Museum Visit: Rock Island Arsenal
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Recently, I found myself in the Quad Cities for both personal and professional reasons. Though the trip was brief, I knew it wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.
Housed on the still-active military base in Illinois, the museum occupies a portion of just one building on the sprawling 946-acre campus. Don’t let the museum’s size fool you; there’s some incredible history housed within its walls.
The museum first opened its doors on July 4, 1905, initially as a response to a 1903 notification from Maj. Gen. William Crozier that a new military museum was to be established at the arsenal.
Mothballed and packed away to make room for arms production during WWI and WWII, the museum has been open continuously since May 1948. The collection boasts more than 1,200 objects on display, with more in storage.
The displays are visually overwhelming, as you encounter wall after wall, from floor to ceiling, covered in guns of all kinds laid out like artwork in a Paris salon.
Among the tons of guns are some items of historic significance. For example, they’ve got Rock Island Arsenal M1903 rifle serial number 1. The rifle was completed on December 20, 1904, and immediately earmarked for the museum’s collection.
The stock is marked “CN/1905” which indicates that Conrad Nelson inspected the gun during FY1905. Nelson was transferred to Rock Island from Springfield on August 17, 1904, as a result of the opening of a plant to make the M1903 in Illinois.
While we’re talking about the M1903, they’ve also got a complete setup for the Pedersen Device. The device was designed to convert the bolt-action rifle into a semi-automatic arm that fired smaller .30-caliber rounds from a stick magazine. Intended for the WWI spring 1919 offensive that never happened, most were destroyed. They’ve got an M1903 Mark I rifle, the device, four magazines, a mag pouch, a box of ammo, and the device’s carrying case.
Are you a fan of the Tommy Gun? If Chicago Typewriters are your thing, the RIAM has you covered! On one wall alone, there were more than a dozen of different makes and models. One of them is the M1919 prototype by Auto-Ordnance, serial number 6. This gun was not designed to be equipped with a shoulder stock and it has no fire control switch because it if full-auto only.
Another equally impressive piece on display is Springfield Armory M1 Garand rifle serial number 2. The very first one is in the collection of Springfield Armory National Historic Site. The millionth Garand was presented to John Garand himself. It was later purchased by NRA Past President Allan Cors from the Garand family. In September 2018, Rock Island Auction Company sold it to the highest bidder for $287,500.
Stepping back in time, the museum is home to two of the five known wall guns made by the Rappahannock Forge in Falmouth, VA, between 1775 and 1780. The gun is a behemoth. It weighs 67 pounds, has a 44.25” long barrel, and a bore diameter of more than an inch. The other three guns are at the West Point Museum, the Springfield Armory NHS, and the Smithsonian Institution. Interestingly, the Smithsonian’s example was given to them by the RIAM in 1958.
There are a variety of other historically cool pieces on display, too. They include:
Beretta General Officer’s M15 pistol, serial number GO-00001
M1 Garand rifle, serial number 201
Colt’s first M16A1E1 prototype rifle, ca. 1981
Multiple carbines tracked ballistically to the Battle of Little Bighorn
Maj. Gen. John Buford’s M1860 light cavalry saber used at Gettysburg
… and more.
Other, more practical items are there as well. Such as:
Leather embossing dies
Metal stamping dies
Wood boring machines
Modern add-on armor kits for the Humvee
… and then some!
Elsewhere on the installation is a place called “Memorial Field.” It is home to some truly big guns like tanks, howitzers, etc. They include:
M4 Sherman tank disabled by enemy shells (damage highlighted in yellow) during the Battle of the Bulge
T9 Locust light tank with its 37mm gun removed. It is was one of 100 sold to the public by the Arsenal in 1946 for $100 to be used as a tractor.
M51 75mm Skysweeper anti-aircraft gun
M118 8-inch heavy towed howitzer
M5 3-inch anti-tank gun
… among others.
The base is also home to two cemeteries, one that is the final resting place of more than 2,000 Confederate POWs and one National Cemetery that contains approximately 25,000 internments, including two Medal of Honor recipients from WWII.
If you’re ever in the area, I’d recommend taking a trip to the Rock Island Arsenal. The museum, the memorial field, and cemeteries are worth a visit. And the best part? It’s all free.
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