Museum Exhibit Explores Maine's Gun History

Apr 5, 2016

Guns have played a big role Maine’s culture and history. A new exhibit at the Maine State Museum in Augusta — Inventors and Sportsmen: Maine Gunsmiths in the 1800s — looks at part of that history.

The exhibit hall at the Maine State Museum is, surprisingly, very quiet.

Laurie LaBar is the exhibit’s curator, and she says that even if the guns on display could still be fired, it wouldn’t be as riotous as you might think.

If this were a gun range and not a museum, she says, “It would be like a slow-motion gun range, because some of these guns take 20 seconds to reload.”

In the 19th century, innovators worked to make guns work faster, and to make the process of making guns faster. Some of those innovators were from Maine.

One example is John Hall. He started out as a barrel maker in Portland, crafting guns on the side. But by his death at midcentury, Hall had invented a breech-loading rifle that loaded and shot faster and more accurately. He also pioneered mass-production systems that were used throughout the industry — and, later, to make shoes, clothing, watches, rubber goods and eventually cars.

LaBar says that as production changed, the guns themselves changed too.

“That pistol is in its own case, and it really shines like a little jewel,” she says, showing off a gun that Hall handmade before 1817. “It has polished brass and steel.”

She contrasts it to one that he designed, that was mass-produced years later.

“You can see it’s the same mechanism but it’s very much stripped of its beauty,” she says. “It’s very much a utilitarian gun.”

LaBar is a silversmith in her spare time. She says she’s impressed by the artistic merits of many of the guns in the exhibit.

“One of the techniques that’s really unusual that you don’t see today is the inlaid metal,” she says. “The metal was made by carving a tiny parallel-sided channel into the wood, and then taking a piece of flattened silver, nickel silver or brass, and following that channel. It would have shone or sparkled even when it was new.”

Visitors can also learn about the likes of Hiram Leonard, who made guns but also hunted moose and sold the meat to logging camps, and “Fly Rod” Crosby, who described herself as a “plain woman of uncertain age, standing 6 feet in my stockings.”

Crosby was also a journalist who promoted the outdoor sports culture of Maine, and the state’s very first registered Maine Guide.

So, why an exhibit on guns, and why now? LaBar says it’s really a response to public demand. She says people still remember a gun exhibit the museum did 30 years ago — and have been clamoring for a new one.

“There are a lot of sportsmen that are very excited about this,” she says. “I had no idea. It’s nice to know there’s an active interest in these historic objects and how they can inform us today.”

For early Mainers, guns were a necessity. Unless people lived in urban areas, LaBar says they hunted for food, and they needed guns for other things, too, like protecting their gardens from pests.

These days, she says gun ownership is more of a choice, but for many Mainers — even those who may not hunt or own guns themselves — gun culture is part of who they are.

“Guns were and still are an important part of Maine culture — talking about the bear hunt last election cycle, for example,” she says. “It’s obvious that gun culture is still very important in Maine.”

Inventors and Sportsmen: Maine Gunsmiths in the 1800s is open now until April 2017, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.