Sunday, April 27, 2008


"Each soldier a good marksman! Each shot a hit!"

The rifle and its accurate use came to the fore during our own American Revolution. Major General Charles Lee, George Washington's right hand man, had this to say: “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…(because of)... above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”

Colonel Daniel Morgan eventually commanded ten companies of sharp-shooting frontier riflemen and taught them to "shoot for the epauletts", i.e. individually target British officers. They were successful enough that the August 1775 London Chronicle said to "...advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure.”

The British learned these painful lessons and used their own special units of riflemen, the Green Jackets, in the Peninsula War against Napoleon. They too "picked on" officers and they too were successful; a French field marshall complained to Paris that he had only 2-3 officers left per battalion.

During the Boer War, Dutch-speaking backwoodsmen and farmers in South Africa, numbering 40,000 at best, tied up and fought to a near standstill a British Army of 600,000 men with modern equipment for 3 years. British General Methuen noted,, "I never saw a Boer, but even at 2,000 yards when I rode a horse I had a hail of bullets around me.”

In The Great Boer War, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eloquently described the action at Colenso and the effect of the Boer rifle fire among the ranks of the Irish Brigade:“No sign of the enemy could be seen, though the men were dropping fast. It is a weird and soul-shaking experience to advance over a sunlit and apparently a lonely countryside, with not the slightest movement upon its broad face, while the path which you take is marked behind you by sobbing, gasping, writhing men, who can only guess by the position of their wounds whence the shots came which struck them down. All round, like the hissing of fat in the pan, is the monotonous crackle and rattle of the Mausers; but the air is full of it, and no one can define exactly whence it comes. Far away on some hill upon the skyline there hangs the least gauzy veil of thin smoke to indicate whence the six men who have just all fallen together, as if it were some grim drill, met their death. Into such a hell-storm as this it was that the soldiers have again and again advanced in the course of this war..."

General Methuen later advised the British high command to stress, "Good shooting, accurate judging of distance, and intelligent use of ground." By the time WWI came about, British infantrymen were well practiced in the "Mad Minute", being required to shoot, with a bolt-action Lee-Enfield, 15 shots in one minute and to place them all in a 2-foot circle at 300 yards.

The effects of such rifle marksmanship were seen and felt in the opening battles of the Great War. Private Smiley of the Gordon Highlanders noted of advancing German infantry: "Poor devils! They advanced in companies of quite 150 men in files five deep, and our rifle has a flat trajectory up to 600 yards. Guess the result. We could steady our rifles on the trench and take deliberate aim. The first company was mown down by a volley at 700 yards, and in their insane formation every bullet was almost sure to find two billets. The other companies kept advancing very slowly, using their dead comrades as cover, but they had absolutely no chance."

After facing such fire, German commanders reported that British units must have 28 machine guns per battalion; they actually had only 2.

The United States Marine Corps, long known for its shooting prowess, also stopped German attacks cold with rifle fire after American entered the war.

A Marine Captain Thomason spoke of the effectiveness of such marksmanship in his book Fix Bayonets. "The Bosche wanted Hill 142; he came and the rifles broke him and he came again. All his artillery was in action and his machine guns scoured the place, but he could not make headway against the rifles. Guns he could understand; he knew all about bombs and auto-rifles and machine-guns and trench mortars, but aimed sustained rifle fire that comes from nowhere in particular and picks men off-it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him."

In the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, tiny Finland fought the Soviet juggernaut to a standstill, inflicting, according to Nikita Kruchev, approximately a million casualties. The Finns had no real air force to speak of, very little artillery, and few machine guns; they won with rifles, in the main. One Russian general noted of the eventual Soviet "victory", "We have won just enough ground to bury our dead."

Tiny Switzerland, although forced to make some concessions to get enough food to feed her people, remained one of only 4 neutral countries in Europe not invaded by the Nazis even though surrounded by belligerents (Germany & Italy) on all sides. This was in large part due to a determined defense of their mountains, with up to one fifth of its population under arms, almost all of them crack marksmen. One Swiss newspaper said in 1940: "In ever Swiss house is a rifle, and every village, even the small villages, has a shooting association...Our marksmen know how to shoot...They want to defend their homes."

In WWII, German Mountain Troops, or Gebirgsjaeger, were elite units. They also stressed rifle marksmanship. Their manuals continually noted things like, "In training the individual rifleman, the most important thing is marksmanship. The various firing positions will be practiced with and without skis. Training as sharpshooters with rifles equipped with telescopic sights, and with semiautomatic rifles, will be particularly stressed.”

In the Maylay Emergency of the 1950's and early 1960's, the only really successful counter-insurgency conducted by a Western power, British forces again found combat effectiveness through crack marksmanship. The commander, General Sir Gerland Templer, had four keys he stressed for winning the conflict. Number Two on that list was: "Secondly, the vital importance of accurate and quick shooting, particularly with single shot weapons (bolt actions). If only we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.”

In the 1970's, Rhodesia won a tactical victory in the field (but suffered a strategic defeat at the peace table, thanks in no small part to the UN) with training that stressed, "The vital importance of accurate and quick shooting from all positions and all types of cover.” and “A high standard of weapons training, marksmanship and a thorough understanding and instinctive awareness of weapon capabilities and limitations will ensure that encounter actions are successfully executed.”

Perhaps things have changed since I was in the service and Scouts rode dinosaurs and could call for fire using a map and compass rather than a GPS, but US Army marksmanship used to be abysmal. General "Lightning Joe" Collins noted that if you do everything else right, but can't hit your targets, you will fail and the Rhodesians noted that all the IA (Immediate Action) drills in the world are useless if you can't hit your targets.

Fortunately you, as a pesky civilian, can learn to shoot as well as the Brits and the Boers, the Swiss and the Finns.

The program is called Appleseed, put on by "Fred" of Fred's M14 Stocks, and the RWVA, Revolutionary War Veterans Association, of Ramsuer, North Carolina. They are all about training, and even old dogs can learn new tricks and forget bad habits; there is no competition to "lose" in and no belittling of those who are poor shooters, just instruction in how to get better. In a single weekend someone going to one of these shoots can learn to engage man-sized targets out to 400 yards with open sights. I cannot recommend this program highly enough. Check 'em out at and try to attend an Appleseed near you.

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