At NRA Firearms Museum, Each One Tells a Story
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2004
Virginia never had a lot of cowboys.
So at first glance, the larger-than-life bronze statue of a cowboy -- complete with billowing chaps, Stetson hat, looped lariat in one hand and rifle dangling casually from the other -- looks oddly out of place in the lobby of a glass office building off Interstate 66 in Fairfax County.
But the face, all craggy and handsome, seems familiar.
Then a glance at the accompanying plaque evokes an "of course" moment: It's Charlton Heston, posed in costume from an obscure 1968 Western called "Will Penny," when he was still a Hollywood hunk and not yet the president and imposing face of the National Rifle Association. Heston served five years as NRA president before stepping aside last year after being diagnosed with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
The Heston statue stands at the entrance to the National Firearms Museum on Waples Mill Road in the Fair Oaks area. It is not the only gun museum in the country, but it is the only one whose brochures offer a toll-free number for visitors interested in joining the NRA.
Almost 30,000 people visited the specialty museum last year, and officials hope traffic will increase as tourists twin visits to the firearms museum and the new Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles International Airport.
Though the firearms museum relocated from downtown Washington to Fairfax in May 1998, for many local residents it remains relatively unknown and unexplored. It could easily be overlooked, being in a nondescript building on a side street marked only by a few brown road signs. And some people would shy away from a museum that not only focuses on a singular niche but also is affiliated with a group as passionately ideological as the NRA.
But even though the museum is an arm of the NRA, reminders of the organization's views are minimal and relatively subtle. A short excerpt from the Second Amendment is spelled out in brass at the entrance. The exit takes visitors past glass cases holding 100 rifles and shotguns, forming "Freedom's Doorway," a reference to a Heston speech in which he said, "Freedom's doorway is framed by muskets."
There are only traces of gun kitsch, too. Donations to the museum, which charges no fee, can be dropped through a slit cut into a 6-foot-tall artillery shell used by U.S. Marines in the 1960s. One wall holds two examples of gun art -- metal sheets on which the profiles of an Indian chief and Uncle Sam have been outlined by bullet holes.
But for the most part, visitors looking for an overtly political message would have to go to the museum store, where the goods range from NRA shot glasses with handles in the shape of revolvers to baby bibs printed with alphabet blocks spelling NRA, from copies of the Second Amendment to bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as Heston's words to an NRA crowd: "From my cold dead hands."
Museum officials take pains to point out that the Firearms Museum is dedicated to the serious study of American history and is not interested in pushing any contemporary political views. The collection of more than 2,000 arms dating to the 14th century draws a bead on the nation's history through guns used at work, at war and at play.
"You see America through the barrel of a gun when you come to the museum," said curator Doug Wicklund, who has prowled antique stores and delved into boxes stored in his attic to come up with furnishings and props for the museum's dioramas.
"We try to show history in an unbiased manner and have visitors view guns without peering through a filter, whether it be left or right. We let the guns talk. You can see the wear and tear on them. Look at the engravings and imagine the time it took to craft them. There are guns that won medals at the Olympics and guns that served our nation. Each one has a story," Wicklund said.
Museum officials characterize the guns -- all safely protected behind locked and humidity-controlled glass cases -- as a combination of art and history in the same realm as, say, elaborate Turkish sabers at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Those looking to learn about the downside of guns should turn elsewhere. The Firearms Museum is a place centered on celebrating the gun and its role in American culture.
The museum presents guns as an integral part of the nation's life and heritage. There are presidential guns, hunting guns, carnival guns, royal guns, toy guns, prototype guns, guns that went to Vietnam and one gun found warped but intact in the ashes of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001. There are guns that belonged to poets and guns that belonged to cops, guns big enough to shoot an elephant and guns small enough that only a sewing needle would fit down the barrel.
The oldest gun, so to speak, in the museum's collection is a European hand cannon dating to 1350 and found in the ruins of a castle near Salzburg, Austria. It doesn't resemble what most people think of as a gun. It is little more than a chunk of iron pipe mounted to a large stick that had to be rested in the nook of a tree to protect the firer from the kick of its powerful recoil.
The most valuable item in the museum's collection is a .66-caliber Italian wheel lock carbine that came over on the Mayflower in 1620 with Pilgrim John Alden.
The exhibits, spread over 20,000 square feet, are arranged in themes.
