Originally featured in Points West in Winter 2008
Lukens air rifle
Air guns, which use compressed air rather than spark to launch a bullet or other projectile, have existed since the fifteenth century. They had several advantages over the other firearms of the day. Since they weren’t dependent on fire, they could be fired in wet weather and more consistently than muzzle-loading guns. They had no muzzle flash and were completely smokeless—real advantages in keeping the shooter’s position obscured.
Air guns appear in many countries and throughout history. An air rifle is mentioned no less than sixteen times in the journals of Lewis and Clark, and due to a number of historical particulars, it is believed the rifle in question was manufactured by Philadelphia inventor Isaiah Lukens. An 1847 inventory of Lukens estate indicated three air guns including one with the note “one large air gun made for and used by Messrs. Lewis and Clark in their exploring expedition.”
Of the four known surviving Lukens air rifles, the one actually carried by Meriwether Lewis has been debatable. Although the rifle pictured is of the approximate date and bears the inscription “Lukens” on the lockplate, it is probably not the Lewis gun. Recent scholarship has pointed in the direction of a gun of the Girandoni design, a repeating design that has been referred to as “the assault rifle of its day.” Regardless, the Lukens is still a significant chapter in the development of firearms and in American history.
Lukens air rifle, ca. 1803. 1991.5.1