Collecting Military Memorabilia

By Will Dabbs, MD

Tangible Trinkets from Terrible Times

My Dad was out squirrel hunting on a beautiful Mississippi afternoon when he saw it. Half exposed at the base of an aged oak, he initially thought the black orb to be some kind of fruit. His curiosity piqued, Dad ambled over to the thing and kicked it. The object was unexpectedly firm and immobile.

Dad pried the heavy iron sphere out of the mud with a handy stick and hefted it onto his shoulder. As he strode out of the woods with the little bomb, he pondered what its story might have been. Nothing interesting had ever happened around here. Or had it?

Symptoms of the Disease

I like stuff. The optimist might call me a “pack rat.” My long-suffering bride would more likely use the term “environmental menace.” At the end of the day, this just means that I really have a weakness for neat old artifacts. They need not be expensive or even rare, but holding some moldy trinket with a connection to something bold and historical always makes my heart race a bit.

Nobody ever thinks anything interesting happened in their backyards. Perhaps folks growing up in Athens or Jerusalem even feel a bit jaded about their local history. However, the cannonball my Dad tripped over while squirrel hunting that day became the very centerpiece of an expansive cool-guy-stuff collection that grows by the week. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, even folks of modest means can collect some of the most fascinating military memorabilia. You just have to know where to look.

Civil War Details

My cannonball was fired from a Union gunboat in 1862. William Tecumseh Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter rendezvoused at the nearby Mississippi Delta town of Friars Point before moving south to attack Vicksburg. Union troops landed in this vibrant little port community and, for reasons lost to history, burned all the churches. Locals subsequently fired upon the Union gunboats moored nearby from the wooded banks of the Mississippi river. The Union sailors responded with a broad cannonade of the surrounding area. The fact that this shell was found on the river side of the levee means that it had been submerged and revealed 140 times before my Dad happened upon it.

The ball sports a Bormann time fuse that looks like a clock face. This was actually a simple powder train enclosed inside a soft metal housing. The gunner would punch a hole over the desired time delay with an awl and then load the ball fuse-forward. Blowby from the propellant charge would theoretically ignite the powder train and detonate the round after a predetermined delay. As half of the shells of this particular sort failed to detonate, there are likely quite a few unexploded rounds buried in the mud along this bank of the Mississippi.

The story of how we rendered the shell safe and extracted one-third of a pound of fresh Yankee black powder is a tale for another day. However, the ball, now safely inert, represents the very pinnacle of my collection. The fact that my Dad found it makes the artifact priceless to me.

Eastern European Treasure

Fifty years of freedom took their toll on Western European battlefields. Tourists and archaeologists both served to sterilize places like Normandy, Dunkirk, and Monte Cassino in fairly short order after the end of the Second World War. However, the former communist bloc countries were too busy trying not to starve underneath their misguided totalitarian governments to fret with such stuff as archaeology. As a result, most of the cool modern military memorabilia comes from Eastern Europe.

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded Russia with approximately 4 million troops and personnel over an 1,800-mile front. Operation Barbarossa was the largest military invasion in human history. The German offensive efforts centered on places like Stalingrad and Moscow and did not end until Soviet troops took Berlin nearly three years later. Along the way, tens of millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives, leaving behind untold tons of military equipment, much of which still lies unmolested underneath Russian battlefields.

Latvia and the Courland Pocket

The German Army Group North was ultimately cut off and isolated by the Red Army’s Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation from July 1944 until May 1945. During this time, tens of thousands of German soldiers fought to the death with Soviet troops thirsty for revenge. Among the German order of battle was the III SS Corps.

The Waffen SS was the militarized arm of an unusual organization that originally spawned from Adolph Hitler’s bodyguard or Schutzstaffel. These fanatically dedicated troops were considered the elite among German ground formations. Their SS runes marked them as separate from the Wehrmacht, though they fought alongside conventional German forces underneath Army control throughout the war. Their reputation for ruthlessness also earned them the attention of Allied forces. A friend who landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day and fought all the way across Europe once told me they simply did not take SS men prisoner. When they encountered the SS, they fought them to the death.

My SS Stahlhelm (steel helmet) was a Gunbroker.com find from Latvia. Retrieved from the detritus of the Courland campaign, it is riddled with shrapnel holes and heavily rusted. Despite its mileage, the original SS runes are still readily discernible. A second Stahlhelm was Luftwaffe issue and sports a line of bullet holes fired from the inside out, presumably attesting to some unusual battlefield geometry governing the previous owner’s final dark moments. I have several deactivated German egg grenades and various other items of inert ordnance that came from this same area, none of which were particularly expensive.


