Buying guns at auction: Treasures on the cheap

One of the best places I have found to buy firearms is through local auctions.  There is often something for everyone:  solid hunting rifles, roughly handled guns that would make a great project for the budding gunsmith, military surplus guns and the occasional rare piece for a high-end collection.

The firearms that come up for sale through local auction companies are a completely random assortment with equal mixtures of treasure and trash.  I’ve seen a rare Italian double gun with beautiful engraving and scrollwork sitting on a table next to a Jennings pistol.  Sometimes there are rare collectibles, many times there are modern guns with a little use on them.

If you have the time, attending a local auction can be fun and potentially rewarding.  The bidders are far fewer than what you will find at an online gun auction, and you can often get some really good bargains.

Here are a few tips for buying guns at auction:

Arrive Early:  Arriving before the start of the auction is important.  This will allow you plenty of time to get registered and find an advantageous location to sit or stand during the sales.  Most auctions allow an inspection period of the merchandise in the hour(s) before the sales start.  Arriving early will ensure that you are there with enough time to view what will be coming to the block.

Know the Rules:  Knowing the auction house’s rules is extremely important if you want to have a positive experience.  If you can, call ahead or visit the auction company’s website for various details.

Many auction houses will have specific rules on the sale of firearms.  Auction company’s selling firearms will have a Federal Firearms License (FFL) so they can legally sell the guns, so all normal rules apply.  But, there are additional rules that may be imposed.

One of the companies near me require you to declare your intent to bid on firearms when you register.  You then get a marker with a red stripe, which indicates to the auctioneer that you are allowed to bid on a gun.  The auctioneer will only accept bids from people with the red stripe, so not knowing that rule could cost you a gun you wanted to pick up.

Depending on the auction company, you may be allowed to handle the firearms during the inspection period.  If the rules allow you to handle the guns, you can check the action, get a look at the bore and more closely examine markings.  Not picking up a gun, when the rules allow you to, could result in you missing important information prior to bidding.

Bring Cash:  Cash is king.  Yes, some auction company’s will accept checks or debit/credit cards, but they are in the minority.  Most auctions are paid for with cash.  Make sure you know your limit and how much you brought.  Overbid and not have the cash in your pocket, you are going to be embarrassed, plus you will probably be excluded from all future auctions.

Have Reference Materials:  All kinds of guns can show up at local auctions.  Sometimes they can be fairly rare pieces or nearly valueless hunks of metal and wood.  I don’t care how well versed on guns you are, there will always be one or two that will stump you.  Having some reference materials on hand to review can save you a lot of money on duds, and tip you off to the real gems.

If you have an iPhone or other “smart” phone that allows you to access the internet, a Google search can lead you to a lot of information on some guns.  Of course, you always have to be careful from where you pick your information.  Wikipedia is not always correct.

A couple of good online sites for quick reference are ProofHouse.com and BlueBookOfGunValues.com.  ProofHouse is completely free and offers a lot of information on Browning, Colt and Winchester serial numbers.  ProofHouse also has some information on US military inspection marks and ordnance codes from World War II-era Germany.

Probably one of the most useful tools at ProofHouse is the “House Brand Conversion” table.  This allows you to figure out what company actually made that JC Penny, K-Mart or Sears gun.

The Blue Book of Gun Values is a long time book reference for dealers and collectors.  The company now lists their information online for a fee.  The pricing data can give you a good ballpark value on most common firearms, and at least give you and indication on how valuable a particularly rare gun may be.

Reviewing similar guns at the online auction sites can also give you an idea of the market value of a firearm.

Don’t hesitate to keep a few reference books out in the car either.  I’ve relied on the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson and the Standard Catalog of Colt on a few occasions to identify guns that I could not locate in the Blue Book or elsewhere online.  The publisher, Gun Digest, also prints Standard Catalog books for Winchester, Remington and Browning.

Have Fun:  Don’t forget that being at an auction is a somewhat social event.  Talk to your neighbors, bring your kids and just enjoy yourself.  Shooting and reloading are a lot of fun, and so can bidding on guns.

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