The Girardoni repeating air rifle of 1780

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Girardoni
The Girardoni of 1780 was the first successful repeating rifle, and it is an airgun!

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • History
  • Girandoni or Girardoni?
  • 1,000-1,500 rifles
  • Equipment
  • Firing the rifle
  • Problems
  • Lewis & Clark
  • Replica
  • Summary

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.

History

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.

1,000-1,500 rifles

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.

Equipment

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.

soldiers pack
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.

Problems

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!

Replica

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.

Cantarini pistols
Larry Hannusch boxed this beautiful pair of Cantarini repeating pistols with all the tools they require.

Cantarini detail
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.

Summary

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]

48 thoughts on “The Girardoni repeating air rifle of 1780


  1. Good morning everyone. I wonder, there really isn’t a market for airgun replicas of flintlock/percussion guns? My impression is that good designs could sell a lot. For me Airforce should have done this first, having the same concept with Girardoni, the stock being the tank. Radical, I know.
    What do you think B.B.?
    Bill


    • I know that I wanted one for Rendezvous! It would be fun to outshoot the black powder boys with an air rifle. If we could use modern valve and pressures in the old style looks, it would be a game changer.


    • Bill and Bejezus,

      This dude got with a friend of his and built several reproduction air rifles using actual air rifles for their models.

      http://orro.net/

      You can also search YouTube for videos of them shooting their rifles.

      I personally would enjoy owning one of these. Is there a market? Most definitely.

      As for the AirForce air rifles, there have been several attempts over the years to build a repeater action on that platform. No such luck. You would have to start from scratch. Now there are some repeaters with the bottle as the stock.



      • Maybe you can communicate the idea to Mr McCaslin.
        A teardrop tank and a modified long shroud, with to resemble the barrel. The tubular magazine would be a disguised cocking lever of the Texan. The hummer would just open the breech area to load. Single shot certainly.
        Quite a simple project for AF I believe.
        Bill




  2. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a video worth? …depends on the length of the video! LOL!

    Like the addition of the video B.B.!

    Read somewhere that a one time the British military was considering a new rifle and the requirements were that it could penetrate a 1 inch oak board at 100 yards. They went with gunpowder but there was an air powered contender that they were considering. Wonder if it was the Girardoni.

    Interesting blog B.B.! Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Friday All!
    Hank


  3. Larry Hannusch has an old GiraRdoni rifle that he brings to airgun shows to let people touch, handle and shoot. He used a high pressure regulated tank adapted to the butt of the rifle receiver instead of the original butt reservoir. I think he has the regulator set a 600 psi. It is a gun I often drool on. I wonder why no one has tried to adapt the repeating mechanism to a modern gun.

    David Enoch




  4. B.B.,

    Nice job with the video. Looking forwards to more. Good idea. Now,…. you can write less (or) expand on the text in “other” ways. Some of your best blogs have to do with off topic,… topics.

    So,…. 21 shots of .46 ~ .47 caliber balls from a rather large tank that is only pumped “probably” to 600 ~ 800 psi,…

    That is quite an astounding shot count given such a large caliber and such a low fill pressure. I can not think of anything new that even begins to compare with that,… even with a regulator. Thoughts????

    Any idea of projectile weight, fps and fpe? 110 yards is quite impressive and would think that the ball must have had quite the arc of flight path. How to aim?

    Chris




      • B.B.,

        Thank you. You missed what I was asking on how is it possible for this to have made 21 shots on one cylinder of air? If all 3 were used (1 on gun, 2 carried) that would put it at 7 shots per air cylinder. Still,.. that is pretty unbelievable for something that is only pumped to 600 psi..

        I looked back at an 2008 article you wrote about “Handpumps of Antiquity, Part 1” in which you mentioned firing a Quackenbush Brigand in .375 caliber. The gun was pumped to 3,000 psi with the valve set to operate at between 1,200 ~ 1,400 psi. It launched the .375 cal., 83 grain projectile at 893 fps and,…. you got only 4 shots,.. with each subsequent shot being (slower).

        You did not mention what the fps might have been with this old .46 cal. rifle. I would think quite slow. That led me to ask how it was aimed for long shots (100 yd.) given that the arc had to be quite extreme. That would require some sort of tall flip up sight,…. no?

        Sorry to be a pain,…. but those 2 points did not seem to quite make sense to me.

