I’m on my way to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West—cue any western soundtrack by composer Ennio Morricone, and imagine tumbleweeds rolling along a dusty highway. I’m about to engage in a standoff with a few hundred years of frontier history, and I couldn’t be more excited. Those in the know consider the Cody Firearms Museum “Graceland for the gun enthusiast,” but I’m here for the history.
I’m from the East Coast originally, and grew up pretending to be from another time and place—an eighth-grade class trip to New England and Washington, DC sparked the historian in me, after which I became a polyester soldier, once claiming a New England beach in the name of John Smith. Then I became, if only for a brief time, a real stitch counter, a reenactor of almost fanatical persuasion. I was bent on reliving battles like Pickett's Charge and the Battle of Fredericksburg down to the most-minute detail—until living through a winter without shoes nearly caused me to lose two toes to frostbite.
I moved to the American West about five years ago, keen to experience the Western Theater of the American Civil War, the Indian Wars, and more. I was immediately enamored with local legends and lore, tales of cowboys and Native Americans, the chicanery of outlaws and the bravery of grizzled lawmen. Part and parcel to the experience of the American West, at least in my view, is the history and understanding of the American firearm. I’m interested in the culture and utility of the gun, the public’s perceived fascination with what some call a tool and others call a weapon, and how firearms have inflamed, informed, and catalyzed the country.
About the Cody Firearms Museum, I’ve heard it contains not only the most remarkable collection of firearms anywhere in the world, but is also a storehouse of firearms-related knowledge. Nicknamed the “CFM,” the museum’s Records Office has information about individual pieces manufactured by Marlin, L.C. Smith, and Winchester, including a database of my favorite, the Winchester Model 94. In fact, the Records Office database includes serial number records from 1866 to the 1960s. The museum’s exhibit space shares the history of Hollywood guns as well as how the West itself was shaped, in part, by the firearm. Ever keen to connect visitors with western history, the Center of the West has worked with Winchester and Navy Arms to craft a new edition of the Winchester Model 73, the “gun that won the West” in honor of the Center’s Centennial in 2017. The limited-edition replicas are showcased at codygun.com, where they can be reserved for purchase. Nowhere else in the world are the guns of the Old West presented in such an incredible fashion.
Dozens of rifles welcome me at the entrance to the museum, suspended, almost in mid-air, as if they’re dominos waiting to tumble, or the spine of some great Jurassic beast buried deep in the Wyoming bedrock. The breadth and depth of the CFM is staggering. I’m not sure if I should turn my attention to the Journeying West: Distinctive Firearms exhibit—and explore treasures from the Smithsonian’s National Firearms Collection, including an absolutely jaw-dropping “Swiss Army Knife,” fixed with a hundred blades and a .22 caliber pistol—or step right into Hollywood’s firearms history and finally learn why Matthew Quigley of Quigley Down Under fame chose a 1874 Sharps single-shot breech loading rifle as his firearm of choice. Indeed, it is difficult—and altogether delightful—to decide where to begin when exploring the Cody Firearms Museum.
I wish I had come dressed to impress—like an old time shopkeeper or a blacksmith with a mouth full of metal teeth—at the particularly engrossing Gold Reef Hardware store. Unbeknownst to me, the hardware store used to be a common place to buy a firearm. Truly unique are the items built by firearms manufacturers that have nothing at all to do with guns such as roller skates, flashlights, and razors. This wide array of bric-a-brac serves as a testament to the power of these companies in the early days of the American West.
The museum’s educational firearms cache is robust, to say the least, and staff and volunteers offer programs highlighting these guns. I’m thoroughly surprised and elated about the fact I get to put my hands on some of this history myself at just such a program. In the “why didn’t I think of that” department, I inspected a Winchester Model 1892 on display, speculating who would take a similar 1892 and saw off the barrel to create “Mare’s Laig,” Steve McQueen’s legendary Winchester Model 1892 Carbine. McQueen used the gun as bounty hunter Josh Randall on TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive from 1958 to 1961. The King of Cool was at his iconic best as Randall and has me wondering if I should focus my reenactment hobbies on a more modern timeframe.
The Cody Firearms Museum is without a doubt one of the treasures of the West, a repository of information and a glimpse at American history—from frontier days to the modern world. More than a firearms showcase, this is the culture of an entire country brought to life.Learn about the collections at the Cody Firearms Museum.