WELCOME TO SNIPER SCHOOL

When Richard Bath got the chance to bur­nish his stalk­ing and marks­man­ship skills over three days in Ar­broath with the elite Royal Marines snipers, he jumped at this once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

Can our edi­tor cut it as a Royal Marines sniper?

Facts are friends, so when Cap­tain Ar­ron Broughton, the of­fi­cer who com­mands 45 Com­mando Group’s re­con­nais­sance and sniper unit, started rat­tling out a vol­ley of fac­toids, I was all ears. That the long­est con­firmed kill in the world was from four miles im­me­di­ately caught my at­ten­tion. But what re­ally made me sit up and take no­tice were the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the dis­arm­ingly or­di­nary­look­ing mil­i­tary men milling around amongst us at RM Con­dor in Ar­broath. To be­come Royal Marines snipers, I learned, th­ese guys have to be able to shoot an or­ange at 400 me­tres, guar­an­tee a first-shot kill at 900m, be able to hit a man at 1100m every time, and be able to pin a tar­get down with ha­rass­ing fire at 1500m.

I paused for a sec­ond. I quickly parked the info about the freak­show record shot from a Cana­dian us­ing a mas­sive-cal­i­bre sniper ri­fle de­signed to dent tanks, and in­stead fo­cused on what it takes to be­come a sniper in the Royal Marines. A rugby pitch is 100m long, so guar­an­tee­ing a hit at eleven pitches laid end-to-end seems an im­pos­si­ble feat. That’s like some­one in Ed­in­burgh’s Bal­moral Ho­tel guar­an­tee­ing they could shoot some­one in the Ca­ley at the other end of Princes Street – and hit them every time.

If the Cap­tain wanted to cap­ture our at­ten­tion, he had suc­ceeded. Over the next three days, our fo­cus rarely wan­dered as we sucked up an un­fea­si­ble amount of in­for­ma­tion on the science of snip­ing. Be­fore go­ing any fur­ther, it’s im­por­tant to ex­plain who ‘we’ are. Four years ago, in or­der to sup­port The Royal Marines Char­ity in gen­eral, and the haven of tran­quil­lity that is the 45 (pro­nounced ‘Four-Five’) Com­mando gar­den of re­mem­brance in par­tic­u­lar, it was de­cided that to raise funds a group of ten civvies a year could pay to ex­pe­ri­ence the life of a Royal Marines sniper. We were those ten civvies, the third such group to pass through Con­dor.

We all knew that this is an op­por­tu­nity that money has never be­fore been able to buy. Each of the ten was there be­cause they knew some­one who had been in the Corps, and so we all un­der­stood the priv­i­lege of work­ing, how­ever fleet­ingly, with the most elite sniper unit in the world. In­deed, it is an op­por­tu­nity that most Marines don’t get to try. Only a frac­tion of those who ap­ply are ac­tu­ally al­lowed to at­tend se­lec­tion, and of those that are given the nod to try, only about 10% pass. In all, there are only around 30 Marines snipers and less than 5% of Marines ever get to fire a sniper’s ri­fle.

Just how elite the unit is was demon­strated re­cently when the 200,000-strong US Ma­rine Corps, spooked by Pen­ta­gon war gam­ing models that showed the US would lose a con­fronta­tion with both China and Rus­sia, in­vited the Royal Marines to Amer­ica to test their bat­tle readi­ness. The idea was that a small group of Brits would play the part of ‘in­sur­gents’ and at­tempt to hold a desert out­post for two days while their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts tried to storm it. Ac­cord­ing to the in­de­pen­dent um­pires, the result was car­nage: us­ing lasers that mimicked real shots, the 22 Royal Marines from Recce Troop ‘killed’ 400 US Marines and blew up count­less forms of trans­port – in­clud­ing he­li­copters and ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers – while los­ing pre­cisely none of their own men.

Given that no-one in their right mind is ever go­ing to ask a portly 52-yearold with gout and dodgy knees to storm a desert re­doubt, you might ask why I wanted to be there. It was part

“To be a Royal Marines sniper you have to be able to guar­an­tee a first-shot kill from 900 me­tres

cu­rios­ity about the Corps, part de­sire to see and play with the hard­ware, but I also wanted to see if I could learn any­thing about be­com­ing a bet­ter stalker, a key com­po­nent of the three­day course. On our first evening, after Cap­tain Broughton’s in­tro­duc­tion, we civvies dis­cussed our mo­ti­va­tions for be­ing there. We were a mot­ley crew: a Miche­lin-starred chef, a field­sports jour­nal­ist, a fa­mous Amer­i­can songstress, a cou­ple of for­mer rugby play­ers and a smat­ter­ing of bankers. Some had even flown in from Hong Kong es­pe­cially for the event, one of them a boomerang from last year’s course. We all shared an in­tense yet re­spect­ful cu­rios­ity; there were no gung-ho gun=ob­sessed ya­hoos here.

After a lively evening in the of­fi­cers’ mess the pre­vi­ous evening, where we were for­mally in­tro­duced to one of the big­gest pri­vate whisky col­lec­tions in the world and in­ducted into the game of nails (a sur­pris­ingly tricky busi­ness in­volv­ing com­pet­i­tively bang­ing nails into a tree trunk), our first day’s train­ing kicked off with alka seltzer, fol­lowed by close-quar­ter ur­ban com­bat. This es­sen­tially in­volved clear­ing rooms mocked up from ply­wood in a huge han­gar on the base. Watch­ing the Marines work me­thod­i­cally in four-man teams, hug­ging close to max­imise the ef­fec­tive­ness of their body armour and allowing them to dom­i­nate the room, I was struck by the qual­ity of team­work. This was forged in the cru­cibles of Afghanista­n and Iraq, where do­ing this for real took a heavy toll and drove the re­fine­ment of this tech­nique. There was a good rea­son why this jun­gle of ply­wood rooms was an ex­act replica of the Iraqi killing ground of Fal­lu­jah.

