by Peter Richmond
Some years ago, ¬†at the Knob Creek Shootout in West Point Ky., I shot three machine guns, which is what people do every year at the Knob Creek Range, located at one end of a long hollow in the hills: shoot fully automatic weapons down the hollow, at targets. The year I visited the targets included 50-gallon drums of gasoline, which would explode when hit; lots of abandoned appliances (mostly refrigerators and televisions) and the cab of a Peterbilt truck with a poster of Saddam Hussein taped to its grill. (Interestingly, while lots of people stitched some very high-caliber bullets into that cab over the course of the weekend, no one managed to set it aflame.)
Two kinds of people attend the Knob Creek Shootout: Those with guns, who fire them, and those who come to see them be fired. I was a third kind of animal; a journalist covering the event, allowed to hang on the firing line because the organizers felt as if they had nothing to hide, which they don’t, and trusted me to report what I saw.
It would be easy to generalize about the Knob Creek crowd, given that on the Friday of the weekend I visited, one spectator wore a tee-shirt with Hitler’s visage and the legend, “I’m Coming Back, and This Time, No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but the truth was that the majority of people who own fully automatic weapons seemed to be as much historians as gun freaks. They could tell you where their machine gun was used in battle (or crime-fighting in The Prohibition) and who made it, and when. Few seemed to revel in their possessions as being killing machines, but, of course, that’s all a machine-gun is.
Most of the guns at Knob Creek that year dated from the first half of the twentieth century, including the first one I fired: a tripod-mounted, belt-fed, water-cooled .30 caliber Browning M1917 which was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute, or 10 bullets per second. This one weighed 47 pounds, and, its owner explained to me, may have been used in the battle of Flanders Field. He was more than eager to let me shoot it.
So I sat behind it, cross-legged, and pulled the trigger and held it there, and the bullets burst forth at an insane pace, effortlessly. Swerving the barrel right to left, left to right, I tried not to envision what it would have been like to be aiming at German soldiers running, helpless, across a field, preferring to seek refuge in the idea that this was the ultimate video game, for there were no actual stakes; no one was going to die from my shots.
No physical effort was required to shoot the Browning and mow down the imaginary enemy, other than pulling the trigger and holding it, because the gun was mounted. It did strike me that the weightlessness of the effort of operating such an efficient mass-executor sort of made it feel as if I were switching channels on a flat-screen. I can’t recall whether I hit a target; at the time, I was simply marveling at the power I possessed.
The next gun I fired on Friday was a Chinese rip-off of a Russian AK-47 Kalashnikov. But the fake AK-47, since it wasn’t equipped with a fully-automatic modification device, was a semi-automatic, which meant that I had to pull the trigger every time I wanted to fire a bullet. However, most semis have such a fluid and pressure-less trigger action that you can, in fact, fire nearly as many bullets as you can with a fully automatic weapon. An experienced shooter can pull a trigger at least five times per second with a semi-automatic pistol; thus, in ten seconds, fifty bullets can be fired. In a minute, 300. This is why the semi is the preferred munition for school shooters. Getting a fully automatic gun is very difficult, and has been since 1934, when legislation aimed at stopping Tommy-Gun gangsters taxed the full machine guns out of popular existence.
The AK-47 had a slight kick, but since I was able to snap off short bursts before stopping a second later, I never felt as if the gun had control of me. I was also able to hit a refrigerator (I think; it might have been a washing machine) because I could shoot for a second, stop, readjust, and shoot again.
On Saturday, as I roamed the firing line, I saw that there was a new guy in town with an Uzi. Who wouldn’t want to shoot an Uzi? It was developed in Israel in 1948, but today more than ninety nations militaries have them. The name “Uzi” has transcended the genre. When Reagan was shot, the Secret Service guarded his trip to the hospital with Uzis. Bruce Willis probably used Uzis in those movies. Or wishes he had. “Uzi” is hot.
The Uzi guy was cool. “One thing to think about,” he said, as he handed me the gun, “is that you’ll be surprised at the kick.” In a second, I knew why he’d said it: The gun weighed eight pounds. Hefting it felt like rocking a new-born infant. It was so slight of weight that it seemed to be a toy. I knew it to be capable of 600 rounds per minute, but for some reason, it didn’t feel as if it were a serious weapon.
And so, as I raised the Uzi’s stock to my shoulder, and braced my feet as I aimed at some appliance or other, I told myself to be careful. But I also knew that, the day before, I had fired two very deadly weapons without any physical exertion at all. So perhaps, psychologically, I was unprepared for what happened next.
I squeezed the trigger, and before I could even put together another thought, bullets were spraying everywhere — up, and to the right, in a wild hail of firepower. Without letting off the trigger, determined to rein the damned gun in, I tried to level it, but could not. After I stopped firing, I’d fired about 60 bullets in ten seconds, none of them remotely close to any target. All I remember is being relieved that the thing had kicked up, and to the right, and so most of the bullets probably landed off in the woods.
That night, after dark, the highlight of the festival consisted of the firing of a Vietnam-era GE Minigun by a man who had spent years putting one together; after the war, the guns were disassembled, and various parts strewn far and wide; he had tracked them down. The Minigun is a Gatling-style gun, with rotating barrels sparked by an electrical charge, capable of firing 4000 rounds per minute, or 67 rounds per second.
The man hit the switch, and for ten seconds, to the accompaniment of a roar beyond description and a glow of flame from the barrel that seemed to light up the entire darkened hollow, 700 tracer bullets found their way many hundreds of yards down-hollow into the dark in a rainbow of bright-light delight.
When he turned it off, the silence was literally deafening. Then, the applause arose. I think I applauded, in pure awe.
Since the beginning of dawn, we have marveled at the power of power, be it lighting, thunder, gunpowder or the atom. This will never change. It is our duty to harness that lust. To harness that power.
To put that power into the hands of a frail 9-year-old girl? Because at Bullets and Burgers out in Nevada you can have great day of vacation by eating a burger and firing an Uzi — so great that you want your kid to live that thrill?
Is to admit that the power is (literally) now in all the wrong hands. For all the wrong reasons.
If the 9-year-old’s killing of her instructor isn’t a tipping point, there will be none, until those of us who aren’t armed, or open-carrying, will be daily fearing for our lives.