One day, as I stepped up to get into the bench seating area where we controlled the targets, someone yanked on a target. Between my inattention and his carelessness, the metal frame whacked me right in the head.
Oops. Suddenly there was blood everywhere.
This happened to be the day we were first sighting our .300 Win Mags. This was crucial: when first getting a new weapon we would have one day to dial it in, get all our elevations, and get the feel of the thing. I could not miss that day. I couldn’t miss any day. So they ran me out to the doctor’s, cleaned me up, slammed seven staples into my head, and ran me back to Coalinga. Within a few hours of the incident, I was back on the range, sighting in my new weapon. My head was pounding with every shot, and it felt like someone was nailing a steel spike into my skull. Tough. Deal with it. Adapt and overcome.
A few weeks later, right after finishing the shooting phase, Gabriele and I had our official wedding ceremony and reception. (We had managed to keep the secret from my family.) Fortunately, my hair had grown in just enough so that the staples didn’t show in my wedding pictures.
Along with the shooting drills, which kept us busy for up to eight hours a day, we also had extensive classroom work, which we did mostly during the heat of the day, sandwiched in between sessions on the range. We would get up early and shoot all morning, then do our classroom and practical exercises during the early afternoon hours, when the heat was at its height. In the later afternoon, we’d head back out onto the range and practice on the guns again.
Every few classes we would be tested on whatever we’d learned. As with the shooting tests, it was either pass or you’re gone, no in between.
One of our classes consisted of a series of drills called keep-in-memory exercises, or KIMs. As a sniper, there are times when you have only a brief glance at a situation, and you have to be able to fix it all in your memory almost instantaneously. These exercises were designed to hone our capacity for accurate snapshot memory.
The instructors would lay a tarp over an array of objects, bring us in and stand us in front of the covered array, and then yank off the tarp, giving us thirty seconds to look at everything and memorize it all before the tarp went back to cover everything. Then we’d have to write it all down. Or they would scatter a series of objects over a hillside, and we’d have to scan it quickly with our binoculars and in that brief glance pick out everything that was out of the ordinary.
We also did very detailed target sketches, similar to the KIMs: In a given amount of time, we would have to sketch a target in detail and also record all sorts of data. From which direction was the sun shining? What were the weather patterns? Where were possible helo insertion points? Helo extraction points? Exactly what was happening right around the area of the target? Digital cameras and laptops had not yet become the ubiquitous technologies they are today, and we had to do our field sketches and record all this information by hand.
Some of our most extensive classroom study was in the area of ballistics, including internal ballistics, external ballistics, and terminal ballistics.
Internal ballistics is what’s happening on the inside of the rifle. When your firing pin hits the bullet’s strike plate, it sets off an initial powder charge, and the exploding powder creates a rapidly expanding gas bubble, which propels the slug, or front portion of the bullet, through the chamber. It’s very much a miniature version of a rocket ship launch: Just as the rocket discards its boosters once it’s in flight, the rifle ejects the empty cartridge, sending only the relatively small front portion on its journey. In the rocket’s case, that’s the capsule that houses the astronauts. In the bullet’s case, it’s the death-dealing slug.
The inside of the rifle’s barrel is inscribed with a series of spiral grooves, or rifling (where the term “rifle” comes from). This puts a fast spin on the bullet, giving it stability in flight, much the way you put a spin on a football when you throw it. Internal ballistics has to do with how many twists there are in the barrel and their precise effect on the bullet, how fast the bullet travels, and how it’s moving when it exits the rifle.
This is where external ballistics takes over. Your bullet will start its journey at a velocity of over 2,000 feet per second. However, the moment it emerges from the barrel its flight path is already being influenced by its environment. Leaving aside for the moment the effect of wind, there is a universal drag created by the friction of that ocean of air the bullet pierces through in order to fly, combined with the downward pull of gravity. At a certain distance, different for different weapons and ammunition, your particular rifle bullet slows to the point where it passes from supersonic to subsonic. As it eats through the yards at rates of something like 1 yard every 1/1,000 of a second, the integrity of its flight path becomes compromised. A .308 bullet traveling at 2,200 feet per second will lose its flight-path stability to the point where it starts tumbling head over heels by about 900 or 1,000 meters out.
