Looking back at 30 years with the National Rifle Association and being responsible for a collection of thousands of historic firearms can give one a different perspective when it comes to taking care of guns. Many times, I’ve spoken to collector groups about how to maintain their treasures and years later, I’ve had pieces that belonged to some of those collectors come to the NRA National Firearms Museum as a donation.
Whether you decide to donate a firearm to a collection or not, taking proper care of them is essential.
Conservation is the museum term for taking care of artifacts. At the National Firearms Museum, an artifact could be a firearm, a book, a sword, a shooting jacket, or many other types of objects represented in our extensive collections. All items in the museum collection require care, most needing specialized care.
Here are several aspects of conservation that you need to know when caring for your own piece of history:
Environment: The temperature and relative humidity where you store things can make a big difference in how well they will be preserved. Ideally, a year-round temperature of 70 degrees and a relative humidity near 50 to 55 percent works well for firearms. Just be sure this environment remains constant year-round and doesn’t change.
Heating and cooling can cause metal and wood to expand and contract, and regular cycles of this change can lead to cracking. Wood can crack even if the temperature remains constant but the relative humidity changes too rapidly. For most folks on the Eastern seaboard, winter is a time with lower temperatures and often extremely low humidity.
Plan to measure your conditions so you can figure out what you need to do. Buying a dehumidifier might be just the ticket for those humid summer months, but you need to add that moisture back to the environment safely when it gets colder. A good contractor can suggest what equipment would work best in your home.
Light: Overexposure to light can be just as bad for your collection as it was for your skin that time you got sunburned at the beach. Natural light can provide more ultraviolet (UV) radiation than necessary. Modern LED bulbs don’t emit UV radiation and may be the safest way to illuminate your display. Overexposure to excessive UV can lead to fading in some materials like mother-of-pearl grip panels and case colors on metal components. Keeping light exposure below 25 foot-candles for sensitive materials is a good precaution.
Pests: There are many things that can dine on your collection. Look out for bugs that can feast on old uniforms or accouterments. Sometimes the “critters” are visible to the naked eye, but often, smaller attacks can occur on leather or cloth, and all you will see if the resulting damage.
The best conservation advice I can provide? Use plain white cotton gloves! Wearing these gloves when handling your collectibles can prevent acidic residues from transferring from your hands to the gun’s surface that can react unfavorably. Take a close look at the Smith & Wesson Model 1917 revolver shown below. The deep blue finish is the same one that was on this double-action .45 when it was presented to a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy prior to World War II.
Wax: We use microcrystalline wax, sold commercially under the trade brand Renaissance wax, to put an inert barrier layer on both metal and wood components for protection. After the wax application we use gloves for handling, as touching this piece with bare hands would lead to the heat of the skin melting the wax coating and ending the protection afforded by the wax. Applying microcrystalline wax is an easy process that lasts far longer than oils. Most museums that display collectible firearms use microcrystalline wax as a protective coating.
Despite the fact that this piece has already been “engraved” by nature, we still utilize microcrystalline wax to protect this relic. While it won’t ever regain the original finish shown on this complete M1 Garand also on display in our WWII galleries, the wax helps prevent further deterioration.
Documenting your collection through photography can provide a permanent record of how certain pieces looked when they were acquired. If you see rust on a firearm you don’t remember being rusted, a quick glance at your photo record can indicate whether this corrosion is a new issue or not.
Whether you decide to donate a firearm to a collection or not, taking proper care of them is essential. Conservation is more than simply preserving the look of a collectible – it’s the best way to ensure that firearm remains most valuable. Looking to find out more about taking care of your guns? Check out this conservation guide on the NRA National Firearms Museum website.