It’s an early morning in Eastern Ukraine, we stand outside, My friend and I, smoking cigarettes in a gazebo next to the parade grounds of an unknown Regiment; our field packs, battle rattle, and rifles in tow. I felt a little awkward showing up for a sniper course carrying an AK74 but also figured we’d get loaned some for range use. My overall plan was that maybe if we attended the course, the Recon section could finally get issued a decent long-range rifle because it would then have some qualified shooters on board. That and to be honest, I wanted to do something new and interesting out of repetitious boredom.
Slowly, other soldiers carrying drag bags and kit casually shuffled over to us; men from the regimental sniper platoon. Finally a small Toyota Hilux sized pick up truck rolled up with an old man driving, I recognized him from the front lines as one of the staff commanders and he greeted us warmly. Logistics were discussed in Ukrainian between him and some of the other soldiers that I could scarcely understand. We then tossed our bags in back, climbed in, and away we went out the main gate; I throw the guard on duty a peace sign as we bounce past, I’m barely hanging on from inside the truck bed, but to be honest I’ve always found great joy from riding around “hound dog” like that.
We stop outside the base part way in a local town to acquire snacks, cigs and beverages for our extended stay in the field. It’s summertime so this beach town is full of vacationers from the more urban centers of Ukraine; places like Kiev. Children and families in summer clothes walk past and eyeball us curiously but not with the wonder we had experienced in Kurdistan. This is primarily because we blend in ethnically much easier in eastern Europe than in the Middle East as you can imagine. Joey walks out of the store carrying Marlboro Reds and an assortment of junk food looking content. He climbs back in alongside our other cohorts and we set out. We pass field after field in the countryside until we finally arrive at the training grounds and our field camp.
We fall out into our tent and drop gear next to a pair of empty racks and prepare to stand-by to stand-by. Other course participants trickle in and set up shop next to us, they unpack field bags with gear and several carry out small talk with us in English. Finally the Instructor arrives and walks in whereas we greet him alongside the other students. Thank god he spoke a little English like many of the other students, otherwise the difficulty of the course would have risen exponentially.
I am informed that we will begin early the following morning, and that we are free to do whatever until that time. So we decide to head over to the field mess station, kitchen, and scrounge up several bowls of borscht with bread. After dinner it’s bullshitting with cigarettes and off to bed.
The following day is an introductory class and course overview brief, paired with a bit of group size and zeroing on various precision rifles in the afternoon. I stumble out of my tent and shuffle towards the latrines; after a brief pit stop I head over to the morning chow line to catch Joey grabbing a bowl of oatmeal and some boiled eggs. We sit and eat, discussing what the course might entail and miscellaneous topics of interest over our food and drinks.
The kitchen is what looks to be a haphazardly constructed shack with a military field stove trailer parked outside and several rickety picnic benches lining the front end. The cooks seemed to enjoy their jobs and the food wasn’t half bad, so there are no complaints on my end to be sure.
We finish our meal and walk over to a designated side area of the camp, a predetermined rally point, where the course instructor is standing next to a bench. As the last of us trickle in, he greets us and begins setting equipment on the table while explaining that he will be giving us essentially what is a loadout run down. It’s important to note one of our classmates is translating what the instructor does not say in English at this point in time. He touches on the various bits of kit we will be using to make precise shots at long distance.
When he finishes with this, he places two bolt-action rifles on the table, an Italian made .308 and a small Ruger .22lr with a suppressor attached. We are given brief explanations of the capabilities, differences, and applications of both these rifles as well as several others to include the SVD Dragunov in 7.62x54r and FORT chambered in .308.
From there we head to the range, a good 500 meter walk from camp where we set up targets and unload gear. The instructor gets out front and gives us the obligatory safety brief and then proceeds to demonstrate the firing of the Italian .308 bolt-action rifle. He puts a dime-sized group at 100 meters like he had done it hundreds of times before. From there we go up to the firing line and proceed to take turns getting our own groups with the rifle; this was not so much to zero but to kick the dust off and get a feel for our own groups, plus familiarize ourselves with the weapon.
Joey and I do this and I am quite happy with my performance, a nickel-sized group just off-center. It had been a while since I had shot a bolt-action, but marksmanship is synonymous with all firearms in my opinion or as I like to say, “One mind, any weapon.” We repeat this process a couple more times for good measure and shoot the Ruger after that. There is a long course ahead of us and we had only just scratched the surface.