Category Archives: SF History and Lore

It Levels Out After the Pond

10th SF -- not a bad bubble to be in, 1980-1985.

10th SF Group — not a bad bubble to be in, 1980-1985. We were oriented towards all of Western Europe, from Norway to the Med. That tested all our skills — and our fitness — every day.

So you guys want more SF stories? Here’s an SF story from the ancient past — specifically, 1981.

That year finds Your Humble Blogger as a new guy in the 10th MI Co. (CBTI), the integrated intelligence unit of the 10th Special Forces Group. By that we mean, all the group’s intelligence disciplines were clustered here, under the leadership, usually, of SF qualified officers and senior NCOs with ODA and staff time. The disciplines included all-source analysis, HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and CI. In later years, these units would be broken up and smaller all-source cells pushed down to the battalions. Nowadays the intelligence specialty personnel are not expected to pursue SF qualification (which, nowadays, would remove them automatically from the intel unit and reset them on the team-guy track) but that long ago it was a common aspiration of both the all-source analysts (who found it eased rapport with the ODA and ODB guys) and the intel collectors (who, in those days, operated independently as teams in their own right, and therefore had to match the fieldcraft skills of the ODAs, also). In that unit, nobody shrank from physical and moral challenges, and everybody pursued hard, realistic training.

LTPosterfinalIt was almost exactly 35 years ago, and the weather where we were that day, in the mountains of Vermont, was much like the weather for yesterday’s Seacoast bike ride: gloriously sunny, dry and calm, and just under 90ºF (32ºC, for those whose nation has yet to land men on the moon). Mountain Warfare was on the menu, along with some UW training. This was not technical climbing; this was basically a lot of uphill hiking with the occasional scrabble over rocks. (It has probably gotten more uphill in the last three-dozen years of remembering). But this is less about the training, and more about how 1LT Dave went from our most liked to our least liked officer.

We really did like Dave. He was like us: young, irreverent, smart, and he’d rather be on an ODA than stuck in a CI officer billet. But he did his best in that job, and frequently went the extra mile to organize tradecraft training for those who needed it, primarily the CI cell and the operational detachments.

It was when he strayed from trade- to fieldcraft that we came to curse his name. His family had had a retreat in the Vermont mountains, and he offered that as a base for a week of fieldcraft and tradecraft training. The field points were hiking in, living out of poncho hooches as we did, and then, after the rural tradecraft work, hiking (again) to a particular riverbank spot where we would find rubber boats, then running the rapids of the river back to an RV point where trucks would meet us for the ride back to civilization. There was probably some more hiking than that; hiking always loomed large in our legend, you might say. Most of our planned hiking was along the Long Trail and the Vermont portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Civilian hikers on the Long Trail. Looks easy! (Deceptively).

Civilian hikers on the Long Trail. Looks easy! (Deceptively).

Dave planned the hike based on several hikes from his childhood memory. Some of the trails he had in mind were not marked on military maps, but it didn’t matter much as our key waypoints were mountain peaks, which are rather unmistakeable; the hike was along a by-section of the official Appalachian or Long Trail, so in high summer we could count on lots of company. The civilians must have been wondering who were the armed goons with the oversize packs, whose mother had dressed them funny.

As we started off the first morning, Dave uttered the words for which he would come within a heartbeat of a lynching: “It’s pretty steep at the start, but as I recall it levels off after the pond.”

About 6 hours in, most of it spent on 40% or higher slope, an ill-advised detour through some mountain laurel, and a few stretches climbing rocks on all fours, we came to a pond. We couldn’t see what was ahead because of the thick vegetation, but we all expressed relief. “It levels off after the pond!” We were stripped to t-shirts and had to periodically reapply bug juice, as both black and yellow flies were in season, and sweat — which we all did, profusely — sluiced the insect repellent off.

The pond! It would level off after the pond, thank a merciful God, and Dave’s memory.

Now, our faith in God survived the coming evolution, but our faith in Dave’s memory was badly shaken. Because rather than leveling off after the pond, the terrain seemed to redouble its rate of ascent; the Green Mountains, which peak out from around 3,700 to 4,400 feet (call it 1130 to 2000 meters) are not exactly the Himalayas, but it was the going down to 2500-3000 feet between peaks that was kicking our teeth in. We finally crested the Big Daddy (Mt. Mansfield, site of the Stowe ski resort) and discovered we had an RV to make with trucks to Dave’s family’s place.

