Military History Fascinates Pleasant Hills Collector of Old Pistols

By Donovan, Sandra Fischione | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 23, 2009 | Go to article overview

Military History Fascinates Pleasant Hills Collector of Old Pistols


Donovan, Sandra Fischione, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


History, especially the history of war, fascinated Joseph May as a child.

"I'd look at pictures of bombers and tanks and go to all the John Wayne movies," says the Pleasant Hills man, 64. As an adult, he indulged his love of history by switching in the last eight years of his teaching career from the communications and language arts department to teaching social studies at Knoxville Middle School.

Then, about nine years ago, May's interest in history took a different turn. When his fourth and youngest child was in college, the now-retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher brought history into his home in the form of an antique pistol.

Now May has a collection of around 85 pistols. His particular favorites are vest pocket pistols. These were so small that even if they were manufactured for civilian use, some soldiers and officers carried them in pockets, helmets and boots as secondary protection during World Wars I and II, although governments did not sanction their use.

"They weren't supposed to carry these guns, but they did anyway," May says. "They carried them as a backup gun. ... You would have to be right on someone to kill them."

Looking at May's collection, which he keeps under lock and key, is like peeking at history filtered through the narrow but fascinating prism of pistols.

"Everybody made these pistols: Italians, Germans, Austrians, Americans, Hungarians, Russians, the British and French," May says.

May shows an Austrian Steyr pistol owned by a German or Austrian soldier named Hugo Engler, his name engraved in graceful script on the bottom of the handle. Writing on the magazine that went with it indicates the pistol was used in Belgium in 1915 and 1916.

Another pistol in May's collection is a .22-caliber Belgian Velodog revolver, originally manufactured at the turn of the previous century, but for a purpose other than warfare.

"Rabid dogs were prevalent back them, so people would buy a pistol" to protect themselves against possible attacks, May says. "They were safe to carry because people would have to pull the hammers back to shoot them."

May has a story -- often a war story -- to go with many of his collectibles. For instance, May owns a .32-caliber 1910 Brownie, the same type of gun used to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Serbia. That 1914 event set off World War I.

"This one is the type of gun Hitler used to kill himself," May says, picking up another pistol, a .32-caliber Walther PPK. May's wife, Janet, considers the gun "pretty" because of its attractive grip and high sheen.

May's .25-caliber Belgian Melior came with "capture papers" that soldiers were required to fill out to gain permission to keep firearms obtained in war. U.S. Army Capt. Preston L. Fitzberger filled out the papers to keep the Melior he took from a German soldier. …

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