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Guerilla Sniper

September 9, 2011

Over Fourth of July weekend I took the Guerilla Sniper class from Eric Pfleger.  This class is a bit of a departure for me. I’ve never done any precision rifle work, or even owned a gun with a magnified optic until a few months ago. This class was well outside my comfort zone, but if I don’t leave the comfort zone I’m not gonna learn anything.

I shot the class using a Savage Model 10FP in .308. I mounted a Burris Fullfield II 3-9x40mm scope on it. This is a pretty basic bolt gun, but it’s a very nice shooter; definitely more accurate than I am. The scope is far better than it’s pricetag would indicate (Burris always seems to punch above its weight in optics). However, the best thing about this setup is that I got the rifle in trade for a HK pistol I don’t even shoot anymore, so the only cash I’ve got in it is the optic.

The rifle was still flat black, which would stand out a bit during the stalking phase. When I mentioned painting it a few weeks ago Eric turned me on to a great product called CammoForm. It’s cloth tape similar to the Ace bandages that stick to themselves, except it’s camo rather than flesh toned. It sticks to itself rather than the rifle, so you can pull it off without leaving any residue. It works great to quickly camo up a rifle and you can remove it and get back to your original condition. I wouldn’t mind painting this gun, but if you want to bring a gun you don’t want to paint to a GS class (one with a nice wood stock, for instance) a roll or two of CammoForm would work great for temporarily camouflaging it.

My ammo was all Prvi Partizan 175 grain FMJ Boat Tailed match ammo. It shot well in my gun and for 73 cents a round I didn’t have to flinch from the price every time I pulled the trigger.

I also brought along my RMRed Glock 17, for transition drills and general self-defense use.

The class had a slight majority of semi-auto rifles, but there were bolt guns in evidence as well. The bolt guns included a couple of savages and a Winchester, plus Eric’s HS Precision Remmington 700. On the semi-auto side of things there were two FALs, one AR in .308 and one in 6.5 Grendel, and one M1A. Optics included a couple of Burrises, a Nikon, and one Counter-Sniper.

Of particular note is the rig that Alex Nieuwland was running. He wanted to come to this class, but didn’t have a long range rifle yet. I mentioned this to Eric at the Applegate point shooting class two weeks ago, and Eric said he’d be happy to lend Alex a .30-06 deer rifle that he keeps at his Mom’s house in Indiana in case he wants to go hunting out there. This is an off the rack Winchester from the ’80s. It has a trigger that’s reasonable, but not great. Alex described it as sending a telegram to the trigger and waiting until it fired. It’s topped with a simple duplex scope (thin crosshairs in the middle, which turn to thicker posts further out). There are no field adjustment or drop markings on the reticule. This is the kind of gun that’s in many closets across America and Alex did quite well with it.

To round out my optics, I also brought a pair of Burris binoculars (came with the scope) and a Burris fixed power 20x50mm spotting scope. This little spotter is another gem. Very compact, inexpensive, and good quality. The magnification isn’t super high, but 20x is quite sufficient for most purposes. Unfortunately, it’s out of production, but you can pick them up on eBay for under $50. This only arrived the day before I left for the class and I didn’t have a tripod yet, so Alex Nieuwland provided one.

I brought an Eagle Industries pack both to carry my gear and as a rest to shoot off of. To make it function a bit better in the latter role I attached a S.O.Tech forestock saddle rest, which helps grip the rifle and keep it from sliding around on the bag. I got a TAB Gear rear bag to support the stock, and a shooting mat. When I traded for it, the rifle came with a knockoff of the Harris bipod, so I brought that as well. I also picked up my first camo for the class, some old style woodland BDUs. Along with a sniper veil, I figured this should help cut down on my visibility.

Finally, since this is the middle of the summer, I brought a shemagh and broad brimmed hat to keep the sun off and lots of water and other cold drinks to keep hydrated.

Alex Nieuwland and I drove up to Cambridge, Ohio on Thursday. I’d taken almost the same drive two weeks ago for the Applegate Combat Point Shooting class in Athens, Ohio