Saturday, December 8, 2012


A tourist takes aim with an AK-47 in Cu Chi
As I walk through the brush outside of Cu Chi north of Saigon, I hear the sound of gunfire in the distance. Continuing on I’m not just hearing single shots, I’m hearing automatic weapons fire; the sound of machine guns.The shooting grows louder. 

What can this be? Entering the next clearing, I have my answer. My group has arrived at a shooting range run by the Vietnamese military.

I’ve been to private firing ranges before, but this one is bigger, badder, and more deadly. The guns used here aren’t little .22 caliber rifles, or target pistols. This range is for weapons of war, and the guns here were made for one purpose: to kill. For those really into firepower, you can shoot an M-60 here, or even a .30 caliber machine gun.

Captured weapons from the war are available for target practice
I look at their selection of weapons lined up on a rack, and many of them are American made. Most of them were probably captured from the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) as the war ended in 1975. There are M-16s, M-1 Garands, a Thompson sub-machine gun, and .45 caliber pistols. A smaller rifle available here is the M-1 carbine. Looking at the old rifle, I wonder just where this old weapon came from. Was it captured by the communists, or was it given to them?

One of history’s forgotten details, is that way back during World War II, the US military was for a time allied with Ho Chi Minh’s communist guerillas! Then known as the Viet Minh, they were fighting the Japanese, who occupied Vietnam back then. As the Japanese were a common enemy, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) supplied the Viet Minh with thousands of these M-1 carbines. The smaller size and light recoil of the M-1 made it the perfect rifle to give to the Vietnamese, who were physically of smaller stature than most American soldiers. Little did the OSS know then, that some of those same rifles given by the US to the Viet Minh for free, would later be used to shoot at American soldiers 20 years later.

This is ridiculous! These are no protection at all. You can go deaf,”” says a foreign gun enthusiast at the firing line. He’s complaining about the woefully inadequate ear muff protectors they provide to the shooters. He decides not to shoot, and walks away. I’m surprised to see that the Vietnamese Army soldiers supervising the firing line aren’t wearing any ear protection at all. Perhaps it’s a machismo thing. These soldiers that work here over the long term don’t know it, but their daily exposure to loud gunfire is doing irreparable damage to their hearing. Some of them will begin to lose their hearing at a young age.

I head to the firing line, and put on the flimsy ear protection they have. I’ve purchased five rounds for about a dollar each, and the stone faced soldier handling the weapons loads them into an AK-47. I pull the stock into my shoulder, peer through the sights, and take aim at the rectangular red target about 30 yards away. I gently squeeze the trigger.

POW! A cloud of dust goes up in the dirt next to the target. I missed to the left. Maybe the sights are off. Or maybe I’m just a poor marksman. Their cheap ear protectors did little to muffle the huge noise of the gunshot, but I’m more taken at how little kick there was from the recoil.

I switch the AK to automatic fire, and squeeze the trigger again.

PO-PO-PO-POW! In hardly more than a moment, the rifle spurted out the remaining four rounds. Again, it hardly kicked. A larger cloud of dust appeared, right where the first one was. They say that the AK isn’t very accurate, but it makes up for that problem by having a high rate of fire.

Prices per bullet are in local Vietnam currency
In the US this one rifle, the Soviet AK-47, would be forever associated with the communist rebels of Southeast Asia. It later become the favorite weapon of just about every other rebel group in the world. From Africa to Afghanistan, from Latin America to Northern Ireland, they all loved the Kalashnikov.

The AK-47 was a simple design, which made it easy to disassemble and maintain. Unlike the American made M-16 which had a tendency to jam at times, you could drop an AK in the dirt, pick it up, and keep right on firing. Its light weight and light recoil made it a favorite of armies that forced children to fight as soldiers. During the African civil wars of the 1990s, the sight of a child soldier carrying a Kalashnikov was a common sight. You can still see child soldiers today carrying this deadly weapon in Congo and Somalia.

With it’s deadly effectiveness, it wasn’t long before other envious nations began to copy the Kalashnikov’s design, and manufactured it for themselves. Before long the Chinese, the Vietnamese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, and many other Eastern Bloc nations had their own versions. 
A US made M-60 machine gun sits on the firing line

I remember seeing an interview with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the weapon. An old veteran of the Red Army, he was quite proud of his deadly creation. I wonder if anyone ever told him how many Red Army soldiers were killed by his own invention, when AK-47’s were used in the 1980’s by the Mujahadeen to fire on the Russians in Afghanistan.

With my bullets spent, a few other tourists take their turn blasting away at the targets. Some pick up the shell casings to take home as souvenirs. They better remember not to put them in their carry on baggage before they go to the airport, unless they want to be arrested.

As we head back to the city, I realize that the Vietnamese Army has taken those old weapons from the war, and turned them into a money making venture. With so many weapons being fired by so many visitors, they are making a tidy profit on all the ammunition used here every day.

I don’t know it yet, but as I continue my journey across Southeast Asia, I will later see other bizarre uses for old weapons. Some of the people I will meet have transformed old weapons and war refuse into things that I never could have possibly imagined.

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