Category Archives: Military Weapons
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
Most people who know me would agree with the statement that I take pleasure in the obscurity and oddities in life. If there is any sort military or historic significance, my interest is only fueled further.
Militaria collectors have heard the same story told countless times by baffled and befuddled surviving family members – the lost history of an object that (obviously) held such considerable personal significance that a veteran would be compelled to keep the item in their inventory for decades. For one of my veteran relatives, that same story has played out with an item that was in among the decorations, insignia and other personal militaria, preserved for fifty-plus years.
When I received the box of items, I quickly inventoried each ribbon, uniform button, hat device and accouterments that dated from his World War I service through the Korean War. The one item that caught me by surprise was a long, slender lead projectile with a mushed tip.
It was clear that this blackened item was a small arms projectile. Based on size comparison with 9mm and 7.62 rounds, it was more along the lines of the latter, but it was clearly not a modern AK/SKS (or other Soviet-derivative). Perhaps it was a 7mm or smaller round? Without any means to accurately measure the bullet, I cannot accurately determine the bore-size or caliber. I’ll have to leave that for another day.
Further examination of the object proved to me that it was bullet that had been fired and had struck its target, causing the tip to blunt. While I am not a ballistics expert, I have seen the markings that firing makes on a bullet. This round clearly has striations that lead me to believe that it has traveled the length of a rifled barrel. It also possesses a crimping imprint, almost at the halfway-point on the projectile.
So what does all this information mean? Why did my uncle hang on to it for all those years? Had this been a bullet that struck him on the battlefield? Had it been a near miss?
My uncle passed away 20 years ago and the story surrounding the bullet sadly died with him. Since he bothered to keep it, so will I along with other pieces in a display that honors several of my family members’ service.
For the most part, militaria collectors enjoy anonymity and prefer to keep their collections private, sharing them with a scant few trustworthy people. Those whose collections include ultra-rare pieces tend to avoid the public exposure for good reason.
As someone with a passion for history, specifically United States military history, I enjoy viewing the work of other collectors and soak up the details of each piece they are willing to share with me. It brings me absolute joy to hold an item that is tied to a notable person or a monumental event as I try to picture the setting from where the piece was used. I often wonder how many times the piece has changed hands over the course of its existence. Not wanting to pry or press the collectors, I seldom inquire as to how they came to own the piece.
Some of you may wonder why a collector might choose to keep his work out of the public eye.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this area of collecting is the very personal nature of a vast number of pieces – meaning that items such as medals or decorations might be engraved or inscribed with a veteran’s name. While this personalization benefits the collector in that they have a means to research the item when tracing its “lineage” back to the original owner, it can also be a detriment.
I have witnessed situations where a collector posted a named piece on the web only to be contacted by a person claiming to be the next of kin of the original owner, while telling a sad (and sometimes convincing) story of how the items were sold or taken without their knowledge. Or worse yet, the original owner, perhaps suffering from age-related mental issues, let the items go during a lapse in judgement, depriving the child the ability to preserve the items. Demands, sometimes accompanied by threats of legal action, are subsequently directed toward the collector in an effort to acquire the pieces. There is no rock-solid way for the collector to validate the claims.
In some instances, I have seen collectors happily repatriating militaria objects back to family members once the ownership claims have been substantiated. A few of those collectors, having made significant investments into acquiring the pieces, went as far as to gift the items to the family without seeking any sort of compensation.
As I turned on my computer today to check the news and catch up on emails, I noticed a developing story surrounding a prominent militaria collector whose collection I touched on a few weeks ago. It seems that a San Antonio man has filed a lawsuit against musician Phil Collins, seeking financial damages due to an alleged theft of Alamo relics from the trunk of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The suit names Collins as one of four defendants, who ultimately acquired the pieces from a San Antonio militaria dealer (also named as a defendant).
- Musician at center of Alamo discord
- Local collector Don Ray Jank files lawsuit naming Phil Collins, others
- Phil Collins’ Alamo Book ‘Rock Solid,’ McMurry Professor Says
I won’t delve into the nature or details of the suit, but there is some history of the collector making accusations toward the dealer in the past, and this could be perceived as a personal conflict between the plaintiff and the dealer, but without having much knowledge of the case, I will not speculate as to who did what to whom as that is a matter for the courts to decide. What I do find fascinating is that the plaintiff is not seeking the return of his alleged “stolen” relics.
The Collins case underscores yet another pitfall of making one’s collection available for public review. Aside from opening the door for questions as to the authenticity of some of his pieces, this collector has exposed himself to challenges from anyone who might choose to make an ownership claim against him.
When confronted by a henchman in a scene from the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) notices the fancy blade-wielding skills of his opponent. Unimpressed by the acrobatics and the fancy blade-twirling bad-guy, Indy retrieves his revolver from his holster firing a single, well-placed shot, dropping the adversary nonchalantly.
I don’t profess to have knowledge of the type of sword wielded by unimportant character in that film nor do I have expert knowledge in the field of military edged weaponry. What I do have in my scabbard is the ability to use the research tools at my disposal – which comes in quite handy when given an arsenal of knives, swords, bayonets and bolo knives.
A few years ago, I was asked to catalog and obtain value estimates of some militaria pieces that were part of a family member’s collection. He had passed away some time before and his executor was carrying out the responsibilities of handling the estate. In the previous years, I had only seen a few items from the collection so I was surprised when I saw what was there for me to review. After completing my work on behalf of the state, I later learned that I was to receive some of the pieces that I had appraised, much to my surprise.
Of the blades I had inherited, three were quite unique, different from the rest of the pieces. Two of the three blades were almost identical in form and the other was a slight departure from the others. What set these blades apart from the rest was machete-like design with more size toward the end of the blade, giving the blade a bit of weight toward the end of the blade rather than at the center or toward the hilt. The design of these blades were fashioned after the weapon of choice of the Filipino resistance fighters from the revolt that started at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898.
Known simply as bolo knives, the U.S. military-issue blades were less weapon and more utilitarian in function.
Now in my collection, the oldest of the three knives is the M1904 Hospital Corps Knife. Though many people suspect that the broad and heavy blade was important to facilitate field amputations, this thought is merely lore. Along with the knife is a bulky, leather-clad scabbard with a heavy brass swiveling brass belt hanger. My particular example is stamped with the date, “1914” which is much later in the production run. The M1904 knives were issued to field medical soldiers as the United States entered World War I in 1917.
The second knife is less bolo and more machete in its design. The M1910 bolo was designed and implemented for use as a brush-clearing tool. Some collectors reference the M1910 as a machine-gunner’s bolo as it was employed by the gun crews and used to clear machine gun nests of foliage and underbrush. My M1910 bolo is date-stamped 1917 and includes the correct leather-tipped, canvas-covered wooden scabbard.
The last bolo in my collection is probably the most sought-after of the three examples. Stamped U.S.M.C. directly on the blade, these knives were issued to U.S. Navy pharmacist’s mates who were attached to U.S. Marine Corps units. This detail leads many collectors to improperly conclude that the markings on the blade clearly indicate that the knives were made for the Marines. While this is indirectly true, the U.S.M.C. markings represent the United States Medical Corps, a branch of the U.S. Navy. On the reverse side, the blade is date-stamped, “1944” making the blade clearly a World War II-issued knife.
Although the blades are relatively inexpensive, they are considerably valuable to me as they come from a family member’s collection and were handed down to me. Though I do not have a desire to delve too far into edged weapons-collecting, I added to my collection by acquiring a pair of US Navy fighting knives to round out my collection. In future posts, I will cover these two types of knives, swords and sabers and even a few bayonets.