The Case for Semiautomatic Sniper Rifles – Part I

In the mountains, where you might need range, a .308 rifle can be quite useful, Here Spc Rockwell scans the ridgeline. DoD photo by Spc. Eric Cabral, U.S. Army.

In the mountains, where you might need range, a .308 rifle can be quite useful, Here Spc Rockwell scans the ridgeline. DoD photo by Spc. Eric Cabral, U.S. Army.

You see, the bad guys were no dummies. An IED wasn’t just a-guy-with-a-shovel-and-a-satchel affair. Proper location mattered. So, once they’d scouted out a good spot, there would be a team on the job: the explosives expert (or what passed for one, given the time and place), the digger or diggers, the security team, spotters and so on. Anywhere from four to 10 guys. Clearly, it would be expeditious to bag all of them. That way, the skilled/experienced ones will be removed from the lists, to be replaced by less-experienced ones. Also, it becomes a lot more difficult to recruit new bomb-team members, if each time a team gets “made” they all get shot.

Now, on the sniper end of things, it becomes more difficult and involved. First, you can’t send out just a two-man team. Once things shifted to a sniper-vs.-bombers basis sending two-man teams out was a good way of ensuring they didn’t come back.

So, it became a team job. A team would be three or more pairs of sniper-spotters with another handful of security members. You could have a dozen men trying to sneak through the streets, set up, and watch unobserved, to cover a likely bomb area or areas. The bigger the group, the more difficult it was to insert the team and pass unnoticed. And the team needed a bigger area, as you couldn’t just pack a dozen guys (and all their gear) into a small corner room of an apartment building.

The snipers also had another problem: gear. If you’re going to whack bad guys at distance, you need a bolt gun with a 10X scope. (And remember, the guys doing this were limited to the tools in inventory. No fair in saying “they should have been using XYZ rifle. The government didn’t have any.) But an M24 is not what you need if the team gets spotted on the way in and you find yourself in a fight to extricate yourselves from the mess. For that you need an M4. So, what to do? Pack everything? An M24, ammo, spotting scope, shooting mat, etc. and an M4 with a go-bag full of loaded magazines? Even if you’re a twenty-something trooper in peak physical condition, that’s a lot of stuff to be humping.

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So a semi-auto sniper rifle becomes very attractive. Especially if you can swap uppers. For the insertion part, you’d be cat-footing in with a 14.5-inch .308 rifle and an Aimpoint or EOTech on it. The short length and the no-magnification optics mean you’d be using a fast and nimble hammer on the tangos across the street, the ones who stumbled into your team while you were heading to the objective. If you don’t get spotted and you make it to your intended area, you have time to set up. Once in place, you take that upper off, and pull the 20-incher with 10X scope upper out of your rucksack. Now you’re set to get the job done at 600 yards and more.

Extending the magazine of a bolt action only delays the inevitable: it will always fall behind a self-loader for repeat shots.

Extending the magazine of a bolt action only delays the inevitable: it will always fall behind a self-loader for repeat shots.

Now, this is not a problem that is new. When the repeating rifle with smokeless powder, was new, suddenly riflemen had range. They could dependably hit a man-sized target at impressive distances (on the target range, anyway) compared to what the black powder rifles of the time could do.

As a result, rifles were set up for distance. Common military sights of the time, when set at their lowest setting, would produce bullet impacts 6 to 8 to 10 inches over the point of aim at 100 yards. The idea was simple: hold your sights on the belt buckle of the opposing soldier, and at any distance out to combat maximum, in some cases well past 400 yards, you’d get a hit. Beyond that, you’d then adjust your sights for range.

In WWI, with the trenches 100 yards apart or so, you have to figure a lot of soldiers were guessing as to how much under they had to hold, to get a hit.

Even in WWII, with a lot of wide-open areas, most engagements were at relatively close distances. Much sniper work was done in the ruins of the various cities on the Eastern Front, as the Soviets pushed the Germans back. Even when the fight was in the wide open steppes, the shots were often just a few hundred yards or less, since the first order of getting a decisive shot is to spot the target. If you can’t see him, you can’t shoot him.  It is rare that range becomes the only issue in the mix of variables.

In another instance of the interactive nature of combat, Major Thomas Ehrhart in his monograph “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan” reports on the adaptation of the Taliban combatants. The average US soldier is not trained to shoot beyond 300 meters.

That’s the maximum distance of the computer-controlled pop-up targets he or she shoots at. (Marines shoot on ranges longer than that, but only to 500 meters.) Worse yet, since a soldier only gets 20 rounds for 20 targets in the qual course, they are routinely told to ignore the 300- and 275-meter targets and save those shots for the closer targets to ensure a hit, and thus a passing score. (Passing is 12 out of 20, or 24 out of 40), so a Taliban at 400 meters is relatively safe from most Army shooters.

The minimum distance at which artillery, air strikes, naval gunfire (probably not an issue in Afghanistan) or a Spectre gunship can fire is not as close as you’d think. As a courtesy to those providing indirect fire support, the requester will mention when things are particularly troublesome at the moment, with bad guys at a close range: the fire request will include the term “danger close.” Basically that means “For what you’re sending, we’re at or inside the minimum safe distance the field manual calls for. Please be careful.”

How close is “close?” Well, the calculated minimum (it involves the average dispersion of fired rounds, the distance fired, the standard deviation of fragment spread and distance traveled, and for all I know, the phase of the moon) are listed in various field manuals. What I’ve been advised are working distances are as follows:

M203 & Mk19 100 meters
60mm mortars 200 meters
81mm mortar 300 meters
120mm mortar 600 meters
105mm 750 meters
155 & larger 1,000 meters

You’ll note that while the organic firepower that a squad, platoon or company might posses will cover past the 300 meter range, the larger stuff leaves a gap. Also be aware of a small detail, but an important one: the minimum safe distance depends to a certain degree on the distance to the artillery battery, i.e., time of flight.

The longer a projectile is in the air, the longer air currents can work on it. A mortar firing “charge zero” (the minimum the things will fly) will be dropping shells only a hundred yards or more downrange. For that, “danger close” could be 20 yards, if you really trust the mortar gunner to know his stuff. Time of flight is just a few seconds. A big gun, such as a 155mm, or an eight-inch howitzer, can have a flight time of more than a minute at their maximum range. For that transit time, you want to have them start far out, and work their way closer.

Now, the calculated safe minimum instance, and the one actually in effect by careful troops who are depending on well-trained support is a lot less. But you still won’t see 155s coming in on a hilltop 5-600 meters away, not on a regular basis, not first rounds, and not unless it is a real emergency.