Dirty Harry's gun.
Dirty Harry's badge and gun.

National Firearms Museum

Field review by the editors.

Fairfax, Virginia

Face it: the NRA's National Firearms Museum is preaching to the choir -- a choir who hears the sound of exploding powder charges and whizzing projectiles as the sweetest music. To visit you don't need to be a card-carrying NRA member, or even support the right to bear arms. But it's hard to imagine an equal number of anti-gun visitors -- unless they come to intentionally raise their own blood pressure.

Since it opened in 1998, the National Firearms Museum has been on the ground floor of the National Rifle Association's well-funded office building headquarters. The museum is free.

Charlton Heston gallery.

Its space seems small, but that may be because so many thousands of guns are packed into it (more than you'll find at a Cabela's Gun Library, also free to peruse). Wall after wall are filled with old rifles and pistols, an impressive visual argument that America has always been awash in firepower. The United States, according to the NRA, would be impossible without guns, and it's the patriotic duty of every American to own at least one.

The history here is cherry picked, and that's what makes it fun. There are no bad guns at the NRA National Firearms Museum: no assassination guns, no school massacre guns (okay, there's some captured war booty). Most of the firearms here killed things that somebody thought needed killing, such as Enemies of Freedom or animals that came into range. Even "The Mayflower Gun" is here, brought over with the very first boatload of Pilgrims, to show that guns have been in America as long as Americans (Other Pilgrim imports such as witch-killing and hats with large buckles don't get the same credit).

GIs contemplate Nazi war booty.
Look what the Nazis left behind!

The museum aims for a classy look with its gleaming wood veneers and sculpted lighting. Its introductory video describes it as "a crown jewel of firearms museums in the world" and explains that by looking at its guns, visitors "can fully appreciate and understand America's proud tradition of Constitutional freedoms." The Road To American Liberty gallery shows how an evil government (the British) tried to take our guns away. The Seeds of Greatness Charlton Heston Gallery features a larger-than-life bronze statue of the Omega Man (and former NRA President) dressed in cowboy garb and holding a gun -- the one that they really never will pry out of his cold, dead hands.

There are many works of art inspired by the Second Amendment, including paintings of soaring eagles, Revolutionary War militiamen, and a dad lovingly patting the head of his son who's just killed a pheasant. Steel plates bear the outlines of an Indian chief and Uncle Sam rendered in bullet holes.

Bruger portrait.
William B. Ruger.

There's also a portrait of a scowling William B. Ruger, founder of America's largest firearms manufacturer and a generous sponsor of the NRA National Firearms Museum. Guess it would be unnerving if he wore a maniacal grin, but Ruger really does look like a guy who mass-produces weapons for a living. He's been painted with his hand in his suit jacket pocket, leaving its contents and caliber to the viewer's imagination.

Part of the problem of having so many guns in one place is that you can lose the gems in the arsenal. We spotted Chuck Yeager's pistol, Chief Kicking Bear's rifle, Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum, and shotguns owned by Annie Oakley and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Luke Skywalker's spare light saber is displayed -- not a firearm, however the NRA was evidently willing to bend the rules to link itself to the Star Wars generation.

Most of these weapons, however, are identified only by tiny numbers (it saves space, given the amount on display) that you have to track down on placarded lists surrounding each exhibit. These lists are primarily concerned with telling you what model of gun you're looking at, not who owned it. You have to read down into the very-serious-typeface text, for example, to discover that the "Smith & Wesson New Model #3" on display belonged to Jesse James, and that his mom sold it as a souvenir for $39.

Luke Skywalker's light saber.
Luke Skywalker's light saber.

This approach makes quick stops here less satisfying, but does suggest that repeat visits will reveal new treasures. We popped back in to snap some additional photos and discovered guns owned by Napoleon and the Shah of Iran, and a side case displaying 14 pistols used by Ed McGivern, "the fastest gun in the world."

Hundreds of guns line" Freedom's Doorway," the claustrophobic exit hall, "representing past and present arms that have been called on by their owners to defend home and homeland." Then it's out into the gift shop, which sells paintball pistols, dozens of books and DVDs on firearms, and replica shotgun shell shot glasses and salt-and-pepper shaker sets, both "very popular" according to the guy behind the cash register.

Out back, in the lower level of the parking garage, is a wheelchair-accessible firing range. Any freedom-loving American can bring his or her gun here, up to a .460 Magnum, and blast away.

National Firearms Museum

NRA Headquarters

Address:
11250 Waples Mill Rd, Fairfax, VA
Directions:
NRA Headquarters. I-66 exit 57-A onto US 50 east toward Fairfax. At the first traffic light turn left onto Waples Mill Rd. Go through one traffic light, around a bend, and the blue and white NRA headquarters building will be on your right. The Museum is on the ground floor of the south tower.
Phone:
703-267-1600
Admission:
Free.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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