A Rifleman At War

by Fred Ray on November 25, 2008 · 6 comments

There’s a lot of ongoing controversy about the effect of the rifle in battle, but there’s no question that in certain times and places an individual rifleman can have a powerful effect. One such example comes to us from Afghanistan:

During the battle, the designated marksman single handedly thwarted a company-sized enemy RPG and machinegun ambush by reportedly killing 20 enemy fighters with his devastatingly accurate precision fire. He selflessly exposed himself time and again to intense enemy fire during a critical point in the eight-hour battle for Shewan in order to kill any enemy combatants who attempted to engage or maneuver on the Marines in the kill zone. What made his actions even more impressive was the fact that he didn’t miss any shots, despite the enemies’ rounds impacting within a foot of his fighting position.

“I was in my own little world,” the young corporal said. “I wasn’t even aware of a lot of the rounds impacting near my position, because I was concentrating so hard on making sure my rounds were on target.”

A word of explanation is in order here about the exploits of this modest rifleman, who declined to be named. First, he was not a sniper but a designated marksman, which is a soldier with an upgraded weapon (in this case, although it’s not identified, an M-14 rifle) who stays with his unit and does not operate separately as a sniper would. In other words he’s a good shot with some extra marksmanship training and a very accurate weapon who’s handy to have around in a firefight. Both the Army and Marines now use designated marksmen, who are in high demand both in urban areas like Iraq and in Afghanistan. Most now use a modified 7.62mm M-14 rifle, which is enjoying a new lease on life, instead of the standard 5.56mm M-16/M-4 series rifle.

The Marine corporal joins the ranks of other distinguished American riflemen like Alvin York (also a corporal when he won his Medal of Honor) and Timothy Murphy. Although he doesn’t quite match York’s record of killing 28 German soldiers in a single engagement, he’s close.

During the last few years, during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, rifle marksmanship has come back into vogue, both as a force protection measure and a way to reduce civilian casualties in built-up areas.

The Civil War equivalent to the designated marksman was the sharpshooter, especially those in the Army of Northern Virginia’s sharpshooter battalions. With a few notable exceptions, most of these men operated as light infantrymen rather than as snipers in the modern sense. Like the Maine corporal mentioned above, they could on occasion be quite deadly. There is an unfortunate tendency today to characterize any rifleman as a “sniper” whether he actually acts like one or not. In fact, if the Army and Marines were to combine their designated riflemen into distinct units, they’d have something very much like what the Confederates came up with in the 1860s.

One of the arguments made in the 1850s against the use of long-range rifles with adjustable sights (and repeated today) was that in the smoke and confusion of combat a rifleman would never have the necessary sang-froid to adjust the sights for long range shots. That may have been true of the average line infantryman, but it’s also obvious from reading the accounts that some men were “cool” enough to do it, particularly when in a position, as behind breastworks, where they were not in great danger.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig November 26, 2008 at 9:25 am

I sense you are making the case that today’s military does not emphasize marksmanship in training. If that is the case, allow me to make some personal observations.

First, Army manuals dating from the 70s, 80s, and 90s all place a heavy emphasis on marksmanship and, importantly, ranged fires. Under standard qualification, as in for all units regardless of tactical mission, soldiers are required to qualify on targets ranged between 50 and 300 meters. That’s regardless if you turn a wrench, cook chilimac, or kick in doors for a living. At no time were we trained on any automatic “spray and pray” firing techniques. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed, over the span of a 12 year service time, to live fire (not blanks that’s another story) in full auto mode with an M-16. All individual weapons were zeroed out to 250 meters as a standard. We all had to record our adjustments to the sights for reference. To this day I recall my “battle sight zero” adjustments from mechanical zero.

Second, the infantry units I served with in the 1990s were required, based on training evaluation standards and doctrine, to take that all a notch further. ALL riflemen were expected to qualify expert on the qualification tables mentioned above (38 out of 40, if memory serves). Training to ranges out past that 300 meters was common and regulated.

Third, a line Infantry company had, by table of organization, an allotment of M-14s. I’m certain there was some official basis of issue, say to the TOE slotted “sniper” per platoon. In practice, those were issued based on the commander’s discretion. Those issued the M-14 were considered the best shots in the company, and were treated by their peers accordingly.

Often those individuals issued the M-14 were sent to “Division Sniper School.” I was privileged to attend such at one stage in my service. As you alluded to in your post, the school was not designed to train us as traditional “snipers” acting alone on the battlefield, but rather more so as designated “sharpshooters” operating in support of the section, squad, or platoon.

I would submit the use of designated “marksmen” is an established trend and dates back at least to WW II if not further. The theme I saw applied in the 1990s was that “all” infantrymen should be sharpshooters, not just a select few. Then again, the military budget was cut to the bones in those years, so maybe we were just looking to save on bullets!


Fred Ray November 26, 2008 at 7:29 pm

Thanks for the update, Craig. Now as an Old Soldier (60s-70s version, who used to run rifle ranges) I can tell you that “spray & pray” pretty much used to be the norm in the Vietnam era, and the the emphasis on individual marksmanship is fairly recent. Which is good.

Don’t know when the Army decided to reissue the M-14 and use designated marksmen but the program definitely doesn’t go back much further than the 90s.

Had a chance last year to talk at Fort Benning and discussed that with a couple of folks, who agreed that marksmanship is back.


