The Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Cody Firearms Museum, completely redesigned and renovated in 2019, includes about 4,200 firearms in its 40,000 square feet of exhibit space along with thousands more related artifacts.
The oldest guns date all the way back to the 1400s, and the newest was made as recently as late 2018. They are diverse in design and use, and together help the Cody Firearms Museum explore the integral roles firearms have played throughout history.
The museum’s collection is significant in its breadth, giving us a wide representation of firearms history. But where did it all start?
The firearms collection’s beginnings
The Cody Firearms Museum is celebrating an anniversary this week that looks back at the very beginnings of our collection. And just what year are we looking back to…?
You might guess 1976, when the Olin Corporation first loaned the Winchester Collection to what was then the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. But no, that’s not it…
Or 1991, when the Cody Firearms Museum opened in its own dedicated wing of the Center. But no, that’s not it either…
For this anniversary we look back 150 years, to February 10, 1871.
What happened on that date? Oliver F. Winchester, President of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, received a Jennings 2nd Model Sporting Rifle and wrote of keeping it in his own collection.
What does that have to do with us? The Cody Firearms Museum now has the Winchester collection—along with this very gun—as the core of its own collection.
And the letter, dated February 10, 1871, is the first documented reference to it.
“I should like to keep it in my collection”
A photonegative (not the easiest on the eyes to read) of the letter is in our McCracken Research Library’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company Collection. Here’s what it says:
Office of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company
New Haven, Conn, February 10th, 1871
The “Jinning’s” gun came to hand this morning and it is a connecting link in the history of our gun. I should like to keep it in my collection and for this reason will accept your proposition, and give you one of our best sporting guns for it. Will leave the selection with you when you are here again or I will send it to you. If you have a few of the balls used in that gun I should be pleased to have them.
President, Winchester Rep. Arms Co.
It seems this firearm was destined to become a collector’s item and a museum piece.
The collection’s journey
Ledgers of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company make reference to a museum as early as the 1880s, although details are sketchy.
In the years leading up to World War I, Winchester engineer T.C. Johnson put the company’s growing reference collection on display for the employees, but during the war years it was placed back in storage.
Winchester opened a public museum in New Haven, Connecticut, where the company was based, in 1959. And in 1962, part of the Winchester collection was featured as an exhibit at Pepsi-Cola’s New York City headquarters.
And, finally and fortuitously, the Olin Corporation (which acquired Winchester Repeating Arms in 1931) loaned the Winchester Collection to the Center beginning in 1975, and the Winchester Arms Museum opened here to great fanfare on July 4, 1976. The collection was formally donated in 1988 and remained the core of the exhibit when the Cody Firearms Museum opened in its own wing in 1991.
And the rest, as they say, is history…
The Jennings 2nd Model Sporting Rifle
Here at the Cody Firearms Museum, this rifle is significant in a few ways.
It has its place near the center of the main floor of the museum, in the Firearms and the West gallery.
It’s an example of the Jennings 2nd Model Sporting Rifle, owned by Oliver Winchester himself.
As shown in the Firearms and the West gallery, which explores how firearms shaped the American West through westward expansion, it’s one of several models in the evolution of firearms used throughout the history of the West.
And perhaps most significantly of all—for us and for the many thousands of visitors who tour the Buffalo Bill Center of the West every year—it represents the first documented reference to our firearms collection, the nucleus of what is now exhibited in our Cody Firearms Museum.
For that, we celebrate February 10, the 150th anniversary of O.F. Winchester’s letter regarding this gun which he valued enough to keep in his personal collection. We’re just as happy to keep it in ours, and share it—along with the rest of our amazing collection—with you.