The rack, the auto-da-fé, the Large ALICE pack -- this one underpacked; we'd call it a "nerf ruck" at this level of load (about 50%).

The rack, the auto-da-fé, the Large ALICE pack — this one underpacked; we’d call it a “nerf ruck” at this level of load (about 50%).

We tumbled down the hill (in some cases and at some times, literally tumbled). We were bruised, sore and exhausted. Some of the guys were having cramps. On this descent, we passed a couple of college cuties hiking the trail. We figured we looked studly, in our filth and sweat and arms and accouterments. They quickly set us straight. We looked like overladen, crushed and beaten gun-toting hobos in coincidentally-matching rags.

At the bottom of the trail, Dave met us. He was fresh. He probably smelled fresh, not that we could confirm any fragrance from where we stood amidst a small herd of human wildebeests. From the wrinkle of his nose and his rapid backstepping, it was clear that the fragrance we couldn’t smell on each other was evident enough to normal humanity.

“I thought you said it leveled off after the [censored] pond!” (Before the Army, we had never known that “mother” was only half a word).

“Sure it does. You have to take the left where the trail is blazed…”


“Didn’t do that, did you. Did I forget to tell you?”

The next day, tradecraft classes resumed. As we dispersed to conduct various types of technical communications, every single guy had something to say about that everloving pond.

In fact, a couple of years ago, we ran into Dave, now an executive with a Federally Financed Research & Development Center. And he knew how we’d greet him (and did!)

It levels off after the [censored] pond!

Nowadays he takes it with good humor. And since 1981, he has never, ever told anyone it levels out after the pond.

Retro American Service Rifles, Part 1: M14

Vietnam Memorial Soldiers by Frederick Hart

You can get an Vietnam era rifle without getting bronzed, it turns out.

If you can afford a collection of service-type rifles, and have checked the key World War II blocks, two of the most iconic weapons are the guns of the Vietnam War: the M14 carried by the Marines and some Army units in the war’s earliest years, and the M16A1 carried by most US soldiers from 1965 on, and by the ARVN from 1970. Here’s examples of M14 clones that you can take home: an early M14 clone with an interesting history (thanks to OTR for sending this one in), and a rare M21 that was a deliberate “contract overrun” the manufacturer made for himself while producing a short run of snipers for a Special Forces unit.

Tomorrow, look for low-production M16A1 clones from a new vendor. If you’re well-off and generous, either would make a nice gift for the Vietnam Vet in your family.

The M14 was developed over 12 years at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, and what the taxpayers got was, basically, a slightly larger M1 with a larger box magazine, a slightly more compact (but ballistically equivalent) cartridge, a fairly useless select-fire capability, and a much better (from weight and accuracy standpoints) gas system. It was the last hurrah of the Springfield Armory (and its high cost for low innovation was one of the things that sank Springfield with the too-influential SecDef, Robert S. MacNamara). But the men who carried it (especially, the Marines who trained with it) loved the gun.

It was quickly adapted to target shooting by Marine and Army marksmanship units, and continued in this role for many years after the adoption of the M16A1 due to public (and competitor!) belief that the M16 design did not have the accuracy potential to be competitive at High Power or Service Rifle competition. (Someone who has only competed in these events recently might be surprised to hear that; now, the old Garand action guns struggle to compete with modern ARs). It was target shooters, first, who demanded competition-legal M14 clones. Former servicemen who’d used the rifle in training or combat were also a demand nexus.

M14: An Early Semi Clone

Before there was an M1A, there were other attempts at making semi commercial M14s. In fact, Lee Emerson, in Volume 4 of his M14 Rifle History and Development, Fifth Edition, lists no fewer than 19 manufacturers. The high-visibility and high-volume producer has certainly been Springfield Armory, Inc., of Geneseo, IL and Texas. But prior to 1989 significant quantities of Chinese rifles (marked Polytech or Norinco) were imported, Smith Enterprises and LRB Inc. have and continue to make high-end M14 clones, and numerous smaller builders have come and gone.

AR Sales M14 01

One of the earliest was A.R. Sales Company, which shared a location in South El Monte, California, with later M14 producers Federal Ordnance (Fed Ord) and National Ordnance. According to Emerson, 225 receivers were manufactured by A.R. Sales. Marked “Mark IV” (there is no sign of Marks I through III), and with 200 serial numbers from the range 1 to 225 and all 25 from 226-250, they were mated to surplus M14 parts by A.R. Sales’s armorers. A.R.’s (and Fed Ord and Nat Ord) receivers were investment cast and finish machined.

