Collectors set their sights on vintage weapons at annual antique gun show


April 13, 1991|By Linell Smith

Al Burns remembers the first time he saw his 1863 Springfield rifle musket, the gun his great grandfather used in the Civil War. He was watching his father hand down several guns to a relative through the trap door to the attic. The rifle seemed almost larger than life, brushed with the dust of history. It was a heady moment for the young boy from Richmond, Va., a place he describes as a living shrine to the Civil War.

This personal connection to history marked the beginning of his affection for antique guns, he figures. And it seems that the intimacy of such relics speaks to tens of thousands of other Americans as well.

A member of the Maryland Arms Collectors Association, Inc., Mr. Burns helped organize the 37th Annual Antique Gun Show at the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend. Acclaimed as the best display of antique weapons in the country, it attracts thousands of exhibitors and buyers from around the United States and many from overseas.

While guns dating before 1898 comprise the bulk of the show, some of the 800 exhibition tables will also display swords, knives, rare ammunition, antique paperwork related to the military, books and uniforms.

Visitors can admire the aesthetics of Kentucky Rifles; some of the finest guns sell for as much as $80,000. They can learn about Islamic edged weapons, Baltimore pikes, Revolutionary War swords and even Civil War hardtack, which Mr. Burns describes as looking like huge ugly Saltines.

It's an occasion for collectors -- and would-be collectors -- to buytrade and talk guns, which to Burns, is the same as talking history.

The 48-year-old Fallston resident collects U.S. military rifles and muskets which pre-date World War II. One rainy spring morning, he lays out several rifles on his dining room table, slender guards reaching back to the end of the 18th century. There's a splendid burl birds-eye maple long rifle, made by Joseph Carper in West Virginia, c. 1860, and a handsome Spencer Rifle dating back to 1864.

And there's the well-worn musket that began life in 1799 in Nazareth, Pa.

"It started off life as a proud soldier's weapon and ended up serving as a poor man's gun to put meat on the table," Mr. Burns says.

Along the way, he points out, some do-it-yourselfer modernized the gun by changing its ignition system from flint to percussion. The stock was shortened considerably and all of the military hardware was removed.

"It was used and used and used until it couldn't be used any more," Mr. Burns says.

He paid $125 for the weapon at a local antiques store. As he speculates about its owners, however, you can tell this musket has provided invaluable passage to a world where livelihoods depended on guns rather than computers.

One of Mr. Burns' colleagues from MACA, a man who collects Civil War long arms, says he sees his purpose as primarily custodial.

"Antiques collecting is preserving the history of the piece and maintaining it so that someone else can see it and use it," says the collector. Like many of his colleagues, he does not wish to be identified for fear of having his collection stolen.

The Maryland Arms Collectors Association, Inc. has sponsored the antique gun show since it began in 1954. Approximately 170 members meet monthly in the Knights of Columbus Hall in Ellicott City to discuss collecting and hear lectures about weapons. The members' collecting interests range from modern weapons to those of medieval Scotland.

Club president Henry Daidone recently talked to the members about the superior design and artistic embellishment of certain weapons. A collector of Whitney Navy percussion revolvers (made from 1860 to 1866), he began appreciating antique

weaponry when he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy.

At the show, he will mount a table which focuses upon the aesthetics of weapons. It includes a Persian matchlock revolving musket, c. 1595 (the development of portable arms began in Europe about 1350), an engraved Persian horseman's shield from the 18th century and a hand-tooled silver saif, the national sword of Saudi Arabia.

A space program engineer, Mr. Daidone is also impressed by the technological leaps which determine the history of weaponry.

"It's a tribute to the intellect of mankind to be able to develop such things," he says.

The gun show features a section of roughly 50 exhibition tables assembled solely for display. Judges will present awards based upon the quality of the objects, their presentation, and how well the displays inform the public.

Gun show organizers expect as many as 5,000 visitors. Daidone says the recent Civil War series on public television has helped increase Americans' interest in their own history and in the heritage represented by antique weapons.

Gun shows are held regularly in Maryland throughout the year, although most of them show modern as well as antique weapons, according to Courtney Smith, producer of a weapons show held at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Smith reckons that the bulk of gun collecting these days is in modern weaponry.

The MACA's Antique Gun Show, however, prohibits any post-1898 handgun from entering the Convention Center unless it is part of an informational exhibit which is for display only. No "German Lugers" or other 20th century war souvenir pistols will be permitted into the building, even for informal appraisals.

The show will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow. Admission is $5 today and $3 tomorrow.


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