Should Guns be in Museums or Private Collections? (Video)

Guns in museums get condemned to a purgatory behind glass. Guns in private collections get shot and broken. What are we to do?

As it happens, I have spent the last two days in museum gun collections. Monday in the Smithsonian Institution’s gun room and yesterday at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum. As a result I have been thinking about how an ideal gun museum would be set up…

The Smithsonian is an excellent example of how not to do it, at least from the perspective of a person seriously interested in guns. The military history exhibit in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum is designed in the model style of museum exhibits – meaning a sparse selection of actual artifacts coupled with large pictures and contextual text. The could be good, except that (as is typical) the explanatory sections are aimed at a lowest-common-denominator of visitor knowledge/interest. A visitor who has never heard of World War II would get a great introduction to it by visiting the exhibit. Of course, they could be just as well served by reading the Wikipedia entry on WWII instead. For a person who has a moderate or advanced understanding of the war, the exhibit offers little opportunity for learning anything new.

I recognize that this is a balance and choice that must be made by museum designers, and that the uninformed are going to be a larger segment of the audience and thus it may make more sense in some ways to focus on them. On the other hand, doing so wastes the potential of a massive collection of artifacts and resources of a place like the Smithsonian, leaving them boxed up in warehouses and inaccessible. Case in point; the Smithsonian’s extensive gun collection is locked up away from visitors and can only be seen by special appointment. Only the most basic of guns are actually displayed to the public, while things like an HK G11, prototype early ARs, and all manner of historically and mechanically significant pieces sit unseen by anyone but a few museum staff.

The NRA’s National Firearms Museum is a stark contrast after seeing the Smithsonian. While the majority of the gun collection is still locked away in vaults (because of space limitations), a couple thousand guns are on display, well organized by time period and theme, and accompanied by excellent dioramas and accouterments. There are, in fact, so many guns that they have given up on using printed cards in the displays to identify them, and instead have a series of computer terminals with photos and descriptions of everything, indexed by item number and display case number.

Even with this system, though, it is a bit disappointing how little information is available. The descriptions are typically a couple sentences at most, which means there is no real background given; no “why” questions answered.

What I have been pondering (while sitting in the Robert E. Petersen gallery of the NFM, in fact) is how one might design a firearms museum to truly exploit the full potential of such an all-encompassing physical collection. How could you have hundreds or thousands of guns accessible and actually provide deep contextual information on all of them?

I think an ideal museum would be able to teach these things:

  • Basic mechanics – how does something work?
  • Designer – who made it?
  • Practical application – where and when and how was it actually used?
  • Predecessors and successors – how was it influenced by what came before, and how did it influence what came after?
  • Design intent – what problem was it intended to solve?
  • Interesting anecdotes

Basically, I think every gun has a story behind it, and they are all interwoven together. I wonder if it is even realistically possible to put all that information into a physical museum, or if it can only be done in some type of online, virtual environment. The internet offers the benefit of not having physical constraints, but at the cost of offering no physical context. Characteristics like balance and construction are difficult (if not impossible) to convey and understand without being able to actually handle a firearm (although that doesn’t happen in museum exhibits either). If one wants to provide a learning environment for a large number of people, how can that be done?



  1. My favorite museum is a former brewery in Diekirch, Luxemburg. It’s as if someone wandered around the battlefield picking up everything, and displaying it. When I say everything, I mean everything: The jeep, the tool kit for the jeep, the gasket set and other replacement parts, the guns that mount on it…everything. It was overwhelming…and awesome. I learned from it not because the museum conveyed the knowledge, but because it inspired me to read more about the things that interested me.

    But,the answer to at least one of your questions, is QR codes and a downloadable app. It’s a little cold and institutional, but you could pack in depth or not so in depth information on it, in a quick and easy to use format.

    • QR codes, good idea… Mind you someone would still have to a decent write up etc, in order that you were directed to something decent.

  2. The Lane auto museum in Nashville has a wonderful program, where a couple of times a year they take a bunch of the cars out of the museum and drive them. For a donation to the museum, from about $100 and up, you can drive one of the cars on a short tour. The rarer cars require a larger donation. It could be a great fund raising event for a gun museum to have a range day.

    • Good point, the Lane Auto museum is the Forgotten Weapons of the car world. I’ve been there twice. Nearly all of the cars there still run, and it has some bizarre vehicles. Propeller-driven cars–they’ve got them. Some are well-done reproductions. Has a good number of Czech cars. Not at all what one would expect tucked away in the country music capital of the world. Has some military vehicles too (mainly European).

