Kaboom! Bang! Explosions downrange, machine guns going off, helicopters flying overhead, entire belts of tracers stitching their way across the range in the darkness. You’ve all seen it, the famous Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot through Youtube videos or various other online sources. The amount of “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” are uncountable from shooters and teenagers alike from across the nation as we watch with open mouths as the Shoot is displayed across the screen on full size. But what is exactly is Knob Creek? And how does it actually work? Can a person just waltz into where ever it takes place and start shooting machine guns at random? This post will address these topics as well as a quick Q and A with Kenny Sumners, the current owner of the range. Although there has been many photo heavy posts on TFB about the shoot, there hasn’t been a post detailing exactly how the shoot works from a bystander’s perspective.
The author has been to the machine gun shoot twice, the April 2010 Shoot and this previous October 2014 shoot. Both times were exhilarating, but for the purposes of this post the shoot will be divided into a number of sections: Parking/ Camping/ Entry, the Main Line, Gun Show/ Venders, Gun Store area, lower range, and competitions.
Parking/Camping/Entry- To begin with, the range is located off local highway 44, which intersects Federal Highway 60 that runs south from Louisville, Kentucky. It’s about 30-40 minutes from that city. The amount of people that attend the shoots is just staggering, something like 10,000 people over the course of three days. The range has to hire over 200 extra people to staff the shoot. There is a huge parking area off the main road but this gets quickly filled up and people start parking on the sides of highway 44. You don’t have to pay for parking either, it’s free. Past the parking area and off into the woodline is the camp grounds. The website describes it best-
Camping at Knob Creek Gun Range is only offered the week of the Machine Gun Shoot & Military Gun Show. It is offered on a first come first serve basis and is pro-rated. Those arriving Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday will pay $50.00 per person, campers setting up Thursday will pay $40.00 per person, campers setting up Friday will pay $30.00 per person and campers setting up Saturday will pay $20.00 per person. Campers under 18 are free if accompanied by their parents. Be advised there are no electric or water hookups, however Port-A- Pots are available.
These campgrounds are usually occupied by bystanders or the various dealers that come to shoot so they don’t have to drive back and forth between hotels every day. During the early morning hours, the traffic backlog is quite intense and it takes a while to find a spot because everyone is coming in. Upon parking, bystanders line up for the entry gate and pay a $15 fee that includes an entry wrist band, while children under 12 are $5. In earlier years a video fee was applied but since technology has made cell phone cameras just as good as video cameras, this fee no longer applies and bystanders can take all the video they want with whatever device they have. The entry fee is also per day instead of for all three days. Firearms whether concealed or not must be declared at the gate and an orange zip tie is inserted through the action. You can bring ammunition, but it cannot be in the firearm you are bringing in. Just like normal Gun Shows, often you’ll see people coming in with rifles slung on their backs with papers attached to them, looking for people to buy them at the Shoot.
Main Line- As bystanders pass the gate and walk down the road to the shoot, the Main Firing Line is on the left and the gun store/ Military Gun Show is on the right. This is the central focus of the shoot, and is what is shown in all the online videos. But here is where the misconception lies, because people who watch the videos assume you can just pay for a machine gun rental and jump on the Main Line. The Main Line is reserved solely for dealers and people with large machine gun collections. The process to get on the main line takes years just to get a spot because there are so many dealers trying to get on it. Often times once a dealer gets on the Main Line, they will reserve their spot for the next year and the years after that. You can see this if you look carefully at videos online, as you can sometimes see the same machine guns on the line year after year. There usually isn’t a shoot without some miniguns for example. These things are absolutely earth shattering, when they open up, their rate of fire starts off slow but then they reach a crescendo of shooting that sometimes goes on for an entire minute and you can feel it in the ground beneath your feet.
The line itself is over 400 meters in length and is underneath an awning. This is separated from bystanders by a wooden fence so you can’t actually get to the machine guns and mingle with the dealers. This is done for safety reasons. Safety is a huge part of the shoot and another reason why an extra 300 people are needed to make it run. Range Safety officers in bright orange Knob Creek shirts are present all over the premises. Between each bout of shooting, they clear every single machine gun brought to the line. Placing firearms safety above all is evident in the only fatalities that occurred at the range were from a Minigun falling on a child and some campers that asphyxiated in their tents one year. Although these deaths are horrible and needless, they weren’t from a machine gun being negligently discharged in the wrong direction.
There are three options to watch the shoot. The first is to stand in the road behind the Main Line but this is almost completely crowded so the best thing to do is to hold a spot behind the line before everyone else starts packing it in. The second option are the bleachers behind the road, these provide some elevation but the best option is the third one and this is the bleachers that stand about 30 feet high and are located behind the far left section of the Main Line. All these shoots are scheduled as well, so ask any Knob Creek employee when the next shoot will be and you’ll never miss a particular bout.
