Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Wyoming
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Interview with a Firearms Curator

Interview with a Firearms Curator

How Ashley Hlebinsky’s story led to history and Buffalo Bill Center of the West

By Katie Jackson

When Ashley Hlebinsky was 16, she didn’t know anything about guns. But the East Coast native (and former ballroom dancer) didn’t dislike guns. She simply didn’t think about them. Today, however, if you Google “firearms and Ashley Hlebinsky” you can spend hours, if not days, reading her articles and watching her lectures on the subject. So how did then-25-year-old Ashley end up becoming the first female firearms curator in the country? She recently took a break from working on the Cody Firearms Museum’s upcoming renovation (6,000 objects in 40,000 sq. ft. of space) to share some of her interesting story. Her answers also explain why she’s so passionate about sharing the museum’s interesting stories.


At what age did you discover your interest in firearms?

18. I didn’t grow up around firearms. I got interested after a Civil War medicine tour at Gettysburg. The tour illustrated how the advancements of weapons technology altered medical technology on the battlefield. Then I got an internship at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I had to identify hundreds of firearms—and I was hooked. I was fascinated by how diverse they were and the stories they told about people.


What did you learn while working at the Smithsonian Firearms Collection?

I spent several years at the Smithsonian as an intern, researcher, and Edward Ezell Research Fellow, connected with the University of Delaware. While I was there, I researched a U.S. Marshal pistol collection as well as selected objects for a loan to the Cody Firearms Museum. I used my time there to learn about as many different types of firearms as I could so I’d be able to handle and understand the encyclopedic collection in Cody.


What is your favorite piece in the Cody Firearms Museum’s collection?

I go through phases. But if I were going to go with the most significant to the founding of this collection, I’d choose one of our Jennings Rifles. The Cody Firearms Museum started out as the Winchester Arms Museum thanks to the Winchester collection. Our Smith-Jennings Rifle is related to the first-known reference to the Winchester collection.


Which piece surprises visitors the most?

A closeup photo of the hammer of the Lincoln-Head Hammer Gun, a percussion rifle developed by Hiram Berdan as a thank you to President Abraham Lincoln, on display at the Cody Firearms Museum in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming

The Lincoln-Head Hammer Gun. This percussion rifle was developed by Hiram Berdan, who had a meeting with President Lincoln early in the Civil War. Afterward, Lincoln authorized the formation of several Sharpshooter regiments known as the “Berdan Sharpshooters.” Berdan made this gun as a thank you to the President. In lieu of a traditional hammer though, the hammer is a portrait bust of Lincoln’s head.


At which piece do visitors spend the most time?

The Gatling gun in the front of the museum. It’s a large artillery piece with a mismatched carriage. It’s one of the first things people see; many people know of the Gatling Gun from the movies.

‘I got an internship at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I had to identify hundreds of firearms—and I was hooked. I was fascinated by how diverse they were and the stories they told about people.’

What are your thoughts on Hollywood’s depiction of firearms?

My favorite movie guns are science fiction guns. I’m a huge fan of the guns from the cult hits Firefly and Serenity. It’s a fusion of a western in space. They use everything from a Winchester Model 1892 with a shortened barrel (Mare’s Leg) that western actor Steve McQueen used in his show Wanted: Dead or Alive, to modified guns that look space-age. Most movies don’t have a realistic view of how firearms operate, but the John Wick series is usually propped up as a good example, because Keanu Reeves trains with Hollywood firearms trainer Taran Butler, who takes firearms training and accuracy for the movies seriously.


For you, which exhibit has the most cultural and/or historical significance?

In 2016, we opened Glock Makes History: The Birth of the Polymer Handgun Market. This exhibition, in our Coors Theater, is the country’s first major Glock exhibit. Most firearms collections look at more historical firearms rather than more recent polymer guns. It also caused some controversy. Some gun people really don’t like Glocks. Traditionalists felt that the guns didn’t have a place in a history museum. But the exhibition, despite some reservations, really demonstrated how historically significant Glock’s contributions to the firearms world are, even if they’re only a little more than 30 years old.


What is the biggest misconception the public currently has about firearms?

The general public often doesn’t realize that firearms have been, and still are, used for a number of reasons; firearms used in crime throughout history are a small percentage compared to the total number of guns used. Other than military firearms, many guns are tools, have been showcased as art and, most prominently, are part of a huge sporting culture.


Who are your favorite visitors to see at the museum?

The visitors who get dragged in. Usually there’s someone in a group who is really excited to see the firearms museum and the rest of the party is not convinced. I like helping them find something in firearms history they can relate to.


Which individuals get the most from a visit to the museum?

Currently—gun enthusiasts, collectors, and manufacturers. The museum is set up in a way that showcases firearms in beautifully arranged artistic displays. The new museum, opening in 2019, will be more hands-on and focus on the history of firearms rather than just showcasing them as art. There will be sections devoted to firearms safety, and it will have four firearms simulators: pistol and rifle, shotgun, long range shooting, and a historic machine gun. And for enthusiasts, we’ll showcase more firearms than are currently on display, and we’re dedicating the entire lower level to the collector experience.


What is your favorite era in firearms history?

It’s a toss-up between the late 19th century and the post-World War II period. The late 19th century marks the birthplace of our current American culture and really develops into the “gun culture” that we see today; but the post-World War II period marks the birth of synthetic experimentation of firearms and a cultural shift in the U.S. that trended toward large-scale firearms regulation. My academic area of study is the perception of firearms in culture. I look at where in history we’ve developed modern attitudes about firearms—on both sides of the gun debate—in order to understand how to communicate about them effectively. These two periods play a significant role in this analysis.


What do you say to those who think your fascination with firearms is politically incorrect?

My fascination is not politically incorrect because firearms have been integral to understanding our history and culture, for better or for worse. But, I recognize people acknowledge firearms as politically incorrect. My research delves into the idea of political correctness with an artifact and unloads some of the stigma that comes from firearms. It shows people why they think that way and where in history those attitudes became prominent.


In other words, the museum provides information, not affirmation?

We take an apolitical, non-advocacy stance on firearms so we can look critically at them. Our goal is not to have someone leave the museum saying, “Now I want to buy guns and learn how to shoot!” The point of the museum is for visitors to understand why firearms are important to American history and how they’ve been used. It’s not my job to tell you what to think about firearms; it’s my job to provide the tools to help you make your own informed conclusions.

Firearms and exhibits on display at the Cody Firearms Museum in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming
Explore the vast collections at the Cody Firearms Museum.