TFB Field Trip: The NRA’s National Firearms Museum

    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:


    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.


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



    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.


    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.




    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):


    Fireplace decoration for the distinguished gentleman.


    A SIG P210, commemorating the septicentennial of Swiss confederation.


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



    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:



    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. He can be reached via email at [email protected]