Copyright by Charles Pate, 2007. All rights reserved.

A Research Trip To The National Archives

by Charles Pate, Former Chief Researcher for Springfield Research Service
Copyright by Charles Pate, 2007. All rights reserved.

NOTE: Mr. Pate is no longer affiliated with Springfield Research Service (SRS).
The account below is a valuable explanation of the process he used in the past while Chief Researcher for SRS, and may prove helpful to other researchers.

The information below describes the process and product prepared by Mr. Pate.
The current research practices and products of Springfield Research Service under different management may differ significantly from the process described below.

Questions or comments about current SRS operations can only be addressed by the current management at


        We get a great many inquiries asking if we can document guns  not listed in our database. We decline requests to do such research because if we knew where to look for these serial numbers we would already have found them and put them in our database. That disappoints a lot of folks.


Also, for some of the guns we can document, with the time and reference material available to us we can only provide brief historical context that doesn’t tell as much of the guns’ stories as the clients might want. For these and other reasons we would like to share the following information on the sources of our data and the overall research with anyone who may be  interested in conducting research at the National Archives themselves. The following article, which is extracted from a talk planned for presentation to the  American Society of Arms Collectors, is intended to:  


Background on Springfield Research Service (SRS)

        As most of you know, for more than 30 years SRS has been going through official records in the National Archives and other original source records to find military small arms serial numbers and noting the documents that list them. The serial numbers and sometimes other significant data about the arms have been published in our serial number books and the serial numbers have also been posted in a database on this web site. This article describes the process SRS goes through to provide a collector with a letter on a specific weapon, citing the specific source(s), a summary of the known information on that weapon, and, where available, a copy of the original documentation on a firearm that is listed in the SRS database. We hope this information will be useful for those of you considering doing your own military history research. It’s something I personally enjoy and think many of you will as well.


        From the research process standpoint there are two categories of SRS provenance letters:


  1. Documentation letters based on record copies we hold, including a limited number of DCM sales records, military disposal records, and Sharps shipping records. These sale and shipping records represent only a small portion of the database and they will not be addressed here.
  2. Documentation letters based on records held by the National Archives and other record repositories.  This article is focused on this category of SRS letters and reflects the vast majority of the data in the SRS database.


The National Archives "Old Army-Navy" Records

Getting to the Archives Building and Checking In


        Source documents vary greatly and do so especially based on the period of history involved. The National Archives has two facilities in the D.C. area. The downtown facility has most of the older records and the College Park , MD , facility has most records for post World War I. We will begin with research at the downtown D.C. facility and for the purpose of illustrating the SRS process I have chosen a typical request for a Civil War provenance letter – a Remington New Model Army revolver that according to the SRS database was in the 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry in March 1864.


            I typically get notification of a request for research through an email from the web site or a letter through the U.S. mail. My first action is to look up the source documentation citation (more on that later). I then check various notes on these sources that Frank Mallory and/or I have made as well as documents on the sources published by the National Archives. I then plan a trip to the Archives to review (and if possible copy) the original documents. Due to the cost and time required to visit the Archives I need to have at least two requests for letters to justify a trip. For some of the same reasons, if you are planning to do research at the Archives for the first timeyou should plan a multiple-day visit for, as you will see below, you probably won’t get much done on the first day.


            The first problem is just getting there. For me the trip downtown is an hour each way in rush hour traffic if I drive, or an hour and 20 minutes by bus and Metro. If you visit from out of town I would recommend staying somewhere near a Metro stop. If you decide to drive, the next challenge you will face after the rush hour traffic is finding parking in D.C. It’s very expensive but some is available reasonably near the Archives if you get there early enough. Then it’s a walk to the back of the Archives building (the entry for researchers) and security processing (metal scanner, signing in, getting a property pass for any electronic devices like a laptop, etc.). The hours of operation have recently been reduced and access isn’t permitted until 9:00 AM.  I already have a researcher’s identification badge (which you need for access to the reading room), and after getting an additional visitor’s badge I go to the research assistance room to request the documents I need to see. If you do not have a researcher’s badge you have to first get a photo id made.


