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Arms Conservation Restoration Ethics Print E-mail


It is a year now since the New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths produced its Conservation-Restoration Plan Contract format, and Guidelines for the same. Under Definitions, the Guidelines state that conservation is the stabilisation of the existing state of a heritage item from further deterioration, and that restoration is a process which involves the reassembly and reinstatement of missing items for the purpose of revealing the cultural heritage, aesthetic and functional value of an object. The definitions also state that conservation and restoration treatments do not apply to refurbishment which will remove or destroy evidences of historical/cultural value.

The key thinking behind these definitions is contained in the statement that the ideal condition of a technological object such as an arm, is as it was when last in frequent use and in "optimum" working order, and that it should therefore be the proper aim of all conservation and restoration to preserve and return an arm to this condition provided there is clear evidence as to what this condition was.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines "optimum" as "Best or most favourable", and in this sense I would offer a definition of "optimum" for our purposes as meaning the condition an arm was in when it was in best working order, but it can therefore also mean the time or period during the life of an arm when it was being used the most, or, in other words, the heyday of the arm.


The upper half of one protective shield is missing, and the whole shield is entirely missing on the other side. Conjectural restoration of the shields is not recommended in the absence of any original specifications or photographs. The shields may have been lost during action and there is evidence to suggest this on the side of the missing shield which has the shrapnel marks on the barrel.

The bore of the gun is 13.5cm, a rare caliber which was superceded during World War One by Krupp’s 15cm caliber heavy artillery. The bore can be conserved by cleaning it out first with careful wire brushing requiring specialised tools for cleaning artillery pieces, and then preserving the bore with either heavy grease and a muzzle plug to keep out water, or micro-crystalline wax treatment followed by a muzzle plug.

To restore an arm back to this condition may involve restoring or revealing cultural, aesthetic and functional features which have been lost, or removed, or covered over since the time when the arm was last in frequent use.

An example of such features which have been lost or damaged, and which require conservation and possibly partial restoration, can be found on the Krupp 13cm siege gun located in Newtown, Wellington, where the original Imperial German Army camouflage paint scheme of Field Grey (Feldgrau) has been rubbed or scraped off and replaced by brown rust, the known c. 1920 inscription on the barrel "Captured by the NZEF" has gone, the original sights (except the brass quadrant) have been removed, the breech block has either been welded in place or has rusted shut, parts of the carriage shield are missing, possibly as a legacy of war, and some of the wheel spokes have virtually disintegrated owing to the bottom of the wheels and part of the trail piece having been fixed in concrete for the last twenty-eight years. The concrete has been the cause of serious metal decay. In a case like this it is relevant to ask to what extent should the Krupp gun be restored, since it is clearly not required that the gun, which is a public monument, should be put back into shooting condition.

Ethical questions raised by these considerations all have one thing in common, that is whether or not the conservation-restoration processes being proposed by a gunsmith/restorer for a particular job, are going to be in the best interests of interpreting the arm in question. Conservation-restoration may be carried out only if the aim is to preserve and reveal the historical, aesthetic, and functional value of an arm. The processes and methods used should be based upon respect for remaining original material and clear evidence of an earlier state.

In my own work in conserving and restoring arms, it has become clear to me that historical research into the type of arm being dealt with is absolutely essential if one is carrying out restoration work. It is not necessary to do this if conservation work is being performed. I am pleased to note that two American gunsmiths, Ralph Walker and George Nonte, confirm my views on this subject.


The Royal Prussian Coat of Arms on the barrel is of great historical significance and should not be erased during restoration. The barrel of the Krupp gun can be cleaned of rust by a combination of Treatments such as bead blasting and hand wire brushing. Rust removal should be followed by conservation treatment through the application of rust inhibiting enamel, and completed with the restoration of a topcoat of the original Imperial German Army Field Grey camouflage colour. This treatment would apply to all of the ferrous parts of the gun

Only the brass tangent sight bracket seen here remains of the sighting equipment. The main parts of the sight, consisting of a toothed arc bubble level tangent sight fitted with a panoramic dial sight, a collimator sight for direct laying, and a trajectory corrector slide, are missing. It would not be acceptable to use a replacement sight off another captured German artillery piece unless one was sure it was the correct one. Sights were made in quantity separate from the guns, and it may be possible to locate originals on the internet, or specifications for making them.

The trail piece of the gun has suffered rust damage to the box section and is out of alignment with the barrel. Restoration may replace the rusted sections with steel patches carefully arc welded in place and stamped with an identifying mark indicating the date of restoration. Concrete will need to be removed from the tool box and the box conserved. Replacement of the lid (without original specifications) would be better left out. Realignment of the trail piece can be done provided the box section will stand it. It will need to be established if the spade of the trail still exists in the ground.

