By Robert G. Segel
On May 19-21, 2006, the National Rifle Association held its 135th Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the Midwest Airlines Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The three day event drew approximately 60,000 visitors to this lovely city on the shores of Lake Michigan. The convention center was packed as attendees attended numerous NRA seminars, visited commercial exhibitors and viewed rare, historic and unique educational firearms displays.
One of the favorite sections of the show was the aisles of firearms displays that are put up by the various NRA affiliated collectors groups. These groups display guns that represent the finest, rarest and most exceptional weapon types that are truly noteworthy.
The Thompson Collectors Association (TCA) and the Dallas Arms Collectors Association (DACA), both NRA affiliated collector organizations, joined together to sponsor an exhibit entitled Sir Hiram Maxim: Father of the Modern Machine Gun. Both groups are highly enthusiastic in advancing the legitimacy of collecting historic Class III weapons within the larger collecting community. In 1995, the Dallas Arms Collectors Association paved the way by sponsoring the first ever NRA Class III exhibit in conjunction with the Thompson Collectors Association with their highly acclaimed comprehensive and educational Thompson submachine gun display. Though a machine gun has been displayed at NRA shows on rare previous occasions, never before was there a specific display of NFA weapons.
Following up on that great achievement, the TCA and DACA pooled their resources and combined their allocated booths into one to enable a 10x20 foot exhibit of Maxim machine guns highlighting the genius of the prolific American-born inventor Hiram Maxim. Though Maxim invented many things, and held over 80 patents, his name will forever be associated with the machine gun and how his invention, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century, forever changed warfare.
Putting the display together was no simple task. Planning the historic content and educational display took nearly a year to conceive and execute. Specific guns had to be selected for their historic importance, risers had to be developed for the proper display of the guns, and three large lighted wood display cabinets had to be designed and constructed. The display cabinets contained written historical information in a logical chronologic order along with displays of selected and appropriate accessories, artifacts and ephemera pertaining to Maxim and his guns. A large tri-fold handout had to be written with appropriate illustrations that outlined the biographical history of Hiram Maxim, the invention and application of his operating principle and thumbnail histories of each of the six guns selected for display. Forms for judging the exhibit by the NRA had to be produced and submitted.
A display of this magnitude required the help and assistance of many people but the main designer of the exhibit was Tracie Hill, who coordinated all the many details. Without his expert and experienced insight and dedication, this exhibit would not have happened.
Beyond merely sponsoring the exhibit, both the TCA and the DACA sent members to assist with the day-long set-up the day before the show officially opened, provided people to work shifts to staff the booth during show hours to answer questions, generally assist where and when needed and helped with the tear-down at the end of the show.
We all had hoped that the exhibit would be well received in the context in which it was intended. The rank and file NRA member is generally not a Class III enthusiast, but rather your typical hunter, sport shooter and outdoorsman. The Thompson exhibits of some years past were warmly accepted because there is an aura of mystique surrounding the Thompson. Everyone knew what it was and the historic importance from the dark days of prohibition and lawlessness, to its use by law enforcement agencies, G-Men and its tremendous contribution during World War II. But Maxim machine guns? They had only one purpose...
The response was truly astounding. The area in front of the booth was constantly four to six people deep. They had never seen anything like this before and were genuinely interested in learning more. Questions were constant, and a typical comment was, “I’ve only seen pictures of these guns in books. It is a treat to actually see them.” What was really surprising was the number of people who actually thanked us for putting on such an educational and historic display of machine guns.
The NRA acknowledges the importance of the gun collecting community within the NRA by awarding medals and plaques to those firearms and exhibits that deserve recognition. Thirty judges, consisting of NRA board members, museum curators and well-known collectors visit each booth to judge specific arms based upon their historic importance, condition and rarity. They also judge the educational value of the display as well as the display of non-firearm supporting material such as accessories and documents. They also determine a single Collectors Choice award for best display at the show.
A Clean Sweep
Ten firearms are selected by the judges to receive sterling silver NRA medals as best firearms of the show representing different categories and types of weapons. The medals are individually numbered and recorded with the NRA and the medal is always associated with that gun. If the gun is ever sold, the medal goes with it. The Colt Maxim Model of 1904 was judged to be one of the ten best guns at the 2006 show and was awarded silver medal number 440.
Plaques are awarded to those exhibits that showed the best historic display of supporting material that is not a firearm. This includes ephemera, accessories, memorabilia and related supporting documents. The Maxim exhibit received a plaque for this category as well.
Finally, there is the coveted silver bowl Collectors Choice award recognizing the best-of-the-best of all the displays. This award is a traveling award with the name of the winning collector’s group engraved upon it; meaning that the collector’s group that wins it has possession of it for a year and it is then returned to the NRA for awarding the following year. A smaller silver bowl is given along with the larger bowl so that the small bowl may be kept when the larger bowl is returned. The Maxim exhibit, under the auspices of the Thompson Collectors Association and the Dallas Arms Collectors Association, received this prestigious award.
The Maxim exhibit won all three award categories. While the awards are gratifying, the true significance is the continuing change in thinking concerning collecting and documenting historic automatic weapons. No longer viewed with a gasp and a shaking of the head, they are becoming recognized as the valuable significant component of firearms history that they always were; but are now just getting their due. Thanks to the dedication and foresight of organizations such as the Thompson Collectors Association and the Dallas Arms Collectors Association, the legitimacy of our chosen avocation is being recognized by not only the collecting community, but by common gun owners and august national organizations such as the NRA. This is, indeed, a giant leap forward and all machine gun owners can take pride in this accomplishment.
Because these guns are so large, and heavy, and the logistics were so complex, this was a one-time only display. This exhibit was never before seen at any other gun show, and it will not be repeated again. It was an incredible task requiring the help of many people and hundreds of man hours. However, never say never: as the idea was floated at the NRA show by a senior NRA official that perhaps this exhibit might be considered to be recreated for a run at the National Firearms Museum in Virginia so that an even wider public audience could be reached. A lot of stars, moons and planets would have to align for that to happen... but we will see.
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