The Living History Experience
By Robert G. Segel
On Friday, 28 April, 2006, seven people departed their homes from around the country and traveled to Serbia to participate in the week-long Living History firearms and culture immersion experience. The purpose was to study and fire historic handguns, rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, heavy machine guns, rifle grenades, anti-tank rockets, anti-aircraft weapons, artillery pieces and many other firearms from the former Yugoslavia, as well as enjoy the culture, hospitality and unique authentic cuisine of the Serbian people. The “Seven Samurai” attending the Living History experience were Robert Brown, Fred Schroeder, Robert Segel, Dan Shea, Paul Varda and James Witt.
The Living History program is arranged and conducted by Miroslav “Mike” Hajdukovic of J.N.J. Exports & Imports with the able assistance of his daughter Jelena and takes place at the expansive and well-appointed Sloboda munitions manufacturing company test range in Cacak, Serbia. Except for the airfare and the first night’s lodging in Belgrade, the package is all-inclusive that includes domestic transportation, hotel, all meals and 7,354 rounds of ammunition ranging from 7.62x25mm to 57mm anti-tank, and all weapons used for a cost of $9,950. Extra rounds of ammunition may be purchased if there are particular weapons that one wants to shoot more of. As we all discovered, a difficult thing to resist, indeed.
Saturday - Day One
Since most flights to Europe are overnight “red-eyes,” the majority of participants left their homes on Friday and arrived in Belgrade on Saturday morning or early afternoon based upon their own travel arrangements. Each participant was met at the airport by Jelena and transported to the Hotel Intercontinental where we could relax, freshen up after the long journey and meet up with the other attendees. Dinner was provided at a local traditional Serbian restaurant serving a wonderful feast of local specialties.
Sunday - Day Two
After a good night’s sleep, we checked out of the Hotel Intercontinental and boarded a bus to tour the Kalemegdan Fortress and arms museum in Belgrade. Located high above a strategic point where the Sava and Danube rivers meet, the large fortress commands a presence that has been in effect for almost two millennia. The fortress is part of what remained of the ancient city of Singidunum (today’s Belgrade) that was founded by a Celtic tribe in the 3rd century BC. It was later conquered by the Romans and became part of the “military frontier” where the Roman Empire bordered barbaric Central Europe. The fortress was repeatedly destroyed by invading Goths, Huns and Avars. The Fortress kept changing masters over the centuries, being ruled by Hungarians, Bulgarians, Byzantium and the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. The fortress suffered further damage during the First and Second World Wars. After almost two millennia of continuous sieges, battles and conquests, the fortress is known today as the Kalemedgan Fortress, whose name was derived from the Arabic and Turkish languages which means Fortress Amidst Battlefields.
The Military Museum is located within Kalemegdan Park. Originally founded in 1878, the museum was looted both in the First and Second World Wars. The present day exhibition of the museum was opened in 1961 and tells the military history of the Yugoslav peoples from the pre-Slav period and the arrival of the Slavs on the Balkan Peninsula to the end of the Second World War, as well as the postwar development of the armed forces. On the main rampart of the Fortress in the moat between the rampart and the Upper Town, heavy armament is displayed. Just outside the museum entrance is another large collection of early artillery field pieces. Displayed inside the museum are weapons, uniforms, banners, archives, documents, medals and photographs from their early to most recent history, including the bombing of Belgrade by the United States in the late 1990s and the fighting in Kosovo. Kosovo is considered by many as a traditional Serbian homeland, thus the focus on events there. The exhibition area covers about 2,300 square meters and consists of more than 40,000 exhibits.
While visiting the museum, we were met and escorted through the museum by Branko Bogdanovic. Internationally renowned, Branko Bogdanovic is a researcher and writer for the Zastava Arms Factory and a member of the Advisory Board of the Military Museum as well as a professional associate of the Ministry of the Interior. He is also officer-in-charge, Special Antiterrorist Unit History and Tradition Division. He has just completed his latest book Serbian and Yugoslav Mauser Rifles available in English from North Cape Publications. His relating of knowledge of Serbian military history and arms was invaluable during our visit and helped put a long and convoluted history in perspective. Branko is also planning a series of stories on machine guns in the Balkan wars for SAR.
