Bang-Bang Girls
Big guns, flame throwers, and estrogen
Published October 8, 1999 in Scope

What's a girl to do when she finds herself dreaming about tanks and flame throwers, army-issue fatigues and trails of late-night tracer bullets? Or when arches of empty brass casings fly though her mind like sheep, and nothing, but nothing in her waking life fulfills her desire to mark and explode large shiny objects? Stock the cooler, pack a bag, and go to the Hiram Maxim Northeast Military Shoot and Expo.

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... by Michelle Handelman
... in the Scope section
... from October 8, 1999

It all started last year, when one of my students showed me rushes from a documentary he was shooting about a yearly gun show in Northern Maine. Every July, machine gun aficionados from across the globe assemble in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine for some down-home noisemakin' in the home town of Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the first portable fully-automatic machine gun. This ain't no ordinary gun show. Machine guns start at about $10,000, so you've got to pack quite a pocketful to be a player here. But a civilian like me can pay $25 to sample some of the goods.

As my student discussed his plans to pitch the project to HBO, I felt this deep compulsion growing inside me. HBO, Showtime, foreign sales ...who cares?! I just wanted to get a hold of that flame thrower and feel the power of 200 yards of pure fire being released from my fingertips. Lara Croft, move over, I've got some heavy artillery waiting for me.

I brought my friend Svea to the shoot with me, figuring two babes had double the attraction power and we could always cover for each other if things got tense. We signed in and walked past the tables of antique weapons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers reading "Stop honking, I'm reloading." We flashed our shooters badges at the wooden barrier and entered the live fire area where approximately 100 machine guns stood before us. Anxious to get our hands on some hot metal, we asked one of the guys in the red staff shirts what to do.

"Go talk to Bob," he said, pointing to a gentle-looking hippie guy wearing an "Art Saves Lives" t-shirt. Bob Neass, a glass blower, sculptor and expert on the Hiram Maxim, had three guns lined up on the range; for $50, you could shoot 100 rounds. I'd shot enough guns in my life to know that 100 rounds would last about sixty seconds -- if I took my time -- but the need to feed my desires was stronger than concerns about any future economic deficit.

Instantly, I found myself hugging an MG 42 air-cooled 8mm belt-fed 1953 German-issue Browning. Too large for operation by hand, the MG 42was set on a sturdy tripod, and I had to lay down on my knees and belly to get in the proper shooting position. With one hand pivoting the barrel, the other tapping the trigger, it felt more like an amusement park game than a machine designed to blow humans to bits. I set my sights on one of the three cars (and one wooden cow) that were set up as targets. There was no recoil, no weight in my arms, and easy side-to-side action.

It was fairly impossible to see what I was hitting with all the high-powered ammo filling the air with smoke. The incessant vibration rat-tat-tat-ing up my spine sent me straight into warrior mode, increasing my aggression and preparing me for a fierce defense. Being on my belly allowed me to dream of our men in green: In the knolls of Bunker Hill, the streets of Nazi Germany, the jungles of 'Nam, I was shooting one big motherfuckin' machine gun and no one better cross my path! Whew, all that in sixty seconds! I shared my rounds with Svea, then Bob cut us a deal, and after that we didn't have to pay for a thing. Like I said, two babes....

The next friend we made was Charlie Logan. An industrial engineer and private arms dealer, he spent the day teaching us the difference between air-cooled and water-cooled, between select-fire and full-auto, telling us stories about the people we would soon meet: "You've got some heavy players here: wealthy oilmen, retired ambassadors, government agents... In fact, there's probably over half a million dollars worth of firearms on this line. Well, more if you count Richard's tank."

Richard, an anthropology professor at The University of Vermont and a regular at these shoots, had a US Army WWII tank complete with missile launchers and a price tag upwards of $250,000 -- if you don't count the Army-issue truck needed to haul it. "Where do you go to get gas for this?" I asked. "The gas comes to you," he said, with the baddest badboy smile spreading across his face. "You should have seen the looks we got driving up here. There's no greater authority than a tank rolling into town."

Charlie set us up to shoot his HK 53 select-fire assault rifle. This was it. This baby was like a nymphomaniac out of control at a gang-bang, and as I wrestled with the kickback I could feel the staff guards circle around me, trying to protect the crowds while Svea tried to take a photo. The HK 53 was the Rambo baby you see in the movies. Black, sleek, and compact like a panther, with a radar scope and a sound like electronic death. It gave you the feeling that if you didn't kill something with it, it would kill you.

When asked why they do it, all the guys gave me the same answer: "It's just like driving a fast car." But I could tell that was just a mantra designed to hide their real desire -- to get closer to God and ultimate power. And if you couldn't reach God, a king or general would do.

"The last time I saw you I was headed to Saudi Arabia to demo a bunch of arms for the King." This burly guy at the next booth next to us is addressing Charlie, the arms dealer. "I sold them a couple hundred arms but they didn't have anyone who knew how to operate them, so they flew me out first-class, set me up in a four-star hotel and had me give a private demonstration for the King. Can you believe it? They paid me to shoot my own guns! Man, I love this work."

But it was really that big motherfuckin' flame thrower that had brought me here, so when I was told that the guy who owned it hadn't shown up, I felt more than a little cheated. But the god of fire was with me. Within moments, some other guy showed up with a flame thrower and did a demo. He said the wind was too high to let anyone else use it. No one seemed to know who he was, but he showed up, he had a flame thrower, so they made space for him to use it. It was that kind of a place.

It was a day of friendly fire, comparing industry notes and catching up with old friends, and when topics such as Littleton or Waco came up, the consensus was always the same:

"Guns don't kill people, people do, and a couple of bad apples are spoiling it for the rest of us. Certainly, no one at this event abuses their weaponry. I mean when was the last time you heard of a sniper using a 1917 water-cooled Rock Island Arsenal?"

It's hard to argue with that.

Michelle Handelman is a multimedia artist, writer and filmmaker who divides her time between New York, San Francisco and the hottest corridors of Hell. Her titles include: Blood Sisters, now out on home video, Sugar Baby, A History of Pain and her latest video animation, Anal Treet. She currently teaches in the Media Studies Graduate Program of The New School University, New York City.