One of the great joys of being in the gun culture is meeting new people at the range. Most of the time, they are polite. Of course they’re polite, because everybody at the range has guns. Meeting new people can be fun and interesting. But the best part is that sometimes, if you’re polite to them, they will let you shoot their guns . . .
Last weekend, I had a pair of rifles at a local range, out at the 300-yard line. My shooting irons were an M1 Garand upon which I’ve put an Amega Ranges scout mount and a Nikon 2.5-8X long eye relief scope, and a Finnish M39 Mosin Nagant, also wearing a scout mount and an older version of the Nikon 2.5-8X. I was a few rounds into my range session, and had just fired my first shots of .30-06 at 300 yards when an SUV with Illinois plates pulled up to the shooting benches.
Two men got out, and the older one introduced himself. Bob, the white-haired guy, moved to Arkansas from Illinois. The younger guy was his buddy, down on a visit from the Land of Lincoln. They pulled out two very interesting rifles: a FAL with a Dragunov-style buttstock and tac-rail receiver cover, and a Polish Tantal 5.45X39 with a folding stock. The young guy owned the FAL, and the Tantal was Bob’s gun.
There’s already a FAL in my past, a rifle that I built out of a jumble of parts so disassembled that all the roll pins were in a little ziplock baggie hiding under the front handguards amongst the screws and fire control parts rolling around in the greasy cardboard box the kit arrived in.
But the Tantal riveted me. Ever since I read about the 5.45X39 cartridge years ago, when a little batch of East German sniper rifles in that caliber were first imported, I have always wondered what it felt like to shoot a rifle chambered for it.
I read all the articles and reviews and online opinions I could find about the strange little Russian cartridge, the “poison bullet” as it was allegedly called during the Soviet-Afghan War. I handled a few AK rifles chambered for it, and did “gun math” over and over, figuring how much a rifle, plus mags, plus several tins of military surplus 5.45X39 ammo would cost.
For a few years, the questions in my head just wouldn’t stop. Would it make sense to add yet another rifle caliber? Was the new Silver Bear 5.45 ammo worth the extra cost above corrosive mil surplus? How much ammo for a caliber that I already owned would the same amount of money get me? Was it a sign of a larger problem or underlying issue that I was obsessing so much over a cartridge that was basically an underpowered .21 caliber centerfire?
I passed on a Saiga 5.45X39 for a good price because I had to get the lawn mower fixed. An AK-74 at the local gun store slipped through my fingers because I opted for some match-grade ammo for two other rifles instead. Then another 5.45X39 came and went at the same gun store before I could save up any more gun money.
I finally just decided to forget about the 5.45X39, and let go of my weird obsession with it. For cryin’ out loud, I had never even pulled the trigger on one.
And then, on Labor Day, a Tantal put together by InterOrdnance walked right up to me and whispered in a husky Eastern European accent, “How you say, beeg boy, Hi-ya, Sailor?”As the Tantal lay there on the shooting bench, its wooden forearm glowing warmly in the slowly-setting September sun, I played it cool.
I made chit-chat with Bob and his buddy. I offered them a chance to shoot on the targets I had already stapled up. I complimented the younger guy on the groups he was shooting at 300 yards with his FAL. All the time, I was ogling the Tantal when they weren’t looking.
But it was all okay, because Bob was doing the same thing to my Garand. In fact, when Bob saw my Garand, he got a little weak-kneed and wobbly. His younger buddy looked over Bob’s shoulder and down at my Garand on the table and said, “Uh oh! That’s Bob’s dream gun.”
Bob told me how he had been part of a high school ROTC unit years and years ago, and how they had marched and carried M1 Garands. He told me of the endless hours they practiced field stripping the Garands, and reassembling them, and cleaning them, but how they had never been allowed to ever shoot them, not even once. Oh the pains of long-term unrequited love . . . or was it lust? And did it really matter which one it was?
I knew I had my in, and all I had to do was be patient. I would finally get to pull the trigger on a Tantal.
The range session went on for another 40 minutes or so. Another guy showed up, wanting to sight in his super thumper magnum elk cannons (a wildcat .338 magnum of some sort, and a 7mm STW), and we knew our time was up. So the short-term gun-swapping commenced. The younger guy let me shoot his FAL four rounds at 300 yards. The Dragunov buttstock did make the recoil feel lighter than the extra-long South African buttstock on my FAL, and I got four hits on the 20-inch wide bullseye. I offered to let him to shoot my Garand, but he said Bob would be more interested.
So I offered the Garand to Bob. His eyes lit up, but he insisted that I shoot his Tantal first. Which I did. Young guy loaded up 30 rounds of 5.45X39, and took the first few shots himself off the bench. Then he handed me the rifle.
I looked it up and down, noting how the wooden forearm contrasted with the black plastic pistol grip.I stared at the rifle for a few seconds, and opted for prone shooting in the grass at the 300-yard target. I got into position, flicked the big AK safety lever down, made my sight picture, held my breath and presssssssed the Tantal’s trigger.
I lay there, amazed at how soft the recoil was. Even more amazing was the fact that the recoil felt so gentle at the end of the very small, metal folding stock.
I cracked off three more rounds at the 300 yard target. Then, shifting my aim about 10 degrees to the right, I fired off three more quick shots at the 100-yard target. The first two hit very close to each other, but the third and last 100-yard shot went about five inches lower because I had begun to giggle.
And I mean giggle. I was giggling like the proverbial school girl. Somewhere inside my head, I could hear a chorus of very young, taunting voices singing in a nasally high pitch, “Roy and Tantal sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
I flipped the safety on, and got up. As I walked back to the bench and carefully handed the rifle back to the young guy, my giggling turned into a full-throated belly laugh.
Just seven shots. That’s all it took. Seven lousy shots, and I knew that someday, I would have to get myself one of those rifles.
Bob accepted his end of the bargain, and fired his first-ever shot from a Garand. His reaction was like that of someone who’s sworn off smoking, but forgets how powerful the nicotine can be, and for some crazy reason, years and years after he’s officially become a former smoker, he takes one deep, slow drag off a cigarette. And all the long-dormant smoking-pleasure brain synapses fire again.
He liked it so much that I insisted he keep the shell casing as a souvenir. He happily pocketed it, still warm from the chamber.
The results at 300 yards only convinced me more. There were four tiny little 5.45mm holes scattered around the target. The pattern wasn’t nearly as tight as the .308 holes I punched with the FAL, but they were on the paper. And they were burned into mind along with my astonishment that a centerfire rifle with such a tiny metal stock could have such a light, almost caressing recoil.
It also reminded me of just how dangerous a trip to the range can be, especially if you meet up with fellow gun-enablers.
Consider yourself warned.