The Clandestine Rifle Range

Sitting with a series of sketches of a possible indoor and outdoor range, something that’s badly needed in our area, and talking about noise control, the subject turned to clandestine ranges used by guerrilla movements, and the techniques they used to keep noise down.

Urban guerrillas have always had problems conducting basic firearms and operational training. Gunshots have a distinct sound signature, and by harnessing modern technology, or good old-fashioned networks of snitches (these being far more effective than the new technology, whose only design objective was to separate flush public agencies from some of that cash), counterinsurgents can vector in on firearms training and disrupt the training or capture or neutralize the trainees, and more critically, the instructors.

Alternatively, underground operators can receive mechanical and dry-fire training only, and then their introduction to combat (against a trained enemy, mind you) is also their introduction to the sensations of live fire. Some guerrilla elements have been forced to operate that way, notably the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto (although their primary reason was want of ammunition).

Over the years, such underground groups have developed methods for training without exposing themselves. Certainly use of air weapons and small-caliber weapons can help, but in long-running insurgencies like the now-defunct Sendero Luminoso urban guerrilla arm in Peru, and the Irish Republican Army terrorist group and its offshoots, clandestine sound-deadening ranges have been developed.

The three principal approaches are:

  1. To put the range underground, in a tunnel or basement or bunker;
  2. To put the range inside a building;
  3. To use sound-deadening methods, like the tire-and-steel-drum trap that some people use on a private range out of neighborliness, or the Swiss Schallschutztunnel (noise-protective tunnel). Here’s a sketch of a tire and drum trap:


The first two have the effect of shortening the range. All three have distinctive appearances, and police or military authorities who find them will know exactly what they have found. As is often the case in guerrilla war, all possible courses of action come with non-zero risks.

The IRA as Example

In 1997, an IRA firing range was found concealed in a stand of forest in County Monaghan, Irish Republic. An overheated story in the Daily Mirror (archived link) had some details amid all the excitement.

Two firing ranges, one of them underground, were found littered with thousands of spent cartridges.

Also found nearby was a stock of 500 live cartridges for the deadly Kalashnikov AK47 rifle – the “Widow Maker” which is the terrorists’ favourite assault weapon.

The walls of the underground firing range were sound-proofed with car tyres.

The 30ft overground firing range had a look-out where IRA overlords could watch as the Provo cadets practiced with the AK47 and the handguns favoured for close-range assassination attempts and attacks on security force bases and patrols.

Gardai and Army officers believe the spent cartridges are evidence that the “murder school” had been open for its deadly business until recently.

The camp is hidden away in a dense 7,000 square acre forest.

The nearest house is five miles away and the nearest passable road – a crumbling, narrow dirt-track – is half-a-mile from the base.

Visitors would have had to leave the track and complete their journey to the camp over soft bogland on foot.

The base is thought to be one of several used by the IRA to give new volunteers the chance to practice their murder methods before being unleashed in Northern Ireland and England. An acknowledged weapons expert from within the Provo ranks – usually an experienced killer with a record of successful “hits” – will assess the apprentice marksmen while they pump high-velocity bullets into targets on the firing ranges.

It’s notable that this range had decent security in terms of its remoteness and sound-deadening equipment. The operators could have assisted in masking the range by being selective about the times and weather conditions of operation. Sound carries at night, and sound reflects in a cloud-ground wave when there’s an overcast; conversely, sound is lost in the rain. The booming basso profundo of large center-fire rounds and short-barreled pistols are heavy in the low frequencies down below 1 KHz where sound isn’t attenuated as much by distance (think of what you hear when some rap fan goes by, generously sharing his “music” with everyone within a mile).

It was simply careless of them not to remove and dispose of their brass (given that these were AK rounds sourced through the IRA’s favorite sugar daddy, Colonel Qaddhafi, probably really “steel”) remotely from the range. It’s bad operational security because the authorities can determine how many AKs fired at that range, and put each one’s firing pin and ejector signatures in the national ballistic network.

