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Case Study: Firearms from the Kienbusch Collection

Learn how conservators care for firearms as masterpieces of craftsmanship and technology.

Project Conservator Debra Breslin examining a firearm.


The conservation of historic firearms requires a sophisticated and specialized knowledge for their stabilization and preventive care. It demands a deep understanding of the treatment and handling of inorganic and organic materials, since many firearms are crafted with an array of materials, wood, metals, bone, horn, ivory and many others.

Case Study

In 2012–2015, the museum documented and conserved 125 firearms from the Kretzschmar von Kienbusch Collection of Arms and Armor. Artistic and technological masterpieces, the objects were collected by New York businessman and philanthropist Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch and gifted to the museum in 1977. Mainly used by noblemen for hunting and target-shooting, the firearms include long guns, rifles, and pistols from leading schools of gun making in Europe, and range in date from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

A survey and treatment project in 2009–2011 indicated an urgent need to address the conservation requirements of the firearms in this collection. This effort offered the museum the opportunity to gain more scholarly information about the construction of individual examples. All major firing mechanisms (matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, and percussion systems) are represented. The barrels and stocks feature a wide variety of decorative techniques (inlay, damascening, etching, engraving, and chiseling) and an array of materials (steel, silver, gold, copper-alloy, wood, bone, horn, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and tortoiseshell).

Conservators disassembled and examined each firearm to document the construction, decorative techniques, and condition of the components. Photographs were taken to allow visual access to interior parts and makers’ marks, thus reducing the need for future handling and disassembly of these fragile objects, a main goal of preservation.

Conservation treatment addressed the stabilization and aesthetic needs of each firearm. It consisted of cleaning, removal of corrosion and old coatings from metal surfaces, stabilization of cracked wooden stocks, repair and replacement of broken or missing hardware, repair of loose inlays or old restoration fills, and applications of new and appropriate surface coatings for protection.

The bores (interior of the barrels) were a specific area of focus since the majority had not been addressed in a very long time and were covered with heavy corrosion. Limited access to this area, through the muzzle (front opening of the barrels), presented a unique challenge. Extensive research was conducted to determine the best methods for cleaning and coating.

This project was made possible by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).