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.
By the way, these fully automatic machine guns are not the same thing as the so-called “assault weapons” that gun control partisans perennially try to ban. What the Brady Center and liberal politicians mislabel as “assault weapons” are nothing but ordinary semi-automatic rifles or handguns. Pull the trigger once and the gun goes “bang” once, just like any other firearm. But since many of those guns have a military appearance, scare tactics are used to demonize them as “assault weapons” in the minds of people who don’t know the difference.
Speaking of anti-gunners, a cottage industry has sprung up in recent years in which leftist journalists attend the Knob Creek shoot, and then publish pieces portraying the attendees as depraved, violent extremists walking around in Nazi garb. All I can say is: I saw thousands of people over the course of three days and, unsurprisingly, they were the same sort of folks you would see at any event in America open to the public. Better than at many events, in fact. After passing through the admission gate, the first people I encountered were volunteers politely soliciting donations for children’s diseases. Inside the clubhouse, the ladies were selling cookies, brownies, and cakes to send kids to camp. The most oddly dressed members of the crowd that I saw were three Mennonites.
THIS IS NOT a political event, but when any group in favor of firearms rights assembles, the sentiments in the air are diametrically opposed to totalitarian big government. On Friday night, I had an excellent dinner at a homey German restaurant called Frank’s—check out their piping-hot, crispy jägerschnitzel if you are ever in Radcliff, Kentucky. The cheerful, bustling German lady who waited on me (and on everyone else) noticed I was reading a book called From Darwin to Hitler, which traces the influence of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement on Nazi ideology. She stopped at my table, and inquired with sudden seriousness: “You know what the problem with people is?” I allowed that I didn’t. She pointed at the book, and nodded emphatically: “The problem is that people don’t learn from history!” I had to agree.
By and large, supporters of the Second Amendment have learned from history as it relates to gun rights. They know that Stalin and Mao put all firearms under the control of state and party, and that a disarmed populace was helpless to resist their mass murders. They are aware that Hitler used gun registration to confiscate firearms from Jews. They also see clearly that in this country the party of centralized government power is forever pushing for gun bans, registration, and other restrictions aimed at depriving citizens of their ability to own firearms.
That’s why gun owners, taken together, are advocates of freedom and are resistant to overreaching government. T-shirts worn by gun owners at Knob Creek had slogans like “Tyranny Emergency Response Team—Since 1776,” and “Free Men Own Guns. Slaves Don’t.”
The latter principle, by the way, is not just a t-shirt slogan. It has been a staple of political philosophy and law since the classical era. In Roman times, the Codex Justinianus made it clear that masters and free men were entitled to kill any slave who armed himself. The Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision supporting slavery denied that a black man could shed his slave status by entering free territory. If he could, it “would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies…and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
Andrew Fletcher, the influential 17th-century Scottish soldier, politician, and writer on militias is credited with coining the phrase “well-regulated militia,” incorporated by the founders in the Second Amendment. Fletcher affirmed this fundamental distinction between free men and slaves, stating that he could not see “why arms should be denied to any man who is not a slave, since they are the only true badges of liberty.…”
SO, BACK TO THE SHOOT. Besides the action on the main range, several scored competitions are held at separate ranges on other parts of the property: assault rifle, military bolt action rifle, shotgun, and so forth. I dropped in on the “subgun” competition. This involves running a course where the shooter engages targets by firing through windows or doorways, where moving targets pop up or swing by and are quickly obscured, and where weighted steel targets must be knocked down by being hit with multiple shots in succession. Running such courses is not unusual in firearms training or competition. The twist here is that the competitors shoot fully automatic submachine guns. Weapons that I saw ranged from high quality H&K MP5s, to somewhat Spartan British Sterlings, to the familiar drum-fed Thompsons. The competitors were amiable and pleased to discuss their weapons. One young man I talked to was associated with a company that manufactures silencers, or “suppressors” as they are known in the trade. “Less bang for your buck,” he explained with a smile.
On yet another range, separated by woods, a couple of machine gun rental vendors invited members of the public to try their hands at shooting full auto weapons. On Friday, I traipsed down the hill to the rental range, only to find a line of about 150 people in front of me. Sorry, not that interested. Saturday, same thing. Sunday—eureka, no line at all. There was a cornucopia of guns to choose from. I picked a Model 1919 belt-fed .30 caliber Browning, and fired a hundred rounds through it, making my very small fortune even smaller in a matter of seconds. I’ve shot full auto weapons before, but now the belt-fed variety can be crossed off the bucket list.
