There are some pretty difficult schools and training courses in the United States military, but none has quite the reputation of SEAL sniper training. It is one of the toughest programs anywhere on the planet. Even when compared to my combat tours in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, I count my time in sniper school as one of the most intense grueling experiences of my life.
The SEAL sniper course is three months of twelve-plus-hour days, seven days a week. Ironically, it is not all that demanding physically. After going through the brutality of BUD/S and some of the programs in SEAL Tactical Training, there was nothing in the sniper course that posed any real physical challenge. But it is extremely challenging mentally.
“First and foremost? Intellectual capacity.” When people ask what it takes to become a Navy SEAL sniper, that’s my first answer. Don’t get me wrong: you have to be physically tough. Our training demands that every graduate be one of a unique breed, willing to snake his way through treacherous urban war-zone terrain or crawl the hot desert floor for hours, slow as a snail and often through his own bodily waste, sometimes withstanding days on end of unendurable physical hardship, to set up on his target. Still, the physical ability is maybe ten percent of it. Most of it is mental.
Sniper school is one of the very few courses a SEAL will not be looked down upon for failing to complete. It’s an unwritten rule that you don’t give guys a hard time for washing out of sniper school. Because the course is known for its insane difficulty, just being selected or volunteering to go automatically elicits respect in the teams.
The students who entered the course were already the cream of the crop, but the attrition rate was still vicious. When I took the sniper course in the spring of 2000, we classed up with twenty-six guys at the start. Three months of continuous training later, only twelve of us would graduate.
A few weeks after our conversation in Lt. McNary’s office, Glen and I, along with two dozen others, mustered at the SEAL Team 5 quarterdeck in Coronado for our initial sniper school in-briefing. Though this would later change, at the time the different SEAL teams would rotate as course host, and it happened to be Team 5’s turn.
They told us that there were two principle parts to the sniper training. First came the shooting phase, which would focus on learning our weapons, advanced ballistics, and of course the actual marksmanship training, during which we would work in pairs taking turns as shooter or spotter. Second was the stalking phase, where we would be trained in the arts of stealth and concealment.
We would be conducting the shooting phase at the Coalinga range, a private inland facility about a hundred miles northwest of Bakersfield, where we would camp out, receive all our instruction, and do all our shooting. In the event we survived the shooting phase, we would then go on to the stalking phase, concluding with our graded final training exercise (FTX) out in the California desert near Niland.
Being from Team 3, which at the time had charge over the desert theater of operations, Glen and I were already quite familiar with the challenges of operating in that ungodly terrain and how fucking miserable it could be there. We took comfort in the idea that this prior knowledge might give us some small advantage in the final phase. Assuming we made it that far.
We were led to the team armory, where we each checked out the suite of weapons we would be working with over the next few months. We each got a sniper M14 (a sniper version of the M4), a Remington .308 bolt gun, a Remington .300 Win Mag, and a .50 cal, along with scopes and ammo.
Once we had our weapons, we mustered back in the Team 5 area to meet our instructor cadre.
At the time, the sniper school was run by a Master Chief named Crampton, who was just in the process of turning it over to Senior Chief Dave Carver. Dave was an ultra-marathoner, one of those guys who runs hundred-mile races but doesn’t make any kind of big deal about himself. He was a total professional and highly respected by everyone there. A few years later I would end up working for Chief Carver as part of an advanced sniper training cell, and would be on hand to see his life crumble to pieces and be salvaged by the good will of the team. We’ll come to that story later. For now, Chief Carver was simply one of the good guys: one of those instructors we could count on both for his expertise and for his solid character.
That didn’t apply in every case. Our instructor cadre consisted of several full-time instructors along with a few guys pulled from the different SEAL teams to help out and augment the staff. In terms of their shooting skills, these guys were all at the top of their game, but they were not necessarily good teachers. This is something we would change later on, when I became part of the team that redesigned the entire sniper course. But when we went through the course back in 2000, there wasn’t much emphasis on teaching skills. It was a sink-or-swim deal: “Here’s the training, and if you don’t get it, tough.”
