Originally created 06/20/04

Collectors, owners get trigger-happy



Toombs Lewis Jr. clicked off the safety of his vintage Thompson submachine gun and squeezed the trigger. Then he grinned.

"Ain't it great?" he said above the sputter of gunfire, as spent .45 caliber casings spiraled into a wide arc. "I've been doing this since I was a kid. It's a fun hobby."

The Athens, Ga., banker joined dozens of other machine gun buffs last weekend at Fort Gordon's remote Range 16 - where credentialed visitors were invited to fire away with the biggest guns they own.

"We do this about three times a year," said Fred Perry, the post's outdoor recreation manager. "We get guys from all over Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee."

The Fun Shoot gave collectors and licensed machine gun owners an opportunity to try out their heavy firepower in a safe and appropriate setting - such as the post's machine gun range - where targets include junk vehicles and metal containers set among hillsides as far as 2,000 yards away.

The biggest guns are the .50-calibers. And the biggest of the .50 calibers was Henning Brown's World War II-era quad - a four-barreled monstrosity with a motorized seat whose occupant can unleash a hail of lead.

"I started out in collecting a long time ago, on regular guns, then Class III and then even bigger stuff," said Henning, who owns the Firing Lane in Athens, Ga. "These things are just marvelous. I love it!"

Forbes Mathews, a retired mechanical engineer from Fayetteville, Ga., sees a history lesson in every vintage automatic weapon he encounters.

"These two could have very well opposed one another on a battlefield long ago," he said, gesturing at a pair of water-cooled, World War I machine guns set up side-by-side. The 1918 Vickers was used by the British. Its German counterpart was the 1917 Maxim, a popular gun used by many European nations.

The Vickers, he said, is his hands-down favorite, in part because of the broad plume of steam that erupts from the water-cooled barrel after the first few bursts of gunfire.

At top speed, despite its age, it can still spit out 650 rounds per minute.

"When you start hammering these guns, it starts cooking like a coffee pot," he said.

Such clouds were a distinct liability in combat, where the burst of steam could give away a hidden gunner's position to the enemy.

The Maxim is equally fascinating, declared its owner, Doug Hollberg of Griffin, Ga. Its inventor, Hiram Maxim, was an inspiration to Browning, whose other weapons included the still-in-use BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle.

Machine gun owners are collectors and sportsmen like everyone else, Mathews said.

"Most of the people who own these guns are very well-to-do," he said. "A man who owns a private machine gun isn't holding up 7-11s. He's much more likely to own a chain of them."

Shooting them, he added, isn't cheap either. The .50-caliber quad, for instance, burns up $32 in ammo - each second.

"A lot of these people are into it for the history, not the violent nature of it," he said. "I think of them like people with golf clubs. I'm propelling a projectile at a target in the distance. But I also like the mechanics. They are quite tinker-prone. You don't shoot a machine gun. You run it."

Such weapons can legally be bought and kept, but their owners must acquire federal permits and maintain proper records, said Perry.

Organizing an event for machine gun buffs requires a lot of coordination. Range officers are stationed every few feet and strict safety rules are enforced to the letter. A medic is always on standby, as well as military police. The post even has to get airspace clearance above the firing range.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.