After Arriving at the Archives- Getting started


        After signing in at the research assistance room the next step is to fill out and submit “pull requests” for the documents. If you know exactly what is required to fill out this form it is a simple matter of filling it out and giving it to the archivist to get it in for the next scheduled pull.  However, only four pulls are done per day and you are allowed to submit requests for only one record group at a time (more on record groups below). The Archives buildings close at 5:00 PM and given the limited hours I usually can take advantage of only three of these pulls, which means I can only get a maximum of three different types of documents per visit to the Archives. The first pull is at 10:00 AM and the others are at 11:00 AM, 1:30 PM and 2:30 PM. It takes the staff an hour to two hours to pull records so plan accordingly. On the first day of your visit it is unlikely you will actually see any paper records until 11:30 or later (but see the discussion of microfilm records below). The last pull obviously provides little time that day to find what you’re looking for and is useful primarily for obtaining records to review the following day.


            The information required for the pull slip is your name and researcher number, the date, the record group identification, the “entry” number and the descriptive title of the entry and some more specific reference that will enable the staff to find records that are likely to be of some value to you. At the highest level records are arranged in “record groups.” As examples, records of the Army Chief of Ordnance are in Record Group (RG) 156, records of the Army Continental Commands are in RG 393 and records of the Naval Bureau of Ordnance are in RG 74. According to the notes made during previous SRS research when we originally found it, the source of the serial number for our Remington pistol is in the Civil War volunteer regiments’ “Regimental Books” stored in RG 94, records of the Army Adjutant General. RG 94 is a very large record group but in this example we are dealing with a specific and fairly small subgroup, Entry 112, the regimental books for volunteer organizations in the Civil War (Spanish-American War books are in Entry 116 of RG 94). When volunteer regiments were mustered into federal service they were issued these ledgers and after the regiments were mustered out of federal service the ledgers remained federal property. These books are the official records of the regiment while in federal service and consist of up to fifteen volumes and may include orders, letters received, letters sent, guard rosters, personnel descriptive records, etc.


            Being fairly familiar with the Regimental Books, I know to go to a certain box in the research assistance room to see if the specific volume of the 22nd PA Cavalry’s records that I need to see can be pulled. If I can get the specific volume identified there is a chance that I can get only that volume pulled. The individual books of some regiments are separately identified in the “location register” box and others are not. If the individual volume I need is not listed the Archives staff will pull all of the books for the regiment – which often means they will be the only documents they bring me for this pull and I will get nothing else done for the next three-four hours. If you do not know the specific records you need pulled you have to discuss your research task with the archivist, which usually means waiting since only one is on duty for each major grouping of records (Army, Navy, Civil). Spending some time on the Archives web site prior to your visit may help speed your search for if you are not well prepared it’s unlikely you will see records until the afternoon.



Finally, Records to use!


        Once you have submitted your pull request you go to the beautiful old second floor reading room to wait for your records. For security reasons your photo id is used to gain access to this room and you cannot take with you bags, coats, ballpoint pins or original documents. The Archives provides pencils and paper for your use. The guards and staff use video surveillance cameras to monitor researchers to prevent theft and damage to the documents. You can take only one folder out of a box at a time and you must also use a marker in the box to ensure the folder is replaced in its proper sequence. There are numerous other rules as well, all of which are clearly appropriate if you understand the staff’s concerns.


            If the records you requested are more than a single small box or volume they will be taken to a short-term storage room on a cart and the staff of the reading room will have to retrieve them for you (this is another sometimes frustrating delay). In this case let’s say that I was able to identify and get pulled the specific volume I needed to look at – the Descriptive Book for Companies F through L, 22nd PA Volunteer Cavalry – and that volume was brought directly to the reading room. Since the staff knows me well, they will often advise me when my records have arrived. Otherwise you have to check in with them periodically. In this case, the best possible situation, the staff tells me my records have arrived, I sign for them, and they hand me a book about 14 x 24 inches in size and 2-3 inches thick that is usually falling apart and very dirty. Approximately four hours have passed since I left home for the Archives. Again, this is the best-case situation. In one out of four cases there is a problem of some sort such as the wrong records being pulled – for example, the 22nd PA Infantry records might have been brought instead of the 22nd PA Cavalry. Other frequently encountered problems are other researchers having checked out the records I want to see, the records have been misfiled or temporarily lost, or, most irritating, the Archives staff have re-boxed or reorganized the records and they are no longer where our notes say we originally found them. Mistakes on my part in properly filling out the pull slip are not at all uncommon either. When any one of these problems occurs you have lost not only the time you’ve spent but also the time it will take to correct the problem. While most of the Archives folks are very conscientious they are understaffed and can’t quickly correct such mistakes as bringing the wrong records even if the mistake was theirs.


