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Inside Kentucky’s Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot

Twice a year, thousands come out to watch automatic rifles explode barrels of gasoline – and it’s fun for the whole family

Young Boy Machine Gun Festival Shell Cases

A young shooter relaxes after the shoot.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Last April I spent two days at the Knob Creek Gun Range in Kentucky for their twice-yearly Machine Gun Shoot. I'm Swiss, and have made the U.S. my project to photograph for a few years, so I felt that this needed to be seen and experienced. 
 
America has a relationship with violence and an excitement about war and military that I will probably never understand, and my goal was to somehow find a way into understanding its fascination with guns. I served in the Swiss army, so I've shot plenty of guns. I know what damage an assault rifle can cause, and what responsibility it requires. This is like a weird parallel universe where everyone is carrying a gun in public while eating a sandwich. But despite the intimidating surroundings, people were warm. Compared to other mass events, there was very little tension – everyone I talked to was pleasant and friendly.
 
The main event, the machine gun shoot itself, was a massive display of firepower and destruction. About 50 shooters lined up and on a signal, they shot at cars, boats, fridges, and barrels filled with gasoline. The stands were packed, with security apologizing as they turned people away. As the objects exploded, you could actually feel the heat on your face. Now and then something burning flew off into the woods. People looked at this destruction with such excitement and joy, it was almost sexual. It gave me shudders seeing what these weapons can do. It's impossible to see that damage and not think about what it would do to a human. 
 
The display was impressive for the first minute or two, then it became mundane. A siren marked the end of the shooting cycle. Two hours later, it repeated. After the mayhem, the spectators got a chance to walk on the field and take a close look at the destruction. Throughout my time at the festival, there was a sense of paranoia looming, especially when they saw me taking pictures. A guy asked me in a half-joking way if I was from the government or CIA. I said, also half serious: no, FBI.
Machine Gun Festival

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show, "ghelli" suits for sale

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Blending In

A vendor has sniper camouflage "ghillie" suits on display. 

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