CODY, Wyo — When it comes to historical firearms negotiations, do not underestimate the value of a competitive ballroom dancer and the tenacity of a retired U.S. Navy captain.
The fruits of this unusual collaboration were revealed recently as the Cody Firearms Museum unveiled its display of 64 unique pieces on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“They never release these guns, certainly not in this quantity and never any national treasures,” said Warren Newman, curator of the Cody museum.
The unusual firearms include a .50-caliber hunting rifle from the 1700s used by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, inlaid with her name and Russian symbols and also incorporating a green velvet cheek piece on the rifle’s stock.
“I guess the royal cheek was not to be made uncomfortable,” Newman said.
There’s also a strikingly beautiful 7-foot long musket with ornate gold filigree that was given to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. The gift was from the Bey of Tunisia as if to say, “Hey, no hard feelings,” after the newly formed U.S. Navy “kicked the living daylights” out of the Barbary Coast pirates.
The piece must carry special significance for Newman, who is a retired naval officer and quiet-spoken scholar with a resume longer than a rural resident’s Costco cash register receipt. It was his idea to take the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s “affiliate” status with the Smithsonian to the next level. His work began four years ago.
“It’s pretty much all the vision of Warren,” said Ashley Hlebinsky, a petite University of Delaware doctoral student and former professional ballroom dancer. Hlebinsky has worked at both museums and helped pick out the firearms that were eventually displayed, since she knew what was contained in each facility’s collection of about 7,000 pieces. It was also her boss at the Smithsonian, David Miller, who visited the Cody museum as a precursor to approving the firearm loan. Newman said that visit was key to securing the Smithsonian’s approval.
The display, “Journeying West: Distinctive Firearms from the Smithsonian,” is the culmination of that work.
It will be on loan to the northwestern Wyoming facility for three years. At the end of the three years, the museums will negotiate on whether to extend the display or to choose another selection of Smithsonian firearms for loan.
Hlebinsky is excited by the cooperative nature of the display, adding that the work topped any thrill she received from competitive ballroom dancing.
“Honestly, it’s the most exciting thing I do,” she said.
“It’s been so exciting and such an amazing learning experience. I would choose working at a firearms museum over ballroom dancing any day.”
Miller said it’s not unusual for the Smithsonian to lend out individual firearms to accredited museums for certain displays, but the loan to the Cody Firearms Museum was one of the largest. Nonetheless, he was comfortable backing the loan.
“I think Cody is one of the best firearms museums I’ve seen, just the breadth of the collection,” he said.
To put a value on the priceless collection of 64 pieces would be “the only way I can lose my job before dinner other than assault and battery,” Newman joked. Suffice it to say the items are priceless.
Yet Newman’s favorite item in the display is not a working firearm at all. It is a scale model of the Gatling gun, made by Richard Jordan Gatling to acquire a patent for the weapon. Newman points out that the Gatling gun was not the first machine gun, instead it is a revolving rifle battery, made more dangerous by the speed with which the gun could be repeatedly fired.
“It was produced too late to make much difference in the Civil War, but it was prominently used in the Indian Wars and made a huge difference and probably contributed to the surrender of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce,” Newman said.
Just behind the Gatling gun, which sits in its own display case, is a collection of three early pistols that Newman called “remarkable.” His favorite, maybe because he had never seen one before, is a triple fire matchlock made in Japan.
“This is the first recognized action type for firearms,” he said.
The trigger dropped a slow-burning fuse into a powder pan that fired the musket balls.
“I think this display worked out great because of the embellishment of these firearms,” he said. “The light really picks up the gold and silver and makes them dramatic.”
Another unusual piece, which some questioned displaying with firearms, is like a Swiss Army knife on steroids. Made in the 1880s in Germany for a display window in a New York City store, it has 100 blades including a five-shot .22 pinfire revolver.
The oddest looking rifle on display may be the Triplett Patent, made in 1864, which had a rear stock of tubular metal that held seven bullets.
“This is the most unique configuration for a firearm that you can imagine,” Newman said.
But there are other odd-looking pieces, as well. The Josselyn Chain Revolver patent was a .22-caliber with a 20-shot chain hanging down in place of the cylinder. The Smithsonian owns the only known example of the firearm. The Elgin Cutlass Pistol patent, made in 1837, features a pistol with the barrel atop a large knife. There is a 1758 musket made to fire eight balls in a row like a Roman candle. A repeating rifle, made in 1857, had a sundial atop the magazine. There’s a Remington .30-06 rifle made in the 1920s with no trigger. And then there’s the 1963 SPIW prototype, the Special Purpose Individual Weapon Experimental Rifle. It was made to fire flechettes, small darts that had amazing penetrating power through armor.
“It was an ingenious idea, except that they went to all this trouble, time and expense without taking into the account the fact that the flechettes could be diverted by any wind,” Newman said. “So it was a great notion but those things were never going to hit anything if there was a wind.”
The Cody Firearms Museum had to upgrade some of its equipment to accommodate the Smithsonian exhibits. Special security cameras and motion detectors were installed and small, silent computer fans were added to keep the humidity higher and more constant. The Smithsonian wanted the Cody museum to achieve 50 percent humidity, which was impossibly high for the dry climate of Wyoming. So the museums negotiated a lower ideal. Cody also had to comply with special types of lighting that didn’t produce too much heat.
The entire process, although a bit rushed at the end, proved worthwhile when Newman got to handle some of the display pieces.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “You get almost a sense of awe and reverence because when you think of touching things that are this old and this definitive in the advancing technology of firearms, it’s really awesome.”
And even though Newman said it was with great disappointment that he found out that the Navy could go on without him after serving 27 ½ years, his career at the museum has been a dream come true.
“Gosh, it’s the greatest job in the world for a guy who loves firearms,” he said.