Ask Ian: Donating Gun Collections to Museums

Lots of people put together significant gun collections over a lifetime, and want to see those collections preserved after they pass. This often manifests as looking for a museum that will keep a collection intact and display it – which is unfortunately a nearly impossible goal.

First, it is very rare to find a museum whose mission matches the collection focus of a specific private collection. Firearms cover a vast amount of history even firearms-specific museums are usually fairly narrow in scope.

Second, museums already have all their display space filled. Promising to display a new collection means taking down something they already deemed worthy of display – and promising not to take it down in turn if something more suitable comes along.

Third, even if a museum has space and shares the theme of a collection, they will almost certainly already have examples of many of the items in the collection. If a museum is not allowed to break up and sell off parts of a collection, it simply ensures that many of the items will remain perpetually locked away in a reserve archive.

I would propose that we really need to rethink the idea that museums have a duty to keep everything they acquire. We know that virtually all museums have much more in storage than on display, and forcing duplicate items or pieces unrelated to the museum’s focus to remain in museum property simply ensures that those pieces are kept away from the collecting community. It is the collecting community that does most of the research and publication on firearms history, and this practice undoubtedly hinders research and scholarship. That is not to say we should close museums; certainly not! Museums are extremely valuable for preserving artifacts and making them available to some degree to the public, but they are only one part of the historical community.

If you are a collector who really wants your collection to be displayed in full in a museum, you really only have one option: bequeath the museum enough money to build and maintain a new wing specifically for your collection.


  1. A case in point The Texas A and M Metzger collection. A truly excellent display of firearms, crossbows and other artifacts which was on display for decades, Recently it was auctioned off for twelve million dollars which will fund research into fruit fly mating habits. Pitiful!

    • How wacky! Imagine an Agricultural university valuing research into a billion dollar Ag pest over cool but obsolete weapons that are wildly ineffective at fruit fly control. (ps – the M in A&M is mining, not manufacturing, so the engineering of weaponry is not a scholarly concern)

  2. Actually you can require them to display it based on the contract with them that if they fail to do so it reverts to you or your estate.
    I think a better policy is to use your collection as the basis for a good book on the subject like I did with my friend Bill Powell’s wonderful Colt New Service collection the book then becomes the memorial to the collector and the weapons can then be sold to benifit something the deceased collector supports (like a family or political program) and the other collectors can now access those weapons and the cycle repeats itself.Giving to museums without restrictions on them is a bad idea if you want to have what you careful put together maintained a great book is better all around I think

    • Great point. I have your book (and a pair of 100+ year old Colt New Service Targets). Thank you for writing an invaluable reference book.

  3. I donated a Civil War Model 1864 Springfield musket to my home town historical society. It was actually made by a contractor in my home town, so I thought there would be some interest in displaying it. They were certainly interested in getting it from me. As of today, it has never been on display that I am aware of, and I think they may have sold it. One thing to remember about guns is that there is a lot of value in a relatively small package, and they are very sellable. Just like Ian said, if you want something displayed for future generations, be prepared to finance the display before you die.

  4. The amount of human history is of course always increasing. The artifacts of our past are, like the stuff hanging on our walls at home and in storage in our attics and garages, an ever-increasing collection for each generation.

    Culture is a huge aspect of how the past is transmitted to the future.

    Culture is built from (among other things) traditions, habits, and rituals.

    Maybe take our collections to the local shooting range for display and discussion (and shooting!) – every Sunday a different collection.

  5. Well said, Ian. When I start making plans for my eternal dirt nap, I’m going to consign everything to an auction house. I’d much rather other collectors have the opportunity to enjoy my stuff than relegate it to the basement of some dusty museum. And, as you correctly noted, the collecting community does far more research on these guns than the museums do.

    • Same.

      Been around way to many Nonprofits and know how shifty they are, to believe they see my donation as anything other than a cash cow/windfall. Already give some of the lesser pieces to people who are young (18 yr old + college level) as the starts of their collections. Will give more as they finish college and move on.

      Otherwise, Rock Island, Morphys or Poulins

  6. I have small gun collection of items. I am thinking of giving them to friends who also shoot and would like to own one or two of them. Those that they don’t, I may give to the NRA for them to sell off. Ian, what are you planning to do with your large collection in about 50 years from now ?

    • If you donate it to the NRA, it will be shuffled out the back door to friends of friends, or it will be left to rust/rot in their deteriorating museum, or it will be sold not for legit NRA purposes, but to buy another suit for Wayne.

  7. The Springfield Armory National Historic site’s collection has lost or stored away much more than firearms. Having visited there around 1973, the museum had the appearance of a working shop, with stations dedicated to manufacturing processes and tooling; walking through gave the impression of arriving just before the workday started. Now, it’s just a very nice, sanitized collection.

  8. I do not collect firearms: I base my purchases on need. That being said, collectors should realize that their passion is not necessarily mine or yours. Yes, I can appreciate high quality or unique firearms but I feel no need to own them and do not think that museums should be encumbered or obligated to display them for a small group of enthusiasts.Ian is right yet again: either donate them to organizations who would be happy to display them or pass them on to other enthusiasts.

