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beetle 09-12-2011 4:03 PM

Chasing the Grail - My Trip to the Rock Island Auction
A little background on this thread. In Septemeber of 2011 I went on a quest to try and acquire what I consider to be the "Holy Grail" of handguns, a first day of production Colt 1911. The story below documents my quest to purchase this piece. After the auction was over, this thread was updated with highlights and commentary about other Rock Island Auctions. I'll be continuing this tradition with future auctions as well.

For Commentary about the December 2011 auction, please see posts starting from #101
For Commentary about the April 2012 auction, please see posts starting from #123
For Commentary about the September 2012 auction, please see posts starting from #198

Hi CalGuns Community.

I'm sitting here in Moline, IL getting ready to head back to good ole CA. I had a great firearms related weekend that I'm sure anyone who is into our obsession that we call a hobby will appreciate. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this story about chasing the grail.

With any collectible field, there is always a "Holy Grail", something that is incredibly hard to acquire. This could be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the manufacturer did not make a lot of them. Or they might have been lost in time. For whatever reason, the number of available specimens is low and thus the item becomes the thing that all collectors chase after, but few successfully get.

I've been periodically buying things from Rock Island Auction over the past few years. For those of you not familiar with Rock Island Auction, they specialize in high-condition collectible firearms. Usually the firearms they have are near the top in terms of condition. Well, about a month ago they released what was upcoming in the September Auction. As I was reviewing the lots, one jumped out at me. You see, I collect in two main areas: 1911s, and WW2 weapons. Well, what they had upcoming is one of my "Holy Grails". The item in question? First day of production Colt, Serial #33.

Colt won the contract to be the next US service pistol in mid 1911. It took them until December to get the production lines set up. On the first day of actual production, they made pistol #1 to 44. The next day they made #45-50, and shut down for the holidays. In early January they gathered what they had produced, put them into a crate marked "US M1911 service pistols, Nos 1-50" and sent them to Springfield Armory.

So what was coming up for auction was a first day of production Colt 1911. Complete with the high polish blue, nitre blue (fired blue) small parts, and large "US PROPERTY" markings. I figured since this is the 100th year anniversary of the 1911, what better year than to try and get the 1st year (1st day) Colt.

That simple idea turned into an obsession. In the past I've bidded online. But the problem with the online bidding system is that you don't have realtime control. You put in your max and they will bid up to your max for you. But what if you lose by 1 bid? that would be incredibly frustrating. hmm, should I actually go there?!?!?

Well, turns out the closest airport to Rock Island is something called 'Quad Cities Airport'. Normally this is bad, as ticket prices to fly to small airports is high. But in this case, that was actually good. You see, I have a bunch of airline miles that I've never been able to use. Ever time I try to use them to go somewhere nice (say Hawaii), there is like a 2 year waiting list. Well, guess what? No waiting list to go to Quad Cities Airport! So I could get there at virtually no cost.

Coming in for a landing at the Quad Cities Airport. That's the Mississippi river.

Now I started thinking about how much I wanted to bid. I also wondered about the originality of the gun. I know a bit about 1911s and some of the major things to look for, but at the estimated cost of this gun I didn't want to get burned. I enlisted the help of a well known 1911 expert, Scott Gahimer ( Fortunately Scott is also in IL, so he agreed to meet me to inspect the pistol.

On thursday morning we made our way to the auction facility:

What lay inside took my breath away. This is gun heaven to say the least. "Kid in Candy Store" comes to mind. Now these are stock pictures taken from their web site because security is tight and they don't allow pictures.

I think cal guns has as max number of pictures per post policy, so I'm going to continue this on another post.

Next up, inspection day and visit to the Rock Island Arsenal.

beetle 09-12-2011 4:16 PM

So Scott and I got arrived early in the morning on inspection day and head strait to inspect #33. The auction employee at first did not allow Scott to break down the gun, but after some of the auction mgmt recognized him they gave him the OK to go ahead.

Scott broke down the gun and went through all of the various bits. I think I learned more about 1911s in those few moments than in years of collecting. I had previously studied using the Clawson book as a reference, but Scott showed me so many things that you can only learn from actual hands on inspection.

Anyways, there was a lot to like, but a few things that were off as well. In any event, I decided to move forward with bidding evening knowing a few discrepancies. I mean, how many times are you going to see a first day of production Colt? Unless you are in the biz and dealing in guns everyday, this was a "once in a lifetime" chance for me.

