Saturday, February 23, 2013

A day at the range

Today was disconcerting. I’m used to being one of the senior recreational shooters in my group. I spend hours reading and preparing. I go to the range a lot. Guns are a big part of my life. Most of my friends like guns in an abstract way. I like guns specifically. They’re one of my fortes. I’m one of two designated gun-guys in our circle of friends. I knew all that intellectually. The reality didn’t sink in until today though.

A friend and her boyfriend accompanied my wife and me to the range. I was toting my newly cleaned 1911 and my brand-spanking-new marlin 1895 45-70. I fell into my usual pattern, chatting with the staff and precisely setting up our station. Every range has a different feel. Some of the trendy spots make bank on newbies by overcharging for the privilege of shooting a gun under the watchful eye of a range nanny. Continental lets newbies shoot, but it’s really there for recreational shooters like me. They don’t suffer fools. They’ll help a new shooter along, but they don’t like thrill-blasters. If you’ve spent a lot of time at a public range you know who I’m talking about. The people who know roughly how the guns work but not the 4 rules. The people who want to rapid fire everything and check the target after. The people who laugh manfully as they put everyone around them at risk for the sake of their egos. (Yes, it’s a thing with me.) The range people know I do everything but hold the gun for the people I don’t trust implicitly. I run through the rules. I make sure everyone knows exactly how the gun works. I load the magazines myself until I’m 100% sure they know how to do it right every time. I was one of those clueless newbies, afraid of doing something stupid, not so long ago. So when I’m on the range I guess I take charge. I think it makes less confident people feel better to know that someone who knows what to do is around. It makes me feel better to know that they’ve been shown how to do things right. That’s one of the reasons I love Continental. The people aren’t always perfectly polite or friendly. But they’re shooters all. You go there and you’re going to find people who like shooting. They take it seriously. It’s fun, serious fun. You have to earn their respect. It’s my kind of place.

We got to the station and set up with my 1911 and our friend’s Ruger MKII .22. I’m very familiar with the Ruger. I owned a MKI for a while and rang the classic automatic out. But when it comes to the 1911 I’m still in the first stages of infatuation. I’ve spent a lot of time and money upgrading this goldcup. It runs like a Swiss watch. Classic, elegant, beautiful, those words apply to most 1911s. Mine’s got custom grips, custom controls, and an upgraded recoil system. It doesn’t just go bang; it does it with understated perfection. I don’t care if it’s puppy love, emptying a 50 round box with wife and friends through this classic John Browning design is one of life’s great pleasures.

While we were switching out guns, a woman to my left asked if I worked there. I don’t know what the employees wear, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a black polo, slacks, and combat boots. Even so, I’m not sure I’d turn to the guy with a white cane for help. Then again who knows? I had just spent thirty minutes walking three other people through range practices, pistol basics, and 1911 operation. I’m told my voice carries, so maybe I acted the part. Anyway, I told her that I wasn’t, but if she needed help I’d be happy to assist. It turned out she wasn’t sure how to load her magazine. I showed her that she had loaded the 9mm rounds backwards and explained how to orient the ammunition with the mechanism. After I determined that she’d never fired the gun before, I suggested that she get the range master. It’s one thing to clear up a fellow shooter’s misconceptions. It’s another to handle a complete newbie when I’m on someone else’s premises. I’m not even sure how she made it on the line. Our friends told me later that her boyfriend stood back while we were talking. They must have over-stated their level of experience. The range master took care of them thank god. I love helping new shooters, but it’s different when it’s someone else’s insurance footing the bill. I would have loved to help them out, but my friends weren’t exactly experienced shooters either. I needed to keep my focus on my station, and I couldn’t do that and give the pair the attention they deserved.

After that I brought out the 45-70. The Marlin is a classic lever-gun. It isn’t as smooth as my old model 39, but it’s a sweet handling brute. The 1895 isn’t just a tool, it’s also a wonderful machine steeped in history. Half way through the box, one of the range employees walked by and chatted about my choice of ammunition. Both of us are 45-70 fans. He congratulated me on finally joining the big-bore club as I finished off the box.

