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Omaha Magazine

History in the Present Day: Kirk Brumbaugh’s Collection of Historical Weapons

Apr 29, 2021 03:54PM ● By Chris Hatch
kirk brumbaugh with a vintage gun

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Kirk Brumbaugh knows how to time travel. 

He’ll take anyone along for the ride, too, if they listen.

No DeLorean screaming up to 88 miles per hour, no hyper-spinning sci-fi contraption that catapults people back into a wormhole somewhere out near the moons of Jupiter. Just tangible, real-world history. A human compass, pointing people in the direction you need to go.

Those talking to Brumbaugh find themselves transported, lifted from this moment, and this place and taken over whole continents and centuries, delivered to, then through, the cracks in the decades that others might not know were there.

Brumbaugh’s knowledge will lift listeners, like an updraft of expertise that has one suddenly cruising at altitude, looking at the big picture below. Although seated, when he takes listeners up to view the history he will lay down below, they suddenly see battles in South America and Naval skirmishes in the choppy waters of the Atlantic.

When he begins to tell listeners about his award-winning gun collection, the one full of so much backstory and detail it could fill a library, it becomes clear that this timeline of a man has a few stops he wants to make sure people hit on their way to the present day.

It’s a story not only of the cold precision of automatic weaponry, but the human hands that toiled to find the automation that would make them so powerful.

One of the stars in this particular historical constellation is Brumbaugh’s meticulously restored 1879 U.S. Army Gatling gun, delivered to the Army in 1880. 

Like many of the guns in his collection, there was a process in pulling it back from the brink of being lost to the ages; fading away in a location so far from the spotlight that it was nearly too dark to find.

“This gun: it sat from, as best I can tell, the early 1900s until 1967 in a rural community in Missouri. Where generations of school children had carved their names into the brass receiver and wooden carriage,” he said, detailing his search and rescue mission of this artifact from small-town America’s forgotten shadows.

“The gun had been unprotected, left to rust and decay in a public square in a small town in Missouri,” Brumbaugh said. “The individual that I purchased it from, when he bought it, it had been rusted solid. The carriage had rotted away, so the only things left were a pile of rotted wood and rusted iron.”

This is what Brumbaugh does, finds above-ground buried treasure. 

He relishes in relics. 

Items so rare and so unique they could be lost, if not for his pinpoint studies and encyclopedic memory, his determination to restore the guns both physically and in the consciousness of the people they once protected.

“Initially there were only 14 of the 1879 Gatling guns built for the U.S. Army,” Brumbaugh said.

Once he locates an item he determines to be historically significant, he moves in—using a team of like-minded, highly skilled restoration experts—and attempts to bring these weapons to their former glory.

For Brumbaugh and his team, people as far away as Boston, the U.K., and Australia that he knows and trusts with such delicate work, this is a full and honest recreation. This is no mere spit-shine or quick coat of paint.

“The Gatling gun I have is highly specialized, so if you have an item of historical significance—then you have to research and find the best people to work on it.”

Brumbaugh truly cherishes the historical accuracy of his restoration projects.

“I wanted it to be a historically accurate restoration. So, when I got it, I sent it back to the guy that had done the initial reconstruction: Barry Anderson in Ohio. I contacted Hansens (a world renowned wagon and carriage restoration company in South Dakota) and got blueprints from Cullity & Son Co. in Boston, to rebuild the carriage from a pile of scrap and do a final restoration of the metal parts. They made it possible to build a historically accurate carriage for an 1879 gun.”

With so few of these types of weapons still in existence, this was no paint-by-numbers job. It was custom and required creative work and lots of digging through the archives to make sure that it was as close to accurate as could be.

The Gatling gun from 1879 is one of the primary pieces, but it isn’t the whole show for a collector like Brumbaugh, who has been interested in collecting guns ever since he was 18 years old.

“My father was a World War II combat vet and he fought in North Africa and Sicily in the 7th U.S. Army under General Patton. He came back from World War II with a Luger that he had captured from a German officer in Sicily. He also had a law enforcement career for a number of years, and so firearms, and particularly handguns, were a part of my childhood and young adulthood.”

While his father’s profession and history introduced guns to Brumbaugh, it was his own fascination with the British Empire that led him down the rows of library books. 

“The collection I more or less developed on my own. I was fascinated with Winston Churchill and the Victorian era. I started by reading as much as I could about Churchill, the British Empire, and the two world wars from the British perspective”

It was this fascination with Great Britain, how a country with a population of 50 million came to rule a landmass that ultimately accounted for approximately 25% of the world, which enabled him to study and become an expert on the type of weaponry that would give Great Britain its world supremacy during the late 1800s.

That fascination with the British, and the weapons of the Victorian era, gave him the knowledge to obtain an 1887 Nordenfelt battery gun .450/577 Martini-Henry Caliber as used by the Royal Navy.

“The Nordenfelt was much lighter than the average Gatling gun. A five-barreled Navy Nordenfelt weighed in at about 70 pounds,” Brumbaugh said. “The primary purpose of machine guns in naval use at the time was to sweep the deck of ships during combat. Firing down on gun crews, because exposed gun crews were still a common feature, as was ramming a ship,” he said, explaining the rare guns’ usage and how it was a devastating weapon in naval battles of the era.

“You would want Marines in the crow’s-nest shooting at exposed men on the deck,” he continued. “The Nordenfelt was just better for it. I think I have the only British Navy Nordenfelt in the U.S. The only other two I’ve been able to find in the U.S. were used in Spain.”

Also featured prominently in his collection: an 1889 (made in 1895) Maxim Nordenfelt.

This weapon represented the inevitable, perpetual motion of progress to Brumbaugh. A weapon so effective that it essentially rendered many of the other machine guns at the time obsolete. One of many inventions created by Hiram Maxim, a man so adept at making dreams reality that he held patents on curling irons, mouse traps, a flying machine, and many claim he actually invented the light bulb that Thomas Edison would later be credited for.

The Maxim gun, capable of firing over 700 rounds a minute, was so fearsome and advanced technologically that it remained relatively unchanged until after the second World War.

When Brumbaugh takes people through time, he speaks of poetry and history, of technology, and of the ever-present, always-ticking clock that connects us all. He talks about weapons and guns, to be sure, but more than that, he talks of the people behind them. The ones aiming them and the people pouring the liquid metal and casting the barrels in their Victorian era laboratories.

To someone like Brumbaugh—what matters is finding the ability to run his hands over the cool metal of history, to feel the alchemy that comes from the past meeting the present and know that you’re at the crossroads of the two converging. 

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.