One of my favorite parts of my jobs is acquiring new artifacts, particularly when they come to me out of the clear blue sky. This was the case just recently when I was contacted by a colleague from another institution who discovered an expired loan of two muskets that dated back to the 1930s – back when the Brooklyn Navy Yard was run by the United States Navy. The original records for this loan appeared to have been lost somewhere along the way, so, since picking them up it has been my distinct pleasure to uncover exactly what they are, and how these items connect to our Navy Yard specifically.
Full disclosure, I know nothing about guns. What I love about archival practice is that it affords so many opportunities to research topics outside my areas of expertise. Having a thirst for knowledge in all subjects is so critical to this line of work. Our job is not to do the scholarship after all, it is to provide the broadest range of access points to our collections. Yes, for some closed or limited access collections having a specialty in line with your users is extremely important, but for institutions who court a diverse user base having a generalist’s perspective is a real asset.
In the case, my art history background has given me a bit of a leg up because ultimately we are dealing with antiques (that and my addiction to the Antiques Roadshow), so the first part of my fact finding mission was to determine how old these muskets are, how common they are in the universe of vintage firearms, and how they are referred to by gun aficionados and auction houses. This would give me a sense of their value, and also help me to understand what about these particular guns is considered unique.
As it turns out, both guns were produced for the United States Armed Forces. The earlier gun is an 1816 Springfield Flintlock Musket (this one produced in 1830), which was billed in its day as a marked improvement upon the 1795 edition; the first American made musket and the one that was used during the War of 1812. The 1816 Springfield was used in the Mexican-American War, and saw some action in the early years of the Civil War as well. From what I’ve read it’s an important gun, but not especially rare. However, the second and later gun, a Jenks Naval Carbine, also known as a “Mule Ear,” was produced in a limited edition of only 1,000 exclusively for the U.S. Navy. Considered an experimental gun type according to James McAulay’s Civil War Small Arms of the US Navy and Marines, only ten of these guns made their way to the New York Navy Yard, and these were delivered in April of 1861.
I wanted to try and match these guns to some early inventories we’ve collected that detail the “tokens of historical value” that once decorated buildings and officers’ quarters around the Yard. Post-decommissioning these items were moved to Washington, which became the primary repository (until recently that is) of artifacts concerning the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history. Unfortunately, details on rifles once held at the Navy Yard are sparsely drawn, and so my best guess is that these two were part of a lot described thusly:
“10 rifles, old style, flint lock + breech loading. 20 lbs ea.”
Alas, not exactly the kind of detail I had hoped for. Sadly, the story of these guns ends with a lesson on poor record keeping, and the dangers of relying on ones own head as a storage facility for institutional knowledge. As a result, I may never learn if either if these guns had a particular significance to the Navy Yard, though they do remain beautiful examples of early American firearms. Maybe this 1830s flintlock was a favorite of Admiral Perry’s, or perhaps the 1845 Mule Ear saw some action at an important battle during the Civil War. Who knows—I certainly don’t – but what I do know is that I have two new favorite artifacts, a lot more knowledge on gun manufacturing in the United States, and two fully fleshed out catalog records for the next person who sits in my chair!