Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Guns.com.
The Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming is one of the best sources to learn about historic firearms. With more than 7,000 guns and 30,000 artifacts, it’s like Mecca for gun lovers. However, among the vast collection, two items stand out among the rest. Ashley Hlebinsky, the museum’s curator and Discovery Channel star, identified a 300-year-old sporting rifle and a modern-era machine gun as two of the most well-documented historical arms in the museum’s collection.
An English-built, hunting Wheellock is a rare enough gun by itself, but add in the fact that almost the entire history of this particular long gun is known, and what we have is a priceless historical treasure. “This wheellock is very interesting because it’s made in the 1600s and it’s a signed English Wheellock,” Hlebinsky said. “That might not sound that exciting when I say it, but there are very few surviving signed English Wheellocks.”
Built by Robert Rowland of London, the gun is remarkable enough to behold in its complex mechanical wheellock construction, but it’s truly provenance drives intrigue. “The other thing that’s fascinating is we know most of its history,” Hlebinsky said. “Usually, when you get a firearm in a collection, you can track its provenance, its history, for a little bit, but then you usually lose track of it at some point.”
Though the gun’s initial buyer and first few decades are a mystery, the rest of the wheellock’s story is clear. Its known history begins when it was purchased by court painter David Martin, who served the Prince of Wales in the 1700s. Following Martin’s passing, the gun was sold at auction in England in 1799. Purchaser Thomas Gwennapp was not only a collector but had a museum where he displayed the piece for many years.
Around the turn of the century, the wheellock passed through the hands of multiple other prominent collectors, eventually making its way across the ocean to America, where it again hopped from one collection to the next. Eventually, the wheellock came into the ownership of Edwin Pugsley, then Executive Vice President of Winchester. Firearms history buffs will recognize Pugsley’s name as the man who coined the term “the gun that won the west” when speaking of Winchester’s lever action design. But I digress. Parts of Pugsley’s fine collection were absorbed into the greater Winchester collection.
Thus it is that this signed English wheellock came to Cody and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West as part of the Winchester Arms collection large loan in 1975 before becoming a permanent donation in 1988. With the longest storied history of any firearm in the CFM collection, this particular wheellock has been on constant display since the CFM officially opened its doors in 1991.
Though the CFM is in the midst of a major overhaul at the moment, when the museum re-opens in 2019, the Rowland Wheellock will be there as a cornerstone of the History of Sporting Arms gallery, along with all the other fine holdings of the CFM, telling the stories of our world and American history.
If the Rowland Wheellock is a bit too, um, historical for your tastes, Hlebinsky also shared a more modern yarn that involves the United States Postal Service, gangsters, bank robbery, and an automatic machine gun.
“A lot of people think at the Cody Firearms Museum that we just have western guns because we’re located in a Western town,” Hlebinsky said. “But we have guns from all of firearms history, and the Thompson is something that pretty much everybody recognizes.”
In fact, the CFM has many Thompsons in the collection, but there’s something most folks don’t realize. “The Thompson was actually issued to the US Postal Service, which I think is mildly terrifying,” she said, jokingly. Though that factoid is interesting enough, Hlebinsky offered the roundabout tale of this particular Tommy Gun and how it came to rest in Cody.
The “original intent (of the Thompson Machine Gun) was to be used as the ‘trench broom,’ something that could be used in the trenches during warfare and to be used by law enforcement. Because of its misuse by gangsters in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and the popularization of that misuse on television, everybody thinks of the Tommy Gun as the Gangster gun.”
But this particular Thompson, as Hlebinsky said, “reinforces the notorious nature of the Thompsons.” Why? Because it was used in a bank robbery in New York. Hlebinsky added: “The story goes that it jammed, the bank robber dropped it, and the police recovered it. At some point, the police traded that Thompson to Winchester for some riot guns.” After becoming part of the Winchester Arms Collection, the Tommy Gun came to the Cody Firearms Museum in the 1970s and has remained on display ever since, here to define the ever-engaging story of good versus evil.
To learn more about the collection, check out the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming. For more on Ashley Hlebinsky, check her out on Master of Arms on Discovery.