Archaeology of Firearms

From October 11-13, 2022, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), a division of the U.S. National Park Service, provided a hands-on seminar on the archaeology of firearms at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. This program allowed participants to directly learn about the types of evidence left behind from the use and maintenance of firearms and artillery used from the 1500s up to the middle of the twentieth century. Fred Sutherland from NCC attended this seminar and was able to test-fire weapons using flintlock, percussion cap, and early cartridge-based firearms. Many of the sessions explored how to identify specific gun parts, wear patterns, or unique features of ammunition. These sessions would often include detailed case-studies from battlefield archaeology or other contexts where these items were found. This combination allowed everyone to better understand how and why these items survived after they were used and lost.

Rarely seen examples from the Springfield Armory’s reference collection were shared in “museum moments.” These included firearms which modern forensics have tied to conflicts such as the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). Improvised weapons made from plumbing pipe and a rubber innertube were also fascinating to study up-close. The presenters were very generous and transparent about the tools, resources, and references they use to understand the contexts where firearms or artillery were used. A flash drive containing an extensive list of sources, reports, and presentations was provided at the end of the seminar.

The instructors and attendees spent a significant amount of time during and after the session sharing their own experiences with firearms and methods to study them. These included forensics, metal-detection, historic research, experimental archaeology, living history, object authentication, and artifact conservation. Many of those attending offered to help others with their questions regarding firearms and ammunition. The wealth of information and connections shared between those attending will undoubtably provide better insights into the study these artifacts and contexts in the future.

Preparing for live-fire demonstrations of various 18th and 19th century firearms.
Instructor Alex MacKenzie, National Park Service, Demonstrating How an Improvised Filipino Firearm Worked.
A Display Table of Various Gun Maintenance Tools

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