Berry Benson, How Much Shooting, and The Sniper’s War

by Fred Ray on January 29, 2017 · 0 comments

Joe Bilby has another excellent article in American Rifleman on Confederate sharpshooter Berry Benson.

I first saw the monument in downtown Augusta, Ga., in 1966, as a young second lieutenant at nearby Fort Gordon. It was an impressive sight, and even though I was a Yankee from New Jersey, I was drawn to it. Statues of four Confederate generals, including the expected icons Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, along with lesser-known Georgians Thomas R. Cobb and William H.T. Walker, supported the base of a tall column topped by a figure of a lone infantryman at rest, a rifle in his hands. At the time I didn’t know that soldier was Berry Benson or, indeed, even who Berry Benson was. And then I left for Vietnam and my own war. Years later, while researching the Civil War and its small arms, I came across the story of Berry Benson and his Enfield rifle. And quite a story it was.

A frequent topic is discussions of the Late Unpleasantness is just how much marksmanship training the average soldier got while in the army. An oft-repeated factoid is that most had never fired their rifle prior to entering their first battle. This was certainly true in some cases, notably for the Union regiments hurriedly raised in the late summer of 1862 after the big defeats earlier that year. Some were in action six weeks later at Antietam, and yes, they’d never fired their rifles. However, this was not the norm for either side and soldiers did have some experience firing their weapons, although it varied greatly from regiment to regiment. There does not seem to have been any sort of army-wide standard, and in practice it was pretty much up to individual regimental commanders.

How does that compare with what we have today? American Rifleman recently ran another very interesting article on some of the problems with implementing marksmanship standards for the war in Afghanistan, where long-range engagements (400+ yards) are the norm.

Even with competent riflemen, long-range engagements very seldom equal the sniper’s “one shot, one kill” mantra. Clint Smith, proprietor of Thunder Ranch, has trained special operations personnel for decades. He said, “Even with good riflemen, first round hits beyond 400 yards probably drop off about 50 percent for each hundred yards.” That figure tracks with observations from other highly experienced instructors such as John Pepper. A Korean War infantry veteran and inventor of the Pepper Popper target, he said, “In combat, maybe one soldier in 10 will look at his sights and control the trigger.”

I rather doubt that this has changed much since the Civil War, even given that rifles and sights are now much better, the smoke less, and the bullets much flatter-shooting.

… Maj. Gen. Merritt Edson, USMC, a Distinguished Rifleman who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal. He later became executive director of NRA, and during the Korean War he said that the military could not be expected to teach lifesaving marksmanship skills to every soldier or Marine. His advice: If parents wanted their son to have the best chance to survive combat, see that he learns to shoot a rifle as a boy.

Again, just as true now as in WWII or Korea, or any war for that matter. It’s probably true that we had more men in the Civil War, particularly in the Southern ranks, who had grown up on a farm and shot regularly.

So how much should a modern soldier shoot?

According to the Army standards and training manual, PAM 350-38 (2009 version), a Regular Army light infantryman should fire about 1,200 rounds a year, assuming he participates in everything: basic marksmanship, day-night qualification, unit live-fire exercises, shooting in NBC gear, thermal and infrared (IR) sights, etc. His Guard and Reserve colleague should expend 660 rounds. But interviews show that almost nobody comes remotely close to that figure.

In short, other things on the training schedule take priority. And for National Guard and Reserve troops, who have only 48 days a year to train, it’s just impossible. The situation is bad enough that soldiers sometimes go to private ranges on their own time to keep up their proficiency. It gets worse:

In 2005 at Fort Sill, Okla., a deploying helicopter company was unable to qualify with most arms. Said former Warrant Officer Dave Long, “We didn’t have enough pistol ammunition, so we ran around with our Berettas, going ‘bang-bang.’ Although we’re an aviation unit, we had to train for convoy escort but there was no training ammo for the .50 calibers or Mark 19 grenade launchers. So we did like Sgt. Rock, going ‘budda-budda.’ It was laughable and pointless.”

For would-be historians the lesson is clear—don’t rely on just the published materials, because the units involved may or may not be able to meet those standards. Training constraints and other priorities frequently interfere. Thus it was that in early 1864, prior to the beginning of the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac felt it necessary to issue an order that all soldiers fire at least a few rounds for familiarization.

Finally, Maj. John Plaster (Ret.), who is one of the foremost modern authorities on sniping, looks at the modern sniper’s war in Afghanistan.


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