Following our visit to the museum, we boarded the bus for the approximately two hour drive (70 miles) to Cacak where we would be spending the rest of our visit. Along the way, we stopped at a lovely little no-name restaurant (typical in the countryside) perched high up in the mountains for a late lunch. Seated at rough hewn tables in the open air with a gorgeous view of the valley below, we were served goulash, kaimak, pork fat, cabbage stew and a variety of sausages with a plum brandy accompanied by an accordion player singing Serbian songs. It should be noted that plum brandy is served everywhere, is home made, might have actually had a plum passed over it during its creation, and is in reality very high octane white lightning: truly potent stuff that burns all the way down. Local beer is always a delicious welcome alternative and plentiful. As is characteristic in the countryside, both the male and female restroom facilities, while tiled and clean, were of the “Turkish” style - meaning a hole in the floor. The meals were cooked in “the old way” over open fires, surrounded by a recreation of seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings.
After lunch we proceeded on to Cacak, a city of 75,000, and checked into the Motel Kole, a three star establishment that was clean and comfortable with western facilities and perfectly adequate during our stay. Due to the late lunch, being tired, and still catching up on our jet-lag, we opted to forgo dinner and turned in early.
Monday - Day Three
Up early and anxious to begin the heart of the program, we had breakfast at the motel and then proceeded to the Sloboda munitions manufacturing company’s test range. The facility is located about 20 minutes outside Cacak nestled in the surrounding hills with several firing ranges that stretched out to well beyond 1,000 meters. There were a number of modern buildings on the premises that included meeting rooms, modern (western) restroom facilities and arms and ammunition storage. We were met there by Milovan Lukovic, the Sloboda quality control manager, along with about a dozen Sloboda range employees. All the munitions used over .50 caliber were brand new Sloboda production.
In a pattern that would repeat itself until the end of the program, we began by examining the arms we were going to be using that day, told of their history, operating principles and use, and then we were shown how to field strip and reassemble each weapon whereupon we then individually stripped and reassembled the weapons. Then it was off to the range. This first day concentrated on the smaller weapons and we were instructed on the Tokarev TT pistol in 7.62x25, the Zastava’s versus the original Tokarev, the Zastava CZ99 pistol (a copy of the SIG 229), the Russian M30/33 pistol in 7.62x25, the Czech Skorpion submachine gun in .32 ACP, the SKS rifle in 7.62x39, the Model 1924 rifle from Yugoslavia, the Model 24/47 bolt action rifle and the various Zastava M48 rifles in 8mm Mauser. While this may sound a bit mundane, firing these weapons in Serbia was a treat, and seemed to rekindle the bolt action and handgun firing interests of most attendees. Several realized that their collections now needed to include more variants of the Yugoslav Mausers, in particular the Model 1924 with the Kingdom Crest on it. The use of these relatively simple firearms on the first day also provided a means by which the range personnel could quietly evaluate us, both individually and as a group, showing that we knew how to handle weapons, practiced proper range safety and weren’t just a bunch of American Bozos out to just blast away indifferently and recklessly. The morning was occupied by the classroom instruction and pistol and Skorpion usage on the range. After a sumptuous country style lunch in their field tent at the range, we continued shooting in the afternoon with the rifles (shooting at metallic targets approximately 400 meters down range). We then graduated to the use of rifle grenades. We began by using an SKS M59/66 using a blank-fired TTM M60 P-1 anti-personnel rifle grenade. We were instructed on the proper method of slinging the rifle, how to use the rifle grenade sights, and proper hand control and then given ample opportunity to see how good we were in trying to hit an upright oil drum about 250 meters down range. For novices, we got the hang of it real quick and we all were accurate in our shots. We then proceeded to use the AK47 M92 that used a bullet trap M99 P-1 anti-personnel rifle grenade. Once again we were instructed on the proper use and set about pounding the oil drums down range. This was all High Explosive, not training rounds, and it was quite a thrill for us Americans to be able to fire these very lethal rounds.
Dan’s Big Ouch!
Mike wanted Dan Shea to try a TKM M60 P-1 anti-tank rifle grenade from an SKS shooting at a steel plate and insisted that the target be only about 70 meters from the firing point. As Dan slung his weapon, he had to continually lower the weapon due to the short range and thus flatter trajectory. As he lowered the weapon, the rear of the sling became a bit slack and when he fired off the round, the stock smacked his thumb. Big ouch! As we watched his thumb swell up, tough guy Dan insisted that it was just a sprain - a claim he continued to maintain throughout the stay (though most of us knew better due to the purple hue and Dan’s reluctance to fire anything of significant recoil). He didn’t get it x-rayed until he got home and, sure enough, it was broken at the base. He was in a cast for almost 8 weeks. (Dan’s note: “It’s my own fault, I know better, and have fired a lot of rifle grenades, just not the anti-tank variety which are about four times the diameter of an anti-personnel round and have more weight. I really didn’t want to interrupt the trip - it was too much fun. And, Robert, I’m not running for office or anything, do you really need to air my dirty laundry here?)
Tuesday - Day Four
Early breakfast at the motel and back to the range for more fun. This day we continued with some more different rifles and submachine guns. We started with the PPSh 41, PPS 43, Yugo M49/57and Yugo M56 submachine guns. Following a lunch of fire-baked flat beans and pork, we shot the Yugo M70B1 (B1 indicating a fixed wooden stock), the Yugo M76 milled receiver semiautomatic rifle with sniper scope in 8mm Mauser and the Yugo M21 in 7.62x39. We then fired the Yugo M21 with a BGP 40 under-barrel grenade launcher attached and “blooped” a number of 40mm HE grenades down range. We had dinner at the range that night consisting of fire roasted lamb and pork and after the sun set we fired a variety of flares and star shells just for fun.
Wednesday - Day Five
We began the day at the range with the M80 RPG 64mm (LAW) anti-materiel rocket, practicing with 7.62x39 special tracers in a training sub caliber unit. We were instructed on the proper loading sequence, slinging of the weapon, proper firing technique and practiced with the sub caliber unit so that when it was time to shoot the real thing we wouldn’t send the rocket over the hillside. The actual rocket’s shaped charge will punch through 8 inches of rolled steel.
We then shot the classic Russian DP28 and ZB30J (the J designation indicates Jugoslav (old spelling) origin), the Yugo M53 (MG 42) and the Yugo M84 (PKM) in 7.62x54R.
Following another field cooked hearty lunch, we fired the BGA 30 grenade machine gun firing first 5 rounds of HE then letting loose with 15 more. The sounds of rapid HE grenade explosions echoing through the hillside is a sound few recreational shooters will ever experience. We then watched a test of the M79 90mm reloadable anti-tank rocket that will punch through twelve inches of solid steel. Following that, we got the opportunity to fire the M80 RPG 64mm (LAW) anti-materiel rockets. We were then again carefully instructed on the proper loading sequence, slinging of the weapon and proper firing sequence and technique of this $500 per shot weapon. Included in the price of admission, we each got two shots with the LAW rocket. Aiming at a mini Yugo car 400 meters down range, all but one hit close enough to cause damage to the car. One, however, (OK, it was me) actually hit the car and collected a $100 bet.
