SEAL sniper school was by far the best training that I received as a Navy SEAL. After completing this school I definitely had the feeling that I was now a true instrument of war. A great program run by a great group of SEAL shooters. Check out this great article excerpt from Brandon Webbs memoir, The Red Circle. Brandon gives a very real look inside this amazing training program.
In the spring of 2000 our eighteen-month work-up concluded with an Operational Readiness Exam (ORE), conducted off San Clemente Island, in which a small group of us simulated a covert tagging and tracking op on an enemy vessel. There were some tricky issues with water currents on the way back in, and things got sketchy. By the time we got back to rendezvous with our vessel I had run out of air and had a headache. But we passed the exercise. GOLF platoon was certified and operationally ready to rotate overseas to serve in an alert status, which the platoon would do after a little down time.
Before it did, though something unexpected happened that changed the course of my career in the Navy.
One day shortly after our ORE, Glen and I were called in to see our OIC, McNary. When we entered his office we found Tom B., our platoon Leading Petty Officer, and Chief Dan there with him. Clearly something was up, something big, but we had no idea what.
Were we in some sort of trouble?
“Listen,” said McNary, “you guys have done a really great job here, and we’re short-handed on snipers right now. We want to offer you the opportunity to go to sniper school.”
I was not planning to become a sniper. In fact, the thought had never occurred to me. Of course we all knew the SEALs had snipers, and we all knew how difficult a course it was. The whole thing seemed fascinating … but I’d never for an instant considered that I might become one of those guys. All my life, I’d loved being in the water, and all my life I’d wanted to be a pilot. But a sniper? Not a chance. And now here it was, being offered to us on a plate.
We were stunned; we were thrilled. And we were terrified.
It was unheard of for a new guy to get a sniper billet. There were some seriously seasoned guys on the team who had waited years to get a slot; that’s how hard they were to get. We knew it was a fiendishly difficult school to pass, and that the last thing anyone wanted was some wet-behind-the-ears new guy in there, because he’d just fuck it up and wash out. We also knew that everyone would be watching us, including our entire platoon, hell, our entire team, and that they would all be counting on us. If we washed out we would be letting them down. If we said yes, we would spend the next three months under excruciating pressure.
We didn’t hesitate for a second.
- Cold Bore
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.
At the same time that we started working with scopes on the .308, we also started working in pairs, taking turns as shooter and as spotter. The shooter’s job is to put everything else out of his mind, take the information the spotter feeds him, and make a perfect shot, period. As we soon learned, the spotters’ job is in many ways more complex and more difficult.
As spotter, you are on the spotting scope, identifying and monitoring the target. Your job is to calculate windage and give target lead if necessary (that is, how much to compensate for the target’s movement). As spotter you also watch the shot trace, which tells its own story and either proves the call dead-on accurate or, if not, gives important clues for correcting the next shot. Yes, even though it is traveling at speeds of 2,000 feet per second and upwards, you actually watch the damn thing: in most cases you can literally see those vapor trails all the way in to the target.
The spotter has to take all these considerations into account—and we had to learn it all in a hell of a hurry, or we would be going home.
Even aside from the fact that we were friends, Glen and I soon found that we made an excellent sniper pair. Glen is a naturally gifted marksman. I don’t remember him ever missing a single shot, and most of his shots were perfect tens. For my part, I seemed to have a natural gift for reading the wind and being able to calculate all the conditions and circumstances. Again, I think this had to do with my experience with navigation and having grown up in the water. Water currents and wind currents may be two very different things, but it is really the same basic concept, albeit in different media and moving at much different speeds. When you’re sailing or boating, you’re always thinking, “What’s the weather doing, how is this affecting my point A to point B.” It’s the same dynamic when you’re preparing to fire a bullet: “I’m here, my target’s there—what factors are affecting my getting from here to there?”
Reach your hand down into a stream or lake, and you might notice that it looks like it juts off as if your arm were suddenly bent at a sharp angle. Likewise, when you see a trout in a stream, it isn’t located exactly where it looks like it’s located. This is because the light is refracted by the body of water, creating an optical illusion. The same thing happens in the atmosphere. When the sun is low in the horizon it creates the same kind of refractory optical illusion, and you have to compensate for that in your aim, maybe dial it down a minute of angle.
With my knack for spotting and Glen’s natural gifts as a shooter, we made a deadly pair. Plus, we were both new guys, and we felt the same pressure to get this right. We’d have a few beers at night, but we didn’t drink or carouse much. We were focused on staying locked on tight and getting through this thing.
Not that there was much going on in the way of nightlife anyway. Coalinga is a small town, with a prison, some farming, and not a whole lot more going on. On rare occasions we went out for a drink or got a bite to eat in town. Most often, though, we’d make a big bonfire right there where we were camping, drink a few beers, and tell each other crazy stories.
