By James Ballou
The great industrial revolution of the nineteenth century was spawned on the banks of the Connecticut River. This mighty river supplied the driving force for many of American’s premier gun makers; Colt, Smith and Wesson, Harrington Richardson, Winchester, to name but a few. The fledgling nation of the United States needed an arsenal to supply its growing military needs. George Washington established a National Armory in Springfield in 1794. Almost immediately a museum was established to preserve advancements made in the arms field.
Since this museum is still in operation, it is one of the oldest in the US. Now maintained by the National Park Service, it is still the national treasure that I first saw in 1959, as a teenager dreaming about Thompson’s and BAR’s. Through the years, under the direction of men like Tom Wallace and Steven Beatty, this museum has become a Nirvana for collectors and historians. Once your “Bona Fides” have been established, vast treasures become open to you
Budget constraints have limited access to all but a select few. So my first step was to contact John R. McCabe, who among his many duties was being in charge of security. He immediately sent me a computer print out of ALL the BAR’s on site with a brief description of each. I had struck gold.
Also enclosed was an “Application for Access”. This delineated the rules and limitations that are necessary to protect these fragile artifacts. I had invited a good friend, Carl Majeskey, retired Lieutenant of the Massachusetts State Police to accompany me and photograph the precious BAR’s.
Friday, July 12, 1996, I am again at the Springfield Armory Museum doing research for my upcoming book on the Browning Automatic Rifle, “America’s Rock”. I am with my esteemed friend, Lt. Carl M. Majesky, retired head of Ballistics with the Massachusetts State Police. Carl is a legend in the weapon community, a friend of shooters and gun owners, the nemesis of the nefarious. I’ve spent countless hours listening to Carl’s stories of guns and bad guys. Carl is no stranger to Springfield since this is his “hometown” and he once made Garands here at the Armory. His stories of John Garand are legendary. We were met by John R. McCabe who is a National Park Ranger and Chief of Security at the facility. He had made all the arrangements for our visit. Carl and I were then introduced to James D. Roberts, the new Supervisory Museum Curator, an amiable young man who treated us with cautious curiosity until he had ascertained our mission and assessed our ability.
We were led upstairs to what would be best described as a Museum Laboratory. Where the object of my quest lay on a work bench, the coveted belt fed BAR.
My elation soon turned to disappointment as the entire mechanism was frozen shut. Probably some unthinking person had shot the weapon in the past and not cleaned it. It was also missing the muzzle device designed to enhance its stability in full-auto fire. I felt like an archaeologist who has seen the damage perpetrated by some vandal of the past. I thought, “Is this all I’m going to get out of the trip?”, until I asked, “Isn’t there a rack somewhere with a bunch of BAR’s?” With a wry smile, Jim replied “Well yes, I’ll see if I can get the key.”
Within fifteen minutes, Carl and I found ourselves where the real treasures are, beneath the ground in a secured vault. My adrenalin began to flow as the lights revealed rack after rack of neatly arranged treasures.
Just to name a few, a Maxim Pom Pom gun in the corner, the Super Secret Gast machine gun could be seen with its side mounted drums. One rack held all of the experimental models that led to the M-60. I’ve died and gone to heaven. Just leave me here, I’ll live off Cosmoline. We then entered a small side vault. Here you will see some of the pictures Carl and I took.
A second trip was needed and this time we were met by the superintendent, Steven Beatty, and James Roberts, who had set up an area for us to photograph the treasures we had requested.
Steve and Jim were not afraid to get their hands dirty as we setup for the photo shoot and even offered excellent advice for best exposures. I’m proud to say these photos and my comments will be included in the museum archives for future reference.
I can only say that despite shrinking budgets and staff cuts, everyone at the museum did everything possible to ensure the success of my book and to add to the historical treasure that is our American Heritage.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)|