Vietnam Sniper Study

In 1967, the Army got the idea to study whether, how, and how effectively different units were using snipers in Vietnam. They restricted this study to Army units, and conventional units at that; if SF and SOG were sniping, they didn’t want to know (and, indeed, there’s little news either in the historical record or in conversations with surviving veterans that special operations units made much use of precision rifle fire, or of the other capabilities of snipers).

Meanwhile, of course, the Marines were conducting parallel development in what would become the nation’s premier sniper capability, until the Army got their finger out in the 1980s and developed one with similar strength. The Marines’ developments are mentioned only in passing in the study.

Specific Weapons

The study observed several different sniper weapons in use:

  • ordinary M16A1 rifles with commercial Realist-made scopes. This is the same 3×20 scope made by Realist for commercial sale under the Colt name, and was marked Made in USA. (Image is a clone, from ARFCOM).


  • Winchester Model 70s in .30-06 with a mix of Weaver and Bushnell scopes, purchased by one infantry brigade;
  • two versions of the M14 rifle. One was what we’d call today a DMR rifle, fitted with carefully chosen parts and perhaps given a trigger job, and an M84 scope. The other was the larva of the M21 project: a fully-configured National Match M14 fitted with a Leatherwood ART Automatic-Ranging Telescope, which was at this early date an adaptation of a Redfield 3-9 power scope. (Image is a semi clone with a surplus ART, found on the net).


The scopes had a problem that would be unfamiliar to today’s ACOG and Elcan-sighted troopies.

The most significant equipment problem during the evaluation in Vietnam was moisture seepage into telescopes. At the end of the evaluation period, 84 snipers completed questionnaires related to their equipment. Forty-four of the snipers reported that their telescopes developed internal moisture or fog during the evaluation period. In approximately 90 percent of the cases, the internal moisture could be removed by placing the telescope in direct sunlight for a few hours.

The leaky scopes ranged from 41% of the ARTs to 62% of the Realists. The Realist was not popular at all, and part of the reason was its very peculiar reticle. How peculiar? Have a look.

Colt realist 3x20 scope reticle(A later version of this scope, sold by Armalite with the AR-180, added feather-thin crosshairs to the inverted post. The British Trilux aka SUIT used a similar inverted post, but it never caught on here).

The theory was that the post would not obscure the target, the way it would if it were bottom-up. That’s one of the ones you file away in the, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” drawer. Theory be damned, the troops hated it.

The use of the rifles varied unit by unit.  Two units contemptuously dismissed the scoped M16s, and wouldn’t even try them (remember, this was the era of M193 ammo, rifles ruined by “industrial action,” and somewhat loose acceptance standards; the AR of 20145 is not the AR of 1965). The proto-M21s came late and not every unit got them. It’s interesting that none of the weapons really stood out, although the NATO and .30-06 guns were the ones used for the longest shots.

None of the weapons was optimum, but in the study authors’ opinion, the DMR version of the M14 was perfectly adequate and available in channels. The snipers’ own opinions were surveyed, and the most popular weapon was the M14 National Match with ART scope, despite its small sample size: 100% of the surveyed soldiers who used it had confidence in it. On the other hand, the cast scope rings were prone to breakage.

The biggest maintenance problem turned out to be the COTS Winchester 70 rifles, and the problem manifested as an absence of spare parts for the nonstandard firearm, and lack of any training for armorers.

Looking at all the targets the experimental units engaged, they concluded that a weapon with a 600 meter effective range could service 95% of the sniper targets encountered in Vietnam, and that a 1000 meter effective range would be needed to bag up to 98%. (Only one unit in the study engaged targets more distant than 1000 m at all).

Snipers were generally selected locally, trained by their units (if at all), and employed as an organic element of rifle platoons. A few units seem to have attached snipers to long-range patrol teams, or used the snipers as an attached asset, like a machine-gun or mortar team from the battalion’s Weapons Company.

An appendix from the USAMTU had a thorough run-down on available scopes, and concluded with these recommendations (emphasis ours):

a. That the M-14, accurized to National Match specifications, be used as the basic sniping rifle.

b. That National Match ammunition be used in caliber 7.62 NATO.

c. That a reticle similar to Type “E” be used on telescopic sights of fixed power.

d. That the Redfield six power “Leatherwood” system telescope be used by snipers above basic unit level.

e. That the Redfield four power (not mentioned previously) be utilized by the sniper at squad level.

f. That serious consideration be given to the development of a long range sniping rifle using the .50 caliber machine gun cartridge and target-type telescope.

(NOTE: It is our opinion that the Redfield telescope sights are the finest of American made telescopes.)

Note that the Army adopted the NM M14 with ART (as the M-21 sniper system) exactly as recommended here, but that it did not act on the .50 caliber sniper system idea. That would take Ronnie Barrett to do, quite a few years later.


