Category Archives: Firearms
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 I embarked on my quest to gather facts and information about my ancestors’ service to this country, I never intended to become a collector of militaria. In acquiring and assembling uniform items for these visual recreations, I found myself the recipient of some odd pieces that would, at the very least, raise some eyebrows. At worst, I could blow myself and my home to pieces (well, not really…read on).
Last week, I posted about inheriting some vintage military edged weapons. Along with the various fighting knives, swords, bolos and bayonets, I was a given the opportunity to take home two objects that were quite different from everything else in my family member’s collection. The two objects had been displayed alongside the wood stove, exposed to considerable long-term heating and cooling for many years. By now, some of you might have realized that I am referring to artillery rounds.
As I’ve stated in previous postings, I am by no means an expert in all things militaria. However, my research skills certainly provide me the means to identify the artillery items. With common sense as my guide, I knew enough that I wanted to ensure that the items were inert – meaning “not live or possessing any explosive capabilities.”
Prior to handling any ordnance it is HIGHLY recommended that collectors have verification of the inert status of the item. There are some good resources online that can provide collectors with guidance prior to making the leap into this highly specialized area of militaria.
- Introduction to Collecting Artillery Shells and Shell Casings
- Collecting Ammunition and Explosive Ordinance
- A Guide to Ammunition Collecting
There are many examples where live ordinance was discovered in homes, brought home as souvenirs of service and left behind, to be discovered by family members or new occupants of the residence. Imagine the horror of the discovery learning that the item was live. This happens quite often as indicated by the countless news articles available online. Here’s a sampling:
Along with brass and other empty shell casings that I managed to save from my time on active duty, these pre-World War One artillery pieces are a nice complement to my collection:
(Note: This is a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)
Yesterday’s mail delivery netted for me my initial foray into American Civil War artifact collecting. I like to counsel would-be militaria collectors to focus on their collecting – choose a specific area of interest and pursue that area. While I have been trying to live and collect by this guidance, to the casual observer it would appear that, with this purchase, I have altered my stance.
My collecting focus has been centered upon one thing: creating displays or groups that provide a visual reference of specific veterans in my family and honor their service. That direction has predominantly led me to twentieth century militaria collecting as the items would pertain to those individuals’ service. Another contributing factor has been the affordability and abundance of World War II militaria. It has been a bit more challenging to assemble artifacts from the Great War.
The package that was delivered to my door yesterday was small and weighed very little and yet this item would be one of the central pieces in my small display dedicated to the service of my great, great, great grandfather. In researching him and discovering certain details of his service, I decided that I wanted to assemble some significant artifacts for a shadow box that would provide subtle.
Understanding that my 3x great grandfather served in a cavalry unit, I began to research the engagements they participated in. While I am still waiting for my ancestor’s service records, I made some safe assumptions as to which specific campaigns and battles that he participated in, following his regiment and company’s history. Armed with those details, I began to search for anything that could be closely connected to him. Having researched the weaponry, I determined that he would have carried a Sharps Carbine by the time his regiment participated in the battle at Malvern Hill and used that information to search for specific artifacts.
My search led me to several choices of “dug” artifacts, many of which were in my budget. I honed in on one specific bullet round, a .52 caliber “New Model” Sharps Carbine round that had, more than likely, been dropped on the battlefield. The round is beautifully labeled with details about where it was found and what it is and it came from the collection of a known Civil War expert. Feeling safe about the item, the seller’s history and the aesthetic qualities, I went ahead with my purchase.
For the remaining items, I will continue to be patient and educate myself before I pull the trigger (pun intended).
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
- Part 4: – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
Historians, museum curators, historians and collectors all have differing, yet valid answers to the question of historical artifact ownership. Aside from the debate as to where an artifact belongs, there can be difficulties for collectors surrounding rightful ownership that can have more nefarious roots and beginnings.
While watching an episode of the popular PBS television program History Detectives, a woman desired to learn more about a boxed set of named (inscribed) mid-19th century Derringer pistols (season 10, “Civil War Derringers, KKK Records & Motown’s Bottom Line”) that her father purchased in the 1970s. The woman had previously had the Derringer set appraised on another PBS show, Antiques Roadshow (Pittsburgh #1607) for $30,000 but she had no idea who the original owner was or any details surrounding the history of the pistols. Included with the pistol was a document detailing the post Civil War pardon of a Confederate soldier – the name matched the one inscribed on the pistols.
The “detective,” Wes Cowan embarked on a quest to learn about the original owner (John C. Thompson) and if he was, in fact, a Civil War veteran and to learn his history if at all possible. The trail that Cowan followed ultimately led to the great, great-granddaughter of John C. Thompson who told the story of her ancestor and how the pistols were stolen from the ancestral home in the 1970s. To whom do these pistols belong?
