Inside the National Firearms Museum’s Petersen Collection

Inside the National Firearms Museum’s Petersen Collection
A view of Bob Petersen’s gun room. Cased sets were located in the drawers below the main display counter.
Petersen Collection at the National Firearms Museum
A view of Bob Petersen’s gun room. Cased sets were located in the drawers below the main display counter.

The NRA’s National Firearms Museum, established in 1935, proudly boasts a collection of nearly 6,000 firearms and twice that number of accoutrements and related items. The overwhelming majority of the National Firearms Museum’s holdings have come from the more than generous contributions of members, friends, and industry.

Recently, a gift from the estate of Robert E. Petersen, of Los Angeles, to the National Firearms Museum set a record in philanthropy to the National Rifle Association (NRA), with a nearly $20 million gift, the largest in the 140-year history of the NRA.

A look at the Petersen Collection at the National Firearms Museum
The National Firearms Museum’s Robert E. Petersen Gallery is 2,000 square feet and contains 425 of the finest American and European firearms.

Through the generosity of Mr. Petersen’s widow, Margie Petersen, 425 firearms from his lifelong collection of historic, rare, and extraordinary sporting arms were given to the National Firearms Museum, with the only requirement being that anything gifted to the museum must be displayed. The National Firearms Museum staff proudly opened its newest exhibit, The Robert E. Petersen Gallery, to the general public on October 8, 2010. The opening marked the culmination of Petersen’s dream of sharing his extraordinary collection of firearms with the world. The collection is on permanent display at the National Firearms Museum, where it will be preserved for the education and enjoyment of future generations.

Husband, father, veteran, publisher, restaurateur, outdoorsman, automobile enthusiast, philanthropist, and friend are all words that partially describe Robert E. Petersen. Born in 1926, in Barstow, California, he proudly served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Following his service in the war, he started a hobbyist magazine for car racing enthusiasts titled Hot Rod. From that initial venture he built the Petersen Publishing empire that included 39 monthly periodicals by the time he sold the company, in 1996.

Petersen published a number of iconic American magazines including Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo, Sports Afield, Petersen’s Hunting, and Motor Trend, just to name a few. He hunted on nearly every continent and was credited with being the first person to ever take a polar bear with a .44 Magnum handgun. (Both the revolver and the bear are on exhibit in the National Firearms Museum.) He also served as Commissioner of Shooting Sports for the XXIII Olympiad, held in 1984, in Los Angeles.

A gattling gun from the Petersen collection at the National Firearms Museum
This Colt Model 1883 Gatling Gun is marked “U.S. Navy” and is thought to be the only surviving example complete with its original naval deck mount.

Pete, as he was called by his friends and his wife, Margie (1936- 2011), first established a relationship with the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in the early 1990s, when they loaned a substantial part of his antique Colt’s collection for display. Since that time, the National Firearms Museum has always been fortunate to exhibit priceless treasures from Pete’s personal collection.

It was through Margie’s vision and generosity that the National Firearms Museum’s 2,000 square-foot Petersen Gallery was made possible. While every firearm selected for exhibit is exceptional in its own way, notable highlights include:

• Largest collection of fine double rifles on display to the public.
• Exceptional collection of high-end double barrel shotguns.
• Largest Gatling gun collection on public display (10 Gatlings).
• Guns owned and used by noted individuals such as Annie Oakley, John Olin, Robert Stack, Julian Hatcher, John F. Kennedy, Hermann Goering, and Elmer Keith.

While the collection is broad and varied, if there is a pervasive theme, it is that of the finest sporting arms in the world, including those by gun makers such as Beretta, Boss, Holland & Holland, Purdey, Fabbri, Galazan, Westley Richards, Parker, Browning, and Rizzini.

The Empire Gun at the National Firearms Museum
“The Empire Gun” by Holland & Holland is a 28-gauge Holland Royal, featuring gold inlay by Allan M. Brown. It is thought to be the most exquisite Holland & Holland in the Petersen collection.

Of special inclusion in the Petersen gift are the world-renowned Parker Invincibles—considered by many to be the finest and most valuable set of American-made guns in existence—a “baby” Paterson revolver, and the Grover Cleveland 8-gauge Colt’s double-barrel shotgun. The Parkers and the Colt 8-gauge have been on loan to the museum since 2001.

Ken Elliott, a personal friend of the Petersens for over 45 years and an employee for 35 of those years, was Vice President and Executive Publisher of Petersen Publishing’s Outdoor Division at the time the company was sold in 1996. After attending the gala opening of the museum gallery, he remarked that, “The Petersen Gallery is indicative of the man. It is what he was all about, from showing the guns he loved to shoot to the finest guns ever created. The gallery is about the man and his passions.”

The Nock Volley Gun at the National Firearms Museum
The Nock Volley Gun is a .46-caliber seven-barreled English sea service arm used during the age of Admiral Nelson. This original behemoth was used by Richard Widmark in his role as Jim Bowie in the 1960 John Wayne film The Alamo.
The Colt New Frontier at the National Firearms Museum
The Colt New Frontier was named after JFK’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural address. This is one of two Colt New Frontiers that were made as presentation pieces to the thirty-fifth President.

Garry James, another personal family friend and former employee of Petersens, and who now works as the Senior Editor of Guns & Ammo magazine, was a close confidant to Bob Petersen and someone the publisher relied upon for advice and knowledge, when it came to selecting an antique firearm for potential acquisition.

Garry recalled recently, “It was a sincere privilege to work for Mr. Petersen and to be able to help him build his extraordinary collection. From 1971 until his unfortunate and untimely passing in 2007, it was always interesting and a great deal of fun to play a role in assembling what, by many accounts, is certainly one of the most historically significant and remarkable private firearms collections ever assembled.”

He added, “The Petersen Gallery at the National Firearms Museum is a fitting tribute and executed in a manner that would have made both Bob and Margie feel that their legacy is in caring and appreciative hands.”

Vampire Hunter Revolver at the National Firearms Museum
This Colt Detective Special “Vampire Hunter” revolver was engraved by Leonard Francolini at the Colt factory. Sterling sliver bullets with carved vampire heads complete the ensemble.

The Robert E. Petersen Gallery replaces the National Firearms Museum’s former introduction and orientation space, with a dazzling array of 15 display cases that highlight more than 400 rifles, pistols, and shotguns, as well as his collection of Gatling guns, the famous Colt’s display boards from 1918, and the spectacular Harrington & Richardson 1876 Centennial display board.

This gallery is now a permanent fixture of the museum and is open to the public daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The National Firearms Museum is located at 11250 Waples Mill Road in Fairfax, Virginia. There is no admission fee. For more information about the National Firearms Museum, visit

This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest 2013.


Next Step: Get your FREE Printable Target Pack

Enhance your shooting precision with our 62 MOA Targets, perfect for rifles and handguns. Crafted in collaboration with Storm Tactical for accuracy and versatility.

Subscribe to the Gun Digest email newsletter and get your downloadable target pack sent straight to your inbox. Stay updated with the latest firearms info in the industry.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.