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Washington, D.C.

Gun Barrel Fence

This robust fence in front of a historic Georgetown home is likely made from hundreds of recycled Revolutionary War firearms. 

Local lore has it that the stout iron fence surrounding numbers 2803 and 2805 on P Street in Georgetown is fashioned from hundreds of recycled firearms.

The historic resident, Reuben Daw, was one of several Georgetowners who lent the government emergency cash on the eve of the British invasion in 1814. After the smoke settled the War Department lacked the ability to repay their loans in a timely manner, and proposed repayment in kind with surplus military gear that was lying around.

You can read one version of the story in a 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics, which reported on the decision “to let those who so desired go to the navy yard and take anything in the way of castings that they could use. Reuben Daw took advantage of this opportunity and asked for a consignment of antiquated flintlock muskets which were rusting in a neglected pile in an old warehouse. He received permission to remove them and took them to Georgetown.”

Apparently the aging hoard of firearms had its provenance in a British surrender during the Revolution, and by 1814 the Brown Bess muskets were only worth their weight in scrap.

The gun barrel fence is significantly more robust than other neighborhood fences, with each upright measuring about an inch in diameter. And upon close examination stubby iron sights are visible on some, but not all of the posts. One final bit of supporting evidence is the pointy spiked tops, which are clearly separate inserts rather than wrought from the same piece of metal as the tubes.

These three contemporary observations are about as far as the facts go in corroborating the aforementioned tale. A deep dive in the newspaper archive reveals that the first mention of the gun barrel fence appears in an anonymous submission to the Washington Bee on September 21, 1907, nearly a century after the fact. Verbatim copies of the same article were also subsequently picked up in the Washington Evening Star (1907), the Washington Herald (1911), Popular Mechanics (1911, the only version online without a paywall), and the Washington Post (1921). So there is the possibility that this entire thing is the invention of one writer who shopped the same piece around to all the local publications.

Still, it very well may be true! Gun barrel fences were definitely a thing in Washington, and it is known that the Arsenal at Greenleaf point was ringed with one until 1902. The uprights in Georgetown strongly resemble gun barrels, and who knows what stamps or markings are hidden underneath their thick coating of paint.