Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest

A small and superb firearms museum in northern New Mexico

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Located near Raton, New Mexico, the Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest is a small and excellent firearms museum. The museum also has a library of great utility to anyone researching firearms.

The museum and library are part of the Visitor Center at the NRA Whittington Center, a 52-square-mile target shooting and hunting complex open to the general public. While admission to the Whittington shooting facilities requires a $20 daily fee, the museum and the library are free of charge.

The Museum's collection is contained in a single room, about 35 x 35 feet. (Plus some additional items in the Visitor Center lobby). This is much smaller than the NRA's other two museums: the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, and the National Sporting Arms Museum, in Springfield, Missouri. Within the size constraints, the Museum of the Southwest is a fine introduction to its subject. An enagaged visitor could study the museum's contents in about an hour.

Most of the firearms are contained in 22 standing cases in the interior of the room. These are supplemented by several vertical displays along the walls depicting U.S. and New Mexico history. The upper walls of the room are ringed by American service rifles, starting with the Brown Bess from colonial days, up to the modern M-16.

The display cases also include numerous non-firearms artifacts, such as tomahawks, knives, powder horns, and other tools used by Indians, mountain men, or soldiers. All the displays are beautifully arranged, with good descriptions of every item.

As the Museum's name indicates, the focus is on the Southwest, especially New Mexico, starting with Spanish colonial days and covering the mountain men, the Civil War, Indian wars, and the Wild West. The other half of the displays cover a wide range of American history, with particular attention to the history of competitive shooting, and iconic firearms from Winchester and Colt.

The collection is primarily American firearms, except for some guns related to the colonial period, plus a few other interesting non-American guns. Rifles and handgun predominate, with only a few shotguns. (And of course some early smoothbore muskets and the like.)

The Museum strikes an excellent balance for all sorts of visitors. For persons who have never been to a firearms museum, it is an outstanding introduction to the history of firearms in America. At the same time, sophisticated collectors and historians will find many interesting items.

Once you're done with the Museum, the Bud & Wilma Eyman Research Library contains its own mini-museum: the Robert G. Rowe and Alexander Black ammuntion collection. It consists of about a hundred drawers of rifle and handgun ammunition, plus nearly another hundred more drawers of shotgun ammunition. The rifle and handgun drawers are more user-friendly, since every cartridge is separately labeled. You'll find the tiny 2mm cartridge, old-fashioned pinfire cartridges from the mid-nineteenth century, up to cartridges for anti-tank weapons of the twentieth century. Plus everything in-between.

Shotgun shells are much larger than rifle and handgun cartridges, and so, unfortunately, the shotgun ammunition is not individually labeled. Rather, the shells are categorized by country of origin, and then jammed side-by-side into rows within the cases. This makes for a colorful display of, for example, shotgun shells from Mexico, but there's no information about any particular shell. Such labeling would require vastly more drawer space than the library presently contains.

As for the library books, part of the collection is general military history (e.g., Civil War, Vietnam). This is fine as far as it goes, but the collection is no deeper than can be found at the main public library in a major city. Where the library shines is its collection of firearms-specific books. It is especially strong on gunsmithing and reloading (home manufacture of ammunition from used shells or cases), past and present.

Since the Internet has created a national market of used books, I wouldn't say that it's impossible for a researcher on a given firearms topic to buy almost all of what can be found in the library's collection. But any researcher who can make the trip to Whittington will get a big head start.

The museum and library are each in rooms next to the Visitor Center's Pro Shop/Gift Store. Since Whittington is a very large recreational shooting facility, the Pro Shop stocks ammunition, firearms, and lots of accessories. The size and inventory might match what you could find at a small, high-quality gun store; of course that's much less than what's available at megastores such as Sportsmen's Warehouse, Bass Pro Shops, or Cabelas. The gift store includes clothing, souvenirs, knives, jewelry (lots of turquoise), and other items. As one might expect, the Visitor Center has plenty of taxidermy.

The main limitation of the Visitor Center, and of Whittington itself, is the lack of food. The only beverages for sale are from a vending machine, and there's no food, other than a few souvenir items in the gift shop. The shotgun area has a cafeteria that is open only for special events, such as the many national competitions held at Whittington.

As for shooting at the Whittington Center, the numerous shooting ranges are in a flat area that comprises about 10 percent of the land. The rest of the 52 square miles are for guided hunting in mountain canyons. The Center has extensive overnight accommodations, at various price points. Far from city lights, and at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the nighttime stargazing and views of the Milky Way are spectacular.

For shotgun shooters, there are many ranges for skeet, trap, and sporting clays. Rifle and handgun shooters also have numerous options. For beginners, short-range metallic silhouette shooting is especially fun. The long-distance and ultra-long distance rifle ranges offer opportunities difficult to find at most ranges near urban areas.

Many visitors enjoy trying to hit the White Buffalo, a 6 x 10 foot steel target located at 1,123 yards on the long-distance rifle range. On my last visit, I hit it with a friend's bolt-action Ruger Precision Rifle, a Lucid scope, and some guidance from an experienced rifleman.

Of course most people come to the Whittington Center for the shooting; the museum and library are underpublicized. Whether or not you want to go shooting, if you're ever on the beautiful highway between Taos and Raton, New Mexico, the Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest is well worth a visit.