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Warm beer, fish and chips, and an incredible military-weapons collection. Think of England and the first two might spring to mind; the latter, not so much. It may come as a surprise then to discover that the country with some of Europe’s most restrictive firearms laws is also home to what may well be the most comprehensive array of martial arms ever assembled. I recently had a chance to jump across the pond to my native land and take a gander.

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The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, opened in 2006. It was built to house the UK’s national collections, which span over 2,000 years, and covers a large chunk of dockside real estate. The main building incorporates interactive displays, armor and lots of stabby and slashy things. Outside, there’s an arena used for demonstrations of jousting, falconry and the use of hunting dogs; a menagerie for the horses, dogs and birds; and a craft court where tame gunsmiths, armorers and other related traditional craftsmen can be seen in their natural environment. If you ever find yourself in the UK, you’ll find that the museum is well laid out, fascinating and definitely worth a visit.

So much for the public areas. Tucked away and separate from the main collection is an anonymous building that has more layers of security than your average missile silo. In order to gain access, visitors must arrange their visit well in advance and provide credentials as researchers or writers. Inside are the 26,000 (yes, that’s three zeros) pieces of the National Firearms Collection laid out as far as the eye can see—a kind of nirvana for gun nuts.

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The bulk of these firearms were previously held in the Pattern Room at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, which acted as a reference library for every gun that entered British service since the early 1600s. The pattern system, originally stored in the Tower of London, was started by Charles I in order to standardize equipment across the British army. At the time, this consisted of county regiments raised by the landed gentry whenever the monarch felt like flexing his muscles. Soldiers were armed with whatever the commanding officer could obtain from his local suppliers. The drawbacks to this approach may seem obvious to us today, but at the time, issuing a standard service weapon across every regiment was nothing short of revolutionary. Since then, reference samples of each firearm approved for use in the Armed Forces have been maintained, so that, in the event of a questionable delivery from a contractor, the suspect guns could be checked against the Sealed Pattern. It is these samples that form the backbone of this incredible collection.

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More images on the next two pages!

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