Checking out Rock Island Arsenal Museum

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If Rock Island Auction Company claims this area of Illinois to be the ‘gun mecca’ of the United States (with 5 firearm companies within the immediate vicinity), then Rock Island Arsenal is certainly the beginning of that influx of that concentration of firearms companies. Today, it is still an active duty U.S. Army post that conducts research and development for a wide variety of services within the U.S. Military. The mission statement consists of,

Provide quality facilities and excellent base operations support and services to all installation tenants in the areas of law enforcement, crime prevention, security management, fire, safety, information management, facilities engineering, housing, maintenance of buildings and roads, and transportation

Notice the research and development of arms and ammunition wasn’t really covered in that at all? That is because although small arms are important to the history of the island, they aren’t the only topic of research that the island goes on about. There is a swath of other devices and topics that the researchers at Rock Island Museum devote their time to as well as small arms. The museum director, Kris Leinicke makes a point about that in talking about the collection, “Small Arms have always been a small portion of the Rock Island experience, so we have our massive small arms as a sort of catch to draw people in, and then learn about the rest of the island’s history as they explore the museum”.

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Readers will know Rock Island Arsenal’s most recent contribution to the field of small arms in the Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle, or EBR. Rock Island churned out 5,000 of such converted M14s for the program, this specific one has a serial number combination that adds up to the number 5000. This project really exemplifies how more and more of the weapons research is going into private companies instead of staying within government circles. The EBR is a rare example of a government top to bottom program, unlike Remington’s answer to the updated M25 Sniper Rifle skelentonized stocks and the PSR contract.

The arsenal has an extremely interesting history which goes back to the beginnings of the United States. As the Western frontier began to expand past the Ohio territory and what is currently the states of Indiana and Illinois, conflict with the various Native American tribes began to occur and become more violent. Rock Island held an extremely strategic position in being an island of significant size in the middle of the Mississippi River, dividing what would later become Indiana and Illinois. Through some shady dealings, the U.S. Government acquired Rock Island off of a purchase and began to station troops on the island. At this point in time the Western frontier resembled more of a war zone than a new country. Rock Island was one of many frontier posts stationed in a north to south line to protect various trading stations and the edge of the nation itself.

As the frontiers pushed further West, the various other forts and stockades closed down while Rock Island remained in operation due to the importance of the location. However its importance as an actual arsenal didn’t begin until the break out of the Civil War. Being on the Mississippi allowed the shipment of supplies either up or down the river with ease, as opposed to carrying them over land. Over time the island was requisitioned until the Government owned it entirely. While this was going on, it became a notorious Confederate prisoner of war location as well. Over the next 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the arsenal was built up into one of the largest Government manufacturing plants in the entire country. Many of these buildings were made of stone as well, part of the feeling of expansion that gripped America as apart of Manifest Destiny. The Museum itself was built in 1905, making it the second oldest Museum being run by the U.S. Army.

The entrance to the main exhibit hall in the museum. The entire wall on the right and at the rear is completed stacked from floor to ceiling with firearms on display. Descriptions of the various small arms are incorporated within the binders on the right on the various tables.

The entrance to the main exhibit hall in the museum. The entire wall on the right and at the rear is completed stacked from floor to ceiling with firearms on display. Descriptions of the various small arms are incorporated within the binders on the right on the various tables.

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These particular Sharps rifles were apart of a project that took forensic evidence from Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, and used modern science to uncover what happened from a shooting point of view. After a large fire at the scene of the battle scientists were able to find vast amounts of material from the battle that hadn’t been available beforehand. Such as shell casings and bullets. But they were able to track down surviving rifles that were used in the battle and match them up using forensics and see exactly where those rifles were fired throughout the battle. These five rifles are from that project.

