After a summer going door-to-door and selling subscriptions to magazines such as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, I finally collected a grand total of $10 (a fortune for a youngster in 1939), which I kept securely hidden in a cigar box in my room.
At Center School, in West Hartford, Conn., most boys were excited about collecting souvenirs from the American Revolution up to the pre-war 1930s. Two of the most popular catalogs were a Practical Jokes catalog — which featured whoopee cushions, exploding cigars and Japanese finger locks — and the most valued: Bannerman’s Antique Gun and Military Collectors Catalog.
The Good ‘Ol Days
What was Francis Bannerman Sons Co.? It was one of the oldest war-surplus houses in the United States, having been established by Bannerman, a Scottish immigrant, at the end of the Civil War, when the government had huge stocks of material to dispose of after hostilities ceased. Because of the company’s long experience, sound business practices and uniformly high-quality goods, Bannerman became the leader in surplus military goods for generations, remaining in business for about 100 years.
For weeks, I pleaded with my dad to take me to New York City so I could see Bannerman’s, the mysterious emporium of my dreams. It was at 501 Broadway. Dad finally relented, and to the envy of my male schoolmates, he and I finally boarded a dirty, cinder–coated coach on the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to make the long-awaited trip to the big city. In those days, a round-trip ticket cost $5. After a subway ride to lower Broadway, we emerged from the bowels of the city and walked a short distance into the front door of Bannerman’s aged and grimy block-wide building.
The entry door was on the right, and a big display window took up the rest of the frontage. My eyes immediately locked on the row of cases that ran from the front of the sales area to the rear of the store, where there was an inviting open display section. It was the mother lode, and I was certain I’d died and gone to collector’s heaven. Then I saw the thing I had read and dreamed about: the famous One-Dollar Table. Tearing my eyes away from the display cases, and hastily deciding I could examine them later, I hurried to the table.
Without hesitation, my hands darted out and grabbed a complete but slightly rusty .50 Springfield trap-door musket. (Incidentally, when I went to Bannerman’s about a year later, I picked up a Siamese-marked Model 1871 single-shot Mauser rifle.) The next three hours were better than any Christmas morning of my life, and I spent it in a frenzy of unabashed greed. I picked up odds and ends, including a bayonet and scabbard for the trap-door rifle for less than $2. I also acquired belts, canteens and ammunition pouches for less than $1 apiece.
All that was lacking was the looks of envy I’d surely see when I told my pals at Center School about my big adventure and then showed them the spoils. If only they could have seen me. Years later, I decided that Ralphie and his BB gun in that now-famous Gene Shepherd holiday classic A Christmas Story had nothing on me.
However, I could sure understand his anticipation and the ensuing excitement when his fondest dream came true.
Bannerman's A Boy's Dream Store
But let’s get back to Bannerman’s. Presiding over the sales area was a crusty fellow named — if memory serves — Butch. If you asked Butch for something but he couldn’t find it after rummaging around for a bit, he proclaimed himself a self-appointed final arbiter and decided what you would get. That was that.
He had a powerful position and seemed to enjoy it to the utmost. I had my heart set on 50 rounds of packaged dummy .30-06 cartridges in clips. Butch searched to no avail, so I ended up with 50 rounds of 6 mm Lee Navy straight-pull cartridges in clips in 15-round boxes, which, had I known it then, were invaluable.
Although disappointed at the time, I can now send a hearty “thank you” to Butch.
Believe it or not, when I returned from overseas in 1946, I stopped at Bannerman’s for old times’ sake. Lo and behold, I saw Butch presiding over his domain, just as he had eight years earlier. Much to my surprise, many of the other faces were also familiar.
Obviously, Bannerman’s employees enjoyed working there as much as I relished participating in it — if only for a few hours. (You might wonder what I was doing returning from overseas in 1946 when I was only 9 in 1939. I was one of those underage guys who managed to enlist in the Army when only 15. But that’s a story for another day.)
In addition to Butch’s one-dollar table, Bannerman’s had an eye-catching panorama surrounded by a barrier of ropes. It featured more than 50 6 mm Lee Navy straight-pull rifles that had been recovered from the Maine. Each was covered with a discolored layer of rust, but because they were from a famous ship, they cost a whopping $40 apiece. Throwing caution to the wind, I wandered behind the rope line — and who could blame me?
I was as wide-eyed as a child with carte blanche in a candy store, and nothing could stop me. Well, that’s not quite true. I was promptly yelled at and sheepishly returned to my place behind those darned ropes.
To the right of the Maine rifles were several beautiful Gatling guns mounted on field carriages and surrounded by some World War I Vickers machine guns on tripods.
Front and center in the dazzling display was the famous old dynamite gun of Teddy Roosevelt fame from the Spanish-American War. Notoriously inaccurate, this gun used a dynamite projectile that was fired by compressed air generated by a blank cartridge. There was also a captured .45-caliber Spanish-Nordenfeldt multi-barreled “machine gun” fed by hopper, which I saw years later in the collection of a fellow Connecticut collector.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep my head reeling, hanging from the ceiling over the entire display was an early 10-foot-long compressed-air Spanish Torpedo from the Spanish-American War, complete with a warhead, air-chamber, engine propellers and rudder.
As I stood there entranced, my eyes open and mouth agape, a simple question ran through my mind: Could there ever be a more glorious display?
The Care-Free Era Ends
However, all great things must eventually end. Dad kept his eye on the time to make sure we got back to Grand Central Station for the train ride home. That had to be a strange sight. Would you believe that we carried all these newfound treasures onto the subway and through Grand Central Station? When we boarded the train, I toted a rifle down the aisle until we found seats. After we arrived at Hartford, I hoisted the treasures onto a bus that took us to the suburb of West Hartford.
When I view that journey through the prism of today’s politically correct mindset, it’s amazing that no one seemed concerned about a child carrying a rifle and bayonet loosely wrapped in paper. When finally seated on the train, I was determined to admire my haul, and Dad cautioned me not to keep taking the bayonet out of the scabbard. Nonetheless, those items didn’t represent a threat to public safety in anyone’s mind. They were simply things boys were enamored of and often collected, which even made them popular objects of show-and-tell in grade school.
Believe it or not, no one flinched later when I dragged a rifle down the sidewalks of West Hartford, flushed with pride at my latest find.
What was my tally for all those treasures? $6.55, leaving me with $3.45 to put back in the cigar box until I collected more for my next trip to the big city — and, of course, Bannerman’s.
That special trip came one year later. I was a seasoned Bannerman’s veteran by then, having saved enough for a return visit to collector’s heaven. The maiden aunt of a neighborhood buddy agreed to take two “wild Indians” to New York and Bannerman’s emporium. God bless Aunt Clara for what must have been the most stressful day of her life. I’m sure she regretted the decision before we had stepped off the train. And God bless my dad for helping to make the dreams of a child come true.
Unfortunately, we’ll never see those carefree times again. However, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a part of them.
— Bob Ball is a U.S. Army veteran and long-time collector of military weapons, specializing in Mauser military rifles. He is also a lifelong student of military history. His book, Mauser Military Rifles of the World, currently in its fourth edition, is the leading reference on Mauser rifles and their values. He is one of the nation's leading experts on historic military firearms and their use throughout the world.