Explosive History

by McKenzie Floyd ’12

Explosive History

The first thing I learned when I started as a conservation intern at the Autry National Center last summer was how to disassemble and reassemble a gun. This was certainly an unexpected turn for my liberal arts undergraduate career to take.

To someone who had never held or even been near a firearm, learning how to open up and take apart an 1851 Colt revolver as part of a summer internship was a strange and enlightening experience. I felt the weight of the pistol in my palm. I was struck by the intricacy and elegance of the inner mechanism. Above all, I noticed that after the initial discomfort of holding such a foreign object, it seemed like any other metal gadget with interlocking, interdependent parts. It did not seem dangerous; it simply seemed like another piece of history.

As L.A.’s museum of the American West, the Autry has an extensive collection of weapons used for survival, protection, and aggression throughout U.S. history. I entered the Autry’s conservation lab with impeccable timing, because nearly two months after my first day, the new Greg Martin Colt Gallery was to be installed. Alongside my supervisor, Richard Moll, chief conservator at the Autry, I was to be involved in the cleaning and repairing of firearms for that exhibition.

Cleaning a gun is very similar to conserving any other historical artifact or artwork. It requires great patience and awareness, and it is a very physical undertaking. I could work on a firearm for hours, removing layer after layer of grime and rust, with no visible progress. Finally, just when I thought I would never get rid of all the corrosive material, I would discover a dull reflection off the metal patina. The rust would begin to fade away more quickly, revealing a stunningly decorated surface carved with old sailing ships or stamped with intricate floral designs. In this way, cleaning a firearm is akin to removing a yellowed varnish from the surface of a Renaissance painting to reveal the brightness beneath.

The Autry firearms also provided me with a challenge I had not encountered in my previous conservation work: in order to repair them, I had to think mechanically. I learned which parts were most prone to breakage or wear, and I became familiar with the obstacles the history of technology presented. Guns are one of the best benchmarks of our country’s industrial advancement in the 1800s and beyond. Fifty years prior to the founding of Ford Motor Company, the Colt factory was turning out thousands of firearms per year from an assembly line. The 19th century was a time of great competition among gun manufacturers, and there were always new improvements being made on the guns themselves as well as their production.

At the Autry, there were times when I had to grind down old parts to make them fit a slightly different model than the one for which they were originally made. I was constantly looking up old schematics only to learn that the model I had was a slightly different version from those drawn. I found that every firearm is just another link in the constant evolution of the 19th-century gun manufacturing business.

The first gun I worked on was the 1851 Colt revolver. This was the type of gun for which Samuel Colt acquired his first patent, before ammunition and propellant could be contained in a single shell. One had to load the chamber with a powder propellant (gunpowder), followed by the ammunition. My next project was an 1881 Colt Single Action Army revolver, otherwise known as “the Peacemaker.” Designed for the U.S. military in 1873, this gun used cartridges incorporating ammunition and propellant. For decades, it was the most popular gun in America.

These guns gave me a personal tour through history. I learned much about the owners, famous and otherwise, of the objects I worked on. Looking at an historical firearm, it is not hard to decipher how often it was used and what type of person used it. Sometimes I could even determine whether that person was right- or left-handed by how the grip is worn.

My last restoration project for the Autry’s Colt exhibition was a gun owned by Pat Garrett, the lawman known for killing Billy the Kid. His story is known by millions, and not only am I now familiar with the tale, I am part of its continuing narrative.

McKenzie FloydOther guns recall haunting moments in U.S. history: there is a presentation pistol intended as a gift from the Colt Company to JFK, the engraving of which was halted on the day of his assassination. Now it sits, unfinished, in the Autry’s new Greg Martin Colt gallery.

Though much of my summer internship was dedicated to working with other types of objects, including paintings, posters, and textiles, it was conserving the Autry’s firearm collection that most fascinated me. Perhaps it was because of my complete lack of experience in handling guns or even thinking about using them. Perhaps it was the unique insight they give into our country’s history.

For my thesis this year, I have chosen to focus on firearms. I am analyzing the types of surface treatments commonly used by 19th-century arms manufacturers, specifically Colt. I decided to do so, not just because of my interest in metals and their surfaces, but also because of the need for conservation research in this area. Though I understand the negative view toward guns and have some personal reservations, I still believe that they are significant artifacts representing important events in our country’s history.

In 1914, Marcel Duchamp transformed a bottle rack into art by distancing it from its everyday use. The same thing can be done with firearms; they do not all have to be dangerous weapons. Beautifully conserved and behind museum glass, guns are transformed into artistic and historically informative objects.

This is what I have learned since I first held a pistol in my hand.


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