The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners .50 Caliber Rifle & Machine Gun Shoot

By Vic Fogle

The sense of relief and recognition that can be conveyed by seeing a familiar symbol is little short of amazing. Consider the hiker over rock who finally sees a small pile of stones, which tells him that, yes, he’s still on the trail. I was once looking for a new rifle range in northern California, and my friend and I zipped past the entrance at 80 miles an hour, but we immediately turned around and drove back at a more reasonable pace, for the event’s host club has thoughtfully hung a competition target out where the access road met the highway; we would have recognized and correctly interpreted the target symbol if we’d seen if for only 1/1000 of a second.

So it was with me a few weeks ago as I tried to find a completely unfamiliar machine gun shooting location in central Colorado at night. I knew that I had started out on the right road but wasn’t sure if I should have taken a turnoff. The night was very dark, and there seemed to be considerable vegetation on both sides of the road. I had begun to consider how much farther to go before turning around when ahead of me and to the side I saw one of the most welcome sights I could imagine— a red parachute flare, such as I always see at Knob Creek, burst into brightness and then floated lazily downward. I knew I had arrived.

Such was my introduction to the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners; .50 Caliber BMG Rifle and Machine Gun Shoot, held in Morgan County, Colorado. After picking my way through openings in yellow Caution tape and locating a likely looking parking place, I found my hosts shooting at auto hulks that were presumably several hundred yards down range, even though I couldn’t seen them. The firing line was dimly illuminated by generator powered lights, but I began to wonder if aiming was more by instinct and memory than by sights. Then again, perhaps some of the most experienced had locked down their T&Es while there was still enough light to see impacts. About ten o’clock the line shut down, and those who hadn’t already done so went to sleep.

Morning allowed me to fill in details. We were in grazing country of gently rolling hills, not really hilly, but not level either. Our particular section of the landscape resembled a saucer with the entrance, parking lot, and concession area on the rim. Somewhat below them was the firing line, with access so that shooters could drive right up to their firing points for unloading before returning to the parking lot. Most attendees camped at the site, for the nearest motel was at least ten miles away. Well below the firing line was a relatively level bottom that had been plowed so as to diminish the chance of ricochets and fires. This impact area was approximately round and was open except for trees across the back, about 700 yards out, and up the left side, ending perhaps 200 yards from the firing line. The closest target of any kind was at about this distance in the plowed field. Three target cars-or rather, what was left of them - were at 300, 400 and 500 yards. The weather forecast was for what meteorologists euphemistically call “unsettled” weather, which means that they don’t know what it will be. The natives, with considerably more prescience, almost all had awnings over their firing points, and some of them shot from snazzy Steyr military trucks with special “vehicles collector” license plates. The prospect of rain and wind held down attendance, but a lot of people found the place, anyway. After all, when a shoot is near the geographic center of the U.S., has targets to 1200 yards and is so young that there is still open firing line space available, people are bound to notice.

Every machine gun shoot differs from every other machine gun shoot in the kinds of guns that appear, in the distances at which they can be shot, in the targets that host organization supplies and in such refinements as parking adjacent to the firing line. Consequently, some shoots cater mainly to subguns at relatively short distances. Others allow beltfeds to perform at several hundred yards.

By contrast, the RMGO’s theme seemed to be “wide open spaces”. With the closest target car at 300 yards, other targets stretched out to a large propane tank at 1200 yards. Consequently, longer range guns predominated. While many shooters brought belt feds in various calibers, there were more than a few .50 caliber rifles of various descriptions, plus Lahti and Solothurn 20mms.

These are all guns which produce considerable blast, and the idea of wide open spaces extended to the firing line as well. Firing points were a generous ten feet wide, rather than a cramped six or eight feet. Not only was the extra space welcome as a buffer against muzzle blast, but it also by no coincidence, fit the size of awnings most shooters had.

One of the features that made this shoot distinctive was the number of propane tanks shot. Most were simply placed at various distances in the plowed ground by a large tractor type loader. No one knew the amount of propane remaining in those tanks placed in the open; when hit some gave no indications, some emitted a blue or white smoke, and others burst into flames. Everyone’s favorites were those tanks known to contain propane that were put into the target cars and then holed with ball rounds. This released the propane throughout the car, where it was subsequently ignited by tracers or incendiaries. Some splendid fires resulted, with the smoke wafting gently in the general direction of Denver International Airport.

This was one of those happy shoots at which there was a very high percentage of renters - of people who came to shoot rather than to look. Particularly impressive and gratifying was the proportion of women and young children who shot, all of them smiling and enjoying themselves. It was obvious that they felt the event was a real treat. Some renters, in fact made an effort to shoot one of each model gun available.

One group of vendors from Denver was well supplied with “the good stuff”. On consecutive firing points they had a 1917 Browning, a BREn gun, a 1919 Browning, and a MG34 and MG42. Business for most of the vendors was worthwhile.

The pieces which drew the largest crowds and the most interest, however, were a 37mm artillery piece and two bowling ball mortars. The artillery piece was an immaculate, beautifully maintained Bofors L1, built in 1937, serial number 1. The renter seated himself on the left (gunner’s) seat and looked through the sight. Then an owner showed him to fire it safely and loaded it for him. The result at the firing line, whatever it might be down range, was pure joy for the renter.

