Our Nation’s Gun Closet: A history of military weapons

After the United States entered World War I, the Army…

After the United States entered World War I, the Army opened a new facility to test modern weapons. Aberdeen Proving Ground took its name from the nearby town in Maryland. Adjacent to Chesapeake Bay, it sits between the Susquehanna River to the north and the appropriately named Gunpowder River on its southern boundary. For nearly a century, Aberdeen served as the center for much of the Army’s weapons development and testing, as well as training for the Army Ordnance Corps. The base, which now includes Edgewood Arsenal, originally a chemical weapons laboratory, continues to serve a variety of Army commands and agencies focused on future developmental activities.

museum12.gifThe Army’s Ordnance Attic
One of Aberdeen’s crown jewels, however, focuses on the past. The U.S. Army Ordnance Museum is a national treasure trove of military weapons and artifacts covering the service’s entire history. The museum facility houses displays that illustrate small arms development, and rows of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery cover its expansive lawn. Visitors can see a tiny fraction of the museum’s collection. Inside, fewer than 400 small arms represent the more than 13,000 artifacts available for exhibits.

Presiding over the nation’s weapon history is Roy E. (Ed) Heasley, curator and acting director since the retirement of Dr. William F. Atwater in November 2007. In a recent conversation, Heasley discussed the Army’s focus on weapon development and the museum’s role in documenting this history.

“In a way, our collection ends with the M16,” Heasley explained. “Army Ordnance is no longer as actively involved in small arms development since contracting companies now handle these programs. That means the museum is not necessarily in the loop to receive prototypes and early variants. Of course we still get many new weapons, but we’re also missing several important things.” During World War II, recovery teams such as those headed by Aberdeen’s Col. G. Burling Jarrett scoured the front lines for captured enemy weapons of interest, which were spirited back to Aberdeen for study.

museum31.gifThe Past Is Prologue
When asked to comment on the direction of future weapon development, Heasley evinces a healthy realism about the impact of technical advances, the same perspective the museum’s exhibits reflect: In ground warfare, military forces around the world continue to rely on propelled projectiles, fired from small arms or artillery, to kill or incapacitate adversaries. Although law enforcement agencies and some special operations forces occasionally use non-lethal or other alternative weapon systems, firearms remain the core tool of infantry units. Of course these weapons have enjoyed tremendous advances, especially in the 20th century, but the fundamentals haven’t really changed since the late 15th century. Rates of fire, accuracy, loading methods and ease of use have improved exponentially and so has ammunition, but today’s firearms still propel projectiles pretty much as their forebears did.

The museum’s excellent collection of military small arms clearly demonstrates the essential continuity of technologies. Machine guns are a strong case in point. The Gatling gun first saw service in the American Civil War. A hand crank actuated its loading mechanism, pushing cartridges from a gravity-fed hopper or magazine into the breaches of rotating barrels. Gatling guns remain in use today, primarily as armament for ships and aircraft, incorporating many improvements but conceptually unchanged from Dr. Richard Gatling’s original idea. The Army declared the original Gatling obsolete in 1911, replacing it shortly with more modern weapons, some of which remain active to this day. Barely a generation later, Germany produced the Machinengewehr (MG) 34, an astonishingly effective medium machine gun with an 800-round-per-minute rate of fire, before the start of World War II. Germany followed quickly with the MG 42, an even more capable weapon that spewed out up to 1,200 rounds per minute, so fast that those who heard it fire could not distinguish individual rounds discharging. The U.S. Army borrowed many MG 42 features for the M 60 machine gun, still widely used, and a quick visual comparison shows the similarities.

museum121.gifNew Inspiration Springs From Older Concepts
The same conceptual continuity applies to the museum’s tank collection, surely one of the world’s largest and most diverse inventories of armor. Heasley emphasized the common features uniting early and far more advanced tracked vehicle designs. “Tanks always have been essentially mobile fortresses,” he said. “They are impenetrable to ordinary soldiers with rifles, the troops who make up 60 percent or more of a typical infantry unit. Almost from the start, tanks have carried four-person crews, a driver, a gunner, a loader, and someone to direct the vehicle. Automation technology may reduce crew requirements, but not by much.”

Of course tanks have come a long way in many important respects. Compare a Panzerkampfwagen (PzKpfw) III, the mainstay of German World War II armor and work horse of the Blitzkrieg, to a U.S. M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. Size, weight, speed, armament and armor effectiveness are major discriminators, all results of the increasingly effective countermeasures available to infantrymen. Still, the fundamentals haven’t changed.

The museum’s outdoor display is an effective way to make such comparisons between old and new, but the obvious disadvantage is exposure to the elements. Although many tanks in the collection are exceptionally rare, limited resources for preservation and restoration have led to marked deterioration of several artifacts. The museum will address this problem in the next several years when it relocates to Fort Lee, near Petersburg, Virginia. The move, scheduled for 2011, comes as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendation to consolidate facilities and functions, and will enable the museum to get its tanks and armored vehicles under cover. The task will not be easy. Transporting the collection’s massive German 280 mm railway gun and the U.S. atomic cannon will necessitate major disassembly of both weapons. Restoration of the entire inventory probably will encompass decades.

museum5.gifSo Far, Projectiles Rule
Many months remain, however, for visitors to enjoy the extraordinary ordnance collection in Aberdeen, where they can consider the underlying nature of weapons development. Heasley already has pondered this issue deeply. “Our armed forces continue to rely primarily on firearms instead of alternative technologies to accomplish their missions because of perceptions both military planners and the public share,” he argues. “The question everyone asks about any new weapon is, ‘Do we need it?’ The question arises from the perceived outcome or benefit of new technology. Many people, including some military leaders, believe the benefits of such expenditures are low.”

According to Heasley, America’s political and economic success may have retarded technical progress in weapons. “Affluence enables our nation to keep its civilian and military realms largely separate. With the exception of 9/11, the U.S. really hasn’t experienced the impact of wholesale violence in a conflict in decades. Already, people tend to forget the trauma 9/11 created. War can continuously confront people with horror. If you’re separated from it, however, there’s less incentive to develop something new to win.”

The global campaign against terrorism has created even wider separation between civil and military environments. Americans, civilian and military alike, still think about war in terms of World War II, when large armies slugged it out in more or less linear formations. “Warfare always has involved taking and occupying territory,” Heasley explained. “Today, however, we are fighting insurgents, and for them territory is fluid.”

museum2.gifLessons For Asymmetric Warfare?
Insurgents typically use light weapons, but they can acquire sophisticated small arms and other systems, Heasley noted, making them effective in small-scale operations. Furthermore, when the U.S. brings heavy weapon power to bear, insurgents simply run away so they can conduct more minor fighting later, thus making asymmetric warfare an effective alternative to conventional conflicts.

“It’s interesting that there’s nothing really new in our current situation,” Heasley said. “Even so-called barbarians occasionally could overwhelm legions of the Roman Empire because they refused to fight conventional battles—which was all the Romans knew how to do. Today, no one is better than the U.S. military, but being biggest and best doesn’t always translate into victory. The problem is the kind of engagements we’re getting into. Our technology helps us in large-scale, Level One conflicts, but not necessarily in less intense situations.” Allied forces’ inability to crush decisively Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, clearly has had political ramifications, but it also adds fuel to the arguments against new weapons technology development.

Despite this lack of initiative, however, Heasley is firm about U.S. leadership in military technology. “Our society is still able to produce the best weapons in the world. Other countries may have taken the lead in some technical areas, but not militarily.”

Without doubt, weapons always have mattered, and more sophisticated weapons tend to matter more. But the soldiers that use them matter the most.

The U.S. Army Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen is open to visitors, once they have received a visitor’s pass at the security gate as they go on post.

To learn more about the museum, visit www.ordmusfound.org

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  • Ross Whistler

    .30 caliber M1 carbine, based on Garand design, manufactured by lots of companies.

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  • Kelly

    Question: My 95 year old father served as a non-combatant in England during WW II. He was issued a short carbine type gun (perhaps .25 caliber?). At 95, he sits in his chair and remembers days gone by–and part of his wondering is “What was that gun? Who made it? What was it called?”

    Any information you could give me would put his wondering to rest. Thanks.