Automatic Firearms Bring Both Challenges and Rewards

You have a lot to consider when going 'auto'

December 2014 Features — 03 December 2014

Automatic Firearms Bring Both Challenges and Rewards

Photos by the author

Anticipation. I was awash with it, not unlike the day I shot my new BB gun for the very first time. It was a gift from my dad on my 10th birthday. Now, more years later than I care to admit, I was about to experience another firearm first.

Under the direction of my personal Range Safety Officer, I put on my eye and ear protection and stepped into the shooting range at The Gun Store in Las Vegas. There on the bench lay a World War II icon, a symbol of American freedom and ingenuity, a firearm that movie heroes once carried into battle on the big screen. It was a Thompson submachine gun complete with the military markings to verify it was the genuine article.

After a quick explanation of how the Thompson works and a brief overview of its colorful history, my RSO inserted the magazine and handed me the firearm. I was surprised by its weight; it was much heavier than I expected, but it felt good in my hands. For $60 I purchased the opportunity to empty two 25-round magazines.

“This,” I thought, “is going to be so cool.”

And it was, but when you are firing four- to five-round bursts the experience is over quickly. I suppose you could say it leaves one wanting just a little more.

Perhaps that desire for just a little more has been the driving force behind The Gun Store’s success since Bob Irwin first repackaged what was once a survival store and typical indoor shooting range in 1988. Irwin felt the key to success was in being unique, so he offered his customers the chance to shoot a “machine gun.” Irwin was the first to do so in Las Vegas, the world’s entertainment capital, and the rest is history.

Why provide the opportunity to shoot fully automatic firearms?

“For the people that can’t do it,” said Josh Smith, range supervisor at The Gun Store. “For example, England, Australia, Canada–it is illegal over there so they don’t get a chance to do it. When they come over here on vacation they get to experience shooting a fully automatic gun. Then [there are] your gun enthusiasts right here in America. We get lots of tourists from all over the country.”

Darby Neagle, owner of the Gun Garage, agrees.

“It’s something that is forbidden in their countries, and they want to come over here and try it. I mean they have never held a Glock much less an M-16,” he said. “It is so empowering to them.”

A sampling of the fully automatic firearms that the Gun Garage in Las Vegas makes available to its customers. The range boasts its 12 shooting positions average about 200 shooters per day.

In recent years the Las Vegas area has seen a proliferation of shooting ranges offering customers the chance to fire a variety of fully automatic firearms. Some of the new additions carry names like The Range 702, Battlefield Vegas and Strip Gun Club. As its name indicates the Strip Gun Club is located on the Las Vegas Strip, and the others are no more than a few minutes away. While it is obvious these locations were selected to attract tourists, don’t make the mistake of thinking there isn’t a market among the locals. Most recreational shooters have an almost innate desire to shoot a machine gun.

If you are contemplating adding machine guns as an option at your range, don’t underestimate the response you’ll get from the female side of the shooting market.

“The thing I have been amazed with is the amount of female shooters we have,” said Neagle. “The girls want to come and do something as unfeminine as possible. They want to come in and have a good time. They love it.”

From a marketing perspective, the machine gun ranges in Las Vegas offer their customers multiple options from shooting a single firearm to packages that include multiple machine gun options. Depending on the range, shooters can experience everything from the Thompson SMG and MP40 to the M429 S.A.W. and M16, and from an AK-47 to a Mini-Gun. Prices range from around $60 at the low end to nearly $1,000 or more at the top end. It all depends on what the customer wants to shoot. You can even schedule special events such as bachelor or bachelorette party.

As is true with any new enterprise, there are both challenges and rewards that come with the automatic firearm component. Perhaps two of the most significant challenges a range manager faces are air filtration and customer safety, and both could create liability issues if not done right. Another is finding an adequate supply of parts for vintage firearms should you choose to make them available at your range.

“Air filtration is a huge, huge part of this. All the ranges that are built around the country are designed for basically handguns, and none of the filtration is built for the rapid fire that we see in these machine gun ranges. And they don’t anticipate the amount of airborne lead and dust that goes into the air,” said Neagle, who comes from a construction background and designed his own filtration system. “I had a yellow pad of paper 15 sheets deep just crunching calculations trying to figure out where we need to be, and then we had to build it, and then we had to test and make sure we had it. It was quite an undertaking.”

One of the things that makes obtaining an effective air filtration system so challenging is the lack of systems available to accommodate the need, Neagle said.

“They’re just not out there,” he explained. “We pretty much had to design it for ourselves. From a technical standpoint nobody builds ranges to shoot 10 machine guns at a given time.”

When it comes to designing air filtration you have to think on two levels, he said.

“You not only have OSHA guidelines, which is the air on the inside, but you have EPA guidelines, which govern how much air you discharge out into the atmosphere.”

Another significant challenge on a range where automatic firearms are available is safety. Given the highly publicized and tragic accident that occurred recently when a youngster shooting an automatic firearm at an Arizona range lost control of the gun due to its recoil, safety is a top of mind for Las Vegas range managers. Then again it always has been. To date, none of the facilities contacted for this article have ever experienced an accident involving an automatic firearm. That track record starts with the management philosophy of the facility manager.

