For twenty minutes, my friend and I drove up a twisting, narrow highway into the hills of Kentucky. Dense woods occasionally gave way to churches and not much else. Then a giant wooden sign beckoned. Even before leaving the car, my travel buddy and I could hear scattered gunfire echo-scampering through the leafage. We stepped out and crossed the one-lane bridge.
The Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot is the largest event of its kind in the United States; and since we're talking heavy artillery, that's saying a lot. I heard of the shootout while attending the Memphis in May barbecue fest. Contestants in Memphis will happily fork out $40,000 on a custom barbecue; people in Kentucky spend that kind of money on rocket launchers.
It was the first day, and the exhibitors' tent was a sight: rows and rows of grenades and packets filled with chemicals needed for making "pyrotechnics" (you know, the same pyrotechnics you use if the FBI pays your compound an unwelcome visit). Beside the tent was the firing range-a clearing the size of two football fields surrounded on three sides by forested mountains. Our weekend's announcer set down the ground rules: "Do not shoot over the treetops," he scolded in a Southern father-knows-best drawl. "Believe it or not, we do have neighbours."
Around twenty official shooters fiddled around in enclosures that could surely be used for shanking golf balls in the off-season. A series of weapons on tripods-the sort that could put a Pakistani black market to shame-stood proudly displayed, their masters preparing to feed them Bruckheimer-sized ammunition belts. Nearby, a couple of good ol' boys loaded a cannon; down at the other end, a more traditional howitzer was being groomed.
A series of targets had been towed out onto the field. These included several Dodge Dart-like jalopies, a school bus and propane tanks. On top of the hill-which would prove the most elusive target-was a boat. The school bus was already charred, courtesy of the early-bird marksmen. Once again, the Voice of Gawd came over the crackling loudspeakers. "Clear on the left? Clear on the right?" it bellowed to a series of orange-shirted security guards, some wearing Bullitt County (no joke) sheriff's badges, others looking more like carnies.
And with that, a heavy swarm of hot lead scorched the air, creating a sonic boom that sounded like the fucking world ending. I quickly went to the earplug booth for relief. Within seconds, the range was choked with white smoke and burning sulphur. The incessant rat-a-tat-tat eventually became tolerable, but the cannons, fired every five to ten minutes, were concussion-inducing. To make things worse, a booth run by "Little Fat Guy"-who was selling "Real Men Prefer Bush" T-shirts for $14 us-was offering punters a chance to fire a .50 calibre machine gun for $50 us. With shells the same size as the Pattonesque stogies everyone was smoking, this thing Barked Fire. It sounded as if the Earth were Joe Theismann's leg and the galaxy were linebacker Lawrence Taylor crushing it.
White smoke from the guns was quickly replaced by an acrid black smoke from the back tire well of the Dodge Dart. The shooters, seeing their prey wounded and lame, keyed in on the felled auto for a final barrage. It exploded in flames in a matter of minutes. Meeting up by the grandstands (oh yes, there were grandstands; where else would the fans sit?), my buddy and I, a little shell-shocked, agreed: tomorrow we must give these guns a try.
On the second day of the shootout, attendance had grown fivefold. The twisting highway that buttressed the range was now lined on both sides with parked vehicles as far as the eye could see. With the sun smiling down, a phalanx of bikers, militia survivalists and white supremacists showed off their Turner Diaries and Ruby Ridge T-shirts, not to mention tattoos of swastikas and the Texas Syndicate, a Latino prison gang. Over in the exhibitors' tent, World War II-era Nazi armbands were going for $400 us, while bumper stickers featuring Confederate flags and the slogan "If I knew this would happen I would have picked my own cotton" did brisk business.
Down at the lower range, it was time to fire some machine guns. Looking at the menu for the day, I decided on the MP5 while Ian picked an M16, both $30 us for thirty rounds. After a ridiculously lax screening process consisting of giving a name and phone number, I stepped up to the plate. "Just hold it like a rifle," said the exhibitor. Not wanting to let on that I had never held a gun, let alone fired one, I pleaded left-handedness until the exhibitor manoeuvred the gun into the right position. The barrel was hot from repeated firings, but the gun felt surprisingly comfortable in my hands. I squeezed off a couple of short bursts to get the feel of it, then sprayed the rest of my payload across the hull of a small boat located sixty feet away. The trigger went limp, and my turn was done. Mission accomplished.
As we made our way back to the main range, a young man laid down $200 us and took up the challenge everyone coveted: the flame-thrower. Donning a fireproof vest and a riot-cop helmet, he and his buddies were escorted onto the range by security as the crowd passed the news along the chain-link fence: someone was going to use the flame-thrower! After an initial blast of liquid, the weapon spat out a huge plume of fire, immediately engulfing the back end of a school bus. The young man then squirted off a few more fireballs, and the whole bus went up like a car bomb.
We decided that it was time to get going. I took one last look around: empty casings, empty Dr. Pepper bottles. A steady stream of burly dudes in White Pride T-shirts were making their way from the parking lot. A tow truck was dragging a city bus onto the range. I knew I was going to miss this place.