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Shooting yourself in the foot: the do’s and don’ts of working with weapons

Rachel Church
Assistant Curator, Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass

From its inception, the V&A has collected arms and armour. They were collected as art; the Museum wanted to inspire visitors, viewing them as examples of the best in ornamented design and metalworking techniques from the various time periods and cultures represented. However, although these objects are regarded as works of art, it is important to remember that arms and armour were made for war, personal defence and hunting, and so are potentially dangerous or even lethal to handle.

Handling historic weapons is something which many museum workers find worrying, but an excellent talk and hands-on demonstration by Simon Metcalf, Neil Carleton and Donna Stevens allayed some fears. The aim was to familiarise staff including curators, photographers, conservators, museum technicians and members of Records and Collections with the main points to observe when working with weapons. Through a range of cautionary examples, participants were alerted to problems which they might encounter. These included objects with very loose parts, sharp points and blades, and unexpectedly heavy weapons. Simon stressed the fact that some firearms may still be loaded, and that it must be assumed that they are until proved otherwise. Neil put forward the example of poison-tipped arrows in the Indian and South East Asian Collections which have retained their potency for hundreds of years.

Damage to the objects themselves was also considered. Armour may appear robust but yet be extremely thin and vulnerable. A single fingerprint can ruin the surface of a polished sword blade. Handling the range of examples available from the Collections provided the opportunity to consolidate many of the points covered in the talk. By the end of the session, all those involved felt confident of their ability to handle arms and armour safely, and discovered a new respect for the craft and beauty of these objects.

Here is a checklist of do’s and don’ts for handling arms and armour, compiled by Simon Metcalf.

Firearms

  • Treat firearms as if they are loaded.
  • Never point a gun at anyone.
  • Never cock or fire a gun mechanism. Apart from the obvious risk that it could go off, the springs inside the gun lock are vulnerable to snapping. Firing the hammer or cock of a gun without the flint in position can cause the cock to break off.
  • Keep the muzzle pointing upwards and away from colleagues/visitors when moving a firearm.

Swords and Bladed Weapons

  • Most blades are sharp. There is always the risk of either being cut or stabbed.
  • Avoid handling the cutting edge and the surface of the blade as much as possible.
  • Be aware of the danger of a blade cutting through a scabbard. There is a real risk of a slicing or cutting injury when removing a blade from its scabbard. If it gets stuck, stop, and contact conservation.
  • Be aware that blades can drop out of scabbards. Daggers especially are often ill-fitting.
  • Carry blades vertically or in a basket.
  • If using a basket take care with the pointed ends.
  • Never use corks to contain a point. Corks cause corrosion.
  • Scabbards can be rigid OR very floppy once the blade has been removed.

Armour

  • Armour is very articulated and can become very floppy once removed from its mount.
  • Care needs to be taken not to pinch your hands between the plates.
  • Armour often has fragile leather or textiles – care must be taken not to squash these elements or make them bear weight.
  • Mail, and particularly butted mail, can snag and catch on itself.
  • Armour can often be very thin and fragile due to wear and corrosion.
  • Armour can be much lighter or heavier than it appears.

Afterword

Although these procedures may seem to err on the side of caution, it should be noted that six probably loaded firearms have been discovered in the Museum’s collections during a recent survey.