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Personal Weapons Qualification.
I didn’t originally think about saying anything about this because it seems so mundane to me, but maybe it isn’t like that for others. I know that there are a lot of people in our Army who don’t know how the Marines do it, and vice versa, so I’ll spend a little time on it.
The first time I qualified with a rifle was during boot camp in the Marine Corps in 1968. I went through boot camp at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego, California. The rifle ranges are actually at Camp Pendleton, an hour or so away from San Diego. Near the end of boot camp we were bussed up to Camp Pendleton for two weeks of training and qualification. It was very important to qualify with the rifle in the Marine Corps because every Marine, no matter what he or she really does for a living, is considered a rifleman.
During the first week, nothing that we did, other than keeping ourselves and our barracks clean, had anything to do with anything except rifle marksmanship training. Things changed very little between this first qualification and my last one, in 1982. I’ll be as accurate as my memory will allow with this, but after a while it isn’t really necessary to think about what you are doing very much, so things get a little blurry.
Marine rifle qualification is very stylized. There are four positions that are fired from at three different ranges from the targets. The requirements for the positions are still very strict and a shooter can lose points or be thrown off the range if they don’t use proper form. At the two hundred yard line I believe we fired 10 rounds ‘standing’ (sometimes called off-hand), and five rounds each kneeling and sitting. Even the sitting position is not as easy to do properly as it sounds. At the 300 yard line I believe it was 10 rounds kneeling slow fire and 10 rounds sitting rapid fire. At the 500 yard line it was very definitely 10 rounds prone, slow fire. This at least gives the right number of rounds even if I messed up on the distribution. Each round is worth a maximum of five points, depending on where it hits. The two and three hundred yard slow fire is fired at bulls-eye type targets. The three hundred rapid fire is fired at a silhouette of a figure from about mid-chest up. The target at 500 yards is a silhouette from about mid-thigh up. All of these targets are just paper cutouts pasted onto eight foot by eight foot wood rimmed cardboard panels that are run up and down in a set of two carriages connected by chains and sprockets. The shooters work in two shifts, one running the targets while the other fires. Notice that there are three targets but only two carriages. While the shooters are moving from the 200 to the 300 yard line, and the 300 to the 500, the people in the target ‘butts’ are cleaning up, repairing targets, replacing patches and any damaged spotters, and changing target panels.
I’ve never been very limber and have always had trouble with the kneeling position. Ideally the shooter has the right leg flat on the ground from the knee to the tip of the toe, and I mean flat, and that isn’t easy to do wearing boots. The sitting position can be almost as bad because of the requirement for ‘bone to bone’ contact between both elbows and their corresponding knees. Prone isn’t bad except that really good form requires an extra joint in the left arm, I think.
My first qualification was just the kind of fiasco you might be expecting from me. I had never fired any kind of a weapon before, but I thought that I had the general idea, and I had certainly had the classroom training. There were a lot of other people in the platoon that had never fired a weapon before either, so it wasn’t extremely difficult to look better than average on the first day. On Tuesday, I shot better. On Wednesday, I shot even better and the drill instructors somehow let me know that they had high hopes for me. On Thursday, at the 500 yard line, my rifle blew up in my face. There was an immediate cease-fire and one of my drill instructors ran over to me. “What the %*((%^$ did you do to my rifle?” he yelled. I could barely hear him, had no idea, and was to shaken to say anything anyway.
This was before the M16. We were firing the M14 that uses the 7.62 NATO cartridge and had an exposed bolt. I was told later that they thought that what had happened was that I had a defective firing pin that broke with the tip protruding from the bolt. Slow fire is always fired with a magazine installed, so the bolt would lock to the rear after every shot. To chamber next the round we dropped it on top of the magazine follower and tripped the bolt latch to chamber the round, then took it off safe and fired. The fact that the rifle was still on safe when the drill instructor got to me is probably the only thing that saved me from being court-martialed for destruction of government property. Every now and then, even now, I have piece of wood or brass that works itself up to the surface of my skin and has to be picked out.
Anyway, my rifle was severely damaged and it was the day before qualification. Getting sighting data for a rifle with the trajectory that those M14s had takes a little time, but the next day they gave me a new (only slightly used) rifle and I went out to qualify. I qualified . . . as a Marksman. The proverbial ‘silver toilet bowl’ because it is actually a representation of the target and the concentric rings look just like a toilet bowl if you are already in a bad mood. Fifty rounds at a maximum of 5 points each is 250 points. I understand that there are a number of people who have shot a 250, more often called a ‘possible’. 250, naturally, is Expert. Anything between 210 and 219 is Sharpshooter. Anything between 190 or maybe 195 and 209 is a marksman. Anything less is an ‘unq’ and this affects career progression. I think I managed to drag out a 207 that first time.
