The Humble Beginnings of NRA Museums

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posted on February 4, 2022
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Today, you can enjoy visiting the NRA’s three free museums and view 6,000-plus firearms in exhibits explaining their historic significance—knowledge that is critical to preserving our rich heritage for the future. What you might not know is that this incredible resource began back in 1923 with the birth of The American Rifleman magazine.

As the NRA grew exponentially in the post-World War I era, Rifleman became the go-to publication for a burgeoning audience of shooters, hunters and competitors. It wasn’t long before the firearm industry began to send new firearms to the editors for testing and evaluation in the hopes of positive reviews within the magazine’s pages. Most of these guns became part of the NRA technical collection, and, by 1935, the collection had grown quite sizeable. NRA President Karl Frederick (1934-1936) then gifted a number of firearms from his personal collection to the Association, and that gift—coupled with the technical collection at Rifleman—was the foundation of the NRA Gun Collection, which went on public display in 1935.

Despite being a public resource from that time, the collection wasn’t well-known until much later. Back then, the firearms were displayed on standard sheets of plywood or pegboard covered in burlap, with only the title of the display, such as “10 Mauser Rifles,” and each gun’s make, model, serial number and chambering. Few displays had much information about the historic background of the items they showcased.

That changed in the early 1980s, when a team of professional museum curators was brought on board so the magazine editors could get on with what they did best, producing a magazine that is still the nation’s oldest and foremost authority on the shooting sports. Soon, the National Firearms Museum Fund became the first 501(c)3 in what is now the NRA Foundation, and the museum’s curators continually worked to make the displays more attractive and informative. After a generous gift from William B. Ruger Sr., the NRA began to design and construct a new museum, which was opened by then-NRA President Marion P. Hammer on May 28, 1998.

The new museum was done in a professional manner with themed exhibits, dioramas and a time line of firearms that began with an ancient hand cannon from 1350 A.D. spanning all the way to the present. Every case was designed to be evocative of the era in which the firearms displayed within were prevalent. When it opened in 1998, it was hailed as the finest museum of its type in the country.

Soon, the collection began to outgrow the exhibit and storage areas, and that embarrassment of riches happily coincided with a generous gift from Frank Brownell, allowing NRA to establish a new firearms museum at the NRA’s Whittington Center in Raton, N.M., in 2008. The NRA’s Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest is even more popular than the flagship museum at NRA Headquarters, receiving nearly 125,000 visitors in a (non-pandemic) year. Later, Bass Pro Shops’ founder and owner Johnny Morris invited NRA Museums to come to his flagship store in Springfield, Mo., in 2013, establishing the NRA’s National Sporting Arms Museum, which now receives nearly 200,000 visitors in a normal year!

Over time, staff appearances on cable television, viral videos, and numerous articles and books touching on the collection have all combined with simple but enthusiastic word-of-mouth publicity to increase the visibility of the NRA Museums and to attract donations and visitors in record numbers. We’ve come a long way since that early collection of firearms. Today, the NRA Museums staff is tremendously proud of its museums and the knowledge they offer freely to anyone who visits them. The very best part is that, COVID restrictions permitting, all three museums are free to the public and open seven days a week, except for Christmas and Easter. For more information, go to nramuseum.org.

This appeared in the February 2022 issue of America's 1st Freedom.

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