This rifle is Serial Number 34.

AR Sales M14 06

Because there was no selector or provision for one, the unsightly notch in the wooden M14 stocks was fitted with a plug carved to match. (This approach would later be used by others, too).

AR Sales M14 05

Is that a little bit of touch-up on the finish?

This A.R. Sales rifle was produced, shipped and sold in 1972. The auction is a model of how to set up a GunBroker auction (except that there’s no “M14” in the title for search convenience!): there are 68 (!) photographs, including close-ups of every feature and flaw in the rifle, and the complete provenance of the gun, which is proven by documents.

AR Sales M14 07

Amazing. The seller says this:

A letter from I.I. Karnes of A.R. Sales to customers and potential customers said that you could hold your position for an order with a $15 deposit. All rifles had National Match barrels (this one certainly does) but they weren’t glass-bedded or NM accurized.

Opening bid is $2,650; high for a generic M1A type clone, perhaps, but the originality and provenance of this rifle must tempt any American service rifle collector. If you want a lot of M14 clones, you ought to have this one; and if you only want one, why not make it one with a story?

M21: A One-Off

Smith Enterprise built a series of M21s for the newly-forming 1st Special Forces Group in 1984. Ron kept one as a personal rifle, sold it to another M14 enthusiast some 20 years later, and it’s now for sale again.

Smith M21 overview

These rifles were marked with the SF Crest before being heat-treated. All but Ron’s with this mark went to 1st Group. (Why mark a firearm with an OPSEC violation? Your guess is as good as anybody’s on that). All the others had selective fire provisions, so this is the only legit crested M21 that will ever be on the private market.

Smith M21 CrestWe believe that these were originally configured like the 1980s M21s we fired, with a Leatherwood ART II scope in a GI mount. This one has been set up since 2005 with a Leupold Mark IV (NTTAWWT, it’s what the Army did after the ART II).

Smith M21

This is a very high-end collector rifle and the seller expects a very high price.

Originally, we meant to cover some new M16 clones as well, but we found more to say about these M14s than we expected. Look for the ’16s tomorrow or Thursday morning.

Bleg: World War II Suppressors

Business end of typical Maxim silencer.

Business end of typical Maxim silencer.

We’re working on a technical post on the suppressors of World War II. We know of the following:

Germany: Pistole 27(t) late war suppressor, MP 40 suppressor (limited production) K.98k suppressor (ditto).

Great Britain: Welrod, High Standard .22, Luger, Maxim suppressors (SOE was disappointed), Mk IIS Sten. De Lisle carbine.

United States: M1911A1 .45, integral M3/M3A1 SMG, Colt .380, High-standard .22 (entirely different from the British development).


USSR: none (this does not seem right, given the Soviets’ extensive use of “diversionary” and special operations elements, and their broad conception of intelligence and reconnaissance operations).

Italy: none

Japan: none

Minor powers: none

Help a brother out here. What else is unknown out there? I expect the bulk of the article is going to be on the P.27(t), which is known from several surviving samples, and the British stuff, which is very well documented.

Be My Woobie

There’s no rational explanation of a man’s attachment to his woobie — his poncho liner, one of the few things of military issue that is treasured long into civilian life.

If rational won’t work, here comes Mat Best and friends to explain the story in song:

We’re closer to the Out door than the In door of life, no matter how optimistically we measure, and we still have woobies strategically prepositioned on all recliners in Hog Manor.

Indeed, a woobie and a dog, and a nice recliner… why ever go out?

Troy XM177E2 Shipping…? Extensive UPDATE

Troy XM177 AR15 MagIt looks like the firearm we’ve mentioned before is shipping, at least to writers. Guns & Ammo’s “Book of the AR-15” magazine has it on the cover and has a review inside, beginning on Page 6, with an interesting combination of insightful points and egregious errors.

The magazine’s on newsstands now; we bought it at the Walmart in Big City.

We’ll try to elaborate on this post later today, but first shot suggests:

  1. Steve Troy has really put a lot of work into making an accurate repro of the classic MACV-SOG recon trooper’s personal weapon. In fact, there’s so much work this really has to be a limited production product.
  2. There are some hidden improvements that improve the function of the firearm compared to its historical prototype. For instance, it has 1:7 rifling and M4 feed ramps.

