FORT HOOD, Texas -- When you think of the M1A2 Abrams and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, stealth does not come to mind. They do not glide, they rumble. They do not avoid obstacles; they maneuver through them. They do not poke holes, they pulverize. The large, heavy metal vehicles evoke power and strength, but they require a crew and a master of its weapon's systems to be lethal.
Wielding these mighty armored vehicles are crews of four Soldiers: a commander, driver, gunner, and loader. It takes knowledge, training and repetition to become proficient for the battlefield. It also requires support, motivation, and mentorship to mold these Soldiers into experienced crews.
The key to the success of these crews is the master gunner. They are the technical and tactical experts for their weapon's platform. The master gunner advises the commander on everything related to the vehicle platform and weapon's system. They also develop training materials to conduct gunnery and live-fire exercises.
"I rely on my master gunners. I probe them for information based on how best to maintain our weapons as well as train our crews," said Capt. Kevin Zhang, commander for Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "They are there every step of the way from the time we put those crews together until the time we qualify them through Table 12."
Developing capabilities and skills takes place on and off the range under the tutelage of the master gunner. Crews qualify through progressive steps called Training Tables. These tables begin with learning primary weapons utilization, training on the tank or Bradley, performing simulations proficiently, to ultimately qualifying with live rounds while engaging moving and stationary targets on the range.
To earn the title Master Gunner, a Soldier must graduate from one of the master gunner courses provided at Fort Benning, Ga. The master gunners at 2ABCT are trained for either the Master Gunner M1/M1A2 Tank or Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle Master Gunner.
Staff Sgt. Sean New, Brigade Bradley Master Gunner for 2ABCT, 1CD, said the Master Gunner School is the most academically challenging in the Army and it takes a lot of tenacity to pass your course. The class he recently attended began with 68 students. He is one of 14 who graduated.
"You have to have that drive every single day," he said. "It's three months of waking up at 4 a.m. and studying until midnight. Then the next day you wake up at 4 a.m., and you study until midnight. Saturday when you do not have school, you wake up at 4 a.m. and study till midnight."
The course is very comprehensive. Taking the master gunner candidates through intensive instruction on every aspect of the weapon systems. Including utilizing the weapon, troubleshooting malfunctions, ammunition capabilities and how the weapons affect specific enemy vehicles.
They also learn how to plan and execute range operations, develop scenarios for targetry regarding where to place targets and at what distances. They are trained to be the subject matter expert on how to qualify individual crews through brigade-size elements during live-fire exercises.
"Master gunners are trained in methodology," explained Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Quarberg, Brigade Master Gunner for Tanks for 2ABCT, 1CD. "What it boils down to is knowing the standard and being that person in the unit to enforce the standard, and to make sure that people are qualifying correctly and are adhering to all the standards that are outlined in the regulation. We're also experts in current gun maintenance so we can troubleshoot and fix a lot of problems and issues that may occur at the range, on the spot, instead of having to fall back to unit mechanics."
Soldiers interested in becoming a master gunner can attend the SABOT Academy to prepare them. The 1st Cavalry Division runs a school on Fort Hood to expose potential candidates to the basic study habits and common core classes the student will need for future enrollment in the official school at Fort Benning.
"It helps leaders and units identify who is a good candidate now and who is a maybe later candidate with more work," said New. "A lot of units use it to build an order of merit list for instance, so the guys on top (at SABOT Academy) can have a good success rate for going to master gunner school or those who did not perform well, either need to work on it more or move on to something else."
Once the Soldier is a qualified master gunner, they become that subject matter expert a company commander relies upon with confidence.
"I rely on the noncommissioned officers a lot for many things in the company, but the master gunners take that to the extreme regarding gunnery especially. As a company commander you rely on them to give you the expert advice on how to best employ those weapon systems," said Zhang. "Here at gunnery, they give you real-time feedback on how to best train your crews and how you are getting the maximum amount of performance out of them. And give you that daily and minute by minute feedback on how your crews are doing."
Master gunners stay engaged throughout the gunnery. Observing from the tower to a few feet from the vehicle, they have a long list of responsibilities to keep their eyes on. Their guidance extends from the movement of the vehicles, gate guard placement, ammunition distribution, when the weapons fire, to making sure the after-action review is administered correctly and for the benefit of the crews.
"Everything that takes place on a gunnery range is the master gunner responsibility," concluded New. "We have oversight of everything that happens."
The Soldiers are the ones who benefit from a committed master gunner who provides support, motivation, and mentorship to mold them into experienced crews.
"Master gunners are a wealth of information. The knowledge that he poses on the gun and ballistics, the measurements within tolerance and things of that nature, things that I do not even understand yet at my age and experience that he's been teaching me is just astronomical," commented Sgt. Kevin Burzesi, a tank commander for Battle Company, 1-8 CAV. "The more you know about these tanks, and the more lethal you are, the better you can fight the tank if an issue arises."