The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

The Frontier Army Museum

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Chronicling America’s First Truly Distant War

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is arguably most famous — even infamous to some — for being home to the U.S. Military Corrections Complex, but that’s really just one small facet of this army installation, dating back to 1827. In fact, the prison, consisting of the United States Disciplinary Barracks — the Department of Defense’s only maximum security prison — actually only dates back to 1874.

The Colt Model 1860 Army Revolver, the most common cavalry pistol of the Civil War and along with the Colt Peacemaker, was one of the weapons that “tamed the West.”

By that time, Fort Leavenworth had already become an important part of America’s move westward. Today, the fort is the oldest active U.S. Army post west of Washington, D.C., and it’s also the oldest permanent settlement in Kansas. It was the home to the United States’ original so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” the segregated African-American 10th Cavalry Regiment, which saw combat in the Indian Wars and later in the Spanish-American War in Cuba and in the Philippine-American War.

This highlights the types of handcuffs and leg irons used to detain prisoners who may have found themselves at Fort Leavenworth. The Frontier Army Museum features a few items highlighting the role that Fort Leavenworth has played as home to U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.

Fort Leavenworth has also been known historically as the “Intellectual Center of the Army,” and today supports the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and maintains the home of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC). In addition, the garrison supports “tenant” organizations directly and indirectly related to the functions of the CAC, including the United States Army Command and General Staff College and the Foreign Military Studies Office.

While the installation today is about as centrally located in the nation as you can get, it wouldn’t be in Kansas were it not for the westward expansion, which began with the Louisiana Purchase. The fort is reported to be at the spot where explorers Lewis and Clark crossed the Missouri River in 1804 and later by Stephen Harriman Long in 1819. The site for Fort Leavenworth was so chosen because of the proximity to the large Kansa tribe village. The site became much more important as it was in essence the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail — in other words on the edge of the frontier.

While the Civil War didn’t really have a huge impact on Fort Leavenworth, the museum has several small arms from the era, including a Model 1861 U.S. Percussion Rifled Musket in its collection.

The Fort is home to more than 100 historic structures, including many that represent some of the most notable examples of Victorian and Gothic architecture in the entire Midwest part of the country.

The Frontier Army’s History at Fort Leavenworth

Today, when we think of distant wars we may think of Afghanistan or Iraq, but from the 1830s until just prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Kansas and everything to the west to the Rocky Mountains and beyond was truly the unknown frontier. Soldiers from back east sent to help patrol this region, especially in the years prior to and just after the American Civil War (1861-65), likely would have seen this as a truly remote posting. In the era before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, it took weeks or longer to cross from St. Louis to San Francisco.

A rare example of the French Hotchkiss M1909 machine gun — also known as the M1909 Benét–Mercié — which had a 30-round feed strip. Later models could be either strip-fed or belt-fed.

The Frontier Army Museum chronicles this unique chapter in American history — one largely overshadowed by overseas conflicts and the aforementioned Civil War. In many ways, this museum evokes the classic “cowboys and Indians” stories told in western cinema for decades. While it’s true this is part Dances With Wolves, another part of the story of the frontier would be more akin to the bloody western film The Wild Bunch.

This photo shows how each part of a cannon would be carried by a different beast of burden, allowing for faster movement over rough ground.

As the fort once presided over the expansion westward to the frontier, these themes are now covered in the exhibits at the Frontier Army Museum, which pays particular attention to the 100-year period between 1804 and 1917 — the era of the “Army of the Frontier.” It was this force that was charged with guarding the frontier settlements and policed the frontier until civil governments could maintain order.

The museum’s collection actually dates to 1939 when the post wagon shop closed and all of its material was relocated to another building. Originally called the Old Rolling Wheels Museum, the focus was on carriages, wagons, and other means of transportation that helped the military as well as pioneers move westward.

One of the few replica small arms in the collection — a late 19th century Gatling Gun, which was the first successful weapon to offer a high-rate of fire. The downside was that it was far from easy to move, but still considered “mobile” for the era.

Over the next 20 years, that facility expanded the scope of its collection and became a permanent fixture at Fort Leavenworth, and in 1959, was renamed the Frontier Army Museum. The current collection exceeds 6,400 items in total, but just 6 percent is currently on display. As with other military museums part of the U.S. military museum system — overseen by the Army Center of Military History — great effort is made to rotate items to ensure repeat visitors find something new and interesting every time they visit.

Wagons, Weapons, and an Airplane!

The permanent collection includes items that range from early uniforms and notable small arms, including individual pieces that date back to the 1820s. Of course, as the collection grew out of the Old Rolling Wheels Museum, visitors can expect to find many horse-drawn vehicles.

A view of the 12-pound Mountain Howitzer, first introduced in 1836. This type of weapon was widely used on the frontier as it was powerful, yet still relatively easy to transport.

Among the vehicles on regular display is the carriage that then presidential-candidate Abraham Lincoln used when he visited Missouri and the Kansas Territory in 1859, and a Concord Stagecoach — the latter being the type used to deliver passengers and mail throughout much of the country prior to the days when the railroads finally linked the nation together. While it was the transportation utilized by those in the days before jetsetters, it was hardly first-class travel.

A sleigh owned by General Nelson A. Miles, who served during the Civil War, Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War. He was appointed general of the army in 1895 and served in that position until his retirement in 1903.

Being a military collection, there are Army freight wagons, as well as a Model 1909 U.S. Army horse-drawn ambulance. While this example was used at the fort until the late 1920s and reportedly didn’t see overseas use, it was the model widely used by American forces as a field ambulance during the First World War alongside the early motorized ambulances.

There are also some notable examples of winter transport — including the personal sleigh of General Jonathan Wainwright and another for General George Armstrong Custer. These were truly for getting around in what could be harsh winters on the frontier and not for the types of rides that Christmas carols often depict.

This recent exhibit to the America’s entry in World War I featured the weapons used by the Doughboys who went “Over There.”

The word “mobility” may have a bit of a different meaning for most of us today, but throughout most of the 19th century, it was still crucial for the military to move quickly. In a land without roads or rails and few bridges, there were challenges and the museum highlights how the military moved items — from men and materiel to the weapons of war. One exhibit highlights how 12-pound Mountain Howitzers, manufactured beginning in 1836, could be disassembled with the tube, carriage, and ammo boxes carried by mules. One must remember that the 12 pounds refers to the weight of the cannon ball not the gun firing it.

The Frontier Army Museum also includes several pieces to highlight the evolution of the U.S. military in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is seen in the adoption of lighter weight khaki uniforms and away from the heavy wool blue coats that must have been uncomfortably hot in the summer and yet probably not nearly warm enough in the winter months.

This Curtiss JN-4D biplane — nicknamed “Jenny” — is reported to be the first aircraft to be used in a military excursion.

What might be most unexpected to see in a museum of such focus is an early airplane. The Frontier Army Museum has a Curtiss JN-4D biplane — nicknamed “Jenny” — reported to be the first aircraft to be used in a military excursion.

The collection includes many items used in the Punitive Expedition to Mexico, where General John Pershing was charged with chasing the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. That event marked the end of the era for the Army of the Frontier, but was also fittingly when the United States entered the world stage.

The Frontier Army Museum is located on an active military base. As such, photo ID and vehicle inspection are required.

Frontier Army Museum
100 Reynolds Ave
Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
Tuesday – Friday:
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday, and all federal holidays
Admission Free
Phone (913) 684-3191

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