Each year more than 200,000 people come to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
They want to see the rifle Theodore Roosevelt took on safari in 1905 and the gun and Bowie knife used by legendary mountain man John “Liver Eating” Johnston —who despite the myths didn’t actually cut out and eat other people’s livers — said Ashley Hlebinsky, the Robert W. Woodruff Curator at the museum.
But mostly people want to see “their gun” — not one they donated, but the same model of the gun they own, or remember their grandparents using.
“People want to see something they have a connection to,” Hlebinsky said.
There are plenty of opportunities for visitors to find a connection in the museum. Its collection contains almost 7,000 firearms with at least one dating to as far back as the 1400s — a four-barrel hand cannon that had to be ignited with a fuse.
The collection charts the evolution of firearms from the creation of gunpowder to modern day weapons, but the museum is only able to display about half of its firearms at a time.
A renovation slated to begin next month aims to overcome that limitation. When the museum reopens next summer visitors will have a chance to take in up to 2,000 more guns, Hlebinsky said.
The museum’s lower level closed this spring and the main floor will close Aug. 13. The extensive remodel will be the first significant change to the museum in more than 25 years, Hlebinsky said. The museum isn’t expanding in square footage, but new cases will create visible storage on the lower level. New storage racks will also enable coinesours to examine pieces from multiple sides — collectors and technicians like seeing all the marking on a firearm, Hlebinsky said.
The lower level will also include a gun library for researchers.
While some visitors are firearms aficionados, many museum visitors wander in knowing nothing about guns, Hlebinsky said. The upper level will include a firearms “primer” exhibit on gun terminology, history, safety and manufacturing. The more people understand guns, the richer the museum experience, she said.
“We want to create a balance with an encyclopedic display, but we also know there is a huge population from around the world that don’t know much about guns other than what they see in movies or the media,” she said.
The upper level will offer more context for the displays. For example, the museum has a Thompson submachine gun — a.k.a. a Tommy gun — that was used in a bank robbery. People are drawn to the weapon in part because they associate with prohibition-era gangsters, but don’t realize it was originally invented for law enforcement, Hlebinsky said. That type of information will be included in the new displays.
The museum will also have exhibits on law and order in the West and the cost and history of military conflicts, including oral history from soldiers and the opportunity for veterans to share their stories.
In one gallery there will be a timeline charting the evolution of guns and explaining when and why technological changes happened. The museum will display information on regulations and historical uses and misuses of firearms.
“We recognize that firearms are political and we are an apolitical institution, so we tell the history of firearms — the good, bad and indifferent,” Hlebinsky said.
The museum began as the Winchester Arms Museum, dedicated by John Wayne in 1976, and featured about 2,000 guns from Oliver Winchester’s personal collection. He started collecting firearms in the 1860s — mainly competition pieces and foreign models. The Winchester collection also included about 2,000 pieces from Edwin Pugsley, a private collector and Winchester company president, who acquired guns as well as crossbows and longbows.
Before long it became evident that the collection needed a home with museum staff. Cody’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West beat out Disneyland for the honor, Hlebinsky said.
The guns were initially displayed on loan, then given to the museum in the 1980s. By then other weapons had joined the collection and famed firearms designer and entrepreneur Bill Ruger sat on the museum’s board. He offered $1 million to change the name to something other than a manufacturer’s name. The board agreed and he wrote a check. The museum opened in its current form in 1991.
While construction of this latest remodel is underway the museum will host several temporary exhibits showcasing about 500 of the collection’s most significant items. The museum has designed an exhibit for its breezeway that will open in October. It will offer a nod to the original Winchester Arms Museum in design and style, display some of the collection’s most impressive guns and incorporate historical information. The temporary exhibit will include large touch screens that will allow people to see images of the entire collection and curate their own on-screen exhibit.
The redesigned museum is expected to open in summer 2019.