External ballistics is also about exactly what that flight path looks like. When you shoot a .308 at a target 800 yards away, you’re not shooting in a straight line; it actually makes a pretty big arc. Imagine throwing a football from the 50-yard line to the end zone. You don’t throw it straight toward the goal. Instead, you know you have to throw it upward so that it arcs through the air, hitting its high point at about the 25-yard line and then curving back down to reach the end zone. The same thing happens with the .308 bullet. You’re not shooting it in a straight line; you’re really throwing it up in the air so that it arcs and comes down where you want it to. Understanding exactly how that works can have a make-or-break bearing on successfully hitting your target.
For example, let’s say you’re shooting at something 800 yards away. In the terrain lying between you and your target, you notice a low-hanging bridge. From all appearances, that’s no problem. Your target stands at maybe 5’8″; you are lying on the ground, on your stomach; and the bridge is a good 10 feet off the ground at its lowest point. When you sight down through your scope at the target, you can see a clear pathway from you straight to the target. No problem, right?
Wrong. That bridge may not look like it’s in the way—but when you take into account the arc your bullet needs to travel to land at your projected site, that bridge could be lying directly in the path of what we call the bullet’s top arc. In other words, it could stop your bullet cold, halfway to your target. And in the kinds of circumstances a sniper will often be facing, you may not have the luxury of a second shot. You have to know your bullet’s maximum ordinate, that is, the maximum height that bullet will reach on its path to your target, and calculate for that.
Once we had mastered the M-14 we moved on to other weapons, starting with the .308 bolt action Remington, a very solid weapon and quite capable out to 800 or 900 yards, in the right hands. This was our first look at a real scoped weapon—and right away, I knew had a problem. There was a Leupold scope on one of my guns that just didn’t seem quite right. I pretty quickly realized that it wasn’t maintaining at zero: it was slipping off. There was no way I could shoot with a scope that wasn’t reliable.
These weapons are not delicate; they’re made to withstand the rigors of combat. However, they are pieces of precision machinery, and they’re not infallible. For example, the barrel of a .300 Win Mag is only good for a few thousand rounds, and then you shoot out the barrel and it starts losing accuracy. We were shooting thousands and thousands of rounds.
If your gun starts to malfunction in the middle of a shooting evolution, the instructor might assume it’s you. In a lot of cases, he’s right. In some cases, though, the weapon really is shot out, or there’s some kind of equipment malfunction. We had a few guys who were excellent shots but got flushed out of the course because they had the bad luck of getting a weapon that didn’t have a good log and was legitimately shot out, and they didn’t yet have the skills or know-how to deal with it right away.
I was determined not to let that happen. My first shooting test was coming up. No way was this faulty scope going to flush me from sniper school. I told my instructors about it, and when they didn’t do anything I kept bringing it up. I wouldn’t let it rest. Finally, they got an armorer out there from Crane, the navy’s ordnance testing division. He looked at the scope and said, “Yeah, you have a bad optic.”
Thank God. I easily could have flunked out in my first test because of a messed-up scope.
At the same time that we started working with scopes on the .308, we also started working in pairs, taking turns as shooter and as spotter. The shooter’s job is to put everything else out of his mind, take the information the spotter feeds him, and make a perfect shot, period. As we soon learned, the spotter’s job is in many ways more complex and more difficult.
As spotter, you are on the spotting scope, identifying and monitoring the target. Your job is to calculate windage and give target lead if necessary (that is, how much to compensate for the target’s movement). As spotter, you also watch the shot trace, which tells its own story and either proves the call dead-on accurate or gives important clues for correcting the next shot. Yes, even though it is traveling at speeds of 2,000 feet per second or more , you actually watch the damn thing. In most cases, you can literally see those vapor trails all the way in to the target.
