Wanenmacher Arms Show

by Sarah Szabo

06/15/2011

Gilded guns and rusted relics dominate the tabletops that stretch end to end across the QuikTrip Center, covering both levels of the 400,000 sq. ft. building. For several hours each day—two in the spring, two in the fall—they’re displayed for an endless stream of passersby. The throngs are constantly moving, slowly circling the building as they search for something to buy, someone to sell to, an opportunity for trade or—in my case—an incidental dose of hands-on history.

***

Despite the limitless scope that the name entails, the Wanenmacher Tulsa Arms Show bears, to the uninitiated, a finite array of wares—many surprises to novice eyes. While there are certainly firearms, knives, crossbows, beef jerky and most everything else one would expect to find at a gun show, in quantities sufficient for a small battalion, there is also a wealth of memorabilia from wars the world over. You couldn’t launch a projectile in here without hitting something that approaches 200 years old. It is deliciously American—you can hold a thousand-year-old European broadsword in one hand and balance a plastic plate of French fries in the other. Some of it is even affordable, like stacks of antique coins or binders full of stamps that sell three for a dollar.

“Just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean it’s common,” said one bored and seated vendor of wartime postcards. “It means I already have it.”

***

The roots of the Wanenmacher Arms Show extend back to 1968, when showrunner Joe Wanenmacher inherited the show’s production and promptly commenced large-scale expansion. Under his watch, it has grown from a 100-table affair to a 4,100-table full-scale extravaganza. Today he walks the Expo Center floor, popping up at random booths as he runs the show with practiced ease.

The Wanenmacher Arms Show purports to be the world’s largest of its kind, and the vendors agree that it is at least among them. Walking around the show, it’s easy to believe—it’s crowded, and it’s loud. There is an incessant din of conversation, and intermittent bursts of stun gun fire from tasers being tested send static shock sounds over the whole floor, adding a jagged edge to the otherwise ordered cacophony of commerce at work.

The parking lot is full of RVs and trailers, some set up so near the center’s doors they must have camped there overnight, like festival fans angling for front-row spaces. Traffic is constant and everywhere. No booth is neglected, nobody is idle. There’s already a crowd when the doors open at 8. By noon, you flow with the traffic of a purposeful crowd or get trampled underfoot.

Most of the arsenal is firmly out of my price range, but it’s a good thing I’m not carrying cash. There are more than enough trinkets on sale for one, two or five dollars—from postcards, stamps, Nazi coins and Confederate money—that even the most casual enthusiasts would feel tempted to take something home. It can come as a surprise for those who come to the show expecting to find nothing but guns and weaponry. For instance, Wanenmacher helped fulfill a goal I didn’t even know I had, but that I must have been holding somewhere inside of me since seeing American Beauty—I held in my hands a Nazi mess hall plate, swastika on the back, the bowl lightly ridged with the spoon scrapings of unknown, far-off soldiers.

“Collectors brought back stuff by the bucket load,” said one vendor. “I know one man who brought back 15 thousand pieces of German silverware.”

Outside the context of an arms show, that’s an amazing collection—but in this environment, it’s a common story. The majority of the collectors of wartime memorabilia gained what they have through colleagues, friends and trade—most of it stemming from the acquisitions of war veterans at the original times of conflict.

“They just took it,” said another man, in reference to the origins of his own set of Nazi cutlery. “They took doorknobs. They took everything.” Not surprising, then, that so much of it finds itself here, a lifetime later.

I wonder aloud about the market for these bounties, and ask if it’s in a good shape.

“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding toward the case of forks below me. “That’s $325 a piece.”

When he realizes I’m gawking and not buying, he rolls his eyes and walks away.

No one says it so bluntly, but the prevailing opinion among attendees is that I’m wasting everybody’s time and insulting them by my mere presence. This is a vendor’s market, and those without a bankroll are personae non gratae. They’re not rude to me, just disinterested. No matter how much it looks like a museum, this is a marketplace, and tire-kickers like me are looked down upon. My sincere compliments on the beauty of wares are met with nothing more than scarce nods and the awkward, “Thanks,” as in, “I think.”

There are oddballs and standouts peppered liberally about the tables—guns plated with gold, mounted miniguns, 17th-century French dueling pistols, massive cannons playfully aimed towards the audience.

***

The show floor is littered with historical miscellany.

“How old is this, if I may ask?” I queried one vendor, pointing to an old helmet she had, just sitting there, looking like a misplaced piece of the 15th century next to the bullets and pocket blades.

“I don’t know, very old,” she told me. “You can put it on if you want.”

I do, but it swallows me. While I’m at it, I play with her scrimshot powder horn, a relic from Fort Edwards, ornately carved with a map of its Hudson River environs.

***

After ten hours of marching around the show, diligently cataloguing everything in sight, the prospect of leaving becomes appealing. I departed near the end of the day, trying to beat the traffic. On the way out the door, guards in yellow shirts hollered “Guns? Guns?” at passersby, in cursory attempts to make sure we weren’t leaving the building locked and loaded. I left the gun show empty handed and unarmed. I had been given a taste of another well-armed world, one that has much more to say about gold-plated revolvers than “good lord, this is pretty.”