After meeting our instructors we got the rest of our gear list and were then divided into shooting pairs. Glen and I were happy to learn we had been paired together as shooting partners. We had been working together in GOLF platoon for over a year by this point, had developed a good friendship, and trusted each other implicitly. As intimidated as we were, things were lining up in our favor. Now we just had to do the work—and do it perfectly.
We kicked off the course by going out to Camp Pendleton for a qualifying shoot. Just to start the sniper course we had to be shooting on the standard Navy rifle at expert level. They took us through a brief class to make sure we all knew how to set up and operate all our weapons, and then we were out on the range shooting.
We started off at 100 yards, doing a standing shot, then sitting shot, then standing-to-sitting rapid, then a prone slow fire, then a standing-to-prone rapid fire. Next we went out to 200 yards and shot another volley. Out of a perfect score of 200, we had to shoot at least 180 to qualify as shooting expert. We each got two tries. Some guys didn’t make it, and we lost a few right then and there.
The rest of us saddled up and headed north for Coalinga, where we would spend the next six weeks camping out on the property of the Coalinga Rifle Club, a five-hour drive from San Diego up in California’s Central Valley. When we arrived there, we found the place had a shower, bathroom facilities, a small kitchen facility, and that was about it. The classes would take place outdoors on picnic tables under the cover of a few shade trees. As we soon learned, it got hot as hell out there.
This place sports one of the largest shooting ranges in the west; the regional and state shooting championships are held there. It’s also fairly isolated—far enough away from any distractions (read: women and beer) that it would force us to focus on the task at hand.
A few days after we arrived we were joined by guys from the Army marksmanship unit (AMU), the military’s elite match shooting team. The SEALs are not known for their humility within the Special Operations community, but for what it’s worth, we always strive for the best, even when that means going outside our community. In this case our instructor cadre was smart enough to bring in the best of the best. These guys could shoot. Most of them would go on to compete at the highest levels worldwide; some had Olympic gold medals to their credit. I quickly realized I needed to pay attention, take notes, and do whatever these guys suggested. This was some of the best marksmanship training I have ever received, and their training methods would not only stay with me throughout my time in the teams, they would also influence my teaching practices in the future.
We started out shooting iron sights, meaning without scopes, on the 7.62mm M14, a classic rifle that the U.S. military had relied on for four decades. Iron sights on a rifle consist of two elements, a rear sight and front sight, which you use to line up your view of the target. They are similar to the little notch-like sights you have on a pistol, except that the M14 rifle sights provide knobs that allow you to dial in your windage, the side-to-side adjustment made to compensate for the effects of wind, and elevation or vertical adjustment to compensate for factors including distance.
The AMU sharpshooters taught us the fundamentals, including sight picture and sight alignment, breathing, grip, and trigger pull. They taught us about sight fixture: fixing on that sight post, which may be a centimeter wide on the front sight, visually splitting it in half and focusing on the top center edge. This requires an exceptionally tight degree of mental focus and concentration. A visual misalignment of even a tiny fraction of a millimeter, magnified by the distance you’re shooting, can result in a complete miss, and the further out you’re shooting, the greater that magnification—in other words, the greater the need for complete accuracy in your sight alignment.
They taught us how to control our breath, and also how to work with our natural breathing cycle. Common sense might suggest that the best way to take an accurate shot would be to hold your breath. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Instead of fighting your natural breathing cycle, you have to learn how to use it. When you’re lying down, as you typically are when taking aim for a long shot, your rifle’s sights slowly rise and fall with the movement of your chest expanding and contracting. What you want to do is time your shot so that it comes precisely during the lull of the natural respiratory pause at the bottom of your exhale, so your breathing doesn’t affect the shot’s elevation.
They taught us about something called natural point of aim: whether you’re kneeling, sitting, standing, or lying down, after you put your sights on the target, you scoot your body back and forth until you’ve put yourself into a position where you’re naturally aligned with the target. If you have to swing your arm over to get on sight with the target, even if only slightly, that means you are using your muscles, which is not ideal. Instead, you want to be relaxed in perfect position such that that your alignment is naturally focused on the target.
