UK — Lessons from Helmand are honing skills of Army’s top shots

Up-to-the-minute lessons being brought back from south­ern Afghanistan’s front lines are redefin­ing marks­man­ship with­in the Army; changes brought into sharp focus dur­ing the 2010 Cen­tral Skill-at-Arms Meet­ing. Report by Stephen Tyler.

Soldiers at the CENTSAM now have to shoot from several positions, including crouching
Sol­diers at the CENTSAM now have to shoot from sev­er­al posi­tions, includ­ing crouch­ing
Source: Graeme Main, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

For sharp-eyed marks­men serv­ing in Britain’s Armed Forces there is no greater prov­ing ground than the ranges at Bis­ley and neigh­bour­ing Pirbright. 

The Sur­rey facil­i­ties have host­ed gen­er­a­tions of sol­diers keen to show off their shoot­ing prowess by drop­ping to their belt buck­les and patient­ly deliv­er­ing ultra-accu­rate shots into tar­gets hun­dreds of metres away. 

But while the sharp­shoot­ing set’s actions retain a place in the cen­tres’ folk­lore, their con­tem­po­raries need to dis­play an increas­ing­ly dif­fer­ent set of skills to earn entry into the crack-shot elite. 

The annu­al event for the best Ser­vice shoot­ers, the Cen­tral Skill-at- Arms Meet­ing (CENTSAM), is shun­ning its old-school sta­t­ic seri­als in favour of action-packed, quick­fire ver­sions inspired by the bat­tle-win­ning tech­niques being used on Op HERRICK

Major ‘Clem’ Clem­son, an incom­ing mem­ber of the Oper­a­tional Shoot­ing Train­ing Team based at the Army Rifle Association’s (ARA’s) head­quar­ters at Bis­ley, is con­tin­u­ing a dri­ve to use the lat­est feed­back from the­atre to make small arms tuition and com­pe­ti­tions as rel­e­vant as possible: 

“Oper­a­tional expe­ri­ence is dri­ving every­thing we do,” he explained. “I don’t think the stan­dard of shoot­ing in the Army has slipped, but where we strug­gle is in find­ing the time to do the live-fir­ing training. 

“It’s impor­tant that we do find the time because marks­man­ship will only get more essen­tial in the future. 

“To use a golf­ing anal­o­gy, Tiger Woods is the best play­er in the world because he prac­tis­es, but he put his clubs down for a cou­ple of months and was nowhere near that lev­el when he came back.” 

Exam­ples of the CENTSAM’s tran­si­tion into the here and now were not hard to come by at the Army Oper­a­tional Shoot­ing Com­pe­ti­tion (AOSC). Where his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tes­tants would lie down in the prone posi­tion before tak­ing their time to zero in on dis­tant tar­gets, the AOSC adopts a much more phys­i­cal approach. 

Sev­er­al indi­vid­ual con­tests now require sol­diers to fire from kneel­ing and stand­ing posi­tions to mim­ic the sit­u­a­tions they will encounter in Hel­mand province. 

The long-estab­lished Para­chute Reg­i­ment Cup has been tweaked to make it oper­a­tional­ly-rel­e­vant. Teams now have to com­plete a case­vac (casu­al­ty evac­u­a­tion) with a 75kg dum­my over 300 metres and car­ry ammu­ni­tion tins along the range dur­ing the fran­tic move-and-fire shoot. 

The claus­tro­pho­bic nature of the mod­ern bat­tle­field has also been tak­en into account with the intro­duc­tion of a close quar­ters marks­man­ship (CQM) match. 

The dis­ci­pline tasks per­son­nel with advanc­ing to com­bat along a 100-metre range, switch­ing from rifle to pis­tol for the final sec­tions to sim­u­late what they would have to do if their weapon mal­func­tioned. And new tar­gets have been intro­duced to help train sol­diers to improve their aim. 

Major Peter Cot­trell, of The Princess of Wales’s Roy­al Reg­i­ment, is the Army’s Chief Instruc­tor of Oper­a­tional Shoot­ing and Marksmanship: 

“This is very intense — you have rushed mag­a­zine changes, the tran­si­tion from rifle to pis­tol and so on. The meth­ods we use are designed to give sol­diers a real test,” he said. 

“You can’t just lie down on the ground wait­ing for a tar­get to pop up any­more because that is just not realistic. 

“The idea with the new tar­gets is to hit a cen­tral area of mass. They are small­er and so are the scor­ing areas, so we are putting a lot of pres­sure on peo­ple to hit them.” 

After grap­pling with the new tar­gets, per­son­nel pro­gressed on to the sec­ond half of the CQM match which chal­lenged them to advance onto a series of mov­ing objects and engage them from both stand­ing and kneel­ing positions. 

Range offi­cer War­rant Offi­cer Class 2 Jason Ade­wole of the Small Arms School Corps (SASC) said that the updat­ed set-up tests sol­diers’ abil­i­ty to adopt dif­fer­ent stances and car­ry out their drills with min­i­mal command: 

“The guys are hon­ing their skills and work­ing on their accu­ra­cy. Once they have that they can take it into the­atre and the rest should fall into place,” he said. 

“The tar­gets move and the guys need to be able to bring on the skills they have already got and engage them using the meth­ods they have been taught. 

“We need them hit­ting those tar­gets with the min­i­mal amount of rounds.” 

While the CENTSAM is the jew­el in the ARA’s crown, the Oper­a­tional Shoot­ing Train­ing Team’s work­load does not drop off out­side the com­pe­ti­tion period. 

Mem­bers of the team reg­u­lar­ly trav­el to dif­fer­ent units to pro­vide train-the-train­er pack­ages in the lat­est techniques. 

War­rant Offi­cer Class 1 Lee Jenk­ins (SASC) vis­its brigades to deliv­er expert coach­ing ahead of their deploy­ment to the­atre and the senior sol­dier hoped that his ses­sions, com­bined with refreshed con­tests like the AOSC at the CENTSAM, are mak­ing the art of shoot­ing enjoyable: 

“The guys see the things like the tran­si­tion between weapons and it rekin­dles the love for shoot­ing,” he said. 

“Get­ting people’s inter­est back is impor­tant and I think we are mak­ing inroads into get­ting back to basics and real­ly con­cen­trat­ing on mak­ing sol­diers bet­ter at shooting.” 

Com­pe­ti­tion to become a mem­ber of the Army 100 — the Service’s top shots each year — or even claim the Queen’s Medal for being the best of the best remains as high as ever at the CENTSAM. But long-dis­tance accu­ra­cy is only half of the sto­ry. Those fir­ing in anger in Afghanistan require phys­i­cal robust­ness, men­tal agili­ty and absolute mas­tery of their weapons and the ded­i­cat­ed mem­bers of the Oper­a­tional Shoot­ing Train­ing Team are ensur­ing that those vital skills are honed to perfection. 

This report by Stephen Tyler was first pub­lished in the August 2010 issue of Sol­dier — mag­a­zine of the British Army. 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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