Rock Island Arsenal Museum

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Museum History

The Rock Island Arsenal Museum was opened on July 4, 1905 as The Ordnance Museum at Rock Island Arsenal. The museum is the second oldest U.S. Army Museum in existence behind the West Point Museum, which opened in 1854.

View of the Small Arms DisplayThree unrelated, important events led to the museum’s official opening on July 4, 1905. First, on October 1, 1903, Chief of Ordnance Major General William Crozier notified Rock Island Arsenal that fifteen boxes of ordnance materiel would shortly be arriving “for the purpose of preserving it in a Military Museum to be established at the Rock Island Arsenal.” The boxes included a large accumulation of weapons and accoutrements from foreign countries that had been forwarded over the years through U.S. Embassies to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance for study. In correspondence to Colonel Blunt at Rock Island Arsenal, Major General Crozier directed that a “suitable building be selected as a museum to display this ordnance materiel for research and for the interest of the general public.”

Second, a small arms plant for manufacturing the Model 1903 rifle was established at Rock Island Arsenal in 1904. To make room for manufacturing, obsolete weapons and materiel stored at Rock Island Arsenal were sold at auction. Before this materiel was shipped, two examples of each gun were selected and retained for the museum.

Third, portions of the government display from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri were transported to the Rock Island Arsenal for the new museum. Included in this shipment were weapons confiscated during the Philippine Insurrection and taxidermy horse specimens, which are still part of the collection today.

Horse and Limber 1919The museum was first housed in Shop A (Building 102 today). During World War I, additional space was needed for manufacturing, so the museum was packed up and placed in storage. At the request of the local community, the museum reopened in its original location on July 4, 1919 and given the title, The Rock Island Arsenal Museum. The museum’s focus remained on small arms and ordnance; however, aspects of Rock Island Arsenal history were included in the displays for the first time. In 1919, the Ordnance Museum designation was given to a new museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Aberdeen, Maryland.

During World War II, the museum was closed to the public and stored away. When it reopened in May of 1948, it was housed in Building 60, where the it remains today.

The museum was renamed the John M. Browning Memorial Museum on November 4, 1959, in “recognition of Mr. Browning’s contributions to ordnance technology and the armed forces.” During this time, the museum became known for its arms collection, an important but eclectic collection of foreign, US, military, and civilian weapons.

Facade of the Rock Island Arsenal MuseumOn July 1, 1986, in accordance with a change in focus from small arms to the history of the Arsenal, the museum was renamed the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. The phrase “People, Processes, and Products” was coined to explain the important themes in the history of Rock Island Arsenal. The small arms collection remained an important, but secondary aspect of the museum collection. The museum’s significant small arms collection includes serial number 1 of the Model 1903 rifle; serial number 2 of the M1 Garand rifle; four weapons that have been positively proven to have been used by the Sioux or Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn; two of the five Rappahannock Forge wall guns known to exist; and serial number GO1 of the General Officers M15 pistol.

Today the Rock Island Arsenal Museum tells the story of Rock Island Arsenal from the founding of Ft. Armstrong in 1816, to production occurring on the island today. The museum serves the US Army personnel at Rock Island Arsenal and the local Quad Cities region including Davenport, Iowa, Bettendorf, Iowa, Rock Island, Illinois and Moline, Illinois.

View of the Museum in 1909 View of the Exhibit Hall in 1963