USMC Sniper Rifles: Hands On History

USMC Sniper Rifles: Hands On History

August, 2007

Retired USMC Major and NRA Secretary “Jim” Land is considered the founder of the modern Marine Corps sniping program and has spent 40 years assembling what is likely the best collection of Marine sniping arms in private hands. When he made that collection available to modern day instructors and students at Quantico’s Marine Scout Sniper school, history was made all over again.

Whenever Maj. Edward J. “Jim” Land (USMC-Ret.) lectures at his former command, the Marine Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico, Va., the young Marines—Scout Sniper instructors and students alike—regard him with deference and respect. After all, Maj. Land, who today serves as Secretary of NRA, is widely recognized as the father of modern Marine Corps sniping, having created and commanded the Corps’ highly successful tactical field program in Vietnam and helped shape its formal progress over the ensuing years.

At times, during his lectures to scout-sniper classes, “The Major” brings his collection of pristine sniper rifles and optics used by Marines over the course of the last century. Always, the rifles are examined carefully, smartly shouldered by the students, then gently placed back on a blanketed table.

But just once, on a muggy, hot summer day in June 2005, a Scout Sniper class of some 30 Marines, and their instructors—mostly combat veterans, some freshly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan—assembled at Quantico’s Range 19 for a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated, hands-on experience of live firing at steel plates at 450, 500 and 550 yds. with each rifle in Land’s museum-quality collection. In pairs of shooters and spotters, over the course of the afternoon, each Marine fired each of the rifles.

Before the extraordinary live-fire exercise, the rifles were laid out on matted firing points, marking from left to right the timeline of the history of sniper rifles and optics fielded by Marines in all of America’s 20th century conflicts.

At the command, “commence firing,” a snapshot of the range would tell the story. At the first firing point, a frustrated young Marine tries to reposition the clumsy World War I Warner & Swasey prismatic optic, which has shifted under the recoil of the first shot fired from the exquisite, early blue-finished 1903 Springfield. At the second shot, his spotter shakes his head. Not even close. It’s the same frustrating experience recounted by those who used the scope in World War I combat.

At the next position, a Marine captain is in the classic sitting position, sling in place, holding tight with the Model 1941 Marine sniper rifle, a unique combination of National Match grade ’03 and a long graceful eight-power Unertl “USMC Sniper” scope—the standard for Marine snipers in World War II and Korea. The Unertl scopes were designed to absorb shock by sliding forward in the mounts under recoil. After each round is fired, the Captain pulls the scope back into place. But for the snappy new Marine digital fatigues, this could be a World War II or Korean War scene.

Farther up the line, shooters, paired with spotters, fire M1C and M1D Garand sniper rifles. Another Marine works the bolt on a mint Remington-manufactured 1903A4 with an M73B1 Weaver scope. Yet other Marines fire a pair of Vietnam-era Winchester Model 70s, also topped with the long Unertl scopes.

The ammunition used in these 30-’06 Sprg. rifles is 1967 Lake City National Match originally from the Civilian Marksmanship Program.

At the far end of the shooting points, Marines fire rifles in 7.62x51 mm NATO—an early M40, the Corps’ custom Remington Model 700 liveried in walnut, topped with a special Redfield 3-9X: and the McMillan-stocked Remington Model 700-based M40A1—this particular rifle scoped with a Weaver T-10 optic, a post-Vietnam combination created for the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Unit.

The Marines know that they are shooting museum pieces and that they are living a bit of history they will never experience again.

Almost from the first round, the crack of rifle fire was quickly marked by the smack of bullets hitting steel targets, as the Marines got the feel of the rifles and optics. They shot from prone, sitting, kneeling and offhand positions. These young men could shoot, and it hardly mattered which rifle from what era they were using.

There was a major exception—the ’03 with the Warner & Swasey “Telescopic Musket Sight.” While the rifle is a rare thoroughbred, the scope, even with acceptable but dark optics, is an impossible dog, with a mount guaranteed to shoot loose. Its lousy reputation among World War I riflemen held true that day.

The exception to that exception was made by the perseverance of one of the instructors. With Land as his spotter, he kept at it until he mastered the scope, jamming it back into the same position after each shot. Finally, he was regularly hitting steel at 550 yds.
When the final “cease fire” was called, and the Marines gathered their equipment, all of them expressed their sense of what the day meant.

Perhaps the Gunnery Sgt., NCOIC of the Scout Sniper School, said it best: “From a historical perspective, this was a chance of a lifetime for these young marines. Most of them have already been in combat. It gives them a true appreciation for what the veterans before them have done with the gear and the weapons they had back then.”