      More to the subject a hand, they aren’t behind glass, they work (most of them) and they get driven. There is an old Citeron that one can sit in, the others are hands off but one can get as close as one wants to.

  3. The USMA history department has an extensive weapons collection held in a vault in the basement of Thayer Hall.

    Last time I checked they would actually let Cadets and others shoot them every two years. (In a supervised manner…USMA cadets in general lack lots of common sense) I am not sure if they still do this..I only got to try this out once. The highlight was shooting an OSS Suppressed M1 sub machinegun…very quiet but very hot.

    The cadet arms room also has a ton of presentation weapons donated or captured from other countries. I used to help out the arms room sort through them and clean them.

    If you find yourself in Lower Cuomostan, the USMA museum has a ton of stuff; much of it forgotten. The museum is open to the public and free.

  4. Hello from Athens , Greece .
    Now that is a subject that has been in my mind for many years . Too many in fact . My opinion is that the shear number of guns (models – variations – accessories –
    ammunition – bayonetes -add ons etc ) plus the inevitable volume of information providing materiel and the space required to properly and effectively display all
    that stuff makes the idea of a physical museum practically impossible . The rotational display would also be impractical due to the time and effort needed to rotate
    the exhibits on a regular basis . Furthemore a museum of this size would be so unique that visiting it would be ,for most people ,a once-in-a-lifetime project .
    Meaning that most visitors would not be able to see everything even once .
    I agree that part of the uniqueness of this museum woulb the opportunity for visitors to actually handle the guns ,for the reasons you mention .
    Such an institution could the basis for a firearms university , as it is clearly evident that the volume,the depth and the historical and technical significance of the information contained in it easilly classifies as a science in it’s own right .
    As for the things it would teach , i would have included information on the factories and the sellers , and on the political clashes that took place behind the scenes regarding the adoption by the armies ,and not only .
    Of course the museum would not be complete if it did not include all the printed materiel related to the exhibits . Books,magazines,catalogs,flyers,posters and everything else printed relative to the guns .
    Things are getting wild i think .
    As for the online evironment, i do not trust it .
    Maybe something could be done in the form of external memories .

  5. Speaking of Museums WTS (Military Technology Study Collection) in Koblenz, Germany. This is a link to the Friends Association of the Scientific Collection of Defence Engineering Specimens Koblenz (VFF WTS) That’s were that Walther G35 was, it opened to the public in 1980 apparently and isn’t guaranteed to remain so seemingly due to cash.
    I doubt they’d be interested in selling their collections though, incase they left the country. So that’s a negative of private collections, in regards national history perhaps.

  6. I think Doug here makes a valid point. A few years ago I had the chance to visit the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, VA and it was truely an amazing experience to see all of these rare and significant guns up close. I guess in a way what you do at Forgotten Weapons is a virtual museum. It gives us the viewers the chance to look at a weapon and learn about it’s existence plus the technical side of it.

    To be honest, I think a lot of guns in private collections also gather dust in some glass case above a fireplace or are stored in a supersafe vault because of their high value. It is sad that not many museums make the effort to research the weapons in their collection. A different example in my opinion is the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung (Defense Technology Study collection) in Koblenz, Germany. They have a wonderful display of firearms, tanks but also the technology that goes inside them. I would definitely recommend it if you ever have the chance of going there.

  7. This is a great topic. Smithsonian was much better years ago as was Springfield Arnory in Maaachusetts. I have not been to Aberdeen in 30 years but at one time it had an excellent display of individual weapons. It seems most firearms museums curators have overly organized their displays for the general public and not for those looking for every
    Model and variation.

    • The Aberdeen small arms collection has been moved to the US Army Ordnance History and Heritage Center at Ft. Lee, VA. I’m told they have more than 15,000 small arms in the collection. I think some or many of the armored vehicles went to Fort Benning, GA.


      • I am soooo close to retirement. I am not waiting to 66. I might have to hitchhike but I am going to see some of these great places one way or another. Need to start working on that bucket list.

  8. I have been to museums that I consider outstanding, the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece and each has elements the could be useful in an ultimate firearms museum. In the Acropolis Museum many of the items are displayed unfettered by red ropes or glass, but monitored by professional staff to enforce their “no touch” rules. You can get so close to items that if they were covered in gun oil you could smell them. The Dali has a self guided audio tour of their display pieces. You pick up a digital “walkman” when you enter. Each display has a plaque that gives the title of the work and some basic information and an ID number. You enter the ID number on your “walkman” and detailed description of the work is played for you. So, there you go.

