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Sniper War in Afghanistan

Today’s generation of snipers is the finest and most capable we’ve ever fielded.


Nearly the size of Texas, Afghanistan’s expansive deserts, wide valleys and towering mountains offer seemingly unlimited visibility—visibility well beyond the effective range of America’s 5.56x45 mm NATO service rifles. Thus, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda usually avoid close-range engagements, preferring to fire at long range with mortars, heavy machine guns and RPGs, and then withdraw before U.S. artillery or close air support can respond. “Ninety-five percent of our firefights average 500 to 600 meters,” a veteran of Afghanistan recently told me, a figure supported by a U.S. Army study that found more than half of the war’s small arms engagements have been beyond 500 meters.

Understandably, then, thousands of M14s have come out of storage to be rebuilt and accurized by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps as Designated Marksman rifles. Topped with riflescopes, these updated 7.62x51 mm NATO rifles can be found in the hands of squad- and platoon-designated marksmen who support the soldiers and Marines around them. Fully qualified, school-trained snipers are found at battalion and higher levels, armed with purpose-built sniper rifles, mostly bolt-actions, but also some semi-automatics, all of them firing the 7.62x51 mm NATO cartridge. These snipers are tasked to support subordinate units, meaning that for the first time in U.S. military history, precision riflemen are assigned or attached at all levels of combat maneuver units.

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.”

Long-Range Successes
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.

Afghanistan Sniper Foes
Afghans are renowned for excellent fieldcraft, displaying a native cunning that twice repelled British invaders in the 19th century and more recently defeated the Soviet Red Army. “Their [snipers’] accuracy wasn’t as impressive as their fieldcraft,” Army Spc. Garrett Taylor told the “New York Times.” “I mean, their ability to conceal themselves, distract us and displace to locations we didn’t expect.”

Although the 19th century Afghan tribesman’s long-barreled Jezail rifle—similar to the Kentucky longrifle—may have rained death upon past enemies, that marksmanship tradition has not continued into the 21st century. Canadian sniper Robert Furlong heard of Taliban snipers during his 2002 Afghan tour of duty, but no one he knew actually encountered any. Indeed, the rate of Americans lost to sniper fire in Afghanistan is dramatically lower than in Iraq. Why? Afghanistan suffers from one of the world’s worst illiteracy rates—some 57 percent of adult males cannot read or write, according to CIA figures. In this education vacuum, would-be snipers cannot master trajectory tables, ballistics, and a host of technical subjects required for effective long-range shooting. According to one British officer serving in Afghanistan, most enemy snipers simply, “fire and run,” and hope they hit something. As for enemy sniper armament, it runs the gamut from rusty old Lee-Enfield bolt-actions with open sights to scoped Russian SVDs and modern hunting rifles.

The quality of enemy snipers, however, is gradually improving. When U.S. forces advanced into the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in 2010, they were met with accurate rifle fire, especially during the Marine attack on the town of Marjah. Firing from “murder holes” punched through mud-brick walls, enemy snipers achieved a number of one-shot kills. USMC Lance Corporal Andrew Koenig took a sniper’s round directly into his helmet, just above his eyes. Knocked off his feet, he was otherwise uninjured. “Compared to last year,” he told a Reuters reporter, enemy snipers “seem to be much better.”

The best of these new shooters are thought to be foreign mercenaries—especially Chechens and Iraqi sniper veterans, plus volunteers from Egypt and Pakistan—drawn by bounties of tens of thousands of dollars for each killed American. The Taliban can certainly afford it; in 2007 the CIA estimates the Taliban made $300 million from heroin sales. As well, an Al-Qaeda sniper recruiting video is tapping into religious zeal, quoting the Koran: “Fight them and Allah will punish them by your hands, lay them low, and cover them with shame.” One Taliban commander claims a sniper training school already exists, its founding assisted by “Arab fighters, who have joined us.” There are many volunteers, he says.

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35 Responses to Sniper War in Afghanistan

secret squirell wrote:
December 23, 2012

hathcock was nothing but a showboat in need of attention and a POG by trade when he first enlisted ....the real vietnam sniper to be recognized is chuck mohenny.... they both did great ,this comment was refrence to the over praise of hathcock ,as a school trained 8541/0321 we dont want to be recoginzed or put on a pedestal......semper gumby

arizona98tj wrote:
February 19, 2012

300 Win Mag....read page two.

southern cross wrote:
February 17, 2012

nobody said anything about 300 win mag why?

James Savanella wrote:
January 19, 2012

They could use some M 200 Interventions.

Doug Dunn wrote:
January 04, 2012

The M14 is a fine weapon as is, acurized it's great! Finally some thought and common sense. Very good folks! 1000 meters? make em duck.

B Zobisch wrote:
January 01, 2012

Great article... I think we need more analysis in the field about what weapons and loads all units should be deployed with. The cost of these guns and ammo is so low compared to all of our other options that we should probably be spending even more on better scopes, trainings and advanced ammo.

davehood784@gmail.com wrote:
December 18, 2011

Larry, sorry to put you on the spot but it is "The right to BEAR arms", not "the right to BARE arms." To bare your arms means to wear a tank top.

