Sold: Gun Auction 101

By Troy Hoepker

As the auctioneer yelled “SOLD!” another gun was crossed off the list that had went too high for my blood. There had been several of those already and I was beginning to wonder if any of these firearms would fetch a price that I was comfortable with? An old timer that lived several miles away who had been a gun collector for years and an especially a collector of a lot of old Winchesters, was selling off a big part of his collection and it was an event I didn’t want to miss.

There were over a 130 firearms and most were very collectible and in great condition. It brought in buyers from all over including different states. I had circled several guns on the sale bill that held my interest and several more to watch closely as they were bid on. Arriving early to look them over, I jotted down a few notes about their condition to remember for later once the bidding started going. Most of the old beauties were in great shape and would sell for top market value price. Some would go for a higher price than I thought they should, typical of an auction full of great items and overeager buyers.

One by one most of the classics that I was interested in sold, but as the auction grew older I noticed the bidding slowing and the prices coming back down to earth. Some of the hard-core collector guys had likely blown through a lot of cash and others had been able to snag a rifle or revolver along the way satisfied with their purchase. I wasn’t looking to go home with a truckload of guns, but just a good deal on an heirloom quality firearm or two.

With only about a fourth of the items yet to sell, there were still a couple of firearms that I was interested in and I held out hope that they would go for a price I was comfortable with. Finally the ringman held up a skinny-framed semi-auto with classic lines, good bluing, great wood, and collectability and the bidding started. It was a Winchester Model 1903 I had inspected closely before the auction had started.

Winchester’s model 1903 was the first semi-automatic .22 rim fire rifle ever manufactured in this country and the first hammerless repeating rifle made by Winchester. The model 1903 was a takedown rifle with a tubular magazine in the butt stock holding ten rim fire cartridges and is loaded through a “wormhole” in the right side of the rear stock. It was the first successful blowback rifle ever made to handle rim fire cartridges at a time when black powder and semi-smokeless powder ruled the day.

Thus Winchester designed a special cartridge known as the .22 Winchester Automatic Smokeless Cartridge specifically for this rifle. About 126,000 rifles were ever made and in 1933 the ’03 was succeeded by the Winchester Model 63, which could accept .22 long rifle ammunition. This model Winchester had always interested me because of its history and I always wanted to have one. Even though shooting it would be challenging because of the limited availability of the specialty ammunition it would mostly be an investment and a “safe queen” anyway. Value potential on this rifle has always been held down by the fact that ammunition has hardly been available commercially for decades but I appreciated even the rarity of that fact and to me it seemed that it gave the rifle even more intrigue. Who knows, maybe someday as time passes by, that fact may just make this rifle more sought after.
I waited for bidding to slow and then raised my arm while making eye contact with one of the ringmen. “Haaooo” he hollered and soon after was echoed by a ringman working with another bidder equally enthused at the thought of owning this little beauty. I came back right on top of the other bidder with a quick raise and soon the auctioneer was going once…..going twice…..SOLD!!!

My homework and patience had paid off and I had a little piece of Winchester American history to show for it! I had taken the time long before the auction to research values on each of the rifles that I was interested in on the sale bill so I’d know if anything was selling too cheap or so I wouldn’t pay way too much. I’d arrived early enough to inspect each one to judge the condition and appropriately gauge what I was willing to pay. I’d made notes so I could remember values based on condition and also made notes on the condition of each gun I was likely to bid on so I’d know where to stop or whether to bid on them at all.

Anytime we attend an auction we are all looking to find a great deal on an item either for the investment value, resale value or usefulness or sentimental value. Firearms are no different. Auctions provide a fun and easy opportunity to purchase guns for recreational, sporting, defensive or collectible use and some good bargains can be had. On the other hand it is just as easy to end up with a good case of buyer’s remorse after getting a lemon or paying way too much for a gun that simply isn’t worth what you paid.

The biggest thing at any auction is to know when to stop bidding. Just because one or two other fellows are still bidding away doesn’t mean anything so never assume they know something you don’t. The winner can turn into the ultimate loser when you take things personal and get into a bidding war with another bidder.

Know the limit that you are prepared to go to and stay disciplined with it. Set your limits by doing you’re homework beforehand. Use the sale bill or auction listing to research the firearms you are interested in before the day of the auction and use multiple sources to research the market value of the firearm. The famous Blue Book of Gun Values is a good source along with Gun Digest Book of Modern Gun Values or publications like Gun List. You can subscribe to the online version of several of these publications as well. On-line auction sites are also a decent way to see what comparable firearms are going for like Gun Broker or Guns America. A check at the local gun shop might worth a visit as well.