One guy, Ken, had a Penthouse magazine and would lie there at night in his sleeping bag jerking off, thinking he had all the privacy in the world. Unfortunately, he had this head lamp switched so he could see his damn magazine, and as a result he would unintentionally be giving the whole camp a shadow-puppet show on the wall of his tent. “Goddamit, Ken, quit jerking off!” we’d yell out. “Or at least turn off the damn light!”
The range had a nice little grass campground complete with a kitchen and a restrooms/shower area. All the students were instructed to bring a tent and kit. Most of the guys traveled pretty light. I take just what I need, and it all fits in my pack. Guys in the teams had a saying, “Pack light and mooch.” My saying was, “Don’t pack light—pack right.” Not Glen, though. As I soon learned, Glen liked to travel in comfort, which meant plenty of extras. He was like a one-man gypsy camp. He must have gone out and bought the biggest tent he could find at the local K-mart; that thing could have slept a family of ten. He had three fuel-burning lanterns, a radio, a coffee-maker, a generator … it was out of control.
We were partners, so my tent was right next to his. I love Glen like a brother, but this was torture. That son of a bitch would be up and about for a solid hour before anyone else in camp even started thinking about opening our eyes, and once he was up it was nearly impossible to stay asleep because his gypsy encampment lit up the whole side of my tent. First I was awakened by the blinding white glow and steady hum of his Coleman exploration power lanterns. Then the sounds would start: his percolating coffee pot, then some sort of eighties rock music blaring through his earphones, which he thought we couldn’t hear but in fact only made him even more oblivious to the extent of the racket he was making, messing around with all his stuff, clattering around and getting his coffee ready, burping and farting but not hearing himself because he had those earphones in, then followed by his electric toothbrush, endless loud gargle, and the invariable lengthy punctuating spit that made us all groan. After a week or so of this daily routine, the guys began referring to Glen’s morning ablutions as “Chernobyl.”
If I had my choice, I would pull myself out of sleep maybe twenty minutes before we had to muster up, giving myself just enough time to brush my teeth, throw some water on my face, and grab my gear. But no. I tried for days, but it was not possible. Finally I succumbed and started letting Glen be my alarm clock.
Soon we had our first graded test on the .308.
As pairs we shared a combined grade, so we knew we would sink or swim together as a shooter/spotter pair. Glen and I scored in the nineties on that first test, but by that time we were both feeling completely frazzled and harried.
Still, we knew we had developed into a solid shooting pair, and we seemed to handle the stress better than many of the other guys. During that first paired shooting evolution, we could see the tension level in some of the other pairs simmering to the point where, by the time of that test, a few of them went through complete meltdowns.
Typically what happened was that the spotter would make a bad call, or even worse, not make a call at all and leave his shooter partner hanging. One or two of these bad call scenarios and the honeymoon would be way beyond over. We saw guys actually throw down and get into a knock-down-drag-out fist fight because a buddy had fucked up multiple calls. Needless to say, this constituted a guaranteed ticket home.
Pretty soon it dawned on us that the steadily escalating stress we were seeing was no accident. Not only was it intentional, it was being carefully orchestrated. Our instructors were constantly watching, pushing, and testing us to see who could handle the stress and who could not.
One day, while I was spotting, Glen took a shot that I could clearly see had struck the target—but our instructor marked it as a miss.
“What?!” Glen exclaimed—and I knew what he was about to say next: That’s total bullshit!
“Don’t worry,” I told him, “you’re fine. It was a hit.”
We continued on with the evolution unfazed. Later we learned that the instructor had called down to the butts over the radio and told the students who were working our lane to mark his hit as a miss. Why? Just to fuck with us and see how we would handle it.
We were fortunate. By this time Glen had developed total faith in my spotting, making us killing machines on the range—and we had already realized that the instructors were playing games with us to see how well we handled adverse situations. Some guys didn’t get this and they would self-destruct, carrying the falsified missed shots into a testable evolution and failing miserably.
They gave us two kinds of tests on the .308, starting with a snaps and movers test.
Snaps and movers involves targets that suddenly appear out of nowhere, snapping upright in a variety of locations and at different, unpredictable time intervals, and targets that move continuously, left and right, in random and unpredictable order. These are full-size E-silhouette targets, a flat panel with a sort of bottle-shaped silhouette on it that represents a human torso and head. Typically we had three head snaps and three moving targets on each yard line, positioned at the 200-yard, 400-yard, 600-yard, and 800-yard lines.
Working with snaps and movers was where we learned how to lead a moving target. This is tricky, because you have to take into account what the wind is doing and calculate for the distance that you have to lead ahead of the target as it moves. It can feel counterintuitive at first, because often you don’t want to aim where common sense tells you that you ought be aiming.
