Dusty orange morning light pushes through the curtains into the cab-over camper, illuminating the floral patterns on the cushions around the push-out table. Out the window, on the grated hilltop of the Big Sandy gun range, crew members swarm around two large white rental trucks, arms full of equipment. A lighting and rigging tech would later explain to me that because this is an open set here at Big Sandy, they have to pack everything away each night.
In the trailer, R. Lee Ermey—aka “The Gunny”—is sitting across from me. There is a short, fit-looking woman standing next to him. They are casually discussing the day’s agenda. I can’t help staring at him as they speak, fascinated by his eyebrows, which are just as epic in person as they are on movie and television screens.
On the table is a sheathed USMC KA-BAR. I motioned toward the knife. “May I?”
“Sure, go ahead,” Ermey says.
He watches as I remove the sheath and admire the high polish of the blade.
“So, what are you taking pictures of?” He asks.
I place the knife back on the table. “I don’t know, whatever happens I guess.”
A smile parts his lips, and The Gunny raises one of those epic eyebrows.
MAKING BRASS FLY
Back outside, the crew is all business, and I try to stay out of everyone’s way. I see Katie Ryan, the sales and marketing manager for Vltor, and Erik Solberg. I head in their direction.
Erik works as a training and support specialist for Milkor USA and Vltor, and on the table in front of him is a pair of tan 40mm M32A1 multi-shot grenade launchers (MSGLs) manufactured by Milkor. The lightweight, gas-operated, semi-automatic M32A1 is a serious piece of hardware. There is a small group gathered around the table watching Erik. Next to him I recognize competition rifle-shooter, trick-shot artist and online personality Kirsten Joy Weiss, who is the guest host for this day’s filming of “GunnyTime.”
Erik demonstrates the action of the M32A1 grenade launcher by swinging the cylinder out to the side. He loads the cylinder spring by sticking his fingers into the chambers and turning the cylinder one full rotation. This revolving action makes it possible to shoot all six projectiles in about three seconds. He passes the weapon to Kirsten, who would be shooting it on camera later today.
The presence of the grenade launcher makes me smile, and I happen to notice a man named Mike Simmons listed on the call sheet for today, and next to his name is the word “pyrotechnics.” Everyone likes pyrotechnics.
Behind me, parked near the equipment trailers, are two vintage Jeeps—one sporting two Browning M1919A4s, and the other equipped with one M1919A4 and one Browning .50-caliber M2 machine gun. These vehicles and weapons are owned by the owners of the Big Sandy range. Considering the modus operandi of the “GunnyTime” show, it was a good bet that there would be some destruction. (Spoiler Alert: There was.)
I leave Erik and the group at the table and make my way around, introducing myself to the production crew. The producer/first assistant director is a short, fiery man with a goatee named Johnny. He moves around the set quickly and with purpose, and when he shakes my hand he explains that I could pretty much go wherever I want, but that it is important for me to be quiet during filming because the microphones are very sensitive, and if he yells at me for getting in a shot not to take it personally. (This only happened once, and it wasn’t really my fault, I swear.)
I turn around and literally run into Craig “Sawman” Sawyer. It was like walking into a tree. Sawyer is, among other things, a former Marine, Navy SEAL and sniper who now runs Tactical Insider, and he’s on set as a weapons advisor. I introduce myself and shake his thick hand. He throws me a giant smile and says it’s a pleasure to meet me. I immediately like the man, and would end up hanging around with him, sharing stories and movie quotes when I wasn’t shooting photos.
Looking back at all the operators I have met in the last decade, the most dangerous ones always seem to be the nicest. I think there is something between the training, experience and knowing that you are a badass that lets a person relax socially, with nothing to prove. This obviously isn’t true for everyone, but it’s a working theory of mine.
Someone yells, “Talent on set!” and I turn to see that The Gunny and Kirsten have positioned themselves behind a wooden table holding one of the M32A1s, their backs to the morning sun and their faces softly illuminated by a huge reflector positioned stage right. When everyone is set and the half-dozen cameras are rolling, Johnny calls, “Action!”
