Americans rarely lose rifle fights. It occurs so seldom that it’s considered remarkable. But it can happen. Probably the most-publicized combat action in recent years was the prolonged shootout at Wanat, Afghanistan, in 2008. Seventy-two U.S. and Afghan soldiers were almost overrun by Taliban fighters. After the four-hour battle, 36 of the 48 G.I.s were either killed or wounded versus an unknown number of enemy casualties.
Numerous rifle malfunctions occurred at Wanat, the causes reportedly including worn-out M4s and sustained firing. Nonetheless, soldiers involved in the after-action assessment found the greatest problem was a poorly sited outpost that permitted hostiles to infiltrate the position and launch a surprise attack. Beyond that, observers cited inadequate arms maintenance and faulty magazines. Only air power rectified the grievous situation.
The Army has seldom placed a high priority on small-arms proficiency. In Vietnam, figures sometimes ran 50,000 rounds per enemy killed, but the nature of that war often precluded precise aiming and firing. Widespread suppressive fire ran the round count through the roof, and there were almost no rifle fights in Desert Storm. Consequently, in 2001 the Army entered Afghanistan poorly prepared for long-range engagements against dedicated enemies with a tradition of shooting.
The Army’s default setting is high-volume firepower from infantry arms. Yet most combat-experienced marksmen disapprove of the three-shot burst option, let alone full-automatic fire. Jim Coxen, a Vietnam rifleman and cofounder of Oregon IPSC said, “I would have done at least as well with a scout rifle. You can never train everybody well enough to handle full auto, and you won’t always have enough training time or ammo anyway. It’s a really bad idea.”
Even with competent riflemen, long-range engagements very seldom equal the sniper’s “one shot, one kill” mantra. Clint Smith, proprietor of Thunder Ranch, has trained special operations personnel for decades. He said, “Even with good riflemen, first round hits beyond 400 yards probably drop off about 50 percent for each hundred yards.” That figure tracks with observations from other highly experienced instructors such as John Pepper. A Korean War infantry veteran and inventor of the Pepper Popper target, he said, “In combat, maybe one soldier in 10 will look at his sights and control the trigger.”
The American military usually does an adequate job of teaching marksmanship to large numbers of people. It does less well in teaching large numbers to fight with rifles. Consider no less an authority than Maj. Gen. Merritt Edson, USMC, a Distinguished Rifleman who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal. He later became executive director of NRA, and during the Korean War he said that the military could not be expected to teach lifesaving marksmanship skills to every soldier or Marine. His advice: If parents wanted their son to have the best chance to survive combat, see that he learns to shoot a rifle as a boy.
History was on Edson’s side. Many of America’s infantry heroes grew up shooting: Alvin York, Sam Woodfill and Audie Murphy to name a few. But in 1940, 43 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today it’s about half as much, with attendant diminished civilian marksmanship skills. We no longer have large numbers of recruits arriving with gun handling skills or a basic knowledge of ballistics, let alone marksmanship.
Part of the problem is confusing qualification with training. Decades passed before most police departments made the distinction—often as the result of painful litigation. According to the Army standards and training manual, PAM 350-38 (2009 version), a Regular Army light infantryman should fire about 1,200 rounds a year, assuming he participates in everything: basic marksmanship, day-night qualification, unit live-fire exercises, shooting in NBC gear, thermal and infrared (IR) sights, etc. His Guard and Reserve colleague should expend 660 rounds. But interviews show that almost nobody comes remotely close to that figure. Furthermore, for “plain vanilla” soldiers with access to shooting simulators, and who do not use thermal or IR sights, the specified annual expenditure is 490 rounds for active and 294 for Guard and Reserve.
The manual states that 90 percent of Regular Army personnel assigned a rifle should meet the qualification standards twice a year with primary sight and optics, while only 80 percent of Guard and Reserve will qualify annually. However, the reserve component’s figure remains merely a goal. A National Guard officer said, “We’re supposed to qualify annually but at best only about two-thirds of our people even do that. The others are rescheduled or do not qualify that year.”
It’s especially difficult for National Guard units to meet all training requirements. Retired SFC Derrick Martin is a Double Distinguished Marksman responsible for Arizona National Guard range development. He said, “We have 48 days a year to do everything we’re supposed to do while Big Army has 365 days. It’s just not possible.”
Reservists frequently note that working with “Big Army” is difficult and frustrating—there just aren’t enough facilities to support the entire force structure, and there are always turf wars. That’s why so many states are funding additional ranges, “so we don’t have to go begging to [those] in control of everything.”