22. Art Institute of Chicago, Harding Collection, Chicago, IL 202 guns, 75 on display (33%). Established in 1982

Art Institute of Chicago, Harding Collection Exterior
Art Institute of Chicago, Harding Collection Case


The foundation of the AIC Department of Arms & Armor came from the George F. Harding Museum, when it was granted to the AIC in 1982. Harding became caught up in the late nineteenth century Neo-Romanic fascination with early firearms after WWI. Similar to many arms collections found in fine art museums, the focus is on European and Asian arms and armor made from 1450s - 1850s, emphasizing the interaction of high art, innovative design and a storied past.

Highlights include richly decorated sixteenth to nineteenth century German, French and Italian match-lock, wheel-lock and flint-lock hunting rifles, pistols and finely carved powder flasks. There are thirty-two pairs of pistols, most from Ettersburg Castle, the highlight being a 1610 all-steel wheel-lock pistol made in Ripoll, Spain, once part of Louis XIII’s gun cabinet. Of particular note are a pair of carved ivory stocked pistols made in Maastricht in 1660/90 and a beautifully cased pair of 1814 French Le Page percussion pistols. The collection has early repeating firearms, such as August Welschgin’s Flintlock magazine pistol of 1680, modeled after the Lorenzoni System, and an 1820 Constable flintlock revolver from Philadelphia.

The AIC will have the newest of America’s exhibition designs, opening in 2017, which will loosely follow the style of an aristocratic ‘Cabinet d’Armes’, with guns exhibited in ornate glass fronted cabinets. Following a new museum trend, the exhibition will include publically accessible pull out drawers, revealing firearms that would usually be held in storage.

Like every major collection, the Harding has anomalies. It has a collection of miniature cannon and twenty-five nineteenth & twentieth century revolvers and semi-auto pistols embellished by Raymond Wielgus, who donated them to the museum in 1987. It includes handguns made by Colt, Smith & Wesson, Mauser, Luger, FN Browning and Walther, finely decorated in the styles of Art Nouveau, Modernism and Steam Punk.

The George F. Harding, Jr. Collection of Arms and Armor