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We Build Alaska

The insider guide to an Alaskan gun show

Keep your hand on your gun,
Don’t you trust anyone.
There’s just one kind of man that you can trust,
that’s a dead man,
or a gringo like me.

– Ennio Morricone, “A Gringo Like Me”

I need an AR-15.

Let me rephrase that. I need to pay for law school applications. I need to replace the timing belt on my car. I need to finally finish reading “Infinite Jest,” that doorstopper of a book. I want an AR-15 – right now. It’s not so much a need, in the Maslow’s hierarchy sense, but a want, in the “this thing feels awesome to shoot and it’s more accurate than the Chinese SKS I’ve been rocking with since 2020” sense.

I shot my buddy’s Bushmaster out in the woods, and with each faint red-dot guided ding of .223 Wolf ammunition lead on the steel gong we’d set up 150 yards out, I knew that I needed – wanted – one.

So I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to hit up the gun show.

The Mat-Su Veterans gun show is held annually in Anchorage, and it serves as a congregation point for gun nuts, vets, and war surplus enthusiasts to mill around and flip over old combloc surplus rifles, grunting with approval or disapproval at the condition of a wood stock or worn bolt action. Here, AR-15s rub shoulders with M1 Garands, rusty bayonets share table space with “Authentic! Ka-Bar Marine Knife! Just Like Rambo!” and dusty boxes of ammunition are lined up or displayed piecemeal, like artifacts from a different America.

Naturally, I love it, and I make a habit of going to every one.

I’ve brought a (non gun-nut) friend along to this one, and as she opens the passenger door to my Suburban (which still smells faintly like fish, from a Kenai-related cooler mishap) I try to give her some idea of what to expect.

“There’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of it’s going to be overpriced,” I explain, walking across the parking lot. “The gun show can be vicious, man, I’m telling you.”

“At least there’s a food truck,” she says. And indeed there is, parked just outside the venue, bedecked with a smiling otter.

“Any firearms?” the smiling ticket taker asks us outside the front door, and I respond with a shake of the head. “Well,” he chuckles, tucking my five bucks into an overflowing cashbox, “I don’t know if you knew this, but there’s a bunch for sale in there.” Non-Gun-Nut Friend and I dutifully laugh. It’s a good joke, delivered with well-practiced timing. I’ll give him that. We’re handed a red raffle ticket each, for drawings throughout the day. I haven’t the faintest idea what is being drawn, but this adds to the allure.

The venue is packed with folding plastic card tables, the kind I might have jumped through after a particularly vicious round of beer pong a few months ago (but now I’m an adult with an adult job). Each table is lined with guns, boxes of ammo, old military surplus, and hundreds of other assorted items. It’s more swap meet than gun show, with booths hocking earrings and hand-knit scarfs, fly rods and fishing equipment that looks to be older than Eisenhower, and a whole table for homemade jerky.

“Well, it’s a good show for buyin’, but not much for sellin’ this year,” a vendor wearing a U.S. Marines baseball cap loudly laments to a companion, adjusting a rack of rifles. We move on into the crowded room.

“750 bucks for an SKS?” I remark quietly to my friend. “Are you shitting me?”

“Is that a lot?” she asks. It is. Gun prices seem to have steadily risen since the 2020 election of Joe Biden, and even before that, when COVID sent everyone into a paranoid prepper tailspin. Gun show prices have always been sort of exorbitant – in fact, in gun circles, there’s a common joke about the older gentleman who refuses to drop the price on his rack of ancient M1 Garands or 1911 .45s. “No deals – I know what I got, sonny!”

Now, inflation has also hit gun prices–along with gas, groceries, and just about everything else. But people still want guns. And thus, 750 bucks for a Chinese SKS, which used to be available by the barrel for 100 dollars a rifle. Gone are the days of cheap, bountiful, communist bloc surplus weaponry. As I peruse table after table of gear, I realize that there’s no way I’m picking up an AR here for anything under 700 dollars.

That’s fine – I really only came to kill a windy, rainy afternoon, and maybe pick up some cheap ammo for my 10mm. The AR can wait.

“10 mil?” a vendor scoffs as I examine a box of 180 grain bullets. “I don’t know if I’d trust that for my bear gun – maybe if I didn’t have anything else with me…” Considering that I’ve been packing a Smith & Wesson 10mm in a chest holster all summer through bear country, this isn’t exactly the most heartening thing to hear, but opinions on bear guns are multifarious. Everybody seems to have one. The wheelgun guys swear by a few big hogleg .44 or .454 rounds, while the 10mm crowd hopes that more bullets on target will get the job done. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but, examining a shiny Colt Anaconda revolver chambered in .44 mag, I admit to myself that the revolvers do have more sex appeal.

