Then and Now: What’s Changed- #7 Beyond Marksmanship

This is one of those topics that people want to misinterpret as me saying that fundamentals aren’t necessary and that I think being a mall ninja is “deadlier”. We all know that if one sheathes themselves in 5.11 tactical gear, no harm can come to them, and their enemies will be dispatched without a conscious attempt being made, so I don’t even need to say that.  Okay, perhaps “beyond” is not the best choice of words, because the fundamentals never cease being important, but the title sounds catchy and I can dance to it.

I recall hearing someone say something to the effect of “if someone wants to shoot at me they’re gonna have trouble getting inside of 400 yards”. This was a person who was an accomplished known distance shooter with the loop sling in the primary orthodox positions, but who maybe hadn’t considered that folks trying to shoot him may not act according to his plan. I also have frequently heard shooters decry the type of training that the Army has gone to and criticizing that they abandoned the more formal marksmanship type stuff.

The common point of those two ideas is that they both assume that marksmanship by itself translates to effectiveness in the field.  It’s easy to fall into that line of thinking after becoming somewhat decent at rifle marksmanship.  I used to say the same things until John Simpson called me out on it (he studies the history of U.S. military marksmanship compulsively).

It turns out that the military didn’t just make up its mind to change for no reason. They actually have a rather large pool of people to study (whooda thunkit?). I hope that my synopsis is not too wildly inaccurate, but here goes. The problem really wasn’t the formal marksmanship, but the formal style marksmanship really didn’t turn out to be a panacea either.

A long time ago, they found out that even after extensive marksmanship training, folks couldn’t hit targets in a non-range, simulated “battlefield” type environment (partially obscured humanoid targets, unknown distance, non-range type terrain, etc.) any better than people with no training in marksmanship. What did help people hit targets was actually practice in related skills, with a big emphasis on range estimation and target detection.

In the old days (I think post WWI), they used to follow up the marksmanship block of instruction with something called “Musketry and Combat Practice Firing”. This is part of what made that generation so effective with their rifles. At some point, some muckety-muck type (or a qual-obsessed marksmanship crank) figured out that all that silly target detection range estimation junk didn’t do anything for qualification scores and eliminated it. Then some other white lab coat types had to figure out why folks couldn’t hit anything anymore under battlefield conditions (I believe that study culminated in the Trainfire program). There’s kind of a cycle in place.  It always seems great to bean counters to save time and money by eliminating something that doesn’t seem important in a field they know next to nothing about.

I do believe in the necessity of marksmanship as a component of effective field work, but I don’t think it, by itself, puts the rubber on the road. Estimating the range within the danger space of the round and correctly compensating for it,  using positions that optimize the advantage of cover, making use of support when it is handy, detecting targets, etc., aren’t tacticool optional operator (I still don’t get that- don’t they just answer phones?) skills. There are simply a number of skills outside the realm of pure marksmanship that are necessary to put a bullet on target. If you consider that real life can occur outside of flat, non-uniform terrain in unpredictable conditions, and that targets can appear at distances other than numbers rounded off by hundreds, then these truths are self-evident.

And don’t forget to wear the proper tactical clothing at all times!!!  You think anybody wants a roundhouse kick to the face while I’m wearing these bad boys (American flag parachute pants)?  Forget about it!

11 thoughts on “Then and Now: What’s Changed- #7 Beyond Marksmanship

  1. Much has been diluted and polluted on this topic
    Let us look at the Boers who wrought havoc on the highly trained Brits
    Billy Sing a half Chinese sheepherder and kangaroo hunter that creamed the Turks at Gallipoli .
    The “white Death” Finn that planted over 500 Russians in the forest of Finland in the winter of 1939.
    All self taught if you will, commonalities were they astute observers,new their and their rifles capabilities ,good at judging range or distance in their area,Sing was also good reader of wind,they were patient still hunters ,how to move and when not to and non had digital camouflage or glass over 2.5x if any

  2. While I agree that the known distance marksmanship range shouldn’t be the end of the training it is still getting phased out more than it should. When I went to boot camp (in 2001) we learned how apply the fundamentals with an iron sighted M16A2 and make hits out to 500 yards. Then we spent some time at unknown distance/target ID (but not enough). Now days even in boot camp Marine recruits are taught marksmanship using an ACOG with more emphasis on close range “Table 2” stuff. (I know this because my nephew just graduated from boot camp 10 days ago)
    I think boot camps should still teach the known distance/iron sights fundamentals, THEN once a good base is established you can start training rifleman in the rest of the art.

    • I agree that there need to be steps of progression. I think that it is too easy to miss out on context and believe that because I have mastered a, b, and c, I would also be competent at x, y, and z. I tend to dwell and get stuck in phases, so I may have the opposite problem of the military, who have to try to prioritize what training to cram into the short time that they have, and what training to whittle out of the curriculum.

      • I’d go so far to say that most people get into phases, shooting is no exception. I would argue that it is actually the same problem as the military. We used to always say “we’re busy preparing for the previous war” and indeed it appears they are doing just that. I understand that big budgets dont make it down to the lowly rifleman (in the military) but I think cutting out iron sights in boot camp was a big mistake. Time wise there is plenty they could cut out to spend more time on the range and from a financial standpoint it just seems wrong to me for the military to shoot less.

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