Weapons of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Weapons of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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by James B. Garry

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The mix of arms carried by the expedition extended beyond rifles and muskets to include pistols, knives, espontoons, a cannon, and blunderbusses. Each chapter focuses on one of the major types of weapons and weaves accounts from the expedition journals with the author’s knowledge gained from field-testing the muskets and rifles he describes.See more details below


The mix of arms carried by the expedition extended beyond rifles and muskets to include pistols, knives, espontoons, a cannon, and blunderbusses. Each chapter focuses on one of the major types of weapons and weaves accounts from the expedition journals with the author’s knowledge gained from field-testing the muskets and rifles he describes.

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"Anyone even mildly curious about the Lewis and Clark expedition will appreciate this remarkable assembly of information about every type of weapon the explorers carried. Much more than a catalog, Jim Garry’s book is an easily read pictorial history of the use of these arms. Beyond that, it gives us, in the explorers’ own words, accounts of when and how they used the weapons. No Lewis and Clark collection will be complete without this book.”  John D. W. Guice, editor of By His Own Hand?: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

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Weapons of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

By Jim Garry


Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87062-412-4


Model 1795 Musket

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon along the Missouri River in the late summer of 1804. Whites and Indians were meeting to talk and to trade—not an unusual sight along the river. But at this meeting, talk was the more important of the two. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery were representatives of the latest white government to claim the river and all the lands it drained. They were there to explain that claim and the new trade relations that would go with the new rule. The white men had announced their arrival with the big gun mounted on their keelboat, and the tribe now gathered on the bluffs above the river. Drawn up on the bank were the keelboat and two accompanying pirogues, the three vessels appearing to hold several tons of goods. About thirty men moved around the vessels, preparing to camp and, any river tribe would assume, to trade. The men were all armed, rifles and muskets either carried or near to hand.

More impressive to the tribe were the men on the bluff in front of them. One of the leaders, in splendid uniform and accompanied by his interpreter, stood with the tribal leaders. On the open ground in front of them the other leader, also in gold-braided uniform, drilled a group of uniformed men armed with polished muskets and gleaming bayonets. These white men obviously represented a major power. Never before had the tribe seen a military parade, or a group so well armed and trained to fight as a unit. The Corps was larger than the groups of white traders the tribes were used to seeing on the river, and the number of guns the group had demonstrated its power. The large cargo held the promise of future trade, and the parading of uniformed troops made an impressive show. The tribes waited, curious to hear the words that followed the show—a show that would be repeated with each large group of Indians the Corps encountered that summer.

The expedition's journalists refer only to parading the troops for the Indians. There is no explanation of how the parades were conducted. One can speculate from another reference. Lewis and Clark and the men who came from regular army units learned parading or drill from the same book, Baron von Steuben's Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Von Steuben used the word "parade" in two senses. First he called what would usually be referred to today as a parade ground a "parade," a term he also used to describe what the Oxford English Dictionary refers to as "an assembling or mustering of troops for inspection or display; esp. a muster of troops that takes place regularly at set hours, or at extraordinary times to hear orders read, as a preparation for a march, or any other special purpose." Lewis and Clark apparently used "parade" to mean the same thing as "drill" meant to von Steuben. To march and countermarch fifteen to twenty men, all armed with bayoneted muskets, perhaps even ending the drill with a volley from the muskets. This would certainly have been impressive, especially to people who had never seen such a display.

At least seventeen of the men of the Corps of Discovery were transfers from other army units. There is some evidence that a party of transfers dispatched to join Lewis along the Ohio was sent without weapons. They arrived after Lewis had already passed on his way downriver toward the Mississippi and thus failed to become part of the expedition. Upon reaching Camp Dubois, Lewis and Clark were in an area where the unit commanders were not only known to them but were, for the most part at least, their friends. On the whole, these captains sent good men to the Corps and sent them with all their gear.

These men would have been armed not with rifles but with muskets. Before discussing the muskets, something should be explained. The United States Army musket at the beginning of the nineteenth century was one that went into production at the Springfield Arsenal in 1795, and while today these muskets are referred to as Model 1795 muskets, they were not designated thus by the army but by gun collectors during the twentieth century. If you are interested in title designations, I would refer you to such writers as Norman Flayderman, whose expertise includes collecting and the designations that go with collecting. But the name is in common usage, so, with apologies to purists, let us proceed.

The late eighteenth century's equivalents of today's M-16 and AK-47 were England's Land Pattern muskets (the famous Brown Bess) and France's Charleville Royal Manufactory's models. During the American Revolution, it was easier for the new army of the United States to acquire Charleville weapons, and after the Revolution the army still favored muskets of the Charleville pattern. In 1795 the Springfield Arsenal began making muskets on either the Charleville 1763 or 1768 pattern, depending on which of the various authorities one believes (which of course is the reason for the designation later applied to the weapon by collectors). The arsenal at Harper's Ferry also began to produce Model 1795 muskets, but not until 1801. The U.S. versions of the Charleville types were patterned after the French model, but changes and improvements were constantly being made. There was no required standardization between Springfield and Harper's Ferry, so each made improvements independently.

