The Case for Semiautomatic Sniper Rifles – Part I

For fast follow-up shots, a bolt gun loses every time to a self-loader. Here, they’re just watching suspicious activity on Highway 1 in Zabul Province. DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army.

For fast follow-up shots, a bolt gun loses every time to a self-loader. Here, they’re just watching suspicious activity on Highway 1 in Zabul Province. DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army.

The classic image we have of snipers is that of a lone shooter, or one with a steady companion, waiting in silence in a jungle, or in a ruined building, peering through a scope. Watching patiently, he finally sees his quarry pause, and squeezing the trigger, makes the shot from an impossible distance – so far away that those around the now-retired target don’t know which direction the shot came from, or where to direct their response.

I had a Special Forces trained sniper once tell me “life begins at the triple zero.” Meaning, it was best to work at 1,000 yards or more.

This image has so distorted the reality that just getting things done properly became a problem. For instance, the classic Army and USMC sniper rifle was a Remington bolt gun, called the M40 in the Corps, and the M24 in the Army, chambered in .308. On top was a scope of 10X, 10 power, with a mil-dot ranging reticle in it. With it, the school-trained snipers could estimate range (using the surveying ability of the mil-dot reticle) and poke holes in targets out as far as the bullet was stable. (More on that in a bit.)

Join and Get FREE Digital Issues of Tactical Gear Magazine!

Well, when it came time for the police to adopt some kind of counter-sniper rifle, and training, guess what they used as their base? Yes, the .308 bolt gun with 10X scope. Now take a guess, a wild guess, at the average distance of police counter-sniper shots? I’ll wait while you ponder the question. Ready? 53 yards. That’s right, the maximum distance we used to be shooting handguns at, and some still do, is the average for a scoped rifle, from a rest for police. Now, imagine what the field of view is through a 10X scope at 53 yards. Pretty small.

Why such a short distance? A few things: for one, most distances in urban areas just aren’t that far apart. Oh, you can see a building 600 yards away, but SWAT isn’t going to set up a perimeter that far out. They haven’t the manpower. Second, no police chief, sheriff, SWAT commander or watch commander who has to say yes or no to a shot (commonly referred to as “the green light”) is going to give the nod to anything other than a last-moment shot, at the closest possible range. Picking someone off at 600 yards would be quickly followed by a raft of lawsuits (which are going to happen anyway, things being what they are in the modern world) and pilloried for the decision.

Now, that is not always the case. The Texas Tower incident, where Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the bell tower on the U-T/Austin campus, was a long-range affair. He was on the 29th floor observation deck, and he made successful shots out past 400 yards. His efforts were greatly hampered by the residents going home, getting hunting rifles, and returning fire. (I cannot imagine such a thing happening today. The first police to arrive then, joined in.

Today, they’d be arresting those firing back, even if it meant getting shot by the “guy in the tower.” Such is modern life.) But back to the modern police and military perspective: What if you, the police precision marksman, need a follow-up shot? Well, for the military shooter, planning on whacking a general at 1,000+ yards, “follow-up” is anything they do before the chopper picks them up. For a police officer, follow-up is what you need to do before the felon falls to the ground, and still tries to fire the weapon he has in his hands.

When we went into Iraq, things seemed to go as planned. In the wide-open spaces, long range was desired, and snipers were expected to work as they normally would. But one of the things a lot of critics don’t seem to get about combat is the interactive nature of it. It isn’t like a video game, where “level seventeen” is always the same.

The police took their lead from the military, and it is a good thing the Barrett wasn’t in use when the police started.

The police took their lead from the military, and it is a good thing the Barrett wasn’t in use when the police started.

A lot of those who think we can create peace, love and understanding by means of talk, good intentions and proper PR seem to think that combat (or law enforcement, for that matter) is like a video game. If you know what will happen on level 17, then you can cruise right through. And each time you have to go through 17 on the way to 18, 19 and 20, the “bad guys” in level 17 will do the same thing. I can only imagine that people with such a child-like view of the world have never even experienced so much as a fistfight in the grade school playground.

Combat is more like football: you go in with a plan. If it works, you keep doing it. If it doesn‘t, you change. If the other guy finds what he’s doing isn’t working, he’ll change. Oh, in the case of a lot of the insurgents, they refused to change, and got shot for their efforts. Ideology, political or religious, can prevent change. But once the stupid or stubborn ones are killed off (and let’s be clear and blunt about this; we’re talking combat) then those that are left will change. Adapt. Find what works, or at least works better.

Which is what happened in Iraq. After standing up and slugging it out, the bad guys figured out that IEDs worked better. So, they started setting bombs. Our guys adapted by changing the doctrine of how snipers worked.

Previously, snipers worked in two-man teams. (And, lest you think I’m revealing state secrets, this is common knowledge amongst those who pay attention.) They worked for commanders higher in the food chain than platoon or company commanders.

Join Tactical Gear Network. Get Free Digital Issues of Tactical Gear;
Get FREE DIGITAL Issues of Tactical Gear Magazine When You Join this Network!

Join Tactical Gear Now »

Even battalion honchos were out of the loop at times. Snipers early on were viewed as being just as valuable if they saw and reported good intel as they were if they whacked bad guys. A sniper who is “working for” the regimental commander won’t even have a way to talk to the company commander whose area he’s “hunting in.” Barring an emergency, or a need to not get shot at by his own guys, the sniper would not even talk to, or be known to, the company commander.

The Iraqi-based bad guys started setting IEDs, and snipers went out with the idea of getting into a good “hide” and either shooting or reporting on the bomb setters. Well, when you’re out there on your own, two-man teams are less than optimal. In fact, they’re stupid. Two guys can’t watch the possible bomb sites and simultaneously watch their own backs. And if the bad guys come for them (someone spotted them, someone figured out the likely locations for hides, etc.) two guys can’t hold off more than a handful of attackers. Especially if one of them has a bolt-action M40/24.

Because bolt guns are slow. Oh, a trained bolt-gunner can fire 10 aimed shots in 70 seconds at Camp Perry, but that didn’t help. You see, school-trained snipers aren’t trained to work a bolt as if they were on the line at Perry. And 70 seconds is forever. If a team shows up to set a bomb, you want to bag them all, not just one or two. A bolt-gunner can get one, maybe two if they are far from cover. If someone has you under fire from an adjacent building while their buddies are assaulting up the staircase that is your exit, 70 seconds may be the rest of your life.  As a result, there is a big push in the services for a semi-automatic sniper rifle and for bigger sniper teams.