by Philip Schreier, Senior Curator, NRA Museums - Monday, February 15, 2016
Main image: President Eisenhower with his Model 21, which now resides at the National Firearms Museum.
Clockwise from top left: Harry S. Truman inspects the Colt 1911 of an MP during one of his famous walks outside the White House. Truman carried a 1911 in World War I as the captain of an artillery battery. It is in the collection of the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo.; Vice President John Nance Garner and Sen. Harry S. Truman handle some Colt Peacemakers on Capitol Hill; President Kennedy receives a Spencer rifle in the Oval Office of the White House, similar to the one President Lincoln had field tested exactly a century earlier; Franklin Delano Roosevelt tries his hand at a rifle match armed with a Springfield Model 1903.
In this, an election year, the candidates’ positions on Second Amendment issues are being debated at many levels. New Executive Orders and legislation have placed the White House at the center of the never-ending discussion on a citizen’s Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
However, it wasn’t that long ago when firearms were not only welcome in the executive mansion, but at least eight of our Chief Executives* were proud of their NRA Life member status. One Commander in Chief, Ulysses S. Grant, even served as President of the NRA following his tenure in the White House.
With Presidents Day upon us, let's take a look at some of the fascinating firearms owned and used by a few of the former presidents of the United States.
The Father of Our Country was not only an avid hunter but also quite the gun aficionado. Numerous sets of pistols with provenance to the General are currently on exhibit at his Mount Vernon, Va., home as well as at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
One of the most remarkable sets of 18th century flintlock pistols attributed to General Washington are currently on display at Fort Ligonier, Pa. Made by Jacob Walster in France, this pair of saddle pistols was presented to General Washington as a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington treasured these guns and made special provision in his will for their care and safekeeping. Eventually one of Washington’s descendants made a gift of the pair to President Andrew Jackson and in 2002 they sold for $2 million at Christie’s.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has on display, in its splendid exhibit, “The Price of Freedom— Americans at War,” a bronze pistol of Washington’s that was gifted to him by Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755. It is a .71-cal. English flintlock pistol made by William Gabbitas (photo by Jaclyn Nash, National Museum of American History). It is inscribed with the initials “E.B.” for Edward Braddock. During the campaign for independence in 1777, Washington noticed the gun had gone missing. Washington asked an aide to write to another aide: “Sir, His Excellency Gen. Washington desires you to look among his effects for a pistol which was mislaid or possibly lost. You will know it by being a large brass barrel and the lock of which is also of brass with the name of Gabbitas, the Spanish armorer, (he was actually English) thereon. It has also a heavy brass butt. His Excellency is much exercised over the loss of this pistol, it being given him by Gen. Braddock, and having since been with him through several campaigns, and he therefore values it very highly." If only all guns claiming historic provenance came with such concise letters of identification.
Many historians are quick to assume that Theodore Roosevelt was our most gun-savvy Chief Executive, but Thomas Jefferson gives TR a run for his money in that race. Jefferson not only wrote extensively on his fondness for shooting—he enjoyed both target shooting as well as hunting—but he also wrote a great deal on the rights of citizens to possess arms. He was a proponent of firearms education among the young and believed that even 10-year-olds would benefit from knowledge and proficiency in the use of firearms. He was a strong advocate of personal firearms ownership and authored the provision in the Virginia Constitution that stated: “No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms,” a sentiment that he championed again in 1791 during the drafting of the Bill of Rights. Often called a renaissance man, you can add “Father of the Industrial Revolution” to his long list of accomplishments.
In 1785, while serving as Minister to France, he wrote to John Jay (then serving as U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs) that he had met with a French gunmaker named Honoré Blanc (1736–1801) and Blanc had demonstrated how guns could be made via the manufacturing of identical parts. Jefferson worked tirelessly to interest American gun manufacturers in this method of production and eventually won over Eli Whitney who developed the first factory to delve into what we know today as mass production, or the American Method of Manufacturing.
If you are to believe the various (and notoriously inaccurate) newspaper accounts of the day, Andrew Jackson participated in over 100 duels during his lifetime. However he is only known to have killed one man in a duel, Charles Dickinson, in 1806. He shot Dickinson dead although he, himself, had been shot in the center of the chest, perilously close to the heart, and carried the bullet around with him for the rest of his life. Among the numerous sets of dueling pistols and shotguns associated with Old Hickory, his most treasured possession was the brace of pistols passed on to him that had been the property of Lafayette and Washington.
