By Robert G. Segel
On April 29 through May 1, 2011, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its 140th Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The official attendance of 71,139 is the second largest NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits on record for the longest running shooting and hunting show in the world. With a record braking 559 exhibitors, the exhibit hall was packed with NRA members the entire weekend, many of whom traveled from all over the country to attend the event. Additionally, most seminars and workshops were standing room only.
In addition to the industry display booths, and in conjunction with the show in their own exhibit area, are displays of rare, historic and interesting collector firearms sponsored by NRA affiliated clubs. This year, there were 26 gun collector affiliates that participated with displays in this 51st year of awards competition. These gun collector groups take great pride in their displays in not only presenting weapons of rarity and historical note, but in the professional looking displays as well. While the NRA primarily focuses on shooting and hunting, they are well aware of the value of collecting and displaying significant weapons to the public to educate them on the history and the roll collecting plays within the gun culture. The competition between the affiliated clubs and their displays is intense.
In recognition of this, the NRA awards medals and certificates in a number of different categories. These include:
- Best Arms Awards - Each year a maximum of ten sterling silver numbered medallions are awarded to those collector arms judged best on display (and not necessarily will ten be awarded). Firearms are judged on their individual quality, condition, originality, collector importance and historical value.
- Certificates of Recognition - In 1981, the NRA Gun Collectors Committee authorized an award for unique displays of items related to firearms. Up to ten certificates are normally awarded in any one calendar year. An item which has received a Certificate of Recognition is not eligible for this award in subsequent years.
- Best Educational Display Awards - In 1962, the Gun Collectors Committee authorized the Best Educational Group Awards to recognize outstanding displays that creatively and effectively present a well-organized theme. The committee has divided the Best Educational Display Awards into four categories: Antique Arms (pre-1898), Classic Arms (1898, 50 years prior to the show), Contemporary Arms (50 years prior to the show to current) and Combined Arms (collections that represent a mixture of more than one category.) Emphasis is placed on recognition of those exhibits that best inform the NRA members and general public of the historical, technical and cultural aspects of firearms and related items.
- The National Firearms Museum’s Spirit of Collecting Award.
- The Best Miniature Arms Awards - Each year, since 1987, sterling silver numbered medallions have been awarded to those miniature arms judged best on display. In 1998, the Collectors Committee decided to heighten competition for this award by presenting only three medals each year.
- The NRA Gun Collectors Committee Trophy - This sterling silver bowl is a perpetual trophy awarded for the display judged best of each year’s Annual Meeting and Exhibits. The winning organization’s name is engraved on the trophy and the organization receives a miniature of the trophy to retain. This is the top honor and the award all strive for.
World renowned Thompson submachine gun collector and author Tracie Hill is the force behind bringing the validity and legitimacy of collecting and displaying historic machine guns to the forefront of the NRA community. For so many years, machine guns were taboo at the NRA show and considered “evil” within the NRA hierarchy and by many even within the general NRA membership. His efforts have truly enlightened all that collecting historic classic machine guns is just as legitimate as collecting any other historical firearm and he has done it in a most profound and professional way.
He broke the ice within the NRA and the NRA Collectors Committee with exhibits of the iconic Thompson submachine gun winning awards from the judges, and the public, and winning the coveted NRA Gun Collectors Committee Trophy and a number of Best Arms awards beginning in 1998. Under the sponsorships of several NRA affiliated organizations over the years that include the Thompson Collectors Association, the Dallas Arms Collectors and The American Thompson Association, he has been responsible for winning the coveted NRA Gun Collectors Committee Trophy six times.
With the success of having displayed, and winning multiple awards, for Thompson exhibits, it was decided to become ambassadors of the Class III world and bring to display some of the other wonderful and historic collections that exist. The first foray into other machine gun exhibits was in 2006 when the Thompson Collectors Association and the Dallas Arms Collectors sponsored a Maxim machine gun exhibit at the NRA show in Milwaukee that won the NRA Gun Collectors Trophy and a sterling silver Best Arm medallion for a Colt Model of 1904 Maxim. (See Small Arms Review, Vol. 9, No. 12, September 2006.)
In 2011 in Pittsburgh, under the sponsorship of The American Thompson Association, they presented an exhibit entitled The Machine Gun Designs of John Browning. The 30x10 feet exhibit featured a Colt Automatic Gun Model 1914 on a Marine Light Landing Carriage, a New England Westinghouse Model of 1917 water-cooled machine gun on a Model of 1917 tripod mounted on an M1 machine gun cart, a Winchester Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) Model of 1918, a Colt Browning M2 .50 caliber water-cooled mounted on an M3 anti-aircraft mount, a Buffalo Arms .30 caliber ANM2, an Inland Arms M1919A6, a GM/Frigidaire .50 caliber M2 HB on a M3 tripod and a twice-size cut-a-way of a .30 caliber Browning. Accompanying the display of the firearms were lighted display cases that contained tools, manuals, accoutrements, medals, awards and ephemera relating to the guns with explanatory signage for everything present. Additionally, a professionally printed 8-page handout describing all the weapons on display was freely distributed to all show attendees that expressed an interest. The response by those attending the show was overwhelmingly positive with many thanking us for bringing such a collection and making it available for close-up viewing.
These displays are not slapped together at the last minute. A full year of planning is required to establish what and how the display will be presented: what guns, accessories, accoutrements, historical information, signage, handouts, glass cases, lighting, overall theme, etc., all has to be thought through and decided upon well before the start of the show. This collection of Browning machine guns came from the Robert Segel collection with additional pieces from David Albert and Phil Askew. Helping set up the display and staffing it during the show answering questions and highlighting the historical aspects were David Albert, Richard Vensel, Jackie Vensel, Tom Davis, Phil Askew, Bill Yenglin, Robert Segel, Jennifer Segel, Tom Rasch, Tracie Hill and Thomas Hill. The human element and the truly enthusiastic volunteers set a high standard for that very much helped guarantee a successful presentation to the public.
The exhibit of The Machine Gun Designs of John Browning won the top honor of the NRA Gun Collectors Trophy and a sterling silver medallion for one of the Best Arms at the show for the New England Westinghouse Model of 1917 water-cooled machine gun, serial number 6, on a Model of 1917 tripod. The medallion is numbered and registered to the gun and stays forever with the gun should it ever be sold.
It should be noted that as sponsor of the exhibit, this is the third time The American Thompson Association has won the NRA Gun Collectors Trophy. But even more importantly, with the displays of Thompsons, Maxims and Browning machine guns over the last 13 years, machine gun collecting has been recognized and accepted within the main stream gun collecting fraternity as the historic, relevant and legitimate endeavor that it is with the stigma of being “evil” finally disappearing.
Miniature 1/3 Scale MG 34
Another machine gun also won an award at the 140th NRA Meetings and Exhibits in Pittsburgh. The Miniature Arms Society, a recognized NRA collector affiliated organization, had a display showing many fine examples of the art and craft of miniature arms makers. These are not toys but a testament to the skill of making actual working miniatures that fully represent their full-size brethren except in a diminutive size. The judges award just three sterling silver medallions each year to those miniatures that represent the height of the art. Robert Segel, a Miniature Arms Society member, submitted a fully functional 1/3 scale German MG 34 light machine gun on fully functional Lafette, one of only six made by MiniArt in Moscow, Russia in 2006, and won one of the Best Miniature Arms sterling silver medallions. The medallions are numbered and registered to that gun and if the gun is ever sold, the medallion must go with it.
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