        Chris


  5. Another excellent account – thanks, Tom. Special thanks for the information on the spelling of Girardoni.
    As RidgeRunner remarks, Dr. Orro has made and documented rifles on this system with lots of detail if we want to build one ourselves. If anyone fancies duplicating the pump, high pressure was achieved by a small bore, the pumps otherwise resembling a modern bicycle track pump. Lesley Wesley comments in his book (p35) that he used a pump with a half-inch bore and fifteen inch stroke to attain a pressure of 580 psi. He had a friend pump the first 300 pounds. Arne Hoff’s book (p64) gives a pump tube length of 480mm. A half-inch bore gives a piston area of about a fifth of a square inch, so to get to 580psi you’d only need to weigh 116 pounds. Hoff also tells us the reservoir had a volume of 0.74 litres which is about 45 cubic inches. A nineteen inch pump stroke compresses about 3.73 cubic inches of air, so that’s about 22 strokes per atmosphere of pressure. If there are 14.6959 psi in an atmosphere, 580 psi is about 39.5 atmospheres, so that’s 872 pump-strokes. Except that pumps lose their heads for arithmetic as the pressure goes up, so it might be a good many more than that… eee, the fun of a pocket calculator…if I’ve got all the sums right – I don’t always…

    Richard




  6. Hey all,

    I am fairly certain that B.B. knows the answer to this question.

    How economically viable is building a number of old fashioned single shot air powered guns using modern materials and Premier custom builder skills? And a bonus question why would a repeater in this style shooting lead balls make it any more desirable?

    I will now link to a partial answer: http://quackenbushairguns.com/liege_lock.html

    Has anything really changed to make a builder want to tool up to build a run of these types of example in the period since these were sold?

    shootski


    • shootski,

      I believe 5 museum grade copies of a Girardoni were made a few years ago. I think the price was $35,000 but I’m not sure. Quackenbush made kits of his Liege lock, not complete guns for $650 as I recall. He had a hard time selling them.

      B.B.


    • Shootski,

      Whatever you do, be warned NOT to talk to Dennis about wanting one of his Liege Lock air rifles. Believe me, you will regret having done such. Been there, done that, wish I had not. Twenty years later and he is still not a happy camper about those things. It is a real shame because I would really like to have one of those things.

      The main issue is the market demand for such. I personally believe there is a larger market for such, but when Dennis built these, the market for any air rifle was really not that big and for something “antique” it was real small.

      Even with today’s market the demand would be limited. Just look at black powder. Everyone has gone away from the side lock percussion to the inline. Me, I want a flint lock Virginia rifle. But that’s me. How many others want to take something like that out hunting? They just do not understand and I no longer have the energy or the temperament to try to explain it to them. This same bunch just cannot grasp why I am not interested in owning one of those so called “smart” phones.

      “Just because you can, does not mean you should.”


      • R.R.,

        Thanks for the warning but I have had a number of extensive discussions with Dennis about that particular build and a bunch of others built or just speculated about.
        As far as things having changed since that time…I give it a mild maybe.

        As far as your Virginia Flint Lock I have posted in the past about the builds done by the BP rifle gunsmith(s) at Williamsburg, Virginia: https://colonialwilliamsburg.com/locations/gunsmith
        Since you want one I look forward to your report on your aquisiton in the (hopefully) near future.

        shootski


        • Shootski,

          Oh wow! I did not know they had a gun shop there. I will have to give it a visit.

          I was actually thinking of one of Jim Chamber’s kits.

          http://www.flintlocks.com/

          I would really like to have one of Dennis’ actions on a muzzleloader as the originals were. I was also thinking of a different air reservoir/shoulder stock than what Dennis was having made. It is more like what Gary Barnes has for some of his.

          If Dennis is thinking of them again, let me know so I can get in on it.


      • “Everyone has gone away from the side lock percussion to the inline.”

        RidgeRunner, not quite everyone! I still have my “Jeremiah Johnson” .50 caliber Hawken side lock percussion rifle. As a gift from her, it hangs proudly over the fireplace; but she told me if I got an inline, or any kind of black powder rifle with a scope on it, it was NOT going on any wall of the house. =)~
        I’m with you; I would like a nice flint lock rifle. =>


        • Dave,

          My antique air rifles hang on the walls of the great room in our log home. The 1906 BSA has the place of honor over the fireplace. My wife bought me BB’s Webley Service Mk II for Christmas a couple of years ago. It and the Webley Senior hang on the wall behind our recliners. The FLZ I got from BB hangs over the entry to the kitchen. I have one more wall that I am hoping to hang a Virginia rifle on. We will see.

          As for ‘going away’ I was referring to almost no one hunts with a sidelock anymore. They have to have the ‘latest and greatest’, thinking that will make them better hunters. Right.


          • RidgeRunner,
            I remember that pic you posted of the 1906 BSA…sweet! That’s cool that you’ve got those ol’ gals hanging up where visitors can admire them. =>
            “…almost no one hunts with a sidelock anymore.”
            True, and sad; the only one I know who still hunts with a sidelock is me; it works just as well today as it did 160 years ago…you just have to know your gun. I tried to talk one of my friends into getting a rifle like mine…but he bought an inline…that uses 209 shotgun primers! No powder measure either; he uses a couple of “50 grain pellets” of powder.
            *shrugs*
            To each their own; but I find it kind of sad; the sidelock is history; it puts me in touch with our ancestors.
            Jeremiah Johnson would be cool with this…


    • Shootski,

      With the proper power and rifling, a round ball can be extremely accurate at a very long range. A round ball is also not concerned with orientation. The Girardoni loading mechanism is very simple and very reliable, more so than any other multishot mechanism available today.