    • Luther ,
      tank you for your kind , and correct , words about the Acropolis museum . Actually , in a day with few visitors . you can catch the odour of the white marble .
      Next time you visit Athens , make it a point to visit the War museum and the Byzantine and Christian museum next to it . You will not regret it .


  9. The internet does provide a medium for “artefacts” to be displayed properly i.e. In an article about them, which is accessible with accompanying photos, videos etc explaing what the author suggests would be pertinent to them. I went to the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester England, that was pretty good, they had interactive touchscreen computer things and stuff. I went to the London one as a kid, they had a Me109 hanging on the ceiling if I remember. Neither offered the format available online though, in regards the depth of information available to be provided. There’s a Royal armouries in Leeds which I haven’t been to, have to go. But they are apparently digitalising their collection which is good, I doubt they will provide as much info as say you find on here though.Thus, that’s perhaps the best way forward so long as they let Ian etc take these items out of storage or from behind the glass case, in order to do articles about them which will be shared online museum displays can operate as normal i.e. Within the physical constraints available, space etc, while providing the public access to them therefore justifying the purpose of a museum.

    • That’s the key I think, museums must allow access to them… Private collections are fine, but the owner doesn’t have to let anyone look at them. Museums surely have an obligation to, as practical- If you book an appointment or whatnot, so they can dig it out of the basement. Thus they need to have accessible catalogues, stating what it is they have. The internet provides this accessibility, I am sure private collectors do let folk have a look. But in theory if everything in the museum was in private hands, you couldn’t guarantee access which is the risk of closing museums and selling off collections. Theoretically you could moan at your M.P or something if the publicly funded museum was being lazy and left everything in the basement with just a mouldy stuffed parrot on display and a wine cork with the curator snoring in the corner.

      • The National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Fairborn, OH (suburb of Dayton), used to have a program in which tour groups (for instance chapters of the International Plastic Modelers’ Society, IPMS) could come in after regular museum hours (around 1900 to 2200) for guided tours.

        The guides were museum docents, mostly retired AF personnel. They would open up the ground display aircraft and you could sit in the cockpits, go through them if they were large enough, etc.

        On one such visit, I got to be in the cockpits of the SR-71 Blackbird, the Me-262a/1a, the FW-190G/4, the P-51D, and the F-86F. I also got to go through the B-36D Peacemaker, and sit in the pilot’s seat of “Bock’s Car”, the B-29 which dropped the “Fat Man” plutonium implosion fission bomb on Nagasaki on 9 Aug 1945. That was a rather eerie experience, I can assure you.

        I don’t see why other aviation, etc., museums can’t do similar things.

        For that matter, when they used to have tours through the FBI headquarters in Washington DC, the guides used to include both the FBI laboratory “gun library” and the basement firing range in the tour. At the latter, they used to let kids shoot the Thompson SMG under supervision.

        An arms museum could have an attached range to allow guests to do the same thing. Much as shooting ranges today will rent you a gun for an hour or so for range practice or just to try one out to see if it fits you.

        Just a thought.



        • Maybe the NRA should a civilian weapons education program, like the marksmanship one Garands etc. And push out the contents of their basement to ranges, in order folk can see and feel them- Shoot even, like you say. They have cash, perhaps they should pay Ian to organise it if they like folk being into guns so much. International plastic modellers society, I made an Airfix Stuka “Take zis Archbishop of Canterbury, vreeeeeeee!! KABOOM!!” Etc, fun times.

          • I was club secretary of out chapter for virtually its entire two-decade existence (1990-2010).

            Mainly because nobody else wanted the job.



        • Did the F.B.I building tour on a three day D.C trip in 92 when I was in junior high. I wish I could have been able to fire the 1921 Thompson that was displayed when they did the range demonstration. They showed off the Thompson,said it was obsolete, fired their current issue pistol and a HK mp5. Then there was a Q and A session. I asked why didn’t they fire the Thompson? The answer I received was its obsolete.

  10. The WW2 Museum in New Orleans does a fairly good job at having a reasonable balance of artifacts, including a selection of guns, and telling the stories of the events. It’s focus of course isn’t the guns themselves though, and while you can ge ta fairly close look at them there’s really not much information about the weapons that were used to fight the war. Still definitely worth checking out though.

