GUNS OUT

By Philip VoodooLafayette Lee · 16 May 2024

A Day at the Gun Run

As scores of vehicles filled with armed men and women began to pull up outside a small wooden building in a remote corner of South Carolina, the darkness of night still ruled the skies. The vehicles’ occupants were not prepared for the gale force winds and the bitter frost of an unseasonably cold day as they exited the safety of vehicles and slowly made their way towards the light of the building and the promise of warmth and shelter. Walking towards the building, many, if not most, were unsure of the greeting they would find inside, but reassured by an American flag flying outside the building’s door like a lonely shibboleth in the night, they pressed on.

The building’s interior, for all intents and purposes, resembled a barracks: with men huddled in sleeping bags in small rooms, rifles and gear propped up in the corner, complemented by cans of beer and tins of dip adorning the wooden tables. The building smelled like a barracks too, and as the newcomers from the outside filtered in, those with the experience were greeted by that beautiful blood memory of sweat, coffee, gun oil, and anticipation. 

As the two groups met, those bundled from the cold outside and those recovering from a night of reverie inside, there was no conflict. There were only cordial greetings between strangers and bearhugs between old friends. Despite the vast array of weaponry and tactical equipment, these were not two groups in conflict, rather, people were there for a common goal: to test their abilities, limits, theories, and friendships in a crucible rarely imitable outside the fires of combat. Some in that building had seen combat before, but most, as the event’s organizer Ellis says, “really come from all walks of life. From railroad workers, to ship captains, to banking executives, they all have similar ideas on what the Second Amendment means for us, and why we exist as a country.”

They were there to participate in one of the few all-encompassing real-world shooting events in the nation – a test of teamwork, fitness, preparation, and competency with a weapon. As the group gathered around to hear the organizer give the day’s safety briefing, the first rays of the coming sun shone over the ghostly pines. The promise of the sun’s warmth did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the group, however, as it slowly revealed another obstacle: the course and fields were little more than water-soaked clay mud from the previous night’s storm. But the participants had already come this far. None turned back, so as the briefing and instructions finished, the day was ready to begin.

***

Guns have been a part of the American story from the very first European settlements along the Atlantic coast to the great constellation of US camps and bases dotting the globe today. The gun is foundational to American culture and identity, and without it, Americans would cease to be Americans. What is the minuteman without a musket, the buckskin without his long rifle, or the cowboy without his Colt? They become just another man, unable to stand upright before human cruelty and the vast indifference of the universe.

Rule of law, religious zeal, hard work, and enterprise, even the grand principles undergirding the American constitutional order — none of these things can speak for the gun, for the gun has always had the final say. When Americans purchased their Independence with blood, the gun was there. When mountain men and pathfinders journeyed west, and pioneers set off to tame a wilderness, the gun was with them. When the nation nearly buckled under the weight of uprisings, Indian wars, and rebellions, the gun settled it once and for all. No other characteristic, idea, object, or emblem is more American than the gun, and for more than 400 years it has symbolized freedom, independence and individual courage in the face of the unknown. For in America, the gun always has the final say.

Is it any wonder then that in our frontier mythology or legends of war, the hero often reveals his destiny by proving himself a marksman? Whether it is Davy Crockett defeating Big Foot Mason in a frontier shooting match, or Appalachian-born Alvin York wetting his sights before hitting six bullseyes on the firing line, our heroes are not just brave, strong, and resolute, they tend to be straight shooters, crackshots, and deadeyes. Just as the frontier still appears in our hopes and dreams, we Americans will always put some faith in the hands of a good marksman. 

Nor was the American frontier alone in this experience. Long after the woods of Europe had been tamed, and norms of European society had seen public archery competitions gentrify into upper-class sport, there were still those on the frontier shooting for survival. As marksmanship was evolving into a cultural mainstay in North America, halfway around the world in the veldt of Southern Africa, another group was weaving it into their culture as well. 

The Boer’s history with the gun is a topic that has transcended mere history. It has assumed a mantle of mythology among amateur historians, contemporary warriors, and students of culture and military history. Like their distant American doppelgängers, the Boer used their proficiency with a rifle to settle a nation, defend their families, and stand against one of the Great Powers. 

Boer shooting competitions forged bonds between geographically dispersed and isolated neighbors, who might otherwise rarely, if ever, see their allies. It built a sense of culture and reinforced social expectations, and gave rise to one of the most famous Boer sayings: Vertrou in God en die Mauser (Trust in God and the Mauser). One of the Boer republics went so far as to enshrine into their constitution not just the right, but the obligation to own firearms and participate in community shooting events. Like longbowmen of old, the Free State was counting on its citizens for its protection. 

Like the Colt Revolvers, and the Kentucky and Winchester Repeating Rifles of North America, Boer weapons have entered the pantheon of legend and fable as well. The .450 Westley Richards and the Mauser in the hands of experienced Boer frontiersmen shattered multiple Victorian Era British Armies in the field, and made them a name worldwide. They forced decades of British Army marksmanship and rifle reforms, which only a few years later would extend the life of the British Empire on the fields of Mons and Flanders during the First World War. 