            In this case I received the proper document and can begin the search for my client’s serial number. Serial numbers are where you find them in these records. Unfortunately there was no set system for maintaining the serial numbers of weapons assigned to individual soldiers at this time. The serial numbers may be in a list of names and numbers specifically made for the purpose or they may be annotations in an existing list of soldier names (the “Descriptive” list described below, a guard roster, etc.). In other cases the serial numbers are scattered throughout a given volume or in multiple volumes. For example, an entry noting a soldier deserted and took his weapon with him might include the serial number. In most such cases the serial number notation may be in a section listing deserters but it may also be in the section providing individual soldier descriptions as a note beside the soldier’s entry. It was just an impossible task for us to always be very specific in our SRS records in noting where we found a given serial number. About the best we could do was to note the record group, entry, and file number or volume number (depending on the type of records). In this case my research notes showed the serial number was in the Descriptive Book for Companies F- L of the 22nd PA. These books have a section for each company so logically I go to the section for Company L. The serial numbers may be anywhere in that section of approximately 40-50 pages but, unfortunately, they may be elsewhere in the book as well. The Descriptive Book was a record kept by each company that included a brief description of each soldier (in case of his death, desertion, etc.), his term and place of enlistment, and often a notation of the clothing and other items he was issued. In some cases, this being one of them, the weapon(s) he was issued may be entered near his name. As noted above, in other cases there is a separate, simple list of soldier names and the serial numbers of the arms they were issued. Often in such lists only last names are given and in most cases the writing is very poor, the document faded and dirty and difficult to read. It usually takes a half hour or more to find the serial number I’m looking for if I have this much information to aid my search. After I have verified the exact serial number is actually there (ensuring that it was transcribed correctly in our notes and subsequently entered correctly in our published or on line database) I have enough evidence to confirm that a specific weapon was indeed used by that unit.  In some cases the number may be from a general list for an entire company without individual names, but often a weapon is identified to a specific name.  At that point, I make a tentative identification of the soldier. When the numbers are in regimental books other than the Descriptive Book and only the soldier’s last name is given, I may have to then pull the Descriptive book also to make a preliminary identification.


Getting a Civil War Soldier’s Service Record


        I next go to the microfilm room and pull the microfilm roll for the index of names of soldiers who served from Pennsylvania to get a positive identification of the soldier. This gives me the spelling of the name used by the Adjutant General (AG) to file his compiled service record. A soldier’s name is often spelled differently in different places in the same document so I have to determine what spelling the AG used in compiling his record.


        The next step is to put in a pull request for the soldier’s record, wait for it to arrive in the reading room, and make a copy for my client. This is another two-three hour process so I try to have other work I can do while waiting for the records to be retrieved. This is something I would strongly suggest you do as well. If you have a long wait you might make use of the microfilm records discussed below.


            If the records containing my client’s serial number are in a loose document and they are not too fragile to be photocopied, I will make a copy for the SRS letter. The reproduction procedure requires that you first show the staff the documents to be copied and get their permission to copy them. If there are staples that must be removed (and they are willing to allow them to be removed) they have to do it. There are only four copiers at the Archives and often one must wait for a copier to become available. Five-minute waits for five minutes on the machine are common in busy periods. Copies are 15 cents a page and the paper used is a large, non-standard size. You must use a sometimes-troublesome magnetic strip card for the machines (available from the cashier’s office on the 1st floor).  


Leaving the Archives


            The trip home is the reverse of the trip to the Archives. You first have to go through security as you leave the reading room. This sometimes means waiting in line while the guard laboriously fingers through each page of every person’s documents making sure they all show evidence of having been made on the Archives’ copier and that no originals are included. You also go through a similar process as you leave the building. Recently a few people, some quite prominent, have been caught stealing documents and these inconveniences are just a fact of life.


More Work Involved With the SRS Letter


            Once I’m home I start to prepare the letter for my client. In most cases these Civil War records containing serial numbers do not specifically identify the make or model arm issued to the soldier. The usual notation is “carbine” or “pistol.” If there is any question as to the type of arm issued my next step is to review documents describing the arms issued to the regiment. In many cases I can do that through quarterly reports (“returns”) that the regiments made on the ordnance they had on hand. These ordnance returns are available in the National Archives on microfilm. However, the reports were not always made or retained if they were made at all. If there are no returns that verify the types of arms issued another research effort is required (see the October 2006 Gun Report article I did on the “pistol carbines” of the 11th New York Cavalry for an example). In this case the records specifically stated that pistol number 58545, which was issued to Private Scott Hann, was a “Remington Army Pistol.”


