Firearm Curiosa by Lewis Winant
Some of my books are sentimental favorites, volumes I cut my teeth on when I was a kid: Pistols: A Modern Encyclopedia by Henry Stebbins. A History of the Colt Revolver by Haven and Belden. The Gun and Its Development by Greener. But of all my gun books, the one that brings a smile to my face more quickly than any other is Firearms Curiosa by Lewis Winant. Though out of print, this book is an affordable classic, well worth the time it takes to track down a copy.
If you've ever read my columns, you're aware that I'm fascinated by oddball firearms. Perhaps you are, too. If so, Winant's Firearms Curiosa is a must-have.
Lewis Winant was one of those gentlemen collectors who flourished during what we might call the Golden Age of Gun Collecting. This period ran roughly from 1946 and 1960, when many firearms that had been “liberated” from European and Asian collections began filtering out into the American consumer market. As fellow Gun Digest the Magazine columnist Phillip Peterson can tell you, hundreds of thousands of collectible firearms made the long trek across the Atlantic after World War II, and they weren't all Lugers and P-38s. It was a time when men like Robert Abels, Herb Glass, Joseph Kindig, Jr., George R. Numrich, Jr., and James Serven really came into their own.
Gun collecting had existed as a hobby before World War II (the greatest of these organizations, the Ohio Gun Collectors Association, was founded in 1937), but it was the second world war that pumped new life into the hobby, both in the form of vintage guns as well as gun-conscious hobbyists, many of whom had just returned from service abroad.
As far as we know, Lewis Winant's first book was Pepperbox Firearms, the first American book-length treatment of the subject. It was published in 1952 by Greenberg Publishing of New York City (not to be confused with today's Greenberg Publishing Company, which specializes in literature about toy trains). I have read this book, though I don't currently own a copy of it, and as I recall it contains everything you might care to know about pepperboxes, and likely a good deal more than you'd care to know.
Bonanza Books of New York published Firearms Curiosa in 1955, and it remains the best-known of Winant's books. The book was simultaneously published in a limited first edition of 1,000 hand-numbered copies by Greenberg, and the blurb copy of the dust jacket of my copy (copy #902) gives little doubt that it's the kind of book that appeals to me: “[This book deals with] pistols in knives and canes; pistols in flashlights, purses, ploughs, whips, bicycle handlebars, stirrups, keys, pipes, belts, sundials, and other contrivances. In addition, there are other types classified as oddities, such as squeezers, knuckledusters, alarm and trap.
There are combination weapons, turret, chain and harmonica pistols, guns using superposed loads and other variations from the norm. These remarkable firearms come from more than fifty collections. Some of the most interesting rarities have never before been illustrated in any publication, and their existence is unknown to most collectors.”
You've just got to love the illustration on the dust jacket of my copy of Firearms Curiosa. It shows an actual patent application archived in the Smithsonian Institution. The patent is titled “NEW AND INGENIOUS READY-ACTING DOG-TAIL AND GUN-BARREL ATTACHMENT FOR SPORTING PURPOSES,” and the picture shows a fowling piece that is attached to the back of a pointer and automatically fires when the dog goes on point. That's my kind of gun! That's my kind of book!
Winant's choice of cover illustration for this edition is whimsical, but the book's content isn't. The contents, in order, are Combination Weapons; Miniature Firearms; Two-Barrel Revolvers; Two-Cylinder Revolvers; Squeezers and Knuckledusters; Alarm and Trap Guns; Knife Pistols and Cane Guns; Other Disguised Guns; Superposed Loads; Turret and Chain Guns; and Miscellaneous.
Winant writes in a casual, extremely readable style that's neither stuffy nor overly professorial. More than 300 black and white photos augment the text, which deals not only with one-of-a-kind museum pieces but with mass-produced items such as the WWII-vintage Liberator single-shot .45 made by GM's Guide Lamp division.
I eat this stuff up. I doubt that I'd ever have a use for an armored vest with 19 pistol barrels sticking out of it, a 24-shot revolver, or a pistol that's actually a functional tobacco pipe (hmmmmm. . .) — but if I did, I'd know where to find out about it: in the 281 pages of this little book.
Firearms Curiosa has been reprinted numerous times, and a quick search of Amazon (www.amazon.com), AuctionArms (www.auctionarms.com), Gunbroker (www.gunbroker.com), or Ray Riling Arms Books (www.rayrilingarmsbooks.com) will certainly fetch you a copy in your price range. On Amazon, I found the 1996 Odysseus Editions reprint for as little as $10 a copy, while on the Ray Riling site I found, for $100, what has to be the rarest of the rare: an autographed, inscribed copy of the Arco first edition published in London in 1956. All editions of Firearms Curiosa that I have seen are hardcovers; I doubt that a paperback edition was ever printed.
In 1959, Lewis Winant hit the big time, as far as publishing is concerned, with his classic Early Percussion Firearms: A History of Early Percussion Firearms Ignition — from Forsyth to Winchester .44/40. (I hope Winant got paid separately for the title; it must have been a day's work in itself.) This book was published by the high-profile firm of William Morrow and is now available in used-original and reprint form from some of the above-mentioned merchants from between $10 and $75.
The Antique and Collectible Firearms and Militaria Headquarters at www.oldguns.net has this to say about Firearms Curiosa: “This is a great book for the collector who is tired of looking at ads for greasy surplus rifles and beginning to wonder if there was something really interesting in the gun field to justify another trip to a museum, or gun show, or auction or website. Really cool stuff!” (If you've never visited oldguns.net, my advice is: do. It's worth it.)
I might note that if you're ever passing through northern Indiana, you might want to pay a visit to the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum (www.laportecountyhistory.org). This museum houses the William A. Jones Collection of Antique Weapons, which contains nearly 1,000 of just the sort of guns that Winant deals with in Firearms Curiosa. For $5 you can see volley guns, trap guns, squeezer pistols, pepperboxes, cane guns, and many other freaky firearms that'll make you look twice and shake your head.
If you do a lot of bathroom reading, hunt down a copy of Firearms Curiosa. You might never come out.
Dan Shideler was a senior editor for Gun Digest Books from 2004 until 2011, best known for his entertaining prose and knowledge and insight into firearms history, trends and pricing. He served as editor of two of the industry's most respected annuals: Standard Catalog of Firearms and Gun Digest. Dan passed away in April 2011, leaving a void in the world of firearms literature that may never be filled.