I remember the first time I put my crosshairs directly on the target, even though it was obviously not stationary and everything in me was screaming at me to move the crosshairs a few degrees off in the direction the target was moving—in other words, to lead the target. But according to what we were learning, the wind would push my bullet out of its attempted straight path and, over the course of its arc toward the target, actually blow it into the target and cancel out those few degrees of lead. If this sounds like some kind of bizarre funhouse-mirror maze of calculations and competing factors, that’s exactly what it felt like—and it all had to happen on a time scale of thousandths of a second. It felt completely wrong, but the logic of external ballistics told me it was right on the money.
I squeezed the trigger and ping! the target went down.
Next was an unknown distance test. For this, they laid out a series of steel targets in each lane at various elevations and distances, all the way from 50 yards to 900 yards, which was right at the outer limit of effective range for the .308—only we didn’t know exactly what any of these elevations and distances were. This was where we started really learning how to use our scopes, and in particular, learning range estimation using the mil dot scope reticle.
The reticle, or crosshairs, in a sniper rifle scope is outfitted with two series of tiny dots, called mil dots, that run horizontally and vertically through the field of vision and allow us to measure the approximate height and width of sighted objects by making some simple visual calculations.
If we saw that our target measured, say, 1.5 mil in height in the scope, and we knew the target’s actual height in inches, then we could plug that into a formula that would then give us the target’s distance. As long as we had a known measurement to work with, we could work out the exact range. Practically any kind of known measurement would do. We learned to ask questions like, “What’s the standard dimension of a middle-Eastern license plate? What’s the height and dimension of a standard stop sign in the middle East? What’s the standard window height?” We learned to record this information carefully, knowing that sooner or later, we would be in a situation in some middle Eastern country and need to know how to calculate the range of a target so we could dial in the correct elevation before taking the shot—and do it fast.
We also have laser rangefinders, of course, which give us these measurements directly, but in the sniper course we had to learn how to make these calculations the hard way. To tell the truth, even with all the new technology, it’s still smart to know how to do this by hand. You don’t want to count on always having a laser rangefinder handy—as I would find out first-hand in the midst of split-second, life-or-death circumstances in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.
We practiced ranging these targets, and once we ranged them we shot to verify that we had ranged correctly. Then we make slight modifications, if necessary, and shot again. We had ample opportunity to perfect the process in practice tests. But when the final test day came, our shit had to be seriously dialed in, because then it was game on and no second chances.
After spending weeks practicing and testing with the .308, they put us on the .300 Win Mag, which packs more power than the .308 and can therefore shoot to ranges up to a thousand yards and beyond. Each of these has its own character and idiosyncrasies, and by the time the shooting phase was over we had come to know them both like old friends.
We also started doing some longer-distance shooting with the .50 cal sniper rifle. The .50 cal bullet is a monster, about twice the size of the .308, and it can shoot way out past 1,000 yards to 1,500, even 1,800 yards. It’s also a more stable bullet with a little more powder and oomph behind it, and serves more as what we call an area weapon, meaning that we would typically use it for things like shooting out an engine block in a vehicle or the propeller system in a Scud missile.
And here something strange happened. When we started getting out to a certain distances with the .50 cal, we started seeing effects we just didn’t understand. We were shooting out to 1,500 yards, shooting at tanks and other big targets, and I wondered, “How come I’m holding for a ten-mile-an-hour wind that’s coming in from the right, but the bullet’s still not on target—and I can see the trace doing something weird. What the hell is going on?”
What was going on, I eventually learned, was the Coriolis effect, which refers to the influence of the earth’s rotation on bodies in motion. Yes, incredibly enough, on top of all the other environmental and ballistic information a sniper keeps in his head, the earth’s frigging rotation is yet one more factor to bear in mind. Here’s why:
While my .50 cal bullet was in the air, the earth’s rotation would cause the planet’s surface and everything on it—including my target—to slip slightly eastward, so that by the time the bullet landed, nothing was exactly where it had been when that bullet’s flight began. Because the earth is so large and the local impact of its rotation so subtle, it’s practically impossible to detect this without scientific instruments, until you start looking at motion over large distances—like 1,500 yards.
Shooting out to 200 yards, 500 yards, even 800 or 1,000 yards, the impact of the Coriolis effect is so negligible that you can get away with ignoring it. But once you’re shooting out to some serious distances, it can move your bullet’s trajectory by as much as several inches, enough to cause you to completely miss your target.
It was all such a massive amount of information to synthesize, and I soon learned to use my brain as a lens to bring that entire universe of variables to bear on the tiny circle of focus inside my scope. This also meant blocking out any distractions, such as when the instructors intentionally messed with us to get us flustered and throw us off our game, or our own fears about not passing the course, and pouring every atom of concentration into that focal point.
We had learned to use the PEQ laser sight that projects a visible red dot on the target. (Another version of this scope projected an infrared red dot visible only through night vision, allowing us to sight targets without giving our position away. Today these two functions are combined into one model.) That red dot came to represent everything I was learning, compressed into a pinpoint of brilliant light.
