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Febuary 2007 cover


March 2003

Marine Corps Sets Sights On More Precise Shooting

by Harold Kennedy

In an isolated corner of the U.S. Marine base at Quantico, Va., a small unit is working to turn one of the oldest combat weapons—the infantry rifle—into a precise, ultra-modern killing machine.

The unit, the Weapons Training Battalion, operates its own state-of-the-art factory, which builds handmade, super-accurate rifles for scout snipers, other designated marksmen and teams of competitive shooters throughout the Marine Corps.

The accuracy of these weapons depends upon the workmanship built into the rifles and the training and skills of the shooters, officials told National Defense.

The battalion, part of the service’s Training and Education Command, is responsible primarily for teaching future officers the basics of shooting, training highly skilled scout snipers and small-arms instructors, conducting Marine and inter-service shooting matches and setting marksmanship standards for the entire corps.

Marines have emphasized marksmanship since their earliest days. During the American Revolution, they posted snipers high in the rigging of U.S. ships to fire down on the officers and crew of nearby enemy ships during naval battles.

Today, the corps is the only service to require that all of its uniformed personnel be trained to fire a rifle accurately. Every Marine—no matter what rank or job—goes to the rifle range each year to refresh his or her skills.

At the range, Marines practice firing from four classic positions, standing, kneeling, sitting and prone. They fire a known-distance course at targets that are 200, 300 and 500 yards away. They are required to qualify annually as marksmen, sharpshooters or experts.

The standard Marine infantry rifle currently is the M16A2, a 5.56 mm semiautomatic. Made by Colt Manufacturing, of Hartford, Conn., and Fabrique Nationale Manufacturing Inc., in Columbia, S.C., it is the latest version of the weapon issued to almost all U.S. military personnel since the Vietnam War. The M16A2 has a maximum effective range of approximately 500 yards.

Hitting more distant or difficult targets is the specialty of Marine scout snipers and designated marksmen. Each Marine infantry battalion has 16 scout snipers. Although they perform observation missions for their units, their primary job is to deny freedom of movement to enemy forces, said Gunnery Sgt. Robert Reidsma, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the Scout Sniper School.

This is accomplished, he said, by shooting enemy leaders and other key personnel, such as radio operators, heavy weapons crews and messengers, with single, well-aimed shots.

“Our motto is ‘one shot, one kill,’” Reidsma said. They also can use rifle fire to disable the enemy’s vital infrastructure, such as command-and-control and air-defense equipment, he explained.

Scout snipers typically shoot from heavily camouflaged positions, behind enemy lines, sometimes at great distances from their targets. Being able to hit enemy targets at distances beyond the range of enemy small arms gives scout snipers a distinct advantage, said Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Skeen, the battalion’s chief range officer.

“If I can hit you and you can’t reach me—can’t even see me—then, obviously, I win,” he said.

A favorite weapon for the purpose is the M40A3 sniper rifle, a bolt-action, magazine-fed weapon that fires a heavier, 7.62 mm round and is effective at a maximum range of 1,000 yards—twice that of the M16A2.

Unlike M16A2s, which have been turned out by the millions, only a few hundred of the sniper rifles have been issued. Each one is hand-built by specially trained Marines at the Weapons Training Battalion’s Precision Weapons Facility, which is located just off one of the rifle ranges on the western side of Quantico.

The facility is an 8,000 square-foot World War II-era target warehouse that has been converted into a 21st century weapons factory, explained the chief armorer, Gunnery Sgt. Gary S. Teischer. The facility builds, repairs and modifies a variety of precision infantry weapons, including the M40A3, the designated marksman rifle, the squad advanced marksman rifle and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) pistol.

The M40A3 is an updated version of the M40A1, which the Marines adopted in the 1970s as their primary long-range sniper rifle.

Armorers at Quantico assemble each rifle from parts ordered from several suppliers, Teischer explained. The parts include a receiver, bolt and trigger assembly from the Remington Arms Company; a Schnider Match Grade SS #7 heavy steel barrel; a McMillan fiberglass stock, and an Unertl 10-power sniper scope.

At 16.5 pounds, the M40A3 is almost twice as heavy as the 8.79-pound M16A2. However, it comes with a bipod, making it easier for a scout sniper to keep his weapon in a firing position for hours while he lies in wait for a target.

The designated marksman rifle is a heavily modified M-14, which was the standard U.S. infantry weapon before the M-16. The DMR is a precision-grade 7.62 mm, semi-automatic weapon, weighing up to 11 pounds. Unlike the standard M16A2, it is equipped with a mounting system that will accommodate an optical sighting scope, AN/PVS-4 Starlight Scope and other night-vision equipment. It also comes with an attachable flash suppressor and bipod.

Scout snipers employ the DMR when they need a weapon capable of delivering rapid, accurate fire against multiple targets—which is difficult with the slower, bolt-action M40A3—and when they need greater lethality than the M16, said Skeen. It also is issued to Marine security forces, military police, ordnance disposal personnel and some units that perform special-operations missions.

The squad advanced marksman rifle is an M16A2 with a match-grade heavy barrel, bipod and optical gunsight. The Marines are experimenting with the idea of creating the position of designated marksman in every infantry squad to increase that unit’s ability to hit distant targets. Marine units now are in the process of evaluating both the DMR and the SAMR for this purpose.

Another firearm produced by the facility is the MEU (SOC) pistol. This is a modified version of the Colt.45 caliber automatic handgun, which was the official sidearm for all U.S. forces from 1911 until 1985, when it was replaced by the 9 mm Beretta.

