Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The Mk. I Human Eyeball still remains the most effective target detection system.

“…eyes have they, but they see not;”

Psalm 135:16

“Sir, I would like to tell you that a man’s keenness or dullness of eye may determine whether or not he will live.”

Platoon Sergeant R. A. Zullo, 5th Marines, Guadalcanal

“There must be training in difficult observation, which is needed for the offense. It is my observation that only 5% of the men can really see while observing.”

Col. Merritt A. Edson, Marine Raider Bn, Guadalcanal

Target detection is one of the hardest steps in finding and engaging an enemy. In a country of ever expanding urbanization, a disconnect from the natural world, and a hectic “always faster” lifestyle, target detection has become a very difficult undertaking for many. Military sniper schools may teach this, but for the average combat arms soldier, the skill is mentioned only in passing in the manuals and seldom, if ever, actually practiced and developed in field training.

To me, a life-long hunter, it is almost second nature and it took me a lesson to realize that not everyone has “the eye”. This was brought home to me a couple of decades ago when I took my city-raised stepson on his first squirrel hunt. We eased into a nice patch of oak-hickory woods before first light, and say down with our backs to a big white oak to wait for the tree rats to make their appearance.

It was a good patch of timber. There were fox squirrels everywhere. Having shot my share over the years, I sat and waited for my partner to take his shot(s). And waited. And waited. Finally, after about an hour, he whispered that he had had enough, having not yet seen a single squirrel.

“Whaddaya mean? They’re all around us.”


That little light bulb icon suddenly flickered belatedly over my head and I got it.

So we sat there and I pointed out the varmints. Those leaves moving on a windless morning marked the progress of a squirrel going from branch to branch. That slight repeated flicker moving in tune to that chirping noise was a squirrel’s tail nervous tail. The slight pattering sound was pieces of acorn falling onto the leaves from above, where a squirrel sat busily gnawing away on his breakfast. The papery rustling noise was a squirrel scampering about on the ground through the fallen leaves.

Chris picked up on it quickly and learned the skill of spotting quarry in a variety of terrain. I hope it served him well in the 82nd in Iraq, but never got around to discussing it in detail.

Even many, if not most, casual sportsmen don’t have “the eye”. Too many wander through the woods expecting to see this animal the size of a cow standing out in the open broadside. Whether it’s the Pennsylvania deer hunter’s hardwood forest or the north-facing Rocky Mountain black timber where the elk bed down, the hunter’s eye looks for tiny bits of a jigsaw puzzle to make the whole appear…the flicker of an ear, the glint of a stray sunbeam on an antler, a patch of color that just doesn’t look right.

Coming from the woods of the East to the wide open, apparently featureless terrain of the high plains where the antelope roam, even a good hunter has to “re-calibrate” the Mk. I eyeball. He has to learn to look far off into the distance, even miles distant, and use binoculars to glass the landscape. He looks for the same tell-tale signs of something just not being “right”…the white rump of a speed goat, the slow movement of one or two animals while the rest are bedded down and motionless, a pattern of dots on a distant hillside that just doesn’t seem to be properly spaced to be rocks or juniper bushes…only further away than he’s used to.




Although essentially the same as those found in American military manuals, I have taken this list from the quite well done Canadian Army Fieldcraft manual, as even slight differences may provide a trick or two to help the Soldier on the ground. Exact passages from the manual are in blue.

1. The ability to observe effectively is an acquired skill. Things are seen because they contrast with their surroundings in one way or another. There are 11 reasons why things are seen:

a. shape;

b. shadow;

c. silhouette;

d. movement;

e. spacing;

f. position;

g. texture;

h. colour;

i. scale;

j. noise; and

k. shine.


Experience teaches one to associate an object with its shape or outline. At a distance, the outline of an object can be recognized long before the details that make it up can be determined.

It is notable that very few military special operators or snipers choose to wear Kevlar helmets unless ordered to do so by the REMFs. Even in rocky terrain, nature is short on round shapes, such as the top of a helmet.

An interesting example I noticed involved the net worn on US military helmets in WWII and Korea. Intended to be used for enhancing camouflage, by sticking leaves and twigs through the mesh, too many GIs and Marines simply wore the net over the bare helmet. For some reason, this actually caused the helmet to be more detectable rather than less to the enemy.

On Guadalcanal, Sgt. C.W. Arrowood of the 164th Infantry of the Americal Division, said. “I have been on 15 patrols and each time a patrol was fired on, the man with the net on his helmet drew the fire…so, as for me, I use a fatigue field cap.”

On the other side of the world, a German Panzer-Grenadier captured in Italy noted the same thing; “The net cover on the helmets of Allied soldiers permits us to see the outline of the helmet distinctly, and at a considerable distance, in the daytime.”

Vehicles, weapons and equipment, on the other hand, have an abundance of straight lines, something else which stands out in nature, except in the urban environment. Camouflage of these items mainly involves the breaking up of these strait lines.


Against a dark background, the light surfaces of an object will be distinguishable, while against a light background, the dark or shadowed sides will show.

In this case, shadows actually make these vehicles and weapons more readily identified from the air.

