The primary cartridge fired by these snipers and precision marksmen is the 7.62 mm, M118 Long Range, a 175-grain match load developed especially for sniping. Not only does the projectile experience one-third less wind drift than a 62-grain, 5.56 mm bullet, it delivers more than four times the energy at extended ranges. For instance, at 650 yards the M118LR packs as much energy—1,000 ft.-lbs.—as the 5.56 mm round at 100 yards. An Army sniper veteran of Afghanistan, Sgt. Jonathan Holmes, strongly favors the M118LR cartridge telling me it’s “accurate, dependable and hard-hitting.”
American sniper teams go wherever U.S. infantrymen go, operating primarily in support of their fellow soldiers and Marines, usually from overwatch positions or by scouting to the front or flanks. Typically they engage enemy forces at 600 to 750 meters, where the Taliban like to hover, just beyond the range of 5.56 mm rifles.
These sniper teams also sometimes operate independently, whether lying in wait for terrorists planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), searching for targets of opportunity, or acting on intelligence to intercept and ambush Taliban fighters. Such was the case for Sgt. Holmes, an 82nd Airborne Division sniper, when his team waited for a Taliban IED team in Kandahar Province. Eyeing several Taliban peering from a distant wadi, Holmes discerned which was in command and fired a single shot, dropping him at more than 700 yards. Intelligence later determined he had eliminated an enemy battalion commander and IED cell chief, for which Holmes was awarded the Army Commendation Medal.
Holmes also reports that suppressed sniper rifles have proven very effective at confusing and deceiving the enemy. During another operation he carried a suppressed M110 semi-automatic sniper rifle, also firing M118LR ammunition. Detecting three Taliban fighters across a river nearly 1,200 yards away, he fired one round that failed to connect. “The targets had no idea I fired the first round,” he recalled. His second shot struck the first Taliban, causing the other two to stand and look around, trying to determine where the shot had come from. That gave Holmes the chance to shoot a second Taliban, after which the third fighter fled. The young paratrooper eventually scored 10 enemy KIA with his suppressed rifle.
After Holmes and his fellow snipers utterly destroyed another IED team, U.S. radio monitors noted “chatter” in the form of pleas for Allah’s protection from the deadly American “Ghosts.” “I would say we struck fear in their hearts,” Holmes said.
The very effectiveness of American sniper teams has given rise to enemy counter-measures to detect and destroy them. In some areas the Taliban equip farmers and children with walkie-talkies and have them wander in search of hidden sniper teams, knowing the Americans would not harm such non-combatants. Once alerted, Taliban forces sneak in and plant IEDs or mines along the snipers’ likely withdrawal routes. Taliban fighters also sometimes swarm sniper teams.
That’s what happened to a U.S. Army National Guard sniper team that was supporting a 10-man U.S. Army Special Forces team. With no warning, some 50 Taliban suddenly opened fire, attempting to rush the snipers and Green Berets. However, the Americans maintained their composure, beating off the attack with well-aimed shots, killing 20 enemy. “They just kept coming and coming and coming,” reported one sniper, S/Sgt. Jason Fincher. The three snipers—S/Sgt. Fincher, Sgt. Anthony Sandoval and PFC Justo Baltasar—were each awarded the Bronze Star for Valor.