That this phenomenon took place almost simultaneously across the vast expanses of the globe stands as testament to the universality of the need for defense, for community, and self reliance inherent in free man. And that it has nearly died off in one location while growing in the other, is a reminder that rights must be defended at all hazard, and the replacement of the spirit of self reliance with the addiction of government dependence is merely a thin veneer for despotism.

Photography by Lafayette Lee

Just as history and moralistic reasoning are far from the mind of a soldier in a trench, so it was for the competitors as their start time approached. Gear was tightened and secured, batteries were checked, optics tested, and the wise – or perhaps the more experienced – slowly stretched out cold muscles. The event they were undertaking was beautiful in its simplicity. The course had six stations and targets at each. Each team (this was a team event, two partners against the course) moved from station to station, and engaged targets according to the conditions of the stations. Where most other shooting competitions time nanoseconds under strict conditions, this was realism embodied. Move, shoot, and communicate. The event, which regularly sells out in minutes, was as close to the real world as it gets. About his event, Ellis says:

“I’ll argue we have the absolute best, most highly trained, volunteers in the country for our matches which makes it run safely and smoothly. The large shooting disciplines, USPSA, IDPA, and 3 Gun, all have their advantages, and I encourage anyone who is a firearms owner to shoot a competition, any competition, because it will ultimately make you a better shooter. They just don’t have the same feeling of shooting under stress, fatigue, and field conditions that run-n-gun style competitions have. They focus heavily on speed and have lengthy rules on equipment. I try and keep my rules very simple and focused on safety because ultimately firearms weren’t developed for games. In a gunfight, the enemy does not care whether your magazine is a certain length or you have a certain type of optic on your gun.”

All participants, from the banking CEO with the latest and greatest gear, to the GWOT veteran wearing an Executive Outcomes hat and a t-shirt from a place called Pizza Bob’s, were participating in a truly unique experience. The event is gaining popularity at a time and place which could never have been planned, only recognized. In the cultural milieu of the GWOT/Call of Duty/Pro-2A resurgence, the worlds of veteran, enthusiast, and casual participant are merging like never before in history. 

While the gun has always been part of American society, only in this new polyglot community is it morphing from a hobby to training. Previous generations of veterans may have left the skills and equipment behind in the fields of France, Korea, and Vietnam, but the three million veterans of the GWOT brought it all home with them where they found a grateful audience; an audience that had maybe seen the war only on clips on the internet, or had played the video games, or just wanted to get better at a lifesaving skill. 

Whatever brought each competitor team to the course that day mattered little as they were dragging teammates through ankle-deep mud, firing at targets as they went. Muscles and lungs screaming, optics bouncing as they tried desperately to catch their breath and steady their sights, each shooter put everything other than the mission in front of them in the back of their mind, and pushed forward. 

***

The testing of men is not just a crucible for the body but for the mind. Many parts of the event stretch through long stretches of rugged terrain with steep climbs and thick brush for each team to negotiate. A ruthless staccato of gunfire pierces through the morning quiet, ripping through the cool morning air and interrupting what would be an otherwise relaxing wooded hike. The competitors are alone with each other. Tired and stressed, they push on…. But they are not totally alone, because a few minutes in front and a few minutes behind there is always another team.

The pace for each team will vary. Some run, some jog, some walk… but regardless, in this remote corner of an irreparably divided America exists a fascinating specter of camaraderie. Groups of men and women – friends, strangers, and competitors – approach the same rural wood together, both heavily armed and equipped, with no semblance of law to govern them. And yet when the groups meet, there are only words of encouragement and a contagious air of self-confidence; sometimes no more than a brief and exhausted head nod, sometimes a quick joke or cheer, these people put the lie to rest once and for all that the danger lies in the gun, and not the heart of man. 

After the competition, the competitors recognize one another from the mud and sweat of the course. A grill is lit, coffee poured, and cigars pulled from cases, as they share stories of the trail, not as the strangers they once were, but as kindred warriors who now share a common bond of experience. 

The Gun Run, and events like it, are presenting a serious challenge to the modern progressive drive toward learned helplessness and dependency. They are building strong, responsible, and self-reliant citizens in the same style of citizenship which made America great. 

The Gun Run takes place in a relatively isolated location, yet it has still faced pushback from local and state governments. In April of 2020, state and local officials pressured the owner of the range to cancel the event at the last minute, citing “public health concerns” related to COVID-19. The county, which until then had not imposed any restrictions, still exerted enough influence on the landowner to cancel. The event, which features mostly individuals moving through the woods, was forced to close, while golf courses in more affluent areas remained full to the brim. 

This is the dichotomy of events like The Gun Run: it builds a more independent and resilient citizenry that, in turn, contributes to a better society and nation. Yet such experiments remain a perennial anxiety to radical activists and captured government institutions. The proponents of dependency-based citizenship will continue to look for opportunities to limit or outright prohibit such events or strangle them in the cradle through administrative procedures. But as long as these events remain popular with a loyal, dedicated, and freedom-loving group of participants, they will remain, like liberty itself, unstoppable.

Philip Voodoo is an American writer and a veteran. He can be followed @6Voodoo.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and a contributing editor of IM—1776. He can be followed @Partisan_O.

© THE ART & LITERATURE FOUNDATION

Scroll to top