The cradle of the gun should be treated for rust removal and conservation/restoration treatment as per the barrel.

Both of these respected gunsmiths and restorers note in their books that they may spend a considerable amount of time researching the history of an arm before they attempt to formulate a plan for restoring it, but in all other respects conservation work involving the cleaning and stablisation of an arm against further deterioration can be undertaken without the need for time-consuming research into the history and design of an arm. I would add here, however, that in order to carry out conservation work properly, you have to know what an appropriate conservation treatment is, and which one to choose.

To go back to the example of the Krupp gun for instance, one has to think about making a decision as to whether or not a tannic acid treatment is an appropriate method for stabilising the gun against further deterioration once it is cleaned, or whether it is more appropriate to use other products such as dedicated rust retarding enamels. There are also practical questions to consider such as how best to clean the gun before stabilising it. All of this requires a dedicated conservation plan to be prepared in advance before beginning any work.

Conservation and restoration are two different aspects of gunsmithing. Conservation seeks to preserve an arm in its existing state, and will therefore do nothing to change an arm or remove features that cannot be seen and researched at a later date. Restoration, on the other hand, not only conserves an arm (or any object or artifact), but also puts it back into the condition it was last in when it was last in optimum use. Conservation is relatively straightforward, but restoration is full of pitfalls for the unwary.

it is with this in mind, that it seemed a useful exercise to attempt here some further definitions of what we mean by arms conservation and restoration. The following is therefore offered for discussion and further debate.


The breech of the Krupp gun shows the name, place and date of manufacture along with the well-known identification logo employed by Krupp on all of its artillery pieces from this period of three interlocking circles. The logo appears twice on either side of the stamping. Evidences of manufacture like this identify the gun and mst be preserve din any restoration.

The left axle of the gun carriage is in particularly bad shape and will probably need replication in order for the gun to be able to stand free again on its own weight.


It is necessary to state here that refurbishment is not an option that should be considered within the parameters of conservation-restoration plans, and that it in fact stands outside these parameters because, strictly speaking, it is not concerned with interpreting the history of an arm, whereas restoration is. However, for our purposes it is useful to understand what refurbishment is in terms of the following.

The New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Conservation-Restoration Plan Guidelines defines refurbishment as returning an arm to an "as original" condition, but it should be realised that unless an attempt is made to define what is meant by "original condition" a number of different interpretations (including mistaking refurbishment for restoration) could arise. In a sense all definitions are arbitrary and therefore open to dispute, but unless a position is taken there are no grounds available on which to reach a consensus, so the following definition of "original condition" is offered: original condition is factory condition, i.e., the state of the arm immediately after it has been made. However, we can never really return an arm to an "original condition" unless we rebuild it again, and if we do this we stray into the realm of replication, not restoration.

To return an arm to this condition in any case really presupposes that it is first of all capable of being returned to its original condition. For this to be done it would have to be sound enough in all its parts to make refurbishment a practicable option. This is not to say that some conservation work or replication of parts may not be necessary but restoration work, by definition, would be out of the question since the aim of refurbishment is to erase all evidences of change and return the arm to an as new factory condition. In summary refurbishment is concerned only with the original factory condition of an arm, therefore by necessity it overlooks (and will erase) any and all changes both major and minor which have occurred to an arm before, during, and after its period of optimum use.


Conservation work aims at retaining all major and minor changes which may have occurred to an arm before, during and after its period of best and most frequent use. This would include the evidences of past repairs, whether properly done or not, as well as the normal evidences of wear and tear. The purpose of conservation is to preserve and stabilise all existing evidences by limiting the effects of deterioration by corrosion or vandalism.


A number of rivets are missing from the cradle unit of the gun. These can be easily replication.


No more change is implied than that which is necessary to keep the arm in existence. Sometimes restoration, based on historical research, may be necessary to achieve this but this practice should be carried out only to the level that restores the arm to the same state as it was in when it was discovered, or to some other agreed level. The arm is then maintained in this condition.


Restoration aims at returning an arm to its appearance and function at the time of its optimum use, but with the qualification that it may not always be possible or desirable to restore the original appearance and/or mechanical function of the arm fully. A case in point may be an artillery piece (such as the Krupp Gun example given above) where it is not desirable to restore the arm so that it is capable of being fired again after having been deliberately disabled for so many years. Another case in point is where "bush repairs" carried out on an arm in the past may be more significant historically if left alone for what they tell us about the past conditions under which gunsmiths, armourers and arms owners once lived and operated. Yet another case in point is where it proves to be impossible to establish what missing parts were like, or alternatively where it proves to be impracticable to make new parts, in which case a partial or incomplete restoration can be carried out without replacing the missing parts – or at least until such time as historical research can establish just what the missing parts were, or when it proves feasible to replicate them.

