Gas-phase experiments with state-of-the-art techniques of mass spectrometry provide detailed insights into numerous elementary processes. The focus of this Review is on elementary reactions of ions that achieve complete catalytic cycles under thermal conditions. The examples chosen cover aspects of catalysis pertinent to areas as diverse as atmospheric chemistry and surface chemistry. We describe how transfer of oxygen atoms, bond activation, and coupling of fragments can be mediated by atomic or cluster metal ions. In some cases truly unexpected analogies of the idealized gas-phase ion catalysis can be drawn with related chemical transformations in solution or the solid state, and so improve our understanding of the intrinsic operation of a practical catalyst at a strictly molecular level.