And yes, the “1919” designation refers to the fact that this model was placed in American military service almost a century ago. One dismal effect of the 1986 law outlawing new, full auto guns in civilian hands is that machine gun enthusiasts are now historians rather than innovators. Sure, it could be argued that perhaps there are no great technological advances remaining to be made in fully automatic weapons. Maybe our armed forces will continue to have superior automatic small arms courtesy of Defense Department acquisition programs and manufacturers who make guns for the military. Maybe.
It’s worth remembering that John Browning, the greatest firearms designer in world history, built his first gun at home at age 13. The M-16 military rifle was derived from path-breaking designs by Eugene Stoner, an amateur gun designer and tinkerer who never went to college, but eventually hitched up with a tiny company called ArmaLite. Innovation in military small arms tends to come from outside the armed forces, not within. One of the reasons Custer’s Seventh Cavalry got massacred was that their standard carbine was a government-issue, single-shot Springfield, while many of the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors wielded high-capacity, rapid-fire Henrys and Winchesters available on the open market.
THE GRAND BLOWOUT of the Knob Creek weekend is the night shoot on Saturday. Of the four 20- or 25-minute shooting sessions that evening, the first two were still in daylight. The final two took place in total blackness.
In the first session, the pièce de résistance was a full-size red and white city bus perched atop the hill at the far end of the range. Within seconds after the range went hot, the guns ignited the bus in a vortex of flame. Its big tires continued to burn for hours. Automobiles and boats met a similar fate. Between sessions, the Knob Creek Demolition Team in their green t-shirts hauled new “targets” onto the field to be riddled with gunfire, incinerated, or both. They also emplaced blue plastic 55-gallon drums of fuel for the fireballs. One young man drove a telescopic forklift, the kind with an extensible overhead boom. He lifted the charred and perforated automobile carcasses off the field by slipping the forks under their roofs, then trundled back with them to the side of the firing line and dropped the cars from on high into an enormous dumpster. Anything involving fire or explosions took place under the watchful eyes of volunteer firefighters from the Nichols Fire District. It is hard to convey how many things about this event remind you of America’s greatness.
The third session, conducted in complete darkness, commenced when the range operators switched off all the lights. That was the signal for firing to begin. Thunder and lightning erupted from the firing line. Three gigantic bursts of white light exploded downrange, metamorphosed into huge, fluffy blooms of orange-black flame, and then curled up into themselves as they levitated and vanished. Lines of gleaming tracers criss-crossed, and ricochets angled sharply into the surrounding hills or looped crazily into the air. Dense plumes of black smoke nearly obscured some of the flaming vehicles. Then more fireballs mushroomed, to the musical accompaniment of the big .50 calibers…
I didn’t stay for the fourth session, which was undoubtedly the most spectacular. I was perfectly satisfied, and my feet were tired. As I pulled out of the parking area in the lower field, the crescendoing roar of the machine guns burst forth again, including the unearthly, unmistakable buzzsawing of the minigun as it ripped a swath. Glancing uphill, I could see the flash of fireballs lighting up clouds of smoke above the trees.
Many years ago, at a back-to-school night for one of my kids, there was a display of crayon drawings by second-graders taped to the hallway walls. The assignment had clearly been for the students to create their own variations on the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, in which weather consists of hamburgers, pancakes, soup, and other foods raining from the sky. The girls’ drawings showed flowers or dolls or pretty gowns descending from the clouds. I have always remembered a picture by one of the boys, titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Weapons and Gold.” In vibrant colors, he depicted a perfect hailstorm of shimmering swords, guns, shields, coins, knives, golden bracelets, and rings falling from the sky. Something deeply ingrained in the male basal ganglia, I suppose.
ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, I climbed into the truck for the long drive home. Passing Fort Knox, I recalled that it was the leftist regime of Franklin Roosevelt that declared private ownership of gold coins and bullion to be illegal, and required American citizens to hand over their gold to the government in exchange for pieces of paper called dollar bills. Those melted-down coins and bars extorted from the citizenry still form a significant part of the hoard at Fort Knox. We can own gold coins again now, and the feds haven’t yet tried to actually confiscate our private firearms (though there are plenty of people aggressively, continuously scheming to disarm us).
But on that sunny October Sunday, I pushed all worries aside. My plan was to drop by the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, where dedicated men and women labor to produce the admirable Knob Creek whiskey for the delectation of their fellow citizens. As a private enterprise, devoted to the happiness of their customers, they are pleased to serve free samples of their products to all who stop to visit. I was equally pleased to accept their hospitable offer. Winding through the green hills, I reflected that at that singular, fine, extraordinary moment, the forecast was no clouds, with an excellent chance of weapons, gold, and old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
Dan Peterson is an attorney who practices firearms law in Northern Virginia.
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