Let’s elaborate on both of those points first, then we’ll get to the “egregious errors”.

Details of the Troy XM177E2

Receiver: We assumed that Troy would be cutting some kind of deal with Nodak Spud for the company’s perfect A1-style receivers. It turns out that Troy is taking a modern M4 style lower and reprofiling it to A1 shape. This requires the later-production reinforcements to be removed, particularly from the pivot pin bosses and the buffer tower area. If you’re not going to run a bayonet assault course with this XM177E2, and we can guarantee you’re not, you’re unlikely to see failure there. (In many years of using A1s with this same lower, we never saw a failure of a receiver, except in a rifle that fell 800 feet (or maybe 1250, it might have been before we lowered static-line jump altitudes in the late eighties) and hit like 6.6 lbs of bricks. We did see a lot of A1 barrels bent.

The rifle naturally differs in marking detail from original XM177s, which were made by Colt. The trademarks and name and address are Troy’s, not Colt’s. Apart from that, though, they’re marked in as retro a style as one might ask, including US GOVERNMENT PROPERTY, SAFE / SEMI / AUTO markings and even a small “ring” that creates the illusion of an auto sear pin. To prevent owners from being jacked up by uninformed cops and agents, the shelf area is blocked, and a note that the rifle is REPLICA and SEMI-AUTO ONLY is placed on the receiver top, where it’s only visible when the takedown pin is punched out and the upper and lower receivers separated. That does mean that this firearm is an unsuitable host for a drop-in auto sear, but a DIAS is a rare thing these days.

Barrel: The barrel is claimed to be a perfect external match for the XM177E2 profile, except that it is ¾” longer, to allow a pinned and welded false moderator to make the barrel assembly legal Title 1 firearm length. The bayonet lug is ground off (as it was on original E2s). It’s impossible to tell from the available photos whether the profile just behind the moderator is correct (there should be a slight thickening here, as there is just behind the flash hider of an A1). The article says in different places that the front sight is an A1 and an A2 type. (The A1 is round in cross-section and tapered with five points of adjustment, the A2 is square-sectioned with four). The rear sight is an A1 type with A2 aperture.

Stocks: Here some of the most remarkable work was done: the six-hole early Colt handguard halves are reproduced, from the photos, accurately, and the plastic-covered aluminum alloy stock, long a sought-after part for retro-AR builders, has been duplicated. It’s unlikely that the plastic is the original vinyl acetate, and more likely it is a modern polymer (more easily handled, with fewer HAZMAT constraints), but the article only says “polymer.” The pistol grip is an original surplus M16A1 part (used).

Performance: In their testing, it was a 2½ inch gun over 5-shot groups at 100 yards. This far exceeds the military specification but it’s not great for a modern carbine. It’s adequate for most things you’d hunt with an AR, and perfectly fine for home defense, but most Troy XM177E2 buyers are buying for the nostalgia vibe more than as practical shooters. It’s not a dreadful choice as your only AR (especially if you’re buying in the context of a US martial rifle collection)

Disclaimer: Troy contributes $50 from each XM177E2 sale to the Special Forces Association and the Special Operations Association. Your humble blogger is a full life member of both organizations. Troy’s generosity to these groups has not influenced our opinion of its rifle — as we have yet to handle one, we’ll form that opinion when we do — but we are thankful for the company’s support of Special Operations veterans.

Tentative Conclusion: It’s an interesting rifle and we’re going to look for one to try out. We’re really interested in comparing it to the forthcoming Colt version. Competition should improve the breed!

Errors in the Article

We hate errors, but we make them as much as the next guy, so we understand how they get out there. Still, the sheer quantity of them in the Book of the AR-15 article was a disappointment. For example, it suggests that 55-grain bullets didn’t work well with 12-inch rifling; it’s actually the 63-grain M855, plus any heavier bullet like common 75 and 77 grain match ammo, that isn’t stabilized by 1-in-12 rifling. (The faster rifling in this rifle works well with all ammunition weights, so it’s something of a moot point).

For another example, it suggests the original XM177s did not have chrome-lined barrels (they did). It also elides the various dead-end forerunners of the XM177E2, including not only the first two 177 types, but also Colt’s Models 605, 607 and 608, all of which contributed to the definitive carbine design. The article is correct, however, to note that this original firearm was the forerunner of just about every short and adjustable AR derivative in military and civilian use today.


