The old Clarn barrel percussion rifle is a beauty, with its uniquely patterned maple stock, brass hardware and silver plaque featuring an eagle and 13 stars.
But this powerful firearm made around 1860 wasn’t destined for an easy life of indoor display. Likely used for shooting big game such as buffalo, it worked hard, riding perpendicular across a saddle and possibly hitting the ground more than once.
“The wrist has been repaired a few times,” Richard “Ric” Bowman said of the section directly behind the gun’s action, where shooters grip the stock with their firing hand. “And there’s a metal plate on the back.”
Of the 114 historic firearms that will go on display Saturday in “Lock, Stock and Barrel: Historic Firearms of the Yakima Valley Museum,” this is Bowman’s favorite. He wonders about the L. Everson engraved on the top of the Clarn’s octagonal barrel and appreciates its uncommon back action lock and double set of triggers.
“Most gun collectors don’t collect guns to hold them for 20 years and make money,” said Bowman. “They want the story. Who made it? Who owned it?”
Many of the 114 historic firearms in the exhibition have never been on public display. The museum has exhibited guns from its collection, but only about a dozen at a time, said Mike Siebol, curator of collections.
The museum’s first donor gave a gun, said interim museum director David Burton, beginning a collection that grew to 150 firearms given by 80 donors.
“This is one of the most significant of individual collections the museum has,” Burton said. “We want to show off this important collection and tell an important American story.”
Some weapons on display were used decades or even centuries ago — there’s a blunderbuss, “kind of like an early sawed-off shotgun” familiar to coachmen, pirates and other sea-going adventurers; and a pepperbox, a short-range firearm similar to an early double-barrel pistol, said Andy Granitto, curator of exhibits.
Dr. George Roulston donated the blunderbuss; he and Bowman helped arrange the exhibition, along with help from interns Alex Fergus and Celina Muñoz. Roulston and Bowman also contributed about a dozen pieces, Granitto noted.
“One of the most significant guns we have is this Lewis gun,” Granitto said of the World War I-era light machine gun. “The museum has had this gun, but no magazine. Ric found a magazine online, purchased it and donated it.”
Bowman also donated a rifle with a brass plate commemorating his first place in a 2006 national Cast Bullet Association championship match.
“I’m a history buff, I’m a shooter,” said Bowman, a retired firefighter. “I have a pretty good library of (gun) books, several hundred. I have lots of gun books.”
While guns can be controversial in some political circles today, their role in American history began out of necessity as tools for hunting game, killing vermin and slaughtering livestock, Bowman said.
The exhibit shows how weapons technology advanced from matchlock guns fired with a flame to flintlocks, which used flint. The collection includes a Spencer rifle from the Civil War, along with a rifle similar to those given out by the government, Bowman said.
“The government gave them out to people to protect themselves on the frontier,” he said.
After the Civil War, inventors tried to figure out how to use cartridges instead of loose powder. Erskine Allin developed a way to convert the muzzleloaders into breech loaders with a “Trapdoor” breech mechanism that could be adapted to the existing muzzle-loading rifle.
“It’s a story of ingenuity, adapting them to the circumstances — technology, innovation, ingenuity,” Burton said.
There’s a big single-shot “horse pistol” — “you’d have a pair of these, one on each hip,” Bowman said. And a saber made not to cut, but rather break bones.
Winchester marketed its Model 1873, also part of the exhibition, as “the gun that won the West.” But they were far too pricey for most trying to make a living on the frontier.
“One of these cost a month’s wages” for a cowboy, Bowman said. “The majority of homesteaders had $2 Civil War muskets” sold for that amount as excess inventory.
The exhibition also includes three Native American guns, two distinguished by tacks in decorative patterns on the stock, along with a buckskin sleeve with fringe and colorful beadwork.
“We’re reasonably confident they’re real,” Bowman said of the Native American guns.
Along with firearms from other countries, such as a Zulu gun made for the Native trade, the exhibition features weapons and related memorabilia from World War I and II, modern guns used for hunting, toy guns and other examples of firearms’ role in popular culture.
There’s even a wooden club used in the Battle of Congdon Orchards on Thursday, Aug. 24, 1933, according to a note stuck to it with yellowing tape.
“The (Industrial Workers of the World) appeared at Congdon Orchard and demanded that all hired help strike,” Granitto read from the note. “At 12:25 noon an argument between a rancher and an IWW threw the two groups into combat.”
“After about 20 minutes of intense fighting, the farmers were able to round up the Wobblies and marched them to the county jail. Some 67 were arrested. This pick handle club was one of the many used by ranchers prepared for such trouble.”
Museum officials hope the exhibition appeals to those who don’t usually visit historical museums, Burton said.
“We’re trying to fill a gap in our exhibition programming,” he said.