Two crewmembers crawl around the outside of a wooden bunker, spray-paint cans rattling in their hands. Around them, gray-green overspray drifts up into the fading sunlight. The structure is composed of plywood walls with a 2×4 frame, and it has an approximately 1-by-6-foot rectangular slot cut into the side facing us. This is where, if all goes well, the 40mm projectiles will go.
The Milkor M32A1s aren’t actually shooting explosive rounds, so to simulate the grenade impact, the pyrotechnics specialist has strung detonation cord inside the bunker. The weapons today are firing practice/tracer (PRAC/T) rounds, which consist of an inert, 265-gram aluminum slug with the same ballistic characteristics and 850-meter range as the high-explosive (HE) rounds.
Earlier, after The Gunny and Kirsten’s initial filming was finished, a green, mid-1990s Saturn S-Series was the first casualty of the day. You remember those armed Jeeps? Sadly, the poor little plastic-clad compact was no match for the full-auto Browning assault, and eventually the .50-caliber incendiary rounds lit the car’s interior on fire, sending a truckload of crewmembers bouncing down the dirt hill with fire extinguishers in hand. It was truly an awesome display.
Growing up in southern Arizona, I have seen some fairly decent “Hey, watch this!” firearms displays, but this definitely topped the list. Mr. Simmons even detonated some red, white and blue smoke-pots during the barrage. Which, in my opinion, threw just the right amount of “America!” over the scene. It was like a freedom cherry on top of an awesome pie.
After lunch, the scene was set for the “ammo dump,” where the crew stacked green wooden boxes out on the range, simulating an enemy ammunition cache. And who better than The Gunny, with some Browning firepower and high-power explosives, to dispatch the offending enemy supplies? After the grand and messy conclusion, I asked the pyrotechnics guy, Simmons, if he was available for private parties, to which he just smiled and shook his head. Nothing like a little det cord to liven up a birthday. You might have to warn the neighbors about that one, though.
One thing that was impressed upon me during this whole experience is the amount of downtime between filming. Moving the amount of equipment needed to shoot a TV show is not a quick process. Often during these times, a crew running the high-speed camera would shoot close-up footage of the weapon systems used during the episodes, usually operated by Craig Sawyer. Watching the system work, and seeing the playback of the brass flying and bullets slowly emerging out of the barrels, was amazing. If I said I wasn’t slightly nerding out over the camera, I would be lying. If I sold my house I could probably afford the setup they were using. The crew eyed me suspiciously as I drooled over the rig, never straying too far.
Now, in the fading end-of-day light, everything is almost set. The Gunny and Kirsten are positioned behind a wooden table, facing the ill-fated bunker. One of the crewmembers who built and painted the structure is standing next to me. I asked him if it bothered him that they were about to blow up the thing he had built before the paint was even dry. He just shrugged and said it was part of the job.
Johnny calls “Quiet!” and everyone watches in silence as The Gunny and Kirsten continue their morning’s discussion about the M32A1 system. Then The Gunny says, “Let’s see what this thing can do,” and the two commence firing. The tracer rounds burn bright red as they cross the gap. One strikes the face of the plywood with a thunk, bouncing off down the hill. Another just clears the top, ricocheting off into the distance. But then The Gunny finds his mark, and the round slides right into the opening. The structure detonates, sending bits of wood skyward, as The Gunny and Kirsten yell in delight and exchange a high five. Everyone likes pyrotechnics.
ONE MEMORABLE VISIT
I would like to thank The Gunny and everyone on the crew and production staff for the hospitality. It was a great experience. And I would especially like to thank the on-site medic, Nick Weeks, for his constant hydration reminders.
To see Kirsten Joy Weiss and The Gunny blowing things up with Milkor M32A1 MSGLs, check out “GunnyTime” Episode 203, “Targets of My Affection.” And to see The Gunny and Kenton Tucker in a Vietnam-era Jeep complete with the Browning M2, see Episode 207, “Nam’Ma Mia.”
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This story is from the spring 2017 issue of Ballistic Magazine. To subscribe, please visit OutdoorGroupStore.com.