A collection built over a lifetime is going to the highest bidders

By Abigail Goldman, Las Vegas Sun
Las Vegas Sun

It's Christmas Day, Jerry Darnell is about to die and he's at Wal - Mart buying rifles. Four of them.

Darnell's cousin finds these firearms in early January, when he travels to Pahrump to make the after-death arrangements. Darnell had died of natural causes at 66.

His cousin finds the new rifles unwrapped, price tags affixed, packed in with the rest of the collection. A gun hoarder's last grasp, the end of the Darnell Weaponry Estate.

It's an arsenal, really, of about 3,800 firearms, more than 1,000 bayonets and about 250,000 rounds ammunition. The collection spans Civil War to Wal - Mart: Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Remington, Ruger, Mauser, Mosin Nagant . Weapons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some say it is one of the largest private gun collections in Nevada, assembled by a solitary man who lived a quiet life in Pahrump.
Jerry Darnell was born in Hollywood in 1940, the only child of an ear, nose and throat doctor to the stars. His father turned his son on to guns, then left him with enough money to spend the rest of his life chasing them.

His cousin Bill Dearman remembers Darnell got his first gun at 10. By Darnell's early teens, his father had given him at least 100 more.

"Jerry prided his guns to the point that he was very reluctant to even let you hold one," Dearman said. "And when you held it, it was important you didn't touch the metal, and that he wiped the metal down afterwards."

Darnell started collecting high-quality guns, old and unusual or rare: rifles used during the Civil War, Japanese Arisakas taken during the American occupation after World War II, guns that date to the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes or to the Mexican Revolution, guns with Nazi engravings, guns that collectors get hives for.

Darnell worked for less than five years of his adulthood, teaching English at private schools and then at Pepperdine University in California. He got multiple degrees. He was married, then divorced. He was an avid reader. He called his aunt every week.

He wasn't a loner so much as he was selective with his friends, Dearman said.

Mainly, Darnell collected. And maybe what he had took the place of who he didn't.

(He also left the world with a sledgehammer collection pushing 300.)

But keeping weapons enough for a small militia falls short of chic in Hollywood, so about 10 years ago, Darnell decided to find a new home for his growing collection. He chose Pahrump, and everything changed.

In the Nye County town, where locals have been known to call firearms "liberty teeth" and almost anybody 21 or older is free to holster a gun in plain sight, Darnell's hobby became a lifestyle.

He built a large storehouse to hold his collection. He built lean-to s that held rifles butt-up in rows like stiff-neck soldiers. Then he went about filling the rows, buying from chain stores or private dealers or who knows where, seemingly without consideration for much more than sheer volume: getting guns, sometimes several a day, just to have them.

"Quality turned into quantity," Dearman said. "After he came to Pahrump, he started really acquiring guns at a significant rate."

Dearman doesn't know why.

"Maybe he was just trying to have the biggest collection in the country."

Slowly, his belongings became his family.

Dearman's last act of love was spending months readying the collection for public action - guns to the block, goodbye.



To get to the Nye County Public Auction building requires driving past a windowless strip club with faux-castle turrets, then past a billboard that says, "Do you know Jesus?," then past a building shaped like a massive soft-serve ice cream, vanilla.

A small group of car-campers do just this - drive to the auction house, spend the weekend parked on-site, watching the Darnell estate disappear. Others come in from Los Angels or Las Vegas for an afternoon. Most drive from down the street.

On Sunday, the crowd is serious collectors and wannabes. The auction house staff, in matching black T-shirts that read "Got Guns?" pace before the crowd, holding rifles and bayonets above their heads, stopping at the beckon of a prospective bidder, who need only wag a finger to get the auctioneer's attention.

The bidders don't notice the giant mirrored disco ball hanging from a ceiling rafter, reflecting the visage of Ski Canske as he shoots off that sing-song cattle call of an auctioneer: sold, sold, sold.

James Senary of Pahrump bids on and wins 15 guns that range from $200 to $400. He and his wife, LouAnne, see this as an investment, surer than a savings account or a 401(k). "Money in the bank," he says.

And it's more than that, LouAnne Senary says. It's national security.

"A small part of our theory is the terrorists," she says. As in, if they knock on our door, they'll be sorry.

The bidding is not bound to this room, either. Parked before a laptop, an auction attendant monitors a simultaneous online auction, which is projected on a screen behind Canske so bidders in the flesh can track their Internet competition.

A soldier serving in Iraq wins several guns. His mother, stateside, will pick them up and hold them for him.

Clayton Davis is sitting front row. He's 78, lives in a Henderson condo and likes playing with his 20-plus guns on the kitchen table. He just doesn't like shooting them. Hasn't shot a gun in more than 30 years.

"Why would I want to?" he says. "They make too much noise."

It took a crew of five people working one week to identify Darnell's guns and bayonets and then appraise them. It took another week to prepare the catalog and load photos of the items online for remote bidders.

On Sunday, Canske auctioned about 400 guns in 4 1/2 hours. The partial collection brought in $117,870. Next week, the 250,000 rounds of ammunition will be sold at a separate auction. (It didn't seem like a good idea to sell guns and bullets at the same time, in a small room, where people are trying to waylay one another with cash.)

One man, standing outside the auction in spurs and a cowboy hat, confessed he had no idea what kind of gun he had won. It just looked good.

If Darnell had been there, he could have described each and every gun, Dearman said. Then he could have told you what kind of ammunition it called for, maybe where he got it. Maybe why.

"Jerry was just a collector, an aficionado, a connoisseur," Dearman said. "What else can I tell you?"

In a dirt lot outside the auction house, two boys stood, facing a third, wedged up against a fence. They held toy rifles up at elbow-height, fake-fired at one another, then scattered like the shotgun pellets they pictured, screaming.
Abigail Goldman can be reached at 259-8806 or at [email protected].