By Mike Keleher
I was fortunate to have grown up being taken along by my father to fabulous crowded, smelly and wonderous gun shows held in county fairground buildings in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The were gatherings of beings who purveyed almost anything from guns and ammo to books and knives and swords and military surplus everything- I think I recall a small tank for sale at one of them. For anyone worrying their 2021 “Commonsense gun control” brains about a tank for sale, it was probably just a light tank, or a tank destroyer…not a heavy main battle tank. Those are too much. Nobody needs that. Unless of course you do.
As I moved around the big world, I kept attending gun shows where ever I was. I did not buy many guns, but man I loved to look and see everyone there in search of the elusive “bargain.” It was a rare thing to even hear of a “bargain” at a gun show, but you could talk to live human beings and even negotiate prices! This haggling thing made it seem so alive-like a foreign open-air market-inside a building generally used to judge livestock.
I have attended many gun shows in many states and they got bigger and bigger, like the LA County show which boasted “One mile of tables” and eventually to the SHOT Show, the world’s largest gun industry trade show. But very little is actually for cash and carry sale at the SHOT show.
So about a week back, I was going to be out in Davenport, IA and my friend Wendy said there was a gun show in town that weekend and did I want to go? Well of course. (As a historical note, my friend Wendy is not to be pictured as a girl with red pigtails and sells hamburgers and Frostys. She is more akin to Wendy from Peter Pan with a very sunny disposition.) I invited my pal Farmer Don of course. He and I spent a lot of our youth wearing Vietnam era camo BDUs and field jackets obtained a local gun shows and looking for stuff we could rationalize we had a use for.
The gun show was held at the local fair grounds-of course. The parking area was packed with pickup trucks and minivans even late morning. It might have been kinder to post on the Fair Grounds marque “Gun Show-unless of course you want 9mm or .223.”
I did not want to arrive at the 8 AM opening along with the initial horde of buyers in search of ammunition. Ammo mania backed with lots of high-octane coffee in the early morning may have led to a stampede or flared nostrils over a box of .22 LR. Strolling in about 11 AM it seemed cooler heads prevailed. Entry was a very reasonable $6.
People watching is of course a huge part of gun shows. You will see droves of “experts” (yes everyone at a show is an expert) and lookie-loos wearing everything from leather coats and pants or bib overalls, and lots of mismatched camo. Every male head will of course be covered at all times with a ball cap displaying an appropriate outdoorsy logo. Pretty sure if you entered with out a ball cap they had some at the entry table they could loan out during your semi-religious stay.
Another nifty thing to see, was out of a couple hundred people in attendance, about three people wore masks. This crowd was tired of all that, and being we were standing in Iowa no one cared. Now if we were across the river in Illinois, people still in their cars would be driving in wearing their masks, because everybody knows the Covid is in Illinois and can’t cross the bridge into Iowa. I think it is the toll booth that stops it.
The large single room barn building was pretty familiar to me. Most of the tables held guns with wood on them and in fact I am pretty sure most of them had been drug around from show to show since the 1960’s! When you see a table of old lever action Winchesters and 60–80-year-old Browning A5’s and look alike Remington Model 11’s with Cutts Compensators on the barrel, you know you are seeing some trade table veterans.
There are about three types of vendors at a gun show. The large spread of modern firearms like Glocks and Sigs of course draw the most interest. The tables with old guns which may or may not be collectable (saw a couple of original 100-year-old A.H. Fox double barrels which would look nice in a gun safe) and of course the third variety of vendor- the anything goes table.
The anything goes tables have to have some gun related item displayed just to get in the door. Often times you see three or four guns chained on a table with a sign “Private collection-not for sale.” This then allows them the right to sell any flea market item you can imagine, with old VHS tapes, Laserdiscs, tube socks, soon to be outdated food, and fine jewelry and key chains from China. They are fun tables and impulse items are best. Wendy did not set out to find a Sting-Ease ointment at the gun show, but by God she found some.
The mood in the show was cordial and ammunition mania was kept on the down low. Oh, you could see it in the glint of an eye now and then, but most people did not want to give away their needs lest it be seen as an obvious sign of weakness among gun owners.
