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The Keefe Report: Curatorial Assistant National Firearms Museum

The Keefe Report: Curatorial Assistant National Firearms Museum

My start as an NRA employee came nearly 30 years ago as a weekends-only curatorial assistant at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a slightly more than minimum-wage job—which was fine as I had two other jobs at the time—and it marginally beat my previous pay rate as a museum volunteer. Frankly, the job was far more janitorial than curatorial, but it gave me a chance to look at each and every gun—and their descriptions—on display in the old museum. Glass cleaner bottle and paper towels in hand, in no time I knew a lot more about guns than I had previously.

That museum in the former NRA headquarters at 1600 Rhode Island Ave., which is a hotel now, was at Scott Circle, just a few blocks from the White House. Many NRA members taking a trip to the nation’s capital would stop by while in town. When NRA moved its headquarters to Fairfax, Va., in the 1990s, then opened a new and expanded NRA National Firearms Museum, it was no longer mere blocks from major tourist destinations, but the new museum is quite an impressive facility. Instead of guns on burlap behind glass (that I didn’t have to clean anymore) with yellowing notecards, it is far more modern and interpretive. With more than 3,000 guns on display, it tells the story of 700 years of firearms, covering everything from the early “handgonnes” all the way up through guns made this year, with emphasis on firearms, freedom and the American experience.

It is a facility I would hope each and every NRA member would get an opportunity to visit. While tens of thousands of visitors go through the museum each year—and even more go through the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Mo.—not everyone can make it.

In discussions with the museum staff, we decided to bring the museum to our members in the pages of this magazine, even if it’s only a few guns at a time. But what to call it? I was pulling for “National Treasures,” and that was our working title. But that name at NRA, especially through the Museum and Gun Collecting Dept., is reserved for even rarer guns judged to be a cut above the rest by the NRA Gun Collecting Committee. That is a category reserved for just five firearms—so far—Abraham Lincoln’s Henry lever-action (held by the Smithsonian, americanrifleman.org/lincoln), a pair of pistols presented to the Marquis de Lafayette by none other than George Washington (on display at Fort Ligonier, americanrifleman.org/lafayette), the cased Colt 1851 belonging to Fort Sumpter’s Maj. Robert Anderson and Capt. Samuel H. Walker’s Walker Colt (both are in private collections).

No, we needed a different title, so we settled on “From The National Firearms Museums Collection.“ Since my time with a broom and a spray bottle, the NRA museum collection and system have expanded to include not just the facility in Fairfax, but the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum and the Frank M. Brownell Museum of the Southwest at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M. And some of the system’s collection travels at times, including to the Single-Action Shooting Society’s End of Trail each year.

September 11 marks the 18th anniversary of the most heinous terrorist attack on the citizens of the United States. And there are two guns currently on display in Fairfax that help us to remember two of the brave Americans whose lives were taken that day. 

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