We shot all the way back to 800 yards without scopes, using only a personal spotting scope. We would have the spotting scope set up next to us so we could lean over, look through the scope, read the wind (for both direction and wind speed) and the mirage, estimate the windage (compensating horizontal adjustment) in minutes of angle (a minute is one-sixtieth of a degree), dial in a correction on our iron sight windage knob, then roll over and take the shot. Mirage is the heat rippling effect you see when you look down a highway on a hot day. You can see it on optics if you dial your optics back, and it flows like a river, either to the right or to the left, showing which way the wind is blowing. Or it might flow straight upward, in which case we call it a boil, meaning either that there is either no wind at all or that the wind is blowing straight towards you. You’re also looking for any tell-tale signs, whether it’s grass blowing in the distance or just the feel of the wind on your face. You get to be an acute observer of exactly what is going on in your environment and an excellent judge of how to apply that to your weapon.
This is really where the art of it comes in. There is a tremendous amount of science involved in making all these observations, but the art of it is bringing them all together into an extremely precise picture of the overall scenario. What is the weather doing at your position as the shooter? Looking down the range halfway to your target, what’s happening at that position? Is that valley funneling the wind a certain way? And what’s happening 800 yards away, all the way down to where the target is sitting? Is the wind calm there, or moving, and if so, in what direction, and how strongly? Calculating all those factors, then assembling them all together to arrive at an estimation of exactly what you think is happening and precisely how it all applies to your weapon, and then making the perfect shot … it’s incredibly complicated—and there is zero margin for error.
During the day we shot for five hours in the morning, then received instruction and testing until dark, went to sleep, woke up and did it all over again.
In our second week on the M14 iron sights we started shooting cold bore tests every morning at 6:00 a.m., and the stress levels escalated.
The cold bore shot is staged to simulate that all-important first shot taken in a combat situation in the field, when you don’t have the luxury of taking practice shots and letting your rifle warm up. You need to be able to sight down a cold gun and take that first shot, right out of the box, with 100 percent reliable accuracy. That first shot has to be a kill shot—because if it isn’t, you likely won’t get a second chance.
The unique conditions of a cold bore shot are not simply a matter of human factors. Yes, that’s part of it: we had to learn how to be at the top of our game instantly, with no opportunity to warm up and shake it out with a few practice shots. But there’s also pure physics involved, because the bullet itself behaves very differently when the rifle itself is cold. As you start shooting rounds through a metal chamber it starts heating up, creating an increase in chamber pressure, which translates into a change in the bullet’s trajectory. Put a bullet through a hot chamber and it may travel as much as a few hundred feet per second faster than when you put it through a cold chamber. Elevation—how far the bullet travels before succumbing to gravity and beginning its inevitable downward arc—is profoundly affected. This is why snipers are careful to track and log our cold bore data.
The night before, they would tell us, “Tomorrow morning, the whole class on the five-hundred-yard line”—or whatever point on the range they’d selected for the following day’s cold bore test. I would go to sleep with my single bullet next to me in my sleeping bag and my gun and kit all laid out and ready to go. I didn’t want anyone screwing with my weapon.
We awoke early to head out to the range, taking only our rifle and a single round. Once assembled at the prescribed location, they would give us our instructions: “Okay: you’ve got thirty seconds to sprint to the three-hundred-yard line and engage your target from the standing position. Ready, go.” We took off at a sprint.
And right away, we were dealing with conflicting parameters. The faster you run, the sooner you get to your location and the more time you have to line up the shot—but the faster you run, the harder it is to control your breathing once you get there, which means the greater the chance that your breathing will screw up your shot. In those thirty seconds you not only have to reach your new location, you also then have to read the wind correctly, dial in the dope (the correct elevation data), identify your own target (nothing worse than shooting someone else’s!), estimate lead if yours happens to be a moving target, do your best to slow down your heart rate, and in general get your shit together as rapidly as is humanly possible—and then take the shot.
And there were a lot of ways to screw this up.
Sometimes guys would forget to put their round in the chamber, or forget to dial in the right elevation. If we were starting out on the 500-yard line, for example, we would have already dialed that into our sights when we got there—but if we then sprinted to the 300-yard line and forgot to dial elevation down to 300, then we’d miss the shot. Sometimes guys would get everything right but be so nervous about forgetting something they would just blow the shot anyway.
