Thursday, February 2, 2012

Extraordinary Snipers

I thought that I was up to speed on this topic of all-time records for snipers (in distance, that is), but one major advance in the art and science of long-range battlefield execution slipped my notice until now.  Partially in my defense though, these milestones always take place in active combat zones, and it would be foolish to publicise such news while the sniper is still in-country.  It takes a while for the news to be posted, when he returns home.

So, the new top sniper is English – Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison of the Household Cavalry (CoH is equivalent to a Sergeant in the traditional arcane British structure).  He achieved his record of 2707 yards near Musa Qala in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in November 2009, when a joint British/Afghan patrol was attacked.  Harrison, who was on a ridge behind the action in an over-watch position, could see a Taliban machine gun crew set up a PKM in a courtyard and take his CO’s vehicle under fire.  Harrison had set up his British L115A3 sniper rifle (.338-calibre or 8.59-mm Lapua) and started to range in on the machine gun crew with the assistance of his spotter, with nine rounds.  This was possible because at that distance the enemy would not be able to see the muzzle flash nor hear the report, and the noise of rounds striking nearby in the bracketing process would be covered by the sounds of battle.  When Harrison went hot with his first shot on target, he struck the gunner in mid-torso.  The assistant gunner began to wrestle the machine gun into a new position, but Harrison hit him with his second shot, striking him in the side.  Both of the enemy were killed instantly.  For good measure, Harrison fired a third round and hit the machine gun, disabling it.  Three shots and three hits at that distance, as if to confirm that the first was not just lucky, usually a factor in these situations.  These remarkable shots were achieved well beyond the rifle’s max effective range of 1640 yards – Harrison said that the conditions were ideal (no wind, clear visibility, good ambient air density at over 3400 feet) and their calculations had him fire “6 feet high and 20 inches to the left”.  At that distance, the round took 2.64 seconds to impact the target.  A car driving at 70 mph would take one minute, 19 seconds to cover the same distance.

Harrison went on to kill 12 more Taliban and wound seven, though not without some cost.  On one occasion an enemy bullet pierced his helmet, and his vehicle was struck by an IED, resulting in both forearms being broken.  He was evacuated back to the UK for convalescence, but insisted on returning to his unit in Afghanistan after only six weeks to resume his duties.

(Regular readers know that I am loathe to divulge information affecting security, but Harrison’s photo has been published in quite a few periodicals in an Army-sanctioned publicity round, an attitude far different from the hand-wringers in the US.)

This new record bests the previous one, also achieved in Afghanistan, by a Canadian – Corporal Rob Furlong of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, in March 2002 in the Shah-i-Kot valley during Operation Anaconda, a multinational assault built around elements of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions, into a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold.  Furlong inserted into the area as part of a five-man Canadian sniper team, and using a Long Range Sniper Weapon (LRSW) .50-calibre McMillan Brothers Tac-50 rifle (Hornady A-MAX 750-gr very-low-drag bullets), they spent the first few days steadily experimenting with engaging targets further and further beyond the rifle’s 1800-yard max effective range.  Furlong eventually detected and engaged an enemy carrying an RPK, with his first round going wide, his second striking his backpack, and the third hitting him mid-torso, killing him.  With a lower muzzle velocity (a .50-calibre round has much more mass than the .338 used by Harrison), it took almost four seconds for each round to strike.  The distance was measured out at 2657 yards.  Again, conditions were ideal, at over 9000 feet altitude.

Ironically, Cpl Furlong beat the previous world record set possibly the day before by Master Corporal Arron Perry, a fellow ‘Patty’ of the PPCLI, at a range of 2526 yards.  For their actions, each of the five-man Canadian team was awarded the Bronze Star by the US Army.  Shortly after making the record-breaking shot, though, the team came under accusations of inappropriate conduct, but “so many conflicting accusations and explanations” made the investigation useless, so no charges were referred.  The experience led them both to leave the service.

Up to that point, the record was held by the famous Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, US Marine Corps, during the Viet Nam War.  There are a number of stories about Hathcock, and they have typically been incorporated in roman á clef fashion among books, television, and movies.  For example, he spent days getting into position for a successful shot against a North Vietnamese general, he tracked down and eliminated a particularly ruthless female Viet Cong sniper, and he killed an enemy sniper by putting a round straight down the enemy’s scope.  He is credited with 93 confirmed kills (normally using an M21, an upgraded version of an M14, 7.62-mm), which based on the rules at the time had to be witnessed by an officer.  Based on that requirement, it is uncertain what his claimed number of total kills would be. 

He set the record for a long range shot in 1967 by utilizing an M-2 Browning .50-calibre machine gun to which he attached a 10X Unertl scope.  Though he made a number of kills in excess of 1000 yards with this method, his best was against a Viet Cong at 2286 yards.  (This method led to the adoption of the .50 BMG cartridge as a sniper round, used in weapons such as the Canadian Tac-50 and the American M82 Barrett.)  Hathcock was literally a legend in his own time, having founded the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School, and he died in 1999 from complications of multiple sclerosis.  His authorised biography is White Feather, after the adornment to his hat that he wore in Viet Nam, which became his nom de guerre

Without trying to take anything from our Commonwealth allies above, their remarkable shots were done with high-quality weapons  and ammunition made for that express purpose, in atmospheric conditions that were ideal.  Hathcock executed his most celebrated long-range hits with the .50-cal using off-the-shelf World War I technology, in a jungle.

Concerning other records, retired US Navy Chief Chris Kyle of SEAL Team 3 has the record for most confirmed kills at 160 (unofficially as many as 255) through four tours in Iraq, making him the ‘deadliest marksman in US military history’.  His longest shot was in 2008 at some 2100 yards, taking out an insurgent approaching a convoy with a rocket launcher.  He has recently published his biography, American Sniper.  I have only perused a few pages so far on the Amazon web page, but the book has raised a mild degree of controversy through his ready admission that he is not bothered one whit by the fact that he has militarily executed enemies of the US who were trying to kill not only Americans but their fellow Iraqis, including and most typically civilians.  The zeitgeist of the Sophisticati is too fragile to consider such Hobbesian (and frankly, natural) sentiment.
We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm. --George Orwell
And at great distance too.

Update:  The weapons web log Weaponsman, whose creator and maintainer is a former US Army Special Forces weapons expert (MOS 18B), provides some very interesting information on sniper training.


  1. If reports reaching these ears are correct, the Brits, along with the French, simply ran out of bombs very early in the recent campaign against Libya, forcing the U. S. to step in with practically no recognition. It's good to see the Brits (and the Canadians, for that matter) do something so very well. The Orwell quote was a boon, as well. Thanks.

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