Another Marine instructor echoed those sentiments, “It’s amazing that the guys could have those kind of optics and still be able to put rounds on target at the ranges we were shooting today. But whether you are looking through something 63 years old or looking through today’s optics, what counts are the basics: controlled breathing and a slow, steady squeeze. It was definitely an honor to experience history.” Then, nodding toward Land, “Especially him being here.”

Land knows as much about Marine Corps sniping and related equipment as just about anyone. He created the first post-World War II scout sniper school in 1961 for Fleet Marine Force Pacific in Hawaii. There he quickly discovered the same thing that Col. Walter Walsh found when he was training snipers in World War II—a dearth of materials on sniping. And like Col. Walsh, Land adopted as a basic primer a volume by World War I veteran sniper Herbert McBride: A Rifleman Goes to War. (McBride, issued a rifle with the always-loose Warner & Swasey mount, discovered a solution—rust, accelerated with a liberal application of urine.)

Five years later after arriving in Vietnam in October 1966, then-Capt. Land found himself without formal orders, standing before the First Division commanding general, Gen. Herman Nickerson, who told him: “I want snipers in this division; I want them killin’ VC. I don’t care how you do it, if you have to do it yourself. Got any questions?”

After a “Yes, Sir” and “No Sir” answer, Land found himself heading a program with no people, no instructors, no rifles, no ammunition, no range, but with some great NCOs “gleaned from a list of all the distinguished marksmen in Vietnam.” Among them was a man who would become his longtime friend, then-Staff Sargeant (later Gunnery Sargeant) Carlos Hathcock, who had graduated with the second class of Land’s Hawaii course and who, through his woodscraft and shooting skills, would create a legend.

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10 Responses to USMC Sniper Rifles: Hands On History

Vernon Weathers wrote:
November 23, 2014

Certainly an honor to read this well written and informative article. A salute to all the SOs, SEALS and Marines!Also Col Land for sure!

Bill glaze wrote:
December 30, 2013

I feel privileged just to read this fine definitive and informative essay. Thanks so much for the privilege. Bill Glaze Past president Nevada State Rifle and Pistol Assn. NRA Benefactor Member

Dan Wight wrote:
August 12, 2013

I My father server with Jim Land in Hawaii and the USMC sniper schools in Vietnam. I would be interested in any contact information.

Tom Rossi wrote:
August 12, 2013

Actually USMC Captain Robert Russell was the Father of modern sniping forming the first sniper training program in history. This was in 1965. Let's give credit where credit is due. HI was a wonderful training program, but not the first.

James wrote:
December 21, 2012

Read Marine Sniper and loved it, I couldn't imagine doing what they or you had to do. I have a little brother that just finishe up boot camp for the USMC in California. I have alot respect for you guys.

Pat sanders wrote:
November 11, 2012

Carlos got burned because he was rescuing his fellow Marines from the burning wreckage. Would have liked to have met him. I am friends with Charles Henderson that wrote 2 books about Carlos. My dad Was on hill 61 the day Carlos took his long shot with the M2 50 cal with scope mounted on it. Taking a out a young VC on a bike

Lori wrote:
March 28, 2012

Would you know how I can get in contact with Edward Land. A student at the Naval Academy is doing a research paper on sniper culture and would like to talk to him. Dr. Lori Bogle

Emo Zipper wrote:
April 07, 2011

Very good article. I would like to see more such articles written on the sniper rifles of other countries; such as the PSL-54 or the SVD

Thos J Kenny RA 18471576 wrote:
March 27, 2011

Hathcock was a master marksman who took one chance too many. Riding a tank and getting burned almost alive really was no ending for gutsy guy like Carlos. I cannot imagine the suffering from in the BURNS Unit and after just in fatigues.

JLA wrote:
March 22, 2011

What I wouldn't give to have been on the firing line that day! I recently saw an original U.S.M.C. 1903 sniper rifle with the 8X Unertl scope sell online for many thousands of dollars. At the time there was also an original U.S.M.C. marked Unertl 8X scope with its storage can for sale. It too went for many thousands of dollars! Unfortunately I don't remember the exact selling price for either. I believe that the rifle (with its original scope) went for somewhere in the neighborhood of $12k-$15k, or a little more, and the scope by itself for $5k-$6k. I'm not certain about those numbers, but either way it far more than I could afford! My solution is that I am currently gathering the parts (and saving the money) to have an accurate replica built. It won't have the value of an original, or the U.S.M.C. marking on the scope, but it'll shoot just the same. (And I won't have to feel guilty every time I pull the trigger!)