Western Pennsylvania range provides ‘thrill’ of renting machine guns

DONEGAL (AP) — The 99 signs he has posted throughout the region — each including a phone number, the silhouette of a Rambo-style M60 machine gun and an advertisement for “Washington County Machine Gun Rentals” — has generated many a phone call to Tredd Barton.

Some people are angry. Others are curious. Yet others are amazed over the opportunity to fire a fully automatic machine gun — an MP5, Tommy Gun, AK-47, or M16, among many others — for a price.

Barton calmly answers the phone and sometimes encounters less than calm questions about his operations. He explains that machine-gun rentals are very much different from renting a floor sander or post digger. In that sense, the sign is a bit deceiving.

The fact is, he owns and operates Washington County Machine Guns LLC and Tactical Range — a machine-gun shooting range — in Donegal, near West Alexander in western Washington County. He said he is one of the largest, and possibly the largest, machine-gun rental business in the eastern United States.

“We do occasionally get phone calls from concerned persons,” Barton said.

No machine gun ever leaves his facility, which is situated behind a locked fence. You must be 16 or older to fire a machine gun at his facility or set foot on his property. Those details alone typically cause anger to subside while piquing curiosity, he said.

“Rental” means paying $145 (what Barton describes as a real bargain) for shooting a package of three guns — each with a five practice rounds and 30 rounds per clip — on his shooting range.

Rentals include the gun, range time, eye-and-ear protection, targets and one-on-one instruction for each person. Ammunition magazines include 30 rounds. But the person initially fires five rounds to get a feel for controlling the machine gun.

“Our main business comes from bachelor parties and corporate events,” he said, with three such events last week. “It’s an experience of shooting a machine gun. That’s what it’s all about. That is what we sell.”

When the machine guns aren’t in use, he said, they are stored inside a vault at a different location.

Guns long have been the focus of American controversy, so the idea that anyone 16 or older can rent a machine gun may seem startling and even alarming. Without additional information, his signs raise questions and prompt investigatory phone calls.

But his operation is fully legal. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirms that Barton has an “07” license. Nationwide, the ATF issued about 12,000 such licenses in 2017 and 375 in Pennsylvania.

Barton said the annual costs for his license is $2,850, which allows him to buy and sell weaponry including machine guns through the National Firearms Act. He also can manufacture machine guns, which for him often involves converting semi-automatic firearms into fully-automatic machine guns.

He also can sell silencers known as “suppressors” and sawed-off shotguns, both of which he said are legal in Pennsylvania.

A Lock Haven native, Barton also works as a “weapons master” for films and TV shows, while providing “Airsoft prop firearms.”

The core of his business is selling machine guns and other weaponry to police departments. He also can sell weaponry to government and other licensed dealers.

“Police are always updating their equipment and want the latest and greatest, and only companies like us can sell them,” he said.

Pittsburgh Machine Guns in McKeesport offers similar machine-gun rental services.

The purchase and sale of machine guns can be a complex, time-consuming process. For example, the law prohibits the sale of any machine gun, manufactured after May 1986, to any citizen who does not hold proper ATF licensing.

Certain classifications of machine guns manufactured before May 1986 can be sold to citizens — but only after they successfully have undergone an extensive ATF background check, which can take six months to a year to complete and sometimes longer.

That class of machine gun typically costs between $5,000 and $30,000, Barton said, with some significantly more expensive. The customer must pay him the full price before undergoing the licensing process and background checks. If the person is cleared to make the purchase, then Mr. Barton must conduct his own background check before the sale is complete.

But he said he has had customers pay for a machine gun, then fail the ATF background check. At that point, he reimburses the client.

Barton said two women from England and a European cardiologist who traveled to Pittsburgh to do a lecture, visited his shooting range to unload a few magazines of ammunition.

Last year, an elderly man and his grandson arrived to fire some rounds with a Tommy gun, which the aging veteran had carried as an infantryman during World War II. Barton said the man picked up the gun and started crying.

“He fired five rounds and that was enough,” Barton said.

“He was amazed how heavy it was,” he said, with the man noting that it restored his memories of using a Tommy gun.

For a bachelor party for James Harisch on June 26 — one week before his wedding — his two brothers, Christopher and Johnathon, and his father, Matthew, all of them gun enthusiasts, traveled eight hours from Carmel, N.Y., to visit Pittsburgh, then head to Barton’s range to try out some machine guns.

They bought James the “commando” package, allowing him to fire 10 guns with some bonus guns.

“I would say we enjoy shooting guns,” said Johnathon Harisch, 25, describing the idea as alluring and intriguing. “When you follow the law and exercise caution and are mentally stable, there is nothing to be afraid of.”

On the way home, there was plenty to discuss.

“It was an eight-hour trip and worth every bit of it,” Harisch said, advocating better knowledge of gun laws. “I know people are opposed to the idea of it, but to get to where Tredd is and to own these guns took him half a lifetime.”