Thunder Gun

by Michael Carrick

Two blunderbusses

A blunderbuss is a smooth-bore gun with a funnel-shaped muzzle. There are blunderbuss pistols, short muskets, long muskets, and swivel blunderbusses. Captain Lewis replied in the affirmative when Clark suggested they obtain two blunderbusses "hung on swivels in the stern" of the keelboat.

The word blunderbuss is an anglicized version of the early Dutch Donderbuss or German Donner büchse, which translate into "thunder gun." There are three misunderstandings about blunderbusses that should be corrected.

First, there are ubiquitous illustrations of Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving showing them shouldering blunderbusses: The Pilgrims would not have had blunderbusses in 1620. The weapon probably arrived in America at least fifty years later. And even if the Pilgrims had had blunderbusses, they would not have used them for hunting, but rather for short-range defense against attack. Blunderbusses were used from the rigging of sailing ships to repel boarders. Later they were often carried by stagecoach drivers to fend off highway robbers. Lewis and Clark had them ready to use from their boats because they could do more damage at short range than the single bullet from a rifle or musket, especially when wind or wave inhibited a rifleman's ability to take careful aim.

Second, the flaring funnel- or trumpet-shaped muzzle does not cause the shot pellets to disperse, but rather is an aid to loading lead pellets into the barrel while on a moving ship or coach.

Finally, blunderbusses were never loaded with bore-damaging nuts, bolts, screws, scraps of steel, or rocks.1 They were loaded with lead pellets of suitable size for self-defense. John Ordway wrote that when the Teton Sioux became aggressive on September 25, 1804, Captain Lewis ordered "the large Swivel [cannon] loaded immediately with 16 Musquet balls in it, the 2 other Swivels [the blunderbusses] loaded well with Buck Shot [and] each of them manned."

Practically speaking, the blunderbusses, like the swivel cannon, were used mainly for signaling, saluting, and celebrations because their large caliber used a correspondingly large charge of powder, and made more smoke and noise than a rifle or musket. Upon approaching the Mandan villages on the way home (August 14, 1806) Ordway wrote, "we Saluted them by firing our Swivel and blunderbusses a number of times." The Mandans "answered us with a blunderbuss and Small arms and were verry glad to See us."

In the middle of the night of May 29, 1805, a buffalo swam across the Missouri toward camp and stomped through one of the pirogues. It damaged York's gun and "broke spindle, pivit, and shattered the stock of one of the blunderbusses on board" before rampaging through sleeping camp. Lewis's Newfoundland dog, Seaman, chased the brute away.

On June 26, 1805, Lewis cached the blunderbusses and the swivel cannon at the lower portage camp at the Great Falls of the Missouri. Despite the bison's damage to the blunderbuss, it must have been repaired, because on the return trip the cache was opened and there are several subsequent references to firing the blunderbusses as signals and in celebrations. One of the most jubilant was the reunion of the two captains and their detachments at noon on August 12, 1806, after 40 days of separation.2 As Ordway recorded it, "we fired the blunderbusses and small arms being rejoiced to meet all together again."

Clark reported that on September 21, 1806, when the sight of St. Charles, Missouri, inspired the men to "ply their oars with great dexterity," the men of the Corps, wrote Clark, "Saluted the Village by three rounds from our blunderbuts and the Small arms of the party," and thrilled the audience of "Gentlemen and ladies" who happened to be strolling along the riverbank that sunny Sunday afternoon.

Presumably, the blunderbusses were disposed of when Captain Lewis auctioned "sundry rifles, muskets, powder horns, shot pouches, powder, lead, kettles, axes & other public property" in St. Louis at the termination of the voyage. It is very likely that the swivel blunderbusses would have been bought by one of the fur trading outfits in St. Louis, and that the guns would have served the fur trade on boats or fort walls on the upper Missouri for decades to follow.

1. Young George Shannon once bent the rule slightly, but with due consideration for his rifle. Lost for sixteen days (August 26-September 11, 1804) while on a hunting assignment, he ran out of bullets. Desperate for meat, he at last killed a rabbit by shooting it with a piece of a hard stick.

2. The reunion took place on an island about five miles downriver from today's New Town, North Dakota. Since the late 1950s the site has been submerged beneath the waters of Lake Sakakawea, which was impounded by Garrison Dam.

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