An informative and interesting exhibit at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, "Conquistadors to Patriots" examines the evolution of weapons that forged three centuries of American history.

From Prince Philip II of Spain to Paul Revere of Boston, conquistadors and patriots conquered the New World with sharp swords and deadly muskets.


Whether plundering gold or demanding liberty, bold men - and some women - wielded pikes and cutlasses, matchlock muskets and flintlock rifles from the conquest of the Yucatan to the Battle of Bunker Hill.


An informative and interesting exhibit at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, "Conquistadors to Patriots" examines the evolution of weapons that forged three centuries of American history.


It features more than 80 artifacts, including rarely shown objects such as Prince Philip's finely wrought gauntlets and Revere's punky little pistol, the lethal rapier of Myles Standish and the fancy epaulets George Washington wore at Yorktown when the British surrendered.


Organized by Barbara Edsall and Cristina Bauer, the exhibit fulfills the museum's mission by examining arms and armaments up to the beginning of the 19th century.


"It encapsulates in a nutshell the conflicts that happened in the first 270 years of our history from 1513 to 1783," explained Edsall, the museum's registrar. "I think it highlights some of the conflicts in this period of early American history."


Subtitled "Arms and Armor in Colonial America," it runs through Jan. 8, 2008, in the museum at 100 Barber Ave., Worcester.


Edsall believes the exhibit's double focus on American history and ancient weapons "adds another dimension" that will attract visitors with interests beyond medieval arms.


She developed an interest in ancient weapons after growing up in Fitchburg where the Iver Johnson Co. made cheap but reliable firearms.


In addition to weapons, she said the show offers many related objects including a "beautifully carved" powder horn, bullet molds, a tricorn hat and information about women warriors.


For this show, about 50 objects were borrowed from organizations including the Massachusetts Historical Society, Old Sturbridge Village and the Worcester Historical Museum among others.


Bauer, the assistant curator of collections, said the exhibit is "a little unique" because it focuses on three centuries of North American armaments instead of the more familiar emphasis on medieval and Renaissance weaponry.


Not long after their arrival, European explorers soon realized their heavy body armor, ranked pikemen and cumbersome muskets were ill-suited to fight against lightly armed but mobile Native Americans.


This exhibit features not just weapons but related objects like combatants' clothing and utensils, and artwork that reveals the role of warfare after the arrival of Europeans.


For visitors fascinated by the technical evolution of firearms, it showcases matchlocks, wheelocks, doglocks and flintlocks. For those who want to glimpse history through lesser known oddities, there's a cannonball fired during the Battle of Lexington and caltrops, which are pointed spikes scattered on a road to stop horses.


And for those who think outsourcing is a contemporary phenomenon, check out Gen. Artemas Ward's lion-head sword with its American-made silver hilt and imported French blade.


Edsall pointed out that Colonials fighting for independence generally depended on European-made weapons or borrowed technology. Clearly outgunned in the war's early stages, the Continental Army received a huge boost when France sent over 100,000 top quality muskets, she said.


Visitors will encounter real people who wielded weapons from Col. Benjamin Church, whose guerrilla unit beheaded Wampanoag warrior King Philip, to Mary Hays McCauly, who won fame as "Molly Pitcher" for loading Colonial cannons at the Battle of Monmouth after her husband, William Hays, fainted on the job.


For local history buffs, it cites the contributions of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War including Peter Salem of Framingham who killed British Maj. John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill.


Like other Higgins Armory exhibits, it presents weapons as multifaceted artifacts of great beauty, utility and historic interest.


For example, the screw-barreled flintlock pistols owned by Gen. John Thomas of the Continental Army cast light on how changing technology affected the conduct of war as well as the personal history of a devoted patriot who died of smallpox during the failed invasion of Canada.


Forging a Euro-centric civilization on the backs of the under-equipped indigenous people was no genteel task. The exhibit includes barbed dog collars for fighting hounds, sharp-edged pikes, thick-bladed boarding swords, nasty little swords called hangers and ceremonial swords that saw most of their duty on the parade ground.


Bauer said the exhibit is enlivened by numerous "Did you know?" panels that highlight history's offbeat side.


For example, did your ninth-grade history teacher claim George Washington had wooden teeth? Wrong! Our nation's Founding Father masticated Martha's dumplings with dentures constructed from ivory, hippopotamus bone, cow's teeth and gold. Maybe that's why he looks a bit grim on the $1 bill.


And did you know that, contrary to popular legend, John Hancock didn't make his signature so large on the Declaration of Independence to irk King George but because he was the first to sign a document directed to Colonial readers and had a "naturally flamboyant signature."


The exhibit explores the period when four European powers - Spain, France, Holland and England - battled for control of the rich resources of North America during skirmishes for regional control and outright wars. It culminates with the victory of the poorly armed ragtag Continental Army over the forces of Great Britain.


In an unexpected way, "Conquistadors to Patriots" supports Chairman Mao Zedong's revolutionary slogan "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."


"You can make the Declaration of Independence but it's backed up by actual warfare," observed Edsall. "It's a fact of life, these objects secured America and they secured our freedom."


THE ESSENTIALS:


Located at 100 Barber Ave., Worcester, the Higgins Armory Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7 for children age 6 to 16.


On Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21, the museum will be transformed into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft for a fun family sleepover celebrating the release of the final installment of author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.


This one-of-a-kind activity runs from 8 p.m. each night until 9 a.m. the following morning.


The Friday July 20 event is sold out but spaces are available for the July 21 event.


Cost $145 per parent/child pair. Price includes all activities, snacks, workshops, breakfast, a souvenir and copy of the book "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Call 508-853-6015, ext. 20, to register.


For further information call 508-853-6015 or visit the Web site www.higgins.org.