A report from a semi-annual machine gun festival, held just this side of Fort Knox.
The machine guns roared, pouring tens of thousands of bullets into the night’s blackness. Suddenly: Ka-WHOOOMP! WAAHHHMP! WHA-OOOOMP!! Enormous fireballs flashed into yellow-white existence, mutating into billows of orange flame 100 feet high. The pulse of shock and heat hit my skin. As the explosions faded, the night air was lit by an endless fusillade of red and green tracer rounds, the incandescent muzzle blast of automatic weapons, and flames from burning vehicles…
Just a typical evening in the green autumn hills of north-central Kentucky.
Typical twice a year, I should say. Every April and October, the Knob Creek Gun Range, fittingly located in Bullitt County, Kentucky, hosts “The World’s Largest Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun Show.” Knob Creek Range lies just a few miles north of Fort Knox, home to the United States Bullion Depository and the 147 million ounces of gold in its vaults. As the names suggest, the range is only a short hop from the distillery where Knob Creek Whiskey is made (more about that superb nine-year-old bourbon later).
I had been hearing about this machine gun shoot for a while. According to the Knob Creek website, the shoot consists of “firing at a wide variety of used appliances, abandoned vehicles, pyramids of tires, and barrels of fuel with pyrotechnic charges attached.…The charges are set off by the impact of the bullets, creating fiery mushroom clouds and fireballs from hell!…The objective is to destroy everything down range.” That sounded like something I needed to investigate personally.
After a 10-hour drive from Northern Virginia, I finally got off the interstates near Louisville, and headed south down Dixie Highway past Fort Knox. Checking in at the Gold Vault Inn, a modest but pleasant establishment, I spotted a stack of official-looking notices at the front desk. They were headed, “Attention Machine Gun Shoot Guests.” With reflexes conditioned by living near Washington, D.C., I expected a dreary warning or prohibition. Instead, the notice read, “For your convenience we have cloths available at the front desk to clean your equipment,” followed by gracious thanks for the guests’ patronage. If you are ever in a mood to ponder the difference between government and free enterprise, there it is in a nutshell.
FRIDAY MORNING at Knob Creek dawned cool and brilliant, under a heartbreakingly blue sky. As I navigated my pickup to the grassy parking area, I could hear the mixed notes and cadences of machine gun fire not far distant. The Knob Creek shoot started small several decades ago, but now attendance can exceed 15,000 people over the course of the three-day event. Alongside the slow-moving vehicles, pedestrians streamed by happily on the property’s gravel and dirt roads, a few with rifles or tactical shotguns slung from a shoulder, some carrying newly purchased gun parts or accessories, some carting cases of ammo. This is a well-armed country, I thought.
Admission is $10 and parking is free. Just like an NFL game. In 1954.
The main action is at the covered firing line on the 350-yard range. That’s where private machine gun owners unleash a withering fire at cars, boats, defunct appliances, propane tanks, and other suitable targets. For the gun owners, it’s a great opportunity to shoot their full auto weapons under friendly conditions. For the spectators, it’s a chance to see some impressive firearms in action.
Next to the main range is a large gun show, consisting of hundreds of tables in a pole barn and in dozens of tented booths around the barn. The exhibitors hawk handguns, rifles, t-shirts, military surplus equipment, ammunition, technical manuals, militaria, and anything else you can imagine that relates to firearms. Among the offerings of one clothing vendor, I was a bit nonplussed to discover camouflage bra and panty sets trimmed with black lace. (My cheesiness threshold is pretty high, but I’ll admit that those dainty garments slammed the cheese-ometer needle right up against the peg.)
What sets the Knob Creek gun show apart, of course, is not the stray clothing item, but rather the number of exhibitors selling full auto weapons, parts, and accessories. Did you know that you can legally buy a machine gun? Not a problem, truly, if you’ve got the money, and are willing to jump through some bureaucratic hoops. You can’t be legally disqualified from owning a gun generally, and your state has to allow machine gun ownership, which most do. There is a background check and some paperwork, including photos and fingerprints, to be filled out. Local law enforcement must sign the proposed transfer form, and it must be approved by ATF. You’ll have to pay a $200 transfer tax. If the transfer is approved, as most are, the gun will be registered to you in a national database, and you’ll be the proud owner of your very own machine gun. You don’t need to have a dealer’s license yourself.
What you will need is money. Quite a bit, in fact. The cheapest, stamped-metal full auto weapons start at several thousand dollars. Decent military full auto rifles are likely to run 10, 12, 15 thousand dollars or more. After that, the sky is the limit. I saw one machine gun for sale at the Knob Creek show for $24,995.95 (plus tax). The reason is that a federal law in 1986 outlawed the manufacture and sale of new machine guns for the civilian market. Law enforcement, yes; military, yes; civilians, no. So there is a limited pool of pre-1986 machine guns out there—probably more than 100,000—that civilians can legally own. It doesn’t require a lively imagination to figure out what strong demand coupled with a limited, decreasing supply does for prices.
THE STUFF WITH WHICH the boys on the main firing range were casually blasting away was often expensive and sometimes extremely rare. There were several .50 caliber Browning machine guns mounted on stands or tripods. The .50 caliber metallic cartridge is roughly the size of a cigar, and the right projectile can punch through steel plate an inch thick. Expert military snipers using the .50 caliber round in specialized rifles can pick off a particular individual with one shot from a mile and a half away. The distinctive, pounding “thud thud thud thud thud” of the full auto .50 cal literally shakes the air.
Perhaps the most exotic weapon on the firing line was the 7.62 mm minigun. The minigun differs from most machine guns because it uses six barrels rotated by an electric motor. A gas or recoil operated machine gun might shoot anywhere from about 400 to 1,000 rounds a minute. At its maximum rate, the minigun can fire 6,000 rounds in a minute, though many are slowed down to save ammo and barrel wear. But considering that in two seconds a minigun can lay down a stream of bullets 18 inches apart for the entire length of a football field, it is no surprise that ever since the Vietnam war our enemies have greatly feared these weapons.
The minigun doesn’t even sound like a machine gun. Its cyclic rate is so high that you can’t detect any interval between the shots being fired. It sounds like a fearsome chainsaw at full throttle, with a deeper note and 20 times louder.
The quantity of ammunition burned up at this event is prodigious. The .50 caliber cartridges for the Brownings may cost from a little under $2.00 a round to more than $5.00 a round, depending on quality, type, projectiles, and other factors. Inexpensive 7.62 mm ammunition for the minigun might run 50 or 60 cents a round. Doing the math, it’s easy to see that ammo costs for a full minute of firing with these guns could range from a thousand to several thousand bucks—if you’re using the cheap stuff, that is. I was reliably informed that one of the shooters who returns to Knob Creek year after year blows through about $70,000 in ammunition at each shoot. It’s like wine-making, day-trading, and magazine publishing: if you truly desire to make a small fortune in shooting, start with a large fortune.