USMC Sniper Rifles: Hands On History

posted on March 18, 2011

The Marine in the famous Korean War photograph is 1st Lt. Fred Fees, who had been a forward air controller, but became a sniper after picking up his rifle in the field. According to Jim Land, that rifle—a USMC M1941 National Match M1903 Springfield with an 8X “USMC Sniper” Unertl scope—had been captured by the North Koreans, then recaptured by the Marines before it was liberated by Lt. Fees. When he returned stateside, Fees had the rifle sporterized in .257 Roberts. Land and Fees’ son Fred are restoring the rifle to its original USMC livery.

August, 2007

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.

Land instructs a student at the USMC’s Quantico Scout Sniper school on the use of a World War I ’03 with Warner & Swasey sight.

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.

USMC M1941, 8X Unertl “USMC Sniper” Scope

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.

U.S. Model Of 1903, Warner & Swasey M1913 “Telescopic Musket Sight”

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.

Remington U.S. M1903A4, 2.5X Weaver M73B1. Marine snipers often used the Army’s World War II sniper rifle, the M1903A4, in the Pacific.

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.”

USMC MC-52 Garand, 4X Stith-Kollmorgan Scope. The Marine version of the M1C had a stiffer Griffin & Howe sidemount than the regular M1C.

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?”

U.S. M1D Garand, U.S. M84 Scope

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.

As for rifles, Land first scrounged 12 Model 70 sporting rifles that had been procured by Special Services for deer hunting at Camp Pendleton. Through the PX system in Okinwa, Land’s NCOs bought mounts, rings and scopes.

Winchester Model 70, Unertl 8X Scope. This Model 70 is of the type used by Carlos Hathcock in Vietnam.

The second lot of rifles used by Land and his teams in Vietnam were also Winchester Model 70 target guns in 30-’06 Sprg. that had been originally purchased as “across-the course” bolt guns for the National Matches. They were mothballed after NRA changed match rules to limit service personnel to shooting service rifles. Among them were arms with heavy barrels and sporter stocks. Some of these rifles were equipped with 20X Unertl scopes and mounts, which were originally procured as long-range match optics.

At the time Land was organizing his first sniper teams, then-Major Cam Hayden (USMC), who was first officer in charge of Marine Marksmanship training, discovered the Model 70s and scopes listed as surplus property. (Like Land, Maj. Hayden made a lifelong career of NRA after leaving the Marine Corps.) Hayden, who calls his find “serendipity,” also searched Marine Corps inventories and came up with 8X Unertl optics. The rifles were worked over by Marine armorers—glass-bedded and wood removed from barrel channels to free-float the target-weight barrels.

Among these was the rifle that Carlos Hathcock used during his first tour in Vietnam, but Land says Carlos’ rifle was anything but a tack-driver:

“Snipers today talk about half-minute of angle. Carlos Hathcock’s rifle barrel looked like it had been sandblasted. On the inspection sheet, you’d say, ‘Slight pits throughout.’ His rifle would hold about two minutes of angle. That’s 20 inches at 1,000 yards and that’s what he had to work with.

“We had M1Cs and M1Ds available that would hold a minute of angle, but they didn’t maintain their zero.

“But Carlos’ rifle maintained its zero day in and day out.”

Land said the Unertl scopes would not have lasted an hour in the hands of regular Marines.

“Carlos had excellent results with that scope, but it was only because he understood it and he knew how to take care of it, and he was very meticulous in doing so. The major problem they had with it was that if you got careless, it would fog up on you. Anytime we came back off of a patrol, the scopes would be put in a hot box to dry them out.”

The other problem was crosshairs blowing out under recoil. Land said one of the armorers, Vic Johnson, kept a box of spiders to spin the filaments for replacement crosshairs as a field expedient.

USMC M40, Redfield 3-9X Scope

Before leaving Vietnam in 1966, Land set up the initial testing program for what would become the basis for all Marine Corps sniping rifles for the foreseeable future: the 7.62 NATO (.308 Win.) M40, built by Remington with considerable design input from Marines in the field.

