Rock Island Arsenal Museum History

The Ordnance Museum at Rock Island Arsenal was opened to the public on July 4, 1905.  It is the second oldest U.S. Army Museum in existence. The West Point Museum was opened in 1857 at the U.S. Military Academy, and is the oldest U.S. Army Museum. The Springfield Armory Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts, was opened in 1871, and is now operated by the National Park Service.

Three unrelated, important events led to the official opening of the Ordnance Museum at Rock Island 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, when the US Government display at the St. Louis World’s Fair closed after 1904, portions of the government display 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.

The Catalogue of the Ordnance Museum, Rock Island Arsenal, was published in 1909. This published reference lists the small arms, accoutrements, and ammunition that were in the collection of the museum. At its very beginning, the museum at Rock Island Arsenal was known for its small arms collection.

The Ordnance Museum was housed in Shop A (Building 102 today). During the First World War, 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 was reopened in its original location on July 4, 1919. Now called the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, the emphasis of the museum remained small arms and ordnance. Aspects of Rock Island Arsenal history were included in the museum displays for the first time. In 1919, the Ordnance Museum designation was given to a new museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Aberdeen, Maryland.

The museum was closed to the public and stored away during the Second World War. When it reopened in May of 1948, it was housed in Building 60, its present day location.

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.

In 1962, all U.S. Army Museums were placed under the authority of the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH). To coincide with developments in museum professional standards, each U.S. Army Museum was acknowledged as a unique organization with an approved mission. The primary mission of the museum at Rock Island Arsenal was the history of Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island. Its secondary mission was the history of small arms.

On July 1, 1986, the museum was renamed the Rock Island Arsenal Museum to reflect its primary purpose. 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.