It was as if I were standing inside a minuscule red circle, hurling the bullet to its destination by an act of sheer mental concentration. In those moments on the range everything else disappeared and my world shrank, like the near-infinite compression of matter in a black hole, into that red circle.
At the same time we were learning the various weapons and going through snaps and movers and unknown distances testing, we continued with those cold bore tests—which our instructors somehow managed to make more stressful every day. They had a truly devious genius at doing this, as they ably demonstrated on one of our classmates, Bill.
Bill had a brother going through BUD/S training at the time that we were in sniper school. Although none of us knew this at the time, it turned out that Bill’s brother had thrown in the towel and rung that brass bell, which meant his class helmet had been put out there on the ground along with all the other quitters’ helmets, their names facing out for all to see.
One of our instructors managed to get this guy’s helmet and affixed it to Bill’s cold bore target. The poor guy had no idea his brother had quit BUD/S until the moment when, out of breath and under the extreme pressure of the morning’s cold bore shot, he zeroed in on his target as it popped up—and saw his brother’s name on that helmet. To his credit, he scored a clean head shot, dead center. I heard later that his brother wasn’t too happy about it, but we were all quite impressed with the shot, and we proceeded to give Bill plenty of credit for it, along with an equal amount of shit about his brother quitting BUD/S.
As tense as our tests were, our instructors did not leave it to circumstances to apply the pressure. They found all kinds of creative and diabolical ways to tighten the screws. For example: You think you’re going to take your test eight hours from now, in the cool of the evening—and suddenly the instructors inform you that you’re taking it in fifteen minutes, right here at the blindingly hottest point of midday. Or: You’re on the range, testing on movers and snaps—and you suddenly realize your moving target is tilted because it wasn’t put up all the way.
Tough: deal with it. Adapt and overcome.
The more we learned, the more we practiced, the more we tested, the more grueling it got. All the while, our class size shrank as our classmates dropped away, one by one. Finally six weeks had gone by and it was time for our final test.
Before the test itself, the instructors sat each of us down for a brief conference, telling us what our grade was so far, where we were strong and where we needed to focus to improve. I appreciated the fact that they did this. Unfortunately, that moral support stopped there: once we got to the test itself, we found we had Phil Slattery as the test instructor. Slattery was a genuine asshole. Some of our instructors were harsh and strict, but we always knew they really wanted us to do well. For example, Crampton, the outgoing Master Chief: when Crampton was hard on us, it was clear that he was being hard on us for our benefit. Not Slattery. He treated us like dirt—especially the new guys, which included Glen and me. With Slattery, we never got the sense that he was tough on us for our sake. He just didn’t give a shit.
The test was again a combination of snaps and movers and unknown distance. And again, as a sniper team, we not only took every test together, we also combined our individual grades so that we were graded as a team, not as individuals. And it’s a good thing: if not for that, one of us would have left the range and gone back home.
On the .300 Win Mag snaps and movers, we did well, both shooting into the nineties. Then we moved to the unknown distance.
I went first. We ranged the targets, then it was time for me to shoot. We had a time limit of twenty minutes for this part of the test, so we had to keep it moving along—but we started having some trouble. Glen was experiencing a little bit of difficulty reading the wind and putting me on the target. As the shooter, my job was to focus on making a good shot. As the spotter, it was up to Glen to control me with his instructions. “Okay, dial in X for your elevation,” he would say, “and hold X for wind,” and then I would take the shot while Glen watched closely to see the bullet’s vapor trail so he could make any necessary adjustments for the next shot. In this case, the spotter was also responsible for keeping track of time, since we were on the clock.
We were on our third lane, with two more lanes to go, when I started having an uneasy sense that we were running out of time. “Hey,” I said to Glen, “how much time do we have?”
“We’re okay,” he assured me. “Plenty of time.”
I let it go and put all my focus on the next target. Glen continued on, methodically evaluating the conditions so he could put me on the next shot—and suddenly Slattery called out, “Time!”
I stared at Glen. “What the hell?!” I had eight bullets and two lanes worth of targets left. We were out of time.
Glen stared at his watch, devastated. “Dude, I don’t know what happened.”
And Slattery just stood there grinning and laughing at us.
I was furious—not at Glen, because I knew there was no way he would have intentionally messed this up. But I was stunned. What the hell happened here? To this day, I don’t know what went wrong. Glen was keeping track on a bezel watch rather than a stopwatch, and maybe put his bezel to the wrong number. Whatever it was, it had happened, and we were screwed. I had scored something like a 60.
Fortunately for us, we had hit every target we’d shot at, so we hadn’t dropped any rounds. And because we were combining our grades, we still had a chance. Now it was Glen’s turn to shoot and my turn to spot, which meant we were both about to play to our strengths.
“Okay, listen,” I said, “we have to get you a score of 95 or higher.”