Of course, in a police state that bans even empty casings (like Washington, DC, for example), transporting the empties is itself fraught with risk.

In 1999, the Garda (the Irish police) caught 12 terrorists of the “Real IRA” splinter group at a firing range in a converted wine cellar. The Grauniad’s report:

The leader of the Real IRA, the dissident republican group behind the Omagh bombing, had a narrow escape last week. He was drinking in the Huntsman Inn with another leading hardliner as armed gardai raided the outfit’s training camp two miles away in Co. Meath. Had they known, Irish police would have waited. They now believe that he was about to head to the underground firing range, where recruits as young as 14 where being drilled.
But detectives still believe their dramatic operation on Wednesday last week has put paid to the Real IRA’s immediate plans to return to violence. The group called a ceasefire soon after killing 29 people at Omagh, but the RUC and Garda were fearing an imminent attack on security forces in Northern Ireland.

As well as arresting 10 people at the recently converted wine cellar, police recovered three guns.

Seven people were charged with weapons offences. They were remanded in custody at the special criminal court in Dublin on Wednesday, the first time tighter legislation on bail has been applied in the Irish Republic.

The director of public prosecutions is considering files on the three others. They include the 14-year-old.


That Garda operation was enabled by classical COIN counterintelligence and surveillance, the basic blocking and tackling of clandestine warfare. There was also a little signal of the futility of conventional gun control, which is very tight in both the Irish Republic and the adjacent British territory of Northern Ireland:

The Real IRA leader slipped out of the Irish Republic this year, bound for eastern Europe. The reason is now clear.

Two of the seized guns were Czech made. The other was an AK-47 from Yugoslavia. They also found a Russian-made RPG 18 rocket-launcher, six ready-to-use bombs, also from Russia, and 36 detonators, often the most difficult component of a bomb to source.

One of the largely untold stories of the Cold War is the extent to which the USSR supported terrorists worldwide, in a nihilistic attempt to undermine non-communist (and even communist but China-oriented or independent governments) worldwide.

The discovery proves that the Real IRA leader, a former quartermaster of the IRA, has opened up a new source of supply. And, despite heavy surveillance, he was able to ensure the weapons came into the Irish Republic.

Geez, did it ever occur to you that the guy you had under heavy surveillance was drawing off your surveillants from the guy you didn’t have eyes on — the one who was actually moving the weapons?

Intelligence sources believe the Real IRA leader has also successfully imported a heavy duty machinegun capable of bringing down an army helicopter.

Reporters! Anything is capable of bringing down an army helicopter, including dumb luck, the pilot, and the natural entropy that’s always at work in these complex flying machines. The miracle is that any of them stay up all the way to the intended LZ.

Although the Real IRA leader knows where the IRA arms dumps are, there is no evidence yet he has tried to take guns from them. The IRA’s AK-47s are Rumanian or Russian-made.

But Gardai seized 2lbs of Semtex from the Real IRA in Co. Wexford earlier this month. They think it came from an IRA dump.

This sort of thing did not stop with the IRA cease-fire, because the IRA insisted on maintaining its arsenal of guns and bombs. Even though Daffy Qaddhafi cut them off in the 1990s, they’re estimated to have at least 650 AKs still in inventory; enough, one expert writes, for them to operate at peak Troubles pace “indefinitely.” And they continue to train clandestinely. The Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested four IRA terrorists in connection with such a range in 2012, and the first, a 48-year-old dole recipient named Sean Kelly, entered guilty pleas last month. The methods PSNI used to detect and locate the range have not been made public.

14 thoughts on “The Clandestine Rifle Range

  1. LFMayor

    That tires “lifesavers” roll is a hell of an idea. And nit-picking here, but I always heard the AR180 as the “widow maker”.

