On a Whim and a Prayer

A 52-caliber flintlock duelling pistol, by London gunmaker John Fox Twigg (1732-92).

by Terry Wieland

The Rock Island auction is alive and well, and back once again almost — almost — to its old status as Mecca for gun guys. I say “almost” because it made some changes to accommodate what appear to be permanent demands for social distance and so on.  But we are back to where true enthusiasts can make the pilgrimage to Rock Island, wander freely in the exhibition hall, and continue our education about all things that go bang.

Rock Island has become the world’s premier auction house for guns. It conducts multi-day auctions, selling thousands of guns, in traditional form with a live audience, as well as with telephone, sealed-bid, and on-line bidding. There are three “premier” auctions a year, and multiple lesser ones. Some are online only.

The whole operation is too big to describe in detail here, but anything else you need to know can be found at www.rockislandauction.com.

Last week, I made the five-hour drive to Rock Island, Illinois, for the three-day “Sporting & Collector” auction. There were about 5,500 guns up for sale, divided into more than 3,000 lots. That’s roughly 1,000 lots a day, which works out to an average of two a minute through a ten-hour day.

Haenel Original Aydt Schützen rifle, chambered in 8.15x46R. The diopter (tang) sight is one of the most elaborate the author has ever seen.

The S&C auctions are a step down from the Premier, where individual guns occasionally change hands for a million dollars or more, but they still contain some nice pieces that might sell for ten or twenty thousand.  Certainly, it’s a rarity to see anything hammer for less than a grand.

I’ve been going to these for three years now and, for a while, attended every premier auction that came up. This string was interrupted by Covid, but probably would have been curtailed anyway by dwindling liquidity. Over the years, I’ve bought a dozen guns or more (I’m afraid to count) and I can’t remember a single auction where I haven’t come home with at least one.

Some of these were bid upon with malice aforethought, after long and careful scrutiny of Rock Island’s elaborate catalogue; others, only after strolling the display racks and having them jump into my arms with a joyous but pitiable cry of “Take me, I’m yours.” Still others I’ve bid on purely on a whim, having to make the decision in, literally, a few seconds, when an image pops up on the big-screen television at the front of the auction hall.

This has happened to me a couple of times, and after all, you can’t see and handle everything in the hall.  Suddenly, in front of you, is a gun you wish you’d looked at, but now here it is, the bidding is in progress, and the price seems absurdly low…

Some of these have been both serendipitous and fortuitous, such as a Stevens Model 47 New Range, or, an auction or two later, a pair of German Schützens on Martini actions.  The first reignited my old passion for single-shot rifles, and the second led me, like Alice pursuing the White Rabbit, into the labyrinthine world of German target rifles.

This time around, I bought two guns. One, a Haenel Original Aydt Schützen, I studied in the catalogue, examined carefully, plotted my attack, and scored at the price I had considered a best-case scenario.

The second is an English duelling pistol, made around 1780, in London, by John Fox Twigg. All original, looking its age but carrying the years like a beautiful dowager, it fulfills a long-held secret desire to own a duelling pistol. Not being one of a matched pair, not being in a case with accoutrements, and not being by Manton or Rigby, is what made the Twigg — still an excellent name — affordable.

I had no idea of bidding on it before I arrived at the auction and had it pointed out to me by my friend Mark McDonald, who has more expertise in such things than I do. Once I picked it up, however, it was like eyes meeting across a crowded room. Love it when that happens.  Love it.

And yes, I will be shooting the Twigg. The wherewithal is already on order, along with a book about duelling pistols.


Gray’s shooting editor says attending an auction in person, versus perusing the catalogue, is like meeting a girl at a ball instead of an on-line dating site.  Until you put your arm around her, you can’t really know.