If he shot a 95 or higher, we could still come out with a combined score that would squeak us by this test. That meant Glen could miss one shot, and only one shot: the rest would have to be perfect 100s. This was our last test before leaving the range and moving on to the stalking phase—if we did move on. But if we didn’t score a 95 or higher on Glen’s shoot, then at least one of us would not be going on to the stalking phase. Glen might or might not be out, but I definitely would be history.
Meanwhile Glen was still beating himself up.
“Dude,” I said, “we need to let this go. We need to clean this test. Let’s just do this thing.”
So we did. Ignoring Slattery’s jackass chuckling, we switched places and slid over to the next lane. I was like a machine, calling that wind. I put him on every shot, and he took every shot. We both put everything else out of our minds and put ourselves on the top of our game. Glen shot a 95. When they did the scoring, Glen had tied another guy, Mike Bearden, for the highest score of the day.
Just before we left Coalinga to move on to the stalking phase, we held a shoot-off to see who would win a brand new shotgun that a manufacturer had donated. It came down to Glen and Mike Bearden, the same student who’d tied Glen for the top spot on the day of that last test.
Mike, whom we called “the Bear,” was not only a crack shot, he was also a great guy, someone that everyone just naturally loved to be around. The Bear was paired up with a guy named Sean who had been in my BUD/S class, and who earned the nickname Happy. (Sean and I are good friends to this day, like two of Snow White’s seven dwarves: Happy and Dirty.)
It was a great contest. They used the .300 Win Mag, which shoots almost a thousand feet per second faster than the .308 and has a much flatter trajectory. Glen Bud and the Bear matched each other, shot for shot, right out to a thousand yards. Finally, at the thousand-yard mark, Glen missed the shot—and Mike hit it, edging out my partner by a hair and winning the shotgun. The Bear had triumphed. Of course I was rooting for Glen, but I didn’t begrudge the Bear his win; he was just too damn likable not to feel good about it.
The way things turned out, I would always be especially glad that the Bear left Coalinga with that victory under his belt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having cleared the hurdles of the shooting phase, we headed off to the Niland desert for the second half of the sniper course: the stalking phase. Now that we had all these skills on the gun, it was time to train us in the arts of camouflage and stealth so that we could with 100 percent consistency and reliability place ourselves in the necessary position to use those skills. It doesn’t matter how good a shot you are if you can’t get close enough to take the shot in the first place.
Once we got camped out and settled in the instruction began, starting with classes on stealth and movement. We learned how to use natural vegetation to our advantage, especially in outfitting our ghillie suits.
The ghillie suit traces back to the Scottish Highlanders who served in the British Army in World War I as Lovat Scouts, forerunners of the modern sniper. Many of these men had been gamekeepers in civilian life, often called ghillies (from the Gaelic term for servant, as they served as hunt guides for the wealthy), where they had cultivated the art of weaving bits and pieces of local flora into their loose-fitting robes to help them blend into their surroundings. Their unique skills were later taught at the British Army sniper schools, which were attended by Americans once the United States entered the war.
For our ghillie suits we started out with a base outfit with a neutral desert pattern, then took scraps of vegetation growing in our immediate environment and clipped these onto our suits. We also used scraps of burlap in different shades, which we learned to vary depending on the specific environment in which we’d be stalking. This sounds simple, but it is amazing to see the degree to which this art can be perfected. When you look at a photo of a Navy SEAL sniper in a ghillie suit out in his environment, it’s almost like those “hidden pictures” you may have pored over as a child: you look and look, and all you can see are trees and bushes. The sniper completely disappears.
They taught us how to make a veg fan, clipping branches from Manzanita bushes or whatever happened to be around and zip tying them together. We learned to hide behind this ad hoc camouflage as we would slowly rise up in the middle of the bushes, eyes just peeking over the top of the fan, using either our binos or the naked eye to peer through the veg clippings and get an idea of where our target was, then slowly melting back down again.
They taught us how to use what they called dead space, which proved to be one of our most important lessons. Imagine standing on the street, next to a car at the curb. If someone is looking in your direction from the sidewalk and you crouch down below the back of the car, suddenly you disappear. You’re using the dead space of the car to cover your signature. You can do the same thing with bushes, boulders, even a few feet of rising or sinking elevation, like a dirt mound or shallow ditch—anything you can put between you and your target.
The terrain in Niland didn’t provide much in the way of natural cover. It’s pretty flat, desolate scenery. But even there in that cracked-earth desert, you can find dead space if you look for it. There are tumbleweeds and other desert bushes, slight dips and rises in elevation, rocks here and there, even an occasional scraggly tree. Find even a little gully, and if you can slip down in there, you’ve got dead space.
They also taught us how to camouflage our rifles when setting up in our final firing position (FFP), and how to make sure we had cleared the muzzle by tamping down the firing area or using veg clippers to clip away vegetation surrounding the muzzle, so that when we took that shot, the pressure wave wouldn’t cause any movement in nearby trees or grass. The last thing you want to do is take a shot and have it create a big signature. Even if you are completely hidden and unseen when you take the shot, if someone whips around and looks to see where that sound came from and they see some grasses swaying or branches moving, they might make your position and nail you.
