Ask most Quad-Citians about the Rock Island Auction Co. and you're likely to draw a blank stare.

The company that was founded in 1993 and has grown to the largest firearms auction house in the country, with $32 million in sales during 2010, flies a little under the radar.

That is about to change, though.

The business, its owner, Pat Hogan, and his son, Kevin, are the stars of a pilot episode for a cable TV show titled "Ready, Aim, Sold!" that will premiere at 9 p.m. today on the Discovery Channel.

The pilot was produced by Ciniflix, the same company that makes the History channel's "American Pickers" TV series featuring men from LeClaire and Davenport as its leads, and there are similarities in the storylines as well.

In "Ready, Aim, Sold!" the Hogans visit people with guns to sell, then research the guns' history and their personal stories. Cameras follow the guns through the auction process and viewers can see how much the guns actually sell for, not just what they "might" bring.

One thread in tonight's episode is the discovery that a gun believed by its owner to be very rare turns out to be a fake. It is a high-quality gun, but not the one-of-a-kind piece it was thought to be. The Hogans learn this when they feature the gun in their auction catalog and a collector who owns the real one-of-a-kind piece calls them, Pat Hogan said.

Part of the appeal of "Ready, Aim, Sold!" is the unscripted banter between Hogan, 58, and Kevin, 23, a recent University of Iowa graduate who is joining his dad in the business.

Pat Hogan hopes the program shows that gun collectors are "not a bunch of wackos.

"A guy might have a thousand guns, but it's not that he's nuts - it's his passion," he said. "It's like stamps, it's like plates."

Whether the show gets picked up and becomes a series like "Pickers" is yet to be determined. A Discovery Channel representative said Tuesday that the decision will be based on how the show is received, but he could not give a deadline.

If the show gets the green light, it will be the latest chapter in a long and circuitous path for Hogan, who knew nothing about guns when he moved here from Chicago in 1978.

How the company started

While Hogan was running several businesses, including gasoline stations with car washes and 14 video rental outlets (Hogan's Videos preceded Blockbuster in this area), he happened to meet Richard Ellis, a noted Quad-City gun collector.

Ellis asked Hogan to produce two gun books, including "Luger, the Multi-National Pistol," and that was Hogan's introduction. "In marketing that book, I ran into the entire gun community," Hogan said.

And he learned. "It would sound arrogant to say I was self-taught," he said. "Richard Ellis was a major mentor. There were a lot of mentors."

For a short time, he and Ellis ran an auction business together, and then Hogan got connected with a man in California who wanted to be bigger than Butterfield & Butterfield, then the largest gun auction house in the country.

While producing auction catalogs for that business, Hogan read books and did research.

Eventually, he "ended up falling in love with what I did," and in 1993 he founded his own company. It had two locations before moving to the spot off Andalusia Road in May, the former home of a Coca-Cola sales and distribution facility.

He is bigger than Butterfield & Butterfield in terms of sales now, and that is how he got the call from Ciniflix, Hogan said. "They were looking for a firearms company and they called to say, ‘We understand you're No. 1 in the country,' " Hogan recalled.

"It is incredible what we've accomplished ... for a guy who knew nothing about guns to be No. 1 in the world in selling them. But I don't pretend I did this myself," he added, explaining that he was able to bring a lot of talented people together.

His business employs about 40 full-time workers, including those who research, describe and photograph items for the catalogs, plus about the same number of part-timers.

The business holds five major sales annually, three premiers and two regional, selling about 20,000 guns. Its sales between 2004 and 2010 totaled $169 million, the highest in the industry, Hogan said.

Guns that the auction house sells come from all over the country, and auctions are advertised in more than 60 different publications, including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

But locally, Hogan, of Milan, is fine with being "under the radar."

That way he's not targeted by criminals and other undesirables.

"My business is a destination," he says. It is not like a retail store that depends on daily traffic and name recognition, but it is known in the gun community.

And later today, it will be known by TV viewers nationwide.