Shooting Star

Critics say the MAC-10 is no longer top gun—but don’t tell that to the man who makes it.

Down a gutted dirt road that twists through the remote countryside near Stephenville is a modest metal building where the MAC-10, or M-10, pistol is still top gun. The powerful MAC-10 automatic weapon earned the title of the scourge of Vietnam and subsequent drug wars. But the semiautomatic version has lately been scorned by many reputable gun dealers, who point out that the MAC-10 isn’t particularly advanced technologically, is not attractive, and has no finesse at hitting a target. But don’t tell that to Jim Leatherwood.

In a sixty- by forty-foot home shop at the end of the road, Leatherwood builds MAC-10’s at a rate of about fifteen a week. He continues to produce them, he says, because they sell, and he depends on the business for his livelihood. By making firearms, he is also making a statement. “Texans have a long relationship with guns,” he says, “and we should be allowed to carry them as long as we’re required to receive training in their use.”

A large man with a brooding brow and shock of metal-gray hair, Leatherwood has had strong feelings about guns for most of his fifty years. While he was in college, for instance, he invented a rifle scope that makes it easier to hit a target from as far away as three quarters of a mile. Used by the U.S. Army in 1967, the scope revolutionized the long-range M-21 sniper rifles used in Vietnam, Grenada, and Kuwait.

Leatherwood also helped develop the trigger mechanism on the original Ingram MAC-10, which made it easy to mass-produce. A clunky and homely automatic pistol created by Gordon Ingram in 1964, the MAC-10 was the height of sophistication for reconnaissance patrols that needed a quiet weapon (it was also the weapon of choice for political assassinations). When the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the MAC-10 company lost its main customer, the Army, and shut down its shop in Marietta, Georgia. Another company, RPB, continued to make a semiautomatic version of the MAC-10 that was easily converted to automatic—meaning it could spray thirty rounds of .45-caliber bullets as fast as you could kick a door in—and it sold like crazy. The guns often ended up in the hands of drug dealers. In the early eighties, the manufacture of convertible semiautomatics was outlawed, and RPB went out of business. Leatherwood bought the tooling for the gun in 1984 and redesigned it as a nonconvertible semiautomatic.

The MAC-10 is one ugly gun—obviously designed with function, not form, in mind. Its rigid sheet-metal construction is durable in the most adverse conditions, and its design is ornament-free, so it won’t snag on clothes and underbrush. Firing it is eerily underwhelming; a modest kick belies the damage it can do. Shooting it attracts little attention. With a silencer, the gun’s report is subtle and unobtrusive. But if you’re looking for a weapon that’s easy to handle, its seven and a half pounds (loaded) is cumbersome. “It’s huge,” says Rob Key, who owns a weapons shop in Austin. “No reasonable shooter would buy it for self-defense.”

That’s true enough. Although Leatherwood’s MAC-10 is only a semiautomatic, it pours out bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger. “People buy the MAC-10 to look bad and be bad,” Key says. Leatherwood concedes that point, although he worries that overstating it contributes to misconceptions about guns. “It’s easy to assign personality to an inanimate object,” he says. “It is a bunch of nonsense that these guns are devastating.”

What about the massacre involving a semiautomatic weapon at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen last October? “Statistically speaking,” Leatherwood says, “your chances of being blown away by a nut are insignificant. But there is a one in four chance of your household being victimized by a criminal.”

But isn’t arming yourself an invitation for a criminal to use your own gun against you? No way, he insists: “A helpless little granny toting a thirty-eight becomes very large indeed if she knows how to use it.”

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