"To many people, a firearm is something as inartistic as possible, but the design of these weapons was a highly prized skill," says museum director Peter Marzio. "Some of the greatest engravers in the world were called upon to create individual pieces for their owners."
Firearms were once highly personalized status symbols. "Three Centuries" includes 67 rifles and pistols, most of which are recent reproductions of weapons made as long ago as 1640, when Italian and German custom gun makers set the standards later adopted by Americans. The exhibit also includes some antiques. Among them are a set of cased firearms commissioned by Napoleon and a rifle owned by Ulysses S. Grant.
"The German pieces are the most elaborate, and the Italian pieces amazingly intricate," says Marzio. "But I think the Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles -- smaller and lighter versions of the European weapons -- introduced the notion of beauty in the overall form and design. Certainly the British troops in the American Revolution were impressed with the accuracy of the American weaponry."
The march of progress and a scarcity of specialized tradesmen in America led to the mass production of firearms in the 19th century and a drop-off in their artistic, individualized design.
Marzio is taking dead aim at the critics who might object to the museum's hosting a gun show. "A lot of people regard guns as vulgar," he says. "But I hope they will consider the broader definition here and won't close themselves off." He doesn't see the exhibit as a glorification of gun violence; instead, he says, it's "an illustration of how the artist takes a utilitarian object and makes it beautiful."