Lots and lots of firearms.
Like every other niche subject nurtured and cultivated by YouTube's existence, videos of people firing guns—and reviewing the performance of said guns—have gone from low-fi and amateurish to professional quality in under a decade. Now a video such as "5 Guns The Government Doesn't Want You To Have," posted by Eric Blandford—Iraqveteran8888 on YouTube—can rack up 10 million views from its core audience of 1.3 million subscribers. Meanwhile, the Military Arms Channel's (537,000 subscribers) "IWI Israel Factory Tour" (IWI manufactures the Uzi, among other popular guns) boasts better production values than many History Channel specials.
How does one make a living firing a different gun every day, and how do they fit into the greater debate about gun control in the US? I reached out to the YouTube stars themselves to learn how it's done.
"I started my channel in 2008, before there were so many content creators it was hard to get noticed," said Tim Harmsen, an ex-Marine who operates the Military Arms Channel as well the gun megastore Copper Custom Armament in Valparaiso, Indiana. "People like Matt Drudge had really paved the way, showing that you could distribute your own content outside mainstream media channels. I started editing my movies on iMovie, but incorporated better film equipment, improved my technical skills, and moved to Final Cut Pro 10."
Harmsen, the owner of a gun shop, uses his channel to promote that business. "As far as reviews go, I'm totally independent from sponsors, because the real value of my site comes from the fact that it attracts customers from all over the world to my store," he told me. "I've been recognized while in Turkey. I've had people come from countries like China simply to visit my store. And one of my local competitors has a television in his store that plays my videos."
Steven Wilson, an Army veteran and expert marksman who operates the SafeArmsReview channel, reviews guns that he owns as well as ones that friends have loaned him. "Most of what I review are guns that I and others like, usually entry-level firearms that are not too expensive. However, I'm looking to partner with a gun store that will send me T&E (training & evaluation) guns," he said, describing the method by which many gun reviewers receive the weapons that appear in their videos. "A company sends a T&E gun for a person to review. After the review is completed, the reviewer sends it back via a federal firearms license."
For Harmsen, one of the thrills of internet reviewing has been the ability to popularize weapons that warrant additional attention. "I was one of the first reviewers who really picked up on the IWI [Israel Weapons Industry] Tavor rifle, just as that company was expanding operations in the US market. And I've been fortunate to tour the IWI factory in Israel, the MKE [Mechanical and Chemical Industry Company] factory in Turkey, the CZ [Czech Arms] factory in the Czech Republic…I've been able to introduce consumers to a wide variety of weapons."
Steven Wilson, who also began making gun videos as a hobby, stressed that the quality of a video has as much to do with the skill level of the user as the gun being filmed. "To me, it matters how the firearm is used on camera. You can have a cool looking M4 (an AR-15 variant) but if the actor doesn't know how to use it correctly, that can kill the scene—pun intended. However if an actor knows how to manipulate a firearm correctly in a dynamic way, that makes the gun look 'cool'…think of John Wick-type stuff."
Both Steven Wilson and Tim Harmsen responded to requests for comment, but several other YouTube channel operators either politely rejected Motherboard's inquiries or stated that they didn't want their comments to be taken out of context. But despite the fact that the political bent to most of these review videos is avowedly pro-gun owner—much as many video game reviews defend the reviewers' choice to play violent video games—gun review videos primarily showcase these expert users' obsession with gun safety and maintenance. "Safety is a huge concern for me and one that I carried over from my time in the military," said Wilson, who was a firearms instructor in the Army and is currently an NRA firearms and self defense instructor.
Tim Harmsen agreed. "Growing up in Kansas, guns were just part of the culture: a tool to be used safely. Everybody there owned a gun, and YouTube hasn't changed that. But it has let a new generation of gun experts build an audience. In other words, we reviewers can reach all the people that Guns & Ammo could during the 1980s and 1990s, and then some. This has always been a country where people used firearms, where firearm ownership rates were high. None of that has changed, but it's so much easier to learn about new products, and become knowledgeable about this subject."
Harmsen believes that ease of access to informational videos like his may make gun owners more skilled and responsible users. "With most of my videos, the objective is to let viewers tag along with me while I shoot. While there are wilder and crazier YouTube gun channels out there today, people desperate to get noticed in a crowded field, I'm still committed to the principles of gun safety I believe every gun owner should follow. Guns are fun to watch and use, but they're not toys."