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Life — or maybe death — on the bull’s-eye
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Shooters RX Tank

Tube artillery is breathtaking to behold up close.

Shooters RX

A military CALFEX is like Christmas for gun nerds. The guns are huge, the noise is deafening and the spectacle is epic.

It’s called a CALFEX — the milspeak term for a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise. Think of it like a machinegun shoot on steroids.

Armor, Artillery, rotary-wing Aviation, Close Air Support and Mechanized Infantry all coordinated to shoot up the range facility at my sprawling military post. We always wrapped it up with a massive B1 or B52 strike. We rehearsed everything on one day and then opened the event to the public the next day. It was a twice-a-year spectacle, and the taxpayers loved it.

I had flown in this thing several times, but never got to watch it. As such, I put another crew on the mission and a Warrant Officer buddy and I resolved to sneak out for the rehearsal and watch the spectacle. The rehearsal shot all the same ordnance as the real-deal so the show would be the same.

The MPs had blocked off all the roads leading to the range to keep idiots like us from doing what we planned on doing. However, as an Army aviator I was intimately familiar with all the goat trails crisscrossing the range facility. Circumventing the MP roadblocks was not a challenge.

My buddy and I ditched my little pickup truck in some thick woods and progressed on foot. We pressed through the tangled underbrush until we came out on a bulldozer the engineers had used to prep the range for the event. Climbing on top of the earthmover, my pal and I had a ringside seat to some serious military chaos.

The event had an announcer who explained the choreography of the exercise to the spectators. The PA system could literally be heard above an artillery strike, so we could follow the action from our perch atop the dozer despite being unable to see the bleachers. As the CALFEX began in earnest, it became apparent we really had a great vantage point. The artillery was especially spectacular from our perch.

The 105mm, 155mm and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems rent the earth asunder to the delight of my buddy and me. The detonations were close enough for us to feel the shockwaves, and the MLRS seemed to punch holes through the sky. We were young, bulletproof and immortal, and this was as good as it got.

Helicopter

Helicopters are the only military machines cooler than tanks.

Suddenly the announcer declared the next event would be an armored unit in full assault. An M1 tank weighs 130,000 lbs. and could violate most of the nation’s posted speed limits. Second only to helicopters, tanks are just stupid cool. My pal and I anxiously searched downrange trying to pick out the tanks as they sprang from their camouflaged fighting positions.

The M1 is a turbine-powered beast, and it makes a distinctive sort of racket. The noise is a cacophonous harmony of a jet engine combined with the metallic clanking of tank tracks. There really is no other sound quite like it. We heard the distinctive sound all right, but not where we had expected it.

To our horror, we looked back and realized we had inadvertently slipped past the tanks while trying to secure a proper perch. The tanks leapt out of their fighting positions behind us and opened up with their coax guns and cupola-mounted fifties. The bulldozer wasn’t a piece of parked engineering equipment. The bulldozer was a target.

Friends, they say tracers as big as basketballs will come at you. I’d say it’s a profound understatement. We dove off the bulldozer and clambered down between the tracks as machinegun bullets streaked all around us. Flattening ourselves as much as possible, I was praying audibly, hoping the tanks wouldn’t shoot the bulldozer with their cannons.

Tank

An M1 tank shooting at you will make all your other problems pale in comparison.

plane with bombs

We always wrapped up a CALFEX with a B1 or B52 laying out a veritable carpet of 500-lb. bombs.

As the tanks approached, they tore around the abused dozer and slid to a halt before enthusiastically throwing main gun rounds downrange at distant targets. Seeing an opportunity, my friend and I leapt up, now coated in mud, and tore back toward the pickup truck as fast as our legs would carry us. Once it became apparent I was not going to die, my mind occupied itself with other things.

Aviators are recognized minorities on most large Army posts, and I was wearing a flight suit. If somebody spotted me scuttling about the impact area during a CALFEX, it would have likely been a simple thing to discern my identity. I wasn’t sure what such idiocy would do to a commissioned officer’s career but my suspicions were it would not be anything good.

We made it back to the truck terrified but intact, and swore each other to secrecy. It was literally years before I breathed a word to anybody but now I share it with you. After nearly three decades the statute of limitations has surely expired.

After a few brief minutes living in the bull’s-eye, my guardian angel had clearly earned a vacation.

GUNS Magazine June 2019 Cover

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