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Long Mountain Outfitters: Every man a rifleman

Dan Shea owns one of the most diverse collections of firearms in the world. Without his help modern video games couldn't feel as real as they do.

Hanging on a wall outside E. Daniel Shea's office is a display of rifles. Some date to World War I, others World War II. At the very top is one of the oldest pieces in his collection, and like every one of Shea's guns there's a story behind how it got there.

"There was a young man," Shea says. "He was a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan. ... During one of the many firefights he was in, he was taking fire from a hillside. It was easy to mark where the [enemy] was because there was such a big cloud of smoke."

The soldier took aim on that cloud and killed the Afghani who was firing on his team. After the firefight he went to the man's body and found an Enfield-pattern musket made in 1856.

The only way that gun could have got there was if it was carried through the Khyber Pass in the 1870s by the British Army. Perhaps that Afghani's great great grandfather had taken it as a trophy. More than 130 years later the American soldier took the trophy as his own, and when he needed money he sold it. That's how the gun came to Shea.

"We keep it in here," Shea says, careful not to claim the gun as his own. "All of the people who we've trained that are headed over to Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen — wherever they're headed to — we like to point that particular musket out so that it brings something into focus.

"If your laser's not working," he says, "the guy that you're fighting will kill you with a rock."

Shea likes to tell war stories. He also likes to help others do the same, and while he's not a gamer himself, he has a lot of respect for what game developers do.

But he has even more respect for warfighters. And that's why he works so closely with the games industry; to try and get the guns they show in games right.

SheaE. Daniel Shea, general manager of Long Mountain Outfitters and editor-in-chief of Small Arms Of The World and Small Arms Defense Journal

But once you step behind the counter it's clear this is no ordinary retail store Gun-tallOne of several vaults at Long Mountain Outfitters

Working reference

Gun shops can be intimidating for the uninitiated. And Dan Shea's gun shop just outside Las Vegas, Nevada is more intimidating than most.

Long Mountain Outfitters is cramped. The sales staff is on top of you. It's also visibly armed. The customers are focused on the stock. There is very little eye contact.

In the front of the store are the prerequisite bins of spent shell casings, a bulk purchase for those who press their own cartridges at home. Below them are refurbished wooden gun stocks and dry, moldering piles of surplus magazine pouches. Further in there's a glass case jammed with pistols and a wall of sleek new AR-15 sport rifles.

The store is functional, almost sterile. And in that way it's just like every other gun shop in the U.S. But once you step behind the counter it's clear this is no ordinary retail store.

Your average gun shop will have a few items in the back room as overstock. But at LMO there's a narrow room, 50 feet deep, filled with hundreds of pieces from the current U.S. military inventory; M-4 carbines, M249 SAWs, big "Ma-Deuce" .50 caliber machine guns.

What looks like a piece of furniture in the middle of the room is actually a rack of Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers. There just isn't enough room in here, Shea says, for the mortar tubes. He keeps them down the hall.

Most of Shea's equipment isn't for sale. It's for rent. But not in the tawdry, Las Vegas come-shoot-some-guns-and-then-gamble-next-door kind of way. Shea tells me that when contractors working with the U.S. military need to train troops going overseas they call LMO. Shea's vaults hold the weapons they need to do their jobs, and thanks to his staff of highly-trained armorers they're immaculate.

But what truly separates LMO from the average gun shop is Shea's reference collection. He's been building it for 35 years.

"There is nothing as diverse in human history as our weapons," Shea says. "I'd argue that all day. Plates? Clothing? No.

"The technology that goes into [weapons], the history; those things are the most fascinating to me. It's not so much shooting anymore, although I do enjoy going out to the range, and having a lot of guns I have a lot of choices. Most of the time I'm interested in the history and technology."

Shea's library contains over 4,000 weapons. It is one of the most diverse collections in the world, and you would never expect to find it here in a drab complex of low-slung commercial buildings in the middle of a desert.

The Misty Mountain

Shea leads me deep into his facility to the room that holds his prized possessions.

