Before the opening salvo of the Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show, a circle of men gathered to pray.
A narrow ravine formed an amphitheater behind them. They were in the woods, but the ravine was clear. On its far side, 300 yards off, a line of junked cars lay in the grass, each packed with dynamite. Just behind the men, a hundred machine guns pointed at the cars. On tables and racks in between the guns sat hundreds more assault rifles, pistols, and grenade launchers.
The men prayed between the firing line and a plywood stand that served hot dogs with relish and mayonnaise. “I ride a Harley,” the reverend began, speaking through a PA. “I never thought I’d be a preacher. But then, you never know what Jesus will bring.”
Some of those present got down on one knee and clamped downcast eyes shut. Others stood, but placed their ten-gallon hats and trucker caps over plaid shirts and tank-tops on swollen chests. Two old salts with wild beards tore in on Harleys. They prayed with murderous rifles festooned with optics and radiators slung over their black leather jackets, forming steeple gestures with their leather gloves.
“Let Jesus into your heart,” the reverend said, “Let Him set you free. You can’t do it any other way.”
It was quiet for the last time.
Every June, the Firing Line Gun Shop teams up with Okie Big Bores and the target-maker Exploding Scarecrows to sponsor “OFASTS” in the hills around Wyandotte, Oklahoma. Shoots like these are held routinely in states with permissive gun laws. There’s the Dry Creek Shoot in Arizona. There’s the Texas Shoot. There’s the Knob Creek Shoot in Bullitt County, Kentucky, the greatest Shoot in America; it features a helicopter gunship and is popular among neo-Nazis.
Sometime in 2006 I saw a video of a previous OFASTS on YouTube. The video showed a father teaching his young daughter how to fire a mounted machine gun, and subsequently the girl blew up a car. After watching the video I resolved to attend. You couldn’t find anything like it in my home state of California.
It was hard to get to Wyandotte, though. I caught a Greyhound to Joplin, Missouri, but I had to hitchhike the rest of the way. A driver who described Joplin as “the meth capital of the world” brought me from there to Wyandotte. I got the impression that he was a cynic, but when he dropped me off he said “God bless you.” His city has since been flattened by a tornado.
Not knowing where the Shoot was held, I had him drop me off in downtown Wyandotte, which is entirely composed of an Indian casino. I walked into the cigarette cloud therein and had biscuits and gravy at the cafeteria. The biscuits were hot but the gravy was cold. The surrounding land was flooded with stagnant water from which trees grew and in which duff and garbage floated. The roads crossed these swamps on raised dikes.
From Wyandotte I walked east in a cloud of mosquitoes. I found the Firing Line sagging behind a barren lot by State Route 60. No one was around, but the door was open, so I went in. A rack of automatic rifles stood in the showroom. Behind the counter was a spread of machine guns, broken furniture, and odd, oily tools. Eventually someone showed up and told me how to get to the Shoot, and I walked farther, until I got to an intersection next to a wrecked house. A dirt road wound into the hills.
I stuck my thumb out until a Chevy truck pulled over. A young boy hung out the window. I said nothing but “o-fasts” to the driver, a middle-aged, potbellied man wearing a T-shirt whose front read “Infidel” in both English and Arabic script. This shirt was popular at the Shoot, alongside ones that said “Happiness Is A Belt-Fed Weapon” and something about Russia having produced nothing worthwhile besides suicidal novelists and the Kalashnikov rifle. “Hop in,” the man said.
We drove into the hills. The man said he was from “M’srr” and that he had once lived in San Jose and couldn’t imagine returning. Because of his drawl he was often unintelligible to me, but I could understand the boy. He talked about all the guns he’d fingered in his short life. “I’ve blown up cars, I’ve blown up buses,” he said. The man looked on impassively. “I don’t think there’s any boy in the world who’s lived a life like me.”
The announcer took the PA from the reverend.
“Last year we had an accident,” he said. “And it was just that: an accident. We don’t want nothing like that this year.”
The Shoot employed a few safety measures. Armed men in camouflage fatigues and event T-shirts—the “range officers”—enforced a rule that all guns had to have open bolts and something sticking into the barrel to prove it whenever anyone was out on the range. “Don’t argue with the range officers,” the announcer warned. One of them had a bad tic and a gaunt face.
