I grew up in a suburb of Boston, Peabody to be precise. While guns were something I saw on TV and in movies, they were never part of my real life. The closest I got to an actual gun growing up was an old BB pistol my dad had in his desk drawer and it didn’t work anyway. Nonetheless, I’ve had an abiding interest in military history, and WW2 history in particular, since I was a lad. This is a bit unusual for someone as lefty as I am, which has led to some fairly amusing situations. For example, I’ve been a member of the Military Book Club for years and the MBC has obviously sold my mailing address to a variety of right wing organizations. I get mailings all the time from the likes of the NRA, and occasionally real wacko newsletters from groups that are one step away from blaming ZOG for all America’s troubles. I look at them, chuckle, and dump them in the recycling bin.
Last year I was designing a World War 2 roleplaying game for Polyhedron Magazine, originally titled Dogface but eventually named V For Victory. I was, as is my habit, doing lots of research. I think I easily spent $300 buying books during that period. One of the chapters was all about guns, so I got pretty familiar with the ins and outs of period weapons. When I was in Las Vegas in March, 2002, I heard about a place that had WW2 guns you could rent out and fire on their shooting range. I didn’t have much interest in shooting modern weapons, but this was intriguing. That September I was back in Vegas, with Nicole and our friends Jess and Kathryn. I had told Jess about the gun place and he was curious as well. The two of us decided to head out there one afternoon and check it out. And hey, I could write it off as research.
I had met Jess when I was working at Wizards of the Coast. He worked in the book publishing department, where he was in charge of the Magic: the Gathering novel line. Like me, Jess was (and is) of a lefty bent and we got on famously. As fate would have it, we both got laid off on the same day (along with scores of other folks). We began to joke that we were “layoff brothers.” Could “machinegun brothers” be far behind?
On a hot, bright Vegas day, we took a cab out to the gun shop. It was some way off the Strip, which was no surprise. It was pretty small inside, but nonetheless there were a good six staff members behind the counters. All of them were wearing bulletproof vests and carrying sidearms. One guy had on cowboy boots, an Old West style holster, and was packing a revolver. Interesting.
The deal was pretty simple. After signing a waiver asserting that you aren’t insane (yes, really), you pick a weapon and choose either 50 or 100 shots. They had a nice variety of WW2 era guns, like the British Sten, the American Thompson, the German MP40, and the American M3 Grease Gun. If you’ve ever seen a WW2 movie, you’ve seen an MP40. They are the German submachineguns that are usually (erroneously) called Schmeissers. Any Nazi villain worth his jackboots carries one in war movies. I decided it was so iconic I had to try it.
Jess hemmed and hawed a bit. He was drawn to the M16, which was big and black. I tried to convince him to try the Thompson (we were already planning on swapping weapons, so we could try two each). “Come on,” I said, “This is a classic. Designed as a trench sweeper for WWI, it arrived too late to see combat. Gangsters loved it, and it went on to serve in WW2.” Jess was not convinced. “There’s something about that M16,” he said.
“So you want the big, black cock of death then,” I said.
Jess smiled. “Yes I do.”
Our helper rang us up, and gave us each 4 magazines of ammo for our guns. Then he pointed to some targets and asked us each to pick one. On most days, you could choose from a tombstone, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden. Seems there had been a run on bin Laden, so they were fresh out. I opted for the more neutral tombstone, and Jess tried to get in the spirit of the place by choosing Saddam Hussein.
Then we got safety goggles and glasses and were led back to the shooting range. It was a spare affair, a small room with three stalls for shooting. When we entered, there were several young Asian guys with pistols finishing up. They were firing them sideways, “gangsta” style. It looked more like Lorezno Lamas on his lame old show Renegade but I kept that observation to myself.
At this point, Jess seemed a bit on edge. He confessed to our drawling assistant that he had never fired a gun before.
“Whut?!” he said, shocked. “Are you from California?”
“Uh, no,” Jess replied. “I’m from Seattle.”
“Oh, well that’s alright.”
The guy turns to me. He had heard me rattling off about the Thompson earlier, so he assumed I was a gun guy. “You’ve fired a gun before, right?” he asked confidently.
“Actually, no,” I said. “This is my first time.”
“Whut?! Are YOU from California?”
“Nope, I’m also from Seattle.”
This seemed to satisfy him, though I’m not sure why. He ran through the basics. Pretty simple really. Then he sent Jess’s target down to the end of the range and handed him the M16.
Jess took it a bit gingerly, put it up to his shoulder, and sighted it down the range. He fired off a tentative first burst.
“You hear that?” our assistant said, pointing down to Saddam, “He’s calling you a sissy boy!”
Jess laid into it and got more comfortable. In no time at all, he had fired off his two magazines and shot up Saddam real good. Our assistant reloaded the M16 and handed it to me. I started with a short burst, to get a feel for it. Had more kick than I expected. Loud too, even with the ear protection. The target was all of 30 feet away, so it was easy even for a rank amateur to hit. I’m sure that was no coincidence.
After I finished with that, it was on the MP40. Compared to the M16, this was like butter. Barely any kick, easy to control for short bursts. I could see why these guns were so handy in street fighting. However, this one was having some trouble with the trigger sticking. While firing my second magazine, the gun just rattled on and on, shooting out sparks near my head. When Jess tried it, he had the same difficulty. Guess that’s what happens to 50 year old guns.
Afterwards, they gave us our targets, and stamped each one with the gun we had fired at it. The shooting hadn’t taken longer than 10 minutes, even with controlled bursts and 200 shots between us. I spent a few minutes looking around the store, checking out their book section in particular. Jess was antsy and clearly wanted to go. Later, over drinks, he told me that he felt like we were imposters in a strange and foreign land. He worried that at any minute, they’d discover that we were pinko, anti-war bastards that had voted against Bush. Maybe he thought they had a special graveyard in the basement for the likes of us!
We got back to the absurdity of the Strip an hour later. The whole thing was a bit surreal, though it made for a good story. So much so that come the next GAMA Trade Show, I ended up back there with Nicole and Hal, who wanted to give it a try. Our version of company bonding, I guess. This time I got to shoot that Thompson and a Sten gun (though they ruined this vintage weapon by sticking a laser scope on it for some strange reason). The Thompson turned out to be the best of the bunch. Sometimes, you’ve got to go with the classics.