All the various models of the Model 1795 were roughly five feet long and could mount a triangular bayonet of about fifteen inches. The barrels were smooth bored, around forty-five inches long, with a bore of .69 caliber. Gunpowder of the period was not clean burning. So much powder residue collected inside the barrel during a battle that by its later stages it was impossible to force a .69 caliber ball into the barrel. The result was that the Model 1795 had to fire a ball of only .63 caliber, the caliber of standard-issue ammunition and bullet molds. Since armies distributed musket balls and powder in paper cartridges, soldiers used the paper as wadding to attempt to size the ball, using all, part, or none of the paper as wadding, depending on how many rounds had been fired—a method that did not work all that well. The ball tended to ricochet down the barrel, and its direction of flight was determined by the vector of its last contact with the bore. This inherent inaccuracy was so acknowledged and accepted that the Model 1795, like most muskets of the period, did not even have a rear sight, and the front sight was obscured by the bayonet. Why would the army of America, a country that prided itself on its riflemen, arm its soldiers with muskets? Because then, as now, volume of fire more than accuracy of fire was how an army dominated a battlefield.

In European-style battles of the period, accuracy was less important than the volume of lead. These battles were fought at relatively close range, with gunpowder that produced dense clouds of smoke that obscured the enemy. Well-trained troops could fire about four rounds from muskets in the same amount of time it took a riflemen to fire one. Four volleys fired at massed troops obscured by smoke was likely to be more effective than the second volley of riflemen blinded on a smoke-filled battlefield.

During the Revolution, the ranger companies of George Washington's army were equipped with rifles. Since those ranger companies had performed well, and since the new country was well supplied with riflemen trained from early childhood, the army decided to make use of that pool of riflemen. The new U.S. Army was reorganized into the Legion of the United States in 1792. Each sub-legion included a battalion of four rifle companies of eighty-two men each. But in 1796 there was a further reorganization, and the rifle companies were dropped. During the period from the end of the Revolution until the opening of the Springfield Arsenal in 1795, the army was supplied with arms purchased from Europe and with arms made, under government contract, by American gunsmiths. Most of the European and contract weapons were shelved at the army's storage arsenals or recycled to militia units as the production of the two U.S. manufacturing arsenals filled the army's needs. All evidence points to the fact that by 1803 regular army troops were not equipped with rifles but with Model 1795 muskets made at either Springfield or Harper's Ferry.

Of the approximately seventeen men who came to the Corps of Discovery from other army units, five were artillerymen from Capt. Amos Stoddard's company; eleven were infantrymen from the three infantry companies commanded by the Bissell brothers and John Campbell; and one (John Potts) came from Capt. Robert Purdy's company. Another five men (Frazer and MacNeal—who are referred to at least once each in the journals as being armed with muskets—and Goodrich, Reed, and Werner) may or may not have been in the service when they joined the Corps. Lewis's and Clark's journals both refer to some men possessing muskets and bayonets. This reinforces the idea that the men transferred to the Corps brought their muskets and equipment with them.

The officers published their "Detachment Order" on April 1, 1804, naming twenty-seven noncommissioned officers and men as part of the "Perminent Detachment" that would accompany them to the Pacific and back. This would indicate that over the course of the year since Lewis had left Washington, the size of the party had doubled from his original intention. Hence we may assume the roughly fifteen sets of arms and gear Lewis had obtained before his departure were already on a ration list, as the "Detachment Order" states that four other men "are to be treated in all respects as those men who form the Permonant detachment, except with regard to the advance of Pay, and the distribution of Arms and Accoutrements intended for the expedition." The Corps needed every issue musket and private rifle available to supplement the fifteen rifles Lewis brought from Harper's Ferry.

The party's journalists were woefully inadequate at recording specifics about their firearms. Lewis and Clark often distinguished smooth-bore from rifled weapons by using the terms "musket" and "rifle." But they were as apt to use the nonspecific term "gun." Clark, for instance, on May 10, 1804, writes that he "order every man to have 100 Balls for ther Rifles & 2 lb. Of Buck Shot for those with mussquets." Issuing buckshot would seem to indicate that, at least at the beginning of the expedition, the muskets were seen as defensive weapons not to be used for hunting. Later that would change. The Corps had ball ammunition for the muskets as well, since on August 25, 1805, Lewis commented in his journal, "This morning while passing through the Shoshone cove Frazier fired his musquet at some ducks in a little pond at the distance of about 60 yards from me; the ball rebounded from the water and passed within a few feet of me." The fall before, on October 4, 1804, Clark referred to a group of Indians who, trying to get the party's attention and urge them to land, took the measure of skipping a musket ball in front of the boats as well as yelling to the men. As Clark noted in his journal, "we were obliged to Drop down 3 miles to get the Chanel Suft. Deep to pass up, Several Indians on the Shore viewing of us Called us to land one of them gave 3 yels & Sciped [skipped] a ball before us, we payed no attention to him, proceeded on." Proceeding on showed admirable restraint, since this occurred in the realm of the Teton Sioux just a week after two confrontations that almost led to war between the tribe and the Corps.

