One, thousand, two, thousand… six thousand, THWACK!

Operation Enduring FreedomOf course, from the point of view of the Taliban, nobody knew anyone was counting down. It was just thwack! out of the blue, and their commander was instantly among 72 virgins, clean young boys, or, possibly, goats. (Hey, we’re non-judgmental about Taliban lifestyle choices around here).

His fellow Talibs didn’t know what or who killed him, or why. But his death was an instant, undeniable, and demoralizing fact.

The men who knew the answers were lying prone a mile and three-quarters away. They were Australian snipers from D Coy 2 Cdo, and they’d just shot him with a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle. Chris Masters in the Telegraph (AU):

Two marksmen using Barrett M82A1 50 calibre rifles simultaneously fired. The bullets were six seconds in the air. One killed the Taliban commander. It is not known for certain which sniper fired the fatal shot.

While there have been no triumphant press releases, in the tight global Special Forces sniper community the shot is much discussed, because it seems certain to be a world record.

As the bullet yawed through the thin air on a windless morning, GPS aids measured the distance at 2815m. That amounts to 2 1/2 times the length of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The targeted Taliban would not have heard the gunfire.

The previous world record achieved by British Corporal Craig Harrison occurred also in Helmand in November 2009. Firing from a distance of 2475m, Harrison killed two Taliban.

While British, American and Canadian sharpshooters are often celebrated the Australian Defence Force says nothing. When I sought to check this story I was politely told I could not be assisted. Fair enough. We are not talking about an Olympic event. An expert I did prise a few words from said that shooting at that distance beyond the weapons capability calls for luck, but it had still taken skill.

That’s a reasonable assessment of the shot. Even a smith-tuned Barrett with painstakingly crafted handloads isn’t going to shoot minute-of-hadji at a mile plus. Not consistently, anyway. A rack-grade Barrett with MG ammo is already off a man-sized target half the time at 1000m. Hence the redundant shooters.

This is not only the longest shot we’ve heard of, it’s the longest Barrett shot by far. (Most of the really long shots have been with bolt guns).

Of course, we don’t know how many unsuccessful shots have been taken at this range. This is really way out over the ragged edge of what is routine for elite snipers; it’s barely possible, with a little luck.

When Masters says, “The targeted Taliban would not have heard the gunfire,” he’s probably referring to the arrival of the lethal projectile well ahead of its trailing sonic shockwave or the atmospheric-limited muzzle blast, but depending on the atmospherics, there are good odds the surviving Talibs didn’t hear the gunshot at all. (It would reach them, if it did, several seconds after the sickening thwack! that announced their leader’s demise).

This kind of sniping is extremely stressful and strain-inducing to the element under fire. The conventional military countertactics don’t work when your assailant is “out there” somewhere. Your element’s deaths seem fruitless, pointless, and they go unavenged. And the point of the sniping is, not merely to slay enemy leaders but to sow just this sort of psychological corrosion.

Only accurate, effective sniping produces the full effect in the enemy’s mind.

The Commandos are among the last conventional Australians to redeploy to their home island/continent, but any relief the Taliban feel needs to be somewhat tempered — the OZ SOF are planning to stick around for four or so more years. And any one of the Talibs could be six seconds — or less — from thwack!

10 thoughts on “One, thousand, two, thousand… six thousand, THWACK!

  1. Aesop

    As our colleagues from the junior service are fond of saying about supersonic noises:
    “That ain’t noise, brother, that’s the sound of freedom!”

    Good on the pair from Oz and their mates, for this exercise in delivering the mail, and taking out the trash.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Depends on where he’s zeroed, and heavily dependent on the ballistic coefficient of the bullet. Just SWAGing it, assuming a 1000 meter battlesight zero, he’s down about 100 feet at 2000 meters and close to 300 at 2800. Right about 2500-2800m most .50 rounds will go subsonic which does bad things to accuracy (and worse things to your ability to calculate bullet drop). Drop is also dependent on density altitude and the relative altitude of shooter and target. At high altitudes, ceteris paribus, bullet drop is less than at sea level. If you’re shooting up or downhill, the drop’s a little less because of the trigonometry involved (it goes a shorter distance and is affected by gravity’s 9.8m S^2 acceleration for a shorter time). Portable ballistic computers can do the distance if you give it the angle; most sniper schools expect you to do it with a pencil and table of sines/cosines. Much bitching by sniper students who thought they need never see that stuff again when they graduated high school. Biggest bitching by officers with liberal arts degrees.

      I don’t know what scope the Aussies have on their Barretts. The Barrett BORS does some of this calculation for you. US Army standardized on Leupold mildot scopes, SOF sometimes use Nightforce or high-dollar imported glass (Schmidt u. Bender, Swarovski, etc).

      1. Bill K

        If I’m doing the math right, 1 MOA @ 2815 meters = 0.82 meters, so apart from the bullet drop and windage (and assuming a perfectly horizontal shot), even in the most ideal circumstances, it sounds like a 50/50 proposition that the bullet would even strike a fatal blow, as opposed to random lateral dispersion.
        Out of curiosity, I tried to solve for Coriolis effect, assuming the shooter was aiming straight north at 34 degrees north latitude for Afghanistan, but the math proved too complicated for me.
        That led me to the Wikipedia article on External Ballistics, which discusses drag curves, including the disruption near transonic flight, vertical angles and air density, as you mentioned, Hognose, but also spin drift and some effects I hadn’t even heard of: Magnus effect, Poisson effect, & Eötvös effect.
        I guess my 15 hours of calculus based college physics just aren’t up to real-world problems anymore! (And it’s tough to do differential equations after 35 years of neglect)

        A trained sniper must have quite a tome of data to be able to pull off a shot like that without any giveaway practice shots. And I also assume that these days, it must all be stored into some PDA so as to be able to lay hands on the figures in a hurry in the field, right?

        1. Hognose Post author

          A precision rifle (which the Barrett isn’t, entirely) with match ammunition is not a 1-MOA gun any more. (ETA: more like a small-fraction-of-one-minute, these days). This is really an amazing and improbable shot with a Barrett. The two previous record shots were with an AI .338 Lapua mag (British sniper) and a Robar bolt .50 with a Lilja barrel (Canadian sniper).

          There are a number of ways to compute ballistic data. There used to be slide rules (linear or circular “whiz wheels”) and there’s now a variety of phone, pad and laptop apps.

          Things like Coriolis are pretty small for rifle ranges (even extreme ranges like this) but factor in to longer-range ballistics, i.e. artillery and rockets.

        2. dennis stehle

          as i recall, differential equations were difficult on a daily basis.However, officers with a liberal arts ba,were putty in my hands.The sergeant major loved me, so i ran the place!spank the butter bars and send them home! Who runs the MARINE CORPS anyway? would you rather have a 2nd john, or a solid, tested sergeant, backed up by the toughest sgt. major that ever lived(Francis McDonald)

  2. Ken

    What do you suppose those cruel and ruthless shooters felt as they assassinated that helpless freedom fighter? … RECOIL!

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