“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – James Madison, The Bill of Rights
Our nation’s capital has a wealth of tourist destinations, many steeped deep in history. You could easily spend days wandering up and down the Mall, visiting the many museums. Few know that just a stone’s throw down Interstate 66 from the District of Columbia is an often overlooked museum; the NRA’s National Firearms Museum representing a portion of history relevant, not just to the United States, but to the world.
Situated in the town of Fairfax, Va. the National Firearms Museum is an experience for all ages intending to inspire and educate, as well as promote and preserve firearms history. It is home to 15 galleries and more than 2,000 guns spanning over six centuries. See first hand just how indispensible guns were to early American explorers and then later proved vital in their pursuit of independence. Get up close and personal with an authentic Coney Island shooting gallery, the recreated rubble of WWII Germany, and the firearms that complete the athlete and bring home the Gold. Stand in awe before the largest public display of Gatling Guns. Be humbled by the twisted remnants of fallen NYPD Officer Walter Weaver’s Smith & Wesson found amongst the debris of the Twin Towers on 9-11. Wander the halls, peruse the multiple kiosks, and walk through history as the firearm evolved from hand cannon to Barrett .50 cal.
AN AGE OF ELEGANCE
There was a time when men weren’t just men, they were Gentlemen. They surrounded themselves with finery, in rooms of with dark paneled wood, lined with books, oil paintings, and mounted trophies. A recreation of such a room can be found in Gallery 9 where you are given a glimpse inside of what Theodore Roosevelt’s library was like in his Sagamore Hill home on Long Island. Carved ivory tusks and a mounted rhino head frame the marble fireplace; a large brass chandelier looms above and draws attention to the tiger skin rug. The cases are filled with the guns an experienced hunter would own, several by T.R. himself. A favorite could only be the beautifully engraved Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3, as records indicate he most likely took possession of the revolver not soon before training his Rough Riders. This gun is particularly unique due to the fact it is chambered for the .38 Colt, not the typical .44 Russian. Equally unique are the famous Parker Invincibles, housed a few cases down. Highly sought after by shooters and collectors alike, the Parker shotguns are among the finest in the world and have maintained their name and quality for nearly two centuries. The three on display together at the museum are the only three to have earned the title “Invincible”, or Grade 9. These three sporting arms are truly treasures in the gun world.
THE PETERSEN GALLERY
How many of you out there have picked up Hot Rod Magazine, Motor Trend, or perhaps the teenage favorite, Tiger Beat? (You know who you are.) No? How about Guns & Ammo? The late publishing mogul Robert E. Petersen, known for his love of the automobile (yet publisher of several teen magazine staples), was also an avid hunter and collector of some of the finest sporting arms in the world. From the intricately engraved gargoyle Rizzini side-by-side and the famed Annie Oakley Hambrusch shotgun given to her by none other than Buffalo Bill himself, to the macabre Colt .38 fit for a vampire hunter, complete with coffin case and carved silver bullets, Petersen had it covered. Museum Director Jim Supica agrees this is “the best single room of guns on display anywhere in the world”. You can spend an hour or so in this gallery alone, studying famous makers such as Boss and Holland & Holland or admiring firearms once belonging to President John F. Kennedy or the infamous Reichmarshall Hermann Göring. There are treasured modern guns such as the stunning J. Purdey & Sons .600 Nitro Double Rifle featuring a beautiful African game scene in gold inlay and those that date back to the mid 19th century such as the Devil’s Shotgun; a 16 gauge percussion shotgun featuring none other than engravings of devils and clyster syringes. This collection is truly a gem and exemplifies the vision of one man to make available to the public what otherwise is reserved for the elite.
WILLIAM B. RUGER SPECIAL EXHIBITS
Intended to run only a year but due to such high demand now running three years strong, the seventh rotating exhibit featured in the Ruger Gallery, Hollywood Guns, gives you a first hand look at some of the most famous firearms to make it to the big screen over the last seven decades. Senior Curator Doug Wicklund points out, with 125 guns filling nine cases, there is something to please every generation and cover every genre it “allows our museumgoers to travel beyond the exhibit case, to the silver screen and become part of the story.”
The large loop-lever Winchester Model 1892 carried by John Wayne in movies such as McLintok! and Big Jake, surrounded by other “Duke” memorabilia, brings you back to the days where grown women were spanked and men had dirt under their fingernails. There is no shortage of representation for the man’s man; the Beretta 92FS used by both Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and the hefty Remington 12 gauge used by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, are sure to please. As will the jaw-dropping silenced Remington 11-87 used by the Oscar-winning Javier Bardem as the ruthless Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and JT Sanborn’s Barrett Model 82A1 used in the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker. And let’s not forget Tom Selleck’s celebrated roll as Thomas Magnum in Magnum, P.I., where short shorts were okay as long as you had hair on your chest, drove a Ferrari, and carried a Colt; specifically a Colt Mark IV which is highlighted in case three.
The ladies have some brief but interesting representation as well with the pearl handled Stevens single shot used by Elizabeth Berridge as Annie Oakley in Hidalgo and for the handful of you out there you actually saw Fair Game, (insert eye-roll here) you can catch a glimpse of Cindy Crawford’s Beretta 92FS Inox.
Before exiting the Ruger Gallery, “you’ve got to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’” You should. Made famous by Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Harry Callahan, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 received so much notoriety as the “most powerful handgun in the world” that retailers had trouble keeping the revolver in stock after the release of Dirty Harry. On loan from screenwriter John Milius, this icon of firearms movie memorabilia is not to be missed and the same can be said for each and every gun on display. Supica divulges, “These guns have never before been seen together, and probably never will again.”
Before winding down for the day, your visit is not complete without a stop in the Museum Store which features a variety of gifts and merchandise proudly made in the USA along side one of the most extensive collections of firearm related books in the nation. Furthermore, the National Firearms Museum also houses one of the most complete firearms research libraries in the country and is available for public use by advance appointment. So whether you are in the mood to be thrilled or humbled, educated or enlightened, you will indeed be more than satisfied with the wealth and breadth of what the National Firearms Museum has to offer.
The National Firearms Museum resides at NRA Headquarters at 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax, Va. and is open daily 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (closed Christmas Day). Admission is always free. For more information as well as current events and exhibits, please visit www.NRAMuseum.com.
By Wendy Cunningham. Originally published in the September 2013 issue of GunUp the Magazine.