CODY, Wyo. — When Warren Newman got his first Winchester shotgun at the age of 12, the Texas boy was beside himself with joy. His days were filled with plinking cans, hunting and exploring the Texas wild.

Seventy-two years later, Newman looks back on that gun and grins. It's been a long journey for the man who now presides over “the most historically significant” firearms exhibit in the world.

“By the time you're 12, you've got your first gun in Texas and you're hunting and all that,” said Newman, curator of the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

“But in that gun, I also became and avid student of the history and technology of firearms, and I've always loved the human stories — the rest of the story.”

Newman spends his days surrounded by “the rest of the story” at the Wyoming museum, where firearms dating back to the 15th century mix with the intricate Wheelock designs from the 1570s.

Further down the timeline hangs a Winchester 1890 repeating rifle that belonged to sharpshooter Elizabeth “Plinky” Toepperwein, who earned Annie Oakley's praise as the best shot she'd ever seen.

Not to be outdone, Ernest Hemingway's double-barreled Winchester shotgun, which he received in 1959 as Outdoorsman of the Year, sits near Liver-Eating Johnson's percussion-half-stock rifle, made by Samuel Hawken of St. Louis in 1840.

The collection of weapons is vast and the stories that surround them are intriguing. Last week, Newman found a new story to tell.

Firearms have stories

Displayed for the first time alongside President Theodore Roosevelt's Winchester Model 1895 Lever Action Sporting Rifle hangs his Fox F Grade shotgun.

The marriage of the two presidential weapons in the same display has Newman giddy with pride. He calls it a “powerful pairing of historic firearms” that's sure to delight aficionados far and wide.

“This was his favorite shotgun, and this was his favorite rifle,” Newman said. “They're the only ones that there are, and they're the guns that he selected as the best of this type.”

Newman said thousands of people pass through the exhibit asking to see the rifle that Roosevelt called “big medicine for lions.”

In a letter stemming from Roosevelt's African safari in 1909, the hunter and conservationist expressed his fondness for the Winchester Model 1895 and its large .405 caliber round — the best for hunting lions, he said.

Roosevelt and others shot specimens of many species on his fabled African safari. While the kills have drawn plenty of criticism, Newman said it was done in the name of science and conservation.

“People are always struck by that, such a huge number for one safari,” he said. “But he was doing it for the big-game biologists and all the people who were going to spearhead the conservation movement.”

The rifle now hangs above Roosevelt's double-barreled shotgun, the newest addition to the museum's collection. The former president described the shotgun as the finest and most beautiful gun he'd ever seen.

The gilded finish and polished black barrels have a story that runs deeper than mere aesthetics. It is the shotgun Roosevelt carried on his ill-fated 1913 expedition to the Amazon to explore the uncharted “River of Doubt.”

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“Everything that could have happened, happened,” Newman said. “Roosevelt contracted a very severe case of malaria. Then he got a minor, almost superficial leg wound that developed into a serious infection.”

Roosevelt reached the point of becoming delusional. Before the expedition ended, Newman said, the former president had lost more than 50 pounds.

Things became so dire that Roosevelt later told a friend that the trip and the ensuing illnesses had likely taken 10 years off his life.

“If you look at the rest of his life, it probably did,” Newman said. “He never fully recovered from either the malaria or the infections in his extremities.”

As if Roosevelt's physical problems weren't enough, many doubted that his expedition had explored all 625 miles of the river.

But Roosevelt was quick to respond and set the record straight. When the National Geographic Society sponsored a convention in Washington, D.C., he defended his claim with ferocity.

“And he did it very admirably,” Newman said. “The River of Doubt was renamed the Roosevelt River.”

Weapons on loan

Newman finds amusement in telling stories of ill-fated expeditions and mountain men who diced up livers with a giant Bowie knife and enjoyed the pieces for dinner.

Newman also showed off a new arrangement that includes an 1828 percussion pistol once used by mountain man Jedediah Strong Smith.

Smith's claims to Western lore are many, but Newman most enjoys telling how Smith had his face torn off by a bear and sewn back on in the wild by one of his men, without the benefit of anesthesia.

Newman grins and apologizes for the distraction before returning to Roosevelt's prized shotgun, which hangs outside the Boone and Crockett cabin and its many wild mounts.

The shotgun belongs to collector Jason Roselius, who lives and works in Oklahoma City. He bought the weapon at auction and agreed to loan it to the museum, calling it a national treasure of a “larger-than-life” American.

The shotgun is a work of art. It features intricate scroll work, oak leaves and a gold-inlaid hunting dog on each side of the frame.

The gun is displayed in an oak frame with the original case and a fading tube of “gun grease.” An inscription on one of the barrels says “Made Expressly for Hon. Theodore Roosevelt.”

The maker's mark on the other barrel reads, “By A. H. Fox Gun Company Philadelphia U.S.A.”

“It's just a fabulous thing for me. I'm crowding 105 years old,” Newman joked, “and being able to work with this collection and interpret it for people is an honor and a privilege.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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