Shooting with Today's Top Snipers

posted on April 25, 2012

Peering across a wooded valley near Lake Superior, I strained my eyes to discern five metallic targets through early morning fog. The closest target laser-ranged at 744 yards through my Bushnell Fusion binocular, with the farthest nearly twice that distance. Most riflemen would stand little chance of scoring hits at such ranges. But with me were three of the finest combat snipers in the world, each a record-setting veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. And each, like me, was firing a long-range precision rifle.

Beside me lay former U.S. Marine sniper Steve Reichert, credited with the longest kill in Iraq using a .50 BMG. Next to him was U.S. Army sniper Jim Gilliland, who bested an Iraqi insurgent sniper with the farthest confirmed 7.62x51 mm NATO kill in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our third sniper was the legendary Canadian, Robert Furlong, the .50 BMG world-record holder for his sniper work in Afghanistan.

As the first to fire, I started by lasing the range. I then consulted my 3x5-inch ballistic notecard, and mentally adjusted for wind drift, ambient temperature and up/down angle to fine-tune my target knobs. My first shot struck solidly, demonstrating that classic ballistic computations remain true and trustworthy.

Next to fire was Reichert, who, like me, had a bolt-action .338 Lapua Mag.—his a Desert Tactical Arm bullpup and mine a Savage Model 110 BA chassis rifle. Unlike me, however, Reichert noted the lased range, the ambient temperature, the wind’s direction and velocity, our elevation, the up/down angle to the target, and then his barrel length and his scope height above the bore, tapping all this data into a handheld computer, which instantly yielded target knob settings. His first shot was very close but a miss.

Had my ballistic notecard triumphed over Reichert’s computer? Hardly. Once the Marine sniper vet input a correction for that first shot, he was “on,” and he never missed thereafter, and I mean never, no matter the distance or up/down angle. His shooting was phenomenal.

As Reichert had demonstrated, and Gilliland and Furlong as well, today’s best snipers are scientifically minded as well as superb shooters, exploiting technology to the maximum to eliminate threats at ever-greater distances. This is what brought us together—their state-of-the-art techniques and knowledge—to film an instructional DVD for Paladin Press entitled “Ultimate Sniper III.” Not only were they a pleasure to work with, but they proved pure professionals, with no egos or false humility, just a shared enthusiasm for shooting and perfecting their craft.

Jim Gilliland’s insight on powder temperature is an excellent example. In Iraq he learned to “cook” his rounds—that is, to set cartridges in direct sunlight to raise the powder temperature and boost muzzle velocity, thereby stretching his range. But he learned that trick after his record 7.62 mm shot, which was recently recreated for a History Channel documentary. While his infantry unit advanced through Ramadi, an insurgent hotbed in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, Gilliland’s sniper team covered them from a rooftop. Suddenly his radio crackled, reporting that an enemy sniper had just shot an American soldier. In a fourth-floor hospital window some 12 blocks away, his spotter detected the sniper—it was 1,375 yards, far beyond the typical range of Gilliland’s rifle. But there wasn’t time to rush down to the street, sprint three blocks and climb another building. It was a desperate situation; he had to fire immediately before another American was hit. Applying all the dope he knew about his 7.62 mm NATO cartridge’s 175-grain bullet, he cranked his Leupold M3A scope’s elevation to the maximum, then held over as best he could estimate, squeezed—and dropped the SVD-armed insurgent sniper. It was the longest-range 7.62 mm kill in Iraq or Afghanistan. Later, Gilliland learned that the insurgent sniper had killed a close friend of his, a fellow unit sergeant.

The new DVD includes enemy sniper ruses and ruthlessness, to which Gilliland can attest. “Enemy soldiers have no morality, no ethics,” he noted. “They have never heard of the Geneva Convention, they will never comply with its content.” He illustrated that, recalling a night his sniper team secretly surveilled an often used improvised explosive device (IED) site. Acting as the spotter, in the darkness he observed a burqa-clad woman loitering in a nearby alleyway. Eventually she left the shadows for the empty road and began digging where a previous IED had been concealed, obviously to plant a fresh one. While Gilliland spotted, his teammate ended her effort with one shot. With the coming of daylight Gilliland dreaded checking the woman’s body and the civilian outrage it might incite. Imagine his relief, then, when he found that the burqa-clad “woman” sported a full-length beard.

No less insightful is Canadian sniper veteran Robert Furlong. After taking turns firing my Savage .338 Lapua Mag. rifle, we talked about extreme-range applications of the .50 BMG and .338 Lapua Mag. cartridges. He emphasized, a sniper must not expect single-round kills at great range. “At extreme range,” he said, “your goal is to get enough [well-placed] rounds out there that you’re bound to hit something.” His observation reminded me of Carlos Hathcock, who once told me it required multiple shots to make his world-record 2,500-yard, .50-cal. kill. “Nobody records the misses,” he joked.

