Driving a British Chieftain and Shooting a World War II-era Sten Makes for a One-Of-A-Kind Day Out in Kasota, Minn.
Staring at the blue Oldsmobile someone has carelessly parked in front of me, I press down on the accelerator, filling the air with a thick cloud of coal-black diesel exhaust.
Then, just as I begin to pick up speed, a peculiar thing happens. Time seems to slow down, as I feel a slight bump and the nose of the British Chieftain main battle tank I’m driving suddenly climbs skyward, accompanied by the sounds of crumpling metal, breaking glass and bystanders whooping their approval.
As the dust settles, I climb down to get a better look at the aftermath of my short test drive. I’m afraid this is no ordinary fender-bender — together, this 60-ton beast and I have turned what was once someone’s beloved family sedan into a shiny sky-blue speed bump.
Which leaves me with just one question: How am I going to explain this to my insurance agent?
Having driven my share of motorhomes over the years, I like to think I’m capable of handling a large vehicle in most any situation. That said, nothing could have prepared me for the morning I spent in the small farming community of Kasota, Minn., home to the world headquarters of a humble family-run operation known simply as Drive A Tank.
Like most unusual businesses, this one started innocently enough when co-owner Tony Borglum traveled to England in 2007 with the idea of buying a retired military vehicle, solely as a source of amusement for family and friends. While he was there, however, he stumbled upon a tourist attraction that allowed ordinary people to tool around in the British army’s heavy metal castoffs — like my 120,000-pound Chieftain tank — and the seed was planted.
From those humble beginnings, the Borglum family’s private arsenal has grown to include a dozen British tanks, plus several examples of the heavy-duty six-wheel-drive M35 trucks known as “deuce and a halfs,” not to mention assorted military Humvees and even a World War II-era Jeep, complete with pedestal-mounted .30-caliber machine gun. Unlike other collectors of military memorabilia, however, these folks had no intention of turning the items in their personal military-industrial complex into dusty museum pieces.
The result is the only place in North America where anyone over the age of 14 can take the controls of some of the most unstoppable machines the world has ever known. In a society where most people have never even seen an actual military tank up close, this out-of-the-way tourist attraction is nothing less than the stuff of which daydreams are made.
My Drive A Tank adventure started out with Tony Borglum giving our group an overview of the day’s activities, with a heavy emphasis on the operation’s few simple safety rules. With those basics out of the way, he continued with a fascinating history of the military tank and its role in armed conflicts over the years, followed by a detailed look at the distinctly different machines we’d be driving that day.
From there, we walked outside and climbed into the canvas-covered bed of a hulking M35 for the quick trip to the 20-acre facility’s staging area. While Drive A Tank offers several different packages, members of my group and I had all signed up for the Four Star General package ($599), which includes seat time in two different armored vehicles.
First up was the 33,000-pound FV433 Abbot, a tracked vehicle technically classified as a self-propelled gun (SPG) and fitted with a 105-millimeter cannon (demilled) that was once capable of striking targets as far as 9 miles away. The logic of making this the first thing we drove soon became apparent as we were able to pop our heads out of the driver’s hatch gopher-style, giving us an excellent view of the winding dirt track that makes up the operation’s closed course. Like most tracked vehicles, steering this brute was a relatively simple matter of alternately tugging on the two steering levers located between the driver’s legs.
With only occasional advice from our instructor, perched just outside the driver’s hatch, I managed to keep the Abbot centered on the narrow, muddy path without much difficulty. As I climbed out at the start/finish line, I was thinking maybe this tank-driving thing wasn’t so tough after all.
To keep us from getting cocky, everyone then moved to Drive A Tank’s FV432 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), better known as a battlefield taxi by virtue of its 10-seat rear troop compartment. To make things a little more interesting this time around, our instructor informed us we’d be maneuvering the APC around the course with the driver’s hatch buttoned down, as it would be under actual combat conditions. While the controls were very similar to the Abbot, trying to pilot this 30,000-pound monster around the winding course while looking through the driver’s tiny viewing port proved to be a good bit more challenging.
From there, it was back to the armory building for the high point of my day — driving the 60-ton Chieftain main battle tank over that hapless Oldsmobile. While that was great fun, I found out too late that they also allow visitors to use the Chieftain to demolish travel trailers that have reached the end of their road. I mean, how perfect would that have been for a story in an RV magazine?
After flattening the car, Tony presented me with the keys to what was left of it, along with the emblems off the hood and trunk, to keep as souvenirs. As we laughed about it, all I could think was, “There goes my good driver discount!”
Before that adrenaline rush had a chance to fade, Tony and his staff ushered us back into the classroom for another short presentation, this time by retired police officer and certified firearms instructor Mike Pulis. Like Tony’s detailed review of the different tank models earlier in the day, Mike went over each of the three fully automatic machine guns we’d soon be handling, and covered important rules about gun safety designed to make sure the only injuries would be to the human silhouettes on our paper targets.
After donning safety glasses and ear protection, our group filed in to the operation’s sophisticated indoor firing range. When our instructor asked who wanted to be first up, we all hesitated, as if trying to decide whether it was worth body-checking the other group members in order to get to the front of the line. Not that we were eager or anything.
In order to help build our confidence, we started small with a World War II-vintage Sten 9-millimeter submachine gun. These simple, British weapons were designed to be mass produced quickly and cheaply, and many of them —
including the one we’d be firing — found their way into the hands of resistance fighters behind enemy lines. Though it was my first time firing a fully automatic weapon, the Sten’s minimal recoil and 500-rounds-per-minute firing rate allowed me to make quick work of emptying its 20-round magazine.
Next, we moved to a shortened version of the Vietnam-era M16 known as the M4 carbine, the rifle currently used by U.S. troops around the world. While this larger, heavier rifle wasn’t particularly hard to handle, the staccato booming
as it burned through the 30-round clip made the little Sten seem like a BB gun by comparison.
Last, but certainly not least, is one of those weapons no one ever expects to get their hands on, much less actually fire. I’m talking about another World War II staple, the tripod-mounted M1919 .30-caliber belt-fed medium machine gun. Again, with a firing rate of 600 rounds per minute, we all blew through our allotted 25 rounds almost before we knew it. When the ammo ran out, each shooter turned back to look at the rest of the group with wide eyes and a silent “Wow!” on their lips.
By lunchtime, our adventure was over, but the excitement lingered long after the last motor was shut down and the final round was fired. Over the course of four hours, we had lived out the fantasies of every kid who ever picked up a stick to play soldiers with their friends in the backyard. Things we’d all seen over and over again on the big screen, we could now casually say, “Oh yeah, been there, done that.”
As I walked out to my car, however, I couldn’t help laughing at the red-and-white signs affixed to the gate that led back to the dirt lot where the Chieftain still sat looming over the crushed Oldsmobile. Because this is one of those places where you really want to take those No Parking signs seriously, lest you arrive in a full-size car and return to find a compact(ed) model occupying that same space.
For More Information
Drive A Tank | 507-931-7385 | www.driveatank.com
Alan Rider has been wandering the backroads of America for more than four decades. Though he’s never been big on traditional souvenirs, he’s passionate about collecting memories of the remarkable people and unforgettable places he encounters along the way.