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Beard collection opens Thursday at Archives

Posted: May 17, 2013 4:36 p.m.
Updated: May 20, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Camden’s Ross Beard, who has donated much of his large collection of firearms, weapons and other memorabilia to the Camden Archives and Museum is pictured standing by an open case filled with items connected to his godfather, famed FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Purvis was responsible for hunting down such 1930s mobsters as “Baby Face” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and, most notably, John Dillinger.

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Visitors won’t be able to help but stop and stare at the giant rifle at the Camden Archives and Museum. At 6 feet long and 90 pounds heavy, the training rifle features an 8-inch bolt for .50 caliber armor piercing rounds. Fashioned at Pearl Harbor, the rifle’s barrel is actually from the USS Arizona sunk during the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941, that catapulted the United States into World War II.

"I’ve only ever seen a Navy Seal be able to lift it. I wouldn’t want to mess with him," Ross Beard, for whom a new permanent firearms and related materials collection at the archives is named, said.

Beard doesn’t actually own the large rifle, at least not yet. It is on loan to him for the exhibit by owner William J. West of Florence.

"Somebody stole it once out from under a bed," Beard said. "The police found a drug addict carrying it around, trying to sell it. The police department called me because they weren’t sure what it was."

Since then, he stayed in touch with West, convinced him to loan it for the collection and is hopeful he’ll actually be able to buy it.

During a preview of the new collection -- which officially opens to the public Thursday -- Beard couldn’t stop talking about the items. Good thing, too, considering just how many rifles, pistols and other weaponry are on display in the museum wing. Amazingly, what visitors will see is just a part of Beard’s collection. More items are housed in the archives’ lower level, waiting for the day when they, too, will be seen by the public.

"The collection as displayed now will stay the same for at least a year," Camden Archives and Museum Director Katherine Richardson said, "but there are enough items in storage to do another whole exhibit in the future."

Most of the items in the archives’ Beard collection were transferred from a larger exhibit at the South Carolina Military Museum behind the Columbia National Guard Armory off Bluff Road. Beard said items such as uniforms, medals and badges, are still maintained there. Other items in Beard’s collection at the archives are being added for the first time.

"We have enough downstairs to fill six more cabinets," Beard said, in addition to the six currently being used. "This is such a nice place to keep them."

In fact, there is so much to Beard’s collection that Richardson confirmed she has spoken to the Friends of the Camden Archives and Museum about the prospect of expanding the facility.

"Ross would have to donate the collection first -- it is on long-term loan now -- but they are very positive about the possibility of expansion," Richardson said.

After the 6-foot rifle, Beard heads to the first of the cabinets. Inside are, perhaps, some of the oldest firearms on public display in South Carolina. Each item is numbered. While Beard’s overall collection ranges from the 1480s to the modern era, Item No. 1 is a 1600s .70 caliber Arab Snaphaunce Camel rifle.

"It is so long that a man on camel-back could place one end on the ground and load the muzzle without having to get off the camel," Beard said.

Then there’s a circa 1514 Chinese wheel-lock.

"Notice how the muzzle is a ‘dragon-mouth," Beard said. "It’s mate is in a Beijing museum."

Wheel-locks used rotating steel wheels that, using friction, creating a spark to ignite gunpowder. Information like that comes from a glossy guidebook to the collection created by the archives. Following an introduction by Beard, each item -- from 1 to 161 -- receives a mention. There are also sidebars with information about different types of firearms, people connected to the items in the exhibit and even panels from Mad Magazine’s famous "Spy vs. Spy" comic strip.

Richardson said Curator of Collections Rickie Good created the exhibit guide, and it will be made available to visitors in the museum gallery.

A unique air rifle from Merriweather Lewis and William Clark’s 1804-06 expedition gets some extra attention from Beard. It was one of only three on the trip, and used no gunpowder. Beard also has a unique way of knowing the rifle is the real Lewis & Clark deal.

"It has a metal tank used with bellows. It burst once, due to pressure and a blacksmith reportedly repaired it in the field," he said. "I got it when I was 18 and I think it’s authentic because you can see the repairs on one side."

Beard goes on to show off a .56 caliber Colt Root revolving rifle that could shoot large slugs or small shot, and could be fired "instantaneously" thanks to small holes on the back of each cylinder (bullet) that housed .22 caliber blanks instead of percussion caps.

On to Case 2 where there’s a 9-shot LeMat revolver fitted with a shotgun underneath; an 1852 Gurkha replica of a Sharps Buffalo rifle; replicas of George Washington’s pistol and knife; "The Southern Derringer," a .41 caliber pistol with spur trigger and wooden grip made by Merrimack shipbuilders; and two circa 1860 Sharps Pepperbox four-barrel pistols.

An odd piece rests in Case 3: a German cross-eyed shotgun-rifle. There are three barrels -- a double shotgun and one rifle barrel. A button can be pressed near the stock that automatically raises a rifle sight. What makes the gun unique is the curved stock.

"You place it on your right shoulder and sight with your left eye," Beard explained.

Extra ammunition could be kept in the stock.

