Monday, October 23, 2017

My first firearm

So, after I got my firearms license ("RPAL") the question was which firearm to buy?

The use of handguns is much more legally restricted, so I decided to postpone that purchase for when I become a member of a club where I can practice with a handgun. That leaves unrestricted "long guns", i.e rifles and shotguns.

I don't think shotguns are good first firearms unless that's the only type of firearm I'm going to shoot (and it's not :) ). 

I briefly considered an SKS - the same rifle I carried in the Yugoslav Army in the early eighties. It's affordable, reliable, fun to shoot, fires relatively cheap ammo and I know it inside and out. However, only Russian and Chinese versions are currently available in Canada and I wanted the Yugo one (with the grenade launcher). Also, this rifle is quite long, which lead me to a major practical consideration:

At this stage, I need a rifle that would fit in the hard case on my motorcycle. That way I can carry it inconspicuously, safely and legally anywhere I ride, and I want to to ride to target practice and enjoy both of my passions at the same time. So, the length limit is set at about 50cm.

There was also a question of caliber. The bigger the bullet, the more it costs, and I want to be able to afford a lot of practice. Surplus 7.62x39 ammo (the kind SKS and AK47 use) can be found for about 25c a pop if you buy the whole crate of 1,500 rounds. Not too expensive, but still too big and heavy to carry enough of it on a motorcycle, let alone in a backpack (the question where/why would I carry it in a backpack will be answered with a future post).

Also, my 50cm length limit falls well under the minimum length for an unrestricted firearm (I believe it's 66cm, but don't quote me on that). The rifle needs to be classified as unrestricted because of my intended use (again, the answer is in a future post).

That all left me with take-down models - rifles that can be easily disassembled for transport and reassembled at the range. Long story short, the choice quickly narrowed down to two: Ruger 10-22 takedown or Henry U.S. Survival Rifle. Both are .22LR caliber which is cheapest and most abundant ammo on the planet (can be found for  under 10c per bullet). They are both easy to disassemble, but that's where the similarities end. Try to guess which one I've chosen before you read any further :).

Ruger is a better rifle in almost all respects. It's more accurate, it looks and feels like a real rifle and is infinitely customizeable. You can easily turn a plain-vanilla $400 10-22 into a $2,000 gunsmiths showpiece just by adding/replacing its parts. It's a proven design too - tens of millions were sold over half a century. It comes with it's own backpack for transport and storage when disassembled.

AR-7 (Henry) has equally long and even more interesting history - it was designed by Eugene Stoner, the famous father of M16. It had a pretty poor reliability record until Henry Repeating Arms took over the brand, but is now rock solid. It looks and feels like a toy, for better or for worse. There are almost no aftermarket accessories for it, not even higher capacity magazines (it holds 8 rounds per mag). I have to say that it doesn't inspire confidence, Henry's stellar support record notwithstanding. It's considerably cheaper than Ruger, and for a reason. It's also much lighter (only 1.6Kg) and packs in it's own stock, so you can carry it in any bag. It floats on water too, at least for a while.

So, the AR-7 won. I like to think the main reasons are it's practicality/utility and the fact that it will have a purpose even after I move on to something else. The fact is that it won with it's coolness factor and affordability. After all, it's only my first firearm - Ruger will get it's turn eventually.

Fast forward several months and I haven't regretted my choice. I've fired almost 10,000 rounds through my Survival Rifle so far. It works flawlessly with all types of ammunition and it cycles well even with subsonic rounds that many semiautomatic rifles have problems with (very nice, because I love subsonics). The rate of malfunctions (misfire, failure to feed, failure to eject, stovepipe, etc.) is about one per thousand. All of them can be attributed to inconsistent .22LR ammunition and are easily cleared in the field without tools.

The rifle is as accurate as I need it to be, which translates into consistently hitting a cantaloupe at 50m offhand and with mechanical sights. I'm not going to hunt with it, but can if I have to.

A backpack with my rifle, a few hundred rounds, a cleaning kit and a bunch of other things easily fits in the top case on my bike(s) with room to spare. A perfect recipe for a fun day, but more about those later :).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Firearms license, at last!