Fingers touched fabled boxes of ammunition and jerked away when it was discovered the ammo shortage had resulted in amazingly inflated prices on any remaining boxes at the show. An easy example, was the oh so ordinary plastic sleeve box of 100 .22 LR CCI Mini Mag bullets. I have used and discarded these up over the last five decades like paper towels. Good .22 ammo- now held out like gem stones. This 100-round sleeve (if you can find it) was now selling for $22 at the show. Yes, for the ammo price impaired among us, that is $11 for 50 .22 bullets. Farmer Don and I recalled paying 86 cents for 50 round boxes of .22 at the Gambles Hardware store back in our Duke’s of Hazzard Days when we took .22 rifles with us every where and actually wore a couple out.
During the first great ammo shortage of the 2000’s inspired by the spectre of the Hillary/Obama run for president the .22 LR became the absolute must have for Americans and they were all gone. During the Trump era tensions eased up and supply caught up-until the riots hit. Then all of the .22 was bought up again right along with toilet paper.
Pistol prices at the show were also higher than a year ago. They have literally flown off the shelves this past year with 6 million new first-time buyers pushing in and demanding “Take my money.” Glocks were being shown at peak prices and even older pistols like a imperfectly re-blued old Browning Hi-Power was being offered for $700. The affable trader related it would be worth $2000 if the bluing job had been more expertly applied. Probably better too if you hadn’t tried to do it in your garage with a brush.
Anything tacti-cool like AR-15’s were selling $400+ higher than this time last year. I remember back in the good old days of early 2020 when we had a glut of AR’s. You couldn’t get any one to pay for the high dollar versions because there were so many dirt-cheap base models for sale everywhere-I may have heard them offering S&W M+P AR’s to me on phone calls that year right after they talked about the end of my extended automobile warranty. A single WW II era M-1 Carbine seemed cheap at only $1300 asking price.
I did fall into a gun show bargain by complete accident-always the allure of a gun show. I found a guy selling lots of Glocks and Polymer 80 to be completed at home frames. He told me he was getting a good supply of Glocks and Sigs in. Demand was so high, he was taking the parts off and selling them to buyers in California who were paying him more money for just the slides and barrels than he paid for the whole gun. He then sold the other parts and magazines for pure profit. ‘Merica. He had a stack of G43 sub compact Polymer 80 frames -unusual to find during the current mania. I asked about the faded price tag $140- since they were hard to see, and he must I have thought I was challenging his view of commerce and luckily said he had some wiggle room. Music to my haggling ears! I dug out some cash and he took $100 even. I held it aloft and declared to the room “I have a bargain!” No I didn’t. I slunk away trying to figure out when exactly I decided “needed” to buy another kit to make a tiny 6 shot Glock-like pistol and what could possibly be wrong with it- or me.
When we entered the show, Farmer Don said his mechanic wanted him to look for some primers for reloading. I guffawed openly “Good luck with that. Primers were all gone as of last summer” and “If there were any here, they would have gone out the door at 8:01 AM.” Well Don is an optimist and we kept a weather eye out, just in case.
Well, we found some primers. Yep. It was like finding a diamond on the ground or a pearl in an oyster. Three boxes of Speer small rifle primers (100 count) were sitting on a table quite innocent and ordinary. Farmer Don was pleased and reached for them. Is told him to hold up as those old boxes were quite possibly even older than we were.
They were Speer primers…. not the modern CCI/Speer. Just plain old Speer, and I had not seen that logo and colors in decades! Don finally decided he would get one box for his mechanic just to make him happy. I turned away, blinking back tears to think someone could actually still buy a box of holy grail small rifle primers in America. That, and I was marveling over someone selling tube socks at the next table or possibly the three foot long “Light Saber Churro” being sold at the food counter.
When I turned back, Don did not have the box of primers. Apparently, the seller did admit they were “older” but was quite willing to sell them. A price tag on the box said .90, which we took to mean ninety cents, U.S., as in coin of the realm. When Don tried to trade a dollar bill for the box the seller balked.
As it turned out, piracy is alive and well at the gun show table. What the market will bear, hit an all time high that day for a box of 100 primers usually going for maybe $3.00 a year ago.
The no-visible shame seller said, “No. It’s not ninety cents for the box. It’s ninety cents apiece for the primers. There are 100 primers in the box, so that will be ninety dollars for the entire box.”
I nearly spit out my churro and dropped my bundle of tube socks.