Targeting Firearm Conservation in Death Valley

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Broken mainspring discovered upon disassembly of a Sharps Model 1863 rifle.

Broken mainspring discovered upon disassembly of a Sharps Model 1863 rifle.

There are kinds of work that GBI is well known for performing: invasive species control, wildlife monitoring, trails restoration, fuels reduction, travel management, and the like. But every once in a while, our partnerships will take us in some unexpected directions. This is perhaps nowhere more true than at Scotty’s Castle, a villa in Death Valley National Park that dates back to the 1920s. In the wake of flooding that damaged the site in 2015, GBI has been collaborating with the National Parks Service to address a number of museum conservation issues. We’ve previously reported on work being done on various textiles (read the story HERE), and now we are additionally performing the unlikely work of firearms restoration. Scotty’s Castle is home to several late-19th and early-20th century firearms that have long been in need of conservation treatment, including a Model 1885 Winchester rifle, a Sharps Model 1863 rifle, and an 1886-70 Single Shot Derringer. These and other items were treated at the Harper’s Ferry Center by GBI Research Associate, Katrina Zacharias.

Probable degraded linseed oil on buttplate of a Model 1885 Winchester rifle.

Probable degraded linseed oil on buttplate of a Model 1885 Winchester rifle.

Firearms conservation requires specialized knowledge and an ability to treat the various materials that go into their composition. This requires multiple approaches to a single artifact. For examples, rust was mechanically removed from ferrous surfaces, and then wax was applied to serve as a corrosion inhibiting coating. Wooden components, on the other hand, required different cleaning methods. Other tasks included the removal of degraded linseed oil, application of light solvents and tarnish inhibitors, and detailed written and photographic documentation. In one case, that of the Sharps Model rifle, the firearm was fully disassembled in order to assess cleaning and repair concerns, which led to the discovery of a broken mainspring. In all, conservation work was performed on sixteen firearms, one cartridge press, and three magazines.

Notably, these firearms are not maintained in working order. Indeed, given their age and condition, discharging them can result in risk to both the user and the firearm. Nevertheless, stabilizing their condition so they can be returned to their original environment helps to ensure the preservation of the cultural legacy of Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle for future generations.

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