Event though I had brought Scott in to look at #33, he graciously offered to look at a bunch of other 1911s. He had studied the catalog and marked down maybe 20 different guns we should look at. Many of them had discrepancies that he pointed out (much to the annoyance of the auction staff ), but a few were cherry. In the end scott recommended 5 really great ones I should go after.

We finished inspecting everything by about 1:00PM, and I still had a few hours to kill. So I went and visited the Rock Island Arsenal. Rock Island Arsenal was established as a Army Base and US Arsenal in 1862. Note that Rock Island Arsenal has nothing to do with Rock Island Armory, manufacturers of cheap 1911 clones out of the phillipines.

The arsenal maintains a museum of all US service weapons and many of foreign nations. The collection is huge, each weapon has it's own associated details page.

Each firearm has a page associated with it with various research notes.

note the "firearm has been temporarily deactivated" well, at least it's temporary.

running into pic limit again. next up, the us service pistol candidates from the 80s and various tanks and stuff.

beetle 09-12-2011 4:22 PM

I guess Rock Island participated in the pistol trails to replace the 1911. They had the test pistols:

As you may know, it came down to the Sig and the Beretta. Beretta offered a better price and was accepted as the US Service Pistol M9.

Outside of the museum that had a bunch of tanks and artillery. there is a computer game that I play, "Company of Heroes". Anyways, as I was seeing these weapons in person I could hear the sound effect of these weapons from the game in my head. (yeah yeah I'm a geek!).

Bofors AA

German Nebelwerfer

Check this thing out. It fires an Atomic(!) shell.

Rock Island also serves as the base for the 1st US Army. I got into a little bit of trouble taking this pic. Base security came by and asked what I was going (and to review my pictures). Understandable given the current circumstances -- it just didn't occur to me as I was taking the picture. Anyways, they were nice. I treated them nice, they treated me nice. no harm no foul.

out of pics again. this is a little annoying, especially since I can't use smilies (counts as a pic). Next up, auction day 1.

beetle 09-12-2011 4:31 PM

Auction Day 1

the first day of the auction typically is when they sell the stuff with less interest. Still cool nevertheless, but they keep the high demand stuff for the weekend.

the auction started with a bunch of black powder, pin fire, and other things I wasn't paying too much attention to. What was surprising, however, was Nazi uniforms. I'm not into this stuff, but there were some major bidding wars going on. If I recall, a Nazi parachuter's helmet went for like $9K (estimate was like $1K), and this setup went for $15,000 (estimate was $2,000)

Near the end of the day I bid on a bunch of Colt Pythons, namely to get a feel for how bidding worked. This one was particularly interesting, a Colt Python Hunter (made only for 1 year, with a factory included 2X leupold scope). Too bad it didn't have the original haliburton zero aluminum case.

the other thing that was interesting was that this auction had a HUGE amount of lugers up for sale. I think I sat through 200 lugers for sale on the first day, a lot of them going reasonably as well. I saw a bunch of lugers sell in the $700-$800 range (for refinished examples), including one that went for $550.

I learned that attending a live auction is like sex. hours of anticipation (waiting for your lot to come up), followed by 10 seconds of excitement (bidding on your lot), and you'll most likely be disappointed afterwards (didn't' win). :)

running up against that pesky picture limit again. next up, day 2 and my first wins.

MrExel17 09-12-2011 4:34 PM

Man I was reading your post and run up to the end hahaha TBC... this is some good reading ...clicking refresh like theres no tomorrow, you probaly still writting will check back in a few minutes. This is exciting:D

bsg 09-12-2011 4:35 PM

wow... waiting....

Shellshocker66 09-12-2011 4:37 PM

<--singing....An Tis Ahhh Pation, it's making me wait~

newglockster 09-12-2011 4:39 PM

awesome pics! can't wait for more!

beetle 09-12-2011 4:43 PM

Day 2, Saturday.

Got their early in the morning and had to sit through lugers again. Now don't get me wrong, but by the end of the auction I was sick of seeing lugers. I think some collector must have unloaded like 500 lugers for this auction.

The next few pics will be interesting things that went up for auction. I didn't bid on any of these, just posting because they were unique or otherwise interesting.

