by Peter Suciu
When taking part in a re-enactment, vehicle parade, or just showing off a vintage Jeep, it almost seems like something is missing if it doesn’t have some firepower. In most cases, however, a working (as in, firing and functional) machine gun can cost as much — if not more — than many vehicles. There are also countless legal issues around owning working machine guns — and in some states it isn’t even possible.
“The first issue is the cost,” said Gary V. Caprio, owner of The U.S. Replica Gun Company.
“Adding a real .50 caliber M2HB for example will cost about $35,000, and there are associated maintenance costs that can also be quite high,” Caprio told Military Vehicles. “Then there are the safety issues. Is it safe to have a full automatic monster displayed for the public at rallies and parades? Most would agree that the answer to that question is ‘probably not.’”
Those in the wrong states are also out of luck too.
“You must live in a Class III state, and traveling to neighboring states can present several problems one might not consider,” added Caprio. “For example; If you live in Pennsylvania, and have a full auto weapon mounted on your Jeep and wants to travel to New Jersey for an MV show, you cannot.”
Fortunately, there are numerous options for adding what is in essence a decorative feature to a military vehicle. Picking the right option comes down to what you plan to do with the weapon.
One option for those looking for the most accuracy can opt to use a “dummy gun.” A dummy is a firearm that has either a cut receiver or a solid receiver, either of which renders the weapon non-functional. These can’t be made to simulate fire in most cases.
The other downside is that these can be expensive. But for those who want the accuracy and don’t mind paying for it, a dummy gun with original parts is the way to go.
Resin Display Guns
One of the easiest and most affordable options for arming a vehicle is a resin copy of real guns. These pass the “five-foot test” (that is, look perfectly fine from five feet away), are durable, and while these look like working firearms they are as far from the real deal as you can get.
“Resin guns make a lot of sense for vehicles for a number of reasons,” said Alex Cranmer, vice president of New Jersey-based International Military Antiques, which offers both types of dummy guns.
Cranmer told MVM that among the top reasons to consider a resin copy comes down to costs followed by legality.
“A resin gun is much more affordable than a gun, usually only 10 to 20 percent the cost,” he added. “Legal is next. Anyone who drives around in a Willys with a .50 caliber on top will tell you how many people will ask, ‘does it shoot?’ Police may get calls from ‘concerned’ neighbors, so the easiest answer is to laugh and say, ‘it’s plastic!’”
Resin guns typically pass the drop test too, yet because the material is lighter than steel these put less strain on old vehicles.
“Ever try to mount a steel .50 caliber on a Jeep? Ouch!” noted Cranmer, who called out the durability too, “The resin guns we make have steel wire frames and a steel core barrel making them extremely strong for (using while) driving off road.”
Another lightweight option is to look into Airsoft guns. These are the realistic-looking weapons that are used in a sport/game where players shoot small rubber pellets at each other. These shouldn’t be considered toys, however. There may be legal issues around these.
Still, for those who have some open space, an Airsoft gun could at least let you take aim at a target from the vehicle and actually send something down range!
All-Metal Replica Guns
Next on the list of considerations is a full-metal replica, which companies like The U.S. Replica Gun Company now offer. These have plenty of advantages as well, notably, the cost.
“An excellent replica M2HB, like one from the United States Replica Gun Company, will cost about $1,500,” explained Caprio.
These replicas are still much safer than real guns and let the public get up close and personal. Caprio added that a large belt fed weapon can be a true “crowd pleaser.”
“While displaying our weapons, I can’t easily count the number of times a gentleman wearing a veteran baseball cap, would stop at our weapons displays, look while a smile slowly appears, then tell me his story about how these were used by him or his unit,” said Caprio.
The advantage over resin or Airsoft goes beyond the visuals. While resin weapons may pass the “five foot” test, might not be good enough. Many replicas feature spring loaded charging handles and can hold dummy ammo belts in place. These are small, but crucial, differences.
“If the charging handle is static, then reaching for it only offers up nothing more than a fistful of disappointment,” noted Caprio.
