Tag Archives: Rock Island Auction Company


On March 10, 1893, Annie Oakley put on a brief but highly memorable demonstration of her shooting skill.  She fired 25 shots in 27 seconds from a lever-action .22 rifle, punching one ragged hole in the middle of an ace of hearts.  It became one of the most famous playing cards in history.  Her rifle was a Marlin Model 1891, and Miss Oakley, the rifle, and that ace of hearts appeared in Marlin ads for years to come.

Not only that, it gave the name “Annie Oakley” to free theatre tickets — so-called because they have a hole punched in them to prevent resale — a term that is used to this day.

The Marlin 1891 was the first serious lever-action .22, designed for Marlin by the famous L.L. Hepburn, of Remington-Hepburn fame.  It was the foundation of an evolving series that became the best-selling .22 in history — the Marlin Models 39 (1921) and 39A (1939).

As Miss Oakley demonstrated, there was nothing whatever wrong with the original Model 1891.    She continued to use it in her performances for years, along with several other Marlin rifles, including an elaborate Model 1897 lever-action .22, presented to her by the company in 1906.  This was a period of intense competition among rifle companies, complete with advertising campaigns and gimmicks worthy of (and, in fact, inspired by) P.T. Barnum.  Marlin knew it had a winner in the 1891, but it also knew there was room for improvement, and those improvements would have to be made if they were to keep up with Winchester, Remington, and the upstart Arthur W. Savage.

The original Hepburn design had a removable sideplate on the action, held in place by a thumbscrew.  This was important in an age when corrosive priming and powders made bore cleaning critical.  In 1897, Hepburn expanded on the idea by turning the rifle into a takedown, employing the same thumbscrew.  The other major improvement was a tubular magazine that could be loaded from the front, rather than being fed through the action.

The 1892 (sideplate) and 1897 (takedown) rifles remained in the Marlin line until 1916, when all civilian production was halted.  The company changed hands, embarked on war production, changed hands again, and only returned to making hunting and target rifles in the early 1920s.  The 1892 never went back into production, but the 1897 did, redesignated the Model 39.

One thing that set these Marlin rifles apart from other .22s was the high quality of steel and walnut used in their production.  These were the same materials used in their high-powered hunting rifles, and it gave the 1891/92/97 line the “real rifle” feel that every writer has mentioned ever since.  They lasted, seemingly, forever, with few broken parts, and were renowned for their accuracy (as Miss Oakley so ably demonstrated).

As so often happens, my interest in the Model 39 occurred accidentally.  At Rock Island last year, I was searching for a suitable Savage 99 in .303 Savage for a reloading project.  A nice one was paired as a lot with a Marlin 39, so I ended up with both.  It turned out that the 39 was not a later reproduction of an early rifle, as listed, but in fact an early rifle expertly restored.  It feels, handles, and operates every bit as well as all the magazine articles from the last hundred years insist.

As an experiment, I loaded 25 .22 Shorts into the tubular magazine, stood back 15 yards from an eight-inch plate (Miss Oakley was 12 yards from that ace of hearts), started a timer and began shooting.  I got off all 25 rounds in 45 seconds, but I missed the plate completely half a dozen times.  The rifle, however, functioned to perfection.  I put another 150 rounds through it, some Shorts, some Long Rifles, and it never missed a beat.  No jams, no failures.

The Marlin Model 39 (and 39A) holds the record for the longest continuous production of any shoulder firearm, with an estimated 2.2 million made since 1891, and it is still available, although only as a custom-shop order.  The listing says that “supplies are limited,” which suggests they are making them up from existing parts, and when those run out, the life of the Marlin 39A will come to an end.  That would be sad, for it is one of the truly great American rifles.–Terry Wieland

An Admission Of Addiction

One year ago, I attended my first Rock Island auction.  Last month, on the anniversary of that event, I attended my fifth auction, and it won’t be my last.  Some would call it an addiction, and that’s hard to dispute.  Although I have returned from every one of them with a gun of some kind following me home, the main attraction is the education.

