There are hundreds of firearms collections - and collectors - in Australia. All these collections have to be stored to strict standards imposed by the firearms regulations and therefore not too many people would necessarily be aware of them, unless you happen to know the individual collector. So, to the firearms aficionado, the question is: What is out there that we’re not seeing?
Apart from dedicated museums and memorials, private firearms presentations are accessible to only a few. In the United States and Europe, specialist museums have extensive firearms collections depicting a particular period in history such as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, or the Waffenmuseum (weapon museum) in Suhl, Germany.
In Australia, there are a number of excellent collectors’ groups that meet regularly and share experiences, knowledge and who occasionally have the opportunity to display a small part of their wares within the group. But there is little, if any, prospect to have large-scale public showings.
However, one collector has made it possible for the general public to see what could be described as the largest private collection of firearms on open view in Australia. In 2007, Ron Hayes donated his entire array of almost 1500 firearms to the Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum, Australia’s only museum specialising in firearms. Ron saw the museum as the ideal place to allow his to be enjoyed by everyone. This excellent and extensive hoard represents a personal, life-long compulsion which Ron admits: “May be classified by some observers as verging on obsession”. We recently had the chance to talk to Ron, now in his nineties, about his ‘obsession’.
Ron started acquiring firearms after World War II when he became a licensed firearms dealer. He served the Sydney Pistol Club as Secretary, then was President and Secretary of the NSW Pistol Shooting Association. In 1968, Ron became more interested in collecting handguns and, at about the same time, was appointed as an authorised service centre for US handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. Ron decided early on in his collecting career to specialise in handguns. They take up less room, for starters. “While I have an interest in longarms, handguns have an added attraction for me,” he said.
“Limitations and restrictions are placed upon collectors by regulations that vary considerably between countries and jurisdictions. In countries of British origin, there have not been too many limitations placed upon collectors of longarms and edged weapons until recently. However, for cartridge handguns, we have had restrictions for decades which have limited large collections to licensed dealers or registered museums.”
Regulations have also resulted in the unfortunate alteration of some original items due to importation restrictions. These include fitting triggerguards to exposed trigger models as well as drilling and painting red marking on safety catches. With many years in the firearms trade, Ron has seen a host of fine displays broken up at the end of their respective collector’s lives. Ron’s desire is that his cache be preserved complete. His plan is to maintain the compilation for public consumption and firearms research for future generations.
The show at Lithgow is vast, to say the least. Ron’s exhibition, in the appropriately named Ron Hayes Room, is well laid out and covers a wide selection of pistols from the very earliest to current examples. There are rare pistols such as one-offs or one of a few, guns with low serial numbers or highly engraved presentation pieces and others with a story to tell. There are experimental firearms that were revolutionary in design and performance. Equally, there are prototypes that never saw the light of day. Ron has an engineering background and as such he is always intrigued by the ingenious and practical way gunmakers have overcome a problem of function or design.
Each item on display has a tag to identify the firearm. This gives some basic information as to its calibre and approximate manufacture date. The tags also contain a Hayes Reference Code that cross-references to the Hayes Handgun Omnibus, the complete record of his collection. Ron put this book together with the help of historical firearms collector and close friend Ian Skennerton. In tandem, they made sure every piece of available information of any particular firearm was recorded. There is a copy of the omnibus beside the displays for visitors to gain a little more detail of specific items in the collection. The text of the omnibus is divided into countries of manufacture or particular use. Each section opens with a preamble, a general background to the individual chapter and a photograph of the item. Essential dimensions and particulars of each piece are catalogued along with relevant notes.
Ron does not claim the omnibus to be a complete reference work, rather a broad record of a lifetime’s collecting and study. Some articles have particular personal association such as competition and pistol club items that may not otherwise be significant to most collectors.
Ron says it is gratifying to be able to present his stockpile of pistols and revolvers as a record for collectors, curators and arms historians for future reference. “I acknowledge that I have been very fortunate in making friends with dozens of collectors and associations over a lifetime,” he concluded.
Visitors to the Ron Hayes Room can spend a few hours or a few days studying some of the finest firearms from a private range. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum is located at 69 Methven Street and is a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Sydney. Incidentally, the Hayes Handgun Omnibus is also available for sale at the museum’s gift shop and serves as an excellent souvenir for the pistol enthusiast that will last a lifetime. For more information, phone the Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum on 02 6351 4452.
Sadly, since this article was written, Ron passed away in April 2017 at the ripe old age of 93. He was one of a kind and will be missed by many.