THE COLLECTING OF ARMS – A Historical Perspective

THE COLLECTING OF ARMS – A Historical Perspective

by David Penn and Stephen A. Petroni

Over the last few centuries, the collecting of arms has moved from a narrow aesthetic appreciation of a relatively small number of ‘arms as art’ to a broad interest in all types of arms in their wider social and historical context. The aim of this brief study is to analyze the development of collecting and collectors’ efforts in preserving a vital element of our common heritage in the face of changing legislation in Europe.

Early collecting

Before the 19th century, most collections of arms tended to be unconscious agglomerations, as arms were superseded and relegated to display. Where arms were consciously collected, they were often acquired as trophies of war, or as brand-new examples of technological wizardry with which to amaze one’s friends, or as superb examples of decorative art (artists of the first rank, including Durer and Holbein, were involved in the decoration of weapons) or the swordsmith’s and the gunsmith’s skill.

The 19th and 20th centuries

During the 19th century there burgeoned a serious antiquarian and scholarly interest in arms. At first, this concentrated on arms of the highest quality, often magnificently embellished, and its viewpoint and terms of reference stemmed from the fine and decorative arts.

The 19th century was of course a time of intense technological innovation, beginning with the flintlock muzzle loader and ending with firearms technology and cartridge designs still in use today. This evolution itself began to be studied and collected, particularly as the increasing scarcity in the market and rising prices of the older ‘armes de luxe’ priced them beyond the means of all but the rich.

The growth of literacy and the popular study of history in the later 19th century also engendered an interest in arms not for their aesthetic appeal but for their historical and personal associations, the sensation of ‘shaking hands with history’. This was hardly surprising in the case of firearms, as gunpowder ranks along with the wheel, the printing press, the personal computer and the smart phone in its influence on society. Such studies view the firearm in terms of its use, rather than as a passive object, and therefore give far more attention to its ammunition and ballistics, for a firearm considered in isolation from its ammunition tells only half the story.

This has resulted in recent years both in a growth in the study and collection of ammunition, and, on occasion, the wish among collectors to fire an arm, if only once, to establish performance. As ‘better’ arms are studied intensively and the published literature about them grows, so their financial value tends to rise. Some collectors and students of arms therefore move, in quality terms, down market to consider cheap, commonly distributed arms, often in their manufacturing or social context (where such widely distributed arms have an impact far more significant than the rare arme de luxe), for the concepts of mass production and interchangeability of parts sprang from the arms industry. Such studies often involve the need to inspect large numbers of specimens of manufactured types to establish product evolution.

The law and the collector

As most European countries made serious attempts to control the ownership of firearms during the 1920s and 1930s (itself in part a result of the widening of governments’ active involvement in and control over their citizens’ lives and activities during the First World War) the great majority considered it expedient to place outside the licensing system those firearms which by virtue of their age and obsoleteness were not likely to be used for their original prime utilitarian function and which were perceived as a minimal threat to society.

At this period, most firearms legislation introduced the concept of an ‘antique’ firearm but did not precisely define it. Nor did most legislation of the pre-war period specifically address the question of collecting more ‘modern’ arms (broadly ‘breech loading’ rather than ‘muzzle loading’ arms, although many early breech loading systems, such as the ‘pin fire’ were obsolete or fast becoming so by the 1920s) subject to licensing, and collectors were left to fit, as best they could, within the broad framework of national legislation.

Nevertheless, the introduction of an international Customs Harmonized System (HS) in 1950 by the Customs Cooperation Council (now the World Customs Organization), which sought to harmonize the description of products across countries so as to facilitate international trade, identified collectible arms of historical interest and antique guns, classifying them under the current Chapter 97 and distinguishing them from firearms intended purely for use, which fall under Chapter 93 of the HS.

During the 1970s several European countries attempted either to ban or severely tighten controls over the collecting of more ‘modern’ firearms as part of a wider tightening up of controls. These measures were introduced against the background of urban terrorism and of a 1971 Council of Europe proposal to harmonize firearms controls to combat criminal violence.

Legislation and the growth of national collectors’ organizations

The national attempts at limiting collecting by and large foundered, but they did precipitate an increased banding-together of collectors and the founding of national collectors’ organisations in most European countries. These legislative initiatives also raised the issue of the National Heritage, with the collectors receiving the support of museums. There is an increasing tendency for museums to maintain active links with collectors’ organizations, and also with individual collectors and students of arms, who can provide valuable knowledge and expertise. Arms museums can provide a ‘home’ for such organizations, sometimes providing facilities for meetings and access to collections.

