National Park Service Conservators Restore World War II Japanese Machine Guns

These before and after photos show the restoration work performed on a World War II Japanese machine gun by National Park Service conservators in at the agency's Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia. NPS photos.

Editor's note: The following story was provided by the National Park Service and was slightly edited for style.

A small cache of weapons recently was covertly shipped to a small town in eastern West Virginia, but not to fuel an insurrection. No, in this case the World War II machine guns and other firearms were in need of restoration work from National Park Service experts.

The weapons, among them a Type 97 Japanese Navy Aircraft 7.7mm machine gun, were transported from the Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Massachusetts to the Park Service's Harpers Ferry Center in Harpers Ferry.

According to Springfield Armory officials, certain weapons from their Benton Small Arms Collection needed stabilization work at the object conservation lab at the Harpers Ferry Center. Approximately 30 rifles, pistols, and a bayonet badly needing help were shipped to the Harpers Ferry Center earlier this year.

James Roberts, Springfield Armory's chief of resource management, personally couriered the weapons to the Park Service's Museum Conservation Services staff in Harpers Ferry. The weapons were carefully packed and – as a group -- are the first of similar preservation projects that are part of a long-term effort to stabilize the entire Benton Small Arms collection.

Mr. Roberts’ trip from Springfield to Harpers Ferry may have followed a route similar taken by abolitionist John Brown. The purpose of this trip, however, was much different than John Brown’s 1859 raid in which a federal arsenal was seized and violence and destruction was unleashed.

Col. James Benton, Commanding Officer of Springfield Armory (1866-1881), organized the small arms collection as an armorers’ encyclopedic reference, which in turn became a public museum in 1871. The collection grew over the years with the addition of wartime trophies and experimental pieces to house over 7,000 individual firearms. Currently, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site curates 12,000 objects and approximately 510,000 items in the associated archives.

“While almost all metal artifacts need to be stabilized in order to withstand even the best storage or exhibit conditions, some of these objects were in very great need of attention," said David Arnold, the objectes conservator for the Museum Conservation Services. "Too often, the greatest amount of deterioration takes place out-of-view, on the interior surfaces of mechanical arts objects such as firearms and machinery in general.”

One of the firearms being conserved at MCS is SPAR 3617, a Type 97 Japanese Navy Aircraft 7.7mm Machine Gun – it is classified as a “deactivated war trophy.” Weapons of this type saw service in the Japanese Navy from 1937-1945. The weapon suffered from heavy corrosion and was missing several parts.

“Rust was everywhere, but there were especially heavy outbreaks on the rear panel and inside the main hinged cover," said Mr. Arnold.

Preservation work included corrosion removal, chemical and mechanical cleaning, and heating in a special oven for an application of a rust inhibitor. Complete written and photographic documentation is provided for the benefit of future conservators, as well as for SPAR’s permanent curatorial records.

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