Paul Shull gets paid to travel the world in search of the coolest antique weapon, and it's safe to say he likes what he does. “I scored a dream job and I know it,” says Shull. This month Shull is back at it as The Weapon Hunter returns to the Smithsonian Channel. The restoration expert and lifelong history buff came up with the idea for the show while browsing at a local gun store with a friend. They found themselves in a conversation with a veteran who shared his experience fighting overseas, and thought the conversation should have been on television. “People make shows about machines, but really how interesting can an inanimate object be,” Shull says. “But speaking to someone who had to actually use it in battle gives [the weapon] a whole new meaning.” In the first season, Shull rebuilt a Quad 50 machine gun, fired a Civil War cannon, and reconstructed a rare Achilles Tank Destroyer, but he promises that there are still hundreds of untapped stories to tell, and dusty treasures to uncover.
I’m sure you have met some certified badasses during the filming of this.
There was one day filming this second season that I was standing next to a soldier named Jim “Pee Wee” Martin. This man is a freaking legend, a Band Of Brothers kind of guy from the 101st Screaming Eagles Airborne Division. The episode was putting the K98 Mauser up against the M1 Garand. I was on the K98, and Jim was on the M1. This guy is in his nineties, and we are competing over who is going to be able to get the better grouping. I asked him when was the last time he shot that gun. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Battle of the Bulge.” I mean, holy shit. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.
How do you interview guys like that?
They don’t put up with bullshit. If I try to tell their story and I look like an idiot, they will shut me down in a moment. No matter what age they are, these guys are alpha dogs. Though I never served, myself, I don’t think it takes them long to realize that I am fully committed to telling the tale right. I am just a storyteller at the end of the day. I am a conduit for these men to tell their incredible stories. This is an honor for me and I am very proud of the stories that we have been able to find.
Are your reactions to collections real?
I never see a collection before the camera does. I mean, how are you going to react when you walk into a room that has two Enigma machines? Everything that you are seeing is authentic. I walked into one gunroom and I started crying. Some of these guys have mystical shit in their possession.
How do you choose the story?
Best story always wins. But sometimes they just come to us by luck. One of the episodes is about the road war of Vietnam. I was in a coffee chop at 2:30 in the morning in Monroe, Louisiana, with a Vietnam vet. He asks me, with his Southern accent, what I knew about the road war of Vietnam. I had never heard of it. Turns out there were all these kids over there who had to build vehicles that could [handle] the roads out there. So we made it part of the show. Since then all these veterans who were a part of that part of the war have reached out to thank us for telling their story.
And sometimes you find the story?
Do you remember the “bring up the Bangalores” line in Saving Private Ryan? I realized that I had no idea what they really were and what they did. So we made an episode about it. I built one, and we filled it with 10 pounds of explosives and blew it up on 1,200 feet of barbed wire. That tube was a game-changer on the beaches of Normandy. I needed to tell that story, how a metal tube was a force to be reckoned with. Then we were able to find soldiers who were there using them during those battles. These guys were there on D-Day.
I have to imagine that being surrounded by these instruments of death can be at times disconcerting for the guys who were there.
There are certain questions that I have to ask every veteran before we film, and I ask them off camera, because these are stories that can get really personal really quick. I have a responsibility to these guys. Man to man, I want to know what they are going to be good with sharing. There was an incident where we were letting off explosions, and a few of the guys decided that they didn’t want to stick around for that. Of course we are going to respect that.
Do you ever not want to be part of a weapon’s history?
I have personally been in situations where I didn’t want to touch items, like when you are standing there looking at Hitler’s watercolors. What are you supposed to do with that? Do I really want to hold them? Or when you are looking at the MG08, one of the most brutal guns of the First World War, which cut down more allies than you could imagine. Do I want to fire that?
What would you say was the most affecting weapon you fired?
I can fairly say it was the Pak-40. The best way to describe it is the most obnoxious piece of machinery I have ever laid my hands on. It honestly rattled my brain. My director told me that I was going to give a line after firing the thing, into camera. I thought I had it. I fired the Pak and I just went black. My ears were ringing, even with the protection. I couldn’t get my shit together. I was like a goat seeing lightning for the first time. My body didn’t know what to do.
How about that flamethrower?
There is nothing like setting off a flamethrower. If you are not in the club, you are not in the club. You have no idea.
Sounds like you wake up sore the next morning most of the time.
I wake up sore all the time. I feel like I am in pretty good shape. I have a great trainer named Christian Manning who I work with solid for three months before we start shooting, because these guns kick the hell out of you. There is physicality to all of the weapons. History hurts. That is one of our commandments when we are filming. I want to know what it is like to wear the gear these guys were running around in while taking fire. These guys had to do it day or night, so I can do it for a day. Training with the marines at Quantico, just doing one of their regular workouts. I’m 43, and I like to consider myself pretty bulletproof, but I’m not at that level. Everything that you see is what I earned.
Is there any weapon that you are chasing right now?
I would really love to build a flame tank. That is a tank with a flamethrower on it. I hear that some of those old ones can throw a flame about 400 feet out. That means we are talking about four football fields. I would like to see that.
The Weapon Hunter airs Sunday evenings on The Smithsonian Channel.