Museum Collection Management at Springfield Armory National Historic Site

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described verion of the presentation on YouTube.

A Veritable Arsenal: Museum Collection Management at Springfield Armory National Historic Site

Presenter: Alexander MacKenzie


When the National Park Service (NPS) assumed stewardship of the museum at Springfield Armory over forty years ago, it inherited a complex collection. Originally managed by the US Army as part of the renowned government arms factory, the museum was formally established in 1866, and open to public visitation in 1871. By the time the NPS took over administration of Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the museum was already over a century old, housing thousands of muskets, rifles, pistols, machine guns, swords, and bayonets, but also gauges, tools, fixtures, machinery, and institutional archives – all combining into and one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. It was never a museum in the traditional sense, but rather a technical reference collection for the research and development function of Springfield Armory. Where the Armory had a mission to develop, evaluate, and then manufacture small arms for the US Army’s combat forces, the museum became a resource to inform and support that mission. Therefore, it’s less a museum and more an archive of the activities and interests of Springfield Armory itself.

While there was always an element of public access at Springfield Armory museum, the focus on long-term preservation came to the forefront with the National Park Service’s preservation-driven mission. As a technical collection, the firearms were at times actively used and maintained as such. The engineers working at the Armory could borrow a rifle, fire it any number of times, and return it after they gathered the data needed. Today, the bulk of the preservation work focuses on attacking the remnants of their former use. The park’s stabilization program includes removal of old lubricants and preservatives, corrosive powder residues, accumulated dust, dirt, and even unloading a few older muskets, before applying protective barriers that ensure preservation over function.
White man with a long brown beard wearing a blue button-up shirt stands at a microphone.
Alexander MacKenzie


Alexander MacKenzie: Thanks very much for having me. Thanks for putting this together. I'm grateful to be here and talk about Springfield Armory. I've been there for half of my life now, literally. And I love that place. I love talking about it and I love seeing connections. Making connections with other collections, other stories is something I like to do and I couldn't help it. I mean I saw the soldiers that have a plane shooting up at the Japanese Zeros or the Japanese planes rather with a Springfield bolt actions, and see them trading at Camp Laguna and Camp Adair with Springfield rifles. And indeed, I mean, you see a good chunk of the soldiers who are invading Normandy 75 years ago today were carrying rifles stamped, Springfield Armory. There's a lot of distinct history there and it's all reflected in the museum collection and happy to talk to you about it today.

And much of that history actually is well before those rifles ever made it into a soldier's hands. And that's part of the challenge as we work to preserve the collections and provide public access to it. I'm going to start with a little history, and hopefully don't lose much of my time before I get to the Civil War. The story at Springfield Armory really starts during the Revolution. It was an ordinance depot. Once a British got kicked out of Boston, and General Washington and Henry Knox decided that spot in Springfield, Massachusetts out west was a great spot to concentrate military supplies, do a little repair work. They rolled paper cartridges, the bulk of French muskets coming in, in support, we're to put it kindly, not in the best shape. Springfield Arsenal was the place that got them into a fighting condition, and out to places like Saratoga and fighting in upstate New York.

By 1794 those muskets weren't doing so well. They weren't in great condition. Congress authorized President Washington to create up to four manufacturing facilities, government run musket factories, and he selected two places. One was Springfield and the other was Harper's Ferry in Virginia. Now all the national armories in a few contractors made new muskets. The priority was really about how they were made, rather than the technology of the firearms themselves. After a lot of work and contributions by government armorers and private contractors like Thomas Blanchard who made that lathe in the picture, the armory system of manufacturer, which assured interchangeable parts, was finally achieved. Eventually the process spread to other industries becoming known as the American system and which launched our Industrial Revolution.

And the Civil War put the process to the test at Springfield armory, which passed with flying colors and it did so alone as Harper's Ferry was burned to the ground in 1861. Because the armory system was scalable, Springfield was able to expand, albeit slowly, train new labor, make new tooling, and ultimately produce about 800,000 fully interchangeable rifle muskets over the course of the civil war. And as a government factory, Springfield armory was tied to appropriations from Congress and in future decades, employment and output varied widely depending upon the country's war status. With the armory struggling to expand and keep pace with the army expansion, once war was formally declared.