 

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The design of the spent case deflector for the M16A2 was one of the only design improvements that Eugene Stoner wholeheartedly agreed with (the rear sight and handgards he liked, the forward assist he thought was useless). Regardless, the design came from Rock Island and the Museum has several of the prototypes. Rifle second from bottom had the design glued on during the design stage but it had come off sometime afterwards.

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“Prototype”, “First of”, and “Unique” are common terms in usage at the RIA Museum. The handguns displayed are from the 1980s trial for the service pistol that eventually became the Beretta M9. Arrayed before the final contenders of Beretta and Sig Sauer, are entries from Smith & Wesson, H&K, Steyr, and various other companies.

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Of course, the trial ends with M9, Serial number 1000001.

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This is a gif from the Wikipedia page about the bridge that connects Rock Island with the Illinois and Iowa sides of the river. Seeing that the Arsenal is logistics based, the bridge is also a railroad, with the bottom section for vehicle traffic and the top for trains. Then it can swing open, to allow boat traffic to travel underneath. It even has a name, Government Bridge.

 

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Some of the experimental grenade launchers on display along with captured enemy weapons on the right, with various Stoner weapons on the left (including some 63s and AR18s). I thought the small 40mm grenade launchers at the bottom were the coolest.

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A good portion of the collection is centered around 19th and 18th century arms as well. Some of the older pieces in the collection can be told apart by the white number just barely visible on some of the butt stocks, look closely here at the upper left hand portion of the stocks in this picture.

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Prototypes galore! I’m not going to even begin naming some of these for fear of misnaming them, although I know there are some SPIW type designs mixed in around here though. The museum has over twelve hundred firearms, and only a certain number are on display, the rest are in storage and available for research by those wishing to come through. As an example most of the machine guns are in storage and not on display.

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For all you Springfield ’03 lovers out there, 1903 Serial number 1 is the rifle in the middle. It has the rod bayonet and was immediately sent to the museum after it rolled off the assembly line on December 20th, 1904.

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Part of the museums mission is to illustrate the “People, Process’s, and Products” of Rock Island. As mentioned earlier, ordnance is just one part of a multi faceted program going on with the island. Making targets to shoot at is an important part of training for any military.

Today the Museum is apart of the umbrella organization, Center of Military History. This is a U.S. Army affiliated group that controls the funding and organization of more than forty museums across the country, in addition to funding research projects and publications that look at the Army’s role throughout history. On top of the CMH, the Museum is supported by the Rock Island Historical Society, a local organization that helps the Museum in funding, scholarships, internships and various other avenues of support. As mentioned earlier, the museum is situated on an active duty Army post but this simply means all visitors must show proper identification at the gate, and are subject to searches upon entry. The opening times and address for the Museum are as follows-

1 Rock Island Arsenal
Building 60
Rock Island, IL 61299

Hours of Operation:
Tuesday-Saturday
noon – 4:00 p.m.

Closed Sundays and Mondays, all Federal holidays, the day after Thanksgiving, and Christmas Eve.



Miles V

Former Infantry Marine, and currently studying at Indiana University. I’ve written for Small Arms Review and Small Arms Defense Journal, and have had a teenie tiny photo that appeared in GQ. Specifically, I’m very interested in small arms history, development, and Military/LE usage within the Middle East, and Central Asia.

If you want to reach out, let me know about an error I’ve made, something I can add to the post, or just talk guns and how much Grunts love naps, hit me up at miles@tfb.tv


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  • TheNotoriousIUD

    I cant go to the gun museum on Christmas Eve??
    This country is going straight to hell.

    • Leigh Rich

      stupid reply

  • Lawrence Glorioso

    Serial No. 1 1903 Springfield fabricated at Springfield Armory was issued and later shipped to France for WW 1. An officer recognized the significance of it, had the soldier issued another rifle, and shipped No.1 back to the armory for museum purposes. Serial No.1 from Rock Island Arsenal was immediately kept after fabrication and inspection for historical purposes These facts are documented in Brophy’s Book of the Springfield. The first batches of rod bayonet 1903’s were sent for issue at West Point.