“Most of our shooters are novice shooters,” said Neagle. “ So, absolutely, safety is number one. We operate upon the premise that customer service is job one until they walk through that door [range door]; then it is absolutely safety. The RSOs have 100 percent control of that firearm at all times. It is a one-on-one type situation. The customer is never given the opportunity to make a mistake or have an accident and is never in possession of the firearm by him or herself. As soon as the firearm is empty and cleared by the range safety officer, customer service is number one. Now we’re back to let’s take a picture, let’s have a good time. It’s a very good system.”

Range masters at The Gun Store get close to their customers in order to ensure their safety. One hand is placed just behind the gun side shoulder and the other is placed alongside the firearm, just in case the recoil gets the better of the shooter.

The process is very similar at The Gun Store where each RSO completes four safety checks before handing the firearm to the customer on the range. The RSO checks to be sure the chamber is clear when he pulls the firearm from the wall, when he arrives at the range, after the customer is done shooting and again before the firearm is returned to its place on the wall. The only place photos can be taken with a firearm is on the range with the muzzle pointed downrange, even with the chamber cleared.

During my shooting experience at The Gun Store, my RSO warned me beforehand that he would stand very close and well within my comfort zone while I was shooting. He was not exaggerating. During the entire time I held the loaded gun he stood with one hand hovering over my rifle-side shoulder and the other next to the firearm. In that position, he could quickly respond should I have some type of control issue or mechanical problem.

“Most of our range masters are former military or law enforcement, so when they come in they already have a very good grasp on firearm safety,” The Gun Store’s Smith explained. “When you get in here you are in training and there is a three-month probationary period. There is a big standard behind it.”

At Gun Garage, Neagle sees to it that his RSOs are constantly training.

“We train them very hard,” he said. “We have to keep on it and on it and on it. You can’t take the enjoyment out of it because this is for enjoyment, so there is a balancing point. We don’t operate very militantly; we’re not drill sergeants here. This is about having fun, but it has to be safe. It absolutely has to be safe.”

One of the training tools Neagle uses is video from other ranges that have been posted on You Tube. The RSOs are asked to watch the videos and identify where safety could be improved and how to improve it.

When it comes to shooter restrictions Smith generally uses an age range of five to six years as the cutoff point in regards to who is even allowed into the range.

“As far as shooting goes it just depends on the size of the shooter, more or less. We have a kid’s package that includes a .22 pistol and a .22 rifle, and they get to shoot that if they are over six or seven. I wouldn’t put a big machine gun in a little kid’s hands,” said Smith.

Though Gun Garage makes it a point that families are welcome in the range, the facility’s policy is that shooters must be at least eight years of age, but at The Range 702 shooters must be 10 years of age. At both ranges children must be accompanied not only by an adult but by a parent or legal guardian. There is a difference. Gun Garage also lets it be known that its RSOs will “refuse service to anyone we deem cannot safely handle a firearm.”

Perhaps it is just a Las Vegas thing, or maybe it has something to do with the tourism side of the automatic firearm business, but another safety concern is alcohol and even drugs.

“Vegas is obviously the adult entertainment capital of the world, so when they come here most everybody drinks. So, we’ll get a lot of people coming, showing up here with drinks in their hand or already drunk, or they’ll smell like marijuana, something like that,” Smith said.

To deal with customers who might be under the influence, The Gun Store and the other ranges in Las Vegas operate under a zero tolerance policy.

“If there is a group and they get out of the cab, and two of them have drinks in hand, then the whole group can’t shoot. It’s one of those things where you just can’t risk it. Where we believe they are under the influence of something, we’re going to say, ‘Sorry guys, you can’t shoot today,’” added Smith.

A facility that makes automatic firearms available to its customers must have a Federal Firearms License and pay a special occupation tax, said Clint Thompson, the Area Supervisor over Industry Operations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Las Vegas. Before the ATF will issue a Federal Firearms License, however, the applicant must have a facility that is both appropriate and prepared to facilitate the use of firearms. In addition, the range owner must successfully prove to an ATF investigator that he or she knows and understands the regulations that govern the use of all firearms they will have available to sell or rent, Thompson explained.

Moreover, the range must also be properly licensed and permitted to conduct such a business in where it is located. This includes business licenses and special use permits if they are required. The application fee for a Federal Firearms License application is $200, and the license is good for three years. The renewal fee is only $90. The special occupation tax applies to people and entities engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing and dealing machine guns and must be paid annually, he said.

Despite the challenges that come with automatic firearms, both Smith and Neagle are quick to recognize the simple rewards that come with them as well.

“The best reward is this business is all about putting a smile on someone’s face,” Neagle said. “Coming from a construction background, nobody is ever happy in the construction business. It’s always a fight. But this whole business, the basis of our business, is putting a smile on someone’s face. It’s a good experience.”

Elisa Mougey of France receives instruction from a range safety officer at The Gun Store during her recent trip to Las Vegas. She visited the range specifically to shoot the machine guns her home country prohibits.

For Smith it’s all about giving people a chance to do something they have never done before.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people, and when they get that, it’s really rewarding to them, too. And it’s just a lot of fun too,” he said.

Elisa Mougey, a female shooter from France, stopped by The Gun Store to fire a few rounds from multiple firearms. She seemed to agree with both Neagle and Smith, but she let her smile do most of the talking.

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