The Best Kept Secret in Washington, D.C.

05/26/2020  |  By Philip Schreier, Senior Curator
TRAVEL
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Directly across the street from the renowned Army and Navy Club of Washington DC, is the Barr Building of Farragut Square, a rather dour, gothic edifice that was home to the National Rifle Association of America from 1901 to 1954. 

In 1935 the NRA opened up a museum to showcase the collection of firearms it had accumulated while publishing the American Rifleman magazine. Eighty-five years later, the museum is now located in Fairfax, Virginia and has a satellite museum in Springfield, Missouri. The collection now totals over ten thousand guns and traces the history and development of firearms from their invention in the 1300’s to current day.

The Museum Collection has been built since 1935 through the support of millions of NRA members, and the generosity of donors who share the vision of preserving our nation’s firearms treasures, and educating future generations on the true story of Americans and their guns.

Over 99 percent of the guns in the Museum Collection have been donated. Guns come in one or two at a time, or in quantity, including donations of large historically significant collections. They range from common specimens to pieces of great historic significance. Mamie Eisenhower brought in Ike’s Winchester shotgun. Cornelius V.S. Roosevelt brought in his grandfather Theodore’s engraved pistol (still loaded with a round in the chamber!).

Recently, the estate of well-known publisher Robert E. Petersen made the largest donation in NRA history with the gift of 400 exceptional firearms, now displayed in The Petersen Gallery, which features the finest examples of engraved sporting arms and the largest collection of Gatling Guns on public display anywhere.

The museum had a humble beginning initially. In 1876, D. Barclay of the NRA shooting team won an elaborately engraved Remington Rolling Block rifle during the international long-range rifle matches. This gun was the first of the NRA collection that eventually became the National Firearms Museum. It was displayed with many other firearms donated by firearms industry friends who sent them into the editorial offices of American Rifleman Magazine (est. 1923) for testing and evaluation.

In 1954, the NRA headquarters moved a few blocks up 16th Street to the venerable 1600 Rhode Island Avenue address. The NRA museum continued to grow with exhibits on the fourth floor and eventually on the first two floors off the main lobby. In 1981, the NRA museum was christened the National Firearms Museum and by 1993, when the museum closed in preparation for the NRA headquarters move to Fairfax, Virginia, the collection had grown to 3,000 firearms.

In May 1998, the new National Firearms Museum opened at the Fairfax location with a bold new look and design. In an effort to showcase the historic and valuable arms in the collection, museum staff designed 85 exhibit cases in 15 galleries that told the comprehensive story of firearms, freedom, and the American experience. With arms dating from 1300’s to the present day, the collection traced in chronological order the history and development of firearms and their use in securing American liberty and in maintaining it ever since.

October 2010 was the opening of the Robert E. Petersen Gallery, which has been called “the finest single room of guns on display anywhere.” Today the museum houses the largest and most historically significant collection of firearms and related material on exhibit in the United States.

In 2008 NFM Museum staff assisted in the development and design of the Francis Brownell Museum of the South West at the NRA’s Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico and in 2013 the NRA Sporting Arms Museum opened at the flagship store of Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri bringing the total of NRA Museums to three with a combined visitation of over 350,000 visitors annually.

The museum is open to the public every day of the week, and for 85 years has been free with no admission charge.

All guns on display can also be viewed at NRAmuseum.com, with zoom-able detail photos and over 200 videos on historic firearms.

Interested in making a donation of your own firearms to the museum? Call (877) NRA-GIVE, or email [email protected]. Guns or collections with historical significance may be directed to the Museum Curator’s attention by emailing [email protected].

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