Despite frenetic funding since the Civil War, US Army ordinance had a strong focus on research and development, particularly with small arms. After World War I, even with the usual drastic cuts to US Army budgets, Springfield Armory was able to maintain work to develop a semiautomatic battle rifle. It was hoped it could be a dramatic improvement over standard bolt action rifles of the day. In October of 1919, the government hired John C. Garand to work at Springfield Armory is head of the model shop. His primary mission would be the development of the state of the art semiautomatic rifle. After 17 years of development in competition Garand's rifle was adopted by the US Army in 1936 and designated the US rifle caliber 30 M1. Garand did not only develop the rifle, but the manner in which it was made and a large-scale factory setting. Well-timed and substantial increases in budget for Springfield Armory in 1940 and 1941 set the factory up for success when the United States formerly entered World War II.

This forethought and planning and some degree of luck along with excellent management and organization throughout, resulted in the production of about 3.5 million M1 Garand rifles by Springfield Armory alone, during the course of World War II. Total employment reached nearly 14,000 employees, 43% of whom were women. Peak output in January in 1944 averaged over 200 rifles an hour, in a wartime government factory running 24 hours a day. After World War II, changes in army procurement policies emphasized contract production over that of the government. In addition to research and development, Springfield Armory's role moved to pilot production, development of technical packages, quality control and support for contractors. The research and engineering function officially surpassed manufacturing as the primary role of Springfield Armory and for the first time in a century and a half, the bulk of actual production was given to private contractors.

In 1957 the army adopted the M14 rifle. A Springfield armory design closely related to the M1 Garand. In fact, that project started late in World War II to develop a select fire rifle for a potential invasion of mainland Japan, and the work at Los Alamos pushed off that project at Springfield Armory. Looking from the outside Springfield armory's lightweight rifle project that ultimately selected the M14 was slowly moving and overly complex. And despite perceived inefficiencies in the M14 development, the armory continued its role as a designer for several new small arms systems, including the 40 millimeter grenade launcher, the M60 machine gun. Other projects in this era include experimental Project Salvo, SPIWs, special purpose infantry weapons, individual weapons rather, and the 20 millimeter M61 Vulcan another rotary multi barrel aircraft cannon. Many of these systems are still in use today or have only been recently been replaced. But back in the 1960s the political winds were turning against Springfield Armory, and drastic cost cutting within the Department of Defense and an emphasis on contract production, was the rationale for the closure of Springfield Armory on April 30th, 1968.

To back up a bit, the museum at Springfield Armory was formally established in 1866, and opened to the public visitation in 1871. From the very beginning, the museum served as a technical reference collection for the army officers and civilian employees working there. The fact that this was a government institution enabled public access from the very beginning. Newly developed arms results of experiments, damaged guns, foreign gifts or battlefield pickups were added to the collection over the years. And the museum remained in Springfield after the armory closed, and in 1978 the National Park Service formerly took stewardship of a collection that consists of about 10,000 arms with almost 7,000 classified as firearms. About 30% of those firearms are from the post 1940 era, with many earlier examples as related as prototypes or design influences. Artifacts include US and foreign pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, bolt action and semiautomatic rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, aircraft cannons, grenade launchers, bazookas and spotting rifles. Captured foreign arms form a rather interesting subset with German weapons in particular becoming a serious focus of study in the post war era.

The development of the M1 Garand, M14, M79, M60, and the M61 Vulcan, is fully represented in the museum collection with prototype and production pieces. And that's true of basically all the small arms back to 1794. There's also a stunning amount of archives from the entire history of Springfield Armory. As a government factory, the bulk of records are housed at the national archives, but the records at Springfield Armory tend to be more complimentary to official records. These include oral histories, photographs, personal papers, and many copies of technical reports, manuals, and other documentation that either remained behind or was donated later by former employees.

So what do we do to preserve this? The museum collection at Springfield Armory was historically, again, a technical collection, which included test firing as a valid use of the artifacts. Much of the historic care of the collection was effectively a large scale exercise to maintain actively used firearms, ensuring proper lubrication, cleanliness, and rarely repair to sustain functionality. And the change in approach for the National Park Service has been the development of a program that places preservation over function. These firearms are now treated as mechanical objects that will never be fired again.

Over 80 historic rifles standing vertically in racks above four long shelves of evenly spaced other barreled weapons.
Collection storage at Springfield Armory National Historic Site.