My entrance into militaria collecting began more as a matter of happenstance rather than an active pursuit. Having a passion for local area history and genealogy began for me at an early age. As a child, I would often imagine myself digging up arrowheads or other historical artifacts while digging in the backyard or the adjacent vacant lot. Sparked by my grandfather’s stories of the “Indian Uprising” in present-day Pierce County (the father of his childhood friend told him stories of their family evacuating to the safety of Fort Steilacoom), I would picture myself finding my own piece of history.
I never pursued any real archaeological adventures as my focus shifted toward sports and other adolescent activities. After completing my schooling, I was thrust back into history but this time with a military focus when I was assigned to my first ship (following boot camp and my specialty school). I was immersed into the legacy that led to the naming of my (then) soon-to-be commissioned U.S. Navy cruiser. I began to dialog with the veterans of my ship’s namesake predecessors from WWII. From that point on, my interest in military history was truly piqued.
Collecting, for me, began when I was asked to bring my interests and research skills to bear on some artifacts belonging to my uncle that had been stored for 50 years in my grandparents’ attic. The items were in a few trunks that were unopened since they were packed by my uncle and shipped from Germany in May of 1945. I knew very little about Nazi militaria but was up to the challenge to ascertain value and locate a buyer (my grandparents needed money to help cover their costs of care) for the artifacts. I spent a few months learning about the various uniforms, flags, headgear and badges. Little did I know that I was being immersed into the world of the high-dollar Third Reich collecting (yes, I sold most of the pieces).
A few years later when I received my maternal grandfather’s uniforms, records, medals, ribbons, etc., I began to understand that while these items are in my possession, they really do not belong to me. I am merely safeguarding and preserving them for posterity. This has become more evident during my search for anything relating to my ancestors who served in previous centuries. I often wonder what became of their militaria. In watching the History detectives episode, my concern for lost family history is decidedly more acute as I have yet to locate a single photo (of my lengthiest pursuit – my 3x great-grandfather who served in the Civil War).
Recreating History: Researching and Assembling an Ancestor’s Civil War Artifacts:
In actively pursuing items now in my collection, I have acquired a handful of pieces that have names inscribed or engraved of their original owners. The thought has occurred to me that the potential exists for a descendant to claim rights to anything that bears a name.
People fall on hard times or may not possess interest in the military history of their ancestry. A financial need or the desire to free up storage space can drive people to divest themselves of military “junk” without pausing to realize their own connection to that history. In some cases, the heir of militaria may pass away severing ties to the historical narrative thereby devaluing it entirely.
While one person (family member “A”) could have inherited an ancestor’s militaria and subsequently opted to sell, another relative (family member “B”) might have not have been provided the opportunity to retain the history within the family. I have seen stories of this scenario playing out where family member “B” notices a post by a collector (in an online militaria forum) about something recently acquired. “B” feels the need to reach out to the collector to restore the item back to the family, often times to the point of accusing the collector of being a party to theft.
I can identify with the plight of family member “B” in the desire to regain the lost family artifacts. However, I do respect that militaria collectors are some of the most generous and considerate people. I’ve seen them go out of their way to restore artifacts to the family – sometimes at their own expense. However, I advise that family members should exercise decorum and restraint while not expecting a collector to side with them and relinquish their treasured artifacts.
In early 2012, musician Phil Collins published a book detailing his passion for militaria connected to the Alamo and the people who fought and died there. Beginning early in his career, his passion for this infamous siege and battle between the Santa Ana-led Mexican army and a small, armed Republic of Texas unit (led by Lt. Col. William Travis). Collins beautifully displayed his collection across the many pages of his coffee table book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey. Though his publication was well-received among collectors, it did open the door for a legal challenge to the ownership of several artifacts in his possession.
Last week, I posted an article detailing one person’s pursuit of a historic handmade U.S. flag on behalf of her former-POW father. The bedsheet-turned-national-ensign had been gifted to the U.S. Navy by the owner’s family to ensure its preservation and safekeeping to share for future generations. The veteran’s family felt strongly that the flag, while steeped with familial history and significance, the flag belonged to the citizens of the United States rather than it being relegated to “molding away in someone’s attic” or seeing it “thrown away by someone who did not know the story behind it.”
One of the most significant military artifacts now in the possession of the People of the United States is the subject of our National Anthem. The Star Spangled Banner (the flag flown over Fort McHenry during the September 5-7, 1814 British bombardment) sat in the hands of the Major George Armistead’s (the fort’s commander) family for more than 110 years (with one public display in 1880) before it was donated by his grandson to the Smithsonian Institute.
Militaria collectors are merely caretakers and stewards of history. Though we possess these artifacts, ownership is truly not our principal focus. We expend countless resources (time and finances) preserving each piece and researching the associated veteran or historical events in order to preserve the swiftly eroding and priceless history.
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