"Our parents never allowed us to have guns," recalls Sarah Rittgers. "There were four girls and one boy, and when we couldn't get guns we would make our own out of sticks. But we weren't even allowed to do that. We couldn't even point a stick at someone. And they wouldn't let us watch Westerns because they felt they were too violent."
Nevertheless, last summer Rittgers took first prize in a national shoot-out with a muzzle-loading rifle. She scored 94 with two x's (which means right on the bull's-eye) in the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) match at Friendship, Indiana. That's at 200 yards. In a 25-mile-an-hour wind.
Harry Hunter, her boss and a 31-year veteran in the military history division of the National Museum of American History, keeps her target on hand to show visitors. "You can see, the shots are bunched a little to the left," he says with fatherly pride. "She overcompensated a bit for the wind. Otherwise she would have had 'em right on the x."
Rittgers is soft-spoken and comes across like a scholar who'd want nothing to do with powder burns and the kick of a rifle. She "kind of fell into" this career of hers as an expert in muzzle-loaders. "I was always interested in history, and I got a job at the museum as a summer intern; then I was a secretary in military history about five years. But I would get in early, and Harry would let me come back here and work with him about an hour before 9 o'clock."
Hunter and the place where they work are themselves a story. An Army career man who served mostly in the Pacific in World War II, he retired as a first sergeant. He's gruff and quick to laugh at a visitor's misinformation — but then as hospitable as can be in showing off the collections. Protected by an elaborate security system in an off-limits area at American History, Hunter and Rittgers spend their days in a room stacked to the ceiling with 10,000 muskets, pistols, swords, crossbows, harquebuses and other matchlocks, double-barreled shotguns, Kentucky squirrel rifles and other terrible machines dating from the 16th century on up to the 20th century's M16 and Uzi.
The oldest is a hand cannon that was forged around 1550. There are other antiques with barrels as big as stove-pipes, things you carry on a cart or stand on a tripod. There are killer-bazookas and a death-dealing Philippine creation with a fur lock cover. There are little tinny breech-loading shotguns the size of my first popgun, the one with the cork on a string. There is Sam Houston's repeater rifle, with a harmonica-like bullet holder at the breech and his name beautifully inscribed just above it.
The big stuff — the machine guns, including Gatlings, and other monsters — is kept in separate storerooms.
I see Sharps and Spencer repeaters and, of course, numerous Winchesters. Some of the rifles are decorated with brass studs, a trademark of Indian gun owners. The stock of one Winchester is carved with the name and face of one Lieut. William Mitchell. In 1901, while in Alaska with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the young lieutenant got lost. Afraid that he would freeze to death, he decided to memorialize himself on the gun. But rescuers reached him in time, and he went on to become the "Billy" Mitchell of air force fame.
And swords, 2,000 of them: drawer after drawer of gold-and-silver-hilted presentation swords, including Union general Phil Sheridan's pearl-studded one and the sword that Strong Vincent, then a Union colonel, carried at Gettysburg. Vincent was mortally wounded in that desperate struggle, July 2, 1863, and died five days later. His widow gave the weapon to the museum. The commands that he held during the Civil War are engraved on the sword's scabbard.
I was given some white gloves so I could handle George Washington's personal battle sword, with its green ivory handle and silver braid. "American steel," Hunter mutters. "Mostly iron. Don't drop it, now." For the next two years the sword will be touring as part of "America's Smithsonian".
Then I ask Hunter about the Garand rifle, which, as I remembered, was supposed to be notoriously temperamental. "Not at all," he scolded. "It worked very well. I carried one for the better part of 20 years."
But I want to get back to rifles like the one Rittgers shot. I heft one: ten pounds of steel and wood, and almost five feet long, it couldn't have been much fun to tote on a 20-mile march through the tangled brush of Chadds Ford or the prickly pine forests of Oriskany during the Revolutionary War.
"This is a flintlock," Rittgers points out, "which means that when you pull the trigger this little piece of flint scratches out a spark and ignites the powder in the flashpan, which flashes through the touchhole in the barrel and sets off the main charge."
