When I arrived in Riga I decided I wanted to do one of the two things that I’m afraid to do in life. One, being an acute acrophobic I wanted to board the hot air balloon. I thought what could be more romantic than die young in a fallen hot air balloon in Riga, the romance capital of the Baltics? Two, I saw an intriguing brochure left by a tourist on the table next to mine when I was having my first Latvian lunch. That was the brochure of a shooting tour to an old Soviet bunker with a promise to shoot with a Kalashnikov AK-47.
I despise guns, wars, killing (both animals and humans), and Sarah Palin. But I thought, you must know why you hate something so much, otherwise your hatred is not validated. So I decided to seek my validation. I booked an appointment for the next day. I told the nice staff at my hotel who always smiled and showed their perfectly-lined-shiny teeth that I wanted to find out how it feels to hold a gun, not just a gun, but a Kalashnikov with a bloody history, the godfather of the gun clan.
The next morning my guide, who bound to explain the nuts and bolts of this peculiar activity, showed up on time. To the contrary of my imagination running wild last night, the person stood in front of me was a short guy, not more than 5’8”, with a round face of a studious person, dimmed blue eyes and corn hairs. He is a Latvian agricultural biologist who is working in Oslo, and currently taking a break to be with his family back in Riga. He is also an Art Nouveau expert and has taken interest to introduce the Art Nouveau historical evolution in Riga. I asked myself in my head, “Then what are you doing taking people to Kalashnikov shooting? Kalashnikov and shooting couldn’t be more polar opposite of the movement of Art Nouveau. One promotes life and the distinguished unique creativity, one kills life and the sense of identity.”
We headed off to an area on the outskirts of the center of town. We arrived at a shabby looking not-so-white-anymore shed that looks almost like an abandoned trailer. We took some steps down the dark hole. Twenty steps later I was face to face with a little light from the basement, and now I could see the fifteen-inch-thick vault door with a modular jamb that was half open, leading to the first room of the shooting range. The vault door was made of steel. Stubborn rusts built up around the edges and the hinges. The overwhelming smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils fast and crept up my smell nerves within a split second. My mood changed immediately. I felt like I just walked through a time travel screen into a decaying underground Soviet bunker and a fallout shelter with hidden tunnels and secret rooms.
I was warned earlier that this bunker is frequented often by the police for their shooting training. Sure enough, when I arrived there was a squad of about 15 officers. I commanded the attention in the room when I walked in, the chatter stopped instantly and all heads turned towards me with curious eyes. Shooting is still very much associated as a male club activity in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. I soon realized I was the only woman in the bunker.
I went ahead to choose my weapons with an iron determination to fire the Kalashnikov. The selection was huge, trays and walls full of guns. I was recommended to try some pistols as well while I’m there. And I thought, why not? I may never set foot in the shooting bunker again. The instructor doesn’t speak much English, and I was worried how he was going to instruct me properly. We set off to the firing range.
Indoor ranges usually have a back wall with a sloped earthen berm or bank, with reinforced baffles additionally situated along the roof and side walls. Ranges with proper ventilation pull smoke and lead particles away from the shooting line and discharge them from the building to reduce potential lead poisoning. When ranges lack proper ventilation, employees and users are exposed to lead dust from bullets or cartridge primers. It can be inhaled or can settle on skin or clothing. Additionally, discharge of firearms in indoor ranges can produce noise levels of over 140 dB sound pressure level. To combat this, it is commonly recommended to “double up” ear protection by using both earplugs and over the head earmuffs. To protect range bystanders from sound exposure, many modern ranges have an air-locked corridor for sound-proofing, with two doors at opposite ends of the egress corridor. Most indoor ranges restrict the use of certain powerful calibers, rifles or the use of fully-automatic weapons. In many shooting ranges 50 caliber or higher bullets are not allowed.
But, I was in a Soviet bunker shooting range. I thought the rules were a bit relax although I could tell the owners are definitely taking this seriously. My instructor carried both guns pointing down to the ground, unloaded. The range looks very much like a military interrogation room. Stationary shooting target – solid black circles on a while background – hung against the backstop. Next to it was a civilian target. I started off with the 10mm Automatic Glock 20 handgun, which ranks with the most powerful pistols ever made. He showed me the proper double hand holding. It was obvious I never held any guns in my life, so he put his hand below mine to help steady the gun when I fired.
When he told me to take my first shot, I literally almost put the gun down and ran out of the range. But I went ahead and fired, once, twice, three times, four, five, I lost count. The gunpowder smell was even more intoxicating at this distance. The explosion impact when I pulled the trigger for the first shot pushed me back a couple steps. I underestimated the force. I was better at the second one, and kept getting better at the next round. I didn’t hit the bull’s eye, off by a couple inches.
The next thing I know I was holding an AK-47 Kalashnikov. It wasn’t as heavy as I had expected. The built is smooth, slim, and steady. As soon as I put it under my chin, I went through an emotional transformation. I sweat bullets and all of a sudden I felt feverish and my stomach churned. Rounds of images from all violent documentaries I’ve watched and studied flashed faster and faster. I was even more tensed and ready to back out of the deal. But I only had a few seconds to decide. My instructor waited impatiently next to me and I could feel my t-shirt stuck on my wet skin. I squinted my left eye, and right when I pulled its trigger for the first shot, I closed both involuntarily. I was much more steady holding the Kalashnikov. I assumed because I had four points of contact with the gun: left hand, right hand, right shoulder and right jaw. I hit the stationary target better too, a few of my shots were within the two innermost bulls eye.
The final conclusion is, if I ever decide to be an assassin, AK-47 suits me. Ironic? You bet!