  2. aGrimm

    “One of the largely untold stories of the Cold War is the extent to which the USSR supported terrorists worldwide…

    The extent and successes of the USSR’s campaigns to promote terrorism and to destroy capitalism and religions is nothing short of astounding as told in this book:
    “Disinformation: …” by Pacepa and Rychlak. Besides the AKs, the Russkies sent literally tons of Semtex to terrorists. You implied the question, “Where do the terrorists keep all this stuff?” and I hope our intelligence folks are working hard for an answer.

    Hognose: think might there be a system developed, on a scale larger than earmuffs, that could electronically deaden the sounds from a range? The physics guy in me says it would be impractical, expensive (not necessarily a concern for terrorists) and maybe worse than the cure, but not impossible to pull off. I do love my Impact Sports earmuffs with a little “Welcome to the Jungle” music, though I seem to shoot a little better with a sonata playing. Okay, maybe I made that last part up as I can’t shoot worth a dang anyway, but I try.

    Of course sound received by a microphone is a lot, lot easier to negate than sound negation (absorption) at the sound’s source or a short distance away. As I have no idea if they do, how come they don’t use silencers (excuse me – suppressors) at these terrorist training camps? Sure there is the added expense, but you only need so many for training and they aren’t exactly restrained from getting suppressors any more than getting AKs. I’ve heard enough real-life suppressors to know they don’t sound like Hellywood’s take on them, but the reports are definitely diminished and different.

    1. LFMayor

      Attenuation is the problem, right? I think thats the right term. You have to catch the pressure waves as they expand, force them to re-direct in odd ways so to rob their energy, reducing their velocity and “sound”.

      A simple tunnel of cardboard boxes, duct tape and couch cushion foam would pretty good in an urban hide I think and would be a hell of a lot easier to portage.

      All the electronic device does is drop baffles above a certain range, probably 80db, if my “Hearing Conservation” training is still intact. The electronic part measures and then reacts physically, it doesn’t actively reduce the sound, it just prevents it from entering your ear.

      1. kunkmiester

        Most “assault weapons” have threaded barrels. Replace the muzzle brake with suppressors. Who cares about the nfa at the point your hiding ranges? It’d be the cherry on top of the whipped cream gun charges on top of the ice cream terrorism charges, so just crank up the lathes.

        Of somewhat limited use would be a converted reefer trailer. Already partly insulated, and movable. Set up properly, it could even still serve its original purpose if kept clean and only used with people who can make sure they just hit the bullet traps, probably more advanced trainees.

  3. Wise Cave Owl

    i just dry fire across the kitchen at toy soldiers whose relative size represents various distances. Sometimes I catch them out in the open, other times they just peek around a bottle of Listerine. But I nail them all. Saves on ammo, range $$, and much easier on the ear drums

  4. Goatey

    If you could bolt/attach the tires to each other, why would need a barrel? It would give you the ability to add more tires thus more sound baffling.

  5. 6pounder

    “other times they just peek around a bottle of Listerine” That is hilarious sir!!!

    1. Wise Cave Owl

      couple hours ago a San Francisco Cannibal scout-sniper peered over the top of a box of baking soda @ scale-distance 400 yards. Against my scoped M1A, he had no chance

  6. OBob

    Not clandestine, but does anyone remember the 2010 Nosler plant explosion? They had underground foam lined shooting tunnels to attenuate the sounds of product testing. As 100% of the powder in most rifle rounds does not burn in the bore, the excess can build up over the years, until one day…… At least that was the rumored cause at the time.

    Not that I would know anything about it, but a bin of fine gravel, about size you’d used to sand your driveway in winter, with a small opening in the side wrapped with a wet towel COULD theoretically be used to test ammo for function, at least that’s what I’ve heard. Only on two occasions did anyone ask why there were spent bullets in the drive.

  7. itor

    just an observation – clandestine range or not, your brass (w/fingerprints/dna) & recovered projectiles can be sprinkled about a crime site, “proving” your presence & guilt

  8. 858x70

    a dense 7,000 square acre forest

    Square acres? Edited by the Department of Redundancy Department

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