Thursday - Day Six
Back at the range again bright and early, this day saw the use of the NSV 12.7x109 infantry model machine gun, Browning .50 caliber M2HB (manufactured by AC Spark Plug), and an electrically operated KPVT 14.5mm machine gun mounted on a stationary stand that is usually mounted in tanks. We all got turns on the classic Soviet DShK 12.7x109 heavy machine gun. An interesting observation was that while heavy machine guns such as the DShK and NSV are known for their reliability and firepower, typically, their tripod mounts are crude, somewhat flimsy and relatively light weight. Because there is no stable platform, accuracy during full automatic fire is severely compromised. The big caliber version of “spray and pray.”
We then had the opportunity to fire the new Black Arrow .50 caliber anti-materiel rifle. Very few Westerners have ever had the opportunity to actually fire this weapon. It is a bolt action rifle based on the Mauser design with a 5-round magazine capacity. With its scope, it weighs about 14 kilos (31 pounds). The gun was brand new and thus was stiff in operation. After a couple of hundred rounds, it should be a bit smoother. Accuracy was adequate for anti-materiel usage though not nearly as accurate as a Barrett .50.
Friday - Day Seven
Our last day at the Sloboda range was devoted to some really serious large caliber weapons. All the weapons we fired this day were using HE (High Explosive) tracer rounds. The weapons we fired included the Hispano M55A3B1 20mm triple barrel anti-aircraft heavy machine gun. Each gun had a 60-round magazine (that took two people to lift) and the guns could be fired individually or all three in unison. Nobody fired the guns individually as we all “let ‘er rip” firing the three guns simultaneously. While everyone did burst fire, this author let loose with all 180 rounds in a three-mag dump all at once. Truly an experience never to be forgotten, sitting in the seat of power, perched above three 20mm cannons, looking over their drums and hammering the hillside 1,000 meters down range with a hail of High Explosive Tracer. Unforgettable.....
Other large caliber weapons fired this day included the Russian anti-aircraft M39B 37mm gun, a Swedish Bofors 40mm L70 0-201, a 20mm Oerlikon Mk 4 manufactured by General Motors, and a 57mm Russian ZIS artillery field piece. The sound of the rapid fire HE rounds echoing through the valley and hills was most satisfying.
This final day was capped off by a lavish pig roast celebration. Machine Gun Camp was over and we departed back to the Hotel Intercontinental in Belgrade and people began their return trip home on Saturday or Sunday.
The friendliness and hospitality of all those we met was truly heartfelt and warm. We made many friends during this trip ranging from the operators of the trip, the Sloboda and Zastava managers and the Sloboda range personnel. It should also be noted that the Sloboda range personnel, though they didn’t speak English, were very pleasant and helpful in loading magazines, handling weapons and generally assisting in any way they could. A good lot of men, all of them. The food was fantastic and plentiful at every meal and we were never left wanting. The facilities were new and modern and the weapons were well taken care of and reliable. The seven attendees all became fast friends while sharing an experience that is truly unique. While it is a cliché to say this was a trip of a lifetime, it is a trip of a lifetime for anyone interested in firing weapons ranging from pistols to artillery pieces and just about everything in between and using HE munitions. The class size is limited to a maximum of ten people allowing for full opportunity at all levels.
For our techno readers who want to go but have to stay connected, just about everyone’s cell phones worked all over in Serbia. Most had to speak to their carriers first to ensure they would have the proper band. Internet was dial-up at the hotel in Cacak or they had a computer in the lobby, but hi-speed was available in Belgrade.
A trip like this does come at a cost. Besides the 8-9 days needed away from home and work to accommodate travel time and the Living History experience, after all was said and done, total cost including the Living History package, air fare, first night hotel and ancillary expenses (like more rifles grenades at about $45 a piece, more LAW rockets at about $500 per shot, more 20mm HE ammo at about $15 per round, more 57mm HE cannon rounds at about $197 per round, etc.) is about $14,000. But look at it this way: nowhere else can a civilian shoot the variety of guns, rockets, grenades and high explosive rounds as you can here and at just half the price of a Thompson submachine gun. And, let’s face it, any gun that you have to climb into to shoot is way cool. The question of whether this trip and experience is value for the money, the answer is a resounding, YES!
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