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Vintage arms collector, author to share knowledge at library event

Date: 3/15/2011

March 14, 2011

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW — John Hamilton was in sixth grade when he first became actively interested in shooting.

Now nearly 85 years old, the East Longmeadow resident is still shooting and collecting vintage arms, as well as helping others collect. That's why he is going to speak at the East Longmeadow Public Library about collecting. in the Community Room on March 23 at 6:30 p.m.

"I'm happy to do it for the library," Hamilton said. "They have a modest collection of books on the subject there and I don't know how often they are used, but hopefully I can help create some interest."

The Massachusetts Arms Collectors recently honored Hamilton, a former president of the group, with the Distinguished Achievement Award in October, 2010. Also a member of the American Society of Arms Collectors, he has written several books of his own on subjects ranging from firearms to swords. Among his books are "The Ames Sword Company, 1829-1935," and "The American Fraternal Sword, an Illustrated Reference Guide."

Additionally, he's been published in periodicals, such as Man at Arms Magazine and the American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin and has contributed to works, such as "George Washington: American Symbol," by Barbara J. Mitnick.

He has also served as director of the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in Springfield, chief curator of collections, curator of exhibits and interim director of the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington and director of the High Point Historical Society in High Point, N.C.

Hamilton first took aim in Snyder, N.Y., where the high school had a 20-point riflery range. In sixth grade, he joined the school's riflery team and it wasn't long until he was shooting five or six times a week, also joining the Empire State Rifle Association.

"The biggest kick was shooting on the men's team and I'd beat them," Hamilton said. "They gave me a handicap the first night and that same night they took it away from me."

Hamilton began collecting weapons with money he made while shoveling snow during the winter months. His mother not only encouraged his hobby, but had an interest in it as well. She appreciated early pistols, Hamilton said, because "she thought they were elegant."

Hamilton entered the U.S. Navy, where he admitted he didn't have a great deal of time to pursue his collecting or shooting, until he was able to join the First Naval District's pistol team.

Hamilton said he always has one piece of advice for any collector, but especially those on a budget: Know what you want to collect and make sure to research it.

"There's a lot of mediocre material out there. You have to pick and choose," Hamilton said. "Most serious collectors will specialize in one or two things."

Over the years, Hamilton has gone through several phases of collecting. His collections have ranged from long rifles and lever-action rifles to Japanese arms and armor to swords and other arms produced by the Ames Company, which did business in the Cabotville section of Springfield — now known as the city of Chicopee — from 1829-1935.

The Ames family started off making edged weapons for the American military, then got into more advanced weaponry, such as firearms, pistols and heavy ordinance.

"They got into casting cannons and a great number of their ordinance was used in the Mexican [-American] War," Hamilton explained. "They were also one of the major producers of edged weapons and heavy ordinance for the Union [army] during the Civil War."

Later, as the need for weapons decreased, the Ames Company developed things like a refrigerated cattle car and components for Fresnel lens lights for lighthouses before finding a large demand for sword making for fraternal orders.

"In 1900, there were over 600 secret societies and fraternal orders and over 200 of them used swords in their regalia," Hamilton said. "Over 10 million men were in fraternal organizations in the United States. There were no country clubs then. Your social life centered around your church or your fraternal organizations."

Hamilton then got involved with collecting what he called "ugly ducklings," or early military weapons from 1825 to 1830.

"They were serviceable weapons, but they were not pretty," Hamilton said.

Now Hamilton devotes much of his time to collecting single-shot rifles whose original design was made by German-Americans, many of whom were fleeing Europe for political or religious freedom and settled in New York and Pennsylvania. Many of them crafted what were known as Kentucky Rifles, though very few of these weapons were actually made in Kentucky, Hamilton said.

"It's incredible how many people in the 19th century were making money as gunsmiths," Hamilton said. "Settlements always had a blacksmith and almost always had a gunsmith. Sometimes they were the same person. [Eliphalet] Remington was a blacksmith who started making rifles and his company still exists today."

Hamilton's passion for weapons goes beyond the physical weapon itself, but its place in history.

"Nothing happens in a vacuum," he said. "Developing technology to increase the quality of a firearm could also improve the quality of steel or the tempering process. You had people [in the 19th century] starting to apply for patents and a large boost in inventions in other areas, such as tools and farming implements."

Hamilton's presentation is a free event that is open to the public. Registration is not required, but is appreciated. Those interested can call the library information desk at 525-5400, ext. 1508 to register. The library is handicapped accessible.

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