If parts of an arm are missing and it proves difficult if not impossible from historical research to find out what the parts looked like, and what their specifications were, it need not make the restoration of an arm impossible if the parts cannot be replaced or replicated. A restoration plan in this respect differs from a conservation plan in that research is required to establish if original specifications are available, and if they are not, a decision has to be made as to whether or not to leave out the missing parts altogether. In the interests of integrity, it is best to leave them out until further research sheds new light on the subject. However, in some instances, where the design of missing parts are known, it may be permissible to make copies out of the same materials as the originals, but it would be wrong to do this without documenting the fact that the restoration involved making and fitting new parts.

The shrapnel damage evident here should be left intact in any conservation/restoration treatment as evidence of the past history of the gun.

A case in point might be where the nose on the hammer of an 1851 Navy Colt has broken off, and the owner wants the hammer to be restored back to its original function and appearance. A new hammer can be made and even artificially aged provided it is stated clearly somewhere that the hammer is a reproduction part. It would be unethical to pass the Colt off as being original in all its parts after such a restoration, but if the restoration is done properly and it is honestly stated what it consisted of, it should not detract seriously from the value of the arm.

Sometimes one finds examples of an identical part or parts being pirated from another arm of the same type and substituted for a broken or missing part. My feeling about this practice – which is probably more common than one cares to think – is don’t do it if you wish to preserve the integrity of the arm. if it is possible to make the part, i.e., parts like springs, screws, parts of locks, stock furniture and fittings, make it otherwise go no further with the restoration. Any part which you make should be acknowledged and it should therefore have an integrity in its own right as an honestly made replacement.

How far does one go in replacing parts in a restoration before the whole arm becomes a replica? I believe we have to make some tough decisions at this point as to how far we are prepared to go before we destroy the built integrity of an arm. By '‘built integrity'’ I mean, quite simply, the existing design, historical changes, and original materials that go to make up any arm, as found, when a gunsmith receives it for work. To help in making these decisions I suggest that we be clear in our minds as to what ‘restoration’ is not. It is not refurbishment or replication of the arm in order to make it appear as new.

In my own experience each arm has to be approached on an individual case-by-case basis. It is useful to remember that if the aim is to reveal the historical, aesthetic and functional value of an arm, that any one of these considerations could equally apply to retaining subsequent changes to an arm which are, after all, part restoration was done, and (for the sake of the historical record) what the state of the arm was before the restoration was carried out.


The wheels and axles of the gun need to be freed from their concrete encasement and a decision made as to what parts need replication due to excessive metal deterioration caused by the hygroscopic nature of the concrete. The lower spokes and axles are obvious candidates.

To summarise, restoration may accept the evidences of major and minor changes to an arm. Essentially the term’restoration’ should therefore be capable of refinement to a point where it does not mean eradicating the evidences of the past, but means, rather, making allowance for qualitative historical changes which may be revealed in a restoration, and which it should always be possible to reinstate in the intests of both the integrity of the arm and of the gunsmith.


The assistance of the following people is gratefully acknowledged:
WO2 Stephen (Monty) Monaghan, ME Weapons, New Zealand Army, NZSG, for corresponding with Krupp in Germany on Internet regarding specifications for the Krupp 13.5cm Heavy Artillery Gun.
Mike Cato, New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths, for supplying specifications for the original Imperial German Army Field Grey (Feldgrau) artillery camouflage colour scheme.
Michael Kelly, Heritage Consultant for Wellington City Council, Regarding conservation policy recommendations for the Newtown Park Krupp Gun.


Conservation-Restoration Plan Contract © New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Inc., 1997
Guidelines For The Conservation-Restoration Plan Contract © New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Inc., 1997
Ralph T. Walker Black Powder Gunsmithing, Replicas or Relics – How to Build or Restore Black Powder Guns. DBI Books Inc., Northfield Illinois, 1978
George C. Nonte, Jr. Home Guide to Muzzle-Loaders. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg PA, 1974
George C. Nonte, Jr. Black Powder Guide. Second Edition. Stoeger Publishing Company. Chapter 4, Selection, Repair and Maintenance.


NZSG Copyright The New Zealand Society of Gunsmiths Inc.