Thing from the Vault: Barnett Enfield (Real, or Darra Adam Khel?)

Some of you who have hung out with us have seen this long gun and its cousins, and heard the story of how it came to catch a C-17 ride home wearing a GI souvenir tag, and palletized in a purpose-built wood box with a number of its brethren. Exactly how and why your humble blogger became the FFL Type 02 (Pawnbroker) equivalent for a remote and allegedly Taliban-infested valley is a story to be told face to face, but suffice it now to say that such a thing happened, and a variety of antique oddities lounge about Hog Manor in consequence thereof.


We are about the furthest thing you can imagine from expertise on British black powder guns, so our answer to the question in the title is more a matter of supposition and deduction than it is of confidence. But we believe the rifle to be a Pashtun copy, made at some unknown time by hand, probably by the gunsmiths of the Adam Khel tribe in their home city, Darra Adam Khel.

Some of the reasons are: the light-colored no-name wood of the stock; the uncertain-looking brass parts, which look more like they were cast by cottage industry than by a mid-19th Century industrial plant; the spiral seam in the barrel, where it was made by hand-forging a rectangular bar in spiral form around a mandrel; the flimsy sheet metal piece opposite the lock; the weird heads, threads and alignments of the screws.


On the other hand, the engraving is clear and without misspellings. Since many Darra gunsmiths are illiterate in any language, you frequently see mirror-image letters and other wierdness in inscriptions. The lock date (1869) is much too late for a P53 Enfield, but it could be a P59, a similar musket made in smoothbore strictly for the use of native troops in British India. So it could be a P59 that has, over the last near sesquicentury, become the host to many repaired and replaced native parts.


Click more to see some more of the uneven and sometimes crude construction, and many character-rich repairs, of this venerable firearm.

Continue reading

Land Nav: Terrain Features and “Seeing” Them

terrain features on contour mapAn understanding of terrain features is necessary for land navigation.

If you are in terrain with high relief (think of the Swiss Alps), then you’ll have no trouble at all.

Consider how terrain features look when you are on them. (The Army, whence we stole these graphics, also teaches you to visualize the terrain features by looking at your fist and hand. An example of how that do that is in this presentation).

hill is easiest, and its a very common feature. From the summit of a hill, the ground slopes down in all directions. On the map, it is the center of a ring or rings of contour lines.

depression is opposite of a hill. It is fairly rare, but in a depression the ground slopes up in all directions. Such a feature is rare because nothing shapes terrain as inexorably as water, and water seeks an outlet. If it does not find one, in due course, it makes one. Depressions either are in very very arid climates, have some means of draining water direct down out of the bottom, or evolve into lakes or ponds. On the map, a depression looks like a hill — a circle — except that it has tickmarks on the low side, the inside of the circle.

terrain features on contour mapIn a saddle, the ground is higher in two directions that are approximately 180º from each other, and lower in the other two directions offset at 90º from the high ground. On the map, the saddle is where the lower contour lines on a hill merge to also wrap around the adjacent hill.

A more common feature puts you in a place where the ground is higher on three sides and lower on one. Depending on the dimensions this is a valley or a draw.

fig6-10._valley and drawWe think of the grounds at Hog Manor as “level,” but they aren’t, really, it’s more an illusion created by the previous proprietor’s landscapers. You actually have to go down a half-flight of stairs to get to the garage, but from the same point, up a full flight of stairs  to get to the Music Room over the garage. The half-flight is absorbed by a high ceiling in the garage, preserving the illusion of a building with all its modules on the same level, until you start doing mental math. It’s architectural trompe l’oeil, and is so common most people never notice it.

In the front yard, this non-levelness manifests as two almost level areas with a retaining wall in between. In the backyard, a variety of stone features try to conceal the slope, but the ancient 18th or 19th Century stone wall between lawn and wood betrays the true slope of the terrain.

So the real understanding of “level” is — compared to what? We grew up on a less level lot, where careless riding mower operation could (and did) roll the mower. We had a similar experience, learning land navigation in the hills and mountains of New England, and then going to Fort Bragg where one must sink or swim in a navigation environment with much less relief.