These days a lot of auction companies will post pictures of the items coming up for sale at their upcoming auctions. Take the time to see if there are any pictures of the firearms you can see before the auction and read any useful descriptions. If there is very little information about a certain firearm you’re interested in, give the auction service a call to inquire about the particulars of the gun. This will help you know whether it’s worth the hour drive to the auction site to see if that Winchester Model 1890 you’re interested in is a beautiful pristine gem or a pitted, rusty mess. Some sale bills look really impressive to read but once you lay your eyes on the guns the list loses its luster just like the guns have lost their luster many moons ago.

The next step is to arrive early to the auction so you can make sure to get your hands on the guns you’re interested and give them a close inspection. Take along a bore light, magnifying glass and a pen and paper. Also don’t forget your phone and any reference material you may need to check while you’re there before the bidding starts. Look down the barrel, open and close the actions, check the safeties, the slides, the spin on revolvers, the firing pins and look for what’s not there that may be missing. It’s easy to overlook something so know all of the details of the particular model firearm that you are going to look at beforehand, even if you have to write them down. Where permitted, dry fire the firearm but make sure that you are always checking each gun you pickup to make sure it’s unloaded. In general, use good firearm safety and don’t ever point the firearm at anyone.

Guns are valued in levels of condition so be honest with yourself about the condition of the gun. I see many people convince themselves that the gun they desire is worth more than it is. For instance, often a buyer knows that a mint gun in the model they desire might be worth $1500 for example but they overvalue that same model gun when they see it in person even though it is 60% condition. They should not be paying anymore than half that mint price at most, yet they convince themselves that it is better than it really it is and pay more than they should. You will see guns like this go for higher than they should in a lot of cases at auctions simply because the purchaser and those bidding against them are lost in the rarity, or premium condition value of the particular model of firearm rather than taking proper consideration of the condition of the firearm that they are bidding on.

The important thing is to also educate yourself on the things that make a gun’s value deteriorate. Things that begin to lower the value include percentage of bluing left on the metal, wear or damage to the wood, rust or pitting in the barrel, obvious scratches and dents, any missing parts, and the list goes on and on. There are some guns you will see that might just need a little minor gunsmithing and it’s important to know the differences in major work and minor work needed. At the other end of the spectrum, every once in a while you’ll run into a gun that just seems too good to be true. If that is the case, especially with older firearms, it probably is too good to be true. We see this in cases where a gun has been reblued or refinished completely.

Another thing to always be aware of is all of the versions, variations and different levels of value that there can be all within one model of firearm. Some models have a basic version and the next step up might be a version that was made with checkering on the wood or detailing somewhere on the gun. There all kinds of different things that can add to the value of the firearm. Knowing the differences will help you identify a good deal and also avoid overpaying for a model that you incorrectly identified as a more expensive one. From case hardened receivers to fluting, to octagon vs. round barrels and everything in between, there are all kinds of different variations that effect the price. I’ve found that researching guns coming up for auctions has taught me a lot over the years and it has improved my knowledge of a many different firearms of the past.

Remember too that the auctioneer is there to make the most money for the seller that they possibly can. Be careful when jumping in as the first bidder when the auctioneer sets the opening bid price. It’s okay to establish a good bidding relationship with the auctioneer by getting the bidding started, just know that you’re willing to pay that price if it were to fall to you. Don’t be bashful about being seen when bidding for an item you want. Check the terms of the sale beforehand too. Check if the auction house provides any guarantee of description whereas the item may be returned should you get home and find anything falsely advertised about the gun.

Make sure you are aware if there is a reserve price that must be met before the firearm actually sells. Also check on the approved methods of payment or if there are any buyer’s premiums attached to the auction. A buyer’s premium would mean that the buyer pays an additional percentage of the gavel price after the sale. Add to that any sales tax that may apply and you’ll need to consider these add-ons when deciding the maximum you are willing to bid for an item.

Lastly, watch for the guns that fall though the cracks and that might sell for a bargain price because they aren’t the most sought after gun on the tables. There are always good deals to be had on fun shooters, good guns to hunt with, and investments for the future or fun gunsmithing projects. Stay until the guns are all sold. In auctions that offer a large listing, often times the prices will come down as the auction goes on and the buyers begin to feel their wallets lighten. Bidding on some of the late sellers can net you some nifty bargains on guns that would have went for more during the early part of the auction. Pay attention to those auction listings in the local papers. It’s not uncommon for a farm auction full of Ag equipment or household goods to also include two or three firearms. The old retired couple that is selling off their possessions might have just owned a highly sought after firearm that gets sold almost unnoticed for a low price when people are none the wiser.

Auctions like these are a great way to come across some great collectibles.

Use a few of these tips the next time you head to an auction after a gun you’d really like to own and hopefully the auctioneer will be pointing at you as he yells out “SOLD!”