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  Firearms and the gunshot wounds suffered by Meriwether Lewis

Firearms played a huge roll in the success of the Corps of Discovery.  Without them, the Corps would have starved and been left defenseless in potentially hostile country.  In addition to the great benefits that guns afforded to the Corps, they also “bit” them by accident on one occasion on the return trip in August, 1806, when Lewis was accidentily shot in the butt by his talented French voyager Pierre Cruzatte while they were elk hunting.  Pierre Cruzatte was talented on the river, but he had only one eye and was said to be nearsighted in the other.

Meriwether Lewis suffered gunshot wounds on at least two different occasions during his life.  One was suffered during the elk hunting session and the other gunshot(s) were likely self-inflicted and resulted in his death on October 9, 1809.

Let’s take a look at some of the critical factors that influence the severity of a gunshot wound, as well as the probable wounds that Lewis suffered in both of the episodes we’ll discuss.
There have been various schemes used to determine the power of various firearm cartridges. Some methods emphasize the kinetic energy of a bullet which is calculated as 1/2 mass x velocity (squared).  This equation would yield products of higher kinetic energy as the mass of the bullet increases, and more profoundly as the velocity increases. Many experts feel that the use of kinetic energy in determining the so-called “stopping power” of a bullet is not an adequate analysis.

Other factors that influence the potential of a bullet to cause damage would be the size of the bullet (diameter), the material the bullet is made of; (plain lead projectile vs. a full metal jacket vs. a “hollow point”, vs. a soft tipped hunting bullet.  The shape of a bullet will have an influence on the degree the bullet may deform once it hits living tissue, which can in turn will have an effect on the amount of tissue damage surrounding the bullet’s path. The type of projectile that inflicted both of Lewis’s wounds were undoubtedly round lead balls, fired from a flintlock firearms.  There was probably no exterior metal jacket on either lead ball. These types of balls were produced by melting lead over a fire and pouring the molten metal into a spherical mold. There is an interesting method of determining the “knock out power” of a given bullet that is expressed by the equation.  It was developed by a gentleman named Taylor, so we have the.....”Taylor Knock Out Value”.

(MVC/7000  = “Knock out value”.

M= bullet weight in grains (1 pound = 7000 grains)
V= velocity in feet/second
C= caliber of the bullet (inches)

For those readers who are familiar with some rifle calibers, the above formula will give you results that give some significance to the “ Taylor knock out value” of these bullets.  These figures were obtained from the website:
http://www.dave-cushman.net/shot/tkochart.html                                                                           

Caliber  Description Bullet wt. grains muzzle velocity “knock out”
.22 long rifle 40  1085 1.5
.357 magnum 158 1500 12
.44  magnum 240 1400 21
54  flintlock 225 1200 20.4

We can compare the possible .54 caliber flintlock rifles that some of the men of the Corps of Discovery may have carried, to a modern day .44 magnum caliber weapon.  If you consider that the rifles of the Corps often had to fill a Grizzly bear with 6 or 8 rounds before it finally put the bear down, you get a great appreciation for the strength of the bear and a hint that you would not want to use a .44 magnum on a Grizzly hunt.  Another critical factor that must be considered, is that the shape of the modern .44 magnum bullet is much more aerodynamic than a round ball.  Therefore, the round ball will have much more drag as it flies through the air.  Even though the TKO values are similar for the .54 and the .44, these values are calculated at the muzzle, as the projectile leaves the barrel of the weapon.  Fifty or 100 yards away, the flintlock round ball will have much less energy than the modern .44 magnum bullet due to increased drag (friction against the air).   At 100 yards, the .54 flintlock rifle is much closer in “knock out” power to a .357 magnum than it is to a .44 magnum. 

