As the first target pops up during the new Army Rifle Qualification Test, the U.S. Military Academy cadets taking part fire one round each before immediately dropping into an unsupported prone position.
There, they fire nine more times before reloading and switching to a supported prone position with their weapons resting on a sandbag. Ten shots and a magazine change later, they rise into a kneeling position behind a green barrier before finishing the test back in the standing position. From first contact to final shot, the entire test takes about four minutes. In that time, the shooters fire from four different positions, change magazines three times and eliminate 40 “enemies” at distances up to 300 meters.
The new test is a drastic change from the old rifle qualification standards, which could take 10-15 minutes, said Maj. Nicholas Alexander, the officer in charge of basic rifle marksmanship during Cadet Summer Training.
The purpose of the new test, he added, is to simulate the movements Soldiers will undergo when reacting to contact during a combat situation, whereas the previous test was static and gave the shooter time between each position.
After the first target pops up and the shooter returns fire, they then begin seeking cover. As they progress to the kneeling supported and new standing supported positions, they shoot from behind a barrier to emphasize the need to stay covered and engage the enemy from a protected position. The shooters now also have to count their rounds in order to know when to reload and the fire control commands have been adjusted to better match orders that will be given in the field.
“In the event that you go into combat, a target or an enemy combatant pops up, you have to engage that target and immediately start moving to more covered positions prior to engaging additional targets,” Alexander said. “It forces the Soldier and the cadet to kind of work through that problem as well as the basic fundamentals of rifle marksmanship — changing magazines, changing positions and then also engaging targets at multiple different rates and distances.”
The new testing guidelines were published by the Army in July 2019 and will be fully implemented throughout the Army in October. On July 23, Class of 2023 cadets taking part in Cadet Field Training became the first West Point cadets to take the new test following a four-day train-up process.
Prior to conducting the test on the range, the cadets went through pre-marksmanship instruction to refamiliarize them with the fundamentals of how to handle their rifle as their only previous experience was during Cadet Basic Training last summer. They then simulated the process of zeroing their rifle and the test itself using an engagement skills trainer before zeroing their actual rifle and finally conducting the test itself.
“I think it calms you down,” said Class of 2023 Cadet Sayler Butters, CFT 1st Company, of the multiple day train-up before the test. “I think especially (if) you haven't shot in a year. Some people don't shoot a lot in general, me being one of those people. It definitely gets you more comfortable with your weapon.”
Alexander said they conducted the deliberate preparation process because the multiple movements and quicker pace make the new test more challenging than the previous standard, although the actual qualification standards haven’t changed. To qualify as a marksman, shooters must hit at least 23 of the 40 targets. Sharpshooter requires 30 hits and expert requires hitting at least 36.
On the first day of shooting, 152 of the 158 cadets taking part posted a qualifying score with 27 shooting expert and 89 reaching sharpshooter. The total includes cadets going through CFT and also cadre members.
“It's definitely difficult because if you miss one step in between, like sometimes I forget to ride my bolt forward and then I'm stuck,” Butters, who shot a 31, said. “So, you have to really keep your head and remember each step kind of like slow is fast. You really want to make sure that you’re going through load the mag, ride the bolt forward, put the selector switch on semi and then shoot.”
Alexander said much like the Army Combat Fitness Test, the new rifle qualification test replaces an old test with a more complicated version that is designed to test Soldiers on functions they must perform during combat. Also like the ACFT, the rifle test calls for an extensive train-up process to make sure participants are ready for the new process.
After going through the new qualification test for two iterations, Class of 2021 Cadet Trevin Kozlowski, who is a member of the CFT cadre, said he can already see how it will pay dividends as he pursues a career as an infantry officer.
“This, in terms of combat scenarios, is way more effective,” Kozlowski, who shot a 26 the first time and a 32 on his second try, said. “Just the opportunity to take that first shot standing up and immediately get into the prone unsupported position, that simulates going on patrol. You take contact, you return fire, you get down and you engage the enemy. So, by having that scenario, you can emulate that here at this qualifying range.”