    • Well said and interesting Lawrence. I have several books on the 1903.

  • USMC03Vet

    4 hours is not enough time!

  • MadKaw69

    My favorite local museum! I drop by on my lunch hour once in a while. Crappy part is the display is nowhere near as good as it was when I was a kid. The lighting is bad, everything is 5-6′ feet away. They used to have everything on pegboard and you could practically walk right up to it. The prototypes and the earliest of many designs are all over. I believe Thompson No. 1 and Thompson pistol No. 2 are there. it really is very cool. I just wish there was a better way to display it all. There are other displays too that are pretty cool, showing all the things made here at the Arsenal, like holsters, bayonets not to mention the artillery pieces.

    • Leigh Rich

      IU
      n the 1950s the guns were not behind glass cases. They have been behind glass since 1965. I have no problem with the lighting.

    • My favorite gun museum is the one at the NRA building in Fairfax, Va. I do remember Rock Island Arsenal well. When I was doing service week at Bainbridge NTC in 1956, I had the job of making coffee and registering many re-conditioned 1903 Springfield’s which came from Rock Island; they looked just like brand new.

  • A.g.

    Thanks for the virtual tour.

  • Item #5818 is probably the same rifle held by John C. Garand in this April 17, 1962 photo. It is Springfield Armory’s SPIW Concept #1 prototype. The Concept #1 design can be identified by the hinged lower receiver, a feature not used on the Concept #2 design. However, Springfield chose the Concept #2 configuration for its future developments.

    Next to Garand are Lt. Col. Charles P. Bartow ( Springfield Armory’s Executive Officer), Otto H. von Lossnitzer (Chief of the Project Control Office), and Herman F. Hawthorne (Chief of the Research & Development Division). Prior to coming to US in 1946 as part of
    Operation Paperclip, von Lossnitzer had been the director of Mauser’s Weapons Research Institute and Weapons Development Group. Curiously, Hawthorne was also an ordained minister, and years later, would preside over Garand’s funeral.

    • Tom Coburn

      I have what appears to be a 50 round m16 magazine that is actually a 20 and 30 round mag welded together. The bottom 20 round mag was made Adventure line. I seem to remember purchasing it from a Navy SEAL chief after attending a 2 1/2 week training program for the US Customs Patrol at Niland. Somehow I was thinking this was made up at China Lake. Do you have any information on these 50 round mags? Thanks, Tom

      • Like this one? I know that Naval Weapons Laboratory-Dahlgren had developed series of 50rd prototypes using constant force springs, but only the rare first model used a 20rd tube mated to a curved extension. The tubes of the second and third models were machined halves joined together. I suspect that using a 20rd and 30rd tube joined together was more of a field modification. ARVN troops can be seen with extended magazines that were fabricated by crimping a 30rd AK magazine to the bottom of a 20rd M16 tube .

  • Dario B.

    they should display things a little better.

    • Leigh Rich

      Is this sarcastic? Have you been there?

      • Dario B.

        There are some rare, hitstorically imporant, and some unique firearms.and it’s sad to see them arranged disorderly or with a white not ironed sheet. Sorry but that’s not how to arrengenand display things in a museum.

        • Leigh Rich

          And you are an expert?

          • Dario B.

            Yes

  • hikerguy

    Yep. Just hit my bucket list of things to do and places to go.

  • Leigh Rich

    I was stationed there from 73 to 74. Harder to get on base now with new entry procedures however if you like guns this is the place to go. Lots of history. I live in the area.

  • Tauri Younger

    I used to go there when I was a teenager. My father’s office was on the top floor and the teen center in the basement. Whenever I was waiting for him to finish working, I would go down to the museum and drool.

    • Have you ever had the chance to visit the NRA Museum Tauri?

      • Tauri Younger

        I have not. Now that I have children of my own it is somewhere that I would love to take them.