NDIA Small Arms Conference 1998

By Robert Bruce

World Series?

Over many years of attending and shooting this annual event, I have come to meet some of the biggest names in the field including Uzi Gal, Gene Stoner, Ed Ezell, Reed Knight and Ronnie Barrett. These guys tend to be friendly, down-to-earth, and generous with their time, talent, and expertise. Photographing them on the range as they show and shoot their continually evolving creations is a bit like documenting the World Series of small arms. I hope that my ever-expanding archive collection of Kodachrome slides will continue to serve both biographical scholars and weapons engineers as they consider lessons of the past in building tools for soldiers of the future.

American Tax Dollars at Work

It is tremendously interesting to have closely watched over a decade or so that ebb and flow of official small arms developmental doctrine at Joint Services Small Arms Program. This dogged determination to find the “Holy Grail” Of manportable weaponry has taken JSSAP up a number of steep and rocky roads including those identified as SPIW, ACR and OICW. Although many find fault with the astronomical amounts of money that have been spent along the way, the entire engineering community learns as much (if not more) from JSSAP’s failures as its successes. Their immense compendium of painstakingly documented scientific technical data -when shared by various authorized users in the US and friendly countries - serves to guide experimentation away from proven dead ends and toward more promising avenues. Their actual developmental experimentation, including such exotica as sound wave incapacitation, electromagnetic propulsion, laser applications and God-knows-what-else, keeps even Hollywood science fiction writers struggling to stay ahead of the real thing. The weapons carried by space Marines in ALIEN and Mobile infantry in STARSHIP TROOPERS are already out of date... Ok guys, what’s next?

Prop My Eyes Open, Please!

Two days of formal presentations are made by industry and government representatives for those with insatiable appetites for engineering data. Like many photographers, I’m not smart and patient enough for these, so I head straight for the exhibit hall.

What the hell is THAT?

Industry displays at NDIA are the perfect place to see how cutting-edge developments in metals and synthetics, optics and electronics, chemistry and ergonomics are ingeniously combined by clever men to markedly increase the lethality of the warfighter or law enforcement professional. Unlike other more broadly focused military trade shows, NDIA attendees are usually able to discuss an item on display directly with the designer or other key members of its developmental team. This is the place to collect brochures, data sheets and other printed references, as well as to meet the men who make the stuff. This is essential for hyperactive photographers with limited brainpower to get a good overview of what’s new and improved” and what will be in action at the upcoming live fire demonstration.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

“Industry Demonstrations” are conducted each year, giving a harshly realistic experience to those who may not fully appreciate the lethality of the weapons and munitions being discussed and shown in a dry, well-lit and comfortably air conditioned exhibit hall. FNMI’s Sal Fanelli hosted this years reality check at Fort Benning’s famous Red Cloud Range on a typical blisteringly hot and smotheringly humid South Georgia summer day. This is “hog heaven” for determined lensmen and I made sure I had a lot of film for my two automatic Nikons, along with water canteen, sweat mop, and a really dorky looking boonie hat to protect my bald head. Amusingly, some who laughed at me in the relative cool of morning, didn’t appear to be laughing by early afternoon.
Action photos of live fire are great for magazine covers, but hardware is the meat and potatoes for real small arms enthusiasts. Although I had gotten a lot of good closeup flash photos in the exhibit hall, I prefer natural light out in the real world as much more convincing and visually interesting. As usual, I arranged permission to be on hand ahead of the scheduled demo in order to effectively shoot preparations. This is the time to get closeup photos of weapons and ammo being prepared; the reality of sights and accessories, mounts, fittings, gadgets, grenades, widgets and whatnot.

By midmorning two busloads of attendees arrived and we all sat down in the bleachers for a quick intro and safety briefing. Recognizing that good photos require good mobility, Sal arranged with SFC Mike Gomes, NCOIC of Red Cloud, to let me and a handful of other experienced gun photographers freely work a strip in front of the spectators and directly behind the firing line. This is greatly appreciated and absolutely essential, providing excellent opportunities for the kind of “up close and personal” photo coverage that editors and readers of SAR magazine have come to expect.

What followed was two hours of live fire demonstration in 97 degree direct sun, a challenge to both physical stamina and professional interest as one projectile-pusher followed another and it sometimes was hard to sort out why and to what purpose... Highlights included whisper quiet suppressors, exploding bullets, antiterrorist pyrotechnics, and several different flame-belching “shorty” assault weapons. These were interspersed with regular appearances by the Navy’s spec-ops weapons guys from Crane driving a dune buggy equipped with an ever-changing array of bad-assed full auto hardware.

Uber Alles

In keeping with long standing tradition, the H&K demo was both best and last. John Meloy’s team showed why Oberndorf’s engineering leads the small arms world in reliability, accuracy and effectiveness of its wares. With professionalism and showmanship, Jim Schatz and Volker Kurtz put pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and belt feds through their paces, including burying and dunking the new G36, and firing a continuous 500 round belt from the HK 21.

If your idea of fun coincides with mine, you’ll agree that it doesn’t get any better than having your earplugs hammered deeper and deeper as your nostrils fill with the sweet scent of burning nitrocellulose propellant. Visual stimulation is provided by flying brass, laserlike tracers and clouds of dust erupting downrange on silhouettes placed 10 to 600 meters away. Need a longer throw? Shoot your 40mm grenade launchers at real armored vehicle hulks on a ridgeline ten football fields distant.

And the real kicker was that I was actually getting paid to be there and take pictures! Who says the photographers who shoot the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit issue have all the fun? By the time the last empty casing hit the ground I had expended fourteen rolls on that day along - over 500 color slides. But hey, film is relatively cheap and we’re talking SERIOUS FUN here!

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N9 (June 1999)
and was posted online on April 15, 2016


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