For those who want a metal replica without the weight, the International Replica Arms Corporation (IRAC) offers a number of options made of aircraft grade aluminum.
“We prefer aircraft aluminum as it is lighter yet durable,” said James Crawford, president and CEO of IRAC. “A lot of military vehicle owners aren’t 20 years-old, so putting up a steel M2 on a vehicle can be tough. Aluminum still looks good and is very durable.”
Another advantage is that aluminum — much like resin —needs little maintenance.
“If you’re not just displaying it in an arms room there can be some maintenance and cleaning of steel guns, even if these don’t shoot,” Crawford told Military Vehicles. “In humid areas, rust can form quickly on steel.”
IRAC also has worked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Crawford said all vehicle enthusiasts should confirm that the weapons are compliant with federal laws.
“Our replicas go to the ATF and what we sell comes with a letter that ensures by federal laws it is not a firearm,” said Crawford.
A step up from all-metal replicas machine guns are those that have been designed to create simulated fire. These don’t fire blank rounds. Instead, they use a propane “firing” systems to simulate the sound of actual cartridges exploding.
“The advantage is obvious, they fire — well, at least simulated fire,” said Steve Smith, WWII collector and re-enactor, who is also a military vehicle enthusiast.
Along with his father, Smith developed a gas gun system and still builds custom guns. He said the simulated fire is what makes these systems really a step up from static displays.
“One that is built and setup right can sound just the real thing, just no projectile and no recoil to speak of,” Smith told MVM. “[They are] very close sound to firing blank rounds but much cheaper as ammo, even blank ammo, is getting very expensive. A propane gun can be fired for pennies per round compared to dollars per round when the brass is flying. Also, since they are not real guns and can’t chamber live rounds, they are completely legal and can be made to simulate full auto fire with no licensing requirements.”
These do take some talent and skills to create however, and this includes concealing the gas bottles and regulators. Regardless, Smith noted that re-enactors especially love these guns because of the cost advantages, ease of use, reliability, and no concerns with BATF regulations.
However, even though these guns don’t fall into the purview of ATF, there are other concerns when using these in parades or other public events.
“Since they can look and sound like the real thing, think how the spectators will react if you suddenly open up with your gas gun,” said Smith.
“Always make certain you have notified the authorities about what you will be doing, get approval from the event organizers, and always warn those close by that you are getting ready to fire,” Smith added to MVM. “You can really scare people if they aren’t ready for it. They don’t know who you are, and they don’t understand your gun is a simulator. Remember, there are people around you that could be carrying the real thing and suddenly they see you firing what appears to be a live machine gun. They could react in a split second, and your hobby could turn into a nightmare real quick. Always at a public event, think about what you are about to do before you do it.”
There are other safety concerns as well involving the proper use of these gas guns as well. While these may not actually shoot projectiles there are other dangers.
“Safety should always be at the forefront when operating guns of any type,” noted Smith. “Propane simulators can produce muzzle blasts equivalent to the real thing. The sound, the heat, the combustion pressure, can all be dangerous.”
For this reason these simulators should always be operated a safe distance from others, and just as with real guns it is good idea to have hearing protection. Also, just like a real weapon these devices can heat up quickly and burns can result if it is not handled correctly.
“The best rule of thumb is to treat your gas gun like the real thing. Follow all gun safety rules. Be smart. Be safe,” said Smith. “A propane/oxygen gas gun simulator is not a toy!”
It should be noted too that none of the aforementioned gun options should be considered toys either. For this reason, anyone displaying any sort of replica/copy or other item that even looks like a firearm should check with local laws and consult the promoters.
“We always recommend that our customers check with local authorities,” added IRAC’s Crawford, who also provides training systems for first responders and law enforcement.
In the end, the choice of what to use comes down to its use, but vehicle enthusiasts should know there are options.
“All of these items from resin to steel have a place,” said Crawford. “It all comes down to the level of realism you are trying to depict.”