One case presents short biographies of men better known for their last names than their first: Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Eliphalet Remington Jr. and Samuel Colt.
A room modeled after Theodore Roosevelt's library at Sagamore Hill in New York celebrates the most famous big-game hunter to inhabit the Oval Office. A rhinoceros head hangs over the fireplace, near the elk and antelope heads. One display case holds the pearl-handled pistol Roosevelt kept on his nightstand at the White House.
Among the other arms with high-powered pedigrees are George H.W. Bush's air gun, Dwight D. Eisenhower's monogrammed Winchester and Napoleon Bonaparte's double-barreled flip lock Fowler with its purple velvet cheek rest.
War and peace both have a place in the museum. Among the exhibits are lifelike re-creations of a 1920s carnival shooting gallery with metal ducks bearing bullet dents and a boy's 1950s-era bedroom with Hardy Boys novels on the bookshelf and a Boy Scout marksmanship manual on the chenille cowboy bedspread.
A glimpse of Americans at war is offered up in dioramas of virtually every conflict from the Revolutionary War to Iraq. For Civil War buffs, there are Confederate sharpshooter rifles and a Union arms factory. One gun on display is believed to have been with John Brown during his 1859 raid on the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry. A soldier's-eye view of war is chillingly realistic in the scenes of World War I doughboys standing in a trench littered with guns and grenades, and a representation of U.S. troops gathering German war booty in the ruins of World War II.
"Many soldiers became arms collectors at that point," said Wicklund, standing beside the cavelike room with Nazi swastika armbands littering the floor. "It was opportunity."
For Wicklund, the guns on display are not just inanimate objects but poignant storytellers, their histories related in scars and dents worn smooth by use.
"Look at this," he said, pointing to a Sharps buffalo gun used by buffalo hunters in the latter years of the 19th century. "See how the forearm is worn away on the underside from the pommel of the saddle? We have a diary from a buffalo hunter in which he recorded the prices paid for guns and what price he sold the meat for to be used as food for the railroad crews. This gun illustrates a story. You can see it was a gun that was close to history."
For some visitors, the guns on display are part of personal history.
On a visit last week, Leonard Schnitzer stood silently before a case holding a variety of law enforcement guns. A retired New York City police officer, Schnitzer was staring at a Smith & Wesson revolver that seemed almost identical to one he bought in 1959 and used during his 20 years on the force.
"I just found my gun," he said. "The one with a pencil barrel. That gun cost all of $40, and I had to buy it myself. But it didn't have that wood on the end."
Wicklund explained that the long stick of wood extending from the metal barrel was used as a club after police officers had emptied their revolvers.
"It was designed so that after six shots, you could use it as a baton," he explained.
The law enforcement display best exemplifies the museum's relentlessly positive outlook on guns. Dozens of firearms line the wall beside police badges and FBI posters of wanted men, their mugs looking out with menacing eyes. A small wooden box contains the half-melted titanium and aluminum gun that belonged to New York City police officer Walter Weaver, who was serving on Emergency Service Squad No. 3 on Sept. 11, 2001, when he rushed into the World Trade Center and never came out. His gun, twisted from the pressure and the heat, was retrieved from the ashes.
But the case also contains the only gun in the entire museum collection that was ever used by a certifiable bad guy -- a shotgun retrieved by California fish and game officers one day after getting a complaint about a naked man shooting birds in the desert. They arrested him and confiscated the gun. His name was Charles Manson. The gun, confiscated well before the August 1969 slayings for which he was convicted two years later, was not thought to be related to any of the murders.
To Wicklund, the proportion seems about right.
"Think of the number of times firearms were used to protect life, used in a positive sense, and compare them to the number of times firearms were used for bad or evil," he said. "We've got one such gun in 2,000. We may be overemphasizing the negative side."
Wicklund said he has no desire to exhibit, say, the Bushmaster rifle used during the Washington area sniper shootings for which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were separately convicted late last year. The Bushmaster, similar to an M-16 used in the American armed forces, is not a particularly rare or unusual gun, Wicklund said.
Instead, his dream exhibit would be a collection of guns relating to every American president dating to George Washington, a noted fowler.
"Just about every president has used or owned a gun," Wicklund said.
The National Firearms Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is at the National Rifle Association, 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax. 703-267-1600. The Web site address is www.nationalfirearmsmuseum.org