A gun range is an odd place. It's communal, in that it gathers people to engage in a shared activity, but it's solitary, because when you're behind a gun, you're on your own. The practice is sort of like hitting a bucket of golf balls on a driving range, except that instead of whooshing balls onto a quiet greensward while chatting with people waiting their turn, you're blasting copper-jacketed bullets downrange at 2,900 feet per second, wrapped in hearing protectors and a cocoon of ear-shattering noise. I always preferred to do my shooting deep in the woods or out in the desert, where I didn't have to listen to anybody's gunfire but my own.
But I had to start my gun-guy walkabout somewhere, so I drove down to the Family Shooting Center, a private gun range within Cherry Creek State Park, about an hour south of my house in suburban Denver. I found my way around a man-made pond and parked in front of a chain-link fence. No doubt I was at the right place. From beyond the fence came a racket like the Battle of Fallujah.
At the end of a long chain-link corridor stood a tall range officer in an orange vest and earmuffs, hands on hips and feet slightly spread -- that same all-business, slightly forbidding stance that Hank Hilliard had assumed on Camp Sunapee's range. On his vest, one button read, BLESSED BE THE INFIDELS, FOR THEY SHALL ENJOY FREEDOM, ART AND MUSIC. Another said simply, MOLON LABE.
"What's that?" I asked, shouting to be heard through our hearing protectors and above the gunshots.
"You know your history?"
"Battle of Thermopylae?"
"Four-eighty B.C.: Xerxes of Persia asked Leonidas I, king of the Spartans, to lay down his spear. Leonidas said, 'Molon labe.' 'Come and take it.' You hear what I'm telling you?" He stared into my eyes for a long moment. I blinked. He said, "Please take firing position four."
I took my place at a wooden shooting bench and unpacked my rifle, a .30-40 Krag-Jørgensen made in 1900 for the Spanish-American War. I'd bought it twenty years earlier at a Montana gun show for $115, when I was broke and needed something to shoot at deer and antelope. I'd figured that someday I'd be financially solvent beyond my wildest dreams. That's when I'd buy myself a proper hunting rifle. But the Krag fit me well and shot so straight that I'd never needed to trade up. Showing up at hunts with a 110-year-old rifle made me something of an oddball. But everybody who liked guns grooved on their longevity; it was hard to think of another consumer product that, a century after its manufacture, was as functional as on the day it was made. I got points, too, for hunting with plain iron sights instead of a scope.
I stepped up to position number 4 and, like a boy in the junior high gym shower, furtively looked over the other guys' equipment. Out of six men shooting -- two old guys like me and four in their thirties or younger -- I was the only one with a traditional wooden rifle. Everybody else was shooting a black AR-15 -- the civilian version of the military's M16. I might as well have been on the range at Fort Benning.
I'd seen these guns creeping into stores and ranges and had never understood the attraction. With their plastic stocks and high-tech man-killer look, they lacked the elegance of traditional firearms. The most common reason that people bought guns was for protection against crime, but shotguns and handguns were best for close-order shooting. The second most common reason was target shooting, like here at Cherry Creek. Hunting came third, but rarely with the AR-15. Most states didn't allow the taking of deer with the tiny .223 bullet fired by the basic AR.
The AR was excellent at what it was designed for: killing people at medium range on the battlefield, which was not something the average retail gun buyer needed to do. Yet more and more rack space in gun stores seemed to be given over to AR-15s, and at this range on this day, they had taken over completely.
At the bench next to mine, a cherubic young man with a round, close-cropped head and plump fingers held an all-black rifle that looked ready for SEAL Team Six. Everything that was wood on my rifle was plastic on his. Instead of a horizontal stock, the gun had a vertical foregrip, as on a Tommy gun. A rubber-encased telescopic scope the size of a salami lay along the top. Wired-up cylinders of some kind encrusted the barrel. The young man slapped in a banana-shaped magazine and, peering through the scope, fired four slow shots at a bull's-eye a hundred yards off. Then he touched a button on the side of the gun, and the foregrip split into a bipod, which he rested on the bench to continue his deliberate firing. The man's sweet, plump-cheeked baby face contrasted so thoroughly with the rifle's flamboyant lethality that I almost laughed aloud. Instead, when he paused to reload, I broke gun-range protocol and invaded his space. "Will you forgive an ignorant question?" I asked. "I mean, look at the old iron I shoot. What do you use that gun for?"
"This!" he said with a laugh. "Shooting!"
"You're, uh, not thinking you're going to need it or anything . . . "
He laughed. "Oh, no. I know what you mean. No. None of that. I just like it. And it's a little piece of history, what our boys are using in the Gee Wot."
"In the what?"
He laughed again. "The GWOT. The Global War on Terror . . . You ever shot one of these?"
"Then come on!" He laid the rifle on the bench and gestured me over. I hesitated. Shooting another man's gun was like dancing with his wife. Some guys got offended if you asked, yet here he was offering it up unbidden.
"Here's the deal," he said excitedly, licking his lips like a five-year-old showing off his favorite toy truck. "The bullet's only sixty-four grains, but it goes superfast." He held up a cartridge much smaller and pointier than mine -- a beer bottle, say, to my wine bottles. The sixty-four-grain -- four-gram -- bullet looked like the tip of a ballpoint pen. The kid ran his finger along the black plastic buttstock of the rifle. "In here's a bigass spring. It takes up most of the recoil. And feel how light." I picked it up. It felt like a BB gun, especially after the Krag. "You starting to get the attraction? Now look through that." I put my eye to the scope, and the target trembled on the tip of my nose. "That's an ACOG," he said. "It costs more than the rifle, to tell you the truth. It's what every guy in Iraq and Afghanistan who can afford one is using."
