This 18th Century rifle had firepower that was way ahead of its time

The Lewis and Clark Expedition as depicted in a painting by Newman Myrah entitled “Bartering Blue Beads for Otter Robe”. A Girandoni Air Rifle was taken on the expedition and greatly impressed the Native Americans. Painting courtesy of the U.S. Army

The Lewis and Clark Expedition as depicted in a painting by Newman Myrah entitled “Bartering Blue Beads for Otter Robe.” (Painting courtesy of the U.S. Army)

When thinking about 18th and 19th century weaponry, the standard perception is of cumbersome muskets loaded standing up and only the skilled and lucky getting off as many as three rounds in a minute. But an innovative air-powered semi-automatic rifle developed by an Austrian watchmaker in 1779 or 1780 served several armies for decades, and even played a role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Bartholomaus Girandoni, an watchmaker from the Austrian Empire province of Tyrol, had developed an innovative form of firearm, especially for the technological limitations of the time. A pressurized container of air, in the form of a removable stock, would propel a .46 calibre musket ball at speeds comparable to modern day handguns. A tube magazine, typically holding more than 20 rounds, fed through a manual switch.

The weapon was pointed upward and a switch was pressed to reload. Considering that standard muskets at the time required the operator to be standing while reloading, this let soldiers keep low to the ground, presenting a much smaller target and allowing them to stay under cover. It was comparable in range, accuracy, and penetration to a standard musket.

A soldier armed with the rifle typically carried three air tanks and a hundred lead shot in a special leather case.The air canister was good for perhaps 30-40 effective shots, with range and accuracy dropping as the pressure went down. An additional benefit was that it was much quieter than gunpowder based weapons.

A semi-automatic weapon of this level of effectiveness was basically unknown, and the Austrian Army eagerly adopted the design. It saw extensive action in the Napoleonic Wars, and was used for over 30 years.

Thomas Jefferson, who always had a keen interest in inventive new technology, purchased several of the rifles. One of them was carried by the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition, whom demonstrated the rifle to American Indian tribes they met along the way. The Indians were impressed with the weapon’s firepower and it’s much quieter report than a standard musket.

Air_Rifle_B.Girandoni_1779

But the weapon had a number of disadvantages. Recharging a canister could take over 1,500 cranks from a small hand pump, though larger horse drawn recharge stations were often used. The weapon was complex and easily damaged, and the leather seals connecting the tank to the gun had to be kept wet in order to prevent leaks. Compared to the relative simplicity of regular muskets, it required a lot of training to maintain and suffered from serious reliability issues.

The weapon was simply too complex for the technology at the time, and in mass production suffered from too many defects and expense. The conscript armies of the period needed simple weapons that could be built and maintained anywhere, and it was never widely adopted by other European armies.

Though it was phased out by 1815, the weapon’s technology was unique, and an infantry weapon of similar capabilities in sustained rapid fire were not seen again for 50 years. In the end, it’s real flaw is that it was ahead of it’s time.

More here.

TOP ARTICLES
SpaceX launching a third top-secret satellite

SpaceX is launching a secretive mission this month. The mission, shrouded in secrecy, has some considering it may be for the CIA or the NSA.

This is how the Air Force will use prop planes on high-tech battlefields

The Air Force is looking toward a light-attack aircraft program, known as OA-X, to produce a plane that meets its needs and gets the job done.

A retired SEAL commander on how to stop thinking and 'get after it' every day

This former Navy commander has some excellent advice on how to jump start your day, and "get some" in order to make it as productive as possible.

Marines return to battle in 'old stomping grounds'

The Marines recall their "old stomping grounds" as they return to Fallujah and the surround areas of Al Anbar Province to battle a new enemy.

How Chinese drones are set to swarm the global market

China has stepped up it's drone game, and even though United States technology can still compete, China's drones are kind of really in demand.

That time two countries' Special Forces squared off in combat

In an area the size of the Falkland Islands, British and Argentine special operators were bound to run into each other at some point – a lot.

5 times pilots got in trouble for having fun in the sky

When pilots decide to do some fancy flying in their high-performance fighters, it can land them in trouble once they're back on the ground.

This is why Nazis dubbed these paratroopers 'devils in baggy pants'

"American paratroopers – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night," wrote one German commander.

9 ISIS weapon fails that you have to see to believe

Many bad guys just want record themselves laying rounds down range for social media purposes — and we're glad they did. Laugh away, America!

US Army recruitment campaigns, ranked from worst to best

Advertising can really impact recruitment for the military. For better or for worse, here are some of the Army's most memorable slogans...