Growing up as the son of a history teacher in western Maryland, near Fort Frederick and Antietam National Battlefield, Danny Michael took a natural interest in history. But it was during an internship at the Frazier History Museum, in Louisville, Ken. (known for its firearms exhibit), while attending graduate school at the University of Louisville, that he experienced “a lightbulb moment that firearms history could be a career.” He joined the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West as assistant curator in 2016 before being promoted to Robert W. Woodruff curator in 2020. Michael recently took time to speak with Wild West about the museum and some of his favorite firearms on display.
How did you get interested in firearms?
We had firearms in the family growing up, so they were always around to some degree. For a while an after-school hobby was target shooting a box or two of .22 through a Remington 572. I didn’t get into old guns until later, after shooting with a friend that had a collection of military rifles and then a graduation gift of a Mosin carbine.
How did the Cody Firearms Museum come to be?
I like to trace the roots of the CFM all the way to Oliver Winchester. He had a personal collection dating to at least 1871 and probably older. Eventually the Winchester company had a large refence collection, and by the 20th century it numbered in the thousands. In the late ’40s Winchester hired their first dedicated firearms curator and then later opened a museum at the factory in 1959. After a few years they decided it needed a non-factory home, and the Center of the West here in Cody was on the short list. They loaned the collection in 1976, and it was displayed as the Winchester Arms Museum until they donated it in 1988. That’s when it got its own wing of the center and opened in 1991.
At the time Bill Ruger was on the board and recognized that the collection wasn’t just about Winchester history, but about the full story of firearms. During a board meeting he colorfully offered $1 million on the spot to change the name to “anything but a firearms manufacturer.” Then we became the Cody Firearms Museum. Today naming rights are more than $1 million if anyone is interested.
For anyone who hasn’t visited in a few years, what has changed since the 2019 renovation?
Our goal with the renovation was to make firearms history more accessible to a broad audience. The prior installation was innovative for its day but starting to show its age. And it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the visitor—i.e., to know that a row of Winchesters is one of a kind, you have to know what a Winchester is, or the difference between an 1866 and 1873, or even what a rifle is.
So, for this installation we really tried to bring all our visitors up to speed on firearms terminology, basics and history. We also organized the galleries more thematically then solely chronologically or by manufacturer. We wanted to highlight not just the technical details but the stories that go along with them. Hopefully, now there is something for every knowledge level, including expert.
The museum has more than 7,000 firearms in its collection. How many are on display?
About 4,200 are on display right now. We rotate individual guns occasionally, especially if we get something new and exciting, like a Pedersen device, which we added to the military gallery last year.…We still have that new museum smell, since we’re only four years removed from the renovation, but we do have a dedicated rotating gallery we change out every 18 to 24 months.
Most firearms enthusiasts recognize Winchester, Colt, Remington, etc. Are there other manufacturers in the collection that merit attention?
Yes. Companies like Schuyler, Hartley & Graham, who sold a lot of brand names and surplus firearms to the West. Spencer stands out to me, since so many of its carbines went west, as does [Hugo] Borchardt. He is known for the [C-93 semiautomatic] pistol, but he spent the first half of his career working at companies like Winchester and Sharps.
Let’s talk about your favorites. What are some standout rifles?
The Burton light machine rifle. It is a Winchester prototype from about 1916 or ’17 that no one would know existed unless the physical one survived. For whatever reason, Winchester didn’t write much down about it except for some cards for ammo loadings—173 gr .345 bullet over ~18 grs of Dupont Bear powder for the reloaders reading this. The only other note is in an older inventory of the collection that claims the Army tested the gun in 1917. Which is all very odd, considering the rifle is a select-fire, intermediate cartridge gun with twin detachable mags. About 30 years ahead of its time.
Any special shotguns?
My favorite shotgun is a Henry-style lever-action Oliver Winchester had made in Paris in about 1866 while he was traveling in Europe. It has a Damascus barrel, a silver-plated magazine tube—though it has tarnished with age—a case-hardened receiver and aluminum side plates. At the time the cost of aluminum was higher than gold or platinum so it would have been a real showpiece. It’s about 16 gauge and in excellent condition, except for the silver tarnish. It’s also the only shotgun I know of based on the original Henry.
How about handguns?
The Winchester revolvers. Winchester developed several prototype revolvers in the 1870s meant to debut at the centennial world’s fair in Philadelphia. They never entered production, and there are 12 extant today. They have swing-out cylinders—oddly, they open to the right instead of left like most revolvers—and some have automatic ejectors. Really interesting project that never took off. A few years later they hired William Mason from Colt to make another revolver, while Colt started to make lever-action rifles—but Mason’s revolver is mechanically different, really a single-action Army.
What other items in the collection stand out?
The Winchester company archive. Along with the guns, Olin [Corp.] gave the museum the surviving company archive. So, we have documents that go all the way back to the New Haven Arms Co. in the 1860s. We get to learn a lot about the company’s history because of that. We also have the production ledgers, and many people know the museum from looking up their old Winchester. Nowadays we can also do lookups on Savage, Fox, Marlin, LC Smith and Ithacas. Another incredible non-gun is the Winchester stone that hung over the entrance to the company offices at the factory in New Haven. It’s also probably the heaviest artifact in the museum.
How do you set about researching firearms for collectors?
If someone wants to look up their old firearm, check out our records office. We have records from the previously mentioned manufacturers, but owners can find the specific model and date ranges we have available on the website. Those interested can submit an order form through the website or give us a call. There is a cost to get a letter, and the best deal is to become a [Buffalo Bill Center of the West] member. We generally have date of manufacture and original configuration data available, and, depending on make and time frame, we have customer information as well. The customer data is most common with Savage 99s and Ithacas.
Explain your History Unloaded podcast.
That was an idea [former curator] Ashley [Hlebinsky] and I started. We had the thought that we are always talking about the museum field and the artifacts at work, and these discussions might fit well as a podcast. So, we started one. We’ve recorded six seasons so far—one very long one during 2020, as we tried to keep posting for everyone working from home—and it’s mostly us talking about firearms history and the museum field. We’re planning for another season right now. It’s small, but we have fun recording them, and people keep listening.
Are there any items you’d like to add to the collection?
We do have a short list. I’d love to add a Jennings repeater to the collection. Jennings was a predecessor to the Winchester, and there are about eight variations, the rarest being the very first model, the Jennings repeater. They made maybe 12, and the only one I know of is in the Smithsonian. We have the other models and the later Smith-Jennings, so the repeater would be a great gap to fill. I also really want to add a Colt-made 1904 Maxim machine gun. There are photos of the Yellowstone garrison with them back when the Army managed the park prior to the creation of the [National Park Service]. The idea of being on tourist and ranger duty with a 1904-equipped machine gun squad is wild to me.
What’s next for the museum?
You know we’ve really just gotten started with the renovation. We had a short year in 2019, a tough year in 2021, and the floods in the park hurt visitation for 2022. So, I’d love to have a solid season in the short term. But we’re planning for major storage upgrades to care for the artifacts, and we’re always looking at ways to update and improve the new galleries. Plus, one of these days I really want to do an exhibit of the Winchester Wingo [indoor wing shooting] machine.