"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".