The Stuff of Legend

by Joseph G. Bilby

Bannerman’s! The name is the stuff of legend to the black powder shooter and collector of antique militaria of a certain age. Those of us fortunate enough to have happened in our youth upon this Aladdin’s cave plunked down in Manhattan can conjure up memories of must and dust and muskets and military leather and webbing goods from Bull Run to San Juan Hill - and a catalog to take home and drool over.

When I first came upon Bannerman’s #501 Broadway retail outlet as an 11 year old in the summer of 1955, I was certainly smitten, even though the store’s glory days were behind it. Still, Civil War percussion cap boxes for 40 cents and 1870s era McKeever .45-70 cartridge boxes for 50 cents each were bargains even on a 1950s elementary school kid’s budget.

The 35 cent bus fare from my home in Newark to the Port Authority terminal was a bargain as well, and I returned to Bannerman's a number of times with my friend Ron DaSilva in the few years the old store had left to it. Over the course of those years, I acquired a small stockpile of cheap military goodies, including Spanish American War haversacks and canteens and a Model 1885 carbine boot, all a mere 40 cents apiece. I also invested in a Civil War cartridge box, a bit pricey at $5.

The Bannerman legend began 150 years ago in Scotland. Francis or “Frank” Bannerman was born in Dundee in 1851 and immigrated to America with his family three years later. The close of the Civil War found the Bannerman family in the recycling business, marketing used navy rope in Brooklyn. As Frank took over the company, he branched out into general military surplus, first purchasing old guns and belt buckles for scrap, and by the mid-1880s for resale, either complete or as spare parts.

Bannerman also sold modified surplus uniforms, inert “Quaker guns” and shortened cadet rifles and muskets to pre Boy Scout organizations like the “Sons of Union Veterans,” and the “Baptist Boys’ Brigade.” The company also provided uniforms and props for many a Broadway show.

As the 19th century waned, farmers and hunters became a ready market for inexpensive yet effective surplus arms and ammunition. The company even engaged in gun manufacture, buying and assembling the remains of arms making genius Christopher Spencer’s pump shotgun business in the late 1880s.

Bannerman’s biggest buy came in the wake of the Spanish-American War, when Frank bought most of the arms, ammunition and equipment captured by US forces in Cuba, including thousands of Mauser rifles and millions of rounds of 7mm ammunition. Many of those flat-shooting Mausers were bought and remodeled into hunting rifles by sportsmen. He later bought Polopel Island in the Hudson River north of the city near West Point as a storage site, renamed it Bannerman Island and eventually built an extensive facility there, including a faux Scottish castle used for family summer vacations. Unfortunately, Frank constructed his Fantasy Island dwelling out of scrounged materials, using old musket barrels for concrete reinforcement and discarded New York City paving blocks for facing, and had it built by the cheapest labor he could find. Visitors recalled pieces falling off the castle façade and crashing to the ground at inopportune times.

Frank Bannerman died in 1918, and was succeeded by his sons David and Frank. When Frank passed away in 1945, David became the sole owner of Bannerman and Sons, with his son Charles, a Manhattan attorney, handling much of the business paperwork. That same year, ten year old Ed Siess began buying militaria from Bannerman’s. By the late 1950s, Ed was owner of S&S Firearms, a part time business selling antique gun parts and military goods, and began to buy wholesale from Bannerman’s.

As S&S grew into a full time company, Bannerman and Sons began to wane as a force in the firearms and surplus trade. In January 1959, Charles announced that the New York City store would close in May and that future business would be by mail order only, from a Blue Point, Long Island location. The Broadway building was quickly sold and leveled into a parking lot. Through the 1960s, old military goods in varying states of decomposition were purchased and moved from the disintegrating island storehouses by dealers, including Ed Siess. In 1968, Charles Bannerman sold the island to the state of New York, and the following year gave the remains of the business to Jim Hogan, manager of the Blue Point operation. On the night of August 8, 1969, the castle burned in a mysterious fire. Its shell still stands on Bannerman Island, an attraction for tour boats up the Hudson River. (For information on the castle today, contact the Bannerman Castle Trust, PO Box 843, Glenham, NY 121527 or click here.

If any current antique gun parts dealer has a claim to the heritage of Bannerman and Sons, it is surely S&S Firearms. (74-11 Myrtle Ave., Glendale, NY 11385. 718-497-1100. ssfirearms.com). S&S still offers some gun parts and other relics with guaranteed Bannerman provenance, as well as reprints of old Bannerman catalogs and a unique 1880 government surplus ordnance sales catalog with Frank’s handwritten notes in the margins.

For some, the ghost of old Frank Bannerman is that of a “merchant of death” who sold some rifles and Gatling guns to Banana Republics back in the early years of this century. To me he is a far more gentle spirit - one who provided an entrée into a lifelong interest in military history and black powder shooting. Most of my collection of Bannerman gear was sold off for quick and small profits in the 1960s, and the money frittered away on beer and girls. When I came back from Vietnam in 1967, however, I found a small overlooked trove in my closet, including a US Model 1885 carbine boot, and the 1863 Springfield lock I would eventually use on my shooting musket. It may be true, as many of those in the know used to say, that when I discovered Bannerman’s in 1955, most of the really “good stuff” was long gone, and much of what remained was junk. For me, however, Bannerman’s will always live on in my surviving artifacts, and if the dream is of more substance than the reality ever was, so be it.

© 2001 by Joe Bilby

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