We also practiced building hide sites. We would dig into the ground, sometimes using mesh or chicken wire we’d brought with us, but mostly using whatever natural terrain we might find on-site. It was almost like becoming a burrowing animal. In the desert, especially, it provides not only cover but also a bit of relief from the intense heat. If you build it right, someone can be standing right next to you and never even realize you’re there. And you might have four guys living in this thing for days on end, watching the target, radioing back to base until they give you authority to take the shot.
This skill would prove extremely useful in the mountains of Afghanistan, as I would discover before long.
Then we started practicing in stalking drills. To give you a sense of the experience, I’ll describe a stalking drill:
They take you out to some location out in the desert and say, “Okay, your target is roughly two to four kilometers in that direction. You’ve got two hours to get to within 180 to 220 yards of the target, set up, and take your shot.”
Off you go, crawling on your belly, you and your gun and your drag bag, which you’ve hooked to your belt at your crotch and now drag along behind you, inching along in the sweltering heat. A half hour goes by, then an hour. Some guys around you go to the bathroom in their ghillie suits. What else are they going to do? You can’t stand up, that’s for damn sure. You have to get within that range—and you aren’t allowed to use laser rangefinders, so you have to use your scope to measure your target and then figure out exactly what point you have to reach in order to be within about two hundred yards.
Two instructors are waiting for you in the command tower, scouring the area with their high-powered binos, looking for you and communicating by radio with three or four walkers on the ground. The walkers are instructors who walk the field; they are not there to hunt you but to act essentially like robots, carrying out commands from the tower. If an instructor detects movement, he’ll radio the walker who is nearest to that spot and say, “Hey Eric, I’ve got movement, I need you to run twenty meters to the right … okay, stop, left face, now take three steps forward, stop. Stalker at your feet.” If that walker is standing right next to you, he says, “Roger that,” and you’re busted. You’ve failed the stalk.
The whole idea is to make this as difficult as possible. By the time you are in firing position, you’re only about 200 yards from the tower. You’re up against two trained sniper instructors who know exactly what direction you’re coming from, know exactly what area you have to set up in, and have not only high-powered binos but also a laser rangefinder. They know you’re coming and would love nothing more than to bust you.
If you’ve made it this far, now comes the moment of painstaking patience, as you slowly pull out your gun, then pull out your scope, and get everything into place. You can’t let your scope give off any kind of reflection or glint of sunlight, so you might cover it with fine mesh, then slowly move into position, get your sight positioned on the target, and squeeze off your shot.
For that first shot, you shoot a blank, which essentially announces that you have made it to your FFP. The walker approaches to within three feet of you, then signals the two instructors in the tower that he is in your vicinity. The instructors take a look, peering in your direction with their high-powered binos. If they see you, you fail. If they aren’t able to see you, then they get on the radio to the walker and say, “Okay, give him his bullet.”
Now they turn away for a moment, so they can’t see the walker come up and hand you your live cartridge. They set up a target right where they had been sitting moments earlier, and clear out. Now you take your shot and hit the target … you hope.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. If your bullet path isn’t completely clear and your bullet even lightly grazes a small twig or branch as it hurtles through the air, that can easily be enough to throw its trajectory off and result in a complete miss. And you’re lying down, remember: there might be a small mound of dirt in the way that you hadn’t noticed.
If you do everything right and hit that target on the chest or the head, you score a ten. Hit just anywhere else inside the silhouette, and you score a nine; just hitting the target scores you an eight. Miss, and you’ve earned a zero.
Then you get up, walk back to the truck, and wait for everyone else. And by the way, after you take that shot you better not leave a trace. We had guys who stalked all the way into position and got off a very decent shot, but then left behind a piece of brass, a zip tie, or a veg clipper—and failed the stalk. You can’t get cocky.
We started doing several stalks a day, a long one (two to four kilometers, which might take four hours or more) in the morning, and then a shorter one-kilometer stalk (about two hours) in the evening. The heat of the day, thank God, was set aside for classes. As with our shooting work up in Coalinga, we would practice for a few days and then be tested.
My first stalk, I ran out of time before I even got to my FFP. It was humiliating. Missing the shot would have been bad enough. I didn’t even get to take the shot. I made up my mind right then and there, that was notgoing to happen again.
I quickly learned that the first priority was to get eyes on the target. Once you have eyes on the target, then you own it: you know exactly where the enemy is, but he doesn’t know where you are. From that vantage point, you can set about planning your exact route to your FFP.
Jack Niklaus, the legendary championship golfer, used to say that when you’re making a difficult shot, 50 percent of it is the mental picture you create, 40 percent is how you set it up, and 10 percent is the swing itself. In that respect, sniping is a lot like golf: 90 percent of it is how you see the picture and get your shot lined up.
