The Lewis & Clark expedition, called the Corps of Discovery, had a large impact on the course of the country. Without this adventure westward and the documentation, the North American continent would look drastically different. I’ve always been fascinated by their journey, having seen many signs on roadsides pointing to the different historical sites from the trip.
Their weapons were among the items that held my attention that Lewis & Clark would use day in and day out on the expedition. They hunted game for food, for natural history collection (they sent several samples back during the expedition and after for scientific reasons), and use them as protection from whatever they encountered during the almost two-and-a-half-year journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Many of the firearms and weapons that the group took with them came from the Military Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, another in Pennsylvania, and some from their own homes. (Yes, that’s the same Harper’s Ferry that would be the scene of the John Brown incident some 50-some years later.) Let’s take a look at some of the weaponry from the Expedition, shall we?
Rifles & Muskets
The main weapons of the Expedition were muskets and rifles. According to reports, many of the members of the Corps of Discovery carried US military rifles and service muskets that some of them brought along with them from their previous posts. These weapons were indispensable to them, many of which were used daily for hunting to provide meat for the men. For the expedition, Lewis received 15 rifles at Harpers Ferry, planning on a smaller group of men to equip. The remainder of them were expected to supply their own.
Historians debate on exactly which rifle type Merriweather Lewis picked up in Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1803. Some speculate it was the 1792 Contract Rifle or the Short US Model 1792-1794 Contract Rifle, while others suggest it was the Harpers Ferry Model 1803. The documentation from the time does not explicitly state which model was chosen, only that Lewis stated he “shot my guns and examined several articles which has been manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well executed.”
1792-1794 Contract Full and Short Rifles
According to some reports, Lewis selected the 1792 Contract Rifles. The rifle was used by the US Military during the time that both Captain Lewis and Captain Clark were enlisted so it makes sense that Lewis would select these particular rifles for his trip.
These rifles were said to be plain, Pennsylvania-style rifles that are single-shot. The muzzleloading flintlock rifles were hand-made by gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. Originally, these rifles had a 42” barrel and there is some speculation as to which version of that rifle Lewis chose. Regardless of which one, he had them “prepared” for the trip. There is no real information as to what was done, but some speculate that the barrels were shortened to make them easier to use on boats and the caliber was increased.
If the barrels of the rifles were shorted, historians believe it was the 1792-1794 Contract Short Rifle that was chosen. These rifles have barrels that would have been around 6” to 8” shorter than the standard rifle and had the bore enlarged from .49 to .54 caliber.
Harpers Ferry Model 1803
The Harpers Ferry Model 1803 rifle shows up in a lot of illustrations of the Expedition in publications after the fact. According to historians, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the idea of the Model 1803 rifle being used on the Expedition was challenged. The original prototype of the rifle was in production in 1803 but wasn’t delivered to Harpers Ferry until October of that year, well after Lewis had moved on. So it seems very unlikely that the Model 1803 would actually have gone on the Expedition. But there is some speculation that the changes that Lewis had done to the rifles directly lead to the different features of the 1803 model.
Model 1795 Springfield Muskets
This firearm saw a lot of daily use from the men on the Expedition. This was referred to as the “Charleville pattern” musket which was a standard of US soldiers during the time. This makes perfect sense given that almost all the men on the Expedition were members of the military. The musket was a smoothbore 69 caliber firearm, weighed nearly 10 pounds each, and took nearly a full minute to load a single shot.
Fifteen of these muskets were believed to have made the trek with the Corps of Discovery. Each of these muskets required powder horns, powder measures, patches, and lead balls in order to function properly (which, really, it’s no wonder it took nearly a minute to load). With the requirements for firing each rifle, historians generally agree that most of the men opted to use the rifles for daily activities rather than the muskets.
Lewis & Clark’s Personal Weapons
The historical records of the journey show that both Lewis & Clark brought their own weapons along with them, like the rest of the men. Among the personal weapons that Lewis brought was his Girandoni-style air gun, something that was made for the Austrian army. This repeating airgun had a magazine for 20-round bullets and an air reservoir in the hollow steel butt. Some accounts state that it took hundreds of pumps to fully charge the gun with air and was primarily used to impress the Native Americans the group met along the way.
My Air-gun . . . astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends every thing that is to them incomprehensible.
– Merriweather Lewis, 24 January 1806
The airgun was smokeless and could reach a fire rate of nearly 20 rounds a minute which impressed most all the groups they met on their journey. Accounts state that the Native population wasn’t impressed at the sound of the gun, since it was still quite loud when it fired, but at the number of rounds it could shoot in short succession. Many agree that the airgun did not need to go with the men on the expedition.
William Clark also brought personal weapons, including a rifle referred to as the “small rifle” in his journals, the rifle style today known as the Kentucky Rifle. The caliber of this rifle would definitely make it smaller than the other rifles, considering it was a .36 bullet about the size of a pea.
Clark used the rifle often on the journey, with several references to its use showing up in different party members’ journals. There was a recounting of a time with the Clatsop tribe on the Oregon coast when Clark demonstrated the rifle’s ability by shooting several ducks at different distances, even taking the head clean off one of them. Another reference to its use was by Clark when he tried to use it to unsuccessfully take down an elk.
Both men carried a military-issued “US 1799 North & Cheney” or “US 1799 Contract” model pistol, referred to in the Expedition’s records as a “horseman’s pistol.” Either pistol was available to the men, and some think the North & Cheney model is the more likely choice, but records do not clearly indicate which model it was. The pistols were selected as a pair at the Schuylkill Arsenal outside of Philadelphia on Lewis’s way west to St. Louis.
Pistol holsters were not common during the time of the Expedition so carrying the pistols through the journey was a novelty. Lewis refers to drawing his pistol during an encounter with some Piegan men. The encounter took place in the early hours of July 27, 1806, when the Piegan men snuck into the camp of Lewis and three other men and attempted to steal their rifles as they slept. Lewis pulled his pistol on the man stealing his rifle who promptly dropped the rifle and retreated.
“I reached to seize my gun but found her gone, I then drew a pistol from my holster and terning myself about saw the indian making off with my gun. I ran at him with my pistol and bid him lay down my gun which he was in the act of doing when the Fieldses returned and dew up their guns to shoot him which I forbid a he did not appear to be about to make any resistance or commit any offensive act, he droped the gun and walked slowly off.”
The Lewis & Clark Expedition and Beyond
Jefferson was clear about his intentions for the Expedition, directing the men to make peace with all the tribes they encountered. The men used the weapons for protection from animals and the unknowns they were to see along the trail. Surviving the journey was a feat in itself so it’s no real surprise that there are no surviving weapons from the Expedition. All that remains are the journals of the men’s accounts.
It has been fun getting to know the weapons a little better and reading the different accounts. I have read books and some of the journal entries, along with visiting a few of the key locations (Fort Clatsop, Oregon to name one) so this dive into the weaponry helped round out my understanding of the endeavors of these brave men.