  11. Thank you Ian for another excellent and thought provoking presentation.
    My comment will be based on the artificial restriction placed on us full automatic devotees by the BofATF&E folks.
    Since the pool of class III guns is fixed by the feds, since sometime in 1980, therefore there is a limited number of these firearms in civilian possession, the pool.

    Occasionally the pool is decreased, not by government fiat, but by circumstances. For example:
    – class three firearms are stolen (maybe destroyed evidence) and so disappear.
    – Full autos are destroyed and lost via natural causes, fires, floods, etc.
    – A class III owner dies and his spouse gets rid of the guns by whatever means (given to the police [exits the pool]).

    In the above, since the the 1980s, each year, the pool decreases.
    And each year more people enter the market for acquiring-collecting-firing their own machine guns. They, like us, are addicted.
    And if you remember the laws of supply (down) and demand (up) as
    class III guns availability decreases then their prices rise.
    The stock-bond market– screw it. Invest in class III guns as prices continue to climb.

  12. “There are, in fact, so many guns that they have given up on using printed cards in the displays to identify them”
    How you would divide fire-arms in classes (and subclasses) as Congress Library does with book: i. e. one system for all – country? designer(s)? time of entering service? role? technology of production? or something else?

    “Characteristics like balance and construction are difficult (if not impossible) to convey and understand without being able to actually handle a firearm”
    I can point Gun Disassembly 2 where you can disassembly many many various weapons system from Harpers Ferry Flintlock pistol to Steyr AUG. (Program itself is free, but weapons models are not)

  13. The problem you explain started in Sweden for about 15-20 years ago when our national treasure ARMÉ museum in Stockholm closed for restoration. When opening again the enormous gun collection was a minimum and displayed a battlefield war scene with all other no interest stuff. Gun collectors represents people from all different levels of citizens, but only a few are fighting back against the destruction of all museums. Carl Gustaf Rifle Factory in Sweden had a technical museum of unbelievable size and displayed almost a representing product of all products made during 250 years. Everything was destroyed by local politicians. First wrapped and stored in storage room. Now the rumor says that all is destroyed. Who have the authority to destroy our history? Latest news is that Töjhus Museum in Kopenhagen is next to be destroyed.
    We still have a few “gold nuggets” NRA museum in Washington DC, Beretta factory Museum in Italy and in Finland is a private museum which covers WW 1 and WW 2 best of all

  14. One issue here is that most museums – being a particularly rarified version of ivory-tower academia – would not be caught dead with a firearms enthusiast or expert on staff or hired as a consultant. You see this a lot in the media as well – I’ve got more time in newsrooms than most have in the chow line, as we used to say in a past existence – and while I would disagree with the “liberal media” tag so beloved of neocons (most reporters and editors tend to be cynics, not liberals) there is no denying that a newsroom conversation about a weekend trip to the range will put you far apart from most coworkers. Which results in stories and exhibits that show a glaring institutional lack of knowledge about the subject being discussed. Some years ago the Museum of Houston – Fine Arts (a very worthy destination) did a show highlighting modern manufacturers of custom 19th century muzzle-loaders. I mean the guys who make three or four guns a year, sell them for five figures, and have a decade or more of backorders. 50 or so absolutely incredible examples of the modern traditional gunmaker’s art… but apparently someone in the hierarchy decided the exhibit needed to be bigger so a bunch of old guns from local collections were tossed in at random. Some neat stuff, granted – a gold-and-jewel inlaid set of wheellocks that were owned by Louis the Somebody and a heavy-barrel falling-block .38-55 that was US Grant’s favorite target rifle – but it had nothing to do with the theme of the exhibit and just screamed “Nobody who put this together does much shooting or owns any guns.” Sort of like hanging a few Picassos in an exhibit of Old Masters, which the MFA wold never do.

    • The Texas Military Forces museum in Austin does a pretty good job. If you haven’t seen their museum in the last five years you are missing something, and it’s not just guns, its the whole deal, WWI and WWII. Fascinating tanks on outdoor display, on muster day they run the ones they have inside the museum them and put on a very noisy “reenactment”. A very personable museum.

  15. the only good museum i know in UK for gun,s all types is the Imperial war museum.(of course all military )the only other place to find out more about gun,s is Forgotten weapons,Thanks Ian.P.S all the beast to you & Carl Happy Xmas..tony and Floss.

    • The Royal armouries Leeds looks good, there’s the Tower of London as well obviously. Henry the VIII’s jousting armour, complete with accentuated armoured codpiece.