  9. Agree! What is stored in the basement or off-site is many times the volume of materials displayed at a given museum. If you want your collection to remain intact, transfer it to a relative with similar interests. Alternatively, work out an agreement with a trusted collector to sell your collection, with proceeds distributed in a pre-determined manner.

  10. This is an issue that’s not specific to firearms; it’s something that pretty much every museum, from local historical societies to The Smithsonian, has to deal with – and something that every collector needs to be aware of and plan for.

    I’m thinking that the best approach might be offer the collection (as individual items) to several museums and let them choose which items, if any, they want to accept (I’d probably add a provision requiring the museum to display an item if they do accept it). Whatever remains can go to auction, with the proceeds being divided among the museums that did accept items (more items=more money) to help offset any costs incurred in placing the items on display.

  11. I’m mostly with Ian on this one. It would never occur to me that any of my collections should be kept intact after I’m gone. They were made by me, for me and with the resources I had at the time. My important is not your important. When I’m dead my executors can do what they like with them. As such I’m mostly a fan of selling into the collectors market. The only potential issue is one of open access. Any decent accredited museum will let you examine their reserve collection for research purposes – but that’s not so with private collectors.

  12. Instead od a museum, I am giving my Johnson Rifle to one of my sons I would like very much to find a few more for my other son and Grand sons as they all love it.
    Does any one know where I can locate one. If i can find a upper receiver even damaged the gunsmith we know will repair as he has mind to work from.I know where I can get many of the parts.

  13. I donated my collection of Weapons of Lewis & Clark to the NPS Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon. L&C stayed there in 1805-1806 for 106 days. The National Park Service Rangers were thrilled to receive my offer. In particular, they really wanted my original Girardoni 20-shot repeating air gun. I delivered the guns April 2, 2022. They could not confirm acceptance until they completed the NPS acquisition procedure. They had to contact all National Park Facilities to determine if anywhere in the NPS there might be a better gun or sword than any I was offering. That took SEVEN MONTHS. Finally, they accepted them with a nice ceremony on November 11. I gave a presentation on the Weapons of L&C in the auditorium, and the Park Superintendent accepted the gun with a nice speech in gratitude.

  14. After working in several museums, including the big one in DC that everyone has heard of, I would, under no circumstances, advise anyone to donate their collection to a museum. If you go to EVERY Smithsonian museum and looked at EVERY object on display, you are only looking at about 1% of the overall collection. That scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Totally real. I’ve been in several of them and it’s mind blowing how much amazing history is hidden away from public view. Do not donate. Keep the collecting hobby going by passing these items to fellow and new collectors. Otherwise, it may just collect dust and never see the light of day again.

  15. every collector thinks they still own it after they die and that its somehow special to others as well

  16. I helped the Neville Museum in Green Bay WI with a WW! display about 15 years ago, and they granted me access to their climate controlled storage facility which had at least 300 guns ranging from flintlocks to WW2 material. This stuff never sees the light of day,and the WW1 display was 3 rifles, one of which was wrong.

  17. A museum in North Carolina had one of the finest collections of Confederate arms donated to it, and I believe some funding as well, and it was on display for many years. However, new management and new focus ended up with it all being stuffed into storage and some new social history displays replacing it.

    While the NRA museum staff has always been superb, the valuable arms in the museum are seriously coveted by the top NRA leadership desperate for funds to continue to overpay crappy lawyers defending a top NRA leader. While the museum collection seems safe for the moment, do not be surprised if and when (perhaps that should be when, not if) the NRA headquarters is relocated that the museum collection gets picked over for various excuses.

    Even museums with significant firearms holdings of great historical importance are subject to the whims of their staff and their priorities. I know of one such where the (now former) curator and her boss basically were not at all interested in guns, and used various excuses to pull some of the most significant pieces off display and into storage. They also had an artistic display of about a dozen guns at the entrance (relatively little historical significance) which were quietly removed and ended up in a private collection of someone connected to the museum, with the exact circumstances and financial details unsurprisingly kept hidden. Meanwhile, they treat their volunteer docents (visitor guides) like crap and most of them have quit.

    So, I will not be donating any arms to a museum, but rather sell them off so others can enjoy them.

  18. Consider also that museums will do special collection shows. These are temporary shows that tell a story and will highlight those things in their collection that do not get permanent display. And as Ian is aware, as a research collection, the back rooms are invaluable.

  19. Grandfather was a WW2 chaplain. My youngest son has a post invasion Browning FN 1922 and it’s counterpart a Bohnpoliezi occupied American sector Browning FN 1922.

    He also has a 1914 Nagant revolver with the long live Peter the great inscription.

    This living history has driven him to read diligently the history of Europe from the 1900s to present. Few of his contemporaries know or care about dictator vs fascist vs communism conflicts. “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it”.

    The collection of firearms from this period should sever as a reminder of history, a starting point for reflection on government malfeasance vs benevolence. Unfortunately that distinction defies current consciousness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.