French model 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun, 8 mm caliber, made in 1918, having a very rare early flash hider, excellent condition with light patina, matching serial numbers, on an omnibus mount with anti-aircraft extension and vertical fire bracket, $9775.
British MkII Bren gun, .303 British caliber, made by Inglis in 1944, excellent condition, bipod and matching barrel, $51,750.
U.S. model M60 machine gun, 7.62 mm NATO caliber, made by New England Group, Maremont Corp., likely new and possibly unfired, all-original with original tripod, $51,750.
Czechoslovakian ZB30J light machine gun made by CZ, Brno, 7.92 x 57 mm (8 mm) caliber, the forerunner of the British Bren gun, very good to excellent condition, $40,250.
German World War II MG 42 light machine gun, 8 mm caliber, 1943, an early example having a side cocking handle, aluminum grips, original winter trigger, anti-aircraft sight, and empty shell bag, also unusual non-standard postwar black paint covering what appears to be a Parkerized finish, $52,900.
The Mauser Schnellfeuer pistol, 7.63 mm caliber, 5" barrel, was an export to China. With 98% arsenal refinish, a good bore, and having a blued finish, grooved walnut grips, 20-round magazine, and an original Mauser banner stock, with selector switch and Chinese markings on the left side of the frame, this pistol sold for $14,950.
Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio
Photos courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
In the prelude of The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War (2009), author James Carl Nelson conceptualized what his grandfather, Private First Class John Nelson, faced after climbing out of an Allied trench in France, going over the top and moving toward enemy fire. James Carl Nelson wrote:
“And he runs now, left foot right foot, through the dangling yellow golden stalks, chasing his own shadow, longer now in the late afternoon’s glow, and he can make out the long dark tip of his bayonet hovering over his left shoulder as he chases it east…and running now double-timing and from the corner of his right eye he can just make out the dark form of one of the boys and then suddenly he’s just gone…and in the dazzling light something shiny and glimmering and glinting over there on the left and oh, Jesus Christ, the machine guns….”
John Nelson’s war was cut short when he was felled in a wheat field just beyond the Paris-Soissons Road on July 19, 1918, machine gun bullets like a scythe dropping him to the earth and nearly killing him.
There’s no way to sugarcoat a machine gun. It’s a killing machine, pure and simple. As such, it’s not your everyday collectible.
For a specialized group of collectors, machine guns have a certain appeal, generally as historical military objects. One of those collectors was Richard Wray of Cincinnati, who died last year at the age of 82. A veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, Wray researched and bought machine guns for more than half a century, at one point owning nearly 400 weapons dating from the early 1900’s to the 1970’s. Examples from World War I and World War II were his primary interest. He likely owned the type of machine gun that nearly killed John Nelson in a French wheat field.
Cowan’s Auctions of Cincinnati sold the remains of Wray’s collection in a 191-lot sale on April 30. About 80 pieces were machine guns—Class III weapons that receive heightened government scrutiny of their ownership. Wray’s holdings had been whittled down during his later years, but what remained were many of his prized pieces.
As an auction, this was something different. Although Cowan’s has conducted sales of historic firearms and militaria for years, those events weren’t of this caliber. One Web site (www.TheTruthAboutGuns.com) described the material as “The Best Machine Gun Porn in the History of the World Ever.”
Just walking into the lobby of the auction house showed that this sale was something unusual, as there were a number of anti-aircraft machine guns among the items featured in the entry space. In the salesroom the enormousness of Wray’s collection became apparent. There were machine guns standing on tripods near the auctioneer’s podium and automatic weapons lining long rows of tables on two sides of the room.
The standing-room-only crowd consisted almost exclusively of men, many with gray and/or thinning hair that bespoke their age, and most of sound economic means. Those on the floor faced strong competition from absentee, phone, and Internet bidders from across the nation and around the world.
Wes Cowan, president of the auction company, started the sale with a warning, not that it was needed for this particular crowd. “If you buy one, please recognize you’re not going to walk out of here with a machine gun today,” he said, noting that the paperwork to transfer ownership can take months to finalize.
The auction easily exceeded expectations, grossing just over $2 million. Only a couple of lots were passed.
In large part, the outcome was the result of the basic economics of supply and demand. Class III weapons must be licensed in order to be lawfully sold. It’s a relatively small pool of material that, because of federal law, hasn’t grown since 1968. In some cases, only one or two examples of a particular weapon legally exist in private hands.
Beyond the scarcity of many of the lots, however, the sale had something else going for it. “The great thing about the Wray collection is not only were they machine guns, but they were complete with sights and tripods and all that,” said Jack Lewis, director of historic firearms and militaria at Cowan’s.
Classic weapons generated the strongest bidding. The top lot of the day was a German World War II MG 42 light machine gun made in 1943 that sold for $52,900 (includes buyer’s premium), while a British MkII Bren gun made by Inglis in 1944 realized $51,750.
A German World War II MP 40 submachine gun made in 1942, having Nazi markings, the Bakelite side panels in an unusual brown color, sold for $43,700. “The MP 40, that’s got to be a record,” said Lewis. “That’s normally a ten- to fifteen-thousand-dollar gun. This had something special. The Bakelite stock was brown and looked like simulated wood. Normally it’s black.”
There were guns often associated with gangsters, such as the Colt Thompson 1921A submachine gun, recognizable by its drum barrel, that sold for $42,550, and an Auto-Ordnance M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, marked “U.S. Property,” with a 30-round stick magazine, that sold at $31,050.
Men such as Lewis, a veteran of the Vietnam War, felt a special connection with some of the lots, including a Colt M16 in like-new condition and probably never fired, which sold for $31,725, and a M60 machine gun, with its original tripod, also likely new and possibly unfired, at $51,750.
Lewis recalled carrying an M60 through the jungles of Southeast Asia during the war. The M16 was the American soldier’s standard issue. “I had to use one of those as a pillow for a year, so God bless it,” he said.
Despite strong bidding throughout the sale, there were times when there was apparently still money left in a gun. Lewis said a German Parabellum LMG14/17 was one such case. Designed for use on a World War I airplane or zeppelin, the piece sold for $40,250, the low end of its estimate. “The German Parabellum, I don’t think it brought its full potential,” he said. “It’s not the most desirable gun, but everyone told me it was [only] the second one they have ever seen.”
Other guns sold better than expected, including a Czechoslovakian ZB30J light machine gun made by CZ. The forerunner to the British Bren gun, it topped at $40,250, well above its $20,000/30,000 estimate. Lewis described it as a “real surprise.”
Speaking after the auction Cowan said the public shouldn’t be leery of the guns being in private hands. “These are not weapons that people need to be afraid of being out on the street. These are purchased by guys who treasure them as historical pieces. They may shoot them, but they shoot them at special ranges,” he said.
“You have to be a wealthy guy to own these things, and they are highly regulated by the federal government. That’s why the prices are what they are. It’s not like going out and buying a handgun.”
Cowan said the military aspect makes them special. “These are weapons that will be no less important to think about as weapons of war than a Civil War carbine or a Springfield musket. When we look back on these historically, they are part of the way that armies of the world wage war. One can debate whether they ever belong in private hands, whether they belong in a war museum, but they are part of our world history and the history of warfare.”
For more information, phone Cowan’s at (513) 871-1670 or visit (www.cowanauctions.com).
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest