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March 28, 2006

Home on the range: At Knob Creek, the sound of gunfire is a popular American song

STORY AND PHOTOS BY Marty PearlKnob Creek Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun ShowApril 7-9More info at www.machinegunshoot.comI’m walking walk down the dusty stretch that leads to the main firing line at Knob Creek Gun Range, wading through military, ex-military, militia, gun vendors and god knows who else. It’s easy to lose yourself amid the sporadic crackle of semi-automatic machine guns and the thunderous booms of antique cannons, and I feel, for the moment, completely removed from “my world,” even though I’m just across the Jefferson County line.The echo of shotguns and rifles seems to propel me along the tree-lined road, and I imagine this is how war would sound if it ever broke out in Kentucky again: spread through a densely forested area, a threat mostly heard but unseen, a bombardment of the senses and imagination.These are not daily sounds in my world. Oh, I hear the occasional random shot on summer nights in my neighborhood, courtesy of nearby Butchertown, Smoketown and Shepard Square. This is, well, crazier.That “stranger in a strange land” feeling that comes around when I’m out of my element consumes me as I near the crowd of thousands. Bewilderment more than fear, and anticipation about what I might photograph and experience. Knob Creek Gun Range — est. 1963 — is home to the nation’s largest machine-gun shoot and military gun show. Located on 600 acres just a mile off Dixie Highway in West Point — a former naval proving ground adjacent to Fort Knox, about 30 miles south of Louisville — Knob Creek is open year-round and promises a family-friendly environment with strict policies on gun-handling and safety.The range has played host to a semi-annual machine-gun shoot since the early 1970s, drawing visitors from around the world to its campgrounds and multiple firing ranges. Machine gun rentals, firearms competitions, military displays and themed events comprise the weekend’s activities.Owner Ken Sumner took over for his father in 1985; in those days, he tells me, the shoot drew about 300 people. He does little advertising outside of publications like Shotgun News, Gun List and Small Arms Review; he thinks the event’s popularity has grown as general interest in machine guns has increased over the last 8-10 years. The Internet may help explain how people find their way here from places like New Zealand, Australia, England and Finland, but you can’t overlook the fact that machine guns are heavily regulated in most states. “Most states prohibit the firing of fully automatic weapons past a 10-round burst,” Sumner said, “but in Kentucky, you can fire off an entire belt up to infinity without a break in the burst.”I ask if he’s had complaints from neighbors about the noise.“Well,” he says, “we have been here since ’63, so if they live around us, they most likely moved here after us.” And, after all, the property is near Fort Knox and its loud training grounds. Noise is part of the landscape.The shooting is only a portion of the overall picture at a Knob Creek machine-gun shoot. Situated under a large pavilion, a show area includes some 250 vendors spread over 800 tables. It’s like a flea market for outdoorsmen and militants. Old-fashioned patriotism runs high in such crowds, and the NRA booth is usually busy with its new membership drive. Authors peddle books and gun and ammo merchants network and market wares directly, a change from their usual Internet sales.A small store and concession area also operate at the range, where visitors can buy new and used firearms, ammunition, scopes, mounts and the ever-important eye and ear protection. Federal gun laws apply.The October shoot drew 11,000 people, and that number is expected to hit 15,000 for the spring shoot, which rolls around next weekend — April 7-9. Aside from the random firing on the lower range, the main line is silent as I finally find myself in the sea of gun enthusiasts, curious onlookers and, believe it or not, entire families.Then it happens — Knob Creek’s Semi-Annual Machine Gun Shoot commences. The Range Masters motion and the loudspeaker bellows: “FIRE!”What ensues is a roar of two-dozen plus machine-guns discharging at once, followed by explosions: a donated bass boat and a Toyota Celica give up the ghost for the audience’s viewing pleasure. The heart-shaking report of a 50-caliber mounted rifle shouts above the zipping sound of its automatic brethren. Not to be outdone, a Civil War era cannon ka-booms with authority.A cloud of dust envelops the cheering crowd for several minutes. The smell of gunpowder, WD-40 and burning vehicles permeates the air, and once I snap out of the trance of destruction, I realize something profound. My Bohemian sensibilities are not present — they’re back in my Highlands home. Instead, my inner redneck is riding shotgun in this loud place. The fire-cracker-lovin’, blowin’-up-shit-in-the-backyard, shootin’-guns-with-my-Papaw Shively kid has emerged, a rare appearance since he left the Dixie Highway glamor in ’89 for a stint in the Navy.The faces in the crowd no longer seem strange. A personal inventory check reminds me that I am 1) a veteran of Desert Storm  2) the recipient of Navy medals for expertise with rifles and pistols and 3) raised very close to these same hills.These people are actually my kind of people, and very much the face of present-day face America — at least in the red states. The symphony of gunfire awakens this side of me.Of course, this happy realization glosses over the fact that these are most likely the same people who put our man Bush in office, but hey, I’m here for fun. That infraction will have to slide. And besides, it’s a gorgeous, sunny October day, and now the place is buzzing in a new way. Someone’s coming through the crowd, and judging by the excitement, it might even be Elvis or the Beatles. There have been rumors about the a surprise guest. Turns out they’re true.“We love you, Gunny!” a woman shouts.It’s R. Lee Ermey. He’s famous for his turn as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” Stanley Kubrick’s classic Vietnam film (“What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? Didn’t Mommy and Daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?”). These days he’s the host of The History Channel’s “Mail Call.”I tag along with his film crew and experience firsthand his Jesus-like effect on the crowd. To most, he is a savior spokesman for the gun life they love so much. Unlike Heston, who comes from Hollywood, Ermey is regarded as a soldier more than actor. The crowd shows him so much love that he seems overwhelmed.I stick around the entire day for the marquee event — the night shoot. The vibrant colors of tracer fire against the black country night are both surreal and a tangible testimony to America’s love of firepower. A helicopter hovers over the range and blasts fuel-filled vehicles. The heat coming from the explosions makes the brisk October night tolerable, and the crowds cheer enthusiastically with each detonation.Near the firing line, I meet George “Little Fat Guy” Christy of Williamsburg, Va., who’s come equipped with a “Mag .58, .50 BMG, and .30 Browning.” He’s been to Knob Creek several times for the semi-annual event, and says it’s a communal thing.“It’s like a family reunion for most of us,” he says. “We see a lot of the same people here year after year and have developed great friendships.”I look down the line. Most of the participants don’t look like gun-crazed militia, just avid collectors, not that different than people who collect cars or antiques as a hobby. They are passionate and fun-loving individuals drawn together around a common interest twice a year.On this lovely fall day, I’ve pointed my camera at an American subculture and seen it in a different light — beyond stereotypes, clearer amid the smoke. Maybe, like Francis Scott Key in a trench 200 years ago, a mental wake-up call really can be inspired by the thunder of gunfire.That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. See more of the author’s Knob Creek photos at http://martypearl.smugmug.com. Contact him through his Web site.