So how do we do this? Once overall environment is considered, plus storage and you saw a few pictures of our storage system there. Our focus comes to individual objects in the respective materials. Metal corrosion was a concern for ordinance throughout history in the post war era is really no different. For many arms in the museum collection from World War II and later, the surface treatment of metals has thus far from what we've seen, provided an excellent level of protection for metal first surfaces. The fact that most of these objects were subjected to intense quality control measures speaks to the longevity but it is something to watch over the long haul. And the experimental nature of the collection also includes trials with surface treatments which may or may not have been successful, or the durability of widely accepted, utilized treatment methods aren't necessarily there. So we're trying to keep an eye on it as best we can.

However, most post war metal treatments seem to be holding up, which enables us to put priorities on older small arms that are in the collection. And a much of the preservative finishes to metals that are still in use today, are again holding up just fine. And a lot of the experiments that were going on at Springfield Armory provide finishes, again that are also still in use. But as a collection that was active historically, the finishes and coatings still require close inspection to locate and protect worn spots that might not otherwise be there on a new or unused example. Again, this was an active collection. Naturally close study of the manufacturing methods of not only the United States but other countries is required to ensure appropriate protection for every object.

Another interesting facet is the design of ammunition and the composition of his propellant and primer also have an effect on long term preservation. Residues from primers and propellants is used through the 1960s are notoriously corrosive. Many firearms in the Springfield Armory Museum collection have not been cleaned since they were last fired. Of course for post war collections, a new wave of material presents preservation challenges. I was so happy to hear an earlier talk on plastics, because it's fantastic. So fiberglass, plastics, composite metal components, and experimental alloys have been state of the art at the time, and they weren't necessarily meant for long term stability. Plastics are an emerging problem for museum collections, overall, as polymers start to break down and artifacts lose their integrity and their appearance. The texture changes and the ability to preserve the original gets harder and harder to sustain. The gas is released as a byproduct of this deterioration can also pose a risk to other nearby materials in storage.

As of this moment, we are really just starting to assess plastics and more modern materials in the collection because again, a lot of our focus has been on the older pieces that predate the focus of this conference. Aside from general cleaning and stabilization procedures, additional work will vary object to object, but may include minor repairs or specialized treatment for uncommon materials. And most of our collection is micro, but we do have a few macro pieces in the collection, which poses a challenge for disassembly or getting at internal pieces. This is a 37 millimeter Vigilante that the armory was playing around with a designed as a anti-aircraft gun battery, that didn't make it. But the prototype as usual, went into the collection when Project Vigilante went under.

Here's an overall description of the museum collection. One of the things near and dear to my heart is access. How do we provide access to this collection? For a long time, the armories collection, the objects were the sole focus. And as I mentioned, there's a ton of archives, and we also have cultural landscapes. We have, in addition to the archives and cultural landscapes, the buildings on them as well. And how do we treat that as a whole? I mean, one of the great things about the Park Service being able to come in and take stewardship over the collection is we've got that power of place. We can not only show the museum objects in the archives, but you could still walk around the buildings, and walk around the grounds and try to imagine this factory in action.

How are we doing that? And we're kicking around a few ideas. And one of the things we've been talking about was a thing called CCO, and a way to better describe the collection as a whole. And we're just starting to play around with the idea, but I thought it was worth sharing. When you consider all the records of Springfield Armory, you've got photographs, you've got drawings, you have the reports, we've got documentation, oral histories. Again, we've got in the museum collection, we've got weapons, we get accoutrements, we've got gauges, we've got tools, we've got machines, we've got uniforms, we've got archaeological finds, that are also in the collection. And how do we bring all these together? Because traditionally in the manner of preserving these as separate things, they've kind of lost that connection. Where in the past they were really a cohesive whole.

Looking at CCO, Cataloging Cultural Objects, which The Getty put together as a way to catalog across different types of cultural heritage, from art to architecture, and primarily it's an art thing. But playing with the idea of tweaking it, but they use work in concept records to make relationship connections between images, other works, and other intellectual concepts or ideas. And what might this look like in our collection? Well luckily the US Army already used and developed a fine grain taxonomy and nomenclature for just about everything. And here's a slide I forgot to go to earlier, that has our collections. Some examples of blueprints, photos, reports. Sometimes those reports are actually about the testing of the pieces that are in the collection. And right now they have no link. And getting back to Ray's presentation, some of our pieces in the collection are just described as rifle, not descriptive enough, or sword.