Hathcock’s record stood for 33 years, until early 2002, when Furlong’s Canadian sniper team was supporting U.S. Army Special Forces during Operation Anaconda. “A group of three al-Qaeda fighters were moving into a mountainside position in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot Valley at about 9,000 feet above sea level,” Furlong recalled. He watched them through a spotting scope. “They were walking, maybe thinking this was their lucky day. It wasn’t.” His rifle was a .50 BMG McMillan TAC-50, designated the Long-Range Sniper Weapon, or LRSW, by the Canadian Army. Having expended his Canadian-issue ammo, he’d borrowed some hotter American rounds—Hornady .50 BMG ammunition with 750-grain A-MAX bullets. Furlong knew the maximum planning range for his .50 cal. was 2,190 yards—but this target was 2,700 yards, or one-and-a-half miles away. Furlong laid a half-dozen rounds in the sun, knowing hotter powder would boost his range. Settling behind his rifle, his first round missed an enemy fighter carrying an RPK light machinegun. The second round nicked the gunner’s rucksack, enough to fine-tune Furlong’s lead and hold. The third shot flipped over the al-Qaeda fighter. “I knew I hit him,” Furlong said. The rest, as they say, is history.

An interesting point, we agreed, was that both the .338 Lapua Mag. and .50 BMG cartridges go subsonic well before 2,700 yards—meaning an enemy could not hear a bullet’s “crack,” only perhaps an indistinct whistle. At extreme range, that enemy soldier also would not likely hear the sniper’s muzzle blast so he’d have no idea where the shot originated. This brought us to the subject of suppressors.

Not many years ago, it was believed that only by employing subsonic ammunition was it worth using a suppressed rifle. But low-velocity projectiles offered insufficient terminal ballistics—essentially, you would be firing a pistol round. So why use a suppressor?

Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that a sniper can employ normal loads and still benefit from a suppressor. At typical engagement distances, the enemy may hear your bullet’s “crack,” but he cannot connect it to a muffled muzzle blast. Thus, suppressors have become standard issue for Army and Marine snipers, and both Gilliland and Reichert employed suppressed rifles in our film. In fact, Gilliland told me he often used a suppressed 5.56x45 mm NATO rifle in Iraq, firing Mark 262, Black Hills 77-grain Open-Tipped Match (OTM) ammunition. With this combination, he recorded kills up to 750 meters away, a good 200 meters beyond that rifle’s range when firing standard 62-grain loads. During our filming, he used a suppressed Seekins Precision Custom 5.56x45 mm NATO rifle and fired the Black Hills ammunition with considerable accuracy. We also fired a DPMS 5.56x45 mm NATO Mini-SASS rifle, and Reichert fitted a suppressor on his Desert Tactical Arms .338 Lapua Mag. rifle.

Reichert and I had a particular bond that I was unaware of until we met. Seventeen years ago, while a sixth-grader, he often sat in his tree house reading my book, “The Ultimate Sniper,” and imagining the day when he would be a Marine sniper. To earn enough money to purchase the like-titled video, he worked odd jobs, especially shoveling snow. That sealed it. The athletic 12-year-old decided he would one day be a U.S. Marine sniper, and he has proved himself a very fine one.

In Iraq he was credited with saving a Marine patrol, thanks to his outstanding shooting ability. Learning that fellow Marines were pinned by an enemy machine gun, he turned his .50-cal. Barrett Special Application Scoped Rifle toward a distant brick wall more than a mile away. Behind that wall, the three-man gun crew blasted away, firing rounds over and among the pinned Marines. Taking careful aim, Sgt. Reichert fired heavy .50-cal. slugs into the wall, not merely suppressing the gun crew, but completely blasting through the wall, killing all three. It proved the longest distance .50-cal. engagement in Iraq.

In the film we fired a similar demonstration, pitting Reichert’s personal .50-cal. Barrett and both our .338 Lapua Magnums against a concrete block wall. Concentrating their fire, Reichert, Furlong and Gilliland pounded it, smashing through the blocks and riddling two silhouette targets on the other side. After that, they turned their heavy rifles to a full-size automobile, demonstrating how well their rifles could seize an engine or hit targets completely on the other side of a car. It was a great finale to three days of shooting and filming.

Thanks to forming a bond of professional respect, the three snipers have begun instructing as a threesome, each bringing, as in the film, a distinct perspective to the art and science of sniping. And, as a result of working with them—although I’ll never give up my 3x5-inch ballistic notecard—I’m definitely getting one of those handheld ballistic computers.


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