I lifted my face from the scope. "They have to buy it?"
"Not the rifle. The Army gives them a stripped-down rifle with iron sights. But everybody uses optics. Some get them issued to them, but most bring them with them, or have their parents send them over."
It hadn't occurred to me that the military allowed soldiers to modify their rifles. Talk about a captive market: What mother wouldn't sell a kidney to send her son a twelve-hundred-dollar rifle scope that might keep him alive?
"Not like I've been over there or anything," the young man was saying. "I see them on TV. Look at the guns next time you're watching the news. Everybody uses optics. Go ahead. Fire a few."
My trigger hand gripped what felt like a pistol, while my left hand clutched the vertical foregrip. I suppose it was more ergonomic than the Krag. To grip the Krag, I had to tilt both hands. On this genetically modified organism of a gun, both fists stood straight up, as though I were boxing. It fit nicely into my shoulder, too, and my eye fell naturally into position behind the scope. I put the crosshairs on the chest of the silhouette target and squeezed.
There was a light bump against my shoulder and an odd sensation of the rifle's insides sliding around as the floating parts compressed the big spring and soaked up the recoil. My own rifle punched me like a prizefighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. Bam! And a third flick -- Bam!
I shot four times more, as fast as I could move my finger -- Bambambambam -- feeling little more kick than I would from a garden hose. An AR-15 is semiautomatic, meaning it fires one shot for every touch of the trigger, while the M16 -- and other true "assault rifles" -- can fire continuously, like a machine gun. The distinction seemed pretty meaningless, though -- this AR could rock and roll faster than I could properly aim.
"How many shots do I have?"
"The magazine holds thirty, but, uh, ammo's kinda expensive."
Understood. This roly-poly, diffident youth was the perfect gentleman: I could dance with his wife, but I couldn't use his wallet to buy her jewelry.
One of the devices clamped to the barrel was a powerful flashlight whose on/off switch lay precisely where my left thumb met the foregrip. It nudged on and off as gently as the trigger. I asked about the other cylinder.
"Look through the scope," the kid said. "Now press that button with your left index finger." I hadn't noticed the other button. When I pressed it, a red dot appeared a hundred yards away, on the chest of the silhouette target. "Laser," he said. "Pretty cool, right? Wherever that light is, that's where your bullet will go. The laser, the ACOG; I got this one set up like they had them in 'Transformers.' "
I could see through the scope that my first three shots -- the ones I'd taken a second to aim -- had landed in a group about an inch and a half across on the silhouette's shoulder -- a bit high and to the right, but good shooting, considering I'd never fired an AR.
The young man was beaming like a soccer dad as I handed it back. "It's something, ain't it?"
I had to admit that it was. It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. If ARs made everybody as good a shot as the kid's made me, it was easy to see why they were popular. Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.
"I have to ask, though. What's a rifle like that cost?"
He looked sheepish. "Altogether, I probably have in it about . . . " He trailed off in a mumble.
"Thirty-five hundred dollars, more or less." He uttered a short laugh, as though he'd been Heimliched.
"May I ask what you do for work?"
"I work for a company that manages homeowner agreements."
"Must pay well."
He shrugged, and his gaze flitted about, looking for someplace to fall. "Well, I usually only get about eight hours a week."
"How do you live on that?"
He paused, looking at his shoes. "I live with my parents," he said quietly.
"You . . . " And I stopped myself, tamping down the urge to go all Hugh Beaumont on him, to preach the idiocy of throwing money at a pricey toy when he couldn't afford an apartment. The kid was another man's son; to me, he was a shooting mentor.
I thanked him and punished myself for a while shooting my antique, which, after the AR-15, felt as awkward as a piece of furniture. I pressed cartridges one by one into the five-shot magazine while the men around me slapped in magazine after magazine and popped off shots -- Bambambambambambambam -- showering the cement floor with tinkling brass casings. At my next birthday, I would turn half the age of my rifle. Working its bolt made me feel old, but not as old as when I realized that an AR-15 was, to a 20-something, "a piece of history" -- a history stretching all the way back to the advent of the GWOT, on September 11, 2001, or perhaps even to the dim prehistoric reaches of the Vietnam War.
The kid was right about one thing. I'd become familiar with the AR-15 -- without even knowing it -- from watching the news on Afghanistan and Iraq. On TV and in the paper, the AR's military version was ubiquitous, gripped in the hands of every soldier and Marine, in a million dolled-up configurations. Whatever else the Gee Wot was achieving, it was producing a high-budget, twenty-four-hour advertisement for the AR-15.
Which, as I thought about it, seemed pretty weird. The M16 was not a hot consumer item during the Vietnam War, nor was the M1 Garand during the Second World War. The Vietnam-era draft didn't inspire dabbling; young men didn't know when they'd be handed one of those black rifles for real. And World War II wasn't televised. It turned out that combining a volunteer army with twenty-four-hour cable-news war coverage was, inadvertently, a potent strategy for marketing firearms.
Excerpted from "Gun Guys" by Dan Baum. Copyright 2013 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.