Museum opens historical firearms exhibit
“We fired at them, so that they heard it and saw their people fall to the ground … and they wondered and were frightened, and soon all took to flight.”
These are the words of Ulrich Schmitt, referring to an encounter with Paraguay Indians during the expedition of Juan de Ayolas in 1537. The quote was one of several printed on the walls of the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, N.M. welcoming visitors to the new exhibit, “A Most Terrible Wonder: Firearms from 1600 to 1900.”
The exhibit outlines the history and evolution of firearms, from early muskets to the more modern “repeating” rifles of the Civil War and beyond. The exhibit was unveiled Friday alongside the museum’s 10th annual Cowboy Days, a two-day tribute to the state’s ranching history, but the exhibit itself is scheduled to run through October.
“Even if you’re not really knowledgeable about antique guns, this can give you a very good explanation and idea of the progression here,” said Bob Distlehorst, a museum volunteer and gun enthusiast.
Though the exhibit has a few replicas, more than 30 real firearms are on display, including Colt and Remington revolvers, a range of concealed pistols, and muskets and rifles from the Civil War and onward.
The exhibit also provides a detailed history of U.S. Army rifles and revolvers, and how the Civil War accelerated firearm technology.
“Fort Bliss, back in the old days, was a cavalry post,” said Dan Duggan, a museum docent and retired colonel with an ordnance and air defense background. “The advent of the repeating rifles and pistols significantly changed warfare – especially in the cavalry where you could ride and shoot several times; as opposed to having to stop and to jam your shells down the barrel, and re-cock it and everything.”
Duggan said though the weapons here are much older than any M-16, he would like to see today’s Soldiers learn more about the history of the Army’s firearms.
“I think they should learn where these weapons come from,” he said. “The weapons that they’re using today came from the use of these weapons here, just through improvements.”
Illustrations alongside printed descriptions next to the firearms tell a story of how muskets gave way to rifles, how “smokeless” gunpowder made the bolt-action magazine rifles far more powerful, and how average citizens were just as likely as ruthless criminals to protect themselves with derringers.
Volunteers like Distlehorst were on hand to answer questions from the more than 100 visitors who stopped by Friday night. He said he was surprised at the turnout.
“Even our museum staff people were very, very pleasantly surprised at the turnout to see this,” said Distlehorst, who said he’s been a gun enthusiast since he was old enough to know what a gun was.
Though everyone seemed to have his or her favorite firearm, Distlehorst said the Colt Dragoon revolvers were the ones that stood out to him.
“The survival rates on those are not really high and you don’t see very many of them. To have two of those in our exhibit – a first model and a third model of the dragoon revolver – is pretty unique.”
Capping the exhibit was a lecture from Tad Vanderhye, a firearms expert who told stories about Civil War weapons, including swords. Vanderhye, who is not scheduled to make another appearance at the exhibit, wore a Civil War-era uniform and his father’s cavalry spurs as he explained the development of three main weapons: the rifle, the revolver and the sword, and how they helped transform the West.
The speaker paid close attention to the Henry 15-shot “repeater,” his favorite firearm and what he called the most prolific weapon during the Civil War.
He said he hopes visitors gain a greater understanding of history in the area, and “that they get an appreciation of what the Army had to go through, and just learn something new,” he said.
Vanderhye said he also at one time spoke to foreign visitors at a law enforcement academy in Artesia, N.M., including visitors from South Africa who wanted to know more about Buffalo Soldiers.
“The only question they asked was, ‘Why did you have to kill the Indians?’ I said it was manifest destiny and we just moved in. I said, ‘I’m extremely sorry about it and if there’s something I could do at this date, I would.’ It’s part of history, and I can’t hide it. They appreciated that.”