Those who know me well know that I'm a big firearms enthusiast. I enjoyed everything that goes BANG! ever since I lit my first firecracker as a kid. Even before that, I was fascinated with fire and played with it every chance I got, always carrying a box of matches in my pocket. I haven't set anything important on fire, but I came close a few times and learned a lot about safety in the process.

The first firearm I ever shot was a Zastava M48, Yugoslav version of the famous Mauser Gewehr 98k - the main German WW2 rifle.

I was 15 years old. M48 is a bolt action rifle that fires a full size military cartridge (7,9mm Mauser). It has no recoil-absorbing or compensating features, which means the same force that propels the 13 gram bullet out of the barrel at 800m/s is applied to your shoulder via that steel butt-plate. In other words, it kicks like a mule (the ballistics and recoil are comparable to 30-06 Springfield, for those more familiar with North American ammunition).

Even though I was a total "gun virgin", I already knew how to handle and aim a weapon, thanks mostly to a lot of dry-firing practice at school. Sensing my enthusiasm for firearms, the teacher of the "Defense and Protection" class (famous "Yeti", a legend worthy of his own blog post) would let me "guard the rifle" during recesses, the time I gladly used to repeatedly load/cycle/aim/fire/reload a handful of training ammunition. When the time came to fire some live rounds at the range, all of the five shots hit the target the size of a watermelon at 100m. Not bad for the first time. My shoulder was neither sore nor blue and I didn't end up with a bloody arcade like some other kids that were afraid the gun will kill them with its butt.

A few years later I was serving my tour of duty in the Yugoslav Army, just like all able bodied eighteen year old boys back then. It wasn't all fun and games on the remote Adriatic island of Vis, but I got to shoot pretty much all weapons Eastern block had to offer at the time. From WW2 MG42, to AK47, to grenade launchers, to handguns, to hand grenades - I even used good old dynamite to blow up a few things. Many other soldiers were trying to avoid having to clean their weapons and would offer me to shoot their ammo. There was no way I'd refuse a live round and the cleaning procedure is the same for one bullet as for a hundred, so the choice was easy :). Plus, I got to shoot at their targets too :).

Yes, this one as well :). Allies called it "Hitler's Buzz Saw" for it's 1,200 round per minute rate of fire. It made the individual shots blend together into a signature sound akin to ripping heavy canvas. The one I fired was an immaculately refurbished WW2 specimen, with original swastika Waffenamt markings. By the time I was done with it, the barrel was so hot it was glowing bright red in broad daylight :)).

My own service weapon was a PAP M59/66. That's the Yugoslav version of Russian SKS with a NATO spec grenade launcher:

Light, reliable, easy to shoot, simple to maintain. Fun too, especially with anti tank grenades :). It was extremely loud and recoiled like nothing I've ever seen when launching those heavy buggers.

Forward to 1985, I got my hands on my first serious book about weapons. It was called "All pistols and revolvers of the world", by the Russian author Alexander Borisovich Zuk. The title is not an exaggeration or a false claim - the book meticulously catalogues and illustrates every single handgun model produced prior to 1980, even the one-off prototypes. It also shows inner workings and explains different types of firearm actions, something I found extremely interesting. I slept with that book for months, read it several times cover to cover and returned to its more interesting sections over and over again. For many years after, I could quickly recognize almost any handgun i saw in the movies. In most cases down to the manufacturer, model, version and caliber.   

Those who know me well also know that I'm a non-violent person and a law-abiding citizen. I never had a firearms license and never owned a firearm. I have no interest in ever shooting at a living being, not even for hunting purposes (unless I'm starving, that is). The original purpose and potential effects of firearms are not lost to me and I can't deny certain self defense and human rights aspects either. However, my interest is primarily from a purely technical perspective (think "terminal ballistics" instead of a "wound channel"). It's hard to put in words, but I'm fascinated with the inner workings and the technology that blends many sciences and skills to make a gun that works (believe me, there are many that just don't). The amount of genius that was invested (many would say wasted) in firearms is just amazing, and there's arguably a lot of transferable knowledge that can be gained by studying them. Besides, didn't I say explosions and hitting hard at stuff tens or hundreds of meters away is fun? 

