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The VHS Brings Out the Big Guns (Literally!) with Arming the Commonwealth


image of Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Photo by Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis

From protecting yourself from enemy combatants to finding dinner for your family, weapons have played a significant role in Virginia history. Our newest exhibition, Arming the Commonwealth, made possible by the Cecil R. and Edna S. Hopkins Family Foundation, explores how the state became a hub for weapon manufacturing and how Virginians used them in their everyday lives.

Following the American Revolution, Virginia was the only state to arm its militia fully with locally manufactured weapons. In its short operational history, the Virginia Manufactory of Arms produced more than 58,000 muskets and bayonets, 10,000 swords, 4,000 pistols, and 200 artillery pieces for the state militia. Later, the U.S. Congress, recognizing the problem with relying on foreign countries for weapons, designated two sites for armories. One was Springfield, Massachusetts; the other was Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

The average citizen used weapons for hunting or for personal protection. One of the pieces that always draws in crowds, and one of my personal favorites, is the English Long Fowler, known at the VHS as the “Woodson musket.” I have met several Woodson descendants (and there are a lot of them) wanting to see the musket on display. It’s 7 feet, 4 inches long and has a .80 caliber barrel. It’s huge! It may have been used to hunt stationary birds or in the military as a “wall gun.”

Image of WoodsonMusket (VHS accession number: 1929.8) on display in Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society

English Long Fowler (“Woodson” musket), mid 17th century, Barrel; about 1750, Lock; about 1800, Stock, VHS accession number: 1929.8 (On loan from Charles Granville Scott and conserved with gifts from Woodson descendants). By Woodson family tradition, the oldest part of the gun was used by Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon, who helped Sara Woodson defend her Prince George County home from an Indian attack on April 18, 1644.

One of the more common ways to settle disputes was through individual combat or duels. The first recorded duel occurred on April 14, 1624, between George Harrison and Capt. Richard Stephens.  Although legislation was passed against dueling with the Anti-Dueling Act of 1810, the practice continued into the 1880s.


Matched pistols, Richard Constable, about 1850, VHS accession number: 2004.58.2.A–T (Gift of Robert M. Hughes III). This set of pistols was used in the 1869 duel between Capt. William E. Cameron and Robert W. Hughes, Esq. The pair originally met near Richmond on June 10, but they were arrested. Their release prevented them from participating in a duel in Virginia for six months. So on June 12, they crossed into North Carolina. On the first fire, Cameron was wounded in the chest, but survived.

Image of Powder Horn (VHS accession number: 2000.138.21) on display in the Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society

Powder horn, about 1830–1850, VHS accession number: 2000.138.21 (Purchased with funds provided by Nicholas Taubman, Alan M. Voorhees, L. Dudley Walker, and Anne R. Worrell). Riflemen were required to carry a shot-bag containing bullets and a powder horn filled with a quarter pound of gunpowder.

In Arming the Commonwealth you will see weapons and accessories made and used in Virginia by Virginians. The craftsmanship of these pieces, while archaic to the modern eye, was exceptional for the time. The exhibition is free to explore during our regular hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

You won’t want to miss out on our gallery walk of the exhibition led by Vice President for Programs Andrew Talkov on August 10th, 2016 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. The cost is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children; as always, members get in free. Tickets may be purchased at the door.

This blog was written by Ariel Robinson, a visitor services associate at the VHS.

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