Aside from sowing the seeds of what would become the Industrial Revolution, Jefferson loved to collect and shoot guns. His day books and accounts record numerous purchases and expenditures for repairs for some of the numerous arms in his personal collection. In the collection of the Smithsonian Intuition’s National Museum of American History is perhaps one of the more bizarre Presidential firearms, a North African jezail presented to Thomas Jefferson by Sidi Suleiman Melli Melli, an emissary of the Bey of Tunis in 1805.
Folksy stories abound about the homespun humor of Abraham Lincoln and his “meddling” in the affairs of the War Department during the Civil War. As quaint as some of these stories are, some bear quite a bit of truth to them, such as the time in August of 1863, just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln met with Christopher Spencer on the south lawn of the White House and field tested the Spencer Rifle (photo by Hugh Talman, National Museum of American History).
Shooting at a plank of wood hastily set up as a target, both Lincoln and Spencer fired a full magazine each. Spencer recalled that the President was an excellent shot and that he had hoped he was able to reverse Lincoln’s previously held poor opinion of the rifle which stemmed from an earlier test where the president had attempted to fire two separate specimens of Spencer’s invention, only to have them both fail to function.
Another repeater made famous by its use during the war was the Henry Repeating Rifle. Serial No. 6 was presented to Lincoln with a fully engraved, gold-plated receiver. It was honored with the NRA’s first National Treasure Gold Medal Award in 1998, making it the finest-made, historically significant firearm in the country.
Ulysses S. Grant
He was the 18th President of the United States and the eighth President of the National Rifle Association. For a few years in the early 1970s the NRA Museum was able to display President Grant’s Smith & Wesson Model Number 1 ½ .32 rimfire revolver. Again, provenance is everything when trying to establish the authenticity of anything and this gun has airtight papers that include copies of the original factory ledger that indicate the gun was presented to President Grant on August 1, 1870 as well as a letter to its then current owner, a great-great grandson of Grant, from his Father, mentioning the gun by its serial number and detailing a brief history of the gun as well.
Ornately engraved, inlayed in gold and complete in case with pearl grips, Grant’s S&W was one of the standout highlights of the National Firearms Museum when it was located on Rhode Island Ave. in Northwest Washington, D.C.
President Grant's Smith & Wesson Model No. 1½ was featured on the cover of The American Rifleman in 1969.
Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States and owned a rare Colt 8 gauge shotgun, the only 8 gauge Colt ever produced in this model. Engraved with full coverage factory craftsmanship, the 8 gauge is inlayed in 18kt gold with Cleveland’s name on the trigger guard. The firearm is part of the exhibition at the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum in Springfield, Mo., Gift of the Robert E. Petersen Estate.
Described as the most gun-savvy Chief Executive to ever occupy the White House, no image of TR is complete without some reference to him as a war hero and a big-game hunter. He possibly owned more guns than any other President, (historians estimate Washington and Jefferson each owned in excess of 50 firearms at varying stages of their careers) and his contributions as a wildlife conservationist has insured that hunting is a managed legacy that we will still be able to pass down to our children’s children.
Books have been written just about his gun collection but here we will highlight three that we currently have on exhibit at one of the NRA Museums.
TR’s big stick was a Frederick Adolph .450-500 NE that he never got a chance to take to Africa. It spent most of its life on display at the Abercrombie & Fitch Manhattan store or at the National Firearms Museum at NRA HQ.
A sportsman, described as a wealthy Chicago businessman, drowned in Alaska in 1910 leaving the arms importer, Frederick Adolph, stuck with a double rifle, Kornbrath engraved and in .450/500 NE that he had already taken delivery on. Not one to let a chance for some publicity escape him, Adolph, with some public fanfare, presented the gun to Theodore Roosevelt at his home on Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, N.Y. TR never had any occasion to use the gun and asked that it be displayed in the window of Abercrombie & Fitch in Manhattan for a time. Eventually it was given to one of his hunting guides and donated to the NRA through the efforts of Ron Peterson of Albuquerque, N.M.
Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt was the Executive Officer of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry when it embarked from Tampa, Fla., in June of 1898 and headed to Cuba. Most of the infantry of the U.S. Army at that time was equipped with the .45-70 black powder Springfield Trapdoor single-shot rifle and carbine. Roosevelt used his political capitol to equip his men with the Model 1896 Krag Jorgensen carbine in .30-40 smokeless. TR personally took a Winchester Model 1895 Carbine with him and loaned it to Trooper Bob Wrenn who arrived in Cuba late and without a longarm. Wrenn was a four-time U.S. tennis singles championship winner, and a charter inductee in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The carbine is currently on loan to the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., from the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site of the National Park Service in Manhattan, N.Y.
Ike’s Model 21 is chambered in Skeet 1 and Skeet 2 chokes for use at his own skeet house at his farm in Gettysburg, Pa.
When not roaming in search of pheasant in the fields on his property, he enjoyed a round of skeet and even had a skeet house built just yards off of his kitchen deck at his farmhouse. Bob Woodruff, President of Coca Cola, invited Eisenhower to hunt his property outside Atlanta on numerous occasions and presented Ike with a splendid Winchester Model 21 in 20 gauge. Engraved in an oval plaque on the stock are the words “To a Straight Shooter from a Friend.” Ike’s initials “DDE” and his 5 Star rank insignia are engraved in gold on the trigger guard and receiver of the gun, respectively. Within a few months of Ike’s passing in 1969, Mamie Eisenhower pulled up to the NRA Headquarters on Rhode Island Ave in Wash., D.C. and had her Secret Service escort present the Model 21 to the museum director while she waited in her black Cadillac limo in the circle out front. Currently this shotgun is on display at the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro in Springfield, Mo.
General Eisenhower’s 5 Star rand and his initials are inlayed in gold on this Model 21; The NRA’s Eisenhower Model 21 appeared in the hands of the President on the cover of GUNS magazine in October 1955. Ike made a personal promise to donate one of his firearms to the NRA Museum shortly before he left office in 1961.
John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy sought out Gen. Eisenhower’s advice on numerous issues during his presidency and he made more than one trip to see Ike at the farm in Gettysburg. While there he enjoyed a round of clays on Ike’s private field and discussed the pressing matters of the day. Kennedy was no stranger to firearms and he too had a sizeable collection. He ordered an M1 Garand from the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (predecessor to the DCM & CMP) and had it delivered to his Wash., D.C. office in 1959 while he was still a senator. Sen. Kennedy didn’t get the “good guy” discount; he paid what everyone else would have paid for an M1 back then—$169. To be fair, the U.S. Army made sure that the senator’s rifle was presentation grade wood with mirror bright blue and accurized by one of the Army’s top marksmen. The NRA Museum was proud to have had the chance to display the rifle back in the 1970s. It was recently sold at auction for $149,500.
Ronald Wilson Reagan
The Gipper rode into Washington D.C. in 1981 wearing a white Stetson and he evoked the image of the good sheriff coming to town to run off the bad guys. While not actually armed with a Peacemaker, Ronald Reagan certainly let friends and foes alike know where he stood on firearms ownership. The Reagan Presidential Library in California has numerous firearms on display, some of which were gifts and some lifelong companions.
Following the foiled assassination attempt on Reagan’s life shortly after he was inaugurated, Christopher Hirsch of Texas decided to craft the president an exquisite flintlock longrifle and joined Wayne LaPierre and Harlon Carter in the Oval Office of the White House to make the presentation to the president. At the president’s request, it was displayed for nearly 20 years at the NRA Museum.
The relationship between our chief executives and firearms has been interesting and, sadly, quite divisive in recent years. Andrew Jackson would sooner challenge you to a duel than look at you. Theodore Roosevelt carried concealed pistols and almost never went anywhere unarmed. Franklin Roosevelt attended rifle matches and his wife Eleanor had a permit to carry a pistol in New York.
Today, retouched and edited pictures released by the White House are met with howls of disdain from those actually familiar with muzzle ports on a shotgun, and others are quick to point out that one doesn’t normally hunt ducks with a rifle. No matter what your current political affiliation is these days, it is safe to say that when it comes to U.S. presidents, firearms and the public’s positive perception of their use—we miss “the good old days.”
*U.S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, Dwight David Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald W. Reagan, George.H.W. Bush.
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