The Model 1795s came closest to real combat during those two confrontations with the Tetons on September 25 and 28, 1804. The Corps had arrived in the Teton country anticipating trouble. Based on reports they had received in the St. Louis area and from tribes lower down the Missouri, the Tetons were expected to be belligerent. So it was not surprising that on September 24, having already had some trouble with them over the Corps's horses and expecting a formal meeting with them the next day, Lewis wrote, "we prepared Some Clothes and a fiew meadels for the Chiefs of the Teton's hand [band] of Seaux which we expect to See to day at the next river ... prepared all things for action in Case of necessity."

On September 25, everyone in the Corps was locked and loaded, the Model 1795s most probably loaded with buckshot, the best load for defense and close combat. Clark's account indicates that all hands were ready for action.

Envited those Cheifs on board to Show them our boat and Such Curiossities as was Strange to them, we gave them ¼ a glass of whiskey which they appeared to be verry fond of, Sucked the bottle after it was out & Soon began to be troublesom, one the 2d Cheif assumeing Drunkness, as a Cloake for his rascally intentions I went with those Cheifs [NB: in one of the Perogues with 5 men 3 & 2 Ints.] (which left the boat with great reluctiance) to Shore with a view of reconseleing those men to us, as Soon as I landed the Perogue three of their young men Seased the Cable of the Perogue [NB: in which we had presents &c.], the Cheifs Soldr. [NB: each Chief has a Soldier] Huged the mast, and the 2d Chief was verry insolent both in words & justures [NB: pretended drunkenness & staggered up against us] declareing I Should not go on, Stateing he had not recved presents Suffient from us, his justures were of Such a personal nature I felt my Self Compeled to Draw my Sword, [NB: and made a Signal to the boat to perpar for action] at this motion Capt. Lewis ordered all under arms in the boat, those with me also Showed a Disposition to Defend themselves and me, the grand Chief then took hold of the roop & ordered the young warrers away, I felt my Self warm & Spoke in verry positive terms

Most of the warriers appeared to have ther Bows Strung and took out their arrows from ther quves. as I [NB: being surrounded] was not permited [NB: by them] to return, I Sent all the men except 2 Inpt. [interpreters] to the boat, the perogu Soon returned with about 12 of our detumined men ready for any event this movement caused a no: of the Indians to withdraw at a distance, [NB: leaving their chiefs soldiers alone with me] Their treatment to me was verry rough & I think justified roughness on my part, they all left my Perogue and Councild. with themselves the result I could not lern and nearly all went off after remaining in this Situation Some time I offered my hand to the 1 & 2 Chief who refused to recve it. I turned off & went with my men on board the perogue, I had not progd. more the 10 paces before the 1st Chief 3rd & 2 Brave men waded in after me. I took them in & went on board

we proceeded on about 1 mile & anchored out off a willow Island placed a guard on Shore to protect the Cooks & a guard in the boat, fastened the Perogues to the boat, I call this Island bad humered Island as we were in a bad humer.

Clark, September 25, 1804

In his first set of notes, Clark actually stated his men's "Disposition to Defend themselves and me" in more direct words. He wrote, "the few men that was with me haveing previously taken up their guns with a full determination to defend me if possible." Further on in the passage, when Clark refers to the twelve men returning to shore prepared for action, it is easy to imagine a dozen soldiers carrying buckshot-loaded muskets with fixed bayonets. A dozen men with bayoneted muskets, backed up by more than thirty with rifles, muskets, two blunderbusses, and the swivel gun would have certainly been a warlike enough aspect to assure the Tetons that even if they won the fight their losses would have been unacceptable (since every warrior lost to the Tetons meant that there was a family without a hunter, a serious condition for a family dependent on the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, trade, and more).

Three days later, in an incident that does not seem to have impressed either Lewis or Clark but that made Joseph Whitehouse think they were about to be in a war, Lewis trained the swivel gun on a group of Tetons holding the keelboat's cable and told the men to prepared to fire on the group.

we draged the river in hopes to find our anker but it was in vain. about 9 oClock we went to Set off Some of the chiefs was then on board and concluded to go a little ways with us. When we were about to Shove off a nomber of warries on Shore caught hold of our cable and another whiped of[f] the children the women went off also only about 60 warries on the edge of the bank and we just under the bank. Some of them had fire arms and the rest had Good bows and arrows ready for war. the consequences had like to have been bad as Capt. Lewis was near cutting the cable with his Sword and giving orders for the party to fire on them. then the chiefs went out and Spoke to them. they Said if we would Give them a carrit of tobacco they would loose the rope. we gave them tobacco. the chief after Some hesitation loosed the rope himself. we then Set of[f] under a fine breese of wind.

Whitehouse, September 28, 1804


Excerpted from Weapons of the Lewis & Clark Expedition by Jim Garry. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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