A place to play Dirty Harry, Soviet style

  • 2007-05-09
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

GUNSHOT GRANNY: Little old ladies may look sweet and innocent, but a trip to the shooting range shot holes in that stereotype. Don't be slow to give up your trolleybus seat – Babushka could be packing.

RIGA - Riga offers quite a few interesting nooks and crannies, places a little outside of the ever popular restaurant, bar, music and art scene. Old Soviet style shooting ranges are prime examples of these sorts of intriguing hideaways. While Riga used to have quite a few shooting ranges, over the past few years they have been disappearing and now only a handful can be found around town. I decided to try to find one of these places before they all disappeared and managed to locate one called D-Dupleks.

D-Dupleks is a small place wedged in a corner behind a variety of different sport and game clubs on Brivibas street. In true Soviet fashion it features a simple sign above the door that reads "sautuve" (shooting range). It turned out that the range is actually one branch of a company that makes ammunition. I got the impression that the owner didn't do much advertising, but instead relied on cooperation with tour guides, security forces, and the other branch of their company to spread the word. As a result the location can be a little hard to find.

Upon entering the building I immediately felt the Cold War atmosphere. The hallway to the main office features two thick metal doors, labeled with roman numerals, that look like they could survive an atomic blast. Everything about the place gave me the impression of walking into an old Soviet bunker that hadn't really changed much in the past 50 years.
As I walked into the office I was confronted with a grizzled old Russian man smoking a cigarette and watching a small portable black-and-white television set. He didn't bother to get up, but simply pointed to a list of guns and prices on the table. The list had about 15 different types of guns varying in price from 20 santimi (0.29 euros) to one lat (1.43 euros) per shot. At that price, it's possible to have a few hours of fun for less than 10 lats with a small handgun, or to burn through 50 lats in a few minutes with an expensive automatic weapon.

The man didn't, or wouldn't, speak Latvian and had barely enough English to deal with customers, but that only added to the atmosphere. I chose a relatively cheap gun at random and asked for 30 bullets. The man disappeared into the heavy-duty doors near the entrance and soon returned with something that looked like a German World War II style handgun. He explained a little bit about the history of the gun while grabbing handfuls of bullets from an old coffee can and carefully lining them up in a small box for me.
As we headed into the next room the man made sure that I grabbed a set of protective earphones from a large pile near the door, but didn't take any for himself. I'm glad I had them 's my ears rang for nearly an hour after someone took a shot while I wasn't wearing them. I was surprised that the man could still hear anything at all after spending his days around the deafening clap from guns of various sizes.

The next room featured a row of wooden doors which all had the same peeling green paint. As the man lit up another cigarette I noticed the number of stray butts and empty bullet shells littered around the concrete floor. It seemed fitting for cigarettes and guns to be so intertwined in this place.
The shooting range itself was surreal. The first thing I noticed was the mound of spent shells piled up just on the other side of the door. It was an oddly artistic mix of bright red shotgun shells, bronze colored shells from hand guns, and the dark grey, slightly warped shells of a high powered rifle.
When I raised my head I was greeted with a long row of old tires lining one wall. The sun shone through rows of heavily rusted iron ingots from which targets could be hung at varying distances. The back of the range had some vaguely human looking targets still stuck to the wall and a number of small objects on the ground too warped to identify. The man pulled out a paper target and stapled it to a piece of cardboard that had so many bullet holes that it looked like it would fall apart at any moment. He hung it about 15 meters away, showed me briefly how to load the gun, gave me a few safety tips, and walked off to help some other customers.

As I was shooting I noticed that one of the customers was a little old lady. She seemed entirely out of place in the Soviet bunker, that is until she proficiently flipped a powerful looking handgun from a hidden side holster and loaded it with ease. Needless to say, she turned out to be a much better shot than me. When I was about halfway through my bullets two British tourists showed up with a guide named Vladimir and asked for two of the most powerful guns on the list. They got a large handgun and a rifle with a sight that looked like something out of a video game. Every shot they took nearly dislocated their shoulders, but they looked on happily as little bursts of flame emerged from the end of their guns and shredded the cardboard targets.

D-Dupleks seemed to be doing a brisk trade as police officers, gun enthusiasts and tourists slipped in and out. Generally, however, these sorts of places have been disappearing in waves over the past few years. I ventured to one of the other shooting ranges in town to try to figure out why they were struggling. The next place I went to, located slightly closer to the center on Sarlotes street, is basically just a door leading to a basement. As I ventured down I found the same sort of metal bunker doors leading into the shop. It turned out that the range was actually closed for renovations.
The owner explained that since 2004, strict EU weapons legislation has made it difficult for them to stay in business. Many places had failed to fulfill the ever stricter permit regulations. It is also becoming more difficult for customers to buy their own guns due to private ownership laws, so the popularity of the sport is in decline. I got the impression that this place was suffering a little bit more under the new laws than the other.

After my little journey into realm of bunkers and bullets, I found myself hoping against hope that not too many of these places will have to upgrade or shut down in the next few years. My visit to the shooting range was like taking a short trip back in time, and despite their austere and dilapidated appearances, these are amazing, gritty little bits of history that would be a shame to lose.