To viewers of a BBC-produced documentary called "Gun Fight USA," R.L. (Larry) Wilson comes across as your basic suburban executive-type who likes to stroll around his front yard wearing a button-down shirt and a stripped necktie -- with a Thompson submachine gun chattering from his hip.
A couple of Texas state cops have a somewhat different picture of Larry Wilson. They remember him as the skinny guy in the Ferrari 308 GTB who blew by them at 140 mph during a coast-to-coast "cannonball run." Once they'd managed to flag him down, though, Wilson must not have seemed all that threatening to the troopers: All they gave him was a warning.
Wilson -- who describes himself as a historian, gun enthusiast and collector, in that order -- may be hard to categorize, but his professional stature is unambiguous. Former Treasury secretary and fellow firearms connoisseur William Simon calls him "the expert witness in the field." Producer-director George Butler ("Pumping Iron"), who hopes to make a documentary featuring Wilson, sees him as "the Leo Castelli of the gun world, the first guy to impart real discipline to an industry that's ready to explode." Nicholas McCullough, curator of arms and armor at Christie's East in New York, says his academic expertise makes him "the ultimate authority on rare American pieces."
To Wilson, 47, such recognition is welcome, perhaps even overdue. His publishing credits now total more than 20 books on various aspects of arms collecting and engraving, including two landmark works on the most famous of American gunmakers, "colt: An American legend" and "The Colt Heritage." He has also held consulting positions with dozens of museums, dealers, manufacturers and well-heeled hobbyists, and his resume is well known to most serious U.S. gun collectors, a group now estimated to number 160,000. Public sales like last Wednesday's $547,000 auction of the Strassman Collection at Christie's, moreover, lend credibility to the thesis that gun collecting is shedding its old frontier stigma and moving smartly into the art world's mainstream.
"It's really become quite respectable, and larry's helped make it so," notes Simon, who, like many home enthusiasts, is coy about his collection's size and value. "Even friends of mine who din't like guns come over to the house and get absolutely fascinated. They don't want to leave."
"Guns like the early Colt prototypes, or the pistol Bat Masterson used at the OK Corral, are legitimate pieces of Americana," adds Wilson, "and the best ones are still in private hands, not museums. Most of these pieces are truly unappreciated and seriously undervalued. For $10 million, somebody could put together a collection that would below the doors off any museum in the world."
When somebody does, he or she will likely use Larry Wilson to rattle the latches. In 1974, Lilly pharmaceutical heir John B. Solley gave Wilson free rein to build a collection of "super guns" culled from other investors; at the time of his death five years later, Solley owned a $7 million inventory that included Annie Oakley's shotgun, Gen. George A. Custer's cased pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers, a coveted set of Van Syckel Colt Dragoons, and the serial No. 1 Samuel Colt display piece, a gun that commanded the record price of $347,500. Wilson not only made his standard 10 percent commission on the acquisitions, but he also had the pleasure of keeping Solley's wares in his own walk-in-basement vault.
At guns shows and auctions across the country, Wilson is a fimiliar face and a most popular fellow. Simon bought a prized Gatling gun through Wilson and used him as his personal tour guide to last year's $343,000 benefit gun auction for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Testimonial letters from the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Chuck Connors and Mel Torme are scattered about his office, as are scrapbook pictures of him presenting them Soviet ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin with a pair of ceremonial Colts earmarked for Leonid Brezhnev on the eve of the Vladivostok summit in 1974.
If all this sounds like heady stuff for a shy kid from rural Minnesota . . . well, it is. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson began collecting guns at age 12, using money earned from a paper route. Visits to the Stagecoach Museum near Minneapolis drew him into the discipline of his art; a Carlton College history degree and a student internship at the Tower of London's famed Armories wing cemented his career course. Despite the academic polish, however, there is still a lot of schoolboy in Larry Wilson, who admits to liking "fast cars, loud guns and wild adventures."
In truth, while his rhetoric often suggests Charles Bronson, his physical mien is pure Woody Allen, right down to his black-framed eyeglasses. Tall, thin, balding and soft-spoken, Wilson looks like a middle-aged candidate for a Charles Atlas course on coping with beach bullies. Looks can obviously be deceiving, though. A self-styled "closet Walter Mitty case," Wilson has stalked brown bear in Alaska, shot cape buffalo in Zambia and co-piloted the Ferrari from New York to Los Angeles in 33 hours 54 minutes flat. Later this summer, depending on financing arrangements for Butler's planned documentary film, he hopes to safari in East Africa with Theodore Roosevelt IV, Theodore Roosevelt V and the 500/,450 double-barreled Holland & Holland nitro express elephant rifle their forebear made famous after leaving the White House. Oh, yes. He "collects" English country houses, too.