The shooting bouts area organized in waves. So the main Range Officer in charge will call out “Ready on the right, Ready on the left”. At these commands, the various range officers on the line will hold up a clipboard that is colored green on one side and red on the other. If his section of the line is ready, he will hold up green, if not, then red. When green has been shown down the entire line, the firing line is ready and the main RSO will call out “Ready on the firing line” and this begins the cascade of fire that Knob Creek is so famous for. Sometimes the line will open up after a certain que, for example at this past October shoot, someone had a birthday that day and the line opened up after they blew up a pyrotechnic charge with a machine gun. During the night shoot, they’ll sometimes turn off the lights and this will be the que to open fire. Either way, the bouts usually last about 30-45 minutes and are ended with an all clear signal. Then it will be several hours until the next bout. In between bouts, Knob Creek employees will ride out in ATVs and reset the pyrotechnic charges in the various used cars and boats that are on the range. Knob Creek was originally a testing site for naval cannons during World War Two, so the backstop is literally a sheer cliff that all the machine guns are firing into. Because the bouts are longer in recent years, the range is allowing people to walk into the firing area and people pick up various souvenirs such as expended bullets downrange.
Going to the Shoot in 2010 and in 2014, there was a recognizable difference in the length between bouts and the intensity in firing. This is due to the ammunition shortage and rising price. Of the three days that the shoot takes place on, it’s scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Saturday night is the all dark night shoot which is almost the prime attraction. If you can only spend an hour at Knob Creek, going to the night shoot would make it entirely worth it. Saturday is the best day anyways, because Friday starts out slow and usually the various venders and dealers are still showing up. Sunday, all the dealers are starting to pack up and go home, with Saturday everyone is there to stay and the shoot is in full swing.
Usually at least once a day, before a bout of shooting, there is a prayer from a local priest and a singing of the National Anthem broadcasted on the PA system. There is also a live band that comes in and sets up behind the firing line, a nice little touch.
Gun Show/Venders- The Military Gun Show is one of the largest Class Three Machine Gun Shows in the United States. Unlike a typical gun show, these dealers are mostly focused on Machine Guns and Machine Gun parts. There are a number of venders who bring typical firearms to sell as well. Recently the Show portion was upgraded with a roof that connects the Show to the store thus giving more cover for people. This is of particular importance because if a reader is considering a visit to the shoot, boots and a good jacket are certainly recommended as walking around, the ground can get very muddy depending on the weather conditions. The number of venders there is also just staggering as not all all of them can fit under the show roof and the remainder are spread around the store in a semi circle shape. Alot of people come to the Shoot just to go to the show because of the prices. Some of these outside venders aren’t even selling goods related to firearms. Alot of them deal in military surplus such as uniforms, gear and flak jackets. For example there was a vender selling airsoft guns and another one that was just selling 550 paracord bracelets. Another one was just selling pizzas!
Gun Store Area- The store at the Knob Creek range is the only part of the show that is open year around to visitors. It in of itself is an excellent gun store, and extremely large at that. In addition to rows of glass display cases that wrap themselves around the store filled with handguns, and the walls that are lined with rifles, they have entire shelves and walls filled with accessories and magazines. In the back of the store is the cafeteria section. During the shoot, bystanders can go back there and buy various snacks or refreshments to fill up on between bouts of shooting at the main line. There are also TV monitors mounted throughout the cafeteria that show live footage from the Main Line so you can see what is going on downrange.
Lower Range- The lower range is called the lower range because it is in fact at a lower elevation than the Main firing range. You have to walk about 600 meters from the Main Line, down a hill and you’ll find the lower range. This is where you can actually rent machine guns for a price. A couple of dealers set up here with their machine guns and they charge by the belt or magazine for any particular firearm. The going rate is about $40 for a magazine and $50 for a belt. They also have deals so they’ll only charge $60 for two magazines instead of $80 total. Once paid and paired up with a certain firearm, the dealer staff will stand next to you to ensure safe firing and to clear the firearms once they’ve been shot.
This is also where you can bring your own firearms and ammunition, and for $10 you can shoot on the line next to the dealers. There are no pyrotechnic charges here but there are various cars and objects strewn out in the field that can be shot at. Although at various times during the Shoot, the lower range is closed due to the military rifle competitions that take place on it.
Behind the Lower Range is the Jungle Walk, as is shown in Lee Ermy’s Knob Creek visitation video. This course involves an Uzi and several magazines, while walking through a lane with various targets set up to shoot at with the full auto Uzi. A machine gun collector recently commented that after Lee Ermy’s show, the crowd at Knob Creek changed. The class three community is a very tight knit group when it comes to the people buying and selling historical machine guns. Usually a member of the community will know exactly what each other member has, precisely because the guns they deal in are so rare. Often conversations with them will sound like this, ” Yea, I saw Dolf with those two Maxims made in 1915 but he wasn’t willing to part with them so I went over to Frank and see if he wanted to talk about letting go of his M1918 BAR that he got in the late 80s”. This community of class three dealers was very lively before the Lee Ermy Show and it was a closed group in a way, because before the show, Knob Creek wasn’t really on the public’s map. After Lee Ermy put it in the public eye, it attracted a larger amount of people but these were normal shooters who just wanted to come and see the shoot and not the interesting amateur historians who collected machine guns. Although this community is still at the Shoot, it’s not the same community that was there before Lee Ermy’s debut. And that’s not a good or bad thing, but an interesting change of the crowd as seen from a collector who had been going to every shoot since the early 1990s.
