The “Lewis & Clark” Blunderbuss
Between May 1804 and September 1806 a group of about thirty-three intrepid individuals under a commission from President Thomas Jefferson braved virtually unknown territory, traveling westward from St. Louis, Missouri, across the continental divide until they reached the Pacific Ocean near present day Astoria, Oregon. Captain Meriwether Lewis was selected as commandant of the Corps of Discovery by President Jefferson himself, and he picked his close friend Second-Lieutenant William Clark as his second-in-command.
It is undisputed that there was a great deal of care in the preparation for the expedition in order to ensure its success, and the greatest proof of that is that all members returned safely to St. Louis, and part of that preparation was the selection of firearms to be used for an unknown amount of time in the wilderness.
According to the Western Explorers site “The journals and records prepared by the expedition members show that they carried U.S. military rifles obtained from the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and service muskets brought by soldiers posted from other units. Personal firearms were brought by Captains Clark and Lewis, and some of the hunters enlisted for the journey may have used their own rifles. The French-speaking boatmen may have carried “trade guns,” a common type of musket. Lewis brought an “air gun,” a case of matched pistols, and a fowler, and Clark brought his personal .36 caliber long-rifle, and an “elegant fusil”. A “swivel gun,” a small cannon, was mounted on the keelboat, and the two pirogues each had a blunderbuss, each also mounted on a swivel. All the firearms of the Lewis and Clark expedition were single-shot, muzzle loading, black powder guns with flintlock ignition, the notable exception being Lewis’s air gun, which on several occasions astonished native Indians with its repeating operation.”
Blunderbusses were short, heavy, smoothbore shoulder arms used for defense. They were usually mounted on a pivot in the rail of a boat or the top of a wall. The muzzle was flared for rapid loading and as an unforeseen benefit it also worked like a sound amplifier, increasing its psychological effect.
Contrary to popular belief blunderbusses were not loaded with stones or nails or broken glass or pieces of chains or horseshoes, but with a healthy load of buckshot, or grapeshot as it was known at the time, and they generally were used against a concentration of men.
While your typical 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot will put eight to twelve pellets downrange, you could easily loaded twice that much on a blunderbuss.
From a tactical perspective, and considering the personal firearms or light weapons of the respective eras, the blunderbuss at the times of Lewis and Clark would paly the same role as a light machinegun or a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) plays today.
The blunderbusses came into play during the explorers’ confrontations with the Teton Sioux on September 25 and 28. On Lewis’s orders the men loaded the swivel gun with 16 musket balls and the blunderbusses with buckshot. On the second occasion, warriors seized the keelboat’s cable. Clark was ready to blast them with the swivel gun when a chief defused the situation by jerking away the cable. That winter, the swivel gun and blunderbusses were apparently mounted on the walls of Fort Mandan. Returning to the Hidatsa villages on August 14, 1806, Clark wrote, “we directed the blunderbusses be fired several times” -a peaceful salute to the Indians who had befriended them during the winter of 1804-05.
Again in salute, the blunderbusses sounded for the last time upon the explorers’ arrival in St. Charles, Missouri, a month later. As Clark recorded in his journal entry for September 21, “we saluted the Village by three rounds from our blunderbuts (sic) and the Small arms of the party, and landed near the lower part of the town. We were met by great numbers of the inhabitants.” Two days later, according to Clark, when the explorers arrived in St. Louis, “we suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a Salute to the Town.”
Upon returning to St. Louis, and following a well-deserved heroes welcome, the expedition was disbanded and all items were auctioned off, and partially due to that auction currently there is not a single firearm from the historic expedition known to the public. Or is that so?
In 2001 Hampel’s Inc. (the predecessor company to Hampel’s Gun Co.) was engaged by the family of renowned firearms collector Jack Berryman to handle the dispersal of his collection of fine, historical firearms. After the successful completion of this task, the Berryman family presented to Mr. Karl Hampel the opportunity to acquire the last item and crown jewel of said collection: a blunderbuss mounted on a swivel, that Mr. Berryman obtained from William Clark family descendants in the Detroit area in the 1950’s. He had actively pursued this gun, utterly convinced that this was one of the two blunderbusses mounted on the pirogues of the Lewis & Clark Expedition!
The blunderbuss has locks made by Cooper, of London, in approximately 1790, a 23 ¾” inches bronze barrel with a .729 inches bore (which is about 12 gauge), English walnut stock, and a total length of 40 inches. The complete gun weighs a bit over twenty-three pounds and would have been quite a load had it not been mounted on a swivel.
Mr. Berryman actively displayed the blunderbuss in multiple collectors meetings around the country and it was prominently featured at the “FIREARMS OF OUR WESTERN EXPANSION” at the NRA Annual Gun Collectors Exhibit in Salt Lake City, Utah on April 1992. Its description during that meeting reads as follows:
“#1. This flint-lock (sic) “swivel gun” was made by Cooper of London, ca. 1790. It was designed for fixed mounting on a riverboat or rampart. This type of firearms found favor with early explorers such as Lewis and Clark. Many such pieces were utilized along the rivers and by-ways of the far west where effectiveness in repelling would-be borders was an important function for a boat borne weapon.”
The NRA 1992 BEST ARMS AWARD RECOMMENDATION FORM provides the following additional details:
Description: Blunderbuss (shotgun), British manufacture, .729” bore, no serial number, flintlock.
Originality of Components: All original except possibility of replacement ramrod.
Provenance and/or historical importance: These were used aboard ships, early stage coaches, forts, and any place a yoke and swivel feature could be used. Lock-Cooper London, about 1790. The Lewis & Clark expedition carried two swivel guns on boats, which “saved the day” when they encountered the Teton Sioux on September 24, 1804. Scarcity of these boat swivel guns at the time could support a contention that this weapon or one like it had an important role in the success of that Missouri River exploration.
Other significant information: This blunderbuss had hand made forge welded chain links, ring and wedge, indicative of the time. It is probably the only one available with full brass barrel and original swivel hardware. This weapon, or one identical to it, is featured in a treatise by Cyril Bracegirdle, on page 35 of the August 1983 issue of the Gun Report publication. Picture here reproduced. A letter by Charles R. Suydam volunteered information as to this swivel blunderbuss authenticity. Letter and publication are available.
Note from Author: Unhappily I could not locate copies of mentioned publication and letter.
I think that nobody would disagree that the Lewis & Clark Expedition marks the beginning of the western expansion of the United States of America that eventually resulted in a country that extends “from sea to shining sea!” and while it maybe impossible to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the Karl Hampel blunderbuss is the only surviving firearm from the Lewis & Clark Expedition, it is nonetheless a unique artifact from a time when our great nation was being sculpted by the hands and will of giants, to the greatest extent of the word!
Currently the “Lewis & Clark Era Blunderbuss” which is consistent with descriptions from the Journals of the Expedition is displayed at Hampel’s Gun Co. in Traverse City, MI, on consignment from Karl Hampel’s personal collection. Unfortunately we do not have bulletproof documentation to confirm that the blunderbuss under our care is actually one of two carried by the Corps of Discovery, and the modest price of $ 250,000 reflects that.