J Curtis Earl Weapons Through the Ages Museum: Boise’s Hidden Gem

What if I told you an out-of-the-way, humble museum on the outskirts of downtown Boise, Idaho housed one of the nation’s largest collections of historic arms and military regalia? Slightly ridiculous, right? But it’s true. Gifted to the Idaho State Historical Society in 1999, the Old Idaho Penitentiary complex houses the J Curtis Earl Weapons Through the Ages Museum.

J Curtis Earl

The man behind this collection is J Curtis Earl. Born in 1924, Earl found his first arrowhead at age seven and would embrace his ultimate career as an arms dealer later in life. Firearms weren’t his only passion as he enjoyed SCUBA, hunting, fishing, and flying, just to name a few. Earl earned his private pilot license in 1944 and even established an aviation foundation in Idaho to preserve and construct airstrips so others could enjoy the Idaho backcountry he loved so much. But I digress. Earl spent close to 60 years gathering his collection and died only a few months after his donation to the Idaho State Historical Society was complete.

J Curtis Earl Exhibit Bronze Age weapons
The J Curtis Earl Exhibit at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary houses one of the largest private collections of weaponry, ranging from knives from the Bronze Age to machine guns used in the Vietnam War and beyond. Earl spent nearly 60 years collecting his pieces and donated the collection for those to learn and appreciate the items.

Earl’s desire to have his collection on display was his driving force. He committed the exhibit to “the memory of all those who served and fought and died in defense of our great country to preserve our freedom and ideals as a free people. To those individuals we are eternally grateful.” His goal was to encourage curiosity and interest in his collection and have other folks inspired to collect, keep, and preserve items for posterity. He wanted his donated collection used as an educational tool for the people who visited. I’d say he met that goal; with every visit I make there (and I’ve made plenty), I always learn something new.

Visiting the J Curtis Earl Museum

When visiting the museum, it can be a bit overwhelming with just the sheer number of items. While the building doesn’t look too big from the outside, it feels huge inside. What’s more, his entire collection isn’t even on display. I got to chatting with one of the museum volunteers on a particularly slow day and they told me that one stipulation of the donation was any working item in the collection had to be shot or used once a year. Whether or not that’s true is a different story, but, man, would that be a cool day.

J. Curtis Earl Exhibit Gatling Gun
The exhibit, or museum, is jammed packed with interesting finds, like the 1883 Gatling gun seen above complete with its original carriage.

The extensive collection ranges from 3,500 BC to medieval arms to Civil War, WWI, WWII, and Vietnam War weaponry. Displayed weapons are labeled with important information to inform guests. However, it’s not just weaponry on display. There are projectiles, clothing, artifacts, and accessories. It’s quite impressive. Let’s look at just a small portion of the incredible items at the museum.

Museum Layout

The central portion of the museum includes older arms, like Bronze Age weaponry, and swords and armor from the medieval age. The display features swords from different locations around the globe and their history. It’s really fascinating to walk around these items, see the metal’s patina, and read their backstories. The highlights for me were the Scottish longswords and Bronze Age display.

J. Curtis Earl Civil War firearms display
As you walk through the museum, you can see many of the firearms used in some major events up close . The Civil War era long guns seen above are just one small section of the larger Civil War display. Caliber and other interesting information clearly identify each weapon.

The outer ring of the museum features firearms, artifacts, accessories, and mixed displays of military regalia with the larger weapons. The outer ring also includes a large walk-in display in the back. This display gives the viewer a chance to experience a soldier’s perspective of trench warfare from WWI, complete with periscope and weaponry. Just forward from the WWI trench is an 1883 Gatling gun on its original carriage. The Gatling gun is preserved and restored to what it must have looked like the year it was made.

Forward of the trench, the museum’s left side houses Revolutionary and Civil Wars arms. It houses rifles typical of the eras, including ones used by both the North and the South, pistols, and other weapons. The rifles included are black powder muzzleloaders and the Henry repeating rifle; the same kind Confederate Colonel John Mosby described as the rifle that could be loaded on Sunday and shot all week.

J Curtis Earl Thompson Machine Gun display
Another intriguing display is that of the Thompson Machine Gun or Tommy Gun. In this section, you see the Tommy Gun, different magazines, and even smaller-scale display models. The larger placard gives a longer history of the Tommy Gun and its role in the 1920s and 1930s.

The museum’s right side is more modern days. It features displays and exhibits from World War I through prohibition into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Displays include things like Tommy Guns, Uzis, weaponry from the different wars, and modern machine guns. This section has a very neat exhibit with an original Stoner 63 machine gun created by Eugene Stoner. No real fanfare; just straight information and well-lit areas for easy viewing.

Noteworthy Displays

On the museum’s right side, a display features mannequins in uniforms with an M2 Browning belt-fed machine gun set in a World War II scene. The M2 Browning, affectionately referred to as the “Ma Deuce”, was used from WWII through present day. This section of the museum features firearms and artifacts from both sides of the wars, not just the US. It gives the viewer a closer view of history, which was one of Earl’s goals with the museum.

Browning M2 machine gun
The museum has a good mix of firearms on walls along with firearms and artifacts is mixed displays. Things like the Ma Deuce, or Browning M2 machine gun, sit in an open air display with uniforms and knives. The viewer gets perspective of the M2’s purpose from a historical photo adorning the wall.

Another interesting display, at least to me, was the large Thompson submachine gun display. US Army Brigadier General John T. Thompson developed the Thompson, better known as the Tommy Gun, in 1918. The Thompson was never used in the Great War even though it was designed for WWI trench warfare. Its popularity gained traction with use by law enforcement agencies in the early 1920s. Meanwhile, its notoriety grew with the Prohibition era and rise of Great Depression-era mobsters. The display includes model firearms, much smaller than the real deal, alongside magazines and drums used with the machine gun.

Another section to highlight for the museum is the display of 20th Century Rifles, or modern rifles. This case includes an older Colt M16 machine gun hanging above a Stoner 63 machine gun, a Smith & Wesson Model 76, and other submachine guns like an Uzi and other hard-to-find models. The M76, a submachine gun, had a short production period (compared to the M16). It used extensively during the Vietnam War. Due to an urgent need by US Navy seals, the M76 went from drawing board to production in less than a year. For many, it was a very rough firearm. The M76 ceased production after the US withdrew from Vietnam.

J Curits Earl Exhibit of Modern Weapons
The museum is full of interesting weapons, including an early Stoner 63 and a Smith & Wesson Model 76 machine gun. With not all weapons on display, it makes you wonder just what else is in storage.

The collection is impressive, and definitely worth the time to visit if you happen to be in the area. The entry fee includes the J Curtis Earl museum and Old State Penn; so, you get two museums in one. Who knew Boise had such an amazing hidden Gem?

Patti Miller is one of the most awesome females in the tactical/firearm (or any) industry. Imagine a tall, hawt, dangerous Laura Ingalls Wilder type with cool hair and a suppressed blaster and you'll be getting the idea. What's interesting is that in addition to being a willing brawler and intrepid adventuress, she's also an Ent/Ogier level gardener and a truly badass baker.

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