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Peter Smithurst

Peter Smithurst is Curator Emeritus of Historical Firearms at the Royal Armouries.

Despite having trained in the sciences, graduated in Chemistry and Biochemistry and worked as a research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, I have always been captivated by certain aspects of history. A deep interest in the evolution of science, technology and industry led me in 1974 to join the staff of Sheffield City Museums and was soon faced with the challenge of planning a new industrial museum for the City and which opened in 1982. But above all my passion was for arms and armour which I had been collecting since the age of 10 or 11.

So, after overseeing the running Sheffield’s trio of industrial museums for the next 12 years or so, in 1994 I was moved to join the staff of the Royal Armouries, initially at Fort Nelson, helping create displays and prepare it for opening in 1995. Later in that year I moved to Leeds to help in the installation of the vast new displays there. For anyone interested in arms and armour, the Armouries is the place. Sharing this interest with a group of people having such a breadth and depth of knowledge in this subject area is a rare form of employment and is probably unique.

Life is full of temptation and in 2001 I left Royal Armouries to become Executive Director of The American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont, a museum founded in the building where the technology for the mass production of firearms with interchangeable parts was brought to perfection, but which also celebrates America’s unique contributions to the world of precision machine tools and mechanized manufacturing technology. It was a wonderful experience and a wonderful collection and a wonderful part of the world. I left because I felt that what the museum needed at that stage was someone who could raise the money for development and growth, and my passion lay in what the museum could achieve, given the financial resources. When it comes to fundraising, I recognise my limitations.

I was fortunate to be able to return to the Royal Armouries in 2002 and resume my role as a curator of firearms. In 2005, the firearms collection was almost doubled by the gift from the Ministry of Defence of the former Pattern Room collection and which, combined with Royal Armouries collection, constitutes the National Firearms Centre. Both collections were world class in their own right. Together they constitute what must be the largest and most comprehensive collections of firearms in the world. For any museum, the collections are the core. But, without the knowledge surrounding them, they are of little use. It is this combination of world-class collections and knowledge which are the foundations of the Armouries reputation. Working with those collections is an awesome privilege; helping maintain that reputation a frightening responsibility.

Peter Smithurst retired from full time employment in June 2009. He continues an active role within the museum as Curator Emeritus.

Recent publications

  • Christopher Spencer: the manufacturing technology of his repeating rifle; (with David Williams); Arms and Armour: Journal of the Royal Armouries 1.2 (2004)
  • The Pattern 1853 Rifled Musket – Genesis; Arms and Armour: Journal of the Royal Armouries, 4.2 (2007)
  • The guns and gunmaking machinery of Robbins & Lawrence; Royal Armouries Yearbook 7, 2002
  • Colt in London, a chapter for The History of Colt Firearms, Dean Boorman, Salamander Books Ltd, London, 2000
  • Artillery after the Crimea – large gunmaking becomes a science; Royal Armouries Yearbook 5, 2000
  • Glimpses into Greenwood and Batley; Royal Armouries Yearbook 3, 1998
  • Mallett’s Mortars – a great experiment in artillery; Royal Armouries Yearbook 2, 1997
  • Hotchkiss 37mm revolving cannon; Royal Armouries Yearbook 2, 1997
  • Henry Bessemer – Gun Maker, Part II, Classic Arms and Militaria, November 1997
  • From handcraft to mechanized industry – developments in gunmaking in the 19th century. Royal Armouries Yearbook 1, 1996
  • Henry Bessemer – Gun Maker, Part I, Classic Arms and Militaria, July 1994
  • Lock, Stock and Barrel – an exhibition of Sheffield made shooting accessories (jointly with Nicola Moyle); Sheffield Industrial Museum 1991
  • The Cutlery Industry, Shire Publications, 1987
  • Sheffield Industrial Museum, Kelham Island – an introduction to Sheffield’s Industrial History; 1982
  • Benjamin Huntsman – father of the steel industry; Bridon World, 1979