Along one end of the line were parked five vehicles from Wyandotte Fire and Rescue, including a cherry red Humvee with a hose gun on the roof.
“Last year it seemed like there was a fire every half hour,” the announcer continued. “So when a fire breaks out, we’re gonna call the line cold and let the fire department get out there and put it out.”
Three hundred people sat fidgeting with their triggers and sighting through their scopes, impatient for the line to go hot. A helicopter circled repeatedly. Some talked politics. “It’s those goddamn Obama voters!” exclaimed a hot-faced man, one cowboy boot resting on a rail.
An hour of preparation had followed the prayer. Potbellied men on quad-runners and in lifted pickups—they called themselves “explosive experts”—drove around stringing up an elaborate network of bombs across the far hillside. The announcer said, “Anticipation is a real killer.”
A Texas gun shop had brought a trailer with shutters along one side that opened to reveal a line of belt-fed, mounted 50-caliber machine guns. They had brought a hundred thousand rounds. From the trailer floated a twangy patriotic ballad as the Texans cleaned and adjusted their guns. Beside the trailer was a dune buggy from the Red Dirt Armory mounted with forward and rear pivoting machine guns. On its other side was parked a truck with a bumper sticker that said “This is My Peace Sign” under a pair of crosshairs.
The central target on the far side of the ravine was a red Ford van. Painted on its windshield were the words “Kill Me” and a smiley face.
“You’re gonna see the windshield get blown a hun’rd yards in the air,” one man said. “Last year a big ol’ chunk of it landed right there,” he said, pointing at a spot near where I was standing.
Two men lay on the ground behind 50-caliber rifles, perfecting their aim. A sniper was to set off the initial blast, a small charge behind the van that got it rolling down the hill. Meanwhile, the explosive experts would detonate all the other bombs around it in quick succession. No one was to kill the car before it had rolled at least ten feet, though, because that would deprive everyone of a moving target.
“I need a one-shot, one-kill sniper,” the announcer said. A line of hopefuls gathered around his tent.
After a further period of anticipation, during which everyone lying and crouching with their guns fiddled in agitation with their optics and tried every different shooting position, there came a countdown over the PA. Then the chosen sniper fired from the far end of the line. A puff of dust appeared behind the van.
He had missed. There was a collective sigh. The sniper set himself up for another shot for a couple long minutes, then he missed again.
The sniper missed four more times before he began shooting rapidly. When he finally hit the bomb, nothing happened. There was a collective grumble. The sniper paused while the administrators mulled their next move.
His next shot, though, was a kill. A puff of smoke appeared behind the “Kill Me” van and, with a stilted lurch, it began to roll downhill.
Then the explosives team fired their detonators. The shock waves hit me like a flurry of slaps to the face and gut. Clouds of debris rose like a volcanic eruption and towered a hundred yards in the sky.
Three hundred guns ejaculated fire. All the 50-caliber rifles went off at once. The van caught flame halfway down the hill, bouncing over stones and stumps, and crashed into a tree at the bottom. A kindergartener in pink camouflage fatigues and an American-flag bandanna poured rounds from an M16 longer than she was tall.
Thirty seconds later the van exploded, sending its windshield spinning towards the troposphere. For the rest of the Shoot, there the wreck sat: a blackened, twisted hulk, burning away under a plume of acrid smoke, ballistic lead continuing to rain down upon it. In a few minutes fires broke out in five places in the ravine.
There were myriad weapons available for anyone willing to pay about a dollar a round.
One proprietor wore a shirt that said “In World of Compromise, Some Men Don’t: Heckler & Koch Firearms.” At his booth were arrayed a stack of G3 assault rifles alongside their cousin, the ultramodern G36. There were also MP-5s, a SWAT team favorite, and the Universale Maschinenpistole, a submachine gun that fires 45 pistol bullets in full auto.
Eugene Stoner’s designs were well represented: Bushmasters, M4s, AR-10s, AR-15s. The Soviets made an appearance belying their lack of popularity: Kalashnikovs galore, many with one-hundred-round drum magazines. Jews made a similar showing in Uzis, Galils, and Desert Eagles. There were squad automatic weapons: the Browning and the FN Minimi. There were the eminent and aged: M-14s, FN FALs, M60s. There were gangster favorites: Thompson submachine guns and Ingram MAC-10s. There were pistols, especially at the “Silencers-R-Us” booth, hailing from Lincoln, Missouri, where they lay alongside rifles with long suppressors extending from their barrels. Most of the pistols were fully automatic, such as the Glock 19 autopistol, which empties an elongated 19-round magazine in two seconds.