Of the commercial actions available, why not the Model 70? Why Remington? “The new Model 70 (post-’64) had a weak extractor, and if you didn’t clean the chamber after about every 10 shots it would likely break. And in Vietnam, we didn’t have that luxury.”

Land said, “Remington really went out of their way to help put this together. They created the stock with the cheekpiece on it; they never had this heavy a barrel in this stock. We had the scopes sent in from Redfield. Remington mounted them, tested them, and they were put in a specific case and shipped to Vietnam or to Quantico.” This was the rifle used by Carlos Hathcock in his second tour of duty.

The Redfield 3-9X variable scope for those initial M40s were produced in two finishes—green and deep black. Ostensibly they had a built-in rangefinder, which Land said was “worthless,” because it often melted in hot sun.

Land calls the M40 a “Pretty good interim rifle, which saw a lot of use. The main problem was the stock, which swelled and touched the free-floated barrel when it got damp or wet.”

Land said that when he left Vietnam, the M40 was fast replacing all other sniper rifles, from the Special Services rifles to the target-grade Winchester Model 70s to the M1s in various configurations.

The experiences with the M40, led to design of the M40A1—a rifle Land says is the most accurate he ever owned. Made in the Marine Corps’ precision rifle shop, it had a finely- tuned Remington 700 action, McMillan fiberglass stock and custom heavy McMillan or Sinclair barrels. He said that when first issued it was topped with the Redfield 3-9X. But a variation was created for the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Unit that mounted a Weaver T-10. Later, the rifles were re-scoped with special, strictly Marine Corps, 10X Unertls.

There is only one representative rifle missing in Land’s collection—the ’03 Springfield long-range target rifles issued to Marine Corps units for 1,000-yd. competitions. Topped with an 5X Winchester A-5 scope with a Mann-Neider base, the rifle/scope combination was an unofficial natural replacement arm for the failed Warner-Swasey topped ’03s officially tagged as Marine sniper rifles. When they were deployed in World War I, Land said, units took their long-range target guns into battle. The scopes, he said, were extremely fragile in combat.

Between the wars, the Marine Corps made a search for a new sniper rifle which culminated in a 1941 recommendation in a report titled “Equipment for the American Sniper” and bylined simply, “George O. Van Orden and Calvin A. Lloyd.” The egalitarian byline with then-Colonel and, later, General Van Orden is a testament to the respect he held for Warrant Officer Lloyd. Gunner Lloyd, by the way, was a legendary Marine marksmanship coach, whose name now graces a range complex at Quantico.

Referring to the “inherent defects created by mechanical problems which we seem unable to solve…” with “telescopic sights of the type ‘Warner & Swasey Prismatic Sight,’” the report asked a rhetorical question, “What is the most effective Sniper’s Rifle available in America to-day?”

Van Orden and Lloyd concluded: “It is the Winchester Model G7044C Rifle. … a military-target type, bolt action, five shot magazine rifle, chambered for the standard military cartridge … . The high standards of the Model 70 series have produced the most accurate long-range rifle in the world, as have been demonstrated by many years’ success.” Oddly enough, this vision of the perfect sniper rifle comes close to describing the second series of rifles used by Marine Snipers in Vietnam—those Model 70 Target guns gleaned by Hayden—equipped with 8X Unertl scopes.

Although the Van Orden/Lloyd recommendation on the Model 70 was turned down by the Marine Ordnance Board, their strong recommendation for use of the Unertl 8X scope was accepted, and thus was born the scope that bore the inscription, “USMC Sniper.”

Ultimately, the Marine Corps chose to mount the Unertl sniper scopes on superb 1903A1 Springfield rifles with the longer-pull type “C” pistol-grip stock.

The rifles chosen to be altered by Marine Corps armorers, were in the main, very accurate pick-of-the-litter National Match rifles, or rifles built to match-grade specs with remarkably close tolerances and very slick actions.

