TFB Field Trip: The NRA’s National Firearms Museum

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In Fairfax, VA, tucked away among other unassuming office buildings is the NRA’s headquarters. A twin-towered office building, it doesn’t look like what you’d expect the site of one of the most important collections of small arms in the world to look like. While traveling back home for the holidays, though, I made it a point to head over to the National Firearms Museum there and spend several hours looking at their collection, which is truly impressive. Before we move on, I must admit I am a decided novice at photography. For the NFM this is not so great a vice, since in my opinion one can only really appreciate their collection in person, (and the lighting of many displays, while great for display, was not well-suited to general photography), and because the NRA has high-resolution photos of the Petersen Collection available on their website.

Entering the museum, you are greeted with a veritable horde of priceless custom rifles and shotguns:

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The “Italian Masters” exhibit lies to your front as you enter. A mirrored display of unusual or remarkable custom weapons lies to your right. Behind the “Italian Masters” display is a very nice exhibit of both Gatling guns and cartridge boards.

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A double rifle – and a bolt-action. Operating the single bolt handle cycles both actions and cocks both triggers.

 

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The rifles in the “Italian Masters” display all were displayed with magnifying glasses to enhance the detail of the engraving. Many were engraved with raunchy designs, while others like this one were engraved with fantastical scenes.

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Looking immediately to the left of the “Italian Masters” exhibit, you find yourself staring at Gatlings (and a Gardner), backed by a superb wall of cartridge displays.

 

 

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A lone Gardner gun. In many cases, it was impossible to take photos of the cases without capturing glare. To the naked eye, they exhibits looked excellent, however.

 

Moving to the right, one could see a case of fine pistols and revolvers, a Holland and Holland exhibit, and a very cozy looking fireplace adorned by two engraved proboscidean tusks (which were certainly large enough to possibly be mammoth tusks, though they were most likely African elephant judging by the shape):

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Fireplace decoration for the distinguished gentleman.

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A SIG P210, commemorating the septicentennial of Swiss confederation.

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A Holland and Holland double commemorating the Apollo 11 landings. For hunting lunar big game, of course.

 

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Without a doubt my favorite engraved weapon of any kind. The engraving is expertly covered with enamel, which creates beautiful multicolored scenes of a lion stalking an ox from the grass, and a tiger stalking backbuck gazelle. It was owned by the Amir of Hyderabad. My pictures fall well short of doing it justice; please do take a look at the high-resolution photos available on the museum’s website.

 

Turning around and moving leftward from where you entered, one is greeted by a donation box made from the case of an 8″ artillery round. A closer look at the description reveals this is not just any 8″ case:

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USMC 8″ Auto Cannon Round
This artillery round was developed by the United States Marine Corps in the late 1960s as ammunition for an automatic cannon. After a few test rounds were fired, the breech of the fieldpiece became so hot that other rounds in the magazine “cooked off” or exploded prematurely. A few shell casings, such as this one, survived. The projectile head is adapted from the original pattern.

So it is with a bang that I end Part I. Next Sunday, check back with us for Part II of the tour, where we explore early firearms, and take a pilgrimage to see artifacts from the life of Teddy Roosevelt!

 

Author’s Note: I am not affiliated with the NRA in any way. In no way is this article to be taken as a promotion of the NRA in any capacity except to encourage visitation of their excellent museum collections.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • M.M.D.C.

    Those raunchy Italians! I’m guessing the risque designs are displayed higher up so dad can get an eyeful while Jr’s innocence is preserved.

  • I’ve been wanting to visit the museum for a couple years, but there’s just no good way to get there without passing through Maryland.

    • MANG

      Visited the museum years ago, an amazing collection for sure. The only downside was having to be in Virginia.

    • What is wrong with going through MD?

      • Complete lack of reciprocity agreements.

        • Just… Don’t carry your firearm? The museum is really worth seeing, and there are plenty of other cases where you wouldn’t be able to carry a weapon.

          • Checking my freedom at the borderline is anathema.

          • I am guessing you don’t fly much, then.

          • Not if I can avoid it.

        • Don Ward

          Drive around Maryland? Take a direct plane flight to Virginia and check your firearm in luggage?

          • Well, if I flew, it would probably take longer than to drive straight down I-95, because there’s a lot of waiting involved, but driving around Maryland requires driving 3/4 across Pennsylvania, and it’s going to cost me about $55 round trip just to use PA Turnpike.

        • Yellow Devil

          Just take the shortest route through. That’s what I ended up doing when visiting VA from PA during the holidays.

          I do find it rather irritating that I could CC the entire drive from AZ to PA if not for MD and their lack of reciprocity.

      • Ken

        Our gun laws are terrible, so many people are wary of traveling through.

  • Billy Bob

    I too visited the museum a few months ago, and found it over-whelming. There are so many firearms. While small in terms of square feet there are some amazing pieces on display. Well worth the trip, and probably a return trip or two.

  • The US Navy’s Des Moines-class heavy cruisers had autoloading 8″/55 rifles: the Mark 16 Mod 0. I suspect the USMC wanted to support the development out of self-interest. The USS Newport News deployed to South Vietnam on three occasions to work the gunline.

  • Maryland is far from the only state with police problems.

    • Hey Nathaniel, on a completely unrelated note, since you recently visited NRA, I’m wondering if you’re still in the DC area, send me an email! mileskv@gmail.com

  • Darren Hruska

    I totally want to go to this museum some day! The admission is supposedly free, and the museum has a countless number of historical, extremely rare, forgotten, and prototype firearms. Their website is definitely worth checking out, as is their YouTube channel.

    • Ken

      Admission is free, and there is an indoor shooting range as well as a cafeteria on the premises.

  • gunslinger

    did the stockings on the mantle have any particular meaning? i can’t make out any words from the letters.

  • Yellow Devil

    I went there over the Holidays. Fantastic place. But it’s not without criticism. Mainly because of limited space, there seems to be too many firearms without appropriate information next to it or stacked vertically in a manner which made them hard to appreciate (The rare Chinese semi-automatic Liu military rifle for example). It’s a shame, because they had many rare or prototype firearms I wanted to read up more on, without whipping out my phone and trying to go to the website for it, if you even know what it was.

    • I agree. Also, the Liu was a real hidden gem. It’s a little sad thinking about all the firearms that weren’t obviously significant that I missed out on.

      As an example, I just barely noticed that one of their M14s is in fact a T44E4 prototype.

      They do have kiosks, but if you don’t know that something in the case is significant because it’s not obvious, you’re sort of just SOL.

  • Just visited the Browning Museum in Ogden, UT. After wrapping this tour up next week, stay tuned for coverage of that. I will be covering lots of really cool and important stuff.

  • Quite possible that the Marines wanted their own equivalent to the naval Mk 16 as the USS Newport News was the last of the three Des Moines-class still on active duty.