Another Snaphaunce Camel is here, as are Revolutionary period tiger-striped rifle, 1814 flintlock and a pair of cap and ball pistols with detachable rifle-style stocks.

"Each gun has a personality," Beard said.

That certainly appears to be true when it comes to cases 4 and 5, containing firearms and other memorabilia from two people with whom Beard has intimate knowledge of: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Agent Melvin Purvis and firearms inventor David Marshall "Carbine" Williams. Purvis was Beard’s godfather; Beard wrote a book about Carbine, whom he met several times.

Purvis, born in Timmonsville, led the manhunts for 1930s gangsters John Dillinger, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson (Lester M. Gills). Amongst the guns, photographs and other items connected to Purvis is the face of the man himself: a bust, newly added to Beard’s collection from Purvis’ estate. Where Purvis was Beard’s godfather, Purvis was the godson of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. One of the items in Case 4 is a belt buckle Cody gave Purvis as a gift.

Purvis successfully tracked down and -- in one of the most infamous gunfights of the times -- killed Dillinger. The Beard Collection includes Dillinger’s hat, pistol, sawed-off shotgun and machine gun. There’s even a Monopoly-like game, created by Parker Bros., called "Melvin Purvis: G-Man."

"I like the way they enforced the law back then. They didn’t mess around," Beard said.

As for Carbine Williams, Beard summed up his relationship with the inventor with a story about trying to get the last Carbine he needed: the T3. Keep in mind, Williams spent time in jail after a deputy was shot and killed during a raid on his still.

Beard said he visited Williams, saw a part from a T3 and asked if he could have it. Williams picked it up and, instead of handing it to Beard, threw out the window -- in the snow. Then, Williams asked if Beard could follow directions.

"I said, ‘sure,’ and he led me outside and we walked in the snow, taking a round-about path to a building," Beard recalled. "There were gun parts everywhere and I knew they were Carbine parts."

Williams handed Beard a few, and put a few in his own pocket.

"I asked him why we had walked around so much, and he asked me if I had followed his directions. I said, ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘good, because they are land mines out here … I don’t like people messing with my treasures," Beard said.

When they got back to the main house, Williams rewarded him by putting together a T3 for Beard.

There’s a Williams connection to another man Beard go to know well: British assassin Peter Mason, the Special Air Services captain upon whom Ian Fleming based James Bond. Mason used a Carbine during his high-altitude missions, making 59 jumps resulting in 57 kills.

"He was quite a commando," Bears said, showing off an pipe made especially for Mason that could shoot poison darts.

Also in the collection from Mason are .45 caliber pistol that fires a .22 caliber bullet when used with a silencer, an umbrella concealing a sword and a pen-and-pencil set that once fired 4mm rounds.

"They stopped making ammunition for those in 1945," Beard said.

An interesting fact about Mason: his wife, Pru, could outshoot her husband at long-range. When Beard remarked on this one too many times…

"‘I do close work,’" he reminded me, "‘Keep harassing me about my wife … you might want to remember, I know where you live.’"

Luckily, Mason’s comments were all in good fun.

Case 6 a mix of firearms including a commercial German Luger with a long barrel, a 9mm Spanish service pistol and a Remington rolling block rifle captured by a Native American warrior.

"He wrapped it in Buffalo hide and drove trade tacks into it," Beard said. "He would ride into battle and tap a soldier with his spear and tell him, ‘You’re next to die.’ Then he’d circle around and before the soldier could reload, catch him."

A coin taken from a dead soldier is embedded in the stock, circled by trade tacks.

Heading downstairs, Beard reveals the remainder of the collection, including some things other than weapons, such as a sea chest with secret compartments from the Harriett Lane that attacked Galveston, Texas, during the Civil War; more of Mason’s items, including a pair of shoes with concealed knives; and a pre-Civil War "rocking organ."

"Soldiers would press on the bellows in the back to play music at night," Beard explained, demonstrating; unfortunately, the bellows are "pooped out," he said -- no sound came out.

There are, of course, an almost countless number of firearms stored in the lower level. Beard said he is grateful to both the Camden police and fire department for their help in moving and, in some cases, cleaning the armaments.

Of special value are special gun racks on wheels made by the Camden Fire Department, whose members he called "the greatest guys."

"I’m so impressed with the professionalism of everybody up here," Beard added, speaking of Richardson and her staff. "They really bring this place alive. Anything you need, they do everything they can. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with them."

He included city council and staff at Camden City Hall in that praise.

Richardson had just as much praise for Beard.

"He is a true gentleman and has a great sense of humor. We’ve had a great time working together, all of us!" she said.

And, Richardson said, the collection is another great tourism asset for Camden.

"From what I have heard and no understand, with the collection under our roof and in our care, it is one of, if not the premiere gun collection in the country," Richardson said. "West Point was very interested in acquiring this collection. For us, it allows us to showcase a significant collection from a long-time Camden resident who wants to give back to the community which has been very good to him through his lifetime. Our visitation has already increased and we have not really marketed it yet."

Thursday’s drop-in and reception will take place from 2 to 4 p.m., and will feature light refreshments and a short, formal presentation at 3 p.m., Richardson said. Beard will also be on hand to answer questions about the collection and chat with guests.


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