The cold bore test was scored on a ten-point scale. If your shot landed inside the kill zone (head and heart) you received a 10. If you shot outside the kill zone but still within the human silhouette on the target, you got an 8. Miss the silhouette altogether but still manage to hit the target and you scored a 7. God help you if you missed the target altogether, because you just landed a zero, and the other guys would then avoid you like the plague for fear your bad juju would rub off. Two or three goose eggs bought you a one-way ticket back to your SEAL team. This was made crystal clear to us from the beginning: the standard to beat was 80 percent, and if you didn’t at least meet that standard, there was no drama about it, you were just gone. You made the cut, or you were out. I saw guys whose scores came in at 79 percent told to pack their bags. Every day was survival. As the saying goes in the teams, “The only easy day was yesterday.”
Another part of the cold bore routine was edge shots. We would lie down in our lane and wait for the target, which would suddenly appear at some point in the next twenty minutes. We would have no idea when it was coming. All we could do was wait in a state of total vigilance. Take your eyes off the sight for even a moment—to wipe sweat off your brow, scratch an itch on your face, or take a drink of water—and you could miss it entirely.
I saw this happen. One morning, a guy a few lanes down from me looked down just for a second to wipe the fog off his shooting glasses—and he looked back up just in time to see his target laying down again. He had just missed it. “Noooo!” the poor bastard cried out. Brutal. But it certainly trained us to be patient and vigilant at the same time.
The cold bore shot was one of the most stressful events of the entire day. Hit or miss, that shot would stay with you all day. Make a good shot and you were a hero. Blow it and your own personal dark cloud hung overhead for the rest of the day.
I’ll never forget the morning of my first cold bore shot. We ran out onto the range, got our instructions, hustled to our shooting line, threw ourselves on the ground, and scrambled mightily to get our shit together for that first shot.
One! Two! Three! Four! …
One by one we counted off our lane numbers, right to left, so that we knew for sure which lane we were shooting in and wouldn’t fuck up and hit someone else’s target. I chambered my one and only round, got myself settled into my natural point of aim as best I could, target aligned and on sights, felt the tide of my respiration ebb to its lowest point, and in the short moment of that stillness squeezed the trigger—
And missed the target completely.
Oh, man, I thought. Right off the bat, I was in the hole: a zero. I couldn’t afford many more of those if I hoped to survive.
Fortunately for me, that was my first and only complete miss. I started out pretty rough in the cold bore tests, hitting mostly 7s. As the days went by I steadily improved my ability to control myself, and my scores slowly crept upward.
The stress of that morning cold bore shot got to a number of guys in the class. Sometimes they just could not bring the day’s score up to 80 percent. Pretty soon the camp started thinning out as our numbers began to dwindle. It was eerie the way this happened: guys would just disappear. Nobody would ask any questions or make any comments for fear of jinxing their own chances.
The cold bore shot felt to me like the perfect expression of what it means to be a SEAL sniper, and it carried over into everything we did. We quickly learned that you can’t always have the ideal circumstances, or even reasonably helpful circumstances. You can’t always take practice shots. You have to be ready to perform at the very top of your abilities, instantly and without preparation, and under the very worst of circumstances. And do it over and over again—and do it perfectly every time.
Our third week at Coalinga, I woke up one morning with an ugly-looking welt on my arm. I’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider as I slept. Shit! Brown recluse bites are no joke. They can rot right through your arm, and it happens fast. I tried to self-treat the bite, but infection had already set in. I was sent off to the nearest Naval hospital in Lemoore, about an hour away, for some heavy-artillery antibiotics.
It wasn’t much of a holiday. Brown recluse bite or no brown recluse bite, the scores on the range were not going to wait for my arm to heal. Within a few hours I was back out on the yard lines shooting M14 iron sights.
During those long hours on the range, we were not shooting continuously the entire time. They would split the class in half, and while one half was shooting, the other half was down in the butts, pulling and marking targets for our classmates.
The butts was a secured bunker area behind the targets that provided a little shade and held the large target frames. When we rotated back to the butts, we would be in charge of raising and lowering the target frames on a pulley system in order to mark the bullet impacts and clean them off in preparation for the next round. Usually we would spell each other out there, half of us pulling and marking the targets while the other half goofed off. It was a good way to take a break from the intense pressure of shooting and give each other a hard time, something we were always fond of in the teams.