      • R.R.,

        “With the proper power and rifling, a round ball can be extremely accurate at a very long range.” I am fortunate to know that accuracy from personal experience with two of DAQ’s .575 round ball shooters; a Short Rifle and a pistol.
        “A round ball is also not concerned with orientation.” I’ll give you a mostly true on that one :^) I find that if I’m using cast lead balls that I need to load the sprue oriented the same each time or the repeatability of POI degrades. I have not found anyone who swages a .58 cal ball.
        As far as the simplicity of the Girardoni repeater; I have been very fortunate to inspect a number of examples at the Kunsthistorische Museum’s Armory in Vienna. Fabulous! Given the desire I’m certain that Smith’s like Dennis could fabricate and fit at least to that level. I’m not certain anyone remains to engrave metal to the level of what my white gloved hands got to embrace. The temptation to get some skin on metal was overwhelming at the armory; similar to getting to touch the Enola Gay at Silver Hill, MD; I did get to do that as part of the restoration finish experiments!

        We can only hope to win the lottery and see if we can induce a Smith to build one to our money is no object standards!

        shootski


        • Shootski,

          “Sprue”,… that was a new one on me. I did look it up. Referring to the seam of a pellet mold (and/or the injection port of material),… I do now recall the discussion of positioning the seam of the pellet (while loading) each time to improve accuracy. I had long forgotten about that.

          Thanks for the reminder. Pellets are molded so good these days that mold lines are hard to discern most of the time. If splitting the finest of hairs,…. I could see where it might make a difference.

          Chris


        • Shootski,

          LOL! Since I do not play, that is not likely going to happen. From what I understand the odds to be, it does not matter either way. I will just keep my money and save it up. “They” take enough from me at gunpoint without me giving it to them.

          I do envy the opportunity to handle such, even with gloves on.


          • R.R.,

            I know all too well the many “they” of whom you speak. Very soon my monthly mortgage payment will be less than my monthly property taxes. Interestingly the street in front of my house looks more like it belongs somewhere in the Second World and not to far away are some that are in downright Third World condition. Where oh where do they spend all that money?
            I buy a lottery ticket from time to time just to remind myself that getting a shark bite is more probable.
            The Amory in Vienna had all types of weapons and suits of armor that had me not knowing what to inspect next; I was in heaven and so lucky to get that level of access…it was like winning the lottery!

            I doubt that Dennis will ever go back to that kind of project.

            shootski


            • Shootski,

              From not only his words and temperament, but the look in his eyes I would be most hesitant to even broach the subject with him again.

              As far as where does the money go, have you seen where “they” live? It is likely not on your street.


  7. Going off subject here.

    I broke down and decided it was time to try out some pellets I have been hearing good things about. I have .177 and .22 GTO domes coming, a tin of .22 JSB Hades and a tin of .22 H&N Sniper Magnums. We will see how they do.


    • RR,

      I tried the Sniper lights and the magnums in the TX200, LGU and Maximus. The 15.89 and 18.13 JSB’s still won out. The regulator did slow up the Maximus about 20 fps at the current reg. setting. I am getting 27 shots with an 8 fps spread now,…. versus 100 fps spread before the reg. for the same 27 shots. I should give the Sniper’s another try since it running a bit slower.

      Good luck with the GTO’s. No build up worries?

      Chris


      • Chris,

        I have the .22 Sniper lights and they have done pretty good. In the Webley Service Mk II they have done second best to the old Eley Wasps. In fact, the Wasps have only slightly edged them out. I am hoping the Magnums and/or the Hades will do well in the Tomahawk.

        As far as the GTOs, I am not concerned with build up, but they have been doing really well in many different airguns. If they perform well in my air rifles I have no real issue switching. For the most part I could care less what a pellet is made of if it will go where I aim.

        I must say I am enjoying these crisp, cool 90 degree Autumn days instead of those sweltering 94 degree Summer days.


  8. B.B., this gun is just so cool that I have been reading about it the last couple of days; this article has a very nice 11-minute video at the end of the workings of one of the originals:
    https://www.alloutdoor.com/2018/06/05/watch-austrian-repeating-22-shot-air-rifle-1780/

    Yet another one with a good video; this appears to be the same gun as was reviewed in the first link:
    https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/gun-was-secret-weapon-lewis-and-clark-expedition-45427

    I really like this link for the technical diagram it shows of the inner workings of the gun:
    https://www.guns.com/news/2011/03/15/the-girandoni-air-rifle-deadly-under-pressure

    And this one you may find flattering as he quotes you in the article:
    https://www.chuckhawks.com/air_rifle_230years.htm

    This one claims the gun to have about the power of a .45acp:
    http://firearmshistory.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-girandoni-repeating-air-rifle.html

    This link is interesting in that it points out how history might have taken a different path had only Eli Whitney’s principles been applied to this gun:
    https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/the-girandoni-air-rifle/

    Thanks, B.B., for doing a report on this truly fascinating piece of history! =>


Leave a Reply