I recently noticed a post on one of the more popular Internet military firearm discussion forums that got me thinking about a topic I don’t believe we’ve discussed here lately. The post in question pertained to a guy who recently acquired a M1903A3 rifle that was covered in cosmoline and “still in the wrapper” and wanted to know whether he should clean the weapon or leave it as is. The responses were fairly evenly divided between “leave it alone” and “clean it up and shoot it.” As I pondered my thoughts on the subject, several things came to mind.
First, let’s dispense with one very common misconception; i.e., any gun found today slathered in cosmoline and wrapped in paper or cloth is a rare and highly valuable item that hasn’t been touched since it left the factory. This is a fallacy. When U.S. military weapons left the factory, they were not coated with cosmoline. They were oiled or given a very thin coat of light grease. The thick, gooey and malodorous cosmoline was intended solely for long-term storage. At the end of World Wars One and Two, the rifles deemed excess to the military’s current needs were typically prepped for long-term storage and generally coated with cosmoline. The vast majority of these guns were prepared in this manner after being rebuilt at some ordnance facility. There were some cases, however, when totally unissued weapons that did not require overhaul were also slated for long-term storage and prepared in the same manner as the rebuilt weapons. Interestingly, for some reason, a surprising number of unissued Smith-Corona M1903A3 rifles were prepared for storage (after being coated in cosmoline) at Ogden Arsenal and the only modification was a “OG” stamp applied to the left side of the stock. Otherwise, after removing the cosmoline, these rifles were exactly in the condition as when they left the S-C factory in 1943-44. A surprising number of cosmoline-coated weapons (rebuilt or otherwise) were sold in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by the DCM. These included M1 Garands, M1 Carbines, M1903s (and ‘A3s), M1917 rifles and M1911/M1911A1 pistols. By the early 1950s, VPI paper and other less messy means of protective storage were devised, much to the delight of many recruits who previously had to clean off the sticky and stinky cosmoline with gasoline and old newspapers.
In any event, the vast majority of purchasers back then were not collectors and bought the guns for shooting, thus immediately cleaned off the cosmoline and started banging away. A few of these guns, for whatever reason(s), remained untouched and put away in the attic or closet. When these weapons were subsequently acquired, especially if the new owner was a collector, he would immediately be faced with a dilemma. Should he clean the gun and have it ready for shooting and/or display it proudly on his gun rack, or should he leave it alone and keep it in the greasy wrapping? As mentioned previously, opinions seem to be almost equally divided on the topic.
While I am always in favor of maintaining a weapon is as close to “as manufactured” condition as possible, this issue still has me arguing both sides. Regardless of what they collect, collectors love and treasure stuff “still in the box.” Since the original box and/or wrapping was removed and discarded probably 99% of the time, almost any sort of collectible (defined here as things no longer made) is much more valuable and much more sort-after than the same item sans box. For example, I have two WWII military production Remington Model 11 riot guns that are, literally, identical except for the serial numbers. Both are absolutely in new and pristine condition. However, one is still in the original Remington factory box (with the serial number of the gun and “Military Contract” printed one end) and the other one isn’t. The boxed gun was originally packed (and still is) with the receiver and stock separate from the barrel with both assemblies in cardboard sleeves inside the box. By the way, the boxed gun is not, and never was, covered in cosmoline. Even though both guns are in the same condition, the one still in the factory box would easily sell for double the amount of the other gun. Someone may ask, what idiot would pay a thousand dollars or so for just a stupid cardboard box? The answer is, a lot of collectors. Actually, they really aren’t paying for the box itself, they are paying for a gun that still remains in its factory box. Some might consider that a difference without a distinction but it’s not. WWII Remington Model 11 shotguns, even in pristine condition, are not all that rare but precious few are still in the original circa 1943 factory boxing. I would never think of taking the gun out of the box, assembling it, and putting it on the wall.
“New in the box” military stuff doesn’t always have to be guns. I’m been fortunate over the years to pick up a number of martial items still in their factory boxes including a M4 Bayonet-Knife, several types of M8 grenade launchers, M10 cleaning rods, M15 sight devices (for M1 and M14 rifles), M15 grenade launching sights and lots and lots of ammunition of all types. As long as they are in my possession, all are staying in the containers in which they left their respective factories.
This still doesn’t fully address the issue of the cosmoline-covered ‘03A3 rifle that started this discussion. Would removing it from the grease and wrapping reduce the value and/or desirability? After giving it a lot of thought, I have reached the conclusion that it probably would…but not to the extent many people might imagine. After all, the cosmoline was applied well after the gun was manufactured and issued (assuming it was issued) and the weapon sat in long-term storage at some ordnance facility somewhere. The gun didn’t leave the factory with the cosmoline on it, so removing it, in my opinion, wouldn’t be nearly the sacrilege that taking a gun out of the original factory box would be. On the other hand, even though the odds are that any U.S. military weapon encountered today covered in cosmoline and in its storage wrapper is almost certainly a post-war rebuild, it is nevertheless kind of cool to find something that still remains in the same condition it was 60 or 70 years ago. Therefore, personally, I would probably keep the gun in the grease and then try to find another as similar as possible to display. On the other hand, your mileage may vary.
In conclusion, even though I am sort of in the “leave it alone” camp in this case, I don’t think those guys who would chose to remove the gunk and shoot the gun are monstrous and vile debasers of military history. I see it as a 51-49 percent thing.