“What do you think?” I ask my friend, fingering the price tag on an Old-West style single action revolver. “Could I pull off the cowboy look with this and a hat?” She giggles, which I take to mean no, and put the gun down.

Eventually, I make my first (and only) purchase of the show – a Larry Kaniut book about Alaskan bear encounters entitled “Some Bears Kill.” It’s for my dad, who loves those books, and loves even more to read particularly grisly passages out loud: “The grizzly ripped into my face, tearing out an eye and leaving skin hanging in a bloody curtain. I clapped my hand to my mouth, only to find out my jaw was gone, and my teeth were shattered like seashells.” And so on.

We slowly make our way to the back of the big hall, occasionally chatting with vendors about prices. After hemming and hawing, my friend ends up buying a blue butterfly knife, and swings it around in a few test stabs. I tell her she should try to get in a Mortal Kombat style street fight with it. A guy recognizes the jacket I’m wearing as Swiss Alpenflage camo, and compliments my taste in semi-obscure camouflage blends.

“I love everything the Swiss ever made, man!”
“It’s a weird little country,” I opine, “but they make good stuff.”

Intermittently, the loudspeaker booms over the dull chatter calling for a raffle ticket number – “Would 801 please come to the front of the room? 801?” I always check my ticket, and it turns out it’s never the right one. I haven’t won a raffle since the grand opening of the West Marine over on Dimond in 7th grade, where my ticket won me a pull-to-inflate life jacket. My lifetime supply of luck ran dry by the time I turned 12, it seems.

Everywhere are old .30-40 Krags, 8mm Mausers, the ubiquitous Ruger 10/22s that pop up like cockroaches in every gun safe in the world, Glock 19s, pump action shotguns of countless make and gauges, and sprinkled in like hidden treasures, AK47s polished and oiled to gleaming perfection, with price tags to match. The gun you can get–no joke–for three chickens in Afghanistan costs upwards of a grand here. C’est la vie.

The signs and apparel here reflect the distinctly Republican leaning of the gun show crowd – a whole booth is dedicated to “Let’s Go Brandon” and Thin Blue Line merch, from flags to stickers to beer koozies. Elsewhere, one of the vendors is listening to a Trump speech on full blast from a portable speaker, so the ex-president’s words seem to come from everywhere and nowhere as you pass the booth. “Let’s get our police back out there, get our drug dealers off the streets…..”

One of the booths, hawking a variety of handguns, has a sign that adds 5% each to the price for “Hat on Backwards, Baggy Pants, Body Piercings, Ugly Tattoos, and Purple or Orange Hair.” Any combination of three or more of the above, the sign claims, will result in “No Sale.” This, I point out to my friend, seems a pretty harsh line to take, and just to be contrary I flip my hat backwards as I walk by.

Eventually, we decide that, barring a sudden rise in bitcoin prices or a long-lost relative stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, neither of us are going to spend any more money. I’ve been idly debating getting a cheap truck gun to throw in the glove box, but that’s a purchase for later. As we leave, I overhear a snippet of a conversation between two vendors – “And then I thought, should I stab him or mace him?” and realize that I probably don’t want to eavesdrop anymore.

Every time I attend some event like this – gun show, going shooting with friends, hunting trip – I go in thinking that by the end I’ll have some higher understanding of my relationship with firearms or weapons in general. In an America where the gun has never been more politicized, any writing that touches on firearms, even tangentially, seems pressured to speak some higher truth. About the Capital G Gun as a paradigm, as a tool, as a political bargaining chip.

But I didn’t come to any higher truth at the gun show today. Guns are pretty cool; I’ve grown up around them and I think that the Constitutionally enshrined right to handle them is just about essential. As far as a higher truth, I don’t think you can do much better than that.

But I’ll be damned if I’m paying 40 dollars a box for 10mm ammo, I’ll tell you what.

Jacob Hersh was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He recently graduated from Washington State University with a degree in political science. He’s back in Alaska taking a year off before he attends law school. He’s been described as neurotic, emotionally distant, and unhealthily obsessed with national politics – all by the same person.

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Pierre Lonewolf
1 year ago

They aught to give the dem presidents an award fir selling so many guns..

1 year ago

I like Pierre’s comment – and I can add one for Uhaul sales to California Governor Gavin Newsome, whose only electric cars will be sold in California by 2030 should be up-dated to reflect the current conditions: brownouts expected over the weekend and an announcement to not plug in your EV to get refueled because it might bring down the electrical grid. Enough people have already left the state for California to have lost one representative. Whoever wants to copy California for Alaska should be avoided like the plague!