HAMMELBURG, Germany - They are some of the most lethal Soldiers in the world. And they are woven of a tight-knit fabric unlike the rest of us. Their bond transcends nationality and knows no service branch, no language barrier, no particular army. At least that's the indication from the 12 German and five American snipers sharpening their skills together and trading best practices during a recent three-week sniper training course here.
The combined training, organized by both German and American Army officials, brings together the two groups at the infantry school, or Infanterieschule - the only one in all of Germany and located just 30 kilometers west of the U.S. Army garrison in Schweinfurt.
"A sniper is a sniper, no matter what army," said a German senior sniper instructor without cracking a smile. He spoke behind a 6'6" frame, dark shades and a waxed Rollie Fingers mustache and only wished to comment on condition of anonymity.
"The sniper community is very small, very tight-knit and we take pride in our skill identifier," said Sgt. Bryan Crowder, a visiting instructor from Fort Benning's acclaimed sniper school. "We're smaller than the Ranger community."
In the German military, the standards are just as rigorous. The sniper school only accepts candidates who have passed a four-week course within their battalions, according to the school's commander, Capt. Falko Reisser. And even then, only about 30 to 50 percent of those graduate from the sniper school at Hammelburg, Reisser added.
The more narrow a shared skill, it seems, the stronger the bond that unites a group who possess it. So it comes as no surprise then that both German and American snipers treat each other as brothers. They can all nail a golf ball-size target between 500 and 1,000 meters, something few other Soldiers in either the U.S. Army or the Bundeswehr can claim to do.
The 17 snipers' work during the three-week course serves different immediate targets. For the Germans, all of whom are bound for Afghanistan, it is a pre-deployment refresher. For the Americans, it is an opportunity to sharpen their skills.
"The benefit is being able to shoot other weapons, and being able to shoot more," said Spc. Matthew Poletiek of C Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. "We get more training time here and pick up on different techniques."
Both German and American snipers share many practices, one of which is the two-man sniper teams dispatched by their various battalions. U.S. Army research indicates that sniper teams of two, as opposed to the traditional one-man team, are more likely to successfully engage their targets, according to Maj. Nathan Hurt, the American liaison between the U.S. Army and the school at Hammelburg.
There's the shooter, of course. And then there's the spotter who is typically the more experienced of the two, according to Fort Benning instructor Sgt. Crowder. The spotter, at arm's length from the shooter, provides detailed information on climate conditions, elevation, wind and data on previous engagement, or DOPE. Like a pilot and his co-pilot, the relationship between the two is a matter of life and death.
"You have to have the guy's dialect down because time is always going to be an issue," said Sgt. Shiloh Briggs with C Troop, 1-91. "You need someone who is intelligent and able to perform under pressure. The probability is that you have only one shot and the spotter has your life in his hands."
Beyond the tight relationships between shooter and spotter are those forged between Germans and Americans. The focus of the dual training has been at recognizing the overlap in similarities and closing the gap between the differences.
"The ultimate goal here is to create snipers who are capable of operating in a coalition environment with our allies," said Maj. Hurt. "The goal is interoperability."
Times have changed in the past several decades, explained Hurt. While both U.S. and German forces had to be prepared to combat the Soviet threat in the past, now the two armies simply go on deployments together.
"We've learned that we have to rely on each other," Hurt said.
Given that the majority of what is taught at both German and American sniper schools is the same, the objective of the combined training is "to put everyone on the same page," Hurt said.
Differences, though slight, are in tactic and strategy.
"One of the differences is that Germans do a lot with calculations - wind, location, climate," said one of the German sniper instructors. "If a German sniper misses, he'll probably recalculate and shoot again. Americans, if they don't hit their target, they're more likely to pick up and change location."
Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment - the unit responsible for training infantry Soldiers at Fort Benning - have been participating in the combined training at Hammelburg for the past three years, said Sgt. Bryan Crowder, C Company, 2-29 Inf. Reg., 197th Infantry.
"We've been trading information with each other on things like deployments, tactics and training procedures. It's working together. It's about knowing everyone's capabilities. We need to understand them and vice versa," Crowder said of the joint efforts.
Another divide between the two is in simple measurements.
"This training is great for us because everything is in metrics," said Sgt. Jonathan Holmes, a sniper school instructor at the U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning. "We work in standard measurements but the U.S. Army is shifting over to metrics with its new sniper rifle, the XM 2010."
The combined training has created lasting effects. An example of the exchange came last year when the German army, after having witnessed the efficacy within the U.S. Army ranks, decided to incorporate a long-range marksman into their own infantry units - a concept the Americans have been using for years, Hurt said. A long-range marksman is expected to be able to track and engage a target within 300 to 600 meters while snipers train at ranges between 500 to 1,000 meters.
Among these Soldiers, identifying each other's differences and incorporating them into their game plan has been most beneficial in expanding their skills.
"I'm certain that the soldiers who attended this pre-deployment sniper course will take with them a few things that they learned from their counterparts during this training," said event organizer Mike Cormier, a partnership officer who for years has helped organize combined training between the Americans and Germans. "Learning from each other is, I think, very important and benefits all."