When trying to relate my passion to firearms layman I'm facing the same challenge as when I talk about motorcycling, but amplified by an order of magnitude. It's almost impossible to explain a feeling to those who never experienced the activity the feeling is associated with and got their information about it from movies, news and reality shows. It should be self evident that not every motorcycle rider is a member of a motorcycle gang and not every firearm owner is a mass murderer, but it's not to many people. Firearm owners come from all walks of life and use their firearms for purposes that are just as diverse.

A side note: I use term "firearms" instead of "guns" not just because it's more accurate, but also because it's harder to abuse by those more interested in sensations and emotions than facts. I also say "motorcyclist" instead of "biker" for pretty much the same reasons.

I applied for a firearms license once a long time ago, but was declined. Back then (and there) those that had connections could easily get a license, but I wasn't one of them. Licensing was at the discretion of local police with no clear rules on who can have a license and under what circumstances. I wasn't interested in getting a firearm illegally, even though it was quite easy. So I gave up, got sidetracked with other things in life and never applied again. However, my interest in firearms never diminished and I kept educating myself from all available sources.

Those who know me well also know that I didn't grow up in an environment that had any potential to induce or encourage interest in firearms. Everyone in my family and social circles was either indifferent or outright scared of weapons of any kind. As I grew up, I started wondering where that deep and enduring interest came from. Certainly not from my father, my mother or any other person that had influence in my upbringing.

There was just no logical explanation whatsoever until I found out about my maternal great grandfather. Jozef Felba was a master gunsmith from Ceska Zbrojovka (today known simply as "CZ" -, the famous arms factory in Brno, Czechoslovakia. He moved to Serbia in mid nineteenth century to help establish the arms factory in Kragujevac that eventually grew into today's Zastava Arms ( Well, that settled the question of nature vs. nurture in this case. If grandpa Felba's genes aren't to blame, I don't know what is.

It would surely benefit humanity if all that genius was directed to developing tools not primarily designed for killing. Who knows what great inventions would Hiram Maxim come up with if Edison didn't bribe him to quit electrical engineering and move to Europe? There, he invented the first effective machine gun. The one that ruled the battlefields of WW1 from all sides and was the only sustained fire weapon until mid twentieth century.

The British variant above, Vickers Maxim, is typically regarded as the best of all Maxims produced. The last three were finally retired in mid fifties, but not before they were fired non-stop for seven days, expelling five million rounds of ammunition without malfunction. Talk about going out with a bang!

I'm glad Edison didn't/couldn't bribe Tesla...

Another big jump in space/time leads us to 21st century day Canada. A couple of years ago I briefly entertained the idea of getting a firearms license (its official name is "Possession and Acquisition License") but gave up after realizing I have to take a mandatory course and jump through some other hoops. Mostly, I dropped it because I wasn't sure my darling wife would support me and without her consent it would be hard if not impossible to get licensed. It turned out I misjudged Duda's view, and after consulting with some firearm owners and with support of a couple of close friends (my deep and sincere thanks to Monica and Aleksandra) I took the course and got my license.The procedure to get a firearms license in Canada consists of several steps, costs about $500 and takes approximately four months, but there are no real obstacles for a law abiding citizen.

Finally, after all these decades, I am one of more than two million licensed firearm owners in Canada. I took two firearms safety courses, passed two written and two practical tests, provided two references and was checked by RCMP.

I am now subject to daily RCMP criminal background checks (yes, every single day). I was also told that police no longer need a warrant to search my home, so I gave up some of my rights. Combine that with being a NEXUS holder and I'm probably among the most vetted people in this country - a proven model citizen. Consequently, nothing I do that with firearms is or will be remotely illegal. Even if I was inclined to break the law, I don't want to risk loosing my license and the privilege of engaging in my lifelong passion. I do my research, check applicable laws and consult government agencies whenever I'm not sure what I'm about to do is perfectly legal. I have a lot of fun with guns, but I also take them very seriously and obey the law.

Phew, that was a long one, but I just had to put all this in print. Please feel free to comment and ask questions, I'll do my best to answer everyone.