Never underestimate the shenanigans bored grown men are capable of perpetrating on each other. Once we ran out of stories (usually X-rated, and mostly true), we would come up with all sorts of crazy ways to occupy our time. One game I was especially fond of was Rock Duel; this one brought out the empty-lot rock-fight kid in me. Here’s how it works:
Two people pair up. You each pace off twenty yards, perform an about-face, then shoot a rock-paper-scissors to determine who goes first. The winner proceeds to chuck a well-aimed, baseball-sized rock at the other person (no head shots of course), who is forbidden to move or even flinch and stands as still as possible, hoping for a miss so he can then have his turn. The first person to score a kill shot is declared the winner, and the next two guys take their place and have a go. It was a great stress-reliever.
We had some fun down there in the butts—but it was not without its hazards. Those metal target frames were huge, and the pulley system that raised and lowered them used fifty-pound concrete counter-weights. One day, as I stepped up to get into the bench seating area where we controlled the targets, someone yanked on a target. Between my inattention and his carelessness, the metal frame whacked me right in the head.
Oops. Suddenly there was blood everywhere.
This happened to be the day we were first sighting our .300 Win Mags. This was crucial: when first getting a new weapon we would have one day to dial it in, get all our elevations, and get the feel of the thing. I could not miss that day. I couldn’t miss any day. So they ran me out to the doctor’s, cleaned me up, slammed seven staples into my head, and ran me back to Coalinga. Within a few hours of the incident I was back on the range, sighting in my new weapon. My head was pounding with every shot, and it felt like someone was nailing a steel spike into my skull. Tough: deal with it. Adapt and overcome.
A few weeks later, right after finishing the shooting phase, Gabriele and I had our official wedding ceremony and reception (although we were already married, my family didn’t know this at the time). Fortunately, my hair had grown in just enough by that point so that the staples didn’t show in my wedding pictures.
Along with the shooting drills, which kept us busy for up to eight hours a day, we also had extensive classroom work, which we did mostly during the heat of the day, sandwiched in between sessions on the range. We would get up early and shoot all morning, then do our classroom and practical exercises during the early afternoon hours, when the heat was at its height. In the later afternoon, we’d head back out onto the range and get practicing on the guns again.
Every few classes we would be tested on whatever we’d learned. As with the shooting tests, it was either pass, or you’re gone, no in between.
One of our classes consisted of a series of drills called keep in memory exercises, or KIMs. As a sniper, there are times when you have only a brief glance at a situation, and you have to be able to fix it all in your memory almost instantaneously. These exercises were designed to hone our capacity for accurate snapshot memory.
They would lay a tarp over an array of objects, then bring us in and stand us in front of the covered array—then yank off the tarp, giving us thirty seconds to look at everything and memorize it all before the tarp went back to cover everything. Then we’d have to write it all down. Or, they would scatter a series of objects over a hillside, and we’d have to scan it quickly with our binoculars and in that brief glance pick out everything that was out of the ordinary.
We also did very detailed target sketches, which was similar to the KIMs: They would set up a target, and then in a given amount of time we would have to sketch the target in detail and also record all sorts of data. From which direction was the sun shining? What were the weather patterns? Where were possible help insertion points? Helo extraction points? Exactly what was happening right around the area of the target? Digital cameras and laptops had not yet become the ubiquitous technologies they are today, and we had to do our field sketches and record all this information by hand.
Some of our most extensive classroom study was in the area of ballistics, including internal ballistics, externals ballistics, and terminal ballistics.
Internal ballistics refers to what’s happening on the inside of the rifle. When your firing pin hits the bullet’s strike plate, it sets off an initial powder charge, and the exploding powder creates a rapidly expanding gas bubble, which propels the slug, or front portion of the bullet, through the chamber. It’s very much a miniature version of a rocket ship launch: just as the rocket discards its boosters once it’s in flight, the rifle ejects the empty cartridge, sending only the relatively small front portion on its journey. In the rocket’s case, that’s the capsule that houses the astronauts. In the bullet’s case, it’s the death-dealing slug.
