The alpine region of Tyrol, a borderland between Italians and Germans, has long bred skillful hunters and tough mountain warriors. Around 1778, a Tyrolean master gunsmith, Bartolomeo Girandoni (1729-1799), invented the Girandoni air rifle, which attracted the attention of Joseph II, the Austrian emperor.
Air rifles had been used since the 16th century, mainly to hunt small game. They were a favorite of poachers, because the lack of noise and smoke meant they could be used covertly.
Girandoni’s extraordinary design had two innovations that made it a formidable military weapon, rather than a sporting gun for wealthy nobles. First, it was a breech-loader, with a 20-round tubular magazine fixed alongside the barrel. To load the weapon, the user simply elevated the muzzle and pressed a spring-loaded slider, which picked up a ball and snapped it into place. To reload the magazine, the user opened a plug at the front of the magazine and emptied the contents of a “speed loader” into it. Second, it used very high pressure: 800 psi (54.4 atmospheres, or 5515.8 kPa) held in a riveted sheet-iron pressure flask that formed the weapon’s butt-stock. A fully-charged pressure flask was good for up to 80 shots.
The weapon’s advantages included a high rate of fire, no smoke, relatively low recoil, and less noise than a musket. With no black powder residue to foul the bore, it needed less cleaning. Shooters could load and fire while lying flat.
But there were significant disadvantages: The mechanism was complex and fragile. Like most rifles of the era, it was too fragile to mount a bayonet. It took 1,500 strokes on a hand pump (similar to a modern bicycle pump) to charge the air cylinder. The weapon became useless if the pump were lost or damaged. But above all, the Girandoni was simply incompatible with the tactical doctrine of the era. As much as weapons or terrain, doctrine shapes the behavior of armies.
In the late 18th century, black powder rifles were precision sniper weapons. In battle riflemen targeted aristocratic officers, conspicuous in their gaudy uniforms. The officers found the whole idea repugnant, and unsporting. Brave soldiers stood up in the open and traded musket volleys at point-blank range. Napoleon Bonaparte actually disbanded the French army’s rifle units in 1807, because he considered rifles too expensive, and too slow to load and fire.
Issued to a few units of Tyrolean sharpshooters, the Girandoni served in combat against the Turks, but apparently never in Austria’s Napoleonic wars. By 1815, it was withdrawn from service. Around 1803, one of these weapons wound up in Philadelphia, Penn. An aide to President Thomas Jefferson, Capt. Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) acquired the piece. When Jefferson sent an expedition to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, Lewis took the Girandoni along, to impress the native tribes he encountered. This is mentioned repeatedly in the journals of Lewis and Clark.
“My Air-gun…astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it’s shooting so often and without powder…”
-Meriwether Lewis Jan. 24, 1806
Somehow, this air rifle survived, and was eventually purchased by a collector. A gunsmith was commissioned to make some high-quality replicas. When the weapon was disassembled, he found that the main spring had been repaired exactly as described in the journals of Lewis and Clark. This historic weapon is now on loan to the museum of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.
The Girandoni air rifle is a might-have been; a footnote to military history. Each one was hand-crafted by master gunsmiths, making them very costly. Probably no more than 1,500 were ever built. Some of the materials and techniques used were carefully guarded “trade secrets” that died with the craftsmen.
At the very same time that the Austrian army was struggling to keep the Girandonis in repair, an American inventor, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) was trying to manufacture muskets with moving parts machined so precisely that they would be “interchangeable” between weapons of the same type. It was a revolutionary idea in a world where every complex mechanism was individually filed and ground to fit. The development of precision machine tools and gauges in the early 19th century had not progressed far enough to make Whitney’s dream a reality until after his death. If Girandoni’s brilliant design had connected with Whitney’s interchangeable parts, armies equipped with mass-produced smokeless magazine rifles would have been quickly forced to adapt their tactics and doctrine, and subsequent history might have taken a very different path.
Caliber: .462 in (11.68mm)
Muzzle velocity: 500 fps (152 m/s)
Weight: 10 pounds (4.5 kg)
Length: 48 inches (1.2 m)
Magazine capacity: 22 rounds
Effective range: 150 yards (137 m)
“At … 50 feet, (15 meters) … capable of placing ten shots into a group the size of a quarter.”