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
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.