The inside of the rifle’s barrel is inscribed with a series of spiral grooves, or rifling (where the term rifle comes from). This puts a fast spin on the bullet, giving it stability in flight, much the way you put a spin on a football when you throw it. Internal ballistics has to do with how many twists there are in the barrel and their precise effect on the bullet, how fast the bullet travels, and how it’s moving when it exits the rifle.
This is where external ballistics takes over. Your bullet will start its journey at a velocity of over two thousand feet per second. However, the moment it emerges from the barrel its flight path is already being influenced by its environment. Leaving aside for the moment the effect of wind, there is a universal drag created by the friction of that ocean of air the bullet pierces through in order to fly, combined with the downward pull of gravity. At a certain distance, different for different weapons and ammunition, your particular rifle bullet slows to the point where it passes from supersonic to subsonic. As it eats through the yards at rates of something like one yard every one-thousandth of a second, the integrity of its flight path starts becoming compromised. A .308 bullet traveling at 2,200 feet per second will lose its flight-path stability to the point where it starts tumbling head over heels by about 900 or 1,000 meters out.
External ballistics is also about exactly what that flight path looks like. When you shoot a .308 at a target 800 yards away, you’re not shooting in a straight line: it actually makes a pretty big arc. Imagine throwing a football from the fifty-yard line to the end zone. You don’t throw it straight toward the goal; instead, you know you have to throw it upward so that it arcs through the air, hitting its high point at about the twenty-five-yard line and then curving back down to reach the end zone. The same thing happens with the .308 bullet: you’re not shooting it in a straight line, you’re really throwing it up in the air so that it arcs and comes down where you want it to. Understanding exactly how that works can have a make-or-break bearing on your successfully hitting your target.
For example, let’s say you’re shooting at something 800 yards away. In the terrain lying between you and your target, you notice a low-hanging bridge. From all appearances, that’s no problem. Your target stands at maybe five foot eight; you are lying on the ground, on your stomach; and the bridge is a good ten feet off the ground at its lowest point. When you sight down through your scope at the target, you can see a clear pathway from you straight to the target. No problem, right?
Wrong. That bridge may not look like it’s in the way—but when you take into account the arc your bullet needs to travel to land at your projected site, that bridge could be lying directly in the path of what we call the bullet’s top arc.In other words, it could stop your bullet cold, halfway to your target. And in the kinds of circumstances a sniper will often be facing, you may not have the luxury of a second shot. You have to know your bullet’s maximum ordinate, that is, the maximum height that bullet will travel on its path to your target, and calculate for that.
Once we had mastered the M14 we moved on to other weapons, starting with the .308 bolt action Remington, a very solid weapon and quite capable out to eight or nine hundred yards, in the right hands. This was our first look at a real scoped weapon—and right away, I knew had a problem. There was a Leupold scope on one of my guns that just didn’t seem quite right. I pretty quickly realized that it wasn’t maintaining at zero: it was slipping off. There was no way I could shoot with a scope that wasn’t reliable.
These weapons are not delicate; they’re made to withstand the rigors of combat. But they are pieces of precision machinery, and they’re not infallible. For example, the barrel of a .300 Win Mag is only good for a few thousand rounds, and then you shoot out the barrel and it starts losing accuracy. We were shooting thousands and thousands of rounds.
If your gun starts to malfunction in the middle of a shooting evolution, the instructor might assume it’s you. In a lot of cases, they’re right. In some cases, though, the weapon really is shot out, or there’s some kind of equipment malfunction. We had a few guys who were excellent shots but got flushed out of the course because they had the bad luck of getting a weapon that didn’t have a good log and it was legitimately shot out, and they didn’t yet have the skills or know-how to deal with it right away.
I was determined not to let that happen. My first shooting test was coming up. No way was this faulty scope going to flush me from sniper school. I told my instructors about it, and when they didn’t do anything I kept bringing it up. I wouldn’t let it rest. Finally they got an armorer out there from Crane, the Navy’s ordnance testing division. He looked the scope and said, “Yeah, you have a bad optic.”
Thank God. I easily could have flunked out in my first test because of a messed-up scope.
Brandon is a former Navy SEAL and author of the New York Times best seller, The Red Circle.
Part 2 coming soon…