Clark's Small Rifle

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Clark's Small Rifle

William Clark carried his personal hunting rifle on the expedition. It would have been a style known today as a "Kentucky Rifle." He frequently referred to it in his journal as his "small rifle." This has caused some confusion because in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society there is a rifle the provenance of which connects it with the Clark family. It was made by a man named John Small, of Vincennes, on the Wabash River. Was this the firelock Clark called his "small rifle"?

John Small, who had settled in Vincennes about 1780, had served with William Clark's older brother, the famous George Rogers Clark, which established his connection with the Clark family. In addition to being a gunsmith, Small was the first sheriff of Vincennes. He served in the first Indiana Territory Legislature, and was a Colonel in the Indiana Militia. He died in 1823.

Compared with the minutely detailed descriptions the captains often wrote concerning their discoveries of places, people, flora, and fauna, specifics about the survival tools they used every day were rarely mentioned, and even then are found in an incidental context. For example, in his journal entry for December 10, 1805, Clark described a little comic scenario that unfolded on the Necanicum River near today's Seaside, Oregon.


one of the Indians [Clatsops] pointed to a flock of Brant [a kind of goose] Sitting in the creek at Short distance below and requested me to Shute one, I walked down with my Small rifle and killed two at about 40 yds distance, on my return to the houses two Small ducks Set at about 30 Steps from me the Indians pointed at the ducks they were near together, I Shot at the ducks and accidently Shot the head of one off, this Duck . . . was Carried to the house and every man Came around examined the Duck looked at the gun the Size of the ball which was 100 to the pound and Said in their own language, Clouch Musket, wake, com ma-tax Musket which is, a good Musket do not under Stand this kind of Musket &c.

The caliber of a ball at 1/100th of a pound is about .36, or 36 hundredths of an inch in diameter—the size of a pea. Most of the other rifles the Corps carried, including the 15 Lewis had requisitioned from the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, ranged from .47 to .54 caliber, and the 1795 muskets some of the men carried would have been .69 caliber. By comparison, Clark's "Small rifle" was unquestionably a small rifle.

Calibers compared

Another experience recounted in the journals emphasizes that Clark's favorite rifle had too small a bore to make it reliable for big game shooting. August 8,1804 (from the diary of John Ordway): "the Capt. [Clark] Shot Several times at one [elk] but his rifle carried a Small Ball, took 2 men went to hunt it and he did not Git it." Again, on August 24, 1804, Clark mentioned that in addition to killing two bull elk that evening he wounded two others, but could not track them by blood drops because "my ball was So [too] Small to bleed them well."

Still, we can't be certain. Was his "small rifle" so-called just because of its relatively small bore? Or because it was made by John Small? Or both?

John Shields, Company Gunsmith

Gun barrels of that era were made of softer metal than today's, and Clark's "small rifle" also suffered from that common fault, as we learn from the following account. On April 7, 1806, as the Corps prepared to ascend the Cascades of the Columbia and anticipated close encounters with the Indians from there on, the captains ordered the men to "exercise themselves in shooting and regulating their guns. Found several of them that had their sights moved by accident, and others that wanted some little alterations all which were completely rectified in the course of the day except my Small Rifle which I found wanted cutting out." That is, the rifling ridges in the bore of his gun had worn down from continued use and were no longer imparting the spin to the bullet that ensured accuracy. The grooves in the bore needed to be cut deeper.

On the following day Clark reported with a mixture of satisfaction and pride that "John Shields cut out my small rifle and brought her to shoot very well. The party owes much to the ingenuity of this man, by whom their guns are repaired when they get out of order, which is very often."

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program.