Craig November 30, 2008 at 9:37 am

I don’t think the M-14 was ever “out of service” with the Army. I have MTOE documents dating to the 1980s which specifically carry that line item for an infantry company.

Regarding marksmanship training, when I went through basic in the mid 1980s, that was indeed the order of the day. We were trained almost exclusively by Vietnam era NCOs (we were in reverence of their combat patches, let me tell you).

All of the manuals of instruction for which we used (later when I was an officer in the 1990s) for qualification were dated from the 1980s or the 1970s in some cases.

One of the most striking personal recollections with regard to training I have is an old line 1st SGT stating, “if you and I are in a foxhole together, and we only have one magazine each, I want to know you’ll hit thirty of thirty.”

Again, I think the standard was there. It was commonly enforced as a training standard. The documentary evidence supports that thought, at least in the “Air-Land Battle Doctrine” army of the 1980s. Perhaps the most telling support for the emphasis on marksmanship is that “Expert” tag on my qualification badge. Earned, by the way, at the same range that my father completed his basic training (Fort Leonard Wood), on a qualification lane not far from a guy named Elvis Presley.

Sure, its not a fancy range finder, but it was awarded for marksmanship against a set of ranged targets. I’d dare say that shows a connection back to the 1960s!


Mark Kucinic December 6, 2008 at 1:13 am

Speaking as another Vietnam era vet the “spray and pray” method was actually part of the marksmanship qualification in basic training, counted for 20% of your score, and consisted of firing a 12/15 round clip on full automatic at a target 50/75 yds downrange (these were pre-metric days) at night on an unlit range. Up to that point I had the best score in the company and was eyeing a coveted weekend pass, but my “prayers” went unanswered although I still got an expert badge at the lowest possible score. A little over a year later in a company of clerks stationed stateside (very low priority on the armaments scale) the only thing we had for firing qualification were M-14s which we did without the night firing. Having qualified as expert in both I’ve gotta say that up to 300 yds both weapons are sufficiently accurate although I’m sure the .30 caliber does better at longer ranges with less effect from the wind.


Tyson February 10, 2009 at 4:41 am

I agree with Craig. I have served in the Army infantry for ten years. I am a recipent of the Combat Infantry Badge. Rifle marksmanship was a serious focus when I came in and has continued to be so right through the war in Afgahnistan and Iraq. As the battlefield has closed in and become 3D the Army rifleman has had to focus not only on long range and prone firing at targets generally to their front, but also on rapid and reflexive fire at close range targets in all directions and elevations. One reason for the use of supporting arms like aircraft and artillery is to shape a battlefield and try to keep enemy soldiers in front of our soldiers. The guerrilla tactics of our enemys over the last 50 years or so has limited their effect. And the result has been an American infantrymen just as interested in fast and accurate shooting as his grandfather would have been in the jungles of New Guniea or defending the Pusan perimeter, or patrolling a muddy trail in search of an allusive enemy in the Ashau valley. Furthermore a great deal of the men I have encountered in the U.S. Army and Marines are true students of rifle marksmanship and by extension the crafts that must accompany it in combat. Camoflage, movement, timing and a firm understanding of suppressive fire and its use in a fight. Most own their own weapons and practice with them often. No ammount of peactime training can ever quite prepare a rifleman for war but true familiarity with ones personal weapon is about as valuable thing an infantryman can possess in war. You just never know when you might need it on a battlefield. Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Franklin Miller refers to his rifle as his business card in his book and suggests you beg for Gods help if your business card didn’t work when it was time to use it. Modern examples of effective American riflery include Somalia where just over 100 Army Rangers and Special Forces operators waged a desperate battle against thousands of Somali militiamen for 18 hours and killed over a thousand of them. They had no fire support and limited air support during the battle.
More recently Army soldiers in Najaf Iraq were able to turn that city into a shooting range for 2 weeks, they were heavily supported by air and artillery strikes and because they had managed to focus the enemy fighters into a narrow part of the city, they put on a show with their high tech optics and rapid firing machine guns and rifles, killing hundreds of Iraqi fighters and losing less then 12 of their own men. The American rifleman is indeed still a feared warrior on the modern battlefield. The focus on marksmanship has been no small part of this. If all our bombs and high tech weapons were used up the American Army Infantryman and Marine would still be among the best trained marksmen on earth and therefore still dangerous fighters.

A word on automatic fire in the military. I suspect that the lack of rapid fire training in the Army has more to do with the budget then the effectivness of that type of firing. A rifleman firing his weapon on automatic or burst has its time and place in combat. And usually those times and places mean the difference between life and death. But neither are the prefered method for any serious soldier. Instead they should represent one more tool in the box of survival for our soldiers to have. Controlled firing is usually far more deadly then “spray and pray” and besides the platoon machine guns and belt fed automatic riflemen should be handling the rapid firing and for that matter most of the killing. It is when you have a particularly clever or well hidden enemy that the individual rifleman saves the day. He is lighter and more manueverable and often a more experienced or rugged soldier anyway. Capable of the heroics required in those situations. And he is often good enough to direct the support weapons in such a way that he can manipulate the enemy into his gunsights. And he must be an athlete. Capable of carrying the vast ammounts of ammunition required by his hungry weapon. And be able to manuever it around the battlefiled inflicting punishment without becoming to fatigued. Good automatic fire rifle training is the key to the best possible use of that ammunition and weight. Men should be trained to be masters of their weapons in all settings and firing modes.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: