Vilnius, Lithuania • December 2015 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes
“The taxi will drop you off here,” said Paul, pointing at the city map with the nib of his pen. “Then you just have to walk up this hill to the dilapidated building behind the sports centre. You can't miss it." Our bearded hostel owner had booked us in for an afternoon of shooting at a rifle range and we were absolutely buzzing.
Paying the €2 cab fare, Gadams and I shuffled along the ice in the direction instructed and found ourselves at the entrance to some bathhouses; not quite the grandiose open-aired amphitheatre we were expecting. Making our way through the tunnel between these presumed changing areas we exited onto an abandoned athletics track; a icy climbing wall looming over the snow-covered basketball court to our right like it were the north face of Everest. As an eerie chill swept its way around the arena and shiver ran through my bones. I felt like we'd inadvertently stepped into a real-life level on Call of Duty.
We followed the frozen track round to the far side in what must have been one of the slowest 400 metres ever covered; hesitantly slipping our way past the steeplechase pit. Reaching the perimeter fence at the back however we still couldn't see the building Paul had circled. Pulling out the map in plummeting sub-zero temperatures we turned a blind eye to the warning signs plastered along the chain-links, taking the ignorant view that anything written in a language we couldn't understand didn't apply to us. As I tried to hold the map steady with trembling hands however a caustic bark started to pierce the thin air. This was something we definitely couldn't ignore.
Despite the fact that it was on the other side of the fence, the sheer sight of the big black dog was enough to send us gliding right back into the arena. As the wolf-like creature continued to defend it's territory we then quickly hopped up onto one of the grandstands for safety, and from there we noticed a yellow-bricked structure that had previously been hidden from view. A large plaque on the door bore the word: 'Policija'.
"That must be the place," I said to Gadams.
"Looks like it," he shivered. "I'm presuming 'Policija' translates to 'Police'."
We wandered over to the door and knocked. A man in a full-face balaclava answered.
“Hi guys, my name is Charlie. Are you here for the shooting?”
“Yeah we are,” replied Gadams. "Sorry for the delay, we got a bit lost.”
“Not to bother, come on in out of the cold and we will get started.”
Charlie led us along a corridor lined with tiny sleeping quarters and into a storeroom that was stocked floor to ceiling with weapons and ammunition. Beneath the balaclava he sported a scraggly beard, and his army jacket; khaki trousers; and boots portrayed the image of a soldier who had just returned from military combat.
“I’m assuming from your outfit that you’re ex-special forces?” I queried, usually quite attune to these sort of clues.
“No, this is just how I like to dress,” he chuckled. “Shooting is a hobby of mine.”
“And is this a government compound we’re in right now?” chipped in Gadams, keen to clear up our whereabouts.
“No, it’s just a shooting range.”
Gadams and I looked at one another with similarly questioning glances. A random, non-signposted, hut hidden on a snowy Lithuanian hillside; a tutor who held no qualifications; and an up-front cash only payment policy. Seemed legit.
“What package did you guys opt for?” asked Charlie, pulling out some boxes.
“The Gang Banger,” we replied.
“Come again?” he frowned.
“The Gang Banger," I said slightly more hesitantly."It was the third one down on the sheet.The seven gun package if that's any help?"
“Ah OK, I follow you now. We just know the packages by the number of weapons, not these stupid names. What did you call it again? The Gang Banger? Some people I know might have taken that as an invitation for a completely different type of weapon. Have you brought along a receipt for this said 'Gang Banger' package?
“Eh… we never actually got one,” gulped Gadams.
“Not to worry, the administrative stuff can be easily sorted out later. There are more pressing matters currently on our hands. If you could grab these,” he said, handing us some bundles to carry, “we will head upstairs to the range and get shooting.”
Lugging the equipment up a rickety staircase we dumped it on a table and took a seat. From one side of the stuffy, low-ceiling, room we got a remarkable view out over the athletics track, and on the other side was the range itself.
“Before we get started," said Charlie, "a quick safety briefing is in order. As agreed, today we will be shooting seven weapons: two pistols, two semi-automatic machine guns, a pump-action shotgun, and two big beasts. The handguns are probably the hardest to hit the targets with, so we will start with them from a 10 m range. If you would both like to take a pair of goggles, these should help protect against any ricocheting cartridges.”
Gadams and I put them on as Charlie then proceeded to give us an ‘alternative’ run-through of the workings, merits, and flaws of each of the guns we would be shooting. The Uzi’s 30cm retractable stem apparently made it the perfect size to be holstered inconspicuously under one’s suit jacket; not the usual piece of office equipment given to employees of British corporations but a handy snippet of information nonetheless. The AK-47 had ‘seen a lot of rounds pass through it’, but quite where Charlie refused to say, and the M4’s built in laser scope apparently made it 'perfect' for picking off targets at 50 m. He was extremely knowledgeable but the way in which he spoke made us frightened to ask too many probing questions, thinking it best just to sit in silence and nod. When his phone rang 5 times straight whilst teaching us how to load a magazine cartridge however I spoke up.
“You can answer that if you want. We don’t mind.”
“No it's OK, honestly. It's just some girl wanting to get a hold of me and I've learnt that it's best just to let my phone ring out."
“Wait. Are you saying that's a mid-afternoon booty call?” asked Gadams in disbelief.
“Something like that,” he answered with a wry smile.
Concluding the briefing Charlie nipped out onto the range and put up the silhouette posters that would act as our targets onto some wooden stands. Once he was safely back inside we then took our positions at adjacent windows and let rip. The kickback from the handguns initially took us by surprise, but by the time we'd switched to the semi-automatics the targets were being splattered; the empty shells from Gadams' MP5 bouncing off my back as I tried to focus down the scope of my M4. Once the magazines had been emptied we then headed out to see what damage had been caused. It was evident as soon as we approached who had been the most accurate.
“Where the hell did all my bullets end up?” I said in confusion, scratching my head. Whereas Gadams' target looked like it has been shelled by a mortar, my silhouette had escaped with nothing but a few grazes.
"Looks like you'll be buying the first round tonight," giggled Charlie, the man's smile having remained a permanent feature all afternoon.
We thanked him and headed back down the hill and into the town, smelling of live rounds and buzzing with adrenaline.
"What a way to spend the last day of 2015," I beamed.