The Girardoni repeating air rifle of 1780
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
The Girardoni of 1780 was the first successful repeating rifle, and it is an airgun!
This report covers:
- Girandoni or Girardoni?
- 1,000-1,500 rifles
- Firing the rifle
- Lewis & Clark
Today will be a different sort of report. Much of what I want to show you is in a short video at the end. I have determined that videos are a good way to impart a lot of information that is hard to explain but easy to see. Therefore there will be more videos in my future reports.
In the mid to late 1700s several people were trying to invent a reliable repeating firearm. The military wanted such an arm, as long as it was reliable. The problem was, the gunpowder of the day was what we know today as black powder. Instead of burning like smokeless powder, black powder burns so fast that it explodes when confined inside a tight space. So many early repeating firearms exploded, because there were no cartridges to contain the powder.
The son of Bartolomaes Girardoni was killed when an experimental repeating rifle he fired blew up and took off his arm. That, probably more than anything, got Girardoni’s attention turned toward air rifles. And in 1780 his perfected air rifle repeater was selected by the Austrian army for limited use.
Girandoni or Girardoni?
The name has been spelled both ways. Dr. Beeman traveled to Europe to meet with members of the family and discovered that the name is spelled GiraRdoni. Apparently a misspelling in print about 50-60 years ago changed the spelling, and thousands of references have been written with the N spelling. Searching for that spelling will find far more data than with the R spelling. But the R spelling is correct.
You will find references to the fact that the Austrians bought anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 Girardoni repeaters for limited use on the battlefield. Riflemen were assigned individually to units and treated as snipers are today. That was more because they had a rifle than the fact that they had a repeater. There is one record of a sergeant being killed with one shot at 110 yards. He was standing next to a general officer who was probably the actual target.
Each soldier was issued a rifle, two extra filled butt flasks that could quickly be changed in the field and a small hand pump to refill the flasks. Filling them with the small pump was futile — it took forever. So, in the army trains (the logistical area in the rear) there was a wagon-mounted large pump that was operated by two men whose only job was to fill flasks as fast as they could.
Dr Beeman has a modern replica that he has shot and tells us there are at least one magazine’s worth of shots and probably more from a flask.
Each rifleman carried this leather pack that had two filled butt flasks in addition to the one on his rifle. There was also a hand pump in the kit, but it’s doubtful it was used very much.
Firing the rifle
The rifle was either .46 or .47 caliber. It carried 21 round balls (all bullets at the time were round balls) in a tube on the right side of the receiver. When the rifle was elevated for the hammer to be cocked, the tube was also elevated and the balls rolled to the rear. A steel shuttle was pushed in from the left side of the receiver and a hole allowed one ball to drop in from the magazine tube. Releasing the shuttle allowed a long leaf spring to push it back to the left where the ball then aligned with the breech of the barrel. All the shooter had to do was shoulder the rifle and fire. This entire process took less than three seconds. And a trained rifleman could keep up sustained fire until he ran out of bullets. The Girardoni was the assault rifle of the day.
The biggest problem was no doubt air leakage. The butt was probably pressurized to between 600 and 800 psi, and the leather and animal horn seals of the day were not airtight. They were kept lubricated with sperm whale oil which helped, but they still leaked down over time. There were probably some flasks that remained pressurized for a couple days and others that leaked down in hours.
A second problem was the maintenance of what at the time was a highly complex mechanism. Armorers (those who fix firearms for the military) were mostly blacksmiths at the time. This repeater called for the skills of a clockmaker! As a result, the Austrian Arms began phasing the rifle out of their inventory just after 1800. They couldn’t keep it going, but civilians reacted differently! Gunmakers began copying the mechanism and today there are far more Girardoni-type rifles than there are actual military Girardonis. But one Girardoni is the most famous rifle of all time — the repeating air rifle carried by Lewis & Clark on their expedition of 1803.
Lewis & Clark
For many years if was believed that the Lewis & Clark air rifle was a single-shot made by Isaiah Lukens. I have examined that airgun and even photographed it partially disassembled. But then Dr. Beeman found some missing diary pages from the L&C expedition that talk of a repeater and of a repair made to the hammer while in the field. Lo and behold, from forensic examination he discovered that he owned the exact rifle Lewis & Clark had carried! He donated it to the U.S. Army War College museum and it has been shown around the country ever since. This rifle kept the Indian tribes at bay as the small band of soldiers crossed the continent, because they were astounded at the “white man’s medicine.” They had never seen a repeating rifle! In fact, very few people ever had!
I have seen one military Girardoni at an airgun show. I have probably seen 10 or 15 Girardoni-type airguns if I include both the rifles and pistols. Airgun writer and collector Larry Hannusch owns a Contriner repeating rifle that he has shot at big bore matches and taken small Texas deer with. He also owns a beautiful pair of Girandoni-type pistols that I have reported on in the past.
Larry Hannusch boxed this beautiful pair of Cantarini repeating pistols with all the tools they require.
Larry’s pistols are made for nobility or royalty without a doubt!
The Girardoni I saw changed hands for $3,500 at the Roanoke airgun show in the 1990s. Knowledgeable airgunners felt it was probably worth around $8,000 at the time, but who really knows? Today a similar example will fetch 50,000 to 90,000 Euro ($55,000 to $99,000). I can’t afford that, but let me show you one I can afford.
My thanks to John McCaslin for that fabulous gift! It now hangs proudly on my living room wall.
If you have any interest in owning a replica Girardoni for your man cave or living room, here is the man to contact. Karl Walker at [email protected]