  16. Ian: I too have no firm opinion as to which is better, public or private collections, but I think you are a bit tough on public museums. Many museums have what are considered research collections where museum items are available to appropriately qualified people to perform research. I suspect most private collections are not open to move than a few ‘friends or acquaintances’ for viewing. I would generally prefer museum ownership with certain caveats about handling, etc. Items in private hands also tend to disappear into obscurity over time.

    I could imagine little more unappealing to 99.99% of museum visitors than, say a display of 50 or 100 different Garands or Mausers and, I think you must agree that such a collection — at least mostly — belongs in the research collection as it would not be a good use of a museum’s resources for display.

    Anyway, I could ramble on but those are my pro-museum thoughts.


  17. This summer, while visiting my wife’s brother in Kansas, I was finally able to visit the National WW 1 Museum. After being previously disappointed by the Smithsonian’s exhibits, the WW1 museum was amazing. They did a good job balancing things between the uneducated and the more informed. I had a great experience, and my wife’s brother, who knew basically nothing walking in, was amazed by the end of the trip. Ian, please go visit them and rummage the back room. What they had on display was amazing, the rest, I can only imagine.

    • Agree the National WW1 Museum is excellent, well-arranged, and often have special little corners with all the variations of a rifle a country issued, or 59 different rifle grenades, or so on, all with a brief description of why that happened, and the relationship.

      And unlike many museums (the Army and AF are especially bad at this) don’t use dummies or dewats but have live guns. Machine guns, artillery, everything. It’s apparently a huge pain to do this, as BATFE inspects every gun, every case, every lock, all the time.

      Me, I like the mechanics and getting inside the gear is often the most informative. I want more museums to put cutaways on display, or just the mechanical bits jigged up to show how they interact. Not alone, but next to the assembled gun. I can easily imagine setting up a display that discusses the history of early self-loading rifles, for example. Maybe add some x-ray videos and so on also. I can only imagine that this would appeal to a decent chunk of the people who bother to come to such museums (or kids forced to) and stare at walls of guns.

      • ATF spends a whole lot of time checking on totally obsolete machine guns rather than doing something useful. I think we need a new law exempting any machine gun manufactured before January 1, 1919 and turning them into ordinary firearms.
        Write your Congressman. Mine is a liberal hack, but my two Senators are pro-gun although only one is actually interested in getting anything done rather than grandstanding.
        I have written the NRA but all they want is my money over and again or an opinion on a terribly slanted poll.

  18. Given our imperfect world, Forgotten Weapons is the very best compromise that we have, especially when Ian can get access to collections far and wide. I for one am very grateful to Ian.

  19. I’ve just been looking at the Smithsonians digitised collection, digitalising these collections is a good idea given the internet. Reasonable amount of information along with a picture or two on various items, I searched for the M1 Garand and they have one, the information provided isn’t particularly detailed in regards the weapon itself there’s some info about the inventor and some background context in relation to WW2.
    Could probably do with a external link to a forgotten weapons page about it, for more info about the weapon itself. Looks a good museum overall, I’d go.

    • If anything there’s less information on the rifle, on the digitised NRA museum website but a few more pictures, mind you that’s a firearms specific museum they perhaps figure you know about it…

  20. Many of the problems that you mention about firearms museums are common problems with all museums regardless of content. Lack of context. Lack of information. Lack of physical contact. Lack of knowledgeable staff to answer questions. This is why well researched books are so important. I see museums, primarily, as places to be inspired to do deeper personal investigation. Now, if I find that there are no good books on a subject, that’s when to start thinking about getting down to the hard work of writing that missing book.

    The physical contact part is the toughest one for a museum. A museum’s first responsibility is preservation, and shooting a gun changes it, and as someone above mentioned, shooting a gun will eventually break it. Then you get into the old joke about the “original broom” at the Edison Laboratory where the head had been replaced five times and the handle only twice.

    The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California had an interesting idea of how to solve that “physical contact” problem. (The Autry has a very extensive firearms collection, most of it “cowboy” and “wild west show” oriented.) They put together a range day in concert with a Civil War in the West exhibit. For a fee a person could get behind some Civil War era guns, (replicas), and get a feel for how they handled, smelled, kicked, and if they could hit anything with them. It turned out that this was surprisingly popular. ^__^

    • Thats known as a theseus paradox apparently Brian “The original broom” The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century.