In that case, you have to learn to look straight in the distance in the various directions around you, and be able to see where the ground is higher and lower compared to your standpoint — even if the height difference is only a hand’s breadth or two. Once you visualize where it’s higher or lower, you should see just that on your map. In time and with practice, the correlation between map and ground gets to be second nature, and is only disrupted if you are in a new location with very different relief. Even then, the more experience you have, the more easily you orient in new physical environments.

Footlocker Find: Exercise Cards

One of the joys of being a pack rat is that occasionally you find a forgotten treasure that you saved when almost nobody else did. One of them is this exercise TOC card from, if memory serves, exercise REFORGER 81.

exercise_cards exercise_cards02

Exercise Cards are used to identify exercise participants, sometimes for the play of the problem, and sometimes for local authorities, In the 1980s, Federal German authorities were used to foreigners running around their country with rifles. Every fall, REFORGER (which was a test and demonstration of REinforcement of FORces in GERmany) brought most of US Army Europe out of the field and brought a lot of US Army not Europe over for a few weeks of hard training and at least a couple nights of revelry.

Cards were issued to our Fort Devens-based team by the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, who isolated us at and launched us from Bad Tölz that September. As the team LNO, your humble blogger also had an exercise TOC (tactical operations center — buzzword for command post) and Isolation Area access card. You can see a faint blue ink notation LNO at the top of the obverse of the card (left). The Trojan Horse crest, with lightning bolt and wings, is the original 10th SF Group beret flash; rejected by the Army Institute of Heraldry, it remained (and remains) an informal but powerful symbol for SF elements in Europe, in 1981 the 1st Battalion at Tölz. The signature at the bottom is, we think, that of Captain Arthur Muschamp, the S1 (personnel officer) of the battalion, whom we all recall as a native-fluency speaker of German, and a great guy. The reverse of the card has a box where a mugshot, a number, or color-coded access strips could be placed, and a drawing of the Special Forces shoulder patch. No tab yet (it wasn’t invented).

Here’s another card from the dim and distant past. This is a Fieldcraft Exercise card from Special Forces Operations & Intelligence Course, Special Warfare Advanced Skills Division, in 1988-89. This is a more typical exercise card in that it includes contact information for “real world” emergencies.


Two small alterations have been made to these cards, for security purposes. Your Humble Blogger’s Social Security Number, then used by the Army as a universal identifier, has been erased, and the radio frequencies have been similarly erased, in case our Russian friends still have the tapes somewhere. (The phone numbers were published in the base phone book, so we let them stand).


We wouldn’t be shocked to see further exercise cards surface over the next months and years. God knows we had enough of them.

Land Navigation Part 3: Compass and Pace

Sergeant First Class Roner was probably of average height, or a little above, but thanks his bearing he seemed tall. He had broad shoulders and the lean build of an all-round athlete, and a mop of curly black hair that was cut by a barber who knew what he was about. He completed the image with gold-framed and mirrored Ray-Bans, a Rolex Submariner, and a set of camouflage fatigues that were tailored just enough to underline the fact that he took pride in his martial appearance, and not too much so we could all see that he was not a garrison soldier who would dress impractically. On the instructional podium, which is where we knew him from, his native Panamanian accent was offset by a natural actor’s — or maybe a trained one’s, for all we knew — projection and diction. He was altogether the sort of thing we called Hollywood, which in our circles was not a term of endearment.

And we might have been just a wee bit jealous, because SFC Roner already had his, and he was a gatekeeper who stood athwart our path to having ours. Special Forces qualification, that is. In a minute he was going to release us on the Day Land Nav course, aka the Star Course, and in the next three days or so about half of us would be gone.

Rrrolex time isss,” he announced, and gave us the time hack. One of the other instructors had tried to hand him a bullhorn; he didn’t take it. He didn’t need it; we were so on edge that he could have whispered, but his voice carried across the broken camp. “You have eight hours from release… in five, four, three, two, one go!” 

And at that most of the guys went. Some of us took a moment to confirm an initial azimuth and then we trotted off, counting each step. Over the next two days we’d walk, run or jog almost 50 kilometers by day and 18 in the dead of night, with ruck, rifle and gear, hitting multiple points, each one usually miles from the last. It was hit the points, or hit the truck. You didn’t want to hit the truck.

How did we do it? With two essential tools: compass and pace, and an ancient form of navigation called Dead Reckoning. Dead Reckoning depends on the principle that if you begin from a known point, and then make a movement of a given azimuth for a given distance, there is only one point you can be at when you stop.

