The sound that a Barrett .50-calibre rifle makes is basically pure thunder, but the really disconcerting thing, when you are standing in its immediate radius, is the shock wave it sends rippling through your body. People are a little free with the description “bowel-loosening” these days, but it might be capable of actually physically doing that; especially if it catches you off-guard, it’s a bit like someone grabbed your internal organs by the esophagus and tried to whip them out like a sheet. And that’s when the bullet is moving away from you.
They also have a wide array of machine guns, but the Barrett and its even more hellacious twin, the Browning M2—which is, for reasons of safety and, I suppose, accuracy, generally mounted on something, in this case a disused army jeep—are the centrepiece of the Bullets and Burgers shooting experience and make up the central thrust of the description the guide provides to our bachelor party as we make the 51-mile drive from Las Vegas (of course Las Vegas) to the Arizona desert a couple Fridays ago. It’s 51 miles, see, because these sorts of weapons are technically classed as anti-aircraft guns, and therefore cannot be fired within 50 miles of an airport. The sniper rifle—which shoots a bullet roughly as long as a hand stretched thumb to pinky, and thick as a candlestick—has been credited with kills up to two miles away, at which point you actually have to account for the curvature of the earth when you are making your shot, our guide tells us. No doubt the Enemy Combatant basically evaporated by the unseen finger of god at the other end of this bit of trivia would be just as impressed with the technical achievement.
There were plenty more facts about the various guns on offer—most of them read, not nearly clandestinely enough, from a sheet as we rolled down the I-95 toward the Hoover Dam—but they mostly fell on deaf ears. The couple at the front of the van—who I will just call Lydia (an impossibly nice middle-aged woman) and Charlton (a quiet but unfailingly polite middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt that read “The Second Amendment: America’s Original Homeland Security”)—already seemed to know anything our guide could read from that sheet, and our group of five relatively tame bachelor-party-goers were much too busy trying to select the machine guns we were going to fire based on memories of Arnold Schwarzenegger films and rap lyrics. (The brochure helpfully pointed out that their version of the USAS-12 fully automatic shotgun is the very same one used in the Robin Williams movie Jumanji, and I would love to meet the person who sits in the middle of that particular Venn diagram of interests.)
We had our forms filled out in time for our stop at the Hoover Dam/Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge over the Colorado River. This was an adjunct to the promised bullets/burgers portion of the afternoon that, while impressive in a man’s-dominion-over-nature sort of way, did feel a bit like the Chicken Ranch making you take a perfunctory stroll through an exhibit dedicated to the storied history of Nevada’s state senators. The most interesting part was the security checkpoint we breezed right through on our way past, at which point it occurred to me that a van with a .50-calibre machine gun painted on its side and a guy in an NRA T-shirt riding shotgun has to be the most checkpoint-safe vehicle to ever drive an interstate.
Once we arrived at the compound, which was basically a highway diner with an airplane hangar and two fairly concealed trenches dug into the desert, we were informed that we were going to have to wait a bit longer, because apparently the email with our machine gun choices got lost, and they would need some time to get all the guns ready. I am just going to assume the training required to master the kinds of guns that could demolish an apartment block—several of the guides/instructors had no connection whatsoever to the military, which is, yeah, you know—leaves little time for sys admin, but luckily the break gave us more time to talk to Lydia and Charlton, who were genuinely the nicest strangers I talked to over a weekend in Vegas.
Charlton—who was both ex-military and ex-bull rider, and carried himself like the kind of man who don’t start nothin’, but’ll finish it—was in town for his son’s wedding, and was just here to observe Lydia, who had come to cross a couple of guns off her list. (Her list of guns to shoot before she dies, in case that wasn’t clear. Upon hearing she had one of those, one of the guides approvingly commented that everyone needed “a bucket list and a fuck-it list.”) Lydia got a bit of a kick out of a group of effectively virgin Canadians coming to empty clips in the desert, but both of them were legitimately shocked that, not only isn’t there a gun range in Toronto city limits, but that handguns and assault rifles are effectively illegal, or anyway so tightly controlled that most of us had never even seen one. “Not even AR-15s?” and “I guess we’re not moving to Canada” were among the sentences uttered, only the latter in palpable jest.
Partly out of some sympathy and partly out of some deep level of decency that I, who silently smirks at any level of NRA paraphernalia, will never really understand, Lydia all but tripped over herself to give the bachelor in our group a chance to use one of her shots on the Barrett. The rest of us were just a touch too cheap to buy the package that would have allowed it, and though she was sure the machine guns themselves would have been plenty fun, Lydia just hated the idea that he wouldn’t get to experience it, and anyway she had already crossed that particular gun, highly illegal even in the States, off her list. It turns out a buddy of hers worked for their local sheriff, and they had confiscated one of those from a drug dealer, and for her 50th birthday he had taken it out and let her shoot it in the desert. Oh, and he was happy to let her shoot it again whenever, so really, don’t worry, she’d love to give us the chance to see what a Barrett can do.
Which is, again, as it turns out, shake you right down to your now-compromised lower gut. There is a hideous electricity that comes with emptying a machine gun—a vibratory charge and an infectious mechanical rhythm and the eye-widening knowledge that this is the most powerful thing you can hold in your hand—that kind of wipes out whatever other thoughts you were having; it’s zen and the art of target obliteration. The Barrett, though, is like witnessing an act of god, a miniature disaster that focuses your mind quite acutely.
Though nowhere near as acutely, it turns out, as coming back to your hotel with empty shells in your pocket, posting a picture of a punched-through target on Instagram, and then flipping over to Twitter and realizing everyone else, everywhere else, is talking about shooting, too.