Pre­dictably, our progress was con­sid­er­ably less slick and at times mildly sham­bolic, although the op­por­tu­nity to pump paint rounds from the Glock pis­tols and SA80 as­sault ri­fle into the ply­wood sol­diers in the rooms cheered us up, as did the tar­get prac­tise after­wards. De­spite the warm bon­homie from the Marines, there was a def­i­nite touch of Dad’s Army to our ef­forts. I think I may have been Pike.

Next came a masterclas­s in the snipers’ re­mark­able propen­sity for cam­ou­flage, which al­lowed them to be fifty me­tres in front of us yet re­main in­vis­i­ble. The bedrock of this abil­ity is the Ghillie suit de­vised by Si­mon Fraser, 14th Lord Lo­vat, the shaggy gar­ment which al­lowed the unit of High­land game­keep­ers he re­cruited dur­ing the Boer War to hide in plain sight. (Lo­vat also coined the sniper’s motto of ‘He who shoots and runs away, lives to shoot an­other day’.) Nor is Lo­vat the only Scot in the sniper hall of fame: one of the most fa­mous names in the sniper’s canon is Cap­tain Patrick Ferguson, the sharp­shooter whose re­fusal to shoot Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton in the back in 1777 ar­guably changed the course of his­tory.

As the day wore on it be­came in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent that very lit­tle of the sniper’s craft is about marks­man­ship. In­deed, when the com­man­dos un­dergo sniper train­ing, it is just one of

The un­of­fi­cial sniper’s motto is “he who shoots and runs away, lives to fight an­other day”

many skills they must mas­ter. Fit­ness is key, with sev­eral of the snipers also fit­ting in with the Corps’ motto of ‘By Sea, By Land’ by be­ing Moun­tain Lead­ers (one group of 45 Com­mando MLs crossed Skye’s Cuillin Ridge in un­der 16 hours, a re­mark­able feat). Cam­ou­flage, re­con­nais­sance, map-read­ing and an abil­ity to insert and ex­tract un­seen are highly prized, and dif­fi­cult to mas­ter as we found out when a day re­con­nais­sance was fol­lowed by a three-hour night ver­sion across the sand dunes while wear­ing heavy night-vi­sion op­tics. Shat­tered after an ex­haust­ing day, we fi­nally rolled into bed in the wee small hours.

Our next morn­ing was the main event. On the fir­ing range we had three types of ri­fles: the SA80, the 7.62mm cal­i­bre semi­au­to­matic L129A1 Sharp­shooter used pri­mar­ily by the spot­ter in a two-man sniper team, and the Ac­cu­racy In­ter­na­tional .338 cal­i­bre bolt-ac­tion L115A3 sniper ri­fle, which weighs in at 6.9kgs, costs up to £30,000 and in 2009 was re­spon­si­ble for two kills at 2,400m. This ses­sion on the range was where my ed­u­ca­tion peaked, not just in the dizzy­ing sciences of ar­ma­ments and bal­lis­tics, but in the more es­o­teric and use­ful skill of learn­ing when and how to breathe while shoot­ing. I’ve stalked a lot down the years and thought I had this stuff sorted, but thanks to my tu­tor Cam, I man­aged to hit the man-sized tar­get at 780 me­tres with all three weapons. Happy days.

By now, the re­mark­able pro­fes­sion­al­ism of Recce Troop, which had been ap­par­ent from the out­set, was con­stantly as­sert­ing it­self, whether it was the abil­ity of one 70kg sniper to carry 80kgs on his back for ex­tended pe­riod, or their ob­vi­ous prag­ma­tism un­der duress. Nowhere was this more true than on the fi­nal task to which ev­ery­thing else had been merely an hors d’oeu­vre – the stalk. The Marines nor­mally work in two-man teams with a sniper and spot­ter, but we formed a three-man team of two civvies and one sniper; our ob­jec­tive was to work our way to within 250 me­tres of an observatio­n post, and to be so well em­bed­ded that even after a shot had been taken, the ‘en­emy’

I man­aged to hit the man-sized tar­get at 780 me­tres with all three ri­fles. Happy days.

were un­able to see us. Our stalker Johnny rammed home to my­self and Carsten, the Ger­man be­he­moth who was sad­dled with me for sev­eral tasks, the seven S’s: shape, sud­den move­ment, sil­hou­ette, sig­na­ture, shadow, shine and spac­ing. Then off we went, fol­low­ing the line of an old rail­way track as we slowly flanked the com­mand post, crawl­ing on our bel­lies or pick­ing our way through im­pen­e­tra­ble gorse thick­ets (‘gorse is your best friend and worst en­emy’ said Johnny wryly).

Even­tu­ally we worked our way into po­si­tion, cut­ting our way deep into a gorse bush and stack­ing the loose branches around the ri­fle’s mod­er­a­tor. Carsten crawled into the hole, with Johnny act­ing as his spot­ter: he got one shot off but, un­be­liev­ably, the ri­fle’s si­lencer was spot­ted.

It was still a pass though, and Johnny seemed elated. So were Carsten and I, but for en­tirely dif­fer­ent rea­sons: this was one of the most re­mark­able and hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ences ei­ther of us have had the plea­sure to un­der­take, one where you learn a lit­tle about stalk­ing and ri­fles but a lot about your­self.

Above: The ten ‘civvies’, plus five Royal Marines snipers, at the end of the course.

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