Finding out More About the Unit


        If information is to be added about the activities of the unit identified with a specific weapon during the period involved, the next step is to find a regimental history of the unit.  This sort of research is fairly straightforward and I will not elaborate further on this part of the research effort.  Now, finally having everything that I will include with this particular letter, I take the time to review the information uncovered by all of the research and write the letter. All that is left after that is business book keeping and packaging and mailing the letter.


Notes About Indian War To World War I Era Records


            Spanish-American War records are much like those of the Civil War and need not be addressed here. Other records usually searched by SRS at the downtown facility are most often correspondence files of the Army Chief of Ordnance, Navy Bureau of Ordnance, or the USMC Quartermaster or USMC Headquarters. These records are usually letter size, folded in thirds, and packed in boxes that hold several hundred letters. To search them efficiently you need to understand the filing system used by the organization at the time (they all appear to have changed systems over time, some changed several times). But these letters have often been shuffled by previously researchers and it may be necessary to go through them one at a time. It takes me about an hour to go through a box of these letters one at a time, much longer if I find interesting material along the way.


            For Army correspondence up to 1870 letters received were filed by year, then by the first initial of the writer’s last name, and then numerically in order received. Unfortunately this means a letter from the Colt factory might be filed under C (Sam Colt or the Colt Company), R (Root), F (Fales) or H (Hartley). Letters received between 1870 and 1894 were simply numbered in the order received each year. From 1894 to 1915 letters were filed by “subject number” and these records are exceptionally difficult to search if the file subject number can’t be identified. Up to the introduction of the typewriter letters sent were copied into volumes but separate volume series wee used based on to whom the letters were sent (the Secretary of War, Ordnance officers, arsenals and armories or to miscellaneous parties). So you need to understand how the Ordnance Department did business at the time. All this is too complicated to cover here in more detail.


            Other records of note that are downtown are records of posts/forts and individual units, these being very limited, unfortunately. Each of these sets of records presents its own challenges, especially for those periods in which the filing systems that were used changed.



Modern Records and the College Park Facility


            As previously mentioned, most post World War I records are at the College Park , MD , facility. The best way to get there is to drive but you can also first go to the downtown facility and catch a bus to “Archives II.” There is plentiful free parking at this facility and it is a beautiful, modern building. The hours and general procedures are the same but here you have more to do in identifying the records to be pulled – you have to identify the physical location of the records yourself. The finding aids for identifying the records you want pulled and their locations are voluminous and confusing. The record organizations are, in some cases, still changing – a very frustrating problem for people who first looked at these records several years ago. In many cases records that were previously in one record group have now been assigned to new ones. Within record groups many entries have been broken down further or re-numbered. Many records that we previously noted by box number have now been re-boxed and our citations are no longer valid. Unfortunately few of the archivists who are there to help are familiar with these changes so we jointly have to figure out where to look for documents in these situations.


            The College Park records of SRS interest are mostly in the same categories as last described above – the most useful being military correspondence files, but unit/organization files are also productive. For example, the OSS records contain many records showing issues of weapons to individuals. As another example, in the records of the Southwest Pacific Area I recently found over four hundred Model 1903 rifles that had been assigned to individual ships of the U.S. Army’s World War II fleet. I’m currently going through about 40 boxes of Treasury Department “settled claims” from the Civil War (old records but stored in College Park ) in an attempt to find the thousands of small arms bought from dealers in the early years of the Civil War. Individual purchases were made of single weapons up to hundreds at a time from a given dealer. I’ve found no serial numbers yet in these settled claims but it takes up to three hours to review a single box and I’ve only gone through eight boxes so far.


            Many of the records stored at College Park were once classified and still bear the markings of the classification. The staff at this facility pay close attention to this matter and any copies of documents marked as classified must have the declassification notice applied or you will not be able to take them out of the facility.


        An added benefit of the College Park facility is that it contains the collection of still and motion pictures. This latter Archives branch is not very busy and the staff can pull records for you quickly. Some of these photos are absolutely fascinating. Overall the College Park facility is more busy, and crowded, than downtown since it contains such records as the Nixon tapes and JFK assassination records (both still popular), and records that are heavily used by government paid researchers, World War II/Korea/Vietnam researchers and researchers from overseas.