In addition, an object may cast a shadow beside it that may be visible even though the object itself may be out of sight. Objects in a shadow may be missed because the eye tends to accept conspicuously dark or light areas as uniform and does not seek out minor differences in darkness or lightness within them.

As for ones own self, if shade is there, use it. In some environments, as the desert, shade is hard to come by, but evening shadows do provide some. In other environments, from forest to urban, taking advantage of shadow makes one harder to see, especially in the woods, where stepping out into a sunlit opening is practically begging to be seen.

Shadows good, shadows your friend. The danger of silhouetting oneself is also readily apparent.

In low light situations especially shadows are your friend. A sentry or lookout in a lighted area cannot really see into the darkness. As an example, looking out the window of a lighted room at night, it is very difficult to see what is outside in the yard, while from the outside it is very easy to make out all the details looking into the lit room.

Keeping this in mind, if you’re looking for someone in the dark, it is always best to keep light sources to your back so you can more easily see into the shadows. If the light source is in your face, the shadows become even more impenetrable.


Anything silhouetted against a contrasting background is conspicuous. Any smooth, flat background, like water, a field or (most frequently) the sky, will provide such a contrast. Any object may be silhouetted simply by being seen against a background of a different colour. Choose clothing and camouflage to match the background, if possible.

This illustration from an old Soviet Spetsnaz manual shows how to avoid silhouetting oneself.

In Vietnam, the famous “Tiger Stripe” camouflage pattern was considered “sexy” and somewhat of a status symbol used by some special units. One major problem, though. From tall grass to jungle, nature’s stripes were vertical, while the tiger stripes were horizontal. In some circumstances, this could make the wearer stick out rather than blend in.


Although movement by itself seldom reveals the identity of an object, it is the most important factor for revealing existence. Even though the other recognition factors may have been completely eliminated, an enemy observer will be attracted to an area if movement is not controlled. An enemy observer may be concentrating on one area, but he will not fail to detect movement in another area through peripheral vision. Do not move unless absolutely necessary and then only to the extent necessary.

Quick movement always instantly attracts the attention of the human eye, while very slow movement can be almost imperceptible. In fact,

Patience is not a virtue of the average American. WWII Marine Corps Raider Pioneer, Carlson Evens, and many others even called for American fighting men to have training in patience.

“If I were training my Battalion again, I would have training in patience. I would have patrols wait for the enemy to expose himself. They move around too. They have to relieve themselves and have to get food. I would have the men in this patience training be made to stay still for hours at a time.”

On the other hand, patience has traditionally been practiced much more in the Oriental world. To Japanese and Vietnamese infiltrators in particular, patience coupled with very slow movement enabled them to slip through defenses and into places one would hardly believe possible.

An impressive exampled occurred during Operation Maui Peak during the Vietnam War. Marine defenses overlooked a flat open area with only scattered bushes for cover. Visibility was good with a full moon and no overcast. Holding a bush in front of them, NVA raiders took seven hours to crawl 100 meters, their movement so slow as to go unnoticed by the human eyes scanning the area. When within range of the Marine lines, the NVA bombarded them with a barrage of hand grenades and then escaped in the resulting confusion.

VC Sapper penetrating concertina wire of a defensive position. Sometimes, slow and sneaky wins the race.


In nature, things are seldom regularly spaced. Regular spacing, therefore, usually indicates man-made objects and attracts the eye of the observer. Be conscious of spacing when parking vehicles or laying out trenches.

When the First World War bogged down into trench warfare, the British Army’s obsession for neatness and orderliness cost many a life. With the sandbag parapets stacked neatly in uniform lines, any man who tried to peek over them to observe the enemy instantly stood out of place and invited a German sniper’s bullet. More practical front-line officers soon formed parapets in sloppy, haphazard and uneven patterns and utilizing different colored sandbags


An object is often identified by its position in relation to its surroundings. A long object on a railroad track is assumed to be a train; similar objects on a river and parallel to its banks are assumed to be boats or barges. A large structure in a group of frame buildings might be a barn. Position is nothing more than the relationship in space of one object to another object or objects.

A favorite tactic of insurgents and even regular military forces that face an opponent with air supremacy is to use position to hide things in plain sight, as it were.

Korea: “The Chinese also parked operational vehicles among vehicles that had been destroyed or disabled in previous air strikes, or they left them in awkward positions in ditches to appear disabled. Such measures often fooled pilots during subsequent air strikes. In the same deceptive manner, the Chinese camouflaged destroyed vehicles to cause the UN air forces to waste their ordnance on what they thought were operational vehicles.”


Texture may be defined as the relative smoothness or roughness of a surface. A rough surface, such as a field of grass, reflects little light and casts many shadows on itself. It appears very dark to the eye or on a photograph. A smooth surface, such as an airstrip or the roof of a building, reflects more light in an aerial photograph.

WWII Japanese soldier camouflaging his steel helmet with mud.

Military helmets have from the beginning been a source of trouble in regards to texture, as smooth metal obviously stands out. Methods to counter this have included smearing them with mud, using paint with sand mixed in, and the wide variety of helmet covers and nets to garnish with foliage.

