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One-armed bandits and the two-bit soldiers: They believe in guns, guts and the flag. But these are lean times for the weekend warriors who met in Las Vegas. Phil Reeves joined them

IF A SPY plane were to fly over Phoenix, Arizona, it might just spot an unusual-looking speck on the desert below, carefully hidden under camouflaged netting. Paul Bible likes to think the enemy cannot see the ex-US Army truck in his backyard.

He keeps his elderly vehicle in a state of permanent readiness for the day when everyone has to head for the hills. It contains enough military rations and water to last for months - and, he claims, antidotes to chemical and biological weapons.

It also carries at least one of his six guns, in case the marauding hordes set upon him and his wife Sharon. 'At 400 yards, I guarantee I can blow your head off with open sights,' he said, grinning broadly and hooking his thumbs in the rim of his khaki fatigues.

One did not feel inclined to argue. Mr Bible's black beret, dark glasses, tattoos, and T-shirt bearing the legend 'I came, I saw, I conquered', left little doubt that he takes military matters no less seriously than Stormin' Norman. Which is a little odd, as he is not a soldier and his only, distant, army experience was as an instructor.

Last week Mr Bible, a 52-year-old machine operator, took his truck (licence plate: COMBT1) across the desert to show it off to fellow enthusiasts at the Soldier of Fortune convention, a gathering of gun fanatics, survivalists, ex-Vietnam veterans and police officers, who spent six days boning up on the mysteries of knife-fighting, kung-fu, and - above all - guns. There are seminars with such titles as: 'Gun Control, the Economy and Liberals: a Disaster in the Making'; and 'Battle Rifles and Burp Guns: How to Employ Them in Combat.'

The get-together was at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, a gambling joint that offers rooms at dollars 69 a night and evenings of soft- porn entertainment. In this outlandish city, Mr Bible was not out of place. Most of his fellow 'soldiers' clomped around the casino in army boots, or drank beer under the palm trees in 100F temperature and combat clothes.

They might have attracted sniggers, but the hundreds of elderly American tourists pumping away at the batteries of one-armed bandits hardly noticed.

'I enjoy wearing military clothes. I always have,' Mr Bible explained. 'I think it depicts the United States and what I stand for. I will die for our flag, and I think there are a lot of people out there that feel as I do.' You only had to look at his wife, sporting a pair of earrings in the shape of hand-grenades, to know that she takes a similar view.

Readers of the US monthly magazine Soldier of Fortune have been getting together annually for 13 years. Last week's event was not entirely without incident. Slumbering guests were woken at dawn by a tape-recorded bugler playing the Reveille, followed by a blast of Jerry Lee Lewis. Hotel security guards silenced their paramilitary visitors.

Until recently the 'soldiers' had never lacked a target: the 'Reds' were always up to something. But the end of the Cold War has spoiled all that, and now they have had to train their sights on a new perceived threat: the Enemy Within. Like many of his associates, Mr Bible believes the United States government will eventually collapse, destroyed by corruption, inefficiency and, above all, politicians intent on eradicating the constitutional right to bear arms. A military tyranny (usually foggily described as the New World Order) will take over. The time will have come to get the old army truck out.

It has long been rumoured that the convention is a meeting-place for international mercenaries, but if any were present, they weren't admitting it. 'There have been the odd one or two who've drifted in over the years, but very few,' said Colonel Robert Brown, 59, ex-Vietnam veteran and founding editor of Soldier of Fortune.

Times, it seems, are a little lean in freelance soldiering. According to Col Brown, there are an estimated 500 mercenaries in Bosnia and Croatia, who are paid only pounds 100 a month. The collapse of communism has knocked nearly a third off his magazine's readership, now at 90,000 worldwide. But there are still committed enthusiasts around. Mark Bower, 26, an electronics worker from Bristol, travelled to Las Vegas after a trip to South Carolina to shoot white-tailed deer. At the hotel, he was in mufti. 'There is more freedom over here,' he said, complaining that the Hungerford massacre had restricted his access to certain weapons in Britain. 'Here I can shoot what I want to, a damn sight more cheaply. You can shoot an Uzi over here for dollars 25 (pounds 14).'

Karl von Fish, 53, a concrete worker from Los Angeles with a shaven head and waxed moustache, checked into the hotel, wearing the full regalia of the French Foreign Legion, in which he served 30 years ago. He attended for the camaraderie, he explained. And the get-up? 'Oh,' he shrugged, 'I wear this every time I go to the shooting range. I just like uniforms.'

This, one assumes, was also the motive of the military bric-a-brac collectors who offered to auction 'war loot from Desert Storm' and trophies from the Yugoslav conflict. Iraqi military mementoes were expected to raise up to dollars 150 apiece. One item listed in the Croatia and Bosnia category was advertised as 'Aviator's leather helmet. The pilot was killed; the blood has been washed off.'

All this may seem distasteful but fairly harmless, the pursuit of a rather sad clan of eccentrics. Until you spot the T-shirts showing the smiley face with a bullet through its forehead, or bearing such legends as 'We Walk Where Others Fear to Run'. Or the hundreds of high-powered semi-automatic weapons on sale at the gun show - to several thousand visitors who see weaponry as something far more interesting than mere self-defence.

(Photographs omitted)