The towns spring up and then fall behind, pulses of orange light followed again by the darkness of the county road. Wheat country. Pancake flat. Some 200 miles away, the city lights of Denver glow on the horizon. The rick-rack of tire tread on old road soothes my sunburnt face. It's nearly midnight when I call Bolton. I know he'll be interested. Maybe even awake. He's from north-central Arizona in a small strip of forest land surrounded on all sides by desert. Drop down towards Phoenix and it's cactus; head north towards Navajo and it's rock. Either way, it's a desert sandwich. Some ten years ago I remember him driving into work, arriving fifteen minutes early each day. Fifteen minutes so that in the event he saw a coyote, he'd have time to shoot it without making himself late. Not the kind of thing that people talk about around office water coolers, but for the Forest Service it was, more-or-less, par for the course. Ten years later and I have a voicemail box that is half full of Bolton's mostly offensive messages. I save them. Not sure why, though, no-doubt that when he reads this, he'll probably have some suggestions. Even after getting blasted by an IED with his National Guard unit in Afghanistan the first word I received read just like one of his voicemails. I have the email saved, something he sent from Germany while being treated for his injuries. The first line reads: "BItch ASS, first off im fine, I got med evac'd to germany on jun 1, we hit an IED."

I press send. Bolton picks up the phone. "What?!" Surprisingly polite today, he has decided not to call me a bitch, fat-ass, or piece of shit, to spare the more colorful variations. I rattle off the story, everything there is to say about the machine gun shoot that has consumed my day. I make it through most of the high points before he cuts me off. "Send me some pictures, bitch."


Several days earlier I am on the phone with one of the organizers of the Rocky Mountain Fifty Caliber Shooting Association's twice annual machine gun shoot. He greets me with a heaping dose of suspicion, concerned that the shoot will be portrayed as a gathering of gun nuts. For me, these are the hurdles that are the toughest, something that is always difficult to take. I don't tend to photograph things that are not interesting to me and the simple fact that people would come from as far away as Australia to shoot machine guns is, to say the least, something that piques my interest. I arrive two days later on just a couple hours of sleep. I half expect that I will be turned away or put before a square-jawed inquisitor who will pick apart my political makeup with hot tongs before breaking me on the rack.

Instead, I sign a liability release and I am handed a self-adhesive tag that reads in large-font red letters: Media.

I sit on the cargo rack of the organizer's four-wheeler as he drives me to the end of the quarter-mile long firing line, bumping past an assortment of exotic looking guns and their happy shooters. This one from Connecticut, that one from Australia, a doctor who has brought with him a motorized mini gun that spins six barrels and puts out bullets so fast that it sounds more like a loud whistle than a gun. He tells me it is his six-shooter and looks at me like I've suddenly dropped my pants when I flinch at the concussion of a large, fifty caliber sniper rifle being fired directly behind me. At the south end, a farmer named Lester and his sons are shooting bowling balls from a homemade canon. He is as warm and jolly a man as ever and graciously offers to let me shoot his Tommy Gun. It's heavy and feels like it was built to last, something that seems rare in the era of plastic. A long magazine of .45 caliber bullets, a standard size for many handguns, hangs below the steel barrel. I pull the knob on the right side of the gun clicking a bullet into the chamber, flip the safety forward with my left thumb, put the carbine to my shoulder and pull the trigger.


Lester taps the slide and the problem is fixed. This time it shoots. I finish the clip, aiming at one of the stumps that have been set out on the range before turning back to watch as Lester takes aim on a model airplane being flown along the firing line. It's a target and all 150 shooting positions fire at it as it passes. Like the crowd doing the wave at a football match, the report of gunfire grows louder and then dims as the plane passes down the line. The remote craft's controller makes it roll and turn flips in the air, taunting the shooters. Lester pulls the cord attached to his canon, loosing a bowling ball up into the air with a huffy explosion. He's smiling like a boy; the bowling ball passed within feet of the plane --pretty good for something so unconventional.

The thing that surprises me about the unconventional nature of a machine gun shoot is just how conventional it actually feels. The mostly male shooters are chummy, warm, friendly, a little competitive, and all into their respective machines. Boys with their toys. My media tag attracts the attention of a somewhat apprehensive man named Derek. He is shooting a sniper rifle. The .50 caliber gun shoots a cartridge that is as big as the open palm of your hand. At the end of the barrel of his gun is an arrowhead shaped contraption that vents on both sides so that when the bullet exits the rifle the discharged gas is directed backwards along the steel baffles, exerting force that pushes the rifle in a forward direction so that the full force of the discharged bullet is not brought to bear on the shoulder of whoever is shooting the gun.

These guns are forceful, loud, and hefty. Accurate at well over a mile, the discharge sends a concussive wave that resonates the air in your lungs. Derek invites me to shoot his. He asks me if I've shot a gun before; I have, though I sense that he doesn't believe me. I think he's pegged me as anti-gun as he nervously explains how to use his rifle. He wants me to understand exactly what it is that I'll be writing about and the opportunity is a welcome one. He hands me a .50 caliber shell which I place in the chamber, sliding the bolt forward before resting my cheek on the stock of the gun. It is intimidating and, no doubt, he senses my nerves. I keep my eye back from the scope of the gun, having learned the hard way several years ago that the recoil of the shot will punch you in the eye like a round, plastic fist.

As I swing the rifle around to face towards the empty, white propane tank off in the distance there is a certain familiarity to the act. I look through glass, bring the subject into the viewfinder, and carefully shoot. A bullet, a frame, the piece of my brain that makes photos is lighting up with a sense of having been there before, like knowing a piece of land so well that you can walk it even without moonlight. It's habit, instinct, a map drawn across the landscape of the mind. It is precise, decisive, careful, and, frankly, fun.

I spend much of the remainder of the day watching the long-distance shooters in their calculated dance. Bolt open, bolt closed, pause, breathe, exhale, stop, squeeze. It's a rhythm, a zone, something that draws a distinct contrast from the other machine gun shooters, people who's rapid-fire reminds me of the bad photographers who never bother to look at what they're shooting, just pointing and squeezing the motor drive on the camera, hoping for something that will work. Spray and pray as it's called in the world of photography just as it is in the world of shooting. Reliance on quantity rather than quality.

Not to bad-mouth the good ol' boys having fun with their machines, just that I find something strangely familiar in the precision gunners and their patient routine. I meet Bob, a man who served as Marine shooter in Vietnam. He is a quiet, soft-spoken man of average stature with a face carved of clean lines, the slope of his eyelids heavy and pulling downward at the edges. A competition sniper shooter, he is one of the most practiced riflemen on the line, unhurried and spot-on accurate, beating many of the machine gunners to the prized targets --cars and fuel tanks that are rigged to explode when they are hit. One bullet carefully aimed is worth more than thousands haphazardly flung in imprecise volleys --a lesson equally valuable to any photographer. We talk about trajectories and crosswinds, the factors that push a bullet off course as it hurtles along its path. Bob talks about these things in terms of instinct, something that you learn by doing. Tactile learning, quiet and repetitive until it becomes second nature.

Sometimes I feel like the most difficult exercise that our daily interactions presents to us is the task of separating the person from the thing that defines them. The person behind the broom, behind the wheel, behind the tie, behind the camera, and behind the gun is not the broom, the car, the tie, the camera, or the gun. It is what they do with those things, the degree to which their character is impressed on their work that counts. As I pose Bob, staring through my lens down his rifle's muzzle, the words "Death From Afar," come into focus, engraved in a circle around the bore where the bullet exits the barrel. For some reason, I am not afraid.

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