The spotter has to take all these considerations into account—and we had to learn it all in a hell of a hurry, or we would be going home.
Even aside from the fact that we were friends, Glen and I soon found that we made an excellent sniper pair. Glen is a naturally gifted marksman. I don’t remember him ever missing a single shot, and most of his shots were perfect 10s. For my part, I seemed to have a natural gift for reading the wind and being able to calculate all the conditions and circumstances. Again, I think this had to do with my experience with navigation and having grown up in the water. Water currents and wind currents may be two very different things, but it is really the same basic concept, albeit in different media and moving at many different speeds. When you’re sailing or boating, you’re always thinking, What’s the weather doing, how is this affecting my point A to point B? It’s the same dynamic when you’re preparing to fire a bullet. I’m here, my target’s there—what factors are affecting my getting from here to there?
Reach your hand down into a stream or lake, and you might notice that it looks like it juts off as if your arm were suddenly bent at a sharp angle. Likewise, when you see a trout in a stream, it isn’t located exactly where it looks like it’s located. This is because the light is refracted by the body of water, creating an optical illusion. The same thing happens in the atmosphere. When the sun is low in the horizon, it creates the same kind of refractory optical illusion, and you have to compensate for that in your aim, maybe dial it down a minute of angle.
With my knack for spotting and Glen’s natural gifts as a shooter, we made a deadly pair. Plus, we were both new guys, and we felt the same pressure to get this right. We’d have a few beers at night, but we didn’t drink or carouse much. We were focused on staying locked on tight and getting through this thing.
Not that there was much in the way of nightlife anyway. Coalinga is a small town, with a prison, some farming, and not a whole lot more going on. On rare occasions, we went out for a drink or got a bite to eat in town. Most often, though, we’d make a big bonfire right there where we were camping, drink a few beers, and tell each other crazy stories.
One guy, Ken, had a Penthouse magazine and would lie there at night in his sleeping bag jerking off, thinking he had all the privacy in the world. Unfortunately, he had this headlamp switched on so he could see his damn magazine, and as a result, he would unintentionally be giving the whole camp a shadow-puppet show on the wall of his tent. “Goddammit, Ken, quit jerking off!” we’d yell out. “Or at least turn off the damn light!”
The range had a nice little grass campground complete with a kitchen and a restrooms/shower area. All the students were instructed to bring a tent and kit. Most of the guys traveled pretty light. I take just what I need, and it all fits in my pack. Guys in the teams had a saying, “Pack light and mooch.” My saying was “Don’t pack light—pack right.” Not Glen, though. As I soon learned, Glen liked to travel in comfort, which meant plenty of extras. He was like a one-man gypsy camp. He must have gone out and bought the biggest tent he could find at the local Kmart; that thing could have slept a family of 10. He had three fuel-burning lanterns, a radio, a coffeemaker, a generator—it was out of control.
We were partners, so my tent was right next to his. I love Glen like a brother, but this was torture. That son of a bitch would be up and about for a solid hour before the rest of us even started thinking about opening our eyes, and once he was up it was nearly impossible to stay asleep because his gypsy encampment lit up the whole side of my tent. First I was awakened by the blinding white glow and steady hum of his Coleman exploration power lanterns. Then the sounds would start: his percolating coffeepot, then some sort of eighties rock music blaring through his earphones, which he thought we couldn’t hear but in fact only made him even more oblivious to the extent of the racket he was making, messing around with all his stuff, clattering around and getting his coffee ready, burping and farting but not hearing himself because he had those earphones in, then followed by his electric toothbrush, endless loud gargle, and the invariable lengthy punctuating spit that made us all groan. After a week or so of this daily routine, the guys began referring to Glen’s morning ablutions as “Chernobyl.”
If I had my choice, I would pull myself out of sleep maybe twenty minutes before we had to muster up, giving myself just enough time to brush my teeth, throw some water on my face, and grab my gear. But no. I tried for days, but it was not possible. Finally, I succumbed and started letting Glen be my alarm clock.