Museums made clear their own inability, because of lack of resources, to act as the sole repository of a nation’s heritage of arms, supporting the role of the responsible collector and researcher as an important part of the guardianship of the heritage and recognizing the great value of collaboration and co-operation between museums and collectors. This position was endorsed by IAMAM (the International Association of Museums of Arms and Military History, now ICOMAM, an ICOM Committee) in their submission concerning the draft of the 1991 EU Firearms Directive. It should be noted that this view of the heritage is not restricted to arms, and the concept of a single national collection is growing, with the artefacts physically located in both public and private collections.

This development of national organisations for firearms collectors has resulted in a much better understanding and acceptance of the benign role of the collector among governments and police. Since the mid-1970s, this acceptance of collectors has more frequently been reflected in legislation which takes account of their activities. Council Directive 91/477/EEC of 1991 specifically placed outside its scope “…collectors and bodies concerned with the cultural and historical aspects of weapons and recognised as such by the Member States in whose territory they are established”, thus allowing every State to legislate as it saw fit. This directive was revised first in 2008 by Directive 2008/51/EC and then most recently in 2017 by Directive 2017/853/EC, which brought about a significant change in official recognition of collectors, who were now included in the scope of the Directive along with a definition:

“collector” means any natural or legal person dedicated to the gathering and conservation of firearms, essential components or ammunition for historical, cultural, scientific, technical, educational or heritage purposes, and recognised as such by the Member State concerned.

The supra-national dimension & FESAC

Given the regional nature of much legislation within Europe, the establishment of FESAC in 1996, the Foundation for European Societies of Arms Collectors, represented a natural progression in the development of measures to protect and preserve the rich heritage of arms in Europe.

The Foundation for European Societies of Arms Collectors was founded in order to influence firearms legislation and regulations in the European Union as well as to assist national organisations lobby their authorities with the aim of drafting sensible legal and regulatory approaches to the legitimate ownership of collectible firearms.

National collector societies make up the membership of FESAC. However, each country is allocated one seat and its delegate holds one vote. A conference is held annually to elect the members of the Board and to set the objectives and work plan for the next twelve months. The Chairman is elected by the country delegates.


DAVID PENN (UK) was employed as Keeper of the Department of Exhibits & Firearms at the Imperial War Museum in London from 1976 until 2005. He was a member, and latterly Chairman, of the Firearms Consultative Committee (a statutory body set up to advise the Home Secretary, throughout its life from 1989 to 2004). He has previously served as Hon. Secretary of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association, Chairman of the Museums Weapons Group and as a member of various Home Office working groups on firearms related matters. He is currently t has served as the Secretary of the British Shooting Sports Council and is at present a co-opted member of Council. He has also served as the President of the Arms & Armour Society. He is currently serving as a Vice-President of the Arms & Armour Society, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association and the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain and is a member of the Home Office’s Historic Arms Reference Panel. In 2007 he was appointed advisor to the FESAC Board. His collecting interests were in English patched ball target rifles and pre-First World War target revolvers.

STEPHEN A. PETRONI (Malta) has been collecting arms & militaria since 1973. He founded the “Arms, Armour & Militaria Society” in 1985 (now the Association of Maltese Arms Collectors & Shooters), which launched target shooting in Malta in 1989 and, indirectly, historical re-enactment. From 1991 Stephen led discussions with Government aimed at replacing Malta’s Colonial-era Arms Ordinance with a new Arms Act based on the EU Directive. In 1993 he was tasked by the Minister for Sports and Culture with the drafting of proposals for new legislation and in 1994, he was appointed by the Minister of Justice & the Arts to sit on a committee entrusted with proposing the revision of Police policy on the use of arms for collection and target shooting purposes. The Committee’s proposals were endorsed by the Cabinet of Ministers on 12 September 1995 and put into effect immediately thereafter. Between 2002 and 2005, Stephen and a small team of AMACS volunteers successfully negotiated the terms of the draft legislation that was eventually approved by Parliament as the Arms Act 2005 and the Arms Licensing Regulations, which came into effect along with the Act on 15th August 2006. He was then appointed member of the Weapons Board, serving until 2013. In May 2006 he was appointed board member of FESAC representing Malta, also joining the Juridical Committee as a result of which he was involved in the negotiations with the EU institutions over the Arms Directive amendments. Stephen was appointed Chairman of FESAC on 3rd November 2006 and currently represents the Foundation in the European Sports Shooting Forum (ESSF) and the World Forum on Shooting Activities (WFSA).