Many of the visitors this time of year are hunters who stop by on their way in and out of the hills, deer rifles locked away in their pickup trucks. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is attraction enough in Cody, Wyo., but nowadays tourists also head for the Winchester Gun Museum, which has recently joined the complex. It has one of the largest collections of firearms in the world. More than 1,100 pieces are currently on display and an additional 3,900 will be exhibited upon construction of a new wing.
The center's collections, valued at $15 million to $20 million, are housed in a splendid 100,000-square-foot structure of native stone and glass. An edifice like this, rising out of the sagebrush of northwestern Wyoming in a town with a population of only 7,500, seems implausible, but on reflection it makes sense. Cody is just the spot to show off old carbines and six-shooters and such repeaters as a gold-plated 1866 Winchester .44 worth some $35,000. The buffalo no longer roam as they did before Colonel William F. Cody founded the town in 1895, but Cody remains the home of real cowboys and a whole lot of coyotes. The West here is neither old nor young, rather it drifts nicely through a comfortable middle age.
There also is a decided tourist tint to the place. Cody is located on the main highway to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, 52 miles away. Last summer almost 500,000 people passed through the town on their way to the park, and more than half that number visited the Buffalo Bill center, which was founded in a log cabin in 1927, 10 years after Cody died.
Funds from the C.V. Whitney Trust were used to construct a separate Whitney Gallery in 1959, and an addition that more than tripled its size was completed a decade later. This expansion provided a new home for the Buffalo Bill collection and also permitted the creation of the Plains Indian Museum.
Perhaps no other place so successfully captures the spirit of the Old West. Bronze statues of bison and grizzlies charge across the spacious halls, great stallions paw the air and paintings depicting epic struggles and past bounties of the West fairly leap from their frames. The Whitney Gallery features the work of such explorer-painters as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and, most prominently, the poignant paintings and bronzes of those inimitable artists of cowboy life, Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.
Permeating the display is the spirit of legendary Western figures: Cody, General Custer, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé. All spring to life through their memorabilia. Now, with the addition of the weapons that played such a significant role in the Western drama, the story is more complete.
The firearms collection was begun in New Haven. Conn. in the 1860s—even before Oliver Winchester began to manufacture the guns that bear his name. Originally compiled for reference and research on what competing gunmakers were up to, the fine collection emphasized guns manufactured in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1950 Winchester purchased the Edwin Pugsley collection of more than 2,200 guns from throughout the world. The museum now exhibits projectile arms and firearms of all types including a number of rarities.
Among these are a bronze trigger mechanism for a Chinese crossbow from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-221 A.D.); a four-barreled European repeating handgun, circa 1450; a breech-loading flintlock made in 1683 and 11 of the 12 revolvers that Winchester made. Even among such rare pieces, the star of the show is the Model 1873, the revolutionary lever-action center-fire rifle that assured Winchester's role in firearms history. Not incidentally, this frontier favorite was the rifle Cody used for sharpshooting feats in his Wild West Show.
Cody himself might enjoy browsing in the gallery that contains an impressive Civil War collection. The war years marked the transition in military rifles from muzzle to breech loading, single shot to repeating and loose powder and ball or paper cartridges to metal cartridges. A gun that might even delight a housewife is the Sharps carbine with a coffee grinder built into the stock. Invented by an employee of the St. Louis Arsenal in about 1863, the gun was made for issue, one to a company, so that the troops could have fresh coffee.
Among a myriad of oddities is a gun triggered by trip wire, the better to blast watermelon thieves. Another is a combination pistol, knife and corkscrew. The oddest of all is a combination pistol, knife, tweezers, fingernail file and toothpick.
Long before it began casting about to replace its constricted museum quarters in Connecticut. Winchester had been involved in Cody. Beginning in 1968, royalties from the sale of a limited-edition Winchester Buffalo Bill commemorative rifle were largely responsible for financing the new building. In time, it became increasingly apparent that "the gun that won the West" belonged in the West. Certainly a place of honor there among the ghosts of Bill Cody and Sitting Bull seems more appropriate than New Haven.