At his own country house in rural Connecticut, Wilson spent a recent spring weekend showing two house-guests just how corious the inside of his closet looks. Following an exhaustive tour of his multimillion-dollar collectibles inventory, he led them outside to a small target range and encouraged them to fire off a sampling of exotic weaponry, including an 1847 Colt Walker pistol, a Frontier Model Colt .45 used by Gene Autry in some 50 cinematic shootouts, a .44 magnum Ruger Red Hawk handgun, a .357 magnum Holland & Holland double-shot elephant rifle much like Teddy R.'s "big stick," and a fully automatic Thompson "trench broom." Repairing to a nearby inn for dinner, Wilson whisked them there in a red Ferrari at speeds edging into the low three figures. Finally, around midnight, they settled into his den to watch a Clint Eastwood western on videocassette. Their movie perch? The middle seat of a full-scale, velvet-lined, hand-built replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
There is more, much more. Flanking the stagecoach is the Formula One Indy racer driven by Mario Andretti in 1983. Adorning the walls and floors are the heads and hides of numerous big game victims of Wilson's trigger finger. There are western bronzes, Tiffany engravings, suits of armor, and, of couse, guns of almost every stripe: derringers, muskets, M15s. To even the most jaded observer, the collector's home resembles nothing so much as a very large, very eccentric and very expensive toy store.
The proprietor would not disagree. "I have the same excitement about these things that I did when I was 12," says Wilson, who once built a flintlock rifle for a junior high physics project. "To me, the investment angle is strictly secondary. I buy pieces because I like them -- their mechanical features, their history, their romance and craftsmanship. And I use what I buy. I'm not the kind of purist who thinks valuable guns should never be fired."
Wilson also claims never to have fired his collectibles at a human target, although he does espouse antigun control sentiments that seem to place him somewhere to the right of Bernard Goetz. The closest he came to an armed confrontation, he says, was when he got accosted by a mugger in downtown Washington, three blocks from the White House.
"I didn't have a gun on me, so I reached in my pocket and whipped out one of my honorary law enforcement badges,'' he says with a broad grin. ''Some cops drove by, saw the shield and gave chase. They must have run that poor bastard halfway to Hawaii."
Wilson credits his training in armed self-defense (the very same training Goetz was alleged to be heading for when he turned himself in to the authorities) for teaching him how to avoid confrontation, not court it. And he stresses similar courses for anyone who busy or carries a handgun. On the issue of letting people have handguns in the first place, however, he is as restrained as Dirty Harry uncovering a nest of child molesters.
"The history of gun control is the history of the aristocracy trying to keep weapons from the masses," he maintains. "It's elitist, it's unconstitutional, it's unworkable, and it won't do what it's supposed to do. The media have been completely duped on this issue."
With near equal intensity, Wilson insists that his up-with-the-NRA views do not automatically make him, in his words, a "screaming conservative."
"Would I vote the gun issue straight?" he asks. "You bet. But I was also raised a liberal Democrat-my father was active in the civil rights movement and knew people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Andy Young personally-and I cannot abandon that tradition entirely. Hey, I even voted for Jimmy Carter."
But pinning Wilson down politically may be less to the point than understanding how guns have become both his overriding issue and his magnificent obsession. To someone like filmmaker Butler, who had no abiding interest in firearms or collecting before hooking up on the Roosevelt safari project, Wilson's combination of scholarship and passion is the stuff of high art.
"Larry sees aspects of guns that only someone with an extraordinary mind can detect," Butler offers. "In many ways he reminds me of somebody like art historian Bernard Berseson. He's still relatively young, he has impeccable credentials, and if he stays active in this field, I'm quite sure that interest-and prices-will go throught the ceiling."
Christie's curator McCullough agrees. "Larry's expertise covers a couple of important areas. For one, he's very good at matching the right buyer with the right piece, and that's crucial to the auction's success. The other is spotting forgeries. Many guns can be easily modified to look much older than they really are, and it often takes a highly trained eye to detect the difference. Larry's judgment is excelent.
His judgment is excellent, his closet full. Most art scholars settle for a salon chair and a library pass; Larry Wilson not only bought his own libraryt, he takes it out for walks and tests its accuracy on tree stumps. Where have you gone, Doc Holliday? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
"You know, my father bet me a long time ago that I woulddnt own a single gun by the time I turned 40." says the living incarnation of Kid Colt. "Well, he owes me five bucks."