On Military Marksmanship, Strategy, and the Future

I haven’t been terribly sure what to write in the last couple of weeks. I injured my foot while slacklining two weeks ago, and that has made practicing some positions extremely uncomfortable. Work and school has been dominating my time, but I think those are about to be scaled back a bit (thankfully). There have been several great posts in blogs I follow, though. I’ve been mulling around a few subjects, so forgive me if this post is a bit unfocused.

It started with a quote that John put up at the firearms user network. The quote was from General Omar Bradley upon being asked what he would do differently if invading Normandy again. His answer: “I’d concentrate on Marksmanship.”

And while I don’t have much more than a passing interest in the whole American militia movement, I did find a collection of interesting links at the American Mercenary blog.

Lastly, as part of my master’s coursework, I’ve been reading quite about General Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke, if you’ve never heard of him, was the preeminent military mind of the late 19th century who is responsible for quite a bit of the radical change in warfare methods at the turn of the century. Many of the current practices that the US military performs today, like the way we organize staffs, the color coding of war games (blue vs red), and methods of political engagement, are all directly attributed to Moltke’s methods. He is even the originator of the modern axiom, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Though, his version was a bit more verbose: “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”

In any case, the recurring theme that I’m seeing throughout these readings it the same thing that Jeff Cooper and many others have espoused all along. The ability of a rifleman to hit their target quickly and under pressure is extremely valuable. From a straight warfighting standpoint, killing the enemy is how firefights are won. From a logistics standpoint, it helps reduce the demand on supply lines, as less ammunition is expended in order to achieve the victory in that firefight. From a psychological standpoint, watching one’s comrades-in-arms fall to accurate small arms fire while being unable to return the same is extremely demoralizing. American military history is rife with such examples, going back to Daniel Morgan’s riflemen during the Revolutionary War. American Marine’s earned a nasty reputation during the battle of Belleau Wood, and Soviet snipers terrorized the Nazis at Stalingrad.

It is worth noting that the shift in warfare from massed units squaring off on the field of battle (think Revolutionary war) came during the industrial age, when the accuracy and capability of small groups of riflemen made such formations extremely deadly. Moltke was one of the driving forces in rethinking how forces should be mobilized and employed with this new technology.

In any case, my view is that the original principles of war have never changed. But the improvements in technology have resulted in heightened capability of each individual to place “mass” onto a specific point in time. Whereas a company of Redcoats would line up to fire a poorly aimed volley of lead shot, a modern rifleman can place a single shot exactly where he means to, and do it repeatedly as fast as he can squeeze the trigger. A squad of riflemen can do it even more effectively with a variety of weapons.

Following WWII the US Army undertook a study to understand exactly how infantry rifles were being used, and how they could be improved upon. The results showed that most small arms engagements occurred within 100 meters, and death by small arms became essentially random past 300 meters. That study, combined with another ballistic study undertaken in 1930 that demonstrated the effectiveness of relatively small caliber high velocity spitzer pointed projectiles, resulted in the development of the 5.56 cartridge and the M-16. That decision has been mired in controversy for years, with many people trying to “correct” it. From the development of the 6.8 SPC II and 6.5 Grendel to the calls to resurrect the .276 Pedersen, a lot of people are demanding a more capable intermediate cartridge.

Now, I am not an infantry guy. But I do like looking at the big picture. I do believe that our military has become more reliant on technology and hardware than it should. The cost of all these shiny hardware solutions comes at the expense of the software side of things (i.e. training). I do not believe that we will develop and adopt another standard issue small arms rifle so long as we continue to use brass cased cartridges in their current form. The system is too well understood, and performs reasonably well when the mission is paired with a good ammunition selection. That said, the M-16/M-4 platform is the longest serving service rifle in US military history, and there is room for improvement.

I think that the importance of solid marksmanship should never be diminished. Any future rifle will have to be accurate. Not match rifle .75 MOA accurate, mind you, but accurate enough for an individual to be confident in his effectiveness when equipped with magnified optic. It should be of modern material and lightweight. In my mind, I envision some kind of light alloy skeleton wrapped with a polymer body. The weapon should be modular, capable of being configured for any role from PDW to DMR relatively easily. For ammunition, I imagine something between 6mm and 7mm with modern bullet construction using some kind of lightweight case-telescoped technology would enable an individual to carry the same amount of ammunition they do now, but with a big heavier of a bullet. I would also develop a separate cartridge for rifles than for the LMG. That’s not to say that they can’t use the same ammunition, but I think our experiences with M855 have shown that ammunition developed for use in machine guns does not always make an ideal rifle round.

I also imagine that in several generations, the type of computerized optic technology seen in Tracking Point will be sufficiently ruggedized and miniaturized that it becomes standard issue.

In any case, the end result of my rambling is this: tactics and technology will always change. But the importance of an individual being able to place precise aimed fire upon a target will always be a driving factor in success. There are jokes abound about the Taliban marksmanship skills (or lack thereof). But these should be a lesson to us. Being able to hit what you can see, and doing it quickly, will save your life.


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