Around the country, several large collectible shows are devoted to antique firearms and related items. And then there is the Ohio Valley Military Society’s (OVMS) annual “Show Of Shows” (SOS)—the largest such event devoted to “militaria” in North America. This year marked the 30th anniversary of SOS, which is now held each February at the Kentucky Expo Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The yearly event, which features more than 2,000 tables, hosts some 750 dealers selling military collectibles from the past several hundred years but with a general focus on the First and Second World Wars. The show now attracts some 4,000+ attendees who travel from around the world to attend this very special event. OVMS, which was founded in 1966, now has members who reside in all 50 of the United States and from over 25 countries and all continents (except Australia). Over three and a half days, there is frantic buying and selling—and with 162,000 square feet of exhibit space, a lot of walking to be done in search of that special item.
In addition to the transfer of money for new treasure, the show has become a time for collectors to connect with old colleagues, make new friends, and of course share in the love of military history.
Each year, the show hosts numerous veterans. This year that included Medal of Honor winners Sgt. Don J. Jenkins and Sgt. Sammy L. Davis for their respective service—going above and beyond the call of duty in Vietnam; and Lt. Colonel James H. Harvey III, the first African-American United States Air Force jet fighter combat pilot to fight in the Korean War. Battle of the Bulge veterans George Merz, who served in the U.S. Army’s 818th Military Police Company, and Cletis A. Bailey, Sr. who was in the 84th Division “The Rail Splitters,” were in attendance to tell their stories of the final major German offensive of the Second World War.
United States Airman First Class William Robinson was also present this year to tell of his seven-year and five-month-long captivity at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton Prison”—the longest internment in U.S. military history. He has told visitors how he was able to survive by thinking of U.S. POWs who endured throughout the Second World War and the Korean War. He would tell himself, he was only in Vietnam for three days, “I was shot down yesterday; today was today; and I will go home tomorrow.”
Of course, what sets SOS apart from other shows isn’t just its size, but rather that it brings dealers from around the world to offer some of the rarest military items for sale. The world of militaria has grown from a blue-collar hobby of what was once seen as little more than surplus to one where hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars can routinely change hands. It is not uncommon for the cash machines in the lobby to be emptied daily!
Even in these overly “politically correct” and all too “woke” times, an appreciation remains for the history of these items. Not surprisingly this includes many items from the Third Reich, and to the inexperienced, it could be easy to suggest that there is a fringe element that is buying these and other items. Yet, given the prices, these are serious collectors not racists, extremists, or fanatics who acquire these German and Imperial Japanese helmets, medals, daggers, and banners. Instead, it is very much about those who understand these were war souvenirs brought home by the “Greatest Generation” and now appreciated for their historic value.
Likewise, this isn’t a mere gun show. Instead, this is a show where visitors can find truly unique historic firearms and related objects. Simply put, many of the pieces are rarely seen even in a museum—but the show is better in that practically every item is offered for sale without even the need to head to a “gift shop.”
Show of Shows Is a Family Friendly Event
It would also be wrong to dismiss the annual Show Of Shows as an “old white guy” show. This year the attendees were increasingly diverse, and with more young collectors than ever. That fact can be credited to the plethora of video games, movies, and TV shows about the modern conflicts—and likely thanks to “All Quiet on the Western Front,” there was a lot of interest in the First World War this year among attendees.
“Show of Show is where military history and military collecting come together,” explains William Combs, business manager and former club president of the OVMS.
For those with a love of history, it is simply an event like no other.