When Ross E. Beard Jr. was growing up in Florence in the 1930s, he got a part-time job that would change his life forever.
His father, Ross E. Beard Sr., was friends with Melvin Purvis, the famed FBI agent from Timmonsville responsible for leading the manhunts for such notorious gangsters as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger.
Purvis was an avid gun collector and he hired Beard, then 10 years old and his godson, to clean some guns that had been packed in grease and crated. As a reward, he gave Beard the first firearm in what would grow over the next 74 years into a collection of more than 1,000.
“The first gun I collected, Mr. Purvis gave me,” said Beard, now 84 and living in Camden. “One of John Dillinger’s machine guns.”
Over the next seven decades, Beard would travel to 38 states and 22 countries, collecting every type of firearm and weapon imaginable, from a Chinese wheel-lock made in 1514, to an air rifle carried by Lewis and Clark between 1804 and 1806, to an umbrella that concealed a sword used by a secret agent in World War II.
Today, about 400 of those weapons are on display at the Camden Archives and Museum. The admission is free. And if you’re very lucky, Beard might be on hand to tell the very personal stories behind each one.
“It’s a great collection and we’re absolutely thrilled it’s here,” said Rickie Good, the museum’s curator of collections. “But hearing him tell the stories is special. I wish we could bottle him.”
For Beard, that’s the point of his passion.
“The fun of collecting guns are the stories that go with them and the wonderful people you meet who are related to them,” he said.
In addition to collecting guns, Beard also made some very interesting friends along the way. One was Purvis, who passed several pieces on to Beard.
In addition to that original Thompson sub-machinegun (which Dillinger called a “Chicago typewriter” because of its distinctive rat-a-tat-tat), Beard’s collection includes Dillinger’s sawed-off shotgun used in bank robberies, one of the outlaw’s signature straw hats, a letter from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to Purvis, the revolver Purvis used to kill Pretty Boy Floyd and shells and bullets taken from the bodies of victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Beard notes that all of the automatic weapons and shotguns that are under legal length are registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Central to the collection are Beard’s late-20th century carbines, which were standard-issue weapons of the U.S. military from World War II to Vietnam. Beard says his collection of 37 variations of the weapon — shorter and lighter than a rifle — is the most complete in the world.
Most of Beard’s carbines are in the S.C. Military Museum at the S.C. National Guard headquarters on Bluff Road in Columbia. But the Camden display has several prototypes made and signed by David “Carbine” Williams, the chief designer of the weapon for the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. from 1938 to the 1950s.
Beard met Williams in the 1950s after a carpet installer saw Beard’s collection and pointed the collector in the designer’s direction.
“He said, ‘I know the man that invented that,’” Beard said.
Beard would go on to write a biography of Williams, who died in 1978.
“He was an inventive genius like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Beard said. “He said, ‘I just know what I want a thing to do and make it do it.’”
Beard also made friends with a very interesting historical figure, Capt. Peter Mason. Mason was a British commando and government assassin during and after World War II. He is considered the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Beard was in Washington, visiting The Spy Museum in the 1990s, when he learned about Mason, wrote him and the two became friends.
“He was certainly, by far, one of the most unsung great heroes of world war II,” Beard said. “He was unsung because they couldn’t talk about what he did. And I know some things about him that I still can’t talk about. He was a fierce warrior.”
Among the items in the collection are a gun made to look like a cigarette, which was fired once and disposed of, a working tobacco pipe that doubled as a blow gun firing poison darts, and an ink pen with a small bullet that could be used for suicide if the agent was caught.
The collection will be on display at the museum for a year. Beard said he loves all of the weapons, but those touched by his friends are the most special.
“I have some older and rarer guns, but the Purvis and Carbine Williams stuff leads the parade because of my close long-term relationship with both of them,” he said.
For 74 years Camden’s Ross E. Beard Jr. has collected guns, rifles and other weapons. A large number are now on display at the Camden Archives and Museum. Among them:
A Chinese wheel-lock musket made in 1514
An air rifle carried by Lewis and Clark on their 1804-1806 expedition
John Dillinger’s sawed-off shotgun and Thompson machine gun
A working tobacco pipe that doubled as a blow gun firing poison darts
A 1700s “Kentucky” long rifle
A 1690s lady’s flintlock
If you go
What: A display of the Ross E. Beard Collection
Where: Camden Archives and Museum, 1314 Broad St., Camden
When: Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: (803) 425-6050