We packed up our guns and cleared the station. Range shooting is a lot like zero impact camping. The polite thing is to leave the station in exactly if not better condition than you found it. You re-hang the cardboard backing on the clips. You make sure to rake your spent brass onto the line. You pack up your gear. You respect the personal space of those around you. It’s part of the unspoken code of the shootist.

While paying for our time, I exchanged friendly barbs with another one of the staff. We joked about my target and the absence of my usual range partner. It’s exactly this kind of camaraderie that keeps me coming back year after year.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Working the Bay

Ever since friends introduced me to Dragon Dice, I’ve been spending a lot of time on ebay. Unfortunately the market of markets isn’t what it used to be.

I registered with the auction house back in 2001 at a friends urging. He convinced me that I could save a bundle on warhammer 40,000 if I applied a little elbow grease and search-fu. Back then the bidding process worked pretty much as intended. Bidders found an auction, placed a bid, and waited to see if they won. I learned quickly to buy based on feedback history and retail value. It only took a few purchases of “beautifully painted armies” showing up with a single coat of primer before I was immured to flashy descriptions and poorly lit pictures. I got taken a few times, but generally came out ahead.

Then the environment changed. Companies like Amazon started offering competitive pricing and free shipping on everything from books to dry goods. The bay purchased PayPal creating an unholy union of commission fees. Ebay changed its policy so that sellers could only leave neutral or positive feedback. Buyers started placing their bids in the last five minutes of auctions, leading to greatly reduced closing totals. The net affect was a much diminished incentive to patronize the auction house.

Today one learns to bid strategically or suffer wallet shock. Deals can be had, but only if you hold the line. Here are my personal guidelines.

1. When you’re looking at an auction, decide whether it’s something you like, something you want, or something you have to have at all costs. Do this before you commit yourself to bidding.

2. Look at the auction contents and figure out what components you actually want to purchase. Do not get caught up in the trap of evaluating the entire lot based on total retail value. It’s important to know the difference between “oooo Shiny!” and “I could really use that.” An auction is only worth the components you would buy on their own.

3. Figure out how much it would cost you to buy your step one selections from retail. If it’s a collectable that’s no longer in production, look at the market value for the product. Check Amazon, Google, and other similar auctions for comparison. Be sure to distinguish between what people say it’s worth and what it’s fetching on the open market.

4. Based on steps two and three, decide what you’re willing to pay, right now, if you could have all your selections from step two in hand this very moment. How much would that be worth to you?

5. Subtract the listed shipping fees from that amount. Whatever that number is, that’s the most you should bid on the auction.

6. If there is a “buy it now” option and the amount+shipping is less than or equal to the total from step five consider buying the item and skipping bidding entirely. If you think the lot is a good deal than chances are someone else does too. You are probably better off buying the listing outright. (Abird in the hand and all that.)

7. If you’re going to bid, total up all your outstanding bids (including shipping.) Make sure that you can afford to honor them all. Don’t lose sight of the fact that no matter how good a deal is, you still have to pay for it. This is usually when I end up adjusting my bid down to something approximating reality.

Now comes the hard part. If you are mildly interested in the auction, put your maximum bid in and let it ride. I firmly believe this is the way the system was meant to work. If there are more committed buyers, let them out-bid you. If you were going to be out-bid anyway, better to know sooner than later.

If you really want the item than don’t do anything. It’s the hardest thing you can do, but bidding early on a high-value target just drives the end price up. Wait until the last day and check the price. Ask yourself whether your original maximum bid was less or more than the going rate. If the current price is close to that amount than do nothing. If it’s a ways off, then put in your maximum bid and let it ride. Finally, if it’s close, wait till the last 20 minutes or so and put your maximum bid in.

The challenge with eBay now-a-days is holding firm to your convictions. It’s so easy to get caught up in skyrocketing auctions that I’ve found myself paying entirely too much for lots that didn’t deserve it. By the same token, I’ve missed a really good deal a few times because I tried to go through the bidding process instead of going the buy it now route.

EBay is a business. It really pays to set up auto searches for things you’re interested in and to bid tactically. You will lose auctions, but you will also win auctions at excellent prices.