By Dan Shea
I had been looking forward to this for years - fifteen years to be precise. Mike and some of his friends had been planning this for at least that long, and every time he started to get "Living History" going, another war broke out in the Balkans. They are up and running now, and SAR had the pleasure of going through the first live fire course, and we can now bring you this special report.-Dan
Miroslav "Mike" Hajducovic is a Serbian firearms enthusiast. He has lived his whole life around guns; from the military to hunting, to collecting, and being in the surplus arms business. It was part of the surplus business that gave him the opportunity to meet with like minded shooters from around the world, and for many years he has worked to bring about "Living History." This is not just about shooting, nor is it just about firearms. The experience that Mike and his friends wanted to bring to the world was the Balkan experience - the rich tapestry of struggle for freedom that has typified this mountainous area for thousands of years. The seven countries that today make up the former Yugoslavia sit right at the crux of the collision point where the three great Western Religions meet. The grinding of these tectonic plates of human spiritual ambition has created a war zone that has existed for a thousand years. This has turned into a proving ground for weaponry, and since the advent of the firearm, most modern weapons have appeared in this arena.
The interests of the majority of SAR's readers generally start in the late 1800s with the advent of the machine gun. The machine gun makes some of its earliest combat appearances in the Balkans: there is a photo of a Schwarzlose 07/12 water cooled machine gun on a biplane, and it is dated 1913. Remember that the Serbs were fighting major battles with the Turks in 1912 and 1913, two years before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the match that lit the fuse on the War to End All Wars.
The Yugoslavs in their various ethnic groups have spearheaded the manufacture of many types of firearms, and they have been the recipients of much foreign aid, as well as having the weapons of their occupier's armies. At the end of the First Bosnian War, the Dayton Accords dictated the destruction of many of these stockpiles, but there are still inventories in the national armories and examples in museums that are worthy of scholarly study.
Serbia today is a country that is grappling with recent wars, dealing with the tragic loss of life that is part of civil war, along with the retribution of former enemies and international courts. The Living History experience stayed out of the politics of these modern conflicts, and we started our journey with a museum tour that led us through the Iron Age and onward to the great wars of modern times.
The average shooter today has no opportunity to fire live, high explosive ammunition. For the firearms enthusiast who has graduated from hand guns and long arms and moved into machine guns and cannons, there is still something missing. We may go to our shoots like Knob Creek or the new Wikieup shoot, where there are explosive reacting targets, and home loaded ammunition, but what is it really like to shoot a 57mm cannon with HE? How does it feel to touch off a LAW style rocket and watch the full HEDP strike on the target? You may buy an Oerlikon, but finding TP ammo is virtually impossible, let alone shooting it like it was intended to be shot - drums full of HE Tracer going downrange in a blizzard of laser red lines and explosions at the end.
This is the real "hook" for Living History. It is not just in learning about the Balkans or simply looking at firearms. It is the ability to go to the range, receive instruction from people who deal with these weapons on a daily basis, gain a better understanding of how they work, and to shoot them as it was intended with brand new manufacture, live HE rounds. There are places around the world where you can go and shoot LAW rockets, throw hand grenades, and fire machine guns, and do so for relatively inexpensive amounts of money. Living History will cost you more than these other places. The reason is that all of the ammunition over 14.5mm is brand new, factory certified HE, made at Sloboda in Cacak, which is one of the best HE manufacturing facilities in the world. This is not surplus ammo, and it costs more to use on the range at Living History. It is a testament to the forethought that Mike and his crew put into this, that they will not risk using unsafe, old HE ammunition. One of our hosts at the range was Milovan Lukovic "Lukish", the Quality Manager of the Sloboda Company, and he was there to assure that the ammunition was perfect. (I have been in places where I was offered to shoot LAW M72 HE rockets, that were Vietnam era US manufactured, and there is no way I am touching one of those off from my shoulder. I agree fully with the Living History philosophy that the HE and fuzes should all be brand new and factory certified for their classes).
The class itself is a week long experience. Once you contract to go, you are expected to get yourself to Belgrade because the attendees usually have their own methods of using Frequent Flyer programs or discounts to fly to Europe, and the logistics are much simpler if you simply show up in Belgrade for the class and they take it from there. You fly into Belgrade on Saturday afternoon, and stay at the Intercontinental Hotel at your own expense. The class started on Sunday morning with a private tour of the museum at the Fortress of Kalemegdan. The displays at the museum are just the tip of the iceberg of the 250,000 artifacts housed in the Belgrade collections. By early afternoon, the attendees have been briefed on the history of Yugoslavia, and seen some very interesting displays including machine guns that we in the West are almost unable to identify. We then boarded a small, modern twenty seat bus and headed south to Cacak (Chachak). This was a long ride, down roads that were curvy and very scenic.
By Sunday evening, we were at the Hotel Omorika in the Mount Tara region, about fifty kilometers off of the Bosnian border. This was wild country, with a reputation for some of the best whitewater rafting in the world. Hotel Omorika is a testament to the height of Tito's regime, a luxury hotel in the wilderness, made for the military to use. Today it is in need of some renovation, but it is spectacular nonetheless. Future classes will not be staying at this hotel because it was about two hours from the shooting range and it made for days so long that it was hard to enjoy the amenities of the hotel and Mount Tara region.
Each day focused on different types of weapons. The first day we spent in the classroom, getting a history lesson and technical data on most of the small arms we were to be working with, including the Mausers, SKSs, M53, and the PKM. Mike gave this class, taking the place of noted firearms author Branko Bogdanovic, whose mother had taken ill the night before. Mike has a deep love for both firearms and the history of Serbia, and it came through in his classroom presentation. Because this was a day of some jet-lag for participants, it was sort of low speed. There was a wonderful pig roast out on the mountainside, and by the end of the day, we were all well versed in the Yugoslav small arms production history as well as the basic variants of the weapons.
The first day on the range is the day that the range instructors get to analyze their students, to see who is safe, who needs more attention, who can work alone. It is also the day that the students get to learn about the range and the instructors. The first day was a culture shock for all involved, to say the least. The Serbian personnel were unfamiliar with the US style of going to a shoot where we pile brass on the ground, and are somewhat ambivalent about the targets. We like things that move when we hit them when firing machine guns, things that blow up. We like reactive targets. The range personnel had thought we would be "printing paper" with handguns up through submachine guns, and what they got instead was America, Knob Creek style. By mid day, everyone had adjusted, and we had magazine loading systems going so that we could keep the guns running, and the big hit of the day had to be the Skorpion VZ61 machine pistol. No one could get enough trigger time on that to be fully satisfied, although we heated the Skorpion pretty thoroughly.
By the third day, we were working well with the staff, and they had anticipated our shooting needs. It was their first class, after all, and they weren't sure what our focus would be like. Our focus was shooting. We fired all manner of Mauser and SKS rifles, MP40 and Yugo M56 machine guns, then up to the AK variants. At the end of each day, Mike brought out some type of explosive to give us a taste of what would be coming later in the week. One day it was the M80 LAW style shoulder fired rocket, which is the Yugoslav version of the RPG18, another it was blank firing HE rifle grenades out into the target area. This really whetted the appetite.
We fired the MG42 variant called the M53, as well as the modern PKM. We had a PACT timer with us and clocked the M53 at 953 rpm, and the PKM (M84) at 797rpm. When it came time for the larger machine guns, we fired the M2HB fifty caliber Browning machine gun, and the DShK 38/46 in the same period. This was good, and gave us the opportunity to compare the fifties - ours and what was called a "Fifty one" by US troops in Vietnam. The Dashika has taken on a new life in the news again; it is prevalent in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having factory certifications available for those of us who work in contracting was an added plus. The KPV-T 14.5mm machine gun was also fired this day, and the roar of the 14.5mm rounds going off quickly overshadowed the fifty cals.
The last two days of Living History, we graduated into the larger calibers, and the High Explosives. Shooting the Oerlikon and three barreled Hispano were fantastic, but the 37mm Russian and 40mm Bofors guns were awe inspiring. We had five rounds each for these two larger guns, and it was truly satisfying to touch them off. In the US, we have static displays of these guns, but almost never are any fired, and certainly not with HE rounds. The BGA-30 30mm grenade launcher, covered in depth in the last issue of SAR, was intriguing as well.
Firing the 57mm US cannon with HE was very special to a number of us as well. We have fired our own cannons with turned projectiles, downloaded ammunition, but never with HE ammo. It was truly satisfying to feel the thump in the belly on touching it off, and then on the impact as well.
All of the larger guns we fired are very visual things. When you get to larger cannons, say 105mm or 155mm, the round is so far away when it goes off that you can barely know you hit. With the 57mm, it was a tremendous "thump", and then a second later the target area was lit up with another explosion.
Each day, the Living History staff would arrange for us to have a good breakfast, and lunch on the range was frequently made on a Serbian military field kitchen. The soldier beans were just plain good chow, and when they roasted a pig on the ground, using a battery and a car windshield washer motor to turn the spit, it was pure hog heaven. Not much more that you can ask for - days of firing exotic weapons, blowing things up, and eating roasted pig with good company. Mike's daughters Jasna and Jelena were there to make sure that all of the arrangements worked right, and they are the organizers of the coming Living History classes. Both girls speak fluent English and Serbian, as well as a smattering of other languages, and their presence helped a lot.
Finally, we got to something that is really "out there" for Americans. We got to shoot LAW type rockets with full HEDP warheads. These were the Yugoslav Model M80, which is essentially the Russian RPG-18. We got to fire a number of the very intriguing training rounds first, until they were sure we were safe with the system, and then we got to fire two rockets each. These were brand new Sloboda manufacture, certified from the military line. I had no hesitation in firing these off, and neither did anyone else. It was quite impressive to hit the six inch steel targets with a rocket and see the shaped charge jet hole it cut, or to shoot at the small Yugoslav car that had been made into a target. The car belonged to one of the range staff, and he seemed to take great joy in us hammering it with cannons, machine guns, and rockets. I have had cars I felt that way about, too.
The only way to top that was firing real, High Explosive, rifle grenades or the 40mm HE rounds for the underbarrel Russian style launcher. None of us had ever fired any barrel launched before, with the exception of the blank launched practice rounds that show up at gun shows. The first type we fired were blank launched HE rounds, but the real show was combat use fragmentation grenades that were bullet trap type. That means you use the same round you use in combat, and the projectile is trapped in the disk in the grenade, driving it forward off the barrel extension, and arming it as it leaves your vicinity. It was clear from the explosions that these were much more powerful than the M203 round, and it became apparent that there was a lot of validity for the spec ops forces who want to gear up with these instead of an underbarrel 40mm. These were very accurate, and very powerful. It was a rush for all of us to fire these and the Russian GP underbarrel grenades. Yes, I am talking some adrenaline here. You can't do this at a range in the US, and most ranges in the world are working with decades old surplus. That might be fine for 8mm Mauser ammo, but not for HE rounds or fuzes.
Every day and every night, Mike, Jasna, Jelena and the crew treated us to special regional dinners. We got to try all kinds of Balkan foods and Serbian specialties, and it was all interspersed with stories of the military history and the people of Serbia. For something called "Living History", I would have to say their mission was accomplished. They told me that they can make special tours available to include wine tasting or gourmet meal trips, or just historical trips in the area. It might be worth piggybacking a few days on the end of your trip to Living History if you wish to do this. They can also set up private shoots for groups of six or more.
The cost of the Living History class was $9,950 per person, and it included all hotels from Sunday night to Friday night, as well as all domestic transportation, meals, and ammunition. It was possible to buy more ammunition as well. At $500 a pop for extra M80 LAW style rockets, it is worth planning ahead, and a schedule of prices is available from Living History.
The only negatives to the class were basically related to it being the first one they had. The travel between the hotel and the range took too much time, and they have found a much closer hotel. There weren't enough magazines for each gun, and probably they should have some more of each model gun there in case there is down time on a gun - we like to keep shooting. Both of those problems have been dealt with. Jelena tells me that they have piled up the magazines and extra guns for the next class in late September.
What did I think? It's hard to give a technical evaluation of an event that is more of a shooting holiday than a tech class. I had a great time, and will be going back with a group of friends to do it again. Serbia is a very safe country to travel in, but it is a good place to have a guide, and Living History is pretty much 24/7 supervised. I rediscovered my interest in shooting Mausers, SKSs, and of all things, the Tokarev in the right cartridge: 7.62 TT. I now have to go find different guns with the Kingdom Crest on it, just to collect. But I have very, very fond memories of the guns I haven't been able to shoot in the US, as well as a new understanding of the HE rounds and their capabilities. I finally got to shoot an Oerlikon in HE, and the RPG18 as well, as I had never had a chance to shoot one before. A Bofors? Try and shoot that in the US. It was great. At the end I was exhausted, well fed, educated on this interesting part of the world and its military history, spent time with some good friends, made some new ones, and generally had a blast. Mission accomplished. I highly recommend this.
For information on Living History:
Heroja Milana Tepica 16
Serbia and Montenegro
Tel: +381-11-306-7099 (From the US, dial 011-381-306-7099
Firearms at Living History:
1. Serbian pistols cal. 7.62 x 25mm and 9mm.
2. Scorpion machine pistol cal. 32 ACP
3. Rifle M-24/47 cal. 7.9mm
4. Rifle M-48 cal. 7.9mm
5. Rifle SKS M-59 cal. 7.62 x 39mm
6. Rifle SKS M-59/66 cal. 7.62 x 39mm
III. Sub Machine Guns
7. M-56 cal. 7,62 x 25mm
8. M-41 Shpagin cal. 7.62 x 25mm
9. MP-40 cal. 9mm
10. AK 47 ( Yugoslavian made) cal. 7.62 x 39mm
11. Thompson cal. 45 ACP
12. Sten cal. 9mm
13. M-53 cal. 7,9mm with and without tripod
14. M-84 (PKM) cal. 7.62 x 54R
15. Browning M2HB cal. 50
16. DSHK Russian cal. 12.7 x 108mm
17. KPVT Russian cal. 14.5mm
V. AA Cannons
18. M-55 three barreled canon cal. 20mm Hispano
19. Oerlikon single canon cal. 20mm
20. M-39 cal. 37mm Russian
21. Bofors L/70 cal. 40mm
22. 57mm US cannon
VI. Rockets M-80 cal. 64mm RPG18 (Yugoslavian Bazooka)
VII. Automatic Grenade Launcher BGA-30mm
VIII. Rifle Grenades with Bullet Trap
IX. Under Barrel Grenade Launcher 40mm Russian (Kastyor)
List of Ammunition for each attendee:
QUANTITY per guest
1 7.62 x 25mm 1000 pcs
2 7.62 x 39mm 1500 pcs
3 7.62 x 54R 1000 pcs
4 9mm 500 pcs
5 7.9 x 57mm 1000 pcs
6 .50 Browning 100 pcs
7 12.7 x 108mm Russian 50 pcs
8 14.5mm Russian 50 pcs
9 20mm Hispano 90 pcs
10 20mm Oerlikon 20 pcs
11 37mm Russian 5 pcs
12 40mm Bofors 5 pcs
13 Automatic Grenade Launcher 30mm 20 pcs
14 Hand Launcher Rocket 64mm 2 pcs
15 Under Barrel Launcher 40mm Russ 5 pcs
16 Rifle Grenades 5 pcs
17 57mm canon 2 pcs
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