In conversation with…Raymond D. White, artillery art collector

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff Art

In our current issue author Jane A. Kimball has written a survey of “Trench art of the Great War.” To complement this story, we asked artillery art expert and collector Raymond D. White to tell us more about this unique art.

Tell us about your collection and how you got interested in trench/artillery art?

There are currently 225 casings in my collection. It is still growing, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to find examples that aren’t already represented in it. I bought my first decorated casing about forty years ago at an antiques shop in New Orleans. It was made from two 75 mm casings that had been cut off and machined so they fit together to form a container. The head stamps were clearly and interestingly visible, and a WWI era silver French franc coin with a surround of celluloid had been inlaid into the center of the top. It was well polished and appealing, but at the time I did not think of it as the beginning of a collection, only as a neat container.

About thirty-five years later, I ran across a 37 mm casing that had been hammered to form an art deco style vase. I bought it, and soon after discovered the eBay market—it was swiftly downhill from there.

What criteria do you use to evaluate works (size, type of decoration, place made, battle, etc.)? What makes an example more valuable or collectible?
I like variety and comprehensiveness in a collection (my other collections, American portrait miniatures and Dutch Delft, have both been approached with the same goals). This means brass casings of all possible sizes from rifle and machine gun bullets to artillery pieces ranging from 37mm to 210 mm in diameter. Another criterion is location. My collection includes casings that were decorated in Europe, Mexico, Paraguay, Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, China, Japan, the Philippines, on ships at sea, and in the United States.

Type of decoration is also important (see the related question below). Some pieces are rather crudely decorated but are powerful pieces of folk art. Some are more finely decorated but in what might be called a routine way, while others have decoration that is as fine as that seen on silver—or even gold.  Some get their personality from quirky uses of technique. A few are just so ugly that you simply have to have them.

 Many pieces were decorated to commemorate specific battles or military units, and some collectors are devoted to finding examples from every possible WWI battle or from every possible military unit. While I have many such casings, I have not tried to create such a finely focused collection, although I am trying to cover as many different conflicts as possible—I have casings from the Boer War, the British expedition in the Sudan in the 1890s, the Spanish-American War, the conflicts in the Balkans prior to WWI, WWI itself, the Greek-Turkish war after WWI, the Chaco War, World War II, Vietnam, and the fighting around Sarajevo.  I’m still looking for a good piece from Korea.

In your experience, what techniques and tools were most commonly used to make artillery art-or which have the most appeal to you?
The tools used ranged from sharpened hammers, files, nails, screwdrivers, punches of various kinds, and other homemade cutting or gouging tools to high quality machine tools that were available in workshops. Some of the fluting was done by crimping the casings in the gears of large field guns. Just about anything you can do to a piece of metal has been done to shell cases to produce artillery art: etching, painting, lathe turning, damascening, crimping, engraving, inlay, hammering in, hammering out (repoussé), cutting, welding, weaving, appliqués of hot metal, acid wash, fluting, and plating with other metal.  

The two techniques I find most impressive are basket weaving, in which the top of the casing is cut into vertical strips, heated, and woven together; and applied hot metal, usually pewter or lead, decoration. Casings with hot metal application are very rare because of the team effort it took to do the work and because the added metal is soft and susceptible to chipping and denting so that few survive undamaged.

If you find a piece, how do you learn more about it? What can be researched and, other than inscriptions, do the casings themselves offer any clues?
The casings themselves offer a number of clues.  The head stamps can show the year the casing was manufactured, the firm that manufactured it, the country in which it was manufactured, the size of the casing, the number of times it was reloaded and the type of load (full or reduced).

The head stamps do not, however, tell where the casing was decorated or who did the work. During WWI for example, German casings were decorated by Allied soldiers and artisans and vice versa. The type of design and, of course inscriptions, offer clues to where and when a casing was decorated. A few casings are signed but most are not, perhaps in part because the artisan did not think anyone would care who did the work, but quite likely because virtually all the casings were purloined items and signing your name to something that was stolen wasn’t such a good idea.

 Trench art is often rich with history and personal narrative. Could you tell us the story behind a specific example either from your own or another collection?
I have the best WWII decorated shell case I have ever seen (no doubt someone out there has one that is better, but I haven’t seen it!). It is a 155mm casing, fluted at the bottom, with a striking hammered background and an excellent dark patina.  But the outstanding feature is the decoration left standing when the background was hammered down: a crowned lion, symbolic of the Dutch monarchy, rampant but with all four paws chained to posts on its left and right. At the bottom of one post is a Nazi swastika, and at the bottom of the other are what are probably the initials of the artist. To the lion’s left is the inscription “MEI ‘40”, the month in which Nazi troops overran the Netherlands during WWII. The casing was manufactured in England and is dated 1943—after the Allied armies were expelled from the continent—so this casing was undoubtedly decorated in England by an exiled Dutchman who was mourning the captivity of his land. It is a great combination of art, history, and poignant longing.

Where are the best places to find artillery art today?
Without even close competition, eBay is the place to find artillery art. Rarely, a dealer or pawnshop will have a decorated casing, but they are usually routine pieces and they are often overpriced. Most of my own collection was purchased on eBay.

How has eBay/the internet changed the market or your knowledge about artillery art?
For those interested in relatively inexpensive collectibles including artillery art, eBay has not just changed the market, it has made the market. Before eBay and the internet finding things like decorated shell casings was like being a lost traveler looking for an oasis in the desert—there were oases, but most travelers died without finding one.

Is any form of artillery art being made today?
There are a few artisans making art from artillery and small arms shell casings and there are some programs overseas—notably in Mozambique and Cambodia—that are encouraging the transformation of guns into art. I have read that there are new pieces, such as eating utensils made from small arms casings, which are being made in China today (see the Utne Reader July-August 2006 article “Beating Bombs into Plowshares“). 

The most recent actual conflict from which I have ever seen decorated shell casings is the Balkan conflict around Sarajevo during the early 1990s. I know of no decorated casings from either the First Gulf War or the current conflicts in that region. There are two reasons for this: fewer artillery shells are being fired as most fighting is small arms, RPGs, rockets and improvised devices; and many shells now have steel casings and steel can’t be worked like brass.  Perhaps a third reason is that craftwork is less a part of life in general and in the military than it was fifty or a hundred years ago.