Trick That Won The West

By Philip Schreier, Director, NRA Museums

In 1803 Thomas Jefferson took advantage of the dire straits the French Emperor Napoleon was in due to his continuing wars in Europe and purchased Louisiana from him on the cheap. Back then, the borders of Louisiana weren’t confined to New Orleans and its gator infested feeder swamps; it stretched from the west bank of the Mississippi River to wherever the heck we said it did. Only problem was, to get the border defined, the rules of the game back then meant you had to plant your flag there personally (See Neil Armstrong, July 21, 1969). Jefferson decided to send around three dozen soldiers led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a “Corps of Discovery” to survey (i.e., claim) the newly acquired territory. It took them three years to accomplish the task and with the loss of only one life for their efforts.

At this point I strongly urge you to read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. It’s a heck of a story that is deftly written and full of amazing incidents. He posits that it was a miracle that this intrepid band of soldiers made it all the way across the western North American continent without the loss of life due to the hostility of the natives. Throughout the book, Ambrose repeatedly asks: How could they manage that?

Well, when the bi-centennial of the Lewis & Clark expedition rolled around in 2003, historians delved into some fresh research that recently came to light. Now we know the answer to Ambrose’s question. They had a secret weapon: An air rifle. 

This isn’t your grandfather’s Red Ryder. It’s a shoulder-fired arm with a rifled barrel that fires a .46-caliber ball at 700 fps and will accurately penetrate an inch into a plank of pine at 100 yards. 

“Big deal, so it’s a large BB gun. Who cares?” Well, it’s a large BB gun with a 20-round tubular magazine on the side of it that can fire 40 times before needing to recharge the air reservoir. 

Designed by an Italian named Bartolomeo Girardoni* around the same time George Washington’s Centennial Army was wintering at Valley Forge, this wonder weapon of an air rifle was demonstrated to every group of natives Lewis & Clark encountered as a part of their introduction and explanation of what they hoped to accomplish. 

Typically, they paraded into a native village with fifes and drums, flags flying and 45 well-armed men following in close order. They introduced themselves and demonstrated the air rifle to which, as Lewis would write, they found it to be astounding, amazing and half a dozen other adjectives he used to conceal the fact that they had just scared the shit out of their hosts and intimidated them with a shooting iron that fired 40 lethal rounds in 60 seconds with unerring accuracy. Was there just one air-rifle or one for each soldier? Lewis never let the natives know what he had hidden in the hold of his keel boat, so they had no idea of the total firepower at his disposal. Fact is, he only had one.

So the natives would smile, feed them and quickly pass them on to the next tribe west. That’s how the West was won–through a parlor trick designed to intimidate the natives.

It was peace, through the perception of superior firepower.
*Editor’s Note: You can’t buy a Girardoni today, but fortunately for us, you can buy one much better. AirForce is the Girardoni of modern times, offering its ultra-accurate, lightweight adult airguns—like its Texan model—that come in calibers ranging from .177 to .50 caliber. Some of them are equipped with non-NFA suppressors too.