Easley Rifle Range
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

This is the second in a two part series. It focuses on advanced rifle marksmanship (ARM) training conducted by the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. The first in the series covered CQM, or close quarters marksmanship.

Friday on Fort Benning's Easley Range had dawned with fog, obscuring the target frames 600 yards away. It was afternoon now, the grass had dried, and the wind that rose and fell, lifting the fog, blew on our cheeks. The treetops were swaying in the breeze and the range flags stood out straight. Full value wind, about eight miles per hour, right to left.

It was to be the last shot of more than 1500 I had fired that week, and I wanted it to be a good one. Sergeant First Class Grant Singley, a champion shooter with the USAMU, was standing behind me with binoculars and I did not want to let him down. The silhouette 600 yards away was no more than a dot as I assumed a solid kneeling position. My firing hand guided the stock into my shoulder pocket and then assumed a high, firm, handshake grip on the pistol grip of my M4 carbine. The non-firing hand curled far under the fore-end, placing the weight of the rifle in a vertical line through my knee to the ground. The elbow was forward of the kneecap, so muscle contacted muscle but bone supported bone.

My chin moved automatically to contact the top of the stock and I, like the other 13 shooters on the line with me, dragged it down so my cheekbone contacted the stock for a good stock-weld. We all had that nice "chipmunk cheek" that indicated a solid, consistent weld, head fully supported. My eye relief on the Leupold 1.5x-5x optic with BDC reticle was exactly where it needed to be. The silhouette was clear. I closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them. The silhouette was still centered, so my natural firing position was good. The reticle was bouncing around in the wind ever so slightly; enough to cause a miss at 600 yards, so I knew this would be a tough one for me.

I had already done my calculations. My rifle had been well zeroed earlier in the week, so any miss would be all me, not the equipment, a designated marksman rifle, or DMR, signed out from SFC Dustin Brede at the USAMU armory. The reticle line was graded for 600 meters, but the target was 600 yards, about 550 meters, so I knew the bullet would impact high. For wind drift I had multiplied the 8 mile per hour crosswind by 6 for the range and divided by 7 according to the formula we had been given in class. About 7 MOA drift, or 42". More than three feet, or twice the width of the target.

The safety was clicked off and my finger naturally curled around the trigger. For me that meant the trigger was contacting the second pad of my finger, not the tip, another habit of years of un-coached shooting I had to break this week. I exhaled and began my squeeze as I held far to the right and just on bottom edge of the target. The reticle was still moving when I smoothly broke the shot. The M4 recoiled into my shoulder and I felt the metallic click as I slightly relaxed my finger and reset the trigger.

SFC Singley said quietly and immediately, "nice shot, sir," confirming what I knew as the shot broke. The target frame dropped, and returned with a white marker dead center, high in the chest of the silhouette.

This was a shot I could not have made a week earlier, before attending the advanced marksmanship skills (AMS) course taught by the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.

The USAMU, in addition to its role of helping recruit the highest quality of Soldiers by representing the Army and the nation in the shooting sports, provides top caliber training to the Soldiers of an Army at war. Our class consisted of officers, enlisted, ROTC cadets, members of the 197th Training Brigade, and a heavy contingent of scouts from Assassin Troop, 3/1 Cavalry Squadron. The USAMU training presence is not restricted to just Soldiers, as members of all the armed services can attend their courses. Additionally, members of the USAMU regularly deploy to train units in the field and Afghan marksmanship trainers and Special Forces elements.

The AMS course is one of the courses they offer, custom tailored to unit needs, and in this case, teaching the fundamentals of engaging targets up to 600 yards in range using the M4 carbine. Both iron sights and optics are zeroed and taught. In the second half of the week the cadre teaches the finer points of marksmanship at 400, 500 and 600 yards, including practice at hitting moving targets at long ranges.

The advanced rifle marksmanship (ARM) portion of the class had started Wednesday afternoon with classroom time. All shooting boils down to pointing the piece in the right direction, and holding it there until the trigger is smoothly pulled and the round has left the barrel. Sight alignment and trigger control. Proper training delivers the skill to do this consistently. Staff Sergeant Brandon Green was our primary instructor and his "Presidents Hundred" tab reminded us of his consistency as a shooter. In three hours we drank from the fire hose, trying to remember everything he and SSG Tyrel Cooper, the top service rifle shooter in the entire military, had to tell us about natural firing positions, stock welds, trigger control, ballistics, wind estimation, wind drift and moving target lead formulas.

The class was not "death by PowerPoint" as so many are. SSG Green and Cooper backed up the written course material with physical demonstrations of shooting technique. Little things that lead to the consistency of a top sharpshooter. Guiding the butt of the rifle with the firing hand into the same location in the shoulder pocket- every time. How to find the proper kneeling position based upon your body dimensions. The most stable prone position and how to test that you are in a natural firing position so you are not fighting your body to achieve sight alignment and maintain good trigger control.

Because people have different hand sizes and finger lengths, we learned how to achieve a natural trigger squeeze that eliminates the sideward pressure that disrupts the sight alignment. Zeroing of iron sights and differing optics were covered, and the importance of confirming zeros at range using five shot groups. Our brains thoroughly crammed, we were released for the day and told to return in the morning to draw weapons from the arms room.

