A Boy’s Guide to Gun Auctions

The gun-auction survival kit: Catalogue, tape measure, chamber gauge, flashlight, bore lights, caliper, micrometer. Add an unencumbered credit card, and you’re ready for the fray.

by Terry Wieland

As I write this, the three-volume catalogue for the Rock Island “Premier” gun auction in September has just been delivered by UPS.  As UPS deliveries go, it’s not huge; it is, however, too large to fit in the mailbox, and at ten pounds, it’s a handful.

In round numbers, Rock Island will be auctioning about 2,000 guns and related objects over a three-day period.  This is actually fewer than in past auctions, which have seen them move more than 3,000 items over three days.  To save you digging out your calculator, in a nine-hour day of non-stop auctioneering, that works out to one item every 30 seconds or so, with some selling in as little as 15 seconds.

In past missives I’ve described the wonders of the Rock Island auction:  A team of half a dozen auctioneers, with three on the daïs at all times, spelling each other every 25 lots; television screens everywhere showing the lot currently being sold; the bank of telephones with operators bidding on behalf of far-off buyers; the “Rock Island Live” computer feed that allows anyone, anywhere, to follow the auction and bid.

And, lest you think these things are going for eBay prices, I’ve been present when one gun sold for almost two million dollars, with the average well into the thousands.  If you can imagine a ten thousand dollar gun, fought over by two or three bidders, and the whole thing wrapped up, gavel to gavel, in 30 or 40 seconds, you get an idea of what an adrenalin-charged affair it is.

Having said this, it’s pretty daunting when you turn up at the auction for the first time, hoping to acquire one or two particular pieces.  A key element is the viewing day, a full day allowing potential bidders to prowl the showroom, handling and examining the wares.  Once the bidding starts on day one, you can only view items from days two and three, and on day two, only the items from the last day.  The process of examining, following the auction, and bidding, are all wrapped in together.

So far, I’ve identified 87 items from the coming auction I’m interested in — either bidding, seeing how much interest there is from others, or the final price.  I did this before the catalogue arrived by going to the on-line catalogue, starting at lot #1, and going through to the end.  Having an account, I was able to set up an on-line list and assign interesting items to it.

In the past, I’ve done this the traditional way with the paper catalogues, making notes and marking pages with Post-It notes; this time, I’m trying a combination of catalogue and iPad.  Rock Island’s catalogue has separate volumes for each day, so you don’t have to lug around one huge tome.  In the auction hall, the paper catalogue is invaluable for checking back, looking ahead, and not having to worry about internet connections, which can and do become overloaded.

Something I learned over the past three years and a dozen auctions is the importance of planning and preparation.  Once you set foot in the showroom, it can and does become overwhelming.  You can actually forget what you came to see.

In the examining room itself, a few items are vital.  Obviously, you need a briefcase to carry the catalogue, pen, notebook, Post-It notes, calculator, iPad, and, of course, your bidding card.  Pockets don’t cut it.  Beyond those obvious things, I now carry my own thin leather gloves.  They provide latex or cotton gloves for handling the valuable merchandise, but I prefer my own.

As well, I carry a small flashlight, chamber gauge, tape measure, and some of the little “bobber” lights used in fishing or archery.  To examine a bore, you turn one on, drop it in, and it illuminates the bore and rifling.

Other possibilities are a choke gauge and magnifying glass.  A caliper and micrometer always come in handy, but it depends how much you want to carry.  This time, I’m taking everything listed above, but keeping some of it in a tool kit in the car.  If I need anything for a particular gun, it’s available, but I won’t have to carry it all the time.

You might wonder at the chamber gauge and measuring tape.  With so many items to list in detail, there are inevitable slips in descriptions.  I could give examples, but I’ve run out of space here.

Be prepared to check and double-check before raising your bidding card.  Once the auction starts, it’s like being in a three-day horse race amidst thundering hooves and flailing whips.


Our shooting editor is exploring the Rock Island auction as both a source of education and a tempting path to bankruptcy.  You only live once.