The Effects of Terrain

Terrain drives weapons employment, and snipers need, above all, two elements of terrain to operate effectively: observation and fields of fire. Their observation has to overlook enemy key terrain and/or avenues of approach. Without that, a sniper is just another rifleman, and snipers were found to be not worth the effort in the heavily vegetated southern area of Vietnam.

In the more open rice fields and mountains, there was more scope for sniper employment. But sniper employment was not something officers had been trained in or practiced.

The Effects of Leadership

In a careful review of the study, we found that the effects of leadership, of that good old Command Emphasis, were greater than any effects of equipment or even of terrain. The unit that had been getting good results with the Winchesters kept getting good results. One suspects that they’d have continued getting good results even if you took their rifles away entirely and issued each man a pilum or sarissa.

Units that made a desultory effort got crap for results. Some units’ snipers spent a lot of time in the field, but never engaged the enemy. Others engaged the enemy, but didn’t hit them, raising the question, “Who made these blind guys snipers?” Sure, we understand a little buck fever, but one unit’s snipers took 20 shots at relatively close range and hit exactly nothing. Guys, that’s not sniping, that’s fireworks. 

The entire study is a quick read and it will let you know just how dark the night for American sniping was in the mid-1960s: there were no schools, no syllabi, no type-standardized sniper weapons, and underlying the whole forest of “nos” was: no doctrine to speak of.

Vietnam Sniper Study PB2004101628.pdf


16 thoughts on “Vietnam Sniper Study

  1. RobRoySimmons

    American Rifleman had an article years ago about Army snipers using night vision scopes on M-14s. Supposedly they kept it hush so the enemy could not adjust and they let the Marines garner the publicity which is par for the course.

    1. Hognose Post author

      When you have NV and the other side doesn’t, it’s a great advantage. Doesn’t mean you win. (The Syrians in 1973 had NV and the Israelis did not. Even though the Syrians were able to neutralize Israeli air power around the clock, and fight better at night, and even though they fought like the very djinn, the Israelis were on the road to Damascus when both sides agreed to an armistice.

      When you have NV and the other side does too, it’s just one more thing that can kill you out there.

  2. DSM

    I’ve seen the ACTIV report listed in reference elsewhere but have never read the original document before. That’s some great insight into the state of affairs as well as the mindset of envisioned employment.
    The Realist reticle is interesting because the inverted post was recommended well prior to Vietnam (by a Marine study IIRC…) as an aid to hold-over the target to compensate for distance without obscuring the target of course. This in the days before BDC dials or stadia lined reticles.
    What might make an interesting discussion is if employment of a Mk12 type rifle would’ve made any difference in any of the listed areas of operation.

    1. TR

      Hey, brother, that is an XM-21, not a semi clone.

      Look at the connector assembly and the selector sear release as well as the XM-21 painted on the receiver.

      You can also see the glass bedding.

      Great article though, thanks!


      1. Hognose Post author

        Good catch, TR. I ganked the image off (IIRC) an ARFCOM thread. Here’s the other side of the same rifle. Note the XM thumbscrew. Later mounts had a round knurled thumbscrew. Just sailed over my head!

  3. Brad

    Very interesting.

    I was surprised by the segment of the report which complained of the inaccuracy of available ammunition for the M16 ‘typically grouping five inches at 100 yards’.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Acceptance/retention criteria on the M16A1 was 7MOA. Bust that, and the gun gets sent for a depot rebuild. (And general consensus is that depot rebuilds are less accurate than factory new guns).

      1. Brad

        7 MOA? Holy crap! The M16/M4 certainly seems to have evolved into a good weapon today, but back when it first introduced? Just when I think the bottom has been scraped some new flaw is revealed.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Service standard for the M1 and M14 was no better. The problem is not with the firearm (although as each one was introduced, the target shooters stuck on Springfield/M1/M14 insisted it had no accuracy potential for years!) but with the organization fielding it. Of course, the Army does not want to pay its contractors to deliver 100% 1 MOA guns, even though some percentage of out of the box M16A1s (and a much higher percentage of modern A4/M4A1) were in fact 1 MOA guns and almost all are 2 MOA guns.

          Imagine telling the taxpayers this new infantry rifle will be better, and it will only cost $40k. Even the dollar-drunks in Congress might notice that.

  4. Gary McClenny

    7 MOA! Wow, and to think I never missed a target at 300 yards even with iron sights; how did I do that if the gun’s spread was 21+ inches at that distance? SSG, US Army, 1972-1979.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Obviously, the gun’s accuracy potential was far beyond the minimum standard, and it seemed to get better with time. The sights on US service rifles have always been good, and that’s a big factor in hitting those 300m silhouettes.


      minimum standards Gary, not the THE standard

      the M16/Ar15 is capable of 1 MOA or SUB MOA with true match ammo

      the Military did play around with heavier ammo for the M16 for long range shooting and sniper use early on. But they didnt take it any further for a variety of reasons at the time. twist rate being one the reasons during the 1/12 days of the A1

Comments are closed.