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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 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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