Microfilm Records at the Archives


            The Archives tries to provide records that are frequently accessed through microfilm. This prevents damage to the often fragile originals and speeds researcher access since the microfilm is stored in containers directly available to the researcher. Many records of interest to military arms researchers are available only on microfilm. These include most if not all of the Secretary of War records, most of the Adjutant General records, ordnance returns, regimental and post returns, and more and more individual soldier service records are being filmed. But many of these documents are very hard to read on microfilm and, with wear of the film, are becoming even more so. Large format documents like the returns are especially problematical. A digital image of reasonable resolution would be much better. Unfortunately, in this day of excellent digital scanning and imagery, the Archives is still slavishly devoted to microfilm, which cannot be viewed except by one person at a time, wears through the mechanical process of viewing and, of course, cannot be posted on-line or searched through computer technology. Making paper copies from the microfilm is so inconvenient and the quality of the copy is so poor that I usually don’t attempt it.




            Obviously this is only a superficial treatment of the research process and the records themselves. A quick review of SRS data showed we have found serial numbers in at least 45 separate record groups at the National Archives (we have searched several other repositories as well) and, as you can see from the above, to research any given record group it’s best to first learn some things about the organization that created the records. To give you more perspective regarding the volume of SRS data, in the 2007 version of the database there are now 316,297 records. (If you have ever done data entry you can appreciate the mind-numbing effort it has been to record all this information.) Of these database records a relatively small number are multiple occurrences of the same serial numbers due to the numbers appearing in multiple documents. The source documents are not uniquely identified in our records so a count of them is not practical, but it should be clear to anyone that the number is great. We’ve gone through a staggering volume of documents to find the very low percent of them that contain serial numbers. (I took over SRS in 2003, but I had followed founder Frank Mallory’s work since I began my own research at the National Archives in 1977 and was pleased to contribute those numbers that I found.) It should be equally obvious that it was impossible to copy these documents or to even record much information about them. In many cases I know little more about the details of source documents than is recorded in the usage summary of the database. Consequently a trip to the Archives and a sometimes significant effort is required to provide a provenance letter.

            If you’re coming from out of town, plan to spend two or more days at the facility you are visiting, have something to do while you are waiting for documents, and don’t be surprised if your research takes longer than you anticipated. In the best case scenarios, such as the above Civil War Remington revolver, it takes a minimum of three hours to provide an SRS provenance letter that requires research at the National Archives. The average appears to be four to six hours. This does not include travel time, the time it took to find the serial number the first time, or the time required to develop and maintain the database. Given the cutback in Archives operational hours, the limited numbers of document pulls in a day and the frequency in which either I or the Archives staff makes a mistake (or the records can’t be found/are unavailable), I’m only able to work one to three requests in any given day at the Archives. Some requests require multiple trips for one reason or another.


        All that having been said, this research, I believe, is historically important and satisfying and I think you will find that to be the case as well. During my time as Chief Researcher on the SRS research task I’ve documented a Model 1903 rifle salvaged from the Battleship “California,” sunk at Pearl Harbor; three Indian scout Trapdoor carbines; five guns of the Rough Riders; one Colt single Action used in the Little Bighorn Battle, and a great many other interesting weapons. Opening every box or volume of records is an adventure. Yes, the information we find is sometimes mundane but much is not and there are rare finds that by themselves make the effort worthwhile. In addition to those already mentioned, I recently found Sam Colt’s personal letter to BG Ripley (Chief of Ordnance) telling him of his having sent the General a presentation set of a Model 1860 Army, a Model 1861 Navy and a Police Model revolver. Last year I found the serial number of Captain David Lyle’s personal Trapdoor rifle (Lyle invented the line throwing Lyle Gun and inspected both Colt SAA and S&W Schofield revolvers) and the serial numbers of the Colt SAA and Schofield revolvers used in a trigger pull test at the Springfield Armory. All these numbers have been added to the SRS database.  The list goes on and on. So the work is vicariously rewarding, even if it is often just documenting the issue of a Remington revolver to a 19 years old farm boy named Hann from Fulton County Pennsylvania.


Copyright 2007 by Charles Pate. All rights reserved.

NOTE: Mr. Pate is no longer affiliated with Springfield Research Service (SRS).
The account below is a valuable explanation of the process he used while Chief Researcher for SRS, and may prove helpful to other researchers.

The information below describes the process and product prepared by Mr. Pate. The current research practices and products of Springfield Research Service under different management may differ significantly from the process described below.

Questions or comments about current SRS operations can only be addressed by the current management at

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  Revised 1 January 2008