This Henry rifle went for like $85K. The auction good said that it's rare to see a Henry rifle with a standard blue barrel (most of the time they are silver, gold, etc). The combination of the blued barrel, but sterling silver receiver is unique.

This one is interesting. it's a combination knife/gun. The bullet fires out of the dragon's mouth at the base of the knife. seems dangerous to fire, think about what the recoil would do. sold for $14K (i think)

Here's something that I think a cal gunner has done before, bought a crate of mosins. they said that this one was being used as a coffee table with glass on top. Sold for $2500 (but I think it will cost like $500 to ship!)

Whoa, a 4 bore. check out the shell this thing fires. Sold for $65,000.

By mid-day I put in my first bid for the day. I went after a VERY nice borchardt pistol rig. I didn't win it, sold for $37,500. I needed to conserve funds for the grail, which was not up until Sunday.

next up, saturday winnings.

beetle 09-12-2011 4:54 PM

By the end of saturday, I was exhausted. so was everyone else. most of the live bidders left, and the telephones were quiet. Even the auctioneers wanted to get out of there. Normally they give plenty of time for the last call, so that people who are on the fence or bidding via internet/telephone can put their bid in. But they sped through the last lots on Saturday. "it was like anyone $500? ok $500, $550? last call.....sold!" in like 10 seconds. this actually turned out to be an advantage for me. Because Rock Island specializes in historical/fine firearms, the modern stuff sometimes gets less attention. The combination of it being late in the day, and modern stuff turned out to be a buying opportunity for me. I picked up a bunch of Pre-Series 70 National Matches, Series 70 Gold Cup National Matches, Gold Cup Trophys, for reasonable prices. Given how hard it is to get Colts in California I'm sure I"ll do fine with these if I ever decide to sell in the future.

Excellent Series 70 GCNM

Excellent National Match. I'm really happy about this one, found it by accident. was inspecting the GCNMs when I picked up this beauty. The picture doesn't do it justice -- this was when Colt really did nice bluing -- it's almost iridescent. Made in 1968, before the Series 70

Stole the following pair of Colt Gold Cups.

A pair of consecutively numbered Colt Combat Commanders in 9mm satin nickel with colt papers.
(picture deleted due to pic limit, it looks just like the one above)

next up, the big day.

beetle 09-12-2011 4:55 PM

taking a break for dinner. will update sunday results in a bit.

Dark Mod 09-12-2011 5:12 PM


Originally Posted by beetle (Post 7139001)
taking a break for dinner. will update sunday results in a bit.


freonr22 09-12-2011 5:18 PM

It is so nice that people take time out of theit lives to share awesomeness my life is richer due to this thread

Baga 09-12-2011 5:23 PM

This is awesome...Great info...

beetle 09-12-2011 5:23 PM

alright, ordered room service -- will take 20 min, so I'll type out the next installment.

So sunday was the big day. Colt #33 was going up for auction. A bit about the auction itself. Bidding is in fixed increments. From memory, it's something like:

Under $500, $50 increments
$500-$1000, $100 increments
$1000-$XXXX, $250 increments
and so on.
At $10,000-$40,000 it's like $2500 increments
At $50,000-$100,000 it's $5000 increments
Above $100,000 $10,000 increments

So say someone else has it at $10,000 the next acceptable bid would have to be $12,500. it's not like you can say "$10,001!".

Anyways, we go through some VERY nice lots. All of these guns belong to the same guy, the "Putnam Green" collection. The rarest of the rare, the best of the best. For example, the American Eagle Cartridge Counter Luger. This is a US Service Weapon! One of 50 produced, the cartridge counter luger was made on orders of the US Board of Ordnance. It was issued to Cavalry for field trials. The Cavalry recommended that these lugers NOT be adopted for service (due to jamming issues). Because of this rejection the Ordnance board decided to have the 1905 trials which eventually led to the 1911 pistol.

Sold for $65,000

American Trials Luger, Sold for $35,000. Again, this is a US marked luger. Used in the pistol trials which led to the 1911 being adopted.

