The Case for Semiautomatic Sniper Rifles – Part I

Snipers traditionally worked in pairs: one shooter, one spotter. Recent experience has forced some changes in that.

Snipers traditionally worked in pairs: one shooter, one spotter. Recent experience has forced some changes in that.

There’s also the matter of time. If a savvy small unit leader has planned ahead, he will have already picked likely hilltops and such on the map, places that might be useful to shoot at his unit. If he has done so, and coordinated with the local artillery battery, they can speed things up. The artillery battery can have the guns laid on each position in sequence, as the infantry unit approaches it. They can have pre-calculated the firing solution and have rounds one step from ready. If he does that (and the artillery unit is willing to go to the constant work involved) he can easily have shells on target starting one minute after calling for fire.

If he hasn’t, but the battery is ready and waiting, and he has a good forward observer, the first ones will hit in three or four minutes, and adjusted and hammered soon after. From a cold start, with guns not registered, and scrambling to re-lay the gun, it can be 10 minutes or more before you have hot steel raining down on your problem du jour.

One minute is a long time, four an eternity. If the Taliban are smart (and at least some of them have to be) then a smart guy will have his ambush team fully trained and instructed. In one minute, an ambusher can have two full belts downrange from each machine gun, two or three rounds from each RPG, and half a dozen or more rounds from a 60mm mortar. And then be packing and boogeying off the ridgeline before the first artillery round is incoming. Four minutes? He’s out of the severe hazard zone, and almost in the next zip code.

Now, there’s one wrinkle for the bad guys in this disparity between safe distance and ordnance: the Spectre gunship. For those who don’t know about it, it came about as an improvement over “Puff the Magic Dragon” in Vietnam. That was a C-47 with a row of machine guns (later, miniguns) pointing out the windows. The pilot would bank around a particular spot, and trigger the guns, and be firing a whole row of machineguns that would pour rounds into the area.

The military is moving from just bolt guns to adding semi-auto (and select-fire) sniper rifles. This is a LWRCI REPR, done up in flat dark earth.

The military is moving from just bolt guns to adding semi-auto (and select-fire) sniper rifles. This is a LWRCI REPR, done up in flat dark earth.

The Spectre is simply a C-130 with miniguns, 25mm, 40mm cannons and a 105mm  howitzer pointing out the left side. And as a vast improvement over the C-47, the C-130 pilot banks but the gun crew use video monitors to precisely refine aim and place shots where they need to be. I have heard from those who have been there that a Spectre can place its shots safely (after all, the distance involved is almost inconsequential by artillery terms) as close at 50 meters. That is, a circling Spectre can put a 105mm shell right through the window of the building across a boulevard from your position.

You’re probably thinking “This means we can drop explosives where we want.” Yes – but. The max speed of a C-130 is 260 knots (299 mph). However, it isn’t going at max while banking and hammering. The speed there (it depends on altitude, gross weight, etc. ) is more like 150-175 mph. Which means it is a big, fat, slow-moving target for surface-to-air missiles. As a result, use of the C-130H and C-130J models are restricted to night-time use in Afghanistan.

Once they figured out there was a gap, the Taliban took advantage of this gap. Inside the artillery or air strike danger zone, but outside of the effective rifle fire, the Taliban had only to worry about belt-fed machineguns, and the 7.62 ones at that. Yes, a sniper rifle would be very helpful, but it isn’t exactly an even match: a bolt-action sniper rifle with a five-round magazine, vs. a belt-fed 7.62, on a tripod, at 800 meters, with belts of ammo ready, and a spotter to call the range.

Again, a semi-auto sniper rifle would be very useful in those instances.

You might be asking “Why not pack the mortars or grenade launchers?” Simple: they weigh a lot and can’t be man-packed across much of a distance.  The M224 60mm mortar, bipod, baseplate, tube and sight weighs  46.5 pounds, and each round weighs 3.75 pounds. The three-man crew can’t carry it and any significant amount of ammo as well. So, if you plan on having a mortar and 20 rounds with you, you have to figure out how to pack an additional 150 pounds, once you account for the mortar and gear, plus the ammo and their packing tubes. (You do not pack bare mortar shells in your gear. Pack it in the storage tubes, or prepare to be shunned by all.)

So you need an additional vehicle to haul the crew and mortar. Or a dedicated mortar team.

Now, imagine a Taliban commander, watching an approaching American convoy of up-armored Humvees. If he knows what the one with the mortar crew looks like, that’s the one he’ll instruct his best machine-gun crew to work over first. If not, as soon as he spots the crew setting up, guess who gets his attention? Ditto the vehicle armed with a Mk 19 grenade launcher. And if the convoy looks too tough, he’ll just let them pass and clobber the next one.

And none of this helps a patrol on foot.

My apologies for giving you so much info on mortars, artillery and such, but I think it is important to understand the context in which the modern sniper works these days.

The US armed forces have been using a semi-auto for a while; the M110, a .308 semi-auto, also known as the Knight’s SR-25, a descendant of the AR-10. While loved by some, it is also the recipient of some criticism. Across the Atlantic, the British recently adopted the L129A1, made by LMT.

Now, the effectiveness of a system is not just a matter of features, specs and cost. Training matters. In many instances, training can matter more than gear. But, being the gearheads we are, we spend a lot of time looking at gear and features.

This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of the Tactical Rifle. In Part II Patrick Sweeney will range test and review some of his favorite semiautomatic sniper rifles. Click here to read Part II

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