Celebrating the Guns of Past Presidents

Last September, President Joe Biden established the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which was his latest gun control measure. Yet, despite his attempt to undermine the Second Amendment, Mr. Biden has repeatedly claimed to own two shotguns – a 12-gauge and a 20-gauge. He is far from the only commander-in-chief who can claim to be a gun owner, and some had collections that were practically private arsenals filled with world-class firearms.

Though there is no official tally of which former presidents owned firearms, it is believed that nearly every single one who served before 1900 owned at least one gun at some point in their lives. Likewise, most modern presidents have also been firearm owners. Only former President Barack Obama is noted for going on the record as having never owned a gun – although he did try skeet shooting at Camp David on a few occasions.

Gifts Fit For a King

Many of the firearms owned by our former leaders were presented as gifts from other heads of state, political allies, and even gun makers looking to earn favor from the White House.

“U.S. presidents receiving firearms is the modern-day continuation of a centuries-old practice,” said Kevin Hogan, president of Rock Island Auction Company (RIAC), which has sold several notable firearms linked to past Oval Office occupants.

“Fine arms have long been exchanged or presented to those in leadership,” Hogan told The Mag Life. “Sometimes they’re the spoils of victory, other times they’re these lavish presentations to celebrate a ruler, to gain favor, or even to symbolize an alliance.”

Many of the firearms owned by former presidents are now in museums, while some are in private collections. When these come up for sale, which isn’t often, the prices can be quite the princely sum.

George Washington – The Founding Father Firearms Enthusiast

A career military man for much of his life, and a general before he was president, George Washington owned several notable firearms. In addition to his “military guns,” Washington was noted for being an avid fox hunter and had a love of fowling. It could be argued the Founding Father was quite the gun collector, and several sets of pistols dating back to his time in the military are now on display at his Mount Vernon, Virginia, home as well as at the West Point Museum.

George Washington's Pistols
George Washington’s flintlock pistols were given to him by Bartholomew Dandridge. Now in the West Point Museum Collection, on exhibit in the American Wars gallery (Photo: West Point Museum)

Rarely do any firearms owned by Washington ever come up for sale, yet, one matched pair did go to auction in 2002. That was a set of saddle pistols originally given to Washington by his French ally, Marquis de Lafayette, and were carried by Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. Following Washington’s death, the pistols were later gifted to President Andrew Jackson, who cherished them for most of his life, before gifting them back to Washington’s family. The pistols were sold by Christie’s Americana auction for $1,986,000 – the highest sum ever paid for a firearm until the sale of Sheriff Pat Garrett’s Single Action Army revolver that killed Billy the Kid was sold in 2021 for more than $6 million.

The buyer of Washington’s pistols was the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which then donated the pistols to the Fort Ligonier historic site and museum just outside of Pittsburg, where they are now on display.

Thomas Jefferson Was Another Gun Enthusiast

America’s third president was known to be an orator for the ages, but he was also quite the proponent of firearm ownership (although it was James Madison who drafted the Second Amendment). Jefferson enjoyed hunting and target shooting and was also a noted collector of firearms in his day.

North African miquelet lock Jezail inlaid with gold
North African miquelet lock Jezail inlaid with gold, presented to President Thomas Jefferson by Siddi Suliman Mella, ambassador of the Bey of Tunis, after the end of the Tripolitan War in 1805. Inscribed in Arabic “Made by Muhammad in Year 1203 after the Hijrah” (Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Among his most notable guns was a highly decorated North African jezail musket that had been a gift from Sidi Suleiman Melli Melli, an emissary of the Bey of Tunis in 1805. Inlaid with gold, it was inscribed in Arabic “Made by Muhammad in Year 1203 after the Hijrah.” It is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Honest Abe Personally Tested a Spencer Rifle

It is almost impossible to imagine it now, but there was a time when a president took part in target shooting behind the White House! That happened in August of 1863, just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg when President Abraham Lincoln met with Christopher Spencer on the south lawn of the White House and field tested the Spencer Rifle. Both Lincoln and Spencer fired at a wood plank that was hastily set up as a target, and Spencer later recalled that Honest Abe was an excellent shot.

It is unlikely Lincoln owned a Spencer Rifle, but the president owned several other firearms – including a gold-mounted, engraved Henry rifle that was presented to Lincoln in an effort to obtain his influence in their purchase for the war effort. That rifle is also in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Burnside carbine
A Burnside carbine that was presented by President Lincoln to Kentucky statesman John Jordan Crittenden during the American Civil War (Photo: RIAC)

In addition, a Burnside Civil War carbine presented by President Lincoln to Kentucky statesman John Jordan Crittenden was sold by RIAC for $105,750 in December 2022. The carbine is the only known documented firearm to have been owned by Lincoln.

