May 03, 2019

Museum Review - Fort Sill

Lord Nelson and I took a trip down to Fort Sill, about an hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City. Fort Sill is the home of the Army Artillery and Air Defense, as well as an old frontier fort from the Indian Wars. There are three museums on the base, one for each of these roles, and we managed to hit all three of them. I'm going to review them as a group, because it should be possible to hit all three within a day, and because the Field Artillery museum dominates to the point that it's easiest to think of the other two as detached wings.

Me with the Atomic Cannon at Fort Sill1
Type: Field Artillery, Air Defense, and Fort Sill historical museums
Location: Lawton, Oklahoma
Rating: 4.7/5, A truly amazing artillery museum, with a couple of other museums that can be visited if time permits
Price: Free

The old artillery gallery at the Field Artillery Museum

I should probably start with logistics. All three museums are on the base, and you'll need to get a pass if you don't have a DoD ID. These come from the Visitor Control Center, and you need to make sure to go there first before you try to get onto the base. The process is fairly simple. You fill out a form, hand it to them, and they make sure you aren't a criminal or a terrorist or anything. For both of us, the process took only a minute, but some reviews we read before coming said it took them up to an hour. We've both been on military bases before, so I'm not sure how long it would take someone who isn't in the system. They'll hand you a pass for the day, which you show to the guards when you drive through the gate. It should be valid all day, so there won't be any trouble if you leave for lunch in Lawton.

The outdoor artillery park from one end

The Field Artillery Museum is undoubtedly the best of the museums, and it's the one all the signs point to. The first thing you'll notice is the massive outdoor artillery park. And when I say massive, I mean massive. It makes the vehicle park at the 45th Infantry Museum look small, and it's full of really interesting weapons, both American and foreign, most of the latter having been captured in various wars and brought back for testing. One corner is devoted to AA guns and SAMs, but it's mostly a couple acres of missiles, towed guns and self-propelled artillery ranging from century-old guns to the prototype of the cancelled Crusader self-propelled howitzer. One highlight is the M65 atomic cannon that fired the only live nuclear shell ever. I had a great time looking at it all, although Lord Nelson understandably found it rather boring after a while.2

A neat display of artillery casings that had been worked into art

Inside, it got even better. The museum was beautifully done, and we were both blown away despite very different levels of prior knowledge and depths of interest. They did an excellent job of laying out the basics of artillery development and practice over the centuries, using not just the guns, but also various artifacts, everything from ammunition to uniforms to the personal weapons of the crews. The signage was good, and the collection was set up to cater to everyone from small children, with replica artifacts they were encouraged to touch, to people who probably remember how many world wars there were, to me, who was thrilled by obscure artifacts, like the caisson that carried FDR's coffin. Many of the guns were staged with mannequins and various paraphernalia which gave a much better sense of how they were actually used, and these were beautifully constructed. There was a whole section on fire control (if not the really good kind) including a section of the original ENIAC, and a chunk of the Berlin Wall.

A display of an M7 Priest

There's even more coming, too. I went to the curator to compliment him on the museum, and he showed us a new section on Vietnam that they're working on. It's not done yet, and I deliberately didn't take any photos, but it looks to be just as good as the rest of the museum. Lord Nelson and I plan to go back when it opens, although we're not sure when that will be.3 We want to see the finished product, and to be able to go through the exhibits without the time pressure of having to get to the other museums.4

An M15 halftrack at the Air Defense Artillery Museum

Compared to the Field Artillery Museum, the Air Defense Artillery Museum was unimpressive. It was in a cramped and hard-to-find building (ask the curator at the Field Artillery Museum for a map) and the collection was much smaller. There are some of the same types of displays, but the signage was much worse. Also, the story of the Air Defense Artillery stopped abruptly after the Korean War, and I don't think the word "missile" was even mentioned anywhere in the building.5 As of May 2024, this museum has closed, with the collection moving to a new "Training Support Facility" which differs from a museum in not being open to the public.

The Fort Sill Museum

The Fort Sill Museum was a decent museum about a topic that didn't interest either of us that much. The post was created during the Indian Wars, and served to guard US interests in the Southwest through the last few decades of the 19th century. The museum does a good job of chronicling that, although it's at the quality of a typical local history museum. It's worth a visit if you're interested in the Indian Wars, or if you happen to have some extra time on your hands after finishing with the other two.

The Artillery Museum had a cutaway version of a nuclear artillery shell. I was very excited.

Overall, Fort Sill is very much worth a visit. The only real downside is that the middle of nowhere falls within the base boundaries, but it's well worth going out of your way to see what is easily one of the best military museums I've ever been to.

1 All photos from my collection.

2 Lord Nelson: This is beanspeak for "We were out there for over two hours." I'd like to clarify that the first 30 minutes were quite enjoyable. Bean: Wait, was it really that long? Oops.

3 At the time, we were told it would be in the Fall of 2019, but that doesn't seem to have happened. At this point (May 2022), they look to have made progress, but it doesn't seem to be done yet.

4 Bean: If I had to do it again, I'd probably cut the time outside somewhat shorter. I at least glanced at every single sign, as well as taking lots of photos, and both could have been curtailed. For reasons of weather, we did that first.

5 Bean: Some research has lead me to believe that we may have missed about half of the museum, which was in another building. This wasn't indicated by signage, and I'd encourage you to ask at the desk. The guy on duty when we went had as little contact with us as possible.

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