And the Madness of Crowds

Bar-in-wood guns, like this 1880 James Purdey, have the steel action bar enclosed by the walnut of the buttstock, which extends past the trigger guard. Stylistically, they represent a bridge from late percussion guns.

by Terry Wieland

Every time I go to the Rock Island auction, I learn something new.  Sometimes the knowledge is not particularly welcome, but it’s always useful.

Last week (September 9-12) was the company’s second “premier” auction of the year.  These are three-day events where they sell rare and valuable guns that bring as much as two million dollars apiece, so just being in the audience is a dramatic affair. If you enjoy listening to gasps of disbelief, you can’t beat it.

Unless I missed something, this auction’s most expensive gun was a Winchester Model 1876 that went for $600,000. That price is not particularly noteworthy, except that the winning bidder, on the other end of a telephone with a Rock Island employee, kept upping the bid by $150,000 — 300, 450, 600 — and each time the room went quiet. After the $600,000 bid, it stayed quiet.

In addition to the hammer price, there is a buyer’s premium, plus sales tax, that adds another 25 per cent, roughly, so the actual price was around $750,000.  When I quote prices here, it will be the estimated actual total.

I went with my eye on two lots. The first was a pair of H.W. Mortimer flintlock duelling pistols, circa 1790, that appeared to have spent the past century in someone’s dusty attic. Not damaged in any way, but they certainly needed a good cleaning. Rock Island’s estimate of what they would bring was $2,750 to $4,250, and I was prepared for that. Instead, the bidding blew by me in a heartbeat, and they brought $15,000!

My duelling-pistol fallback was a pair of Boutet guns that lived through the Napoleonic Wars and looked it. Estimated price: $5,000 to $7,000; actual price, $15,000. Ah, well, I’ll just have to avoid getting into quarrels that might lead to a meeting at dawn.

My other major quarry was an 1880 James Purdey bar-in-wood hammer gun with two sets of barrels. It had belonged to Robert Braden, co-author (with Cyril Adams) of Lock, Stock & Barrel, a 1996 book about English guns which I highly recommend. I knew Cyril slightly, and just managed to get a copy of his later book, Live Pigeon Trap Shooting, before he died earlier this year. Cyril Adams was one of two or three genuine, serious experts on English guns in this country, and I figured any gun Braden owned must be of impeccable pedigree. Robert Braden himself died in 2001.

Stocking a bar-in-wood is extraordinarily difficult, even by London sidelock standards. But they are a beautiful marvel.

For the last five years, English doubles have been in a slump, which was only to be expected after the astonishing heights they hit around 2010.  The bloom being off the rose, some very nice guns — beautiful and eminently shootable — have been selling for a fraction.  Names like Purdey, Boss, and Holland & Holland have held their prices better, presumably because of name recognition, but one modern (1902 vintage) quite nice Purdey changed hands for $7,500, which is an astonishing bargain anytime, anywhere.

Inexplicably, a Boss & Co. gun, restocked and with sleeved barrels, went for more than $30,000. I expected sleeved barrels would rob the gun of the magical feel original Boss game guns display, and that would work against it.  In fact, it felt quite good when I hefted it — but not thirty grand’s worth.

This demonstrates the anomalies of auctions, which put some people off.  All you need is one other bidder who really wants something, and prices can become totally unrealistic. I got into a bidding duel over a William Cashmore box-pigeon gun. Estimated at a value of  $5,000 max, I dropped out and the other guy got it for $9,375. I hope they’re happy together.

Of course, the converse can also happen. A Joseph Harkom rook rifle, which I had not looked at or even considered, popped up on the big screen at the front of the auction hall, and the bidding stalled at $1,300.

Rook rifles had their 15 minutes of fame about a decade ago, to the point where one American dealer specialized in importing century-old smallbore single-shot rifles with names like Holland & Holland. Ammunition is difficult at best, which renders their use pretty much moot except for diehards and eccentrics.

Harkom was a top-notch, if obscure, Scottish maker, so I jumped in and got it. Lucky me. More on this at a later date.

Six lots later, the Purdey hammer gun came up, interest was limited, and I brought it home for about what I hoped to pay for it. Well, in all honesty, a little more, but it’s only money, and you only live once. It was $9,375, if you must know.

This year’s new knowledge? Collectors of duelling pistols live in a rarified world that only a madman would attempt to predict.


Gray’s shooting editor considered sending out notices informing all and sundry that he now shoots a Purdey and expects to be addressed as “Mister.”  Then he thought better of it — an unaccustomed flash of good sense we applaud.