It's been a special privilege to have Van Orden serial number 220619 in our shop these past few months. Today it will ship off to its final owner and it is only fitting that we properly close the loop on what we have learned during our time of studying this fantastic rifle.
Serial number 220619 is remarkable in several ways, not the least of which is that the rifle is in like-new original condition. In the absence of a proven chain of custody or documented provenance, our time with the rifle has been an exercise in patience, digging, and detective work to tease out a bit of this rifle's history. Paramount among the questions to be answered is who was the rifle's original owner.
Who was Robert E Gates?
Evaluator’s Ltd. Lists Van Orden rifle serial number 220619 as being shipped to an individual named Robert E Gates in July of 1952 and with a delivery address of Fort Bragg, NC. With little else to go on, researching who might have been the original owner of this Van Orden number has been a challenge. Admittedly, we were forced to make some assumptions to push the research forward. In the end, this put us on a path which led us to a reasonably high-confidence conclusion. Most interestingly, Robert Gates was not at all who we imagined he might be when we began searching for him.
The key assumption is that Robert Gates was a member of the US Army. We base this on the fact Fort Bragg has for all its history been an Army base and never a joint base. From what we can discern, Fort Bragg at most only ever housed a few scant members from other branches of the military on special assignment, but never was home to any meaningful numbers from any other branch of the military.
With this assumption in place, we went looking for anyone with the name “Robert E Gates” who was a member of the US Army in the years of 1951 and 1952. Although we do not know what the lead time was for ordering a Van Orden rifle, we made what feels like a safe second assumption that ordering a Van Orden with a special-order stainless barrel like 220619 would have taken more than the 7 months between the start of 1952 and the rifle’s July 1952 shipment date.
Searching US Army and US Department of Veterans Affairs records, we only find a single man with the name Robert E Gates in active duty with the US Army during the years 1951 and 1952. We initially imagined a seasoned USMC sniper purchasing this rifle for his own personal arsenal, instead we found something quite different in the real Robert E Gates. Here is what we believe to be true:
Robert Gates was born in Indiana and enlisted in the US Army in 1950. Rather than the seasoned warfighter we imagined, Gates was a young man and ranked just an E-2 Private when he was deployed with the 2nd Infantry Division in the fall of 1950. Gates was a light weapons infantryman and the 2nd Division included embedded USMC sniper units. These two facts may explain how Gates became aware of the new Van Orden sniper rifles being delivered to Marine Snipers.
Shortly after deploying in Korea, on May 19, 1951, Gates was badly wounded in a missile attack. Gates was not killed, but his injuries resulted in him coming home and being reassigned (at least for a time) stateside. This is where the trail grows cold and the details become difficult to follow, but being stationed at Fort Bragg would have made sense for his rehabilitation and possibly for reassignment to non-combat duty - there were as many as 50,000 Army personnel stationed at Fort Bragg at this time. In addition, Fort Bragg is the home of Womack Army Medical Center, which in 1951 had more than 2,500 beds. Fort Bragg was an expected place for a wounded soldier to be cared for during his recovery.
As noted above, the lead time to order a Van Orden rifle is unknown. It is possible Gates could have ordered the rifle before his deployment (up to 20 months before the rifle was delivered), or after his return (13 months before the rifle was delivered). Either seems plausible. Given the large sum of money required for the purchase (over $2,000 in 2020 dollars), Gates having both combat duty pay and compensation pay for his combat injuries may make sense for him to have placed the order after his injury.
From this point forward, everything becomes pure speculation. Particularly on the matter of why this rifle still appears in like-new condition. We can imagine a young man who lost his enthusiasm for military things after full weight of his combat experiences set in, and this may be why the rifle never saw any use. We also can imagine a young man who ordered the rifle anticipating levels of physical healing and future able-bodiedness that never came to be. Perhaps this is why the rifle remains in like-new condition. Whatever the case, we salute a young man who served and sacrificed on foreign soil for his country nearly 70 years ago. It has been an honor to be the custodian of his rifle for these few short months.