AFG Joe wrote:
November 24, 2011

"Why m14s why not LR8s with 20in barrels, scoped" Same reason why to ditch the M16: Anemic round. I have seen the Germans with some HK G3 topped with scopes out here. The Germans have G36 as well.

Fred Friedman wrote:
November 23, 2011

I agree with Larry Belcher! We must stay very vigilant that our 2nd amendment rights are maintained, no matter which party is in power.

Nelson Fox wrote:
November 23, 2011

As a Vietnam Veteran, and trained sniper,it is good to see the Army is still making use of the M-14 rifle. The modified M-14 is still the best sniper rifle to have when being attacked by a determined enemy unit. The bolt actions have better range, but the nothing beats the M-14 when faced with multiple enemy rushing you.

Jon wrote:
November 23, 2011

See one-kill one.

AFG Joe wrote:
November 22, 2011

Greetings from AFG. The military needs to go with one round: 7.62NATO. Solve the logistics issues, give an effective round out to range, with more energy, higher BC, then some anemic varmint round. Please dont tell me about the weight issue. We are loaded up with 45lbs+ in body armor, first aid, ammo, hydration, etc. The more weight and recoil of the M14 argument, man up and get to the gym. And even if I can carry more rounds of 5.56, does me no good if I cannot reach out and touch Haji at range or AFG winds (full value).

modrid wrote:
November 22, 2011

Why m14s why not LR8s with 20in barrels, scoped

Thomas wrote:
November 21, 2011

Military needs 2 rifles. One for short range urban, jungle, armored infantry ues. One for open , desert, plains use.

Rusty wrote:
November 21, 2011

God bless and keep you safe as you defend our freedom.

Copperhead wrote:
November 21, 2011

Too bad the SDM's are only given de-linked 7.62 ball ammo!

Dave Gowan wrote:
November 21, 2011

I compete with an AR-15 A2NM out to 600 yards with 80-gr Sierras. Have any of the soldiers or marines tried this combination?

Sam Longwell, MSG US Army [(]ret[)] wrote:
November 21, 2011

We used the M-14 as a long range rifle in marksmanship competition to 600 meters. Put a scope on it and you could easily do 1000 meters.

Mark Guest wrote:
November 20, 2011

Great reading.

dave summer wrote:
November 20, 2011

'white feather' hathcock would be proud.

neal churchill wrote:
November 20, 2011

When committed to a war, our nation must give our troops the best there is and allow them to defeat the enemy!

John Brincefield wrote:
November 20, 2011


roger wrote:
November 20, 2011

Barrett makes a lovely sniper .50 caliber sniper rifle that can reach out to 3/4 of a mile and touch the Taliban

Jake wrote:
November 20, 2011

"Nearly the size of Texas" Read "smaller than Texas."

Larry Belcher wrote:
November 20, 2011

I just wanted to say something about our rights to bare arms. It is because of these right's this nation came to be, also it is because of these right's that I beleive other countries are afraid to try to try to invade this nation because thay will have to fight our people as well as our millitary. So if thay take our rights to bare arm's it my put this nation in danger that is my beleif!!!!!!!!

Mike White wrote:
November 20, 2011

Very Informative. Are any Snipers using a .50 Barrett? One of my favorite quotes was when a CNN reporter asked a Marine Sniper if he felt anything when firing on the enemy. The Marine said, 'Yes Ma'am, recoil.'

Big Dave wrote:
November 20, 2011

Plaster forgot to mention the upgraded ammo now being used in the m4/m16 which is helping to extend the fighting range of the regular infantryman. Optics are being used by most infantrymen as well.

Lyn Parrott wrote:
November 20, 2011

I had the pleasure to meet a Sniper School "associate." He is one of the finest, patriotic American's I've ever met. He came to my aid in an AZ bar during a discussion I was having with a anti war, "defense contractor" (there's a paradox or a Liar-- either way, he was a liberal).

H.B wrote:
November 20, 2011

its its about time they nrought in the M-14, cant beleave it took them so long, should of put it in actipn like the did the M16, but with better resuts,

November 20, 2011

Conventional process? play "open house" no rules, treat as treated, these people will hopefully, in my wildest dreams, just revert to being "normal" members of the planet before it gets turned it into a car park...God, whoever folks think he/she is thanks the US, Russian et. al. arms industries for taking up the torch on this....... Withdraw all personnel an' Drone em'?

Ben wrote:
November 20, 2011

Nice article, good to see that technological is supporting our troops but it can not replace good training and dedication that the US military always has.

John wrote:
November 20, 2011

Just gotta love love it...

AJ wrote:
November 18, 2011

Nice job boys.

MilitaryDaD wrote:
November 18, 2011

God Bless all the 'Ghost's' out there for their 'oneshot onekill' abilities, but lest we forget what drives fear into the heart of Taliban fighter. They call it the 'MONSTER', we know it as the AH-64D 'Apache' come on out and GET SOME!

Clay Cooper USAF Ret wrote:
November 18, 2011

Long overdue! M14, if you can see them, you can hit them! 1200 yards, NO PROBLEM! Keep the target hot and full of holes! TARGETS UP!