The description of a bowling ball mortar as a “potato gun on steroids” is not entirely without merit. While the latter may project a perfectly good potato two hundred yards or so, the former is by comparison truly awe inspiring. I had never given the matter of bowling ball size much thought, but one of the mortar owners mentioned that both men’s and women’s bowling balls had to be the same diameter in order to be returned through bowling alley machinery; only the weight was different, with foam cores of various sized determining the final weight. Some balls appear to go significantly higher than others. It is unclear whether lighter balls went higher because they were lighter or whether heavier balls went higher because their greater weight caused the build up of a higher pressure before their launch.

I have never built, owned or fired a bowling ball mortar, so I am certainly not an authority on them, but after talking with friends who own them, I can give a very sketchy idea of their construction. The friends who built them used empty nitrogen welding gas bottles with the bottoms cut out of them. A substantial solid steel round ball is welded to a piece of threaded steel that fits into the hole where the pressure regulator normally goes, and this round ball is what tracks around the mortar base you must have for aiming and for keeping the mortar from digging its way into the ground. A firing mechanism detonates a musket cap, which in turn ignites a surprisingly small charge of cannon powder that is carefully put down the upturned muzzle of the mortar, so that it covers the inside of the ignition hole.

The mortar’s open end is supported vertically by two upright telescoping steel legs that are connected to a locking collar that encircles the mortar tube at the open end. These legs, along with the ball which rides in the groove in the mortar base, provide the three point support which enables the mortar to stand upright and to be aimed.

After that the tube is loaded with a carefully and gently placed bowling ball, the musket cap is placed on its anvil, the firing mechanism is cocked, and the shooter fires it by pulling on a long lanyard from a safe distance. Balls are usually only scorched by firing and can be re-used indefinitely. The trick is finding them down range.

When fired, the bowling balls can go several hundred feet into the air. Being able to see them in flight is unquestionably one of the principal appeals of these novel creations. If you’re not alertly looking at the mortar at the time of ignition, you may miss seeing the ball in flight altogether. I don’t know if the owners were attempting to hit the target cars, but some of the balls appeared to go several hundred yards down range, and I’ve heard reports of far longer shots. The height balls attain would insure a devastating impact. Sometimes they bounce about ten feet into the air, but most that I have seen buried themselves full depth into the ground. You wouldn’t want to be under one as it descended, and if it came down on a house, it would penetrate to at least the basement floor.

On a cautionary note, the foregoing information should not be inferred by anyone as a recommendation by either this writer or this publication for the construction of these devices. If a reader really desires one, he or she would be well advised to attend an RMGO shoot and to talk with owners and builders of these mortars, as well as seeing them in action. Most information is learned about them by trial and error, and potential owners are reminded that, unfortunately, limits can only be determined by exceeding them. Bowling ball mortars are powerful devices, and self construction by persons unfamiliar with them is specifically NOT recommended.

Saturday also saw an interesting and fast moving accuracy match for hunting rifles that elicited a lot of participation and interest. It also proved that even rifle shooting can be interesting if action is briskly sustained and bullet impacts can be seen, either on the target or the backstop. The competition began with each shooter standing about five yards behind a bench rest with rifle rest and sandbags on it, rifles and cartridge in hand. At the start of time the shooter had fifteen seconds to approach the bench rest, load his rifle, sit down and fire one shot at a water bottle sized container of Tannerite, known to many as binary explosive, on top of a stake at 300 yards. After many marksmen had tried and failed, the target was brought in to 200 yards. Only one shooter, Vern Mastin, hit it; he won half the total of the entry fees. RMGO donated its half, along with receipts from another container for a total of $264, to the World War II Memorial Fund. Additionally, the shoot raised another $111 for the American Red Cross.

In terms of weather, Sunday turned out to be a much better day. Attendance was correspondingly better too. Shooting continued until well into the afternoon, principally at propane bottles, most of which provided at least a puff of smoke when hit.

sentative Mark Paschall “Colorado’s junkyard dog for freedom.” This was a very safe, legal, well conducted shoot, and it’s a pleasure to recommend it. The present location has worked out well, and the shoot has proved to be so popular that a May weekend has been added to the September one. The next shoot will be May 3-5, 2002. Better road signs have been promised, but if you arrive at night, be sure to watch for parachute flares.

Anyone who likes machine gun shoots would be well advised to attend this one. It is geographically centrally located, there is open space on the firing line, targets can be engaged at great enough distance to make shooting interesting, and it’s in a good setting. Best of all, it’s run by friendly, knowledgeable shooters. Come and enjoy it.

Information specifically relating to these shoots, including reservations, fees, and maps to the location is available directly from Robert R. McBride, 6585 W. Mississippi Place, Lakewood, CO telephone 303-934-1915.

Information on RMGO’s legislative activities may be obtained from RMGO, Box 3114, Denver, CO 80201, phone and fax 303-432-3006 or www.rmgo.orgExdir@rmgo.org

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N8 (May 2002)
and was posted online on January 24, 2014


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