We walk past a case that holds trinkets and curios — a World War I uniform, Kevin Costner's gun from Waterworld, a Saracen's sword — until we arrive at the vault. Here, behind an inches-thick bank door, lays the Long Mountain Outfitters Working Reference Collection. Hung on the walls inside and spread carefully on the floors and tables in the middle of the room are hundreds of guns, enough to make certain scenes from the first Matrix movie look quaint.

Shea begins fussing with them almost immediately.

"We just got back from a big shoot," Shea says. "Things are a little all over the place."

Walking around the vault with Shea is like walking around the world and back in time. There are weapons here from North Korea and China, from Israel and Iraq, from Germany and Africa. Being allowed into this room implies a kind of trust, and not just because of the lock on the door. I am being entrusted with the stories behind these guns. Many were used in battle and are each surrounded by history, and by loss.

Shea has something to say about every one of them. Hanging on the wall are guns that pushed back German Panzers at Stalingrad. Lying on the floor are guns that tore open the jungles of Vietnam. On one shelf is an anti-air gun that fired on the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. It sits next to a 20 mm canon from inside the wing of a Japanese Zero fighter plane.

Panzerfaust_mg_0039Shea’s collection features vintage US, British and German rocket propelled anti-tank weapons.

There's an original Armalite AR-10, the gun that became the M-16. There are covert weapons built by Finnish assassins and the CIA. There are Thompsons, Garands and grease-guns. And these are just the guns Shea will let me write about.

"I've always tried to keep prototypes," Shea says, opening a violin case. Inside is Howard Hughes' model for the Heligun, the contemporary of the modern minigun. The U.S. government decided its complexity wasn't worth the 6,000 rounds-per-minute rate of fire.

Hughes Corp. was going to throw it away. But to Shea it's an invaluable artifact. This is more than just a hoard of weapons to Shea. It's a museum.

In the retail shop Shea's clients are gun owners. But here, near the heart of his company, his customers include weapons manufacturers. Many of them, he says, have never seen the guns he has in this room. Outside their own designs, many companies don't know how other weapons work. For them this collection is a treasure trove of competitive intelligence.

But his customers also include people from the entertainment industry; movie people and television people. And, in the last 15 years or so, they've been joined by video game people. As Shea sees it, audiences want more exotic weapons, especially military weapons that they could never fire in real life. That makes his collection at LMO invaluable to the people in the games industry.

Trade secrets

Shea's part in it started about 15 years ago when he was asked to contribute weapons and ammunition for portions of the filming of Saving Private Ryan, including the D-Day landing sequence.

"What the director wanted," Shea says, "was accuracy on every aspect of every round. So the rounds that were fired from a German MG-42 — 8 mm Mauser machine gun rounds — were fired from an MG-42. And if they hit steel a microphone was recording the sound of the bullet, from an 8 Mauser, hitting steel — if it was hitting sand, if it was hitting glass, if it hit wood, if it hit water. And if it hit a person the sound was done [by] shooting a ham."

Shortly after that movie was released video game companies came knocking. Shea says he's worked on many games, among them several Call of Duty and Medal of Honor titles. More than that he can't say.

At first designers wanted to scan the weapons from every angle, and eventually they wanted to fire them and have field recordists there to capture the sound. Now Shea says they run high-speed video, even conduct pressure tests while firing the guns from benches. They're trying to get not just the sound right, but the animations right as well.

British-gunsThese modern British battle rifles feature a unique "bull-pup" design.

What exactly the members of the games industry do with these guns is, in many cases, a trade secret.

Just the week before I arrived LMO staff were out in the desert with a game developer firing guns for days. Shea can't tell me who he was working with, what guns they fired or even exactly how they captured the information digitally. Game developers, he says, are very secretive about how they do their work.

Secrecy is something Shea's familiar with. He says that many of LMO's clients are governments; "NATO plus four," meaning members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. Most every contract requires some sort of government clearance, and that means having a pristine record of business and personal conduct.

To Shea games are just a side business. He won't jeopardize his company by working for game developers not willing to pay for the utmost in safety and precision.