This one was a beaut. Scott had indicated that it's perfect. everything is as it should be and it is in 99% condition. I bid on it, but was conservative (and lost) because I still needed to conserve for the grail item. Early commercial colt with high polish blue. it's another one of the putnam green collection items. what sets his stuff apart (besides high condition) is that it often comes with all of the misc. accessories. Sold for $16,000

MrExel17 09-12-2011 5:23 PM

WHAT..Dinner? Dinner? You must be kidding me:facepalm:I drove in the carpool lane to back to the reads check my time stamp hahahah...kidding that reminds me I should eat too:BRB:


Originally Posted by beetle (Post 7139001)
taking a break for dinner. will update sunday results in a bit.

Recon-01 09-12-2011 5:33 PM

Oh no the anticipation is killing me. Need to know.:popcorn: Thank you for the story so far and the time you put in to sharing it with us. Will stay tuned.

beetle 09-12-2011 5:42 PM

that last cased colt was the one right before the holy grail. #33 was up. the auctioneers pause the auction and the owner tells the history and story of #33. my heart is racing. I'm ready, I came prepared to make a serious run at this....

#33 goes up on the screen, those beautiful fire blued parts pop out on the screen. here we go.

Bidding opens at $50,000. I'm in.
up it goes. it starts to slow. I'm hopeful. I'm still in.
up and up it goes. It's down to two people. Me and another guy. I'm in, he raises.
My next bid would have to be six figures.... OUT! :(

sigh.... i made a serious run at this, but it was not a "buy at all costs" scenario. I like to imagine that whoever got this had some seriously deep pockets (it helps me get over the "i was one bid away from winning" thoughts).

So that ends my quest for the holy grail. Since I didn't get it, I was in a buying mood at that point. stay tuned for WW2 stuff that I ended up buying. (after dinner).

edit, i forgot to mention this so I'll just stick it here (since I don't have too many pictures posted). Even though RIA is one of the more reputable houses (their descriptions tend to be more accurate than others I've seen), you still have to be careful. Before I even went there I had spent quite some time researching what to look for. Each one of the yellow tabs represent research on something I wanted to bid on.

Equis 09-12-2011 5:55 PM

Noooooooo!!! Man sorry you didn't win . Thanks for this great thread, that was a treat.

westcoast362 09-12-2011 5:58 PM

If you had won the auction for No. 33, next you would have to have given us a range report.;)

CHS 09-12-2011 6:04 PM


Originally Posted by beetle (Post 7139175)

Do you know why the magazine is partially discolored like that? I'm sure it's on purpose, but I'm curious about why :)

beetle 09-12-2011 6:11 PM

well the silver lining (if there is one) is that #33 came up early in the auction. It would had sucked if I sat around on the sidelines all day waiting for it and didn't win it.

With the bulk of my funds unspent, it was time to get active. Heres the rest of the stuff I bought on sunday.

This next one was one that Scott had inspected. His basic instructions were "buy it". Basically unissued. Pefect holster too.

Colt 1902 Army Model. Interesting to see the design cues to evolved from this to the 1911.

WW2 Winchester Model 12 Trench Shotgun

This next one is not a collector. It's a k43 that's been rechambered to fire 30-06. I figured I'd bring it along when I take my garand out.

bsg 09-12-2011 6:12 PM


Originally Posted by westcoast362 (Post 7139395)
If you had won the auction for No. 33, next you would have to have given us a range report.;)

sorta doubt it. ;)

beetle 09-12-2011 6:12 PM

1935 Browning High Power and Holster (pre Nazi)

finally some misc tank corps gear (figured I use it as backdrops to pictures I take)

and that's wraps what I ended up with. So while no grail, some neat pieces nevertheless.

next up, some final pics and summary.

tgriffin 09-12-2011 6:13 PM

Threads like this are what have kept me at the calguns table for the better part of 6 years. Thank you for sharing.

bsg 09-12-2011 6:15 PM

some neat pieces indeed.

despite you not getting your desired one... congratulations on all that you did get, and thanks for sharing!

i would venture to guess that the experience itself was quite a prize....

beetle 09-12-2011 6:16 PM


Originally Posted by CHS (Post 7139429)
Do you know why the magazine is partially discolored like that? I'm sure it's on purpose, but I'm curious about why :)

Colt had a hard time figuring out the magazines. On the very early magazines they were completely blued, but the lips would bend because they didn't have the alloy figured out yet.

Then they moved to a "keyhole magazine" where a hole was cut to relieve stress on the feed lips.