Grant Wasn’t a Hunter But He Like Guns

The NRA’s former National Firearms Museum had displayed Ulysses S. Grant’s Smith & Wesson Model 1 1/2 .32 Rimfire Pistol, while it was also featured on the cover of The American Rifleman in 1969. That pistol is now in the collection of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, while a similar pistol is on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – highlighting that despite what some might think; fine guns are also fine art.

A pair of Remington New Model Army revolvers, numbered 1 and 2 that were presented to the Civil War general and briefly carried by him, sold at RIAC in 2022 for a record $5.17 million.

Grant's revolvers
The pair of Remington New Model Army revolvers with raised relief carved grips featuring busts of General Ulysses S. Grant. These were presented to him during the Civil War. (Photo: RIAC)

It should be noted too that Grant may have been a reasonable military officer and an adequate president, but he wasn’t a hunter. During a visit to Europe, he famously declined a royal invitation to hunt deer in Scotland, remarking that he had killed wild animals twice in his life and regretted it both times.

The Hunting Presidents

Grant may not have been partial to hunting, but several other presidents most certainly were – and they had the firearms to prove it. That included an 8-bore Colt Shotgun owned by President Grover Cleveland – the only 8 gauge ever produced by Colt. It featured 18kt gold with Cleveland’s name on the trigger guard. That firearm is part of the exhibition at the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum in Springfield, Missouri.

Calvin Coolidge, who was president during the “Roaring Twenties,” was a lifelong hunter. His love of shooting was even noted by firearms maker Winchester, which presented him the one-millionth Model 1894 lever-action rifle as a special Christmas gift on December 25, 1927. It is now in the collection of the Cody Firearms Museum.

The the one millionth Winchester Model 1894
Model 1894 rifle that was gold plated and presented to President Calvin Coolidge to mark it being the one millionth 1894 produced. It is in the collection of the Cody Firearms Museum (Photo: Cody Firearms Museum)

Given that Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for being confined to a wheelchair as the result of a bout with polio, it may be surprising that he had been quite the outdoorsman. Even after being left almost unable to walk, he continued shooting, owning a pair of London-made Stephen Grant & Sons double barrel shotguns. FDR gifted one of the two Grants to General Walter Bedell Smith, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff. The shotgun, which had its barrel professionally shortened, is now in a private collection.

JFK’s M1 Garand

As a PT boat skipper, John F. Kennedy didn’t carry an M1 Garand rifle during World War II, but as a senator in 1959, he applied to purchase one through the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP). According to the story, the director of marksmanship at the CMP at the time was Colonel John K. Lee Jr., who learned that Kennedy was interested in obtaining one and had a rifle picked out specifically for the then-rising political star. It bears a late production 6+ million serial number and is a Type 1 National Match M1 Garand rifle rebuilt to Type 2 specs.

JFK M1 Garand
John F. Kennedy was a “Navy Man” during World War II, but he had an appreciation for the M1 Garand (Photo: RIAC)

While it isn’t known if the M1 accompanied Kennedy to the White House less than two years later, it was offered at auction by RIAC in 2015, selling for $149,500.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns – Where Do We Start!

Whole books have been written about the firearms owned by Theodore Roosevelt, who was a noted hunter, conservationist, military hero, and so much more. But among the most famous of his guns was the FE grade 12-gauge shotgun that was presented to him from the A.H. Fox Company, and which he took on his nine-month-long safari to Africa after leaving the White House.

Teddy Roosevelt Single Action Colt
President Theodore Roosevelt’s Colt revolver sold at auction for $1.4 million (Photo: RIAC)

In a letter to Ansley Fox, Roosevelt wrote, “It is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen…I am almost ashamed to take it to Africa and expose it to the rough usage it will receive. But now that I have it, I could not possibly make up my mind to leave it behind.”

The Fox shotgun was sold by the James D. Julia auction house in 2010 for $862,000.

More recently, RIAC sold a Colt Single Action Army revolver that was ordered as a gift for Roosevelt’s 54th birthday. It fetched $1.4 million in December 2022, a whole lot more than Teddy Roosevelt would have paid for it. Presidential provenance certainly adds to the value!

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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