Like most Americans, I was exposed as a schoolchild to a rough outline of the expedition and its historical significance; however, I did not learn more of it except through my own efforts. I was greatly assisted in this by reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Unfortunately, the book itself appears to be out of print but still may be found in used bookstores and on library shelves. Studying the expedition diaries is a daunting task. If you are interested, you can obtain a copy free-of-charge from various sources on the Internet. Also, a Summary and Study Guide for Undaunted Courage is available from Amazon.
Like much of history, the real story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is shrouded in the mists of controversy and propaganda. For example, many argue that it blazed the trail for pioneers who stole the land from its rightful heirs. Those on the other side of the ideological divide find arguments to defend the settling of the continent by a new breed of Americans. Although it is highly unlikely (and that's putting it mildly) that the land will revert to the heirs of its original inhabitants, people seem to enjoy investing boundless energies into the continuing debate.
Like most students of history, I was taught that Lewis and Clark successfully completed their mission without losing a single member of their expedition by virtue of the diplomatic skills of the leaders and their native guide, Sacajawea. However, no rational analysis could support any such conclusion. When in all of history has anyone or any group so confounded potential enemies with only their words?
Lewis and Clark had to convince potential enemies that their firepower was sufficient to withstand any attack. Of course, they carried a variety of firearms on their journey. They needed to hunt. The men needed thousands of calories of wild game every day. Such meat is extremely lean, and many pounds are needed to provide the energy equivalent of a much smaller cut of beef. Unfortunately, the weapons they carried were not sufficient to withstand a determined attack. Lacking modern, cartridge-fed, repeating rifles, their small force could be overwhelmed in minutes by a mass attack. Rather than defend themselves in combat, Meriwether Lewis contrived a ruse which seems to have dissuaded the natives from even attempting to attack.
The ruse employed by the Expedition centered on an unusual weapon, a Girandoni air rifle. Yes, an air rifle, such as a BB gun or pellet rifle. It shot a large projectile (.42 inch caliber) with sufficient force to drill through a one inch pine board at 100 yards. A compressed air reservoir in the weapon's stock could power almost 50 rounds without recharging (pumping it up with compressed air). A tubular chamber held twenty-two balls that could be discharged in less than thirty seconds. Reloading took a few seconds more, and another twenty-two rounds could be shot, again, in less than thirty seconds. Thus, if every member of the Expedition of thirty-eight men was armed with a Girandoni air rifle, they could fire almost 1,700 rounds with deadly accuracy in one minute.
Meriwether's strategy was to demonstrate this firepower to induce “shock and awe” in the natives. Upon meeting a native tribe for the first time, the Expedition members dressed in their best uniforms, uncased their flags, and approached the council playing drums and fifes. In addition to presenting the natives with gifts to solicit their friendship, Lewis conducted demonstrations of his air rifle. Inasmuch as the barrel of the weapon was rifled (that is, it had grooves to spin the projectile thus insuring the stability of its flight), he could fire all twenty rounds with deadly accuracy. The natives must have been suitably impressed. Expedition diaries record the wonderment expressed by the natives at every demonstration. The Expedition members never allowed anyone outside their small group to know that they only carried one Girandoni air rifle.
Potential tyrants balk at the threat of armed citizens. Every socialist leader including Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and others, delayed their assault on their own citizens until they first disarmed them. Death tolls rose by millions, second only in all of history to death by disease. Arguments that such a thing couldn't happen in America are echoes of the same statement heard in homes and meeting halls of Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, and China as well as every other socialist state that ever hosted a holocaust. Ultimately, these mass murders could have been prevented not only by weapons but also the fear of them.
Similarly, criminals may be dissuaded from victimizing us without ever firing a shot. The threat that victims may be carrying weapons, even though they are not, has been proven to deter crime. Jurisdictions that responsibly issue concealed-carry permits enjoy far lower rates of crimes than those that don't.
Read the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition for yourself. Read the testimony of Japanese warlords who cowered before the threat of free American citizens bearing arms. Read the stories of holocausts. Read the statistics on crime in America as compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the inflated propaganda of organizations seeking to ban guns. Then ask yourself, why would anyone want to deny us the right to protect ourselves?