Stalingrad was the turning point for the German offensive in Russia. Hitler was determined to take the city as a direct personal affront to Josef Stalin, the wartime dictator of the Soviet Union. For his part, Stalin was just as motivated to defend it. The German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus bled itself out in the futile effort to seize and hold the city. The final assault involved just over a quarter of a million Axis troops, of whom 91,000 were taken prisoner. Of those, only 5,000 survived to make it back to Germany after the war.

Combat in Stalingrad was close range and pitiless. Troops on both sides used hand grenades, submachineguns and entrenching tools to pry terrain foot by foot from the enemy. My Stalingrad helmet was dug from the original battlefields and sports the remains of a ring of barbed wire that could be used to hold camouflage.


The German invasion of Poland is what brought the British and French into WW II in the first place. German troops invaded in 1939 and occupied Poland throughout the war. Given the widespread ferocity of combat that took place in that unfortunate country, Poland is a great source for antique equipment and deactivated ordnance.

The 88mm Flugzeugabwehrkanone 18/36/37/41 was arguably the most respected weapon in the German wartime arsenal. Shortened to Flak 36, this gun was originally intended for air defense, firing time-delay explosive projectiles. Ultimately, the capacity of this high-velocity gun to penetrate armor resulted in its employment in various late-war tanks and self-propelled guns, including the vaunted Tigers. While much German artillery boasted a caliber of at least 105mm, most fierce artillery attacks were inaccurately attributed to the feared 88.

The anti-tank version of the 88 fired various anti-tank and anti-personnel projectiles. My copy consists of a solid steel projectile with a hardened core. The thin sheet metal nose cap has long since rusted away.

My anti-aircraft round still retains its clockwork fuse, which would have been preset to effect detonation after a predetermined delay. The various components have obviously spent decades under either water or damp earth and are badly rusted as a result. Regardless, the projectile still disassembles easily.

Ancillary Ordnance

German 20mm rounds come in two broad flavors: the short sort fired from aircraft guns, like those on the Bf 109 and Fw 190 fighter planes, and longer versions used in ground-based fast-firing flak guns. As many as four of such magazine-fed guns could be mounted on a Panzer IV chassis to make a Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind (“Whirlwind”) self-propelled anti-aircraft system.

The Germans made various versions of these shells, but the most common types were solid armor-piercing or high explosive shells. Nowadays, the HE sorts obviously enter the country bereft of their original HE payload, but their impact fuses remain removable. Color codes and intact Waffenamt markings typically push the price up a bit.

It is also relatively easy to find 37mm projectiles and cases. These artifacts will have varying degrees of corrosion from years of neglect, but I have tripped over some very nice examples after a lifetime of picking. These larger-caliber shells will typically include a removable tracer element in the tail.


You either have the itch or you don’t. Some folks will think this old junk is the neatest stuff since the flush toilet. Others will dismiss it with a yawn. I find myself firmly in the former category.

EBay is a good source for period equipment like field gear and helmets, but beware. The market for German helmets, in particular, is awash to its gunwales in well-made fakes. Spend what you are comfortable paying on something you will enjoy studying and collecting. If you are firmly set on period authentic helmets you might need to do some research to ensure that you don’t get swindled.

Most of my deactivated ordnance came from Gunbroker.com. There is enough money in this quirky little hobby to make it worthwhile for Eastern European entrepreneurs to collect such stuff and then sell it online. Be patient, and take the long view. New stuff rotates on and off all the time. If you miss something you really wanted, just be patient. There will be something comparably neat next week.
I have only been burned once, and that piece likely didn’t make it through customs for some reason. It can be tough to communicate with some of these Eastern European people via email, though most of them have been exceptionally friendly and helpful. With few exceptions, they want to earn good feeback and further their business.

German combat decorations, old weapons parts, uniform components and derelict field gear are all there for the finding. While many of these items are quite literally garbage, pick around long enough and you can make some truly remarkable finds. I have enjoyed the email exchanges I have had with the guys who sell this stuff, and the local newsprint they use for packing material can be fascinating. If you have the memorabilia itch, this is the only thing that will scratch it.


This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N10 (December 2017)
and was posted online on October 20, 2017


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