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Big Guns.

Museum of the Big Guns (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Watervliet, New York

The Watervliet Arsenal Museum, a.k.a. the Museum of the Big Guns, is not a place where the staff can just move artifacts around on a whim. "A lot of this stuff is pretty immobile," said historian Paul Marcello. Fragility, however, is rarely a problem. If you drop a mortar the size of a minivan -- or even a simple Civil War cannon ball -- it's more likely to break the floor than the artifact.

The building itself is a 19th century museum piece, made entirely of cast iron, reasonably fireproof for a structure filled with bombs and artillery. Watervliet has hosted a U.S. Arsenal for 200 years, and most of those have been spent as America's official cannon factory. Everything from itty-bitty muzzle loaders to immense hell-howitzers came out of its shops.

Watervliet Arsenal Museum.

The biggest of the big guns -- a 60-foot-long battleship cannon -- is too big for the building and has to lay on a display rack outside. Carl Alfred Christiansen, "Father of the Big Guns," worked obsessively on its design and construction for ten years, then died of exhaustion one day before it was successfully test-fired. It weighs 94 tons. Paul described its ballistic capabilities as "like throwing a Volkswagen Beetle 25 miles." One of its massive shells is displayed indoors, reassuringly stenciled INERT.

In the "Odd Jobs Post WWII" exhibit we found two of our all-time favorite weapons: the atomic cannon and the atomic mortar, both designed and built at Watervliet. A replica of the cannon's 600-pound atomic bullet is available for inspection, next to a photograph of the cannon silhouetted against a distant nuclear fireball.

Nuclear Projectile 280mm replica.
Nuclear Projectile 280mm replica.

If the idea of shooting an atomic bomb from a cannon seems crazy, imagine firing one from a bazooka or a hand-carried mortar. That collective weapon system is known as the Davy Crockett, and both versions are on display. The bomb itself, casually lying on the ground next to the mortar, resembles a miniature 1930s Flash Gordon rocket ship

The back half of the museum is not air-conditioned in summer nor heated in winter, and warehouses an entire historical arsenal amid the unmistakable smell of machine oil. Here are the "trophy guns" in the collection, captured from foes, dating to 1777. An elegantly inscribed cannon, surrendered by the British, was promptly turned around and used against them, according to Paul.

Watervliet Arsenal Museum.

"If it's a good gun, there's no sense retiring it," he said with a smile. We asked if the ancient cannon still worked. "We could put it on carriage and fire it today," Paul said. "But I wouldn't advise it."

Also in this back area is a celebrity "bunker-buster" bomb from 1991's Operation Desert Storm. The U.S. military needed a weapon that was tough enough to burrow deep underground before it exploded. The engineers at Watervliet had the brilliant idea to take retired cannon barrels and stick surplus fins on them. The first bomb was ready in only 23 days. "It penetrated 144 feet of ground," said Paul. "They surrendered within 48 hours."

Also see: Atomic Cannons

Museum of the Big Guns

Watervliet Arsenal Museum

Watervliet Arsenal Museum. I-787 north past Albany. Exit at 23rd St (Watervliet). Left at stop light, then left at next stop light (Broadway). South on Broadway, paralleling I-787. In about one mile you will pass the Main Gate for the arsenal, which is closed. Make the next right (3rd Ave.) and then right at the South Gate. Register with guards.
Closed by govt budget-slashing terrorists in 2013.

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