Monday, March 17, 2014

NPS black-powder course: Teaching authentic and safe use of historic weapons

Castillo de San Marcos in Florida (NPS)

Last year, 1.1 million people who flocked to America’s national parks witnessed 9,145 programs involving historic weapons. Venues that fire reproduction 18th and 19th century small arms and artillery must have an employee certified in their use and safety. Of course, actual rounds are not fired. The National Park Service recently concluded a 10-day black-powder course at Fort McClellan Army National Guard Training Center near Anniston, Ala. Course coordinator George Elmore, chief ranger at Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas, talked with the Picket about the course, which featured 11 instructors, and the value of living history programs that use such weapons. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Q. Why are these weapons programs put on at park?

Elmore: What makes a powerful demonstration is when you have successfully created the illusion you could be a soldier from the Civil War or Revolutionary War, and you draw persons so much into the talk and program, that you created a picture in their mind of what an individual soldier went through.

Training participants (NPS)
Q. Why is the course held?

A. The purpose of the course is to keep the use of firearms safe. You can lose a hand. You will see that occasionally in (non-park) re-enactments. We have never had a major accident in the park service. We are very concerned about safety. Each park is required to have its own magazine, meet the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) requirements and to have a loading area.

Q. You had about 80 participants this year. Where are they from?

A. We had a couple from San Juan National Historic Site (Puerto Rico), those using early Spanish iron-type cannons at Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Fla., Civil War parks, Revolutionary War Parks, War of 1812, cannon and flintlocks. It is just a broad spectrum. We also have people from state sites. We had 11 from those and two U.S. Forest Service employees.

Q. Participants bring their weapons. How much experience do they have?

A. We do have safety inspections (of weapons brought to course). We found a couple problems -- gun locks that did not work correctly, weapons not properly cleaned or malfunctioning in strikes. About half are novices. We have people who never handled a weapon. You have some experienced people, perhaps some who have re-enacted. You have to start with the lowest level and bring everybody up to speed.

(NPS photo)

Q. Can you tell us a little more about the curriculum of the course?

A. This is a supervisory course that involves black powder, drill manuals and how to manage those weapons. It is a combination of teaching accurate interpretation and safety. We actually use the original manuals. The people have to study the manuals, learn how it was done then and proficiently drill using that manual. It is kind of like training the trainer. There is a lot of repetition and hands-on drill until they get the muzzle safety down. We have to teach ATF regulations, how to move black powder from point A to point B without blowing yourself up and how to store black powder safely. Those who are certified supervise the program at their park, and they train (those who fire weapons). We try to impress upon them the importance of what they are doing. To be sure, no matter what, to be safe.

Q. Anything else about the course?

A. We make sure when they leave they have passed required written exams and tests. They must look professional (and wear period clothing). None failed this year, but we have had that happen. We have sent people home halfway through.

Q. What is the role of the historic weapons supervisor at his or her park? I understand they work with staff members and, occasionally, re-enactors.

(NPS photo)

A. Each person cannot personally supervise more than 40 people firing those weapons. For demonstrations, they have to inspect each weapon, and go through the loading procedure. He or she has to get to know their leaders and have knowledge of these people. Sometimes before an event, you may have to pull someone from the line (if they don’t meet specifications). There are a lot of cheap replicas that were never intended to be fired that someone has adapted to fire a blank round. We require hearing protection. A lot of re-enactors don’t use it elsewhere.

Q. The National Park Service doesn’t use original weapons. Why?

A. We cannot use period weapons. No more is being made. If someone drops it and cracks a stock, it is gone. You have destroyed an original item from the 1860s or whatever era you are using.

Q. So you use exact replicas. What does that mean?

A. The replicas are never as good as the originals. We train them what to watch and look for (in quality and components). Some replicas have a two-piece stock. They have to know how to totally disassemble the weapon. The biggest safety problem is the quality of the (commercially produced) equipment being used today. Almost nothing today would pass the original ordnance specifications of the time.

Graduating class of 2014 - click to enlarge (NPS)

Q. What kind of weapons are fired at national parks?

A. The most common are 6 pounders and 12 pounders, howitzers and Napoleons. Some parks have 3-inch ordnance. With side arms, Colt and Remington, Army and Navy, .44-caliber and .36-caliber. Civil War can include Springfield musket models 1861 and 1863, Spencer carbines and Henrys.

Q. How much does black powder cost?

A. We buy it commercially at about $15 a pound. Cannons will use a half pound per round. Some of the larger ordnance requires more. With the (cost) and time of staff to perform it … it gets to be an expensive program. (But) it is one of most popular interpretive programs we do.

Safety first for Civil War re-enactors (NPS)

Q. What are some of the more scenic places at which these weapons are fired?

A. Fort Pulaski in Georgia, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, San Juan, Castillo de San Marcos. These fortresses make for great views. You can walk through the portal and you can take yourself back. It sometimes can be eerie.

The Picket also spoke with Willie Johnson, historian at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia. Johnson is certified as a historic weapons supervisor. In June, for the 150th anniversary of the Atlanta Campaign battle, re-enactors will be at encampments and will perform weapons demonstrations. Black-powder supervisors from other parks will assist Johnson.

Q. What is your role when it comes to re-enactors?

Johnson: To ensure that their drill is correct and they are safe. You basically make sure that the lock functions properly, the weapon is clean and it is not loaded.

Q. What if, say, a musket doesn’t pass muster?

A. Sometimes we turn someone down. We have some weapons used by staff. If there were to be a weapon not pass inspection, I might check him one out temporarily.”


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The beginning of your article sites the number of people who attended historic firing demonstrations in National Parks at events in 2013. Do you remember where that figure came from?