M1 Rifle with dark brown wood butt stock and barrel support, with black metal trigger, sights, and barrel.
M1 Rifle, part of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site collections


Using the already existing nomenclature within the armies system of supply, we can begin to break down some of this. And this might seem a little excessive, but we are looking at the M1 rifle, take for example, as 81 pieces that can break. The whole rifle can break down into six groups, which breaks down into components that helps us get a handle on some of the pieces that are still in collections. But it also can help us make connections. This is a partial concept record, and really what this does is gets us a generic description of an M1. One of the other problems we have within the catalog records is the fact that when we transitioned to our NPS database, basically it was a full transition from the old method of individual folders that describes each piece. The physical folders might include references, news clippings, descriptions, things like that. And they may or may not be cross-referenced among commonly relevant pieces.

We've got, and I'm making this number up, five or six dozen M1s. And if you look on our catalog records, they may or may not have the same information about them in each one. That applies to all. They are all generically an M1, but if you do a search on our website on M1s, you may or may not get all our M1s. Part of the thought with this is taking the CCO method of creating a record for a generic M1, and then being able to point to each object that fits that description. And then a general description of what an M1 is would then filter down into each individual work, in the description of CCO, each of those individual M1s would be a work, where then you would record the individual markings, things that make that particular one unique. One of those things being serial number or any marks that include a drawing numbers or heat lot numbers. All those little tiny marks all over the rifle that are really descriptive of when this thing was made, how it was made. There is value there, certainly.

How does this help us get a connection between the other collections? Well, just for example, here's a great photo. One of my favorites, this is about 1943. These are two blind workers working at Springfield Armory that are inspecting firing pins. And that's about the limit of the description, other than the date. With a little more research, we were able to determine, we know where this photo was taken, we of course know when. Eventually we did find out who these gentlemen were as employees of Springfield Armory. But if we linked to these records, these CCO records, that I was describing before, we can actually do a little better than just saying inspecting firing pins. Excuse me, we can link that firing pin. We know which part of the M1 it was, it links to the hole. And then once we link that individual part to the whole, we can then link to the place. That building, is still there. Right now just for reference, this whole area is just part of Springfield Armory. Most of these buildings are all still there.

The National Park Service, this chunk right here is the National Historic Site. The vast majority of these buildings are owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and are actually run as a community college. The National Park Service only owns this small chunk of the site and these two buildings. Our Museum is actually in this building, right here in the main arsenal. But the whole story of Springfield Armory's all over the place. One thought is, if we really can get this going and provide a good level of access, you might be able to start to see the parts start to move around. You might be able to see raw materials come in one end, through the photos, get manipulated into different parts, finally get assembled and then go out another end as a completed rifles.

This is just an idea at the time, but right now we have the archives, that are accessible but really only physically it's tough to get accessibility beyond people actually coming to the site to visit. It's tough for people to get accessibility beyond what's only on physical display or what our interpreters can tell on the floor. It's a really onsite opportunity. But if we can get a way to get access to these collections that really reflects Springfield as a whole, I think there's a lot of potential. Not only for research but also for curatorial control and management.

The biggest challenge for arts and the museum collection of course, first is preservation. That always comes number one. But it's followed quickly by access, particularly with The Park Service mantra of that public accessibility without sacrificing preservation. And while preservation of the post war collection is relatively straight forward, providing access to their associated history really isn't. And the amount of archives that are extent are remarkably large. In fact, most of the post-World War II archives are still just getting turned into the national archives. I keep my eye on their catalog system to see what's coming out there. And just before I came here, found 30 linear feet of research and development records from Springfield Armory that are just arriving at College Park, at the National Archives Facility, that have yet to be processed.

So much of the post-World War II story of Springfield Armory hasn't even been discovered yet, in any meaningful way. But regardless, we're doing our best at Springfield Armory, and taking care of the museum collection and hopefully making that connection with the archives, with the history, and doing it in a way that will provide public access in a much better way, as long as we can continue to preserve it. Thank you very much.

Speaker Bio

Alex MacKenzie is the curator of collections at Springfield Armory National Historic Site. He is the author of “Springfield Armory: Images of America,” and co-author of a chapter in The Legal Guide for Museum Professionals entitled, “Managing Historic Firearms in Museum Collections.” He writes a regular column, “Curator’s Corner,” in the magazine Man at Arms: for the Gun and Sword Collector, and has appeared in several TV and Youtube programs focusing on historic firearms and Springfield Armory. Alex lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

Last updated: June 2, 2021