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Gun Museum Evokes Mixed Emotions

The blue-gray tint of gun barrels resonates from the display cases throughout the National Firearms Museum. The smell of gunpowder, clatter of bolt action and screams on the battlefield are all that's missing from the museum experience.

Curator Doug Wicklund uses craftsmanship and works of art when describing some of the displays.

"That's the third gun Samuel Colt made," he said in one room. "It's basically art rendered in gun form," he added.

"This is one of the hidden treasures of the Washington, D.C., area," he said.

<mh>If Guns Could Talk

<bt>The maze-like room is arranged in chronological order from medieval-era guns to Colonial flintlocks, Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and sport guns, some used in the Olympic games. Intersperse that with dioramas; Teddy Roosevelt's library, laden with hunting trophies such as animal heads; an antique shooting gallery; and the "Road To Freedom" to the exit door, and it's bound to get a reaction from either side of the gun issue.

Herndon resident Matt Garst noted the historic value. He works in an office near the museum.

"The NRA [National Rifle Association] museum is phenomenal," he said.

Springfield resident Erica Dodds also sees the historic value, though she hasn't been in the museum before.

"It is history, they do have a place in that regard. If they're [NRA] paying for it, why not? It's a choice thing, they can go to it if they want or don't want," she said.

Reston resident Amy Lyon's uncle is a member of the NRA.

"A museum's there to educate people, I don't think there's anything wrong with it," she said.

Opened in the summer of 1998, the museum boasts of having the third-largest firearms display in the world behind the Davis Gun Museum in Oklahoma and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

"We have the third-largest collection of firearms on display," said Wicklund.

The museum was paid for by private funding; donation boxes are mounted on the walls alongside the displays. Most of the guns are on loan or donated.

"Since 1871, we've had many generous owners. We have many [guns] on loan to us," Wicklund said.

<mh>In the Crosshairs

<bt>The first room is called "Old Guns in a New World" and contains ancient guns from the pre-Christopher Columbus era in Europe. The oldest gun they have is long, has flat sides and looks vaguely similar to a gun. Next is Colonial, and then Civil War, with a re-creation of a Northern gun factory, and then the Old West. All of the guns are real, with the exception of a replica that was used in movies. It was hard rubber but looked real from a distance.

"They had rubber replicas, the Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett series," said Wicklund.

There are interactive computer kiosks throughout the museum, which tell in-depth stories about each gun. The guns are numbered, and most have serial numbers that help in their identification, while others have inscriptions, telling their history.

Wicklund noted how a Union soldier had to use his inscribed gun to prove he was in the War, so he could be eligible for benefits.

After the Old West displays, there is a World War I trench scene and a World War II unit, reaping the rewards of a victorious battle. Nazi memorabilia litters the floor in this diorama, which features the 29th U.S. Army Division. According to Wicklund, this division was formed from draftees in Maryland and Virginia.

"That one [gun] was from the Battle of the Bulge. When the soldiers realized they were going to be captured, they stripped it down so the Germans couldn't use it," Wicklund said, pointing to a corroded barrel and firing mechanism.

Then comes the Korean and Vietnam war.

"No. 22 is a handmade gun, it was made by the Viet Cong from a railroad tie and file. The construction was very crude," Wicklund said.

Around the corner, there's a case of shotguns, U.S. presidents' pistols, military officers' sidearms, and a room that houses a temporary display that changes through the years. In 1999, the room housed a display of California Gold Rush guns, then the "World of Beretta," which are Italian-made guns.

Starting on March 15, the display will house "Real Guns of Real Heroes," about cinema-related firearms. It will have Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum; Steve McQueen's holstered carbine used in "Wanted, Dead or Alive;" and even Luke Skywalker's light saber from “Star Wars.”