In a flat, unobstructed world, all you would need is a map, to plot your start and end points;  a compass, on which you could set your azimuth; a pace count, which translates your steps into real distance; and willingness to trust those tools, to go to anywhere you can walk to on land.

In the real world, there are more problems but there are also more tools you can use. The difference between the graduates and the recycles (or NTRs) at SFQC was often those extras, because by this point, you had map, compass, and pace count down. 

The Map and Azimuth

GI Declination Diagram

This is a declination diagram (this one’s from this post, where the use of one is explained).

Plotting your course on the map requires you to know where you are. (There are various ways to determine this, if you’ve become, in Daniel Boone’s terms, “a mite bewildered.” But let’s assume arguendo that you know that, for now). And it requires you to know where you’re going.

Now, draw a line between Point X and  Point Y — if you can go straight. (You might need to make your course several shorter legs because of obstacles). If you must make a turn, make every effort to make it on a recognizable terrain feature. “I’ll be on the summit of this hill, and when I turn to my new azimuth there will be low ground on three sides and a saddle on my right.” Note the distance. “It’s 1700 meters.” Now do the next leg, and so on to your destination. Time spent plotting is never time wasted; you’re impressing the expected terrain in your mind. (Maybe not the first time you do it, but soon enough, with practice).

Now go back over your legs and look for additional checkpoints. “At 700 meters, on the first leg, I cross power lines. From there it’s 1000 meters to my turning point on the hill. On the second leg there’s a lake on my right; it should be closest to me at about 2100 meters down that leg.”

Military protractor

Military protractor

The azimuth? It’s simply the angle at which your course diverges from magnetic north. But your map is marked with convenient grid lines that are not aligned with magnetic north, so you have to adjust your grid azimuths to magnetic azimuths. Failing to do that, or forgetting the step because you’re too tired, is a traditional ticket out of Special Forces training and down the road to the 82nd Airborne Division. NTTAWWT.

The Army provides two cheats that help you determine your azimuth. One is a clear plastic square with 360 degrees marked on it, called  a “protractor,” and the other is the “declination diagram” on the map which tells you how much grid north is offset from magnetic north right here and right now. Many models in the Silva compass line include a clear base with similar markings. The instructions for using the declination diagram are marked right on the map, but most folks will never do it successfully in the field if they haven’t done it at a desk at least once before. But if you do it right, you now have a map azimuth for each leg.

MARSOC (er, Raider) Special Operations Officer 0370 candidates in training. USMC Photo.

MARSOC (er, Raider) Special Operations Officer 0370 candidates in training. USMC Photo.

Time spent plotting is never wasted, and shortcuts in plotting will not help as much as you think.

The Compass and Azimuth

Compasses usually have some kind of ring that you can set so that the north-seeking arrow is aligned with magnetic north while some indicator on the compass points towards your destination — or at least your next checkpoint. This ring in the service is called the “bezel ring” which is redundant, but there it is. (The compass maker often uses just “bezel.”)

Silva type compass

The Silva compass is practical and simple, although it’s not as effective for two purposes as a genuine military lensatic: for such things as calling artillery fire or otherwise taking a bearing, one, and for use at night, because the military compass includes tritium ampules in the needle and orienting indicator. (You can get some after-dark use out of the Silva by sticking luminous material to the base to backlight it). The Silva is great at picking up your azimuth from the map for you (remember to correct for declination with military maps and as needed).


It can be difficult walking in a straight line in some environmental conditions. For example, in forest you cannot see very far. So, line up your azimuth, pick a prominent tree in line with your azimuth, walk to the tree, and shoot the azimuth again, pick a tree — repeat as needed. Once you have your tree or other target picked out, you can just walk there and don’t need to play with the compass. (When you’re new at this, you’ll probably do a lot of crosschecks as your confidence builds. That’s OK!)

In this manner you can walk straight and avoid being turned around, even when you have to walk for miles and miles.

Pace Count

OK, so we’ve solved half of the polar-coordinate problem that is navigating by Dead Reckoning, to wit, azimuth, or, for the vocabularily challenged, “the left-right thing.” So we know where to go; how do we know then next piece of vital information, when to stop? We do it by counting our steps.

To establish your pace count in a given terrain (and while bearing a given weight, because load-bearing changes your gait), you need to count your steps over a known distance on similar terrain. Walk the same distance course several times in both directions, then average your total steps, then reduce to a rate of steps per 100m.