The following day after drawing weapons we traveled to Easley Range, a KD or "known distance" range with firing lines going all the way back to 600 yards. On a regular day the USAMU Service Rifle Team could be found here preparing to fill the winners brackets for the annual Camp Perry matches. Today they coached other sharpshooters. The range had 26 numbered shooting lanes, each with a corresponding six-foot square target frame appearing above the berm that ran side to side across the range. In the center of each was a silhouette target 20 inches wide and 40 inches tall representing a man from the waist up.

All optics were removed and after a range safety briefing we were split into two relays. My group would shoot the morning and the second group headed to the pits to be target pullers and markers. We would reverse positions in the afternoon.

Our relay moved out to the 300-yard line and assumed a good prone position to confirm the 300 yard zeros of our weapons with the iron sights. Students worked at their own pace firing five shot groups for a total of twenty rounds. Targets dropped as pullers saw the five holes appear above their head, so students who required more time did not slow the relay. Instructors cruised the line devoting attention to those who needed more help, and zeroing proceeding at a quick clip. Windage drums and front sight posts were turned until everyone was dialed in. A solid zero was essential for every weapon, to eliminate another variable from the shooting process.

Back to the 400-yard line next. Iron sights, 10 rounds, fire at your own pace. Every miss would be marked with a black dot of shame against the white background and be noted with a good natured "you suck" from SSG Green. Next we did 20 rounds of "snaps", controlled pairs with a target exposure of only 4 seconds. We were focused, but the environment was low stress, with shooters commenting on the marksmanship of the other Soldiers on the line. SSG Michael McPhail and Sergeant George Hooper stood out as very fast and very accurate. My old eyes had the devil's time keeping up.

Now back to 500 yards. Fire at your own pace, 20 rounds, with coaching by the USAMU. Any 300-yard error would be almost doubled at this distance, and wind drift almost quadrupled as the range flags began to snap in the breeze. Focus hard on the fundamentals; keep that post centered in the peep sight. A hundredth of an inch error would mean a miss. Now 20 rounds of snaps, six seconds to fire two hits. The mix of slow fire and snaps gave the balance of focusing on accuracy while still learning to engage a fleeting enemy with a smooth trigger under time pressure. Combat marksmanship with M4 carbines. This was not like shooting a stationary elk glassed through a 12-power optic. Ten shots to finish, at a leisurely one minute for a five shot string.

For the afternoon my relay pulled and marked targets for the other relay as they shot. The tempo was fast paced, but the atmosphere jovial. The target frames were counterweighted and would rise up automatically unless pulled down, hence the term, "target puller." Every shot needed to be marked with a visible three or five inch disc and then run up so the shooter could see how they were doing. Then the spotter discs were removed and the holes pasted over for another round of shots.

The KD range is different from the normal "pop up" range, with silhouettes that rise and fall automatically. First, a "pop up" range does not tell you where you are missing, so it is very difficult to correct shooter errors or a bad zero. The 6-foot target frame on the KD range catches all the misses for marking and provides feedback to the shooter.

There is one other benefit. As a target puller you are close to the rounds as they are fired overhead. So close that if a shooter hits the berm in front of the target dirt will fly over the top and drop into your hair. The supersonic crack of the bullets as they pass close by is something you learn to read. I was on lane 8, and I could tell whether a round was from my shooter, or from lane 7 on my left or lane 9 on my right, each just ten feet away. Being able to know whether rounds are close, or REALLY close, is valuable information to have when people are shooting at you. Is the enemy spraying and praying, or are you up against an expert shooter who can actually dope the range and wind? All this played into the learning experience.

Friday was the last day of the course, and we drew weapons and received a safety brief while optics were remounted to weapons and torqued. Everybody commented on being sore through the chest and back from Thursday's shooting. A hundred rounds of long-range work is a lot for a day. The focus required takes its toll on mind and body.

My relay moved out to the pits to pull targets. Shooting started at 400 yards, and then moved to 500 and 600 yards. Shooters were beginning to get confident in their ability to reach out to double the "effective" range of 300 yards for the M4 carbine and began to really push themselves. Specialist Francisco Lopez, the shooter on my lane, after posting a five shot group that I could cover with my hand, began showing off by taking 600-yard headshots on the silhouette. SSG McPhail was punching five shot strings in six seconds into the chest of his target at the same 600-yard range.

After a rapidly gobbled lunch our relay drew ammo and spread out along the line at 400 yards. Confirm zero of the optic with four 5 round groups, and start shooting controlled pairs with four-second exposures. They put up moving targets and we practiced engaging those with controlled pairs, 20 rounds. It was windy, so you had to remember that if the wind was blowing in the direction the target was "walking" the wind drift would need to be subtracted from the hold off for target movement. The drift had to be added when the target was moving against the wind. Since the targets were paraded from left to right and then right to left, you had to learn to change your hold-off.

Then it was back to 500 yards and 20 rounds of fire at your own pace, followed by 20 rounds of snaps with six seconds of exposure.

Back to 600 yards and 10 rounds of fire at your own pace, followed by 20 rounds of snaps with the same six seconds of exposure. We were ending the course and day beyond the range that Marine riflemen train at. They get a minute per shot at 500 yards, versus our 6 seconds to pull off two hits at 600. We were getting pretty confident and finished with 20 rounds at your own pace and cooked off a few kneeling shots at 600 yards instead of prone just to see if it was within our capability. Thanks to the trainers of the USAMU, it was.

The USAMU provides a full two week squad designated marksman (SDM) course for 2012. The USAMU also provides mobile training teams and will tailor the curriculum to unit needs using the USAMU advanced marksmanship skills (AMS) program. More information about available courses, dates, and the USAMU itself can be found at www.USAMU.com.