A special part of the museum’s collection is firearms made exclusively for sale to Indians. It includes the earliest known intact trade gun, made in the Netherlands before 1650. The personal firearms of such famous Americans as John Kinzie, Kit Carson, Tecumseh, and Young Man Afraid of His Horses are on exhibition. Over 300 North West guns manufactured between 1640 and 1911 in England, Belgium, and the United States are on display. It is the largest and most comprehensive collection of these rare firearms in existence.

The North West Gun

The natives of North America were sophisticated, intelligent customers. They immediately saw the advantages of firearms over spears and bows and arrows. (It requires much less practice to use a firearm, and a gun has superior range). By 1620 firearms were flowing to the Indians despite strong governmental efforts to prevent such trade.

Guns were a universal part of the trader’s outfit by the late 17th century. Influenced by Dutch designs brought to Britain during the reign of William III, English gunmakers in the early 18th century began placing a fancy brass plate shaped like a sea serpent or snake opposite the lock on guns intended for the Indian trade. By 1750, a standard pattern of gun had emerged. A light and dependable weapon for hunting and war, it featured a large iron guard, a brass serpent or snake-shaped side plate, and a thin, smooth-bored barrel that could be loaded with either shot or round ball. Fur traders called them North West guns because large numbers were then being shipped to the Great Lakes, the “Northwest” of that time. The same pattern with minor variations was manufactured for the fur trade until 1900.