The Army is considerably different and my personal belief is that a combination of the two methods would be better than either by itself. It doesn’t take two weeks for qualification in the Army. When it is time to qualify you get your rifle, go to the range, shoot, leave and that is it. Maybe half a day tops. You fire from whatever position you are comfortable with, from behind a berm. The targets were automated at all of the Army rifle ranges I fired on. There are no scoring rings on them. The range operator pops up all of the targets at a particular range from the firing points at the same time and the shooters shoot. If the target falls down before the buzzer, it means that the shooter hit it. If not, they missed. (Or maybe the target mechanism is defective, which does happen. Sometimes, though, it is in the shooter’s favor because the target doesn’t lock in the up position and falls over immediately.) They are at ranges between 50 meters, where you only see the head, to 300 meters where you see from about mid-thigh up and I think they stay up for either three or five seconds. During that time the shooter has to estimate how far away the target is in order to know where on the target to aim, and get a round off.
My first qualification in the Army was very interesting. I was going through ‘Minuteman’ training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, about 45 minutes away from my family’s home. Minuteman was a program that the Army had instituted near the end of the Vietnam conflict for re-integrating prior military people into the Army. It may have lasted a month, but I don’t remember. I met some remarkable characters there, and we were a real handful for our drill sergeants. I had started Minuteman in mid-November of 1974 after having been out of the Marine Corps for three years and a few months.
For our first qualification we were trucked out to our range with our rifles and dropped off. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground but the really odd thing was that we were the only ones there. No drill sergeants, no range personnel, no one else but us. There was a tent that we all immediately occupied and it had electricity, but there was no fuel for the stove. (This was the first time I had ever seen a stove that needed to be lit.) So we stomped around in the snow, which was even fairly deep inside the tent, for about an hour and then the range crew showed up. Due to the weather they had had problems getting some of equipment essential to running the range safely. We were all pretty disgruntled by that time and didn’t feel much like lying in the snow to shoot, so we were out of there very quickly. I found out some time later that I had fired Expert which turned out to be a very good thing for me later on. This was my first exposure to the M16 except for a 15 minute class when I was still in the Marines, but we didn’t receive any real instruction on how to take it apart or anything like that during Minuteman.
I qualified expert with the M1911A1 pistol several times while I was in the Army, and with several other weapons but the only bar I ever wore on my Army Expert badge for any period of time said “Tank Weapons.” That was after my crew and I fired Distinguished during tank gunnery the first time.
So I wound up back in the Marine Corps in 1983, after having been out of the Army since 1979. I had a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering but I couldn’t find a job after nearly a year of looking. I took a reduction in rank to Sergeant and felt very lucky. I was assigned to TOW Platoon 2nd Tank Battalion, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. (TOWs are Tube launched, Optically tracked, Wire guided anti-tank missiles. My recruiter told me that I would have plenty of opportunity to transfer to one of the tank platoons based on my experience. Somehow that just didn’t happen before TOW platoon 2nd Tanks was broken up into three other tank platoons and I ended up in TOW Platoon 6th Marine Regiment, attached to Headquarters Company, rather than Weapons Company for some reason.)
Anyway, I wasn’t looking forward to my first rifle qualification of my second tour in the Marines because I had never been able to do better than Marksman during my first term in the Marines. Sure enough, I shot well (with the M16, which I had become quite familiar with in the Army,) for the first few days of the week but fired Marksman on qualification day. I think I did that about three times. Finally, I had the opportunity to attend a marksmanship course provided by the instructor staff at the range. I decided that I was going to do better. I got my eyes checked and tried wearing glasses. I shot Marksman. I tried lucky talismans and shot Marksman. I tried everything I could think of, I thought, and shot Marksman. I was in despair. Maybe I really wasn’t good enough to do any better.
