A Visit to the Rock Island Arsenal Museum

    Courtesy RIA website

    Recently, I found myself in the Quad Cities for both personal and professional reasons. Though the trip was brief, I knew it wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.

    Housed on the still-active military base in Illinois, the museum occupies a portion of just one building on the sprawling 946-acre campus. Don’t let the museum’s size fool you; there’s some incredible history housed within its walls. (Unless you’ve got a current military ID, you’ll have to stop in the visitor checkpoint and get an access card.)

    My visitor ID card

    The museum first opened its doors on July 4, 1905, initially as a response to a 1903 notification from Maj. Gen. William Crozier that a new military museum was to be established at the arsenal.

    Mothballed and packed away to make room for arms production during WWI and WWII, the museum has been open continuously since May 1948. The collection boasts more than 1,200 objects on display, with more in storage.

    The displays are visually overwhelming, as you encounter wall after wall, from floor to ceiling, covered in guns of all kinds laid out like the artwork in a Paris salon.

    Guns on guns on guns on guns…

    Among the tons of guns are some items of historic significance. For example, they’ve got Rock Island Arsenal M1903 rifle serial number 1. The rifle was completed on December 20, 1904, and immediately earmarked for the museum’s collection.

    M1903 serial number 1

    The stock is marked “CN/1905” which indicates that Conrad Nelson inspected the gun during FY1905. Nelson was transferred to Rock Island from Springfield on August 17, 1904, as a result of the opening of a plant to make the M1903 in Illinois.

    While we’re talking about the M1903, they’ve also got a complete setup for the Pedersen Device. The device was designed to convert the bolt-action rifle into a semi-automatic arm that fired smaller .30-caliber rounds from a stick magazine. Intended for the WWI spring 1919 offensive that never happened, most were destroyed. They’ve got an M1903 Mark I rifle, the device, four magazines, a mag pouch, a box of ammo, and the device’s carrying case.

    M1903 with a Pedersen Device and all the accouterments

    Are you a fan of the Tommy Gun? If Chicago Typewriters are your thing, the RIAM has you covered! On one wall alone, there were more than a dozen different makes and models, some that made it to production and others that never got beyond the design stage. One of them is the M1919 prototype by Auto-Ordnance, serial number 6. This gun was not designed to be equipped with a shoulder stock and it has no fire control switch because it if full-auto only.

    M1919 serial number 6

    Another equally impressive piece on display is Springfield Armory M1 Garand rifle serial number 2. The very first one is in the collection of Springfield Armory National Historic Site. The millionth Garand was presented to John Garand himself. It was later purchased by NRA Past President Allan Cors from the Garand family. In September 2018, Rock Island Auction Company sold it to the highest bidder for $287,500.

    M1 Garand serial number 2

    Stepping back in time, the museum is home to two of the five known wall guns made by the Rappahannock Forge in Falmouth, VA, between 1775 and 1780. The gun is a behemoth. It weighs 67 pounds, has a 44.25” long barrel, and a bore diameter of more than an inch. The other three guns are at the West Point Museum, the Springfield Armory NHS, and the Smithsonian Institution. Interestingly, the Smithsonian’s example was given to them by the RIAM in 1958.

    Rappahannock Forge wall gun, 1 of 5 in existence

    There are a variety of other historically cool pieces on display, too. They include:

    – Beretta General Officer’s M15 pistol, serial number GO-00001
    – M1 Garand rifle, serial number 201
    – Colt’s first M16A1E1 prototype rifle, ca. 1981
    – Multiple carbines tracked ballistically to the Battle of Little Bighorn
    – Maj. Gen. John Buford’s M1860 light cavalry saber used at Gettysburg
    … and more.

    Beretta M15 serial number GO-00001


    M1 Garand serial number 201


    Colt’s first M16A1E1 prototype


    Other, more practical items are there as well. Such as:

    – Leather embossing dies
    – Metal stamping dies
    – Wood-boring machines
    – Holster forms
    – Modern add-on armor kits for the Humvee
    … and then some!

    Leather embossing die


    Wooden holster forms


    M1903 stock boring machine


    Humvee armor kit


    Elsewhere on the installation is a place called “Memorial Field.” It is home to some truly big guns like tanks, howitzers, etc. All told, there are 31 pieces on display. They include:

    – M4 Sherman tank disabled by enemy shells (damage highlighted in yellow) during the Battle of the Bulge
    – T9 Locust light tank with its 37mm gun removed. It is was one of 100 sold to the public by the Arsenal in 1946 for $100 to be used as a tractor.
    – M51 75mm Skysweeper anti-aircraft gun
    – M118 8-inch heavy towed howitzer
    – M5 3-inch anti-tank gun
    … among others.

    Serious firepower!


    Sherman tank damaged during the Battle of the Bulge


    Disarmed T9 Locust, sold in 1946 to a farmer for use as a tractor.


    The base is also home to two cemeteries, one that is the final resting place of more than 2,000 Confederate POWs and one National Cemetery that contains approximately 25,000 interments, including two Medal of Honor recipients from WWII.

    Medal of Honor recipients in the Rock Island National Cemetery


    The Confederate Cemetery hold approximately 2,000 graves.

    If you’re ever in the area, I’d recommend taking a trip to the Rock Island Arsenal. The museum, the memorial field, and cemeteries are definitely worth a visit. And the best part? It’s all free.

    Logan Metesh

    T. Logan Metesh is an historian and writer who runs High Caliber History LLC. He has worked for the NRA Museums, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Park Service. He has also served as an historic firearms facilitator for television shows such as Mysteries at the Museum, Gun Stories with Joe Mantegna, NRA Gun Gurus, and American Rifleman TV.

    Contact him at highcaliberhistory@gmail.com