I realized that a lot of the other guys were getting down on the ground and just taking off, crawling in the general direction of the tower without first having gotten eyes on the target. As a consequence, they wouldn’t really know exactly where it was they were going, and they would run out of time … just like I did.
For my second stalk I figured, “Hey, this is practice—let’s push the limits and see what happens.”
Instead of getting down on the ground, I set off in a bold stride in the direction the instructors had told us the target was located. I passed guys who were crawling on their bellies on the hot Niland ground, slowly and painfully, and they looked up at me bug-eyed, with expressions that said, My God, what the hell are you doing?! I figured there was no way the instructors would see me; I was still almost half a mile away, and besides, they wouldn’t be really looking yet, because they wouldn’t be expecting any of us to start getting close nearly that soon.
I kept going until I had eyes on the target—and then immediately got down into a low crouch and started checking out every detail about the terrain between me and the target. Once I had my route planned, I got down on my belly and started crawling the 300 yards or so I still needed to cover in order to get to my FFP. Moving as quickly and as stealthily as I could, it took me maybe thirty minutes to low-crawl into position, set up my firing point, get everything dialed in, and go.
From that point on, it started to click for me. I would find a little high ground, make sure I had eyes on the target, and as soon as I knew exactly where it was, I would map out my approach, put a big terrain feature between me and them, and then I’d just walk right up on them. I started taking down tens, perfect stalks every time.
It drove some of the guys nuts that I caught on so fast, especially those who had come from the country and grown up hunting. There was one guy from Alabama who had spent his whole life hunting in the woods and who was beside himself that I was cleaning his clock. How the hell was this California surfer kid who’d never hunted a day in his life out-stalking them?!
Again, I think it was all the time I spent spear-fishing. The thing that clicked for me was the concept of dead space. That was the key to these stalking exercises. Put that dead space between you and your target, and you can literally run up to them without them ever knowing you’re there. Although you could hardly come up with a greater contrast in environments than underwater versus the Niland desert, that didn’t matter. The concept was exactly the same: find the dead space and use it.
People often assume that sniper stalking is all about getting down on your belly and crawling along incredibly slowly. Yes, that’s part of it—but the greater part of it is strategic. It’s a very mental process.
One day Glen approached me and said, “Dude, I’m not doing well on my stalks. Can you help me out?” By this point I had a reputation for my bold, crazy stalks—and Glen was worried that he was going to fail. I told him, of course I’d help him.
The following day, on our late afternoon stalk, we set out together. I described how I saw our stalk path laying out, and how if we went this way and then that way, we could basically walk in and set ourselves up over there in this little tree we could just see in the distance, and from there, we’d be all set to take our shots.
Glen peered into the distance and then looked at me like I was nuts.
“That tree?! I don’t know … I’m not so sure that can really work.”
I didn’t blame him. It must have looked like a pretty crazy idea. He wasn’t used to my version of a stalk, which was to do it like a blitzkrieg—sneak up fast and be the first one there, take them by surprise. And this was no big oak tree or anything: we were talking about a pretty scrubby, miserable little thing. I thought it would be perfect.
I’d also learned that there was another strong tactical advantage to getting to your FFP fast. There was already so little terrain to work with in the bleak Niland landscape that whatever did exist was automatically prime real estate. If you were one of the last guys showing up in the set-up zone, all the best spots would be already taken. It’s no fun showing up at 200 yards and finding there’s nothing left for you but flat, featureless desert.
But Glen was not ready for a Webb blitzkrieg and an FFP up in a tree. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”
I said, “Glen, you sure?”
He nodded. So I took off, scurried up there along the path I’d sketched out in my mind, hopped up into that tree and got myself set up in a nice standing position, with my stock resting on a branch. I clipped out a little circle of small branches so I had a clean hole to shoot through, and Blam! I took my shot. We were about fifteen minutes into the stalk.
The instructors freaked out. “Goddam it, who AD’ed?!” I heard one of them yell. Shooting off your weapon by mistake—an accidental discharge, or AD—is about as serious a sin as you can commit, and they wanted to know immediately who had done it so they could boot that guy’s ass off the range right then and there. It didn’t occur to them that someone could have actually taken a legitimate shot. Not within fifteen minutes of start time.
The walker closest to me got on his radio. “It wasn’t an AD, sir. It was Webb. He’s in position.”
In other words, I had taken my blank shot, and now I was coming for them.
When the instructors heard that, I could tell they wanted my ass. By that point in the course I had taken down some pretty good scores, and that alpha-male, head-butting energy was in the air: they really wanted to nail me. I started hearing all this chatter over the walker’s radio. Neither of the instructors could see me, but they didn’t want to give up. They started scouring my vicinity, searching for me like crazy.
“Hey, man,” I said to the walker, “what the hell? Can I take the shot, or what?”