Texture is a big part of what makes a Ghillie Suit so effective.


Colour is an aid to an observer when there is contrast between the colour of an object and its background. The greater the colour contrast, the more visible the object. While colour alone will not usually identify an object, it is often an aid in locating an object or confirming a tentative identification. A secondary consideration is the tone of a colour. Usually, the darker shades of a given colour will be less likely to attract an observer's attention than the lighter, more brilliant shades.

One of the easiest colors to see in the field is human skin, even black skin. Try it sometimes. Compare a fully camouflaged man with one fully camouflaged except for the face and hands. You will be amazed just how much they stick out like a sore thumb. VC and NVA troops were in fact trained not to look up at American helicopters when seeking to remain undetected.

Simple colors, of course, are important. Someone clad in woodland pattern BDU’s in the middle of an open snowfield is obviously going to attract attention rather than avoid it. Likewise, someone in snow cammo in the dark woods bare of snow is also going to immediately draw the eye.

In days of old, when infantry whaled away at each other in nice rows with inaccurate muskets, colored uniforms were less of an issue, although hidden Colonial riflemen proved otherwise during the Revolutionary War. Later, in the age of the accurate, long-range magazine rifle, uniforms which blended in became imperative.

On the flat, open, featureless high veldt of South Africa where the British Army squared off against the pioneer-like Boers with their excellent fieldcraft, shooting skills and 7mm Mausers, khaki uniforms became the order of the day to help soldiers avoid attracting the eye. Ever pragmatic, seasoned NCO’s of the war advised new men, “Don’t stand close to white rocks or officers.”


Objects that differ greatly in size from those around them will be more readily distinguishable than objects amongst others of approximately the same size.

For instance, in a locker room Ben’s big horse dick is readily distinguishable from normal willies.


Flashes of light reflected off uncamouflaged materials such as glass and metal quickly attract the attention of ground and air observers.

As noted under color, the flesh of the human face has a kind of shine to it which stands out readily.

Shine is also the reason why light discipline is so very important during night operations. Just as sound travels better and further at night, light is also more readily visible at much longer ranges. A Japanese night fighting proverb said, “Fire and light appear close at night.”

The U.S. Army provides these figures for how far light sources can de detected at night.

Source: Distance:

Vehicle headlights: Up to 8 kilometers

Open fires: 6 to 8 kilometers

Flashlights: 1.5 to 2 kilometers

Cigarettes: 0.5 to 0.8 kilometers

Shine is just as important a consideration during the day. Recall the scene from The Wild Bunch where William Holden and Ernest Borgnine are observing a posse through binoculars in open terrain. They have newspapers wrapped around the objective lenses to ensure the sun does not glint off the glass.

Modern rifle scopes have been fitted with sunshades to the tube body which extend ahead of the objective lens far enough to keep the sun from directly striking the lens, and also serve the double purpose of cutting the glare to provide the shooter with clearer sighting.

Even more recently, such companies as Leupold and killFlash have come out with ARDs (Anti-Reflection Devices). These consist of a honeycomb-like matrix cover to fit over a scope’s lens. Less than an inch long, they are supposed as effective at reducing glare as a 7-inch-long sunshade.

Military binoculars such as these Steiners have reflective lens coatings to protect the Soldiers' eyes from battlefield lasers. Notice how effective the Leupold ARD is at concealing the lens on the left compared to the normal lens on the right.




The usual method of scanning is to divide the ground into foreground, middle distance and distance. One scans from the right to the left. Where the ground is fairly open this is the best method. When scanning is done horizontally, it is not necessary to continually
alter the sense of scale (see Figure 2-1).

Figure 2-1


In close or broken country, different types of ground require
different treatment. First, carefully examine areas likely to contain enemy positions, either because of their tactical value, slope and relation to crests or because of the possibility of good cover. Then, look along the junctions between such areas and other areas. Next,
examine all areas visible through any screen, trees or foliage. Then, examine all remaining areas of light or sunlit ground. Finally, examine all areas of dark or shadowed ground. The sequence adopted depends on the terrain and range of observation.


At dusk or in half moonlight or starlight, naked eye scanning
is slower than in full light. The observer pauses for a few seconds looking in one direction, paying attention to objects off the direct line
of vision. Then he shifts his line of vision by about 110 to 170 mils (approximately a fist's width at arm's length) and again pauses until objects become visible near his line of vision. He rests his eyes for 10
seconds every minute or two. With binoculars, a similar "move and stop" method is used, with attention paid to objects visible "out of the
corner of the eye".


When attempting to see through a nearby screen, foliage, etc.,the observer looks at the area under observation and ignores the screen. A small head movement automatically extends the area to be observed.

Noise is also a major factor in how things are detected, but we’ll leave that for another time, in an article devoted entirely to the sense of hearing by night and day.

For now, keep your eyes on the sight, your sling tight, and your stick on the ice.


Ben said...

That was the best post I've ever read in my life! I really liked your examples, especially on the topic of "scale."

Bawb said...

So you DID read the whole article.

Ben said...

I just scan them all looking for references to my junk.