Much of the damage done by a projectile, comes from the cavitation and resulting shock that is transferred from the bullet to the surrounding tissue.  Living tissue is filled with minute capillaries carrying blood, small arterioles carrying more volume of blood at a higher pressure than the capillaries, and larger arteries,(e.g. aorta, femoral, brachial, pulmonary, etc.). Depending upon the anatomical site of the bullet path, there is a possibility of a bullet hitting a major artery such as the aorta.  Damage to larger arteries can cause rapid hemorrhage to the point that the vascular system pressure decreases to the point of unconsciousness and ultimately death.  If no major arteries or veins are damaged, hemorrhage may not be great enough to cause death.  Modern day victims of  bullet-caused chest wounds can survive if the bullet has not caused major damage to vein or arteries.  Many of these victims do not even require surgery to control their internal hemorrhage.  A chest tube can be inserted into their thoracic cavity, the blood that has collected within the chest can be removed, filtered and returned to the victim.  Of course, should a pulmonary artery or vein be severed by the path of the bullet, rapid hemorrhage can occur with death following when the victim’s blood pressure falls sufficiently to prohibit life.  Modern trauma surgical techniques often save such victims.

Lewis’s wound was a relatively superficial wound to the buttocks of the proximal (upper), posterior (back) part of this thigh. probably caused by the round lead ball from Cruzatte’s rifle.  The caliber of the rifle is not known, but my guess is that is was probably around a .54 caliber ball.    Lewis’s gluteus maximus muscle was probably superficially wounded with some brisk but not significant hemorrhage.  Direct pressure was probably applied and the most significant bleeding probably stopped within 15 minutes. Lewis was in intense pain for over a week.  The wound was treated by placing cloth packing material inside and over the wound and allowing the wound to scar in over a period of several weeks. Lewis fainted from the intense pain on at least one occasion when Captain Clark was repacking the wound.  Lewis spent much of his initial recovery laid-out...face down.  Lewis was able to walk and even run a bit within 3 weeks of the wound, although that activity caused him a good deal of pain and stiffness the next day.

The wounds that caused Lewis’s death were probably inflicted by a .30 “something” caliber flintlock pistol.  The round lead bullet reportedly entered his “breast” (chest), apparently passed through his thoracic cavity (containing lungs, heart), through his  thin muscular diaphragm, into his abdominal cavity and exited near his lower spine.  It is entirely possible, according to colleagues of mine who are trauma surgeons, that Lewis could have survived these types of wounds for the two hours that he reportedly lived after the wounds were inflicted.  Apparently, these bullets missed any major pulmonary vessels and his heart, and did not do enough damage to either his liver (right sided abdominal wound) or spleen (left sided), stomach, intestines or pancreas, to cause more rapid hemorrhage and a quicker death that was reported.
In the past, others have written that Lewis could not have possibly survived such serious wounds for two hours and have used this presumption to support the “murder theory” of his death.  This belief is absolutely not true from a modern trauma surgical situation.
 
In my book, Or Perish in the Attempt: Medicine and Hardship of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I cover this topic with the addition of anatomical drawings, showing the possible bullet paths.

Special thanks to my brother, Len Peck, Jr. for his help with the ballistics.  Len has 20 patents in Infrared Technology during his 30 year mechanical engineering career with Hughes Aircraft Corporation.  (He is really good at math and physics!)


 
 
  More Articles to Read
A Life of Accomplishment and Giving: Dr. Benjamin Rush
Did the Sulfur Water from the “Magic” Spring Cure Sacagawea’s Illness?
The Strange and Mysterious Death of Captain Meriwether Lewis
The Medical World of Lewis and Clark
Hypochondriasis and Malaria
 
 
   
 
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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Lewis and Clark College, Unfinished Journey, The Lewis and Clark Expedition is a 13 part series, narrated by Peter Coyote.  This landmark series was carried nationally on over 80 NPR stations and covered a diverse number of topics relating to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Dr. Peck was a featured participant in two of the episodes.  These episodes are featured here in their entirety for your pleasure, courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland Oregon.
 
 
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