Finally he told the instructors he was giving me my bullet. He handed it over, and I took the shot. As bad as they wanted me, they didn’t get me. I scored a ten.
I started walking back, and as I neared the start point there was Glen, crawling on his stomach. “I’m an idiot,” I heard him mumble.
After that I helped a few other classmates who were having a hard time getting the hang of it. We were coming down to the very last stalk, and there were three guys who had racked enough poor scores that they now needed to get a perfect score, or else they wouldn’t pass. All this time and effort, and it was coming down this one last stalk that would decide whether or not they would become SEAL snipers. The level of tension was inhuman.
These were really good guys, and I badly wanted all three of them to make it. On our last stalk before the final test, I went with them, doing everything I could to help them get themselves a clean, fast pathway into the zone for a solid FFP. In the process, I didn’t pay enough attention to what I was doing myself, and hung myself out a little too far. I got busted—and failed the stalk. I didn’t mind, though. I had enough margin in my accumulated scores to make it through even with a zero on that one. When the final stalk came, two of them made it. The third went home.
Here was the funny thing: when they read out those final scores, another guy and I had tied for first place—and after that came Glen, right behind us in second place.
I looked over at him and said, “You bastard! What do you mean, you were in jeopardy of failing? You were doing fine—you almost passed me up in points, you bastard!”
But that’s Glen: he’s an absolute perfectionist. He always wants to do better. It’s one of the traits that makes him great.
We left Niland and headed back to Coronado to take some brief instruction in how to waterproof our weapons and how to take care of them when going in and out of the water. After graduation we would go on to spend another week doing some two-man contact drills and over-the-beach training. But for all practical purposes, we were done. We’d made it.
The graduation ceremony took place in the Team 5 compound on June 12, 2000, my twenty-sixth birthday. All the COs from all the different teams showed up. It was a proud moment for everyone in GOLF platoon. Our personal triumph also translated into bragging rights for them and enhanced the reputation of the whole team. Glen and I were on cloud nine.
My SEAL sniper certificate carries the signature of Captain William McRaven, who at the time was serving as commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 1. More than a decade later, now a four-star admiral, McRaven would be credited with organizing and executing Operation Neptune’s Spear, the special ops mission that took out Osama bin Laden in May of 2011. The following month he became the ninth commander of SOCOM, the entire U.S. special Operations Command, taking the reins from Adm. Eric T. Olson, another Navy SEAL.
It was ten years almost to the day since my dad threw me off our family’s boat in the South Pacific. Then, I’d been a scared sixteen-year-old kid. Today, I was a Navy SEAL sniper.
Our platoon would deploy soon, but first I had some leave coming, which I took with pleasure. It was good to decompress a little, to surf for hours and spend time with Gabriele.
A little more than a month after graduation, I decide to go look up the Bear.
Right after graduation, Mike and I had made a horse trade. While I was part of Team 3, he had been assigned to a cold-weather platoon in Team 5, and we both had extra pieces of equipment that the other coveted. He had an extra cold-weather sleeping bag I thought might come in handy, and he agreed to trade it for a desert tan assault vest of mine. I had already given Mike the vest but he still owed me the bag, and I wanted to collect before heading out to wherever I was going next.
I showed up at Team 3, expecting the bag to be sitting there waiting for me, as Mike had promised it would be. It wasn’t there, and frankly, I was a little pissed off about it, but I figured I ought to give Mike the benefit of the doubt. I knew he must have a good reason.
I called up his platoon hut at Team 5 to give him shit. One of his platoon mates answered the phone.
“Hey,” I said, “is the Bear around? And can you tell him to come to the phone so Brandon can kick his ass over the wire, just for now, until I have a chance to come over there and kick it in person?”
There was silence on the other end. It lasted only a second or two, but in that short gap I felt my stomach drop out from under me. Something was wrong.
“Yeah…” the voice said. “Actually, no. Mike was in an accident.”
That didn’t sound good. I instantly felt like a complete ass. “What the hell? What happened? Is he okay?”
He was not okay. On July 12, just a few days earlier, the Bear had been in a freak accident while in parachute training. During a free-fall exercise, his main chute got tangled with a secondary chute and failed to open. He didn’t make it.
The Bear left behind a gorgeous wife, Derinda, and a beautiful little two-year-old boy, Holden.
I couldn’t attend his funeral because by that time I was already deployed and on my way toward the Persian Gulf. A few of my friends did, though. They told me later about that day, and about Mike’s son Holden walking up to them because he recognized the gold SEAL tridents on their uniforms, just like his dad’s, and asking them if they knew where his daddy was. One friend said there were at least a few guys who could barely keep it together at that point. Most had to go off for a solid cry.
Mike’s death shook everyone who knew him, and it hit me pretty hard. He was the first of many friends I would lose over the years.
Excerpt from Brandon memoir, The Red Circle.