Where Snipers Meet to Compete
Wall Street Journal
By MARK YOST
Fort Benning, Ga.
On a warm day in mid-October, two Army snipers crept into an abandoned building in a deserted urban landscape. Their mission? To find an enemy sniper team operating in the area and eliminate it.
While these countersniper missions take place almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, this particular one was part of the ninth annual U.S. Army International Sniper Competition. This year's event featured 31 two-man teams made up of Rangers, Marines and National Guardsmen, as well as sharpshooters from the U.K. Sniper Wing, the Connecticut State Police and the FBI's Los Angeles SWAT team.
According to the Army Sniper Association, the official purpose of the competition is "to bring teams together to share battlefield lessons learned, provide training initiatives and ideas, and to compete tactically and technically."
But it's also about bragging rights. Or, as Sgt. Mike Snyder, head of the Army Sniper School, said, "It's to identify the best two-man sniper team in the world."
To do that, the sniper teams—made up of one shooter and a spotter to help him locate and estimate the distance to the target—competed over seven days here recently, testing many of the skills they use on the battlefield. To make it more difficult, teams don't know anything about each mission until they show up on the range that day. Then they must gather their equipment, plan the mission and carry it out. At the end of the seven days, the team that has performed the best overall wins.
Among the events this year was a nighttime land-navigation exercise. Snipers had to stealthily make their way to checkpoints scattered across this sprawling base that straddles the Georgia-Alabama border and features steep wooded hillsides and snake-infested rivers. Other events included close-range pistol shooting, as well as firing at targets from a hovering helicopter.
While many of these events take place in remote locations, one event that the public could watch was "the stalk," which is exactly what it sounds like. The goal was to get within range of a small metal bull's-eye target and hit it without being spotted. To conceal themselves, the snipers donned ghillie suits, a draping camouflage mesh outfit that they adorn with local foliage, grass and dirt—anything that they think will help them blend into their surroundings. Then they creep and crawl, sometimes moving only inches at a time, until they have a clear shot at the target. All the time, sharp-eyed officials are watching for grass rustling, branches moving, or any odd shapes or colors on the landscape that would reveal the sniper team's position.
While the competitors—who asked that I use only their first names—said that all of the events were challenging, they found the long-distance shooting tests the hardest. That's because when they're shooting at targets 1,000 yards away, they must factor in wind, temperature, even barometric pressure. And then there's what snipers call "milling." The scopes they look through have small dots that help them gauge the distance to a target. But they must know the size of the target to figure the distance correctly. For these shooters, that target is usually a human torso. In fact, they're so good at figuring those distances that it's almost second nature to them. So to challenge them here the targets vary in size, from a playing card to a metal plate that's 19.5 inches in diameter.
"Milling was definitely the hardest part of the competition," said Ricky, 42, a Special Forces instructor at Fort Bragg.
Competitors said that experience—both in the real world and in this competition—is also a big factor here. Tim and Kevin are both instructors at the Armor School at Fort Knox, Ky., and have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as snipers. Last year, they competed here for the first time and it was, to use their words, "a complete disaster."
"After the first two days, we were dead last," said Tim, 29.
They eventually pulled it together and finished 12th overall. They came back this year and did much better, finishing second.
"The difference was definitely the lessons we learned here last year," said Kevin, 28.
Other snipers agreed that this is not only a great place to test yourself against your peers, but to learn.
"By coming here, we're picking up tips on procedures currently used in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Sgt. Uel Fisher of the Irish Defence Forces.
So who turned out to be the best two-man sniper team in the world?
A couple of sharpshooters from the Marine Corps finished first, followed by the snipers from Fort Knox, two Army Special Forces snipers and a team from the 82nd Airborne.
Teams based here at Fort Benning, home of the Army Sniper School, have won the past two years, but it shouldn't be a surprise that a team of Marines came out on top. After all, the Marine Corps is the only service that considers everyone—including cooks, accountants and even the commandant—to be a rifleman.
And that's what this competition is all about.