Smithsonian Small Arms Collection

By Jason M. Wong

Certainly, a must see destination while in our nations Capitol ought to be the Smithsonian collection of museums that line either side of the National Mall. For the firearms enthusiast, the National Collection of Firearms and edged Weapons within the Museum of American History is a wealth of information.

Established in 1876 as a result of the United States Centennial Celebration I Philadelphia, the collection has grown from its humble beginnings with donations from the War Department, the U.S. Patent Office, and the State Department. Recent additions have come from the FBI, ATF, and the Department of Defense. Donations from private individuals are also accepted. As a result, the collection has grown in size to nearly 10,000 firearms and edged weapons.

The public exhibit within the museum draws upon American history, displaying flintlocks of the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln’s Henry Repeating rifle, and quite a few examples of repeating rifles used during the Civil War. While interesting within the context of history, all is not lost for fans of modern arms. Arms from World War II are prominent, including a German Gewehr 43, M-1 Garand and Browning BAR. Also on display are an M-16A1, Fn-Lar, and an M-134 General Electric Minigun, chambered in 7.62.

Unfortunately, the weapons on public display occupy a very small section of the entire museum. Unsatisfied with the interesting, yet small display, I sought an opportunity to tour the remainder of the collection. Sure, an M-134 minigun is cool, but there wasn’t enough of a display to satiate my desire to learn more about the world of MG’s. After several calls, I was granted a tour of the remainder of the collection that is not normally on display or available to the public.

Stepping into the armory was like stepping through time and history. I was surrounded by nearly six thousand firearms in various conditions, ranging from a Civil War era rifle that appeared to be brand new, to a highly corroded (and still loaded!) pistol recovered from the sunken USS Maine. In addition, there on the racks were rifles owned and used by Theodore Roosevelt on his African Safari, a gold inlayed flintlock believed to have been owned by Catherine the Great, and a pistol found at the battlefield of the Little Bighorn. Names of famous battles, units, and commanders surrounded me - I was overwhelmed by weapons used at Gettysburg, Balls Bluff, and Harpers Ferry from the Civil War. Not to be outdone, arms of the Confederacy and native Americans were also present. I could imagine the grunts of buffalo from the wild west as I examined a rifle used to hunt the mighty beasts. The imagined sounds of battle rang in my ears as I held an M-16 captured in El Salvador, but by serial number, believed to have been used in Vietnam. The black rifle definitely showed signs of wear and tear during its lifetime with many users.

Unlike the public display, the full collection was much more detailed, with examples of matchlocks dating from 1525 through to modern arms of the present. An added attraction was that the majority of firearms were fully functional! Colt M-16’s were plentiful, and thanks in part to the Small Arms Review M-16 Identification Guide, I was able to identify Colt Model 601’s, 602’s, 607’s as well as many others. The curator explained to me that they had a complete set of M-16’s through to the latest M-4 carbine, complete with mounted M-203! The Smithsonian collection is so complete the curator explained that Colt had approached the institution about reclaiming a couple of M-16 variants that Colt was missing from its own collection.

Also within the collection were several Stoner 63’s in both carbine and rifle form, and several very early experimental 40mm x M-148 grenade launchers. One model in particular was only about twelve inches in overall length, with a short six-inch barrel. What made this model different than any other was that the breech was exposed, allowing the operator to see the loaded chamber. At first, it appeared to be a cut away model, but upon closer inspection, it seemed to be a complete working model. Perhaps an SAR reader will know more about such an interesting weapon.

Other modern arms were not as plentiful as the Civil or Revolutionary War period, yet there were still quite a few examples from Heckler and Koch, Fabrique National and various AK models. Based upon the stock and foregrip configurations, it would not have been surprising to find a variant from every known communist country present within the collection. An interesting and certainly rarely seen group of rifles used during the Advanced Combat Rifle Tests were present in the collection, presented to the Smithsonian as a gift from the Piccatinny Arsenal. Imagine my surprise and delight in not only being able to see an HK G-11, but also being able to pick it up and hold it! The curator firmly yet gently reminded me that I couldn’t take it home... Special one of a kind models were plentiful, ranging from gold plated MP-5s inscribed in Arabic, to a full sized nonfunctional model of an AK-47 made entirely of solid ivory and wood.

My time spent with the curator passed all to quickly, and soon I found it was time to leave. It was reassuring to find that even as the Federal government attempts to limit firearms ownership and destroy valuable and historic arms, there is at least one federal institution that has been able to archive and collect these weapons. One disappointing fact is that less than 1% of the nearly six thousand arms within the collection are available or open to the public. Although the collection is not available or open to the public, the curators of the collection attempt to assist researchers and authors who have questions about particular models and rare variants. On the day which I visited, two representatives from Glock were present, researching recoil spring assemblies. Photos of objects within the collection are available for a fee. Donations to the Smithsonian from private individuals are always welcome, whether in the form of monies, or historical and biographical firearms. Not only are the donations tax deductible, but monies that are donated are placed within a special trust fund for the acquisition of new pieces and the preservation of the collection. Perhaps one day, more of the collection will be available to those of us interested in historical arms.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N12 (September 1999)
and was posted online on January 15, 2016


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