Rock Island Farewell (Sort of)

Howdah pistol by Lyon & Lyon of Calcutta, in .577 Snider, brought $7,000 at Rock Island’s August premier auction. Lyon & Lyon was a prominent gun dealer during the British Raj. Its guns were mostly made in Birmingham — Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Company

by Terry Wieland

When I attended my first Rock Island auction in September, 2018, I little suspected I would be back as many times as I have—at a rough count, 15 or 16 over five years, and rarely returning empty handed.

But things change, times move on, and I have now seen my last premier auction at the original auction hall in Rock Island, Illinois.  Starting this December, all of Rock Island’s premier auctions will be held at a huge new facility near Dallas, Texas.

Rock Island’s three-day premier auctions are the ones that feature the big-money guns—a pair of revolvers that belonged to Ulysses S. Grant, or Annie Oakley’s favorite .22, or collections of spectacular guns such as Bob Petersen’s, or Robert M. Lee’s.  They are held three times a year.

In between, Rock Island holds lesser auctions—shorter, or on-line only, selling less desirable guns, sometimes in dealer lots.  There are two or three a month.  For now, those will still be held in Illinois, and all the spade work, such as receiving consignments, photography, catalogue preparation and so on, will remain in Illinois as well.

Howdah pistol by John Rigby & Co., chambered for a shortened version of the .577 Snider, netted Rock Island $23,500. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Company

I suspect Rock Island is now the largest gun-auction company in the world.  A premier auction typically grosses in the neighborhood of $20-million, and more if one spectacular lot goes for five or six million.  A three-day auction sells from 2,000 to 3,000 lots.

This last one did not have any particularly astonishing guns, but it had a plethora of interesting ones.  There were three howdah pistols for sale.  A howdah is the box-like platform on an elephant’s back, and a howdah pistol is one made for the specific purpose of dealing with a tiger that climbs into the howdah during a hunting expedition.

This was not unusual, and the English gunmakers of the 19th century produced some fascinating firearms to deal with it.  Typically, they are double-barreled side-by-side hammer guns with eight- or ten-inch barrels tossing heavy lead balls—.60 or .70 caliber percussion, or .577 Snider during the cartridge era.