Finally, my engineering background suggested that I had not properly analyzed the problem. I got out the data books that every Marine is supposed to fill out at the range, and some do, from all of the times that I had been to the range during that term of service and really took a look at what was in there. These books probably cost a lot for the uses that they are usually put to. There are spiral bound and have most of the basic marksmanship instructions in them as well as data entry forms showing the targets on graph paper for every type of target for every day of qualification week. For every round that you fire you are supposed to mark where you think you had your sights set on the target when you fired, and where the round actually hit, and the resulting score, along with information on prevailing winds and weather conditions for each phase. I knew, subliminally, that the standing (off-hand) was not a good position for me. Looking at my data books showed me that standing was terrible for me. I was so-so at kneeling. I was passable at sitting, especially rapid fire, and I very seldom lost more than 7 points out of 50 at the 500 yard line. I also noticed that I hadn’t even been keeping good records of my miserable efforts at the 200 yard standing slow-fire.
The next time I went to the range I concentrated on the off-hand that is the first phase. We had 20 minutes, I think, to fire 10 rounds. I usually blasted them all off in less than five. This time, after every round, I sat down on the shooter’s box, marked my data book with where I thought I would hit, checked to see where I actually did hit, prepared a plan, and then just sat there for a few seconds. I fired my last round for the phase after the two-minute warning. I got 46 out of a possible 50 points. I was ecstatic. I KNEW I was going to be an Expert, at last. Then, at the 300 yard line rapid fire, I fell apart. I think I lost 20 points there and my Expert badge was slipping away, point by point. I ended up with a 217, Sharpshooter. The badge is a lot cooler than for Marksman because it is basically a Maltese cross with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor of the Marine Corps superimposed. I was still bummed out.
I got it right the next time and shot somewhere in the 230s. The best I ever did was a 237, I think, and I thought that would get me an award for the highest qualifier for that week, but I was beaten by my squadron’s Admin Chief, a very young sergeant who I happened to like, but could have happily choked to death after he told me how he beat me. One of the things we were supposed to keep in our data books was exactly what windage and elevation our sights were set at for every round. I was religious about this. My settings were different for each phase, and I was very careful to make sure that everything was exactly right before I started a new firing phase. (This would be extremely impractical in a combat situation.)
The young sergeant told me that he had fired on his unit’s competition rifle team in Okinawa because his shooting record was pretty good, but he always had trouble at the 500 yard line. The other people on his team, most much more experienced than he was, finally realized that he could not see the green silhouette on the target very well from 500 yards. So, after some experimentation, they came up with a solution that worked too well for my liking. He didn’t ever change his windage or elevation between the 300 and 500 yard lines. Instead, he lined the top of his front sight post up, as well as possible, with the top center of the target panel and fired. The trajectory of the cartridge was such that it would drop into the center of the silhouette at that particular range. If he was off to either side a little bit, he would make whatever adjustment was necessary, but he NEVER shot either high or low at the 500 yard line.
I would like to spend a few words on target detail just because I always enjoyed it. I’ve explained the carriage setup that was close to identical on Marine Corps ranges where I fired at Camp Pendleton (where the ranges are actually, I think, near Camp San Onofre) Camp Lejeune (where the ranges are actually at Stone Bay), MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina and Camp Butler (I think) Okinawa. Poor target service is a bad thing. You can really mess someone up by being inattentive or just plain slow. You are looking up at an 8-foot by 8-foot target panel, on which a ¼ inch hole may appear anywhere, anytime, during a firing phase. Your job is to notice that the hole has appeared, immediately haul the carriage down, pull the spotter out of the previous hole, if there is one, and stick it into the new hole then cover up the old hole with a piece of tape of the color appropriate to match the background of that hole. You are not allowed to go to sleep, fall down, damage the target carriage, miss holes, use the wrong size spotter (there are three sizes), use the wrong colored tape, let the target fall out of the carriage during high winds, or get scared when a stray round hits the berm, the target carriage, or a spotter pin.
I’ve seen a number of spotters shot out of targets. It makes a really nasty noise. Its kind of amazing when someone puts two consecutive rounds through, essentially, the same ¼ inch hole, especially when they are firing from the 500 yard line. I haven’t seen it happen very often at the 500, but I have seen it. The ‘butts’ control tower is always yapping at your heels if you are slow, but it is much worse to be complained about from the firing line. Promotions often depend on little things like rifle scores. I’ve always tried my best to provide good target service, and I don’t remember very many complaints. Although firing shifts usually consist of at least three people who are supposed to take care of the target they were shooting at when they are on target detail, sometimes that doesn’t happen. I’ve probably spent about 1/3 of my target pulling time alone. I like it that way and I used to be good enough to do it very well.
It’s another one of those strange Marine Corps things.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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