She shows me how you pour the powder into the muzzle and ram home the bullet, lay a bit of extra powder in the flashpan and clamp down the frizzen (the top of the flashpan) and cock the trigger mechanism. A matchlock is similar, except that instead of a flint to create a spark, you have a rather woebegone-looking piece of match cord dangling near the touchhole, and this must be lighted. With luck, it will smolder all through the battle. Pulling the trigger brings the glowing end up to the flashpan and sets it off.
I had read that in the Revolutionary War and, especially, in the Civil War, soldiers didn't bother to tamp down the bullet with the ramrod but simply pounded the gun's butt on a rock. "Any soldier who did that should have been shot," commands Hunter. "That's not taking good care of a gun." And, of course, it doesn't work with a rifle, Rittgers gently informs me. Even with the ramrod, it's hard enough to force the bullet down a rifled barrel.
The rifling of gun barrels (cutting curved grooves inside the barrel that cause the bullet to spin and therefore fly straighter) started in the early 16th century, and it did a lot for accuracy. "The evolution of the gun didn't happen overnight," Hunter explains, "but it replaced the bow and arrow soon enough. An army would have a company of sharpshooters with rifles. Didn't need a lot of 'em. Put a hole in those bowmen right quick."
I see a case of Civil War cartridges, too. Unlike today's metal cartridges, they were merely little paper packages, each containing one charge of powder and a ball.
It was American history that got Rittgers started. Back home in Allendale, Michigan, her father often took the family to museums and battlefields, which naturally led her to major in history. She went on to get her master's at George Washington University and is continuing on there toward a doctorate in U.S. military history.
"When I read about muzzle-loaders in the Civil War, I wondered what it was like to shoot one. I'd never fired anything before, except maybe a BB gun. Then Harry went out to the NMLRA shoot in Indiana and came back all excited. 'You have to go,' he said. So last year Harry and I went out there." The association holds two major matches a year; they include events ranging from skeet shooting contests to target shooting — with ranges up to 500 yards — to tomahawk throws. The safety procedures, Hunter notes, are "very, very good, better than in the military."
In Rittgers' specialty, involving rifles of about .58 caliber, the shooters have 45 minutes to make the ten shots. Some contestants go for authenticity, dressing in buckskins and living in tepees, even using powder horns. But Rittgers and Hunter use modern metal powder measurers to pour their charges.
Well, I suggest, shooting muzzle-loaders must be a pretty exotic sport. Not at all, explains Rittgers. "The NMLRA has 24,000 members. It's really a lot of fun. But it takes patience. You have to learn how to sight and how to shoot from various positions. We go to ranges out in Virginia to practice."
The best Hunter could do last time was third place. "It's kind of hard with my bifocals," he shrugs. "You can see the target or you can see the gunsight, but you can't see 'em both at once." I know exactly what he means.
"A year ago," Rittgers says slowly, as though a little surprised at herself, "my husband and I bought our first gun for self-protection. It was the first time I'd ever been in a house with a gun."
She's surrounded by guns at the office. She takes me back to the corner where she and Hunter recondition old guns and repair recent acquisitions. A half-completed muzzle-loader lies on the workbench, its silvery octagonal barrel fresh from the mold. It's not often you see a brand-new muzzle-loading rifle. She's building it from a kit.
"I'm sort of an apprentice," says Rittgers. "Harry's taught me everything I know about the evolution of weapons and what came when. We spend a lot of time answering inquiries from all over the world, by letter, phone and computer. People say they have an old gun and want to know what it is. Then there's all the paperwork involved in accessioning a new item. And inventory: we're starting an inventory and computerizing all our holdings. That'll take some time. And, of course, if there's anything that needs cleaning or fixing, we do that."
It's not the whole story, however. There's all that lore. Like the gun that shoots around corners. The Germans were experimenting with one in World War II for street fighting, and the Americans were, too. "It wasn't bent like you think," Hunter chuckles. "More like a very slight curve. But it never turned into anything. It just didn't work."
I ask if they have any famous outlaws' pistols, and remark that it would be nice to have the Colt .32 — whittled from wood and painted with black shoe polish — that John Dillinger used to escape from jail in March 1934. But no such luck; it's at the John Dillinger Museum in Nashville, Indiana. Besides, would that be a weapon? An interesting question.