Standard alterations included tapping the receiver ring and mounting a scope block expertly mortised in the handguard halfway between the front sight and the lower barrel band. The handguard was scalloped to accommodate the scope. Uniquely, armorers blued the bolts.

When all was said and done, the Marines produced a very accurate sniper rifle, which saw extensive service in World War II and later in Korea. If we had taken a poll during the live-fire exercise with Land’s collectables, this 1941 variation would have been the favorite, hands down.

USMC M40A1, 10X Weaver-T10 Scope. The M40 had a wood stock, while the M40A1 used a McMillan synthetic stock.

Among rifles shot by those young Marines was one that was never officially adopted by the Corps, but used extensively by Marines—the U.S. Army M1903A4. The one on hand that day had a scant stock. Land says the rifles were never chosen for accuracy as were the Marine Model 1941s, although many shot well. “The ’03A4 rifles were produced with six different scopes. It started off with a Weaver 330, 2.5 power; then it went to the M73B1, which was a Weaver 330 with a military designation; then it went to the Lyman Alaskan all-weather; then they went to the M81 (crosshair) and the M82 (crosshair with post). Land said he believes that for all the hype about German optics, American wartime scopes were actually far superior.

For his remarkable live-fire hands-on demonstration, Land also provided two pristine M1 sniper rifles. The Marine Corps M1C differed from the Army version, having a much more robust Griffin & Howe side-mount rather than the standard Griffin & Howe unit. The Marine M1C, which saw extensive use in Korea as the MC-1952, also sported an uniquely USMC Stith-Kollmorgen 4X scope, according to Land, the best optic yet produced for the Corps. It saw service in Lebanon and Panama.

USMC M40A3, 10X Unertl Scope. The current-issue USMC sniper rifle is the Remington Model 700-based M40A3 built at Quantico.

Also on the firing line was Land’s M1D with its M84 scope, a rifle not used by Marines in Korea, but, which like the M1C, was fielded in Vietnam. Land said both rifles, when used by Marine Corps snipers, were glass-bedded and given additional tuning by armorers.

For Land, that day on the range was an odyssey of sorts. “I’ve been collecting Marine Corps sniper rifles for probably 40 years, and this was the only time we had an opportunity to put them all on the firing line at the same time. When we first came up with this idea, I thought, there goes the value of my collection, but now I know that watching those Marines firing rifles used by Marines in their fathers’ or grandfathers’ or great-grand fathers’ generation made it more valuable than I can say.”


Silencer Central’s Banish Backcountry
Silencer Central’s Banish Backcountry

Calling In The Specialists: Silencer Central’s Banish Backcountry & Speed K Suppressors

While its previous suppressors were designed for flexibility, Silencer Central’s Backcountry and Speed K are the first of a new breed of application-specific models.

In Memoriam: Mack Gwinn, Jr.

Captain Mack W. Gwinn, Jr., U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and founder of Gwinn Arms, which later became Bushmaster Firearms, passed away on March 11, 2024. He was 79.

The Armed Citizen® June 17, 2024

Read today's "The Armed Citizen" entry for real stories of law-abiding citizens, past and present, who used their firearms to save lives.

Woke RAF Cadets To Stop Using "Marksman" Term

The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force Cadets (RAFC) and their instructors have been ordered to stop using the term “marksman” in reference to the organization’s shooting badges.

Gun-Owning Americans Face Fines, Jail Time Overseas

The recent arrests of Americans overseas highlight the importance of double-checking every bag you travel with for ammo, guns or parts along with understanding firearm and ammunition regulations at the destination and locations between, including flight layovers.

Preview: WDR NILE Silicon Carbide Rail Panels

These NILE rail panels from Walker Defense Research are lightweight, durable M-Lok rail covers that provide added grip to a rifle fore-end while also guarding against radiant heat emanating off a hot gun barrel.


Get the best of American Rifleman delivered to your inbox.