NRA MUSEUM -- 1600 Rhode Island Avenue NW. Open 10 to 4 daily.

Even most gun-haters will grant that when firearms are considered for what they are, rather than for what they can do, many are fine examples of craftsmanship and some are true works of art.

Which is why not only gun nuts treasure the museum of the National Rifle Association on Thomas Circle.

As modern museums go it is hopelessly dated, amounting simply to rank after rank of display cases holding gun after gun. The caption cards presume that the visitor knows a lot about firearms, and demonstrate that whoever wrote them doesn't know that much about spelling, but these are quibbles compared to the wealth of weapons on view.

Any hunter, marksman or gun collector will ache to hold many of the superb pieces, because a large part of the attractiveness of a well-made piece is the way it feels: the weight and balance, the shape and texture of the grips or stock, the sense of the shooter that with this gun he can hit the mark.

Borrowing such a weapon is the beginning of collecting madness: an ordinary skeet shooter who has seen one clay pigeon after another turn to smoke over the barrels of a best-grade London gun can never again be truly faithful to his perfectly adequate Remington "corn sheller."

A host of collectors has enriched the two-floor museum with donations that cover a span of more than 600 years. The displays seem eccentrically grouped, but that is part of the charm of the place. A section of the first floor is devoted to trophies lent by the Boone & Crockett Club, which arbitrates North American big-game records; the heads struck this hunter as oddly unimpressive, and terribly sad.

The NRA is of course one of the fiercest lobbying organizations in the country, yet the message is muted in the museum. If you don't feel like being indoctrinated, don't pick up the pamphlets. You can just look at the guns, taking comfort in the fact that each and every one of them has been deactivated.