There was a minigun whose trademark whine scarcely betrayed the thousands of rounds of red-hot lead that it spat every minute. There was a dual-barreled .30-06 machine gun that looked like an anti-aircraft cannon. The minimum payment to shoot the latter piece was $80, and it lasted about four seconds.
There was a shoulder-mounted 40-millimeter cannon, but its owner said it was so dangerous that he would only allow men over 60 to fire it. There was even the opportunity to shoot grenades out of an M203 for $10 apiece.
Over the racket of all the other guns combined came the periodic thumps of the 50-caliber sniper rifles. Each made a gut-churning concussion that felt like it came to the brink of blowing out my eardrums, even though I wore earplugs.
The Barrett 50-caliber rifle is the nuclear missile of rifles. It fires a Browning Machine Gun cartridge that is more than five inches long. The rifle is five feet long, and people usually fire it lying down. This a young man did presently, his can of snuff forming a circular impression in the denim over his butt.
According to the Geneva Accords, it’s illegal to shoot someone with one of these rifles. Its bullet can kill a man in passing. The mere shock wave will tear him open. A direct hit will split him in half. A successful head shot results in decapitation. A Barrett can easily take down a helicopter.
The guy at the trigger couldn’t have been over fourteen. He spit his dip into the sand before firing his $5 bullet.
The atmosphere compressed. The young man got up with a wide grin showing his tobacco-stained braces.
Though everyone else seemed impervious to its ghastly thump, I was too nervous to fire the Barrett. Stepping up to the firing line, I decided to stick with the time-tested weapon of choice for rebel militias everywhere: the AKM rifle. It was just an old hunk of browning metal and stained wood that wouldn’t command more than one goat on the Sahel.
For a thirty-round banana clip I paid $25, and the old “explosive expert” manning the station threw in thirty rounds on the M16 as a bonus. Thirty-round-and-higher capacity magazines are legal in Oklahoma, unlike in California, where laws limit them to ten rounds.
At first I squeezed off a few three-round bursts, attempting to hit the overturned car about 25 yards off, but the gun was incorrigible. It bucked like an angry bull and there were so many other people shooting that I could barely hear it fire or decipher my particular bullet holes in the car.
“I can’t tell if I’m hitting anything,” I screamed towards the proprietor, who was wearing a greasy fish-monger smock.
“Just hold it down at your hip and let ’er rip,” he bellowed back, miming a scene from Commando. I obliged him. In a few seconds the magazine was empty. Cordite smoke twisted upward from the hot barrel.
The proprietor took the AK and handed me an M16. Gun-comparing is the redneck equivalent of wine-tasting. With its plastic stock, the M16 was lighter and tighter than the AK, but in fully-automatic mode it felt just as inaccurate. Since I am left-handed, the hot shells kept hitting me in the face.
After a while the various grass fires on the range merged. The wet grass produced such thick, black smoke that it obscured the burning vehicles that had started the blaze. The wind brought the smoke straight into the firing line. No one stopped shooting for lack of visibility. They carried on, blasting away into the opaque wall of smoke.
As the flames lapped at the edge of the firing line, the range officers called it cold. The Humvee drove around in circles on the grass and a fireman sprayed water on the fires and put them out.
“We’re gonna go ahead and leave that car alone,” one of the officers said, pointing at the burning van at the bottom of the gulch. “Don’t look like it’s gonna catch anything.”
I had planned to stay for two days, in order to see the sniper shoot and the night shoot, where everyone loads their guns with tracers, but by late afternoon I already felt spooked. Part of me finds guns and explosions thrilling, but a bigger part of me is afraid of them.
As I walked down the road leading out of that place, another man and another boy in a jacked-up truck picked me up. The boy was excited. He’d shot everything he’d ever dreamed of shooting. It had been his birthday present, the man said.
In the distance the valley echoed with the drum of gunfire and the whine of supersonic ammo. The sky was red with smoke. The cordite smelled strong even from a quarter mile away. Then I heard a car explode, and whoops of joy rose along the firing line.