Then, when you’re walking, count your steps by the hundreds of meters, mentally cross-checking the expected terrain. When you make it to 100m, by pace count, note that and start counting again. At first you will constantly cross-check terrain against your pace count (“Should I be crossing a road at 450 meters?”), but in time you will come to use it confidently.

Put it all together, and with map, magnetic compass, and pace count you can go anywhere (well, you’ll have problems in the far arctic or antarctic. But in the temperate, tropical and subtropical latitudes most of us dwell in, you’ll be pretty mobile cross-country.

There are advantages to this. Most of humanity, and in First World countries almost all of humanity, is road-bound. With a map, a compass, and two good legs, you are not.

Army’s New Compact Semi-Auto Sniper System (CSASS)

We’re far from the first with this story, but we hope that means we can get it right. (Not everybody has). First, a picture:

Army Compact Sniper System 2

Then, the key facts:

  1. The Army wanted a new semiautomatic sniper system to replace the Knight’s Armament Company M110, the more general issue version of the successful Mk11 SOF SASS. They wanted to meet or exceed the performance of the M110, suppressed, in a lighter, more compact firearm.
  2. Every single entry was SR-25/M110/AR-10 based.
  3. Unlike some Army procurement boondoggles (cough Modular Handgun cough) the competition proceeded without much drama. A shortlist was developed, more tests conducted, and a contract awarded.
  4. The winner was Heckler & Koch Defense Inc, the Virginia-based subsidiary of the Oberndorf firm.

Enough facts, here’s another picture:

Army Compact Sniper System

Here’s the meat of HK’s press release, available with more boilerplate on their website:

Ashburn, Virginia —Heckler & Koch Defense Inc. was awarded a contract worth up to $44.5 million from the U.S. Army for a new compact sniper rifle. The Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS) will provide the service with a small, lightweight, highly accurate weapon, addressing a critical need to replace older and heavier rifles currently in use.

Under terms of the award, HK Defense will produce up to 3,643 rifles. The new HK rifle is a lightweight variant of the 7.62 mm G28 in use by the German Army. The HK CSASS capitalizes on the proven G28 design, meeting the Army’s requirements for accuracy, reliability, and size. Heckler & Koch will also provide spare parts, support, and training to the Army.

“This award represents another significant achievement for Heckler & Koch,”said Wayne Weber, President of Heckler & Koch USA. “The HK CSASS rifle is a substantial upgrade over the Army’s current sniper rifles, enhancing accuracy and reliability while providing for a handier, more compact arm. It also confirms Heckler & Koch as a leader in providing small arms to the U.S. military.”

Knight’s Armament, which competed but didn’t make the shortlist, issued a statement that’s a model of corporate class, and perhaps a gentlemanly brushback against some of the subtext in Weber’s statement:

For over a decade Knight’s Armament Company (KAC) has produced the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) for the U.S. Army. The M110 semi-automatic rifle was the first purpose built U.S. semi-automatic sniper rifle fielded.

The Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS) competition was driven by evolving requirements pioneered by KAC products in use by today’s warfighter. Government competition drives industry innovation. Industry’s common goal is getting the best product to the warfighter as quickly as possible. Knight’s Armament Company congratulates the winner of the CSASS program.

Knight’s Armament Company continues its long tradition of innovation, design and manufacture of premier small arms, small arms accessories and night vision for the U.S. military.

While the contract looks great for HK — who wouldn’t want to land a $44.5 million account? — it leaves the company facing considerable risk. That number is what HK stands to take in if the full 3,643 firearms are ordered. But the contract only guarantees a buy of 30 rifles for QA/QC testing (and possibly an Operational Test as well). That would leave HK trying to recoup its development costs against only about $375k in revenue. So how different is the CSASS from the earlier G28 version of the HK 417? Here’s a G28, “Patrol” variant:

HK G28 Patrol Rifle

Among the immediately visible changes:

  1. Changed scopes;
  2. Delete forward assist. In fact the whole upper is different (on Bundeswehr G28 it’s steel and significantly heavier);
  3. Changed furniture;
  4. Delete muzzle brake, add suppressor;
  5. Color
  6. back-up iron sights (CSASS uses Troy’s at 45º).
  7. Modular rather than 100% picatinny rails.

The whole package costs the US a good stiff amount, about $12,000 — but less than the same number of M110s or Mk 11s would go for!