For most of its history, Rock Island Arsenal was a center for the production, overhaul, repair, inspection, testing and management of small arms for the U.S. Army.
These days, RIA’s once-thriving small arms mission is mostly a thing of the past, with the last vestiges departing in recent years in the wake of a 2005 Base Realignment And Closure decision to transfer tactical command functions from Rock Island to the command’s headquarters in Warren, Michigan.
But anyone with an interest in small arms — a category that includes weapons intended for use by individual Soldiers — can still find one of the best collections in the nation, if not the world, at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.
The collection includes at least one weapon that dates back to the Revolutionary War, along with numerous prototypes and at least a dozen items marked with Serial No. 1.
Visitors to the museum can view the small arms mounted on two long walls behind a tall glass case. Items on the walls are roughly grouped by type: pistols, rifles, submachines guns, etc. Brochures highlight some of the more unique and important weapons. The museum’s small arms collection currently includes 1,227 items.
“Everything we have is on exhibit,” museum director Kris Leinicke said. “That’s unusual, since most museums aren’t able to display entire collections like this.”
Leinicke knows exactly how many small arms are in the museum because she performs a visual inventory of the collection once a week. More thorough checks of the collection are performed quarterly, as required by the regulation guiding activities at Army museums; two of the four must be “disinterested” inventories.
Disinterested inventories, Leinicke explained, are inventories performed by individuals who have no interest in the outcome and are not employed by the museum or involved in its operation or management.
“I can’t do any hands-on work during a disinterested inventory,” Leinicke said, “though I can help guide and oversee it.”
Leinicke estimated that each disinterested inventory involves about 50 hours of labor. The latest was conducted in December by Dr. Elista Istre, a historian working as a contractor for the Army’s Center of Military History, and Julia Evans, a student pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies at the Quad Cities campus of Western Illinois University.
That campus, which opened in 2012, is located just a few miles from the arsenal. Having a college with a museum studies program in close proximity, Leinicke noted, benefits the students, who can gain hands-on experience, and the Museum, which puts the volunteer labor to good use.
Under a new mutual agreement, future disinterested inventories will be performed on a rotating basis by Soldiers and civilian employees assigned from organizations based on RIA, including the Army Sustainment Command, the Joint Munitions Command, and First Army.
During an inventory, each item in the small arms collection is individually inspected to ensure the serial numbers and numbered tags that hang alongside the items match museum records. Many of the small arms in the collection were produced before marking with serial numbers became common early in the 20th century; in those cases, Leinicke said, “dummy” serial numbers are assigned.
Anyone who conducts an inventory must first be trained in the proper handling of museum artifacts and must wear white gloves while performing the hands-on work.
While anyone can see the small arms, few are allowed to touch them. Leinicke said that access is sometimes granted to researchers and historians who obtain advance approval.
These measures are meant to protect the value of the small arms collection, which Leinicke said was difficult to measure in terms of dollars.
“What we have is probably worth millions,” Leinicke said. “More important is the fact that many of the items in the collection are unique and irreplaceable, and all have great historical value.”
The small arms collection is actually considered a secondary aspect of the museum, the primary mission of which is to share the overall story of Rock Island Arsenal, with an emphasis on the theme of “people, processes and products.” But for anyone with an interest in the history of firearms, the collection should prove quite an attraction.
“Many of our visitors are amazed by what we have here,” Leinicke said. “It really makes quite an impression.”