In short, game developers need to play by Shea's rules because his collection wasn't built for them. And he doesn't merely own it. He see himself as its caretaker.

"The LMO Working Reference Collection is geared towards doing the work that we do; training our troops and training armorers for any eventuality," Shea says.

"At the start of the current Afghan conflict the American military had kind of devolved most of the foreign weapons programs. They were only covering [Russian-style assault rifles and machine guns]. When you get into Afghanistan or Iraq, when you get anywhere in the world — Africa — you're going to run into the vestiges of two world wars and numerous conflicts and many different armies. And you need to have the familiarization and understanding of all of the weapons, or at least most of the weapons, you're apt to run into."

Active duty troops, much more so than game designers, need to know what these weapons are capable of, what they sound like and how they operate. Shea has participated in weapons acoustics research, helping to identify and quantify the seven distinct sounds that guns make. It lead to the development of gun silencing technology deployed today.

But soldiers on the ground in a warzone may also need to be able to destroy weapons discretely. They may not always have a tank handy to crush them with. Or they might need to repair foreign weapons and put them to use against an enemy force. For these reasons LMO has classroom facilities on-site where it teaches both line troops and special operators from the U.S. and the countries that fight alongside them.

"It also helps if you can identify the weapon systems that are unusual," Shea says. "You can get a lot of intelligence by looking at a weapon and saying, 'That's North Korean. How did a North Korean weapon get here when everything else we see is Chinese?'"

Because of these and other intelligence concerns, much of the government work Shea does is strictly confidential. And the games companies he works with figure that if he can keep the government's secrets, he can keep theirs as well.

Good tradecraft

Gun culture is not without its controversies, and some of that bleeds over into video gaming. Shea is aware of it, just as he's aware of how uneasy some of his neighbors feel about his collection.

He hopes that part of the work he does with game developers contributes to the understanding of firearms as things, as mechanical gadgets that are intellectually valuable and worthy of respect.

The concept that people have preconceived in their mind is that if they touch a firearm that they're gonna do something violent.

"I grew up in a culture of personal responsibility," Shea says. "The concept that people have preconceived in their mind is that if they touch a firearm that they're gonna do something violent. And that's a failure on [the part of] our society in teaching people properly.

"I hear people blame movies and blame video games for violence in society. That's really not where the problem is coming in, in my opinion at least. The problem is in society itself where we've gone away from that rugged individualism, personal responsibility-type thing. If you have people passing on those values to other people playing a video game isn't going to twist [their] head up. ... It's not real. It's something that you're playing. It's something that you're enjoying. ... And just playing a video game doesn't make you act out what you see in there."

Shea has felt the impact of the last two console generations on his bottom line. As the capabilities of game hardware has evolved, so too has the fidelity required to model firearms in games. And that increase in fidelity means the old archival scans and sound recordings aren't good enough anymore. So back he goes into the Nevada desert to shoot at the hillsides with his clients. Back he goes into his vault to share stories about his guns with the storytellers who make games.

ArchivesShea has over 700,000 documents from all over the world he hopes to scan into an online database at "Colt got rid of container loads of their paperwork," he says. "Records from the 1800s, from the early 1900s ... Rob Roy went in and saved a bunch of it, and I bought some of that from him."

Shea says that military games, like the other entertainment mediums he has worked with, are about telling stories. It's not always about building a robust set of servers for online play. It's about finding experts to show game developers what's real and what's imaginary, to help them put more truth into their work.

It's that history, that respect for past and present warfighters, Shea hopes will rub off on the game developers he sees at his doorstep. And there are more and more of them every year.

If his collection were full of rocks, or swords, or sticks and stones, it would be just as meaningful for Shea as if it was filled with guns. Talking with him you come to realize that he's not just collecting weapons, he's keeping them alive. He's not obsessed with weapons; he's obsessed with their history. Fin

Update (May 2018): Years later, Dan Shea reached out to us here at Polygon. In 2014 he closed down Long Mountain Outfitters, but he's still in the business of conducting training and working with the video game industry. His new company is called Phoenix Defence.

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