William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917), professional buffalo hunter, military scout, and later in life a showman, is most remembered for his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. When he wasn’t on the road traveling with his troupe, Cody’s home was Scout’s Rest Ranch in Nebraska, today a National Historic Landmark.
It was in the 1890s that Cody and his business partners saw an opportunity, took a calculated risk, and founded the town of Cody, Wyoming, envisioning it as a future tourist hub for the new, nearby and rapidly developing Yellowstone National Park. As it turns out, they were right. Cody, Wyoming, today is the crossroads into Yellowstone Country.
That said, if you’re ever anywhere near Cody, a must-see for all firearms enthusiasts is the Cody Firearms Museum located at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. In addition, four other museums are housed at the Center: Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Draper Natural History Museum and the Whitney Western Art Museum. As many as 200,000 people visit annually.
State of the art, the Cody Firearms Museum was founded in 1991 and underwent an extensive renovation in recent years, reopening to the public in 2019 to very positive reviews from both the firearms media and mainstream media. The $12-million project was guided by nationally recognized firearms historian and consultant Ashley Hlebinsky. “One of the largest firearms museums in the country, Cody houses more than 7,000 firearms and 30,000 related artifacts,” she said. Also assisting with the renovation was Danny Michael, current head curator.
Museum display themes—containing many hands-on items—include an Introduction of Firearms, Evolution of Firearms, Story of the West, Military History, Science of Firearms and the Art of Firearms. The lower floor of the museum is the Collector and Research Level, where visitors are welcome to view a gun library of thousands of guns up close and from both sides of a weapon by means of clear, pull-out storage units.
One of several unique attractions of the Cody Firearms Museum is the “Exclusive Tours” conceived and coordinated by Kirsten Michael. These specialized, personalized, behind-the-scenes tours can be arranged for anywhere from one to 10 people per group.
“We first began offering the tours in 2020, and only for the firearms museum,” she said. “But they quickly became so popular that we now offer the tours for all five museums, although the firearms Exclusive Tour still remains our most popular.”
Michael describes the tours more as relaxed, informal conversations than formal presentations. “We strive to answer people’s specific questions about their topics of interest,” she said. “And while doing so, we incorporate artifacts, images, and stories not on display to the general public. In addition, all the firearms museum tours end in our research room where there is an entire collection of historic firearms that tour participants can actually handle. We see the tours as a way for people to choose their own adventure through Western history.”
Interestingly, when the Exclusive Tours of the firearms museum were first offered, Michael and other curators fully expected them to mainly be scheduled by gun enthusiasts. And while that has certainly been true, she said that total novices have also scheduled tours, simply to begin learning about firearms. She added that even a few anti-gun folks have taken the tours, too.
“It’s been a surprising mix,” said Michael. “Many people see guns simply as objects that go bang; but in reality, firearms are cultural artifacts that have amazing stories connected to them, especially their technology. And it’s those stories that people seem to connect with.
“For instance, people find it fascinating to learn that the person who invented the Spencer Repeating Rifle (Christopher Miner Spencer) also invented sewing-machine parts. Or that Walter Hunt, who invented the Hunt Volition Repeater, one of the first lever-action rifles, was a dentist. By the way, he also invented the safety pin. The most enjoyable part of my job is connecting people to history through telling those types of stories.”
Another feature offered to gun collectors, shooters and hunters by the Cody Firearms Museum is so-called “Factory Letters.” The Cody Firearms Records Office currently provides manufacturing dates and configuration data on Winchester, Marlin, L.C. Smith, Ithaca, Savage and A.H. Fox firearms, using the original factory records held by the Center. Factory letters are available to all individuals for a fee, based on a person’s museum membership status.
If, after visiting the firearms museum, you have a hankering to actually shoot a few historic guns, located a short drive across town is the Cody Firearms Experience. An indoor shooting range, their motto is “From Flintlock to Full Auto,” which gives a pretty good idea of the many guns available to choose from. One of the most popular requests they receive is from visitors wanting to fire a Civil War-era Gatling gun.
Yellowstone National Park is located less than an hour’s drive from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and this summer would be a good time to visit both as 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the park’s founding. To commemorate the event, the Center has created a special exhibit chronicling the park’s history—America’s first national park. Learn more about the Cody Firearms Museum or take a virtual tour by clicking here.