Maybe This is How I Got Started in Gun Collecting? By Wayne Anthony Ross

Wayne Anthony Ross
NRA Director - Wayne Anthony Ross

Carl Burbach was a friend of my father’s in Milwaukee in the late 1940's. Mr. Burbach was a gun col-lector. We had an old sword in our basement and it had a straight, unsharpened blade, a black handle, and a bear’s head on the pommel. I’ve never seen another like it. One day the sword was gone. My dad said he gave it to Mr. Burbach, “who collected that stuff.”

I must have been five or six when I saw Mr. Burbach’s gun collection. I don’t remember much about it except that he had a bunch of pistols and revolvers on a wall in a back room of his house. What I do remember, however, was that Mr. Burbach gave me a cap pistol on that occasion. That was over 55 years ago, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid.

That cap pistol may have gotten me started in gun collecting because, thereafter, I was able to gather quite a few toy pistols. One had a long barrel and was made of tin. It went clickity-clack when the trigger was pulled. Somewhere, I have a picture of myself with that pistol. In the picture, I’ve got a cowboy hat (red with white lacing) tilted over one eye, and a real neat pair of chaps with a big bandana tied around my neck.

In those golden days of yesteryear, having the right cowboy clothes was just as important as having the right gun. Once every year or two, a man would come around the neighborhood with a pony and a camera. He’d ring the doorbell and ask if any kids lived in the house. When he found a house that had kids, and most of them did, he’d offer to take the kids’ pictures astride the pony. I always wondered how that guy could make any money. He couldn’t have charged too much, since I never heard of any kid in our neighborhood not getting his picture taken because a parent thought it cost too much. And I don’t remember my folks complaining about the cost, either. And certainly, whatever the man lost in the way of potential profit by keeping the price low, he didn’t make up in volume either. After our folks agreed that we could have our picture taken, the man would have to wait patiently outside while we got into our cowboy outfits.

After all, no self-respecting kid would be seen atop a horse, or anywhere else for that matter, without his or her trusty six shooter and Stetson. Five, 10, or even 15 minutes later, we’d be ready. There we’d sit, all decked out, high up on the pinto pony, while the man took our picture. Many of the kids from my generation still have those pictures and treasure them. I know I still have mine.

The kids in the neighborhood who weren’t home when the man came around sometimes didn’t believe that a man with a pony had come into our neighborhood. In such cases, sometimes we’d be lucky enough to be able to show the doubting kid evidence on the front lawn that a pony had stood there.

I still remember the best set of guns I ever owned. I got them for Christmas. They were called “49ers.” They were nickel plated with some sort of “engraving” all over them. The grips were ivory-colored plastic and had a genuine red plastic ruby in them along with a picture of an ox team pulling a covered wagon. The cylinder rotated, and you slid the left grip aside to put in a roll of caps. I had a carved leather belt and double holsters for the 49ers, as well as a matching set of what we called “cuffs.” These “cuffs” snapped around your wrists like the tops of gloves and also were made of carved leather, with real plastic diamonds and rubies on them.

I came across a set of cuffs several years ago, and bought them, even though my wrists have grown too big to wear them. Sometime later I found a 49er for sale. It cost me $125, but I didn’t hesitate. I’d like to find another, as well as the holster set they originally came in. Now that I live in the 49th state, the significance of the 49er name is not lost on me.

Many of our guns, as kids, were cap guns. You can’t find caps any more. Caps generally came in a box of 250 for a nickel. The good ones were made by Kilgore and had 50 shots to a roll. You’d buy a box, and then break the rolls apart, as you needed them. Kilgore caps made a sharp bang when they went off, and there was plenty of smoke as well as the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder. Nowadays there are many people who say kids shouldn’t have toy guns at all; they claim that toy guns foster aggressive tendencies in kids. I never thought that aggressive tendencies were bad. I’d rather have aggressive kids than passive kids.

Our kids all had toy guns when they were very young. Barb and I let them have these guns, even though we had real guns in our home, because toy guns allowed me to teach our children proper gun safety at an early age. The kids learned that pointing a gun at a person - even if the gun was “only a toy one” - resulted in harsh penalties, including “unilateral disarmament.” They quickly learned to always - watch where the muzzle was pointed, and that training served them in good stead when they started handling real guns later.

I’ve owned a lot of guns since my set of 49ers. Some of the guns I own are worth many thousands of dollars. But when I go into my gunroom, I still like to pick up the little nickel-plated, engraved, ivory handled, ruby-inlaid pistol with an ox team pulling a covered wagon. And I think of Carl Burbach and his kindness to me so long ago. Carl, wherever you are ... thanks for getting me started on a fascinating hobby!

Col. Wayne Anthony Ross of Alaska is an NRA Director and Chairman of the NRA Gun Collectors Committee. He is an Honorary Life member of OGCA, and a member since 1980. We hope to see him in the very near future in Wilmington.