  21. Aside from the obvious issue of manpower such a database would require to set up and maintain you also have to deal with the bugbear that’s what do we include? The dry technical stuff is pretty straight forward obviously, but the history and influence fields are rather more tricky. Which gun influenced what gun? Is there a clear progression or are we dealing with convergent design. Is the predecessor to the Luger model X the Luger mode Y or the Borchardt? What level of granularity are going for. And then we get into the history section where politics inevitably rears its ugly head. How do we cover guns with controversial backgrounds? Can you cover the Martini-Henry without getting into western colonialism or the Dance revolvers without getting into the North-American Civil War or the SPAS-12 without getting into the Assault Weapons Ban? Should we?
    Is the AK-47 the sign of the might of the Soviet Union, rebellion and unrest or freedom? It’s been all three at various points and places.

  22. great topic, I’ve always been of the opinion that firearms were made to be shot and not pampered under glass or locked away in a safe but I believe that there is a reasonable compromise in the use of historically accurate replicas, for museums they could be non firing replicas for people to handle with special group tours including a range day with live fire replicas, the real historical relics and artifacts could be kept under lock and key for future study and reference as they are now.
    as far as information goes with the smart phones that we have they could have scan and learn email links on each exhibit to learn more from real life experts such as yourselves and footage from the live fire days.
    keep up the good work, I’m jealous of the opportunities that you guys have.

  23. I recall seeing guns in first part of my life only in museums. Was it good? Yes and no. I wished to be able to see them up close and ‘fuss’ with them – see them disassembled and dry run. On the other hand, they were typically in impeccable condition.

    Private collection is well – private; not everyone has access to it unless there is a common friend or invitation. shooting them (providing they are safe) is irreplaceable experience. Then of course the owner is expected to treat them accordingly and that may be a commitment, not everyone is ready to bear.

    With age of video, everything has changed. Now we have FW and Ian’s ability to show and tell…. well it’s still only virtual though.

  24. I recall a couple of trips to the Pattern Room at Enfield Lock in London back in the 1960/70’s, together with a bunch of enthusiasts. Long arms were in racks and accessible for close inspection and handling. MG’s on tables or the floor. Every mark of Bren and variant of Thompson, plus unique weapons you only normally see in the reference books. You had to ask to handle the pistols displayed in cabinets as they were pocketable I suppose. Everything was oily and after a few hours one could anticipate a dry cleaning bill. All overseen by the knowledgeable and benign curator, Herb Woodend.
    Nirvana! Pretty well what a museum should be. Simply racks and tables of stuff that you could actually touch (excepting the upper tier of long arms which were difficult to reach!).
    It has now moved to the Royal Armouries in Leeds which I have yet to visit but, despite a grander setting, I suspect it will not provide the same experience. Probably has touch screens to suit a family day out without anyone getting oily hands and clothing.

  25. Glad you enjoyed the NRA museum, at least to an extent, Ian. Did you by any chance see the original Armalite AR-10 that is, last I checked, inexplicably included in the “Gulf War Armaments” section?

    PS: Sorry for ambushing you in Rosslyn this evening, it was just really exciting seeing a writer and historian of your repute in real life (yeah, I’m that guy).

    • I never have gotten to go the NRA Museum but I did get to meet Philip Schreier, senior curator at the NRA Houston event. What a great guy. Phil, like many of us, loves the early mgs. He obtained a scar, an injury from handling TR’s Potato Digger for a special NRA display, and he is rightly proud of it.

  26. The “standard” museums are enjoyed by the ignorant, but I think a museum should be much more that that. First, I think that artifacts should be able to be handled. There ought to be “touchers” in every museum and the more the better.
    It disturbs me that a whole lot of WWI MG’s are stuck in museums solely due to registration issues. Better than cutting them up like ATF used to do but there isn’t an MG made before 1919 that shouldn’t be classified as an ordinary gun. No reason for it to be a class III except for stupidity.
    I have written ATF and my Congressmen, asking for a at least a new amnesty for pre 1919 MG’s, but all i get is yawns.
    I do an MG display with my own stuff and some of the museums stuff during the Camp Mabry Muster day in Austin (Texax Military Forces Museum–it’s awesome). It is awesome to sit behind the Mg 08 in uniform (solely for ambiance) and explain it to the folks in relation to the weapons it fought with and against and actually display those other weapons, pick them up at at least let them touch some of them. At the display last time was the Museums MG 08 on a sled mount (I enhanced the Mg 08 with my 08/15 water can hose and also a partial original ammo belt, my MG 08/15, MP 18, Chauchat, BAR, Benet Mercie 1909, Artillery Luger, Broomhandle Mauser, museum Schwarzlose, just across the hall there is a nice 1914 Hotchkiss. 1918 Browning is present. Some of my stuff is fake, some dummy, and of course some more real than dummy, and of course the real thing. You work with what you have. I did this for the first time this last year and it was awesome and now I have plenty of plans for improving the display, will add more “stuff” to help create and ambiance. Hope to add a Lewis gun. I do this all by myself. Would be fun to have help but the younger guys are all out there having fun in the event but for me being in the museum is just as much fun. Probably need to do a video this next time, eh? My 08/15 is a dummy gun, with lots of repro parts but I keep improving it. Just picked up an original rear sight ladder and fusee cover. Repro stock, repro drum mag, bipod, but it’s coming along!
    I do my own living history with just my stuff at several events…if it at our local airfair I allow touching because I am in charge, of course I follow the rules of the venue I am at. My feeling is that if I can introduce these folks to the real deal (or something close) I am doing something outside of just my own hobby.
    It’s all good. I hate to see things just sitting to be viewed, which is why I like Ian’s presentations so much, he handles the stuff so we can vicariously enjoy it.