Competitions- A little known fact that doesn’t often find itself on Youtube are the competitions that take place. Although most of these are centered around fully automatic submachine guns, there are competitions centered around military rifles (mostly bolt actions), and shotguns to name a few. These are organized just like any other firearms competition but have full auto modes of fire taken into consideration. This means that they have more targets than normal. An interesting fact about the submachine gun competitions is that a number of international shooters travel to the United States every year just to participate in them because they can’t have full auto guns in their own countries. They usually use firearms belonging to Class Three owners and they actually do quite well. This year there was a couple Dutch shooters who have been coming since before 2010. There was also a Russian shooter.
Q & A with Kenny Summners
While at Knob Creek, TFB was able to catch up with Kenny Summners and talk to him a little about the Shoot and the range in general. He is the current owner of the range, and during the shoot was in the gun store patiently pulling out various firearms and talking to people about them, just like any one of the other store employees would be doing.
The Firearm Blog- How did the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot start and when?
Kenny Summners- The Shoot started in about 1973, my father and several of his buddies got together with their full auto guns and had a meeting and shot, and had a good day. At the end they said, “Hey, we’ve got to do this again sometime”. So they did it again the next year, and for the next, a few more friends joined in, and then it just snow balled into the big event that it is now.
TFB- So it’s considered the largest Machine Gun Shoot in the world right now isn’t it?
Summners- We stake the claim, I don’t know, if there is someone out there who can claim something different. I’ve never been to the Big Sandy Shoot in Arizona, never even been to any other one for that matter. I can’t get away from this one (laughter ensues).
TFB- So how did the shoot become what it is today in it’s vastness.
Summners- You know I don’t really know, mostly just word of mouth. Coast to coast there’s alot of places across the country that you can’t shoot machine guns or no one has any, we have that luxury here to do that on a wide scale. When Gunny Ermy came here that helped alot, it propelled us into the mainstream because he was a popular guy, and is a super nice guy. He was down to earth too, he was here until midnight signing autographs for people. He could have left at 10:00 like the other vendors did, but he stayed on. He hung out here like a trooper and the last person who wanted an autograph, he’d give it to them.
TFB- I came here in 2009, and I’ve noticed that the intensity of the shoot has gone down a little bit.
Summners- I’m saying probably the price of ammunition has slowed people’s trigger fingers down a whole lot. Most of the guys out here save up from shoot to shoot to be able to do shoots. The availability of some ammo is a little hard to get.
TFB- What about the dealers on the Main Line?
Summners- We have a waiting list for shooting positions and or vender spots out in the show area. So that stuff, literally someone almost has to pass away in order for a spot to come open and that will allow someone else to move up on the waiting list. The shooters will pay up for their spot almost six months ahead of time to ensure that they have a spot. We have to hire on another 200 folks to facilitate the shoot, security, garbage pick up, grilling of the food, the serving of the food. We’re running almost three shifts per day of security guys.
TFB- So how does the command work here?
Summners- My dad actually still owns the place, I am the head guy in charge of things, I’ve had the luxury of running it for the past 35 years. My brother does all the pyrotechnic placing out on the range and runs the ATV crews. My son takes care of setting the targets out there as well. My wife does all the hiring of the employees.
TFB- You’ve obviously got a million things to take care of but you’re right here in the gun store, showing people stuff.
Summners- This is my job, you know I’m here, I’m not untouchable, I like talking to people, I like selling the guns.
TFB- Just from being around here, safety is paramount to the shoot, but there was a fatality in the 90s?
Summners- We had a shooter here back then who had a triple minigun, they had shot it before, the shooters daughter (who was a child) had shot it before. But this particular time the father wanted to step back and take some pictures and he normally had his foot on the end of the tripod. Just that little bit of extra weight kept the thing down while shooting. So when he stepped back and his daughter started shooting, the thing reared back and crushed her. You know those three miniguns are about 75 pounds a piece and they just landed right on her head. That’s the only fatality Knob Creek has had on the firing line. We have a had another fatality in the campgrounds where some campers asphyxiated themselves by having a propane heater and zipped it up entirely and they passed away during the night. Safety out on that firing is priority. I know the shooters get tired of hearing the same commands every hour and they run over it all the time and my guys are always checking their guns to make sure they’re clear. It’s just one of those precautions we’ve got to take when we’ve got this many people around.
TFB- Has there ever been a particular shoot that stands out in your mind as truly significant?
Summners- We’re still waiting for that shoot! It’s yet to come!