Finally they figured out that they could heat treat the top of the magazine to make the feed lips stiffer. But by heat treating it, the bluing wouldn't take (which accounts for the two-tone look).

CHS 09-12-2011 6:20 PM


Originally Posted by beetle (Post 7139519)
Finally they figured out that they could heat treat the top of the magazine to make the feed lips stiffer. But by heat treating it, the bluing wouldn't take (which accounts for the two-tone look).

Makes perfect sense AND I learned something new today. Very cool.


MrExel17 09-12-2011 6:23 PM

@Beetle, Sir thank you for sharing your journey to the holy grail. I was exciting to read. Thanks for posting up pictures too:thumbsup:

steelrain82 09-12-2011 6:23 PM

my dad has mags like that ive wondered the same thing.

beetle 09-12-2011 6:25 PM

In summary, I had a most excellent adventure this weekend. visited the rock island arsenal, saw a bunch of history, and got to inspect, talk, and otherwise eat/sleep/drink guns all weekend.

Met some great people. Learned a TON of 1911 info from Scott. Met some locals who go to every auction. they said the would physically inspect anything I wanted in the future since they are at the auction anyways.

oh, here's something that was interesting that came up (almost forgot). HK 94, serial #1! grrrr banned by name in California..... :(

and finally I leave you with one final story. As you can imagine, the audience for this auction was fairly similar. Sure we have some variations some older, some younger. I think I was the only asian there, but still overall "gun guys", 95% men.

Anyways, near the end of the gun auction all of a sudden a bunch of women come walking in. Easy on the eyes too! :p by the time all of them come in, women now outnumber men 2-1! Im thinking "whaaaaaat?" are they interested in shotguns? (that's what the final lots were).

Finally it hits me. one of owners of the collections they bought also had a collection of pottery. The auction house was auctioning off pottery! that's why all of these women came in. ha ha.

insert cheesy joke about "hey baby, want to see the 8" python I just bought?"

just kidding cal guns ladies, just kidding!

Anyways, that's my trip report. No I didn't get the grail, but am going home with some cool guns and some cool memories. what more can you ask for? (well, maybe 33 :p )

hope you guys enjoyed this trip report!!!!!

Flyin Brian 09-12-2011 6:25 PM

I'm one of the people who watch many auctions online (and bid in quite a few) and I've always wondered what it is like to be there in person. Thank you for giving me the feeling I was almost there!!

MM OneSix 09-12-2011 6:37 PM

Man I got super excited reading this! Great recount of your weekend. Too bad you didn't get your Holy Grail, but it seems the weekend was good nonetheless.

Dark Mod 09-12-2011 6:51 PM

dude i totally want to go to an auction now. Was there anything there that wasnt over $1000?

beetle 09-12-2011 6:55 PM


Originally Posted by markdoddridge (Post 7139699)
dude i totally want to go to an auction now. Was there anything there that wasnt over $1000?

tons. for some reason this auction had a gazillion lugers. a ton of them went for $700-$800. I saw one go for $550. Because RIA caters to more of the collector crowd, you can use that to your advantage. Like I said, I picked up those Colt Gold Cups for $750. Also, a lot of refinished lugers went cheap. Collectors hate refinished, but man what a great looking shooting luger.

some of the more esoteric guns went cheaper too. pin fires, derringers, etc.

beerman 09-12-2011 7:19 PM

Beetle, have you been to any of little Johns auctions? I'm wondering how do they compare? Great post by the way!!!

beetle 09-12-2011 7:22 PM


Originally Posted by beerman (Post 7139875)
Beetle, have you been to any of little Johns auctions? I'm wondering how do they compare? Great post by the way!!!

no i've never been (or heard of) Little John's auctions. I'll have to look into it!

Beetle Bailey 09-12-2011 7:45 PM

That was certainly exciting! Sorry you didn't get your Holy Grail but it sounds like you didn't do too badly, either. Thank you for the pics and the great read.

NiteQwill 09-12-2011 8:16 PM

Gold Cups for $750! I wish you stowed me in your luggage.

This thread is the best thread I've read on CGs in a long time.

Paul S 09-12-2011 8:18 PM

Outstanding post series. Thanks so much for sharing.

It's unfortunate #33 eluded you...but hey..the "basically unissued" looks mighty clean. And your other purchases are cool as well. Good job and glad you had fun.

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