Many scout snipers still prefer the .45 in close combat, because of its heavier firepower, Teischer said. The .45s are useful, he explained, when the enemy is too close and moving too quickly for Marines to deploy the heavy, unwieldy sniper rifles.

At Quantico, armorers rebuild the .45 to make it more “user friendly,” with a “near-match quality,” Teischer noted. Each pistol is “combat accuratized,” he said. Each receives a precision barrel and trigger, rubber-coated grips, rounded hammer spur, high-profile combat sights, and an extra-wide grip safety for increased comfort and controllability. This helps, Teischer said, when a shooter needs to make a quick follow-up, second shot.

In the entire Marine Corps, only 55 precision-weapons armorers—including two women—perform this work, Teischer noted. They are all trained in the Quantico facility, a process that takes a full year. They learn to use sophisticated equipment, such as digital lathes and plasma cutting systems, to turn out high-quality firearms.

The tools are powerful and must be used with care, Teischer said. “With one of these things,” he said, pointing to a plasma cutter, “we can cut through a steel vault door.”

The factory also designs and makes some specialized, one-of-a-kind equipment, such as a prototype bayonet, a wrench for a shotgun and a scope mount for the DMR.

“If we had to contract out the design and manufacture of these kinds of items, it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Teischer said.

Currently, the factory employs a total of 23 of Marines, ranging in rank from corporal to sergeant, Teischer said, but he has a hard time keeping positions filled.

“We have a high attrition rate,” he explained. “These guys can double their pay in the civilian world. Remington, Colt, Browning, the FBI, DEA ATF—they’re all competing to hire them.”

The aging, crowded factory also is a problem, Teischer said. “This is the best machine shop in the Marine Corps,” he said. But the building is bursting at the seams with manufacturing equipment and weapons in various stages of assembly, he said. “It was never designed for this,” he said.

To improve conditions, the Marines plan to break ground in 2004 for a new, $4.6 million armory and weapons support facility, Teischer said. At 23,000 square-foot, it will be three times the size of the current factory. It will consolidate all of the armory’s activities on one site, including locker and shower facilities for workers, he said.

In addition to producing specialized weapons, the battalion plays a major role in training Marine scout snipers. It operates the Marine Corps’ premiere scout sniper school. There are three others, at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Okinawa.

The school at Quantico, however, sets the standards and provides the instructors for all the others. Founded in 1977, the school’s first staff NCOIC was the famed sniper, Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II, who was credited with 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam.

In perhaps the most famous incident, Hathcock slowly crawled more than 1,000 meters over open terrain, during a three-day period, to shoot a North Vietnamese general.

To pass along his techniques, the school runs five separate programs of instruction, including basic and advanced courses and various sessions for scout sniper officers, reservists and instructors for the other schools. An estimated 132 enlisted men and officers attend each year.

The basic course lasts nine weeks. Typically, students are recruited from scout sniper platoons throughout the Marine Corps, and must be qualified as expert shots with the M16A2. Representatives from other services—such as Army Rangers, Special Forces, Navy SEALs and British Royal Marines—also attend.

At the school, students sharpen their skills in marksmanship, land navigation, range estimation, observation, camouflage and stalking. They learn to counteract the effects that wind, temperature, light and gravity have upon their shooting.

The mainstay of a scout sniper’s camouflage is the free-flowing ghillie suit, which was developed originally by Scottish gamekeepers, Reidsma said. Typically, a ghillie suit is covered with strips of burlap, netting and other cloth, garnished with natural vegetation, to blend into a woodland, desert or urban terrain, he explained.

“Every scout sniper builds his own,” Reidsma said. “Most show up with their suits already made, and we just touch them up.”

Perhaps the most difficult part of the course is learning to stalk. Students are required to creep within 200 yards of a heavily watched target “without being detected, fire two blank shots and move out,” Reidsma said.

An estimated 50 percent of the students fail to complete the course. “That’s the highest attrition rate of any school in the Marine Corps,” said Staff Sgt. Donald Reig, the school’s chief instructor. The basic reason, he said, is simple: The students just “have to learn a lot of difficult subjects.”

Another major function for the battalion is providing marksmanship training for the service’s officer candidates, who are trained at Quantico. Every year, five cycles of candidates, with 250 in each cycle, come to the battalion’s shooting ranges, said Skeen.

The candidates receive much the same training as enlisted recruits, he said. However, they spend less time with the M16A2, because they also must qualify with the 9 mm pistol, which is issued to officers.

In addition, the battalion conducts a small-arms instructor’s school to prepare non-commissioned officers to teach Marines how to fire rifles, pistols, machine guns—“every infantry weapon in the Marine Corps”—said Skeen.

Such instructors are in great demand because so many need the training, he said. “Every year, 21,000 recruits pass through Parris Island alone,” he said.

To encourage Marines to keep honing their marksmanship skills, the service conducts a competitive shooting program. This is necessary, because “marksman is a deteriorating skill,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Kenneth Roxburgh, staff NCOIC of the Marine Corps Shooting Team.

The Marine Corps established its competitive program in 1901. Shooters from every base in the corps compete to represent the Marines in matches against the other services.

In the past 40 years, Marines have won individual rifle championships a score of times. In 2002, the Marine Forces Japan Rifle Team received the Infantry Team Trophy at the 41st Annual Interservice Rifle Championship, which was held at Quantico.

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