What does it take to be an SF sniper?

People ask about sniping all the time. Thing is, the basic standard for SF shooting is pretty high, and it’s kept that way by constant training — really, by constant shooting. It’s no longer 1980 where you have fifty rounds per man per year (and the teams illegally buy their own ammo to keep from getting hopelessly rusty). By the time a guy’s been through SFAUC a couple of times, and done a couple of deployment train-ups, he’s shooting with very great accuracy and speed.

And he still has a chance of flunking SF Sniper School. (Of course, some of that training edge wears off during a long deployment). The school, which was renamed from the euphemistic Special Operations Target Interdiction Course as part of a 2007 reorg, takes eight weeks and graduates around 60 percent of the men who try — all of whom are qualified Special Forces or other special operations men, selected by their units to attend the course. There are four must-pass gates that account for almost all the 30-40% attrition in each class:

  1. The initial diagnostic shoot is a pass-fail event that validates that the shooter can really shoot Expert on the 300-meter range,  using the M4A1 over iron sights. It’s very simple: the soldier fires five 5-shot groups at a 25-meter target with an M4. Three or more of the groups must be 1 1/4″ or tighter. This is the first event of the course, and failures are returned to their unit with their unsuccessful target as a souvenir — which will doubtless be discussed with their commander and sergeant major.
  2. The sniper-marksmanship exam is a pass-fail event. It tests fundamental sniper skull and shooting skills. Failures leave the course at this point.
  3. The field-shoot exam is a pass-fail event. It tests fundemantal sniper skills and stalking skills.
  4. The overall course standard is 70%. Sometimes a student (and it’s usually one who has been barely passing the must pass events, while failing some of the many non-mandatory graded exercises) reaches the point where there is no longer any way by which he can hope to achieve 70%, like a team that is mathematically eliminated from the possibility of entering league playoffs, Unlike the sports team that plays out his regular season, the struggling sniper student is sent “home” to his unit.

The diagnostic test’s standard of 1 1/4″ groups is not arbitrary. First, it’s trigonometrically sound: 1 1/4″ at 25m subtends the same arc as a group that would all be within a standard E type silhouette (20 inches wide by 40 high) at 300m. Second, it’s validated by experimental data: when the course admitted soldiers who failed to group within 1 1/4″, moving the threshold to 1 1/2″ as a test, about 85% of the men who shot the tight groups passed the course, and only half of those who met the lower standard. Therefore the standard has a real and documented relationship to course graduation.

Shooting is not the only thing — or even, often, the most important thing — a sniper does. (The intelligent eyes on target may be worth much more than lead on target). So while the course does teach a lot of sniping skills, and sniping-support skills, such as spotting and advanced reconnaissance methods.

SFSC is not the only path to sniper enlightenment. The Department of Defense operates no less than seven formal sniper schools.  A rare Army student may attend another service’s Tier One sniper school as an exchange student. The Army also conducts a sniper school focused on the needs of Big Green, at Ft. Benning. It is rare for SF shooters to attend that school. And each SF group can run a Tier II sniper school itself — if its instructors are certified by SFSC.

The sniper course is conducted in classrooms, in the field and on a specially-built 400-meter range that is used exclusively by the sniper students and one other Special Forces advanced-skills course. Soldiers primarily shoot the M2010 and M24 Sniper Weapons Systems, but also do day and night shoots with the Barrett M107 .50 caliber rifle and the semi-automatic sniper system (SASS), currently the 7.62mm M110, a militarized Knight’s Armament Co. SR-25.

The hand-held ballistic computer or PDA allows unprecedented accuracy in the real world. The sniper programs the data or “dope” for a specific rifle (not a specific model, but a specific serial numbered individual rifle and scope). Then, at the shooting site, range, elevation, location and meteorological data are used to provide a specific firing solution. With the .300 Win Mag rifle, students are making successful first-shot hits on claybirds (4″ diameter) at 800 meters.

While holes-in-paper accuracy is the price of a ticket for an SF soldier (who can be any SF MOS — medics are often great snipers), the school’s focus is relentlessly tactical. Along with the single-target “money shot,” multiple target and moving target engagements are exercised. The art of invisibility, via camouflage in place and via stealth in movement, is inculcated in future snipers.

The night shooting events are extremely critical. Special Forces is, and always has been, a largely nocturnal animal. Every single weapon in the inventory has the ability to accept night-vision equipment. And the night-vision scopes are absolutely universal in SF units — there’s one for everybody, at least of the Gen 3 image-intensifier type. (Bulkier and costlier thermal devices are only issued a couple per team at the moment). Troops not only train to fight the current enemies at night, but also any potential peer competitor, who could be expected to have sophisticated night observation devices of his own.

In the end, an SFSC graduate is a better shot with every weapon, a master of all of SF’s various sniper systems, and better at fieldcraft. He is also better able to train his teammates and his counterparts in conventional or foreign units in basic or advanced marksmanship and in field skills. A a result, the course remains popular with the soldiers who attend and the officers who rely on their skills.

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