Image courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.

For example, this time there was the opportunity to handle an R.B. Rodda 4-bore double rifle.  For a full description, you can log on to RIAC’s “past auctions” page and search for September auction #3428.  It will tell you everything you need to know except for one thing:  What it feels like to pick this thing up, and imagine you are facing an oncoming pachyderm.

Rock Island estimated the Rodda would sell for more than $100,000, and it did:  $126,500.

It would take a rash man to try to explain gun collectors, but some things really make you wonder.  For example, there was an early Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ with a sidelever  — very rare — and fitted with new barrels in the 1930s.  For anyone who loves fine mechanisms, never mind a wingshooter looking for a good bird gun, it would have been a steal at $5,750, which is what it went for.  Fifteen years ago, I expect it would have brought at least twice that, but the market for British guns generally has softened considerably.

Compare that with a J. & S. Hawken rifle, estimated to go at between $14,000 and $22,500, which finally sold for an eye-watering $74,750 — more than three times the high estimate.  What can one say?  It was a genuine, documented Hawken.  To put that in perspective, a James Purdey percussion rifle that was made for a  baronet around the same time as the Hawken, was in beautiful condition and cased with all the accoutrements, sold for a mere $5,463.

There must have been someone there with a penchant for products of St. Louis, because not long after the Hawken soared to the stratosphere, there came up for sale a weird contraption called a “Taylor Fur Getter Single Shot Trap Gun.”  If you were looking for a gun to shoot trap, this was not it.  It looked like a brass caulking gun married to a gaff hook.  The “fur getter” was patented in 1914 by the F.C. Taylor Fur Company of St. Louis, and manufactured sometime in the 1920s.  Intended to be a humane alternative to leg-hold traps, the mechanism is fastened to a log with a giant screw, the hook is baited, and when a fox or other desirable critter tries to take the bait, a trigger is pulled and a short .22 barrel shoots it in the head.

Image courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.

Ingenious, and presumably humane, but it reminded me of the old British Sten gun, which reputedly cost less than two bucks to produce in 1940 — being all stamped metal and bent parts.  The “fur getter” was estimated to bring $1,800 to $2,750, which I thought was optimistic, but once the bidding started, it just went up and up, finally selling for $7,475.

This was more than either the Holland & Holland sidelever shotgun or the Purdey percussion rifle mentioned above.  I have no explanation.  None.  The softness of the English-gun market worked to my advantage, however, with a W&C Scott “Monte Carlo” pigeon gun, with which I fell in love the moment I picked it up.  It now resides in the rack by my desk.

An interesting thing about the auction was the increasing prominence of telephone and internet bidding, compared to live folks on the auction floor.  According to Rock Island, about 60 per cent of bids now come in this way.  Although you can never tell who might bid from the floor, the line of telephones and attendants down one entire wall can sometimes give you an indication of what you’re up against.

Image courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.

There was an exquisite Charles Daly trap gun that I was hungering after.  Two Parker trap guns just ahead of it went for low prices and I was feeling optimistic until the Daly appeared on the screen and I looked over at the phones.  Four of the phone attendants were lined up like a firing squad — peering intently, phones to ears, bidding cards at the ready.  I was left in the dust without even raising my card.  Ah, well.  Maybe next time.  And there will be a next time.–Terry Wieland


A Different Kind Of Hunting

Many years ago, I was spending a rather pleasant evening trying to explain to a non-hunting friend exactly where the thrill lay in pursuing a whitetail when, in place of venison, I could go to a butcher shop and buy perfectly good meat that would be both cheaper and less trouble. Continue reading A Different Kind Of Hunting

Safari Club International Welcomes Rock Island Auction Company

winchester riacRock Island Auction Company, the world’s leading auction house for firearms, edged weapons and military artifacts, has signed up as a Safari Club International Corporate Sponsor. Continue reading Safari Club International Welcomes Rock Island Auction Company