  27. Actually, thinking about it again, the answer lays mainly in legislative measures of particular state/ country.

    If for example, ownership of automatic military firearms is out of question, then the idea of private collections goes flat. In opposite case, if “certified” collectors will maintain the legal right to gather and store mentioned firearms, so much easier it creates favorable conditions for private collections.

    The situation with respect to ownership of fully automatic firearms in U.S. and perhaps Switzerland is kind of anomaly; rest of the world’s legislations make it mostly prohibitive. That pretty well pre-determines, where the collectors will be and where the state sanctioned museums will prevail.

  28. Private collections sometimes spawn into small museums. The Indiana Military Museum is a good example if anyone wants to check it out. Also if anyone is interested there is a very small private IPJA military museum at Takayama in the historic building/shopping district. The highlight is the drop tank from a Mitsubishi A6M. The gentleman who owns the collection brought it back also with the remains of the pilot from the Philippines in the 90’s.

  29. While many museums can definitely be more hands, I think that a lot of them contain items that due to rarity or liability issues, cannot be easily handled by the general public with the limited oversight available from their often meager budgets (it takes too much time and/or money to watch over multiple people handling items such as very valuable and rare guns in a general museum setting). I noticed that a lot of the responses mention after-hours tours or special visits and that is one way for the museums to cater to the advanced historian. There is also mention above of your virtual museum here at Forgotten Weapons. While not hands on for us (you lucky bastard), it definitely provides more information on certain items than can be found almost anywhere else. On the other end of the spectrum, I volunteer at the Destroyer Escort Historical Museum, otherwise known as the USS Slater, in Albany, NY and that is a very hands on museum where kids of all ages can manipulate our 20mm, 40mm, and 3″/50cal. guns as well as other items on board. We even fire black salutes for ceremonies and have sleep over nights for a more complete experience. Admittedly, most of the artifacts on board are much more robust than items found in other museums, especially rare gun museums. Interestingly, Ken had mentioned the World War II museum in New Orleans and one of the Slater’s alumni works as a curator down there and you may have met him while checking out the Sedgley glove gun (Eric, great guy). Again, the specialized visits that you have occasional access to, like the WW II museum or the pattern room, and the articles/videos published here are a great asset when compared to the otherwise drab offerings on the floors of many museums but I think that people have to remember that a lot of it comes down to how much funding even good museums have available to improve their displays. The best private collections are often owned by very wealthy individuals and access to them is limited to the friends and family like stated above, but with passion and research even humble people like most average gun enthusiasts can learn and benefit from what is offered and try to help in making that offering better.

  30. Regarding museums focus. When I was a child in the 50s our local historical society, at that time a small affair, had a large gun cabinet full of wondrous things.
    The curator allowed me to “examine” them occasionally which is how I was able to play with a Mauser 13mm AT Rifle at a tender age ! 20 – 25 years later when I went back there it had grown and become more “professional”. When I enquired about the Mauser I was told they had gotten rid of it ages ago because it didn’t fit with the local history theme. That rifle had been a WWI bring back donated by a local Doughboy.

  31. …and for what it’s worth, I’ll make a plug for the Museum of the West in Cody, WY, USA. They have the Winchester gallery there, and lot’s of other stuff- best part is the basement. A pretty detailed walk through firearms history. This still doesn’t solve the ‘seeing vs using’ conundrum, however- not sure there is a cure for gun nuts like ourselves. Might be the disease is its own reward.

  32. I think a (possibly curated) version of WikiPedia would be a great way of gathering detailed information on a vast collection – or even on items not yet in the collection.

  33. In 1973 or so (I was about 13) my father and uncle brought me to Springfield Armory, which at that time had the look and feel of a converted factory floor, with plenty of hands-on displays. For example, you could true a 1903 barrel using the actual production jig. Almost nothing was under glass. Some 40 years later I made the return trip and was dismayed to see a sanitized museum with little sense of anything actually having happened in the building. Still not a bad museum – there is substantial homage paid to John Garand – but a ghost of what it was in years past.

  34. There must be many individuals out there with interesting guns like me who are wondering what to do with them when they die
    my greatgrandfather bought the three black powder rifles belonging to the 3 farms on a crossroads in perth county ontario
    The fowling piece is a flintlock brought out from scotland and was often used to shoot passenger pigons
    The kentucky style rifle has a remington signed barrel and was brought back from the states by a scots stonemason who worked on their canal system
    The 50 cal rifle was bought as a lock and barrel in london ontario and stocked by the owners in wild cherry from his woods. it was used in the last bear hunt in perth county in the 1880’s
    Now I live in france the guns are not exceptional but they are part of our canadian pioneer history .If i bring them over here they lose their meaning
    For the moment they are safe with a cousin who takes care of them .However nobody in the following generation seem interested by guns
    One would be tempted to put them in a museum but will they be looked after and displayed. As a former archeologist I saw the way small local museums take care or not of things

  35. Althought they don’t count as either a museum, or guns in private hands..
    Gun Dissassembly 2 or World of Guns computer and tablet programs, allow you to disassemble assemble, andwatch the function of various weapons, that you’d otherwise not be able to hand in real life. Even though there are some quibbles about the disassembly sequence in some of the guns.

    World of guns is free on Steam, and Gundisassembly 2 is free download, although for a lot of the guns, you do end up paying to add content.


  36. If you ever get to Manhattan NYC, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have an engraved Colt revolver, and the most interesting matchlocks, wheel locks, flint locks that the stocks are so artistically carved, you know they were never thrown down in any field.

    • There are a whole lot of guns that MUSt be preserved under glass in order to be seen and studied by succeeding generations….that is why we make replicas to play with.

  37. One great opportunity not yet exploited as a method of sharing rare and antique guns in a manner that more people can enjoy them is the preservation of designs by the creation of 3D plans. I am talking about the documentation of every part by 3d so they can be replicated, lets say by a 3D printer. In short, a 3D plan can be shared with thousands who can then “make” their own rare firearm (a model thereof).
    The technology is growing fast. For me I would love to make a working 3d Model of a Borchardt, a Gabbet-Fairfax Mars, a Webley-Fosbery, a Type 5 Japanese rifle (ok, rifles are a whole different Meghilla-but we can start with handguns)… Right now these guns would be non-firing models but what a way to experience them, weapons that in most cases you would not be firing at all if you owned the real thing.
    My first choice for a 3D model would be the Mars Automatic. What makes this possible that a museum would probably permit someone like Ian with or other person with “creds” dis-assemble said weapon for such purpose. That is what museums are for, the retention of knowledge.
    One of our museum volunteers is getting a 3D printer for Xmas. We have a Spandau project going at our Musuem to re-create accurate looking Spandaus for replica planes in a cost effective manner. as an experiment I have a broomhandle Mauser I want to disassemble and see if perhaps a 3d Model can be worked up. I think there are ways to scan parts for 3D but that is going to be part of the learning curve.

    • It seems to me that ANY firearm can be made into an operating 3D printer copy, just with barrel blanks and breech block inserts with drill rod firing pins, and flat steel stock to fashion the extractors and ejectors.

  38. I think petting zoos are the ideal starting place. If the visitors is able to handle the weapons,there are some considerations.
    Metal detectors at the entry so some idiot can’t bring in live ammo. ALT remove firing pins from exhibited weapons.
    Cheap cotton gloves for visitors to minimize skin oils on the weapons. Smaller weapons (or all weapons) on chains.
    Snap caps?
    Live fire demos
    For a fee, a short safety briefing and a chance to fire ten rounds under CLOSE ONE_ON_ONE supervision.
    At any given time only a few (10-20) weapons in each category would be on exhibit. A posting of next weeks exhibition would help bring people back.
    For a small fee requested weapons, selected from the master catalog, could be brought out from the vault

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