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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 Wreckage War Zone

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: busted bike.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Lost Bike

This scene might as well be somewhere in a war zone, yet people posed in front of it and smiled. 

Machine Gun Festival Boy Standing Photo

Knob Creek Machine Gun Show: boy with machine gun.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Son’s First Machine Gun

A young boy poses for a picture while holding an assault rifle.

Machine Gun Festival Boy Shoot

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: firing range.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Dust Storm

The machine gun shoots take place several times per day. Dozens of people fire all at once at the objects placed down on the range.

Machine Gun Festival Boy Tracer Fire

Knob Creek Kentucky Machine Gun Show: night shoot.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Light Show

During the shoot you can feel the heat of the explosions on your face. Tracer bullets used during the night shoot make it feel straight out of Star Wars.

Machine Gun festival Fire Shoot Loud

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: mushroom cloud of fire.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Apocalypse Now

Abandoned vehicles, barrels of fuel and a variety of appliances are fitted with pyrotechnic charges, and spread across the range. When the machine gun's bullet makes contact, mushroom clouds take over the night sky. 

Machine Gun Festival Family Resting Gunfire

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: shooters taking down time.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Afternoon Rest

Shooters taking a break. Everyone is encouraged to wear ear and eye protection because of the constant gun fire.

Machine Gun Festival trade

Knob Creek Kentucky Machine Gun Show: guns and magazines.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

All-American Entertainment

Free magazines spotlight the love of guns, country and young women in underwear. 

Machine Gun Festival Trade Show

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show marketplace.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Second-Amendment Marketplace

In addition to the shoot, a gun show draws over 900 vendors from across the country to a pole barn next to the range. 

Machine Gun Festival Shooting

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show, caught at 2,000th of a second.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Split-Second Destruction

The last bullet gets ejected from the gun as the first shell touches the ground. The power of modern weapons demonstrated within a 2,000th of a second.

Machine Gun Festival Loud Shots Cover Ears

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show onlookers.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Quiet in the Stands

The noise from everyone shooting on the fire line at the same time can be quite loud, but most people – kids included – don't flinch.

Machine Gun Festival

A young boy watches the Knob Creek Kentucky Machine Gun Show.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Rapt Audience

A young boy stands on a car, mesmerized by the machine guns in the show. 

Machine Gun Festival

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: a girl posing with a machine gun.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Girls, Girls, Girls

A young girl posing for a photo. "That's it," I overheard one of the instructors say. "We need more women!"

Machine Gun Festival

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show, Vietnam-era helicopter.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Jungle Gym

A young boy hanging on to a Huey helicopter. This particular Huey was used as a Dustoff unit Air Ambulance in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972.

Machine Gun Festival

Knob Creek, Kentucky Machine Gun Show: preparing the range for night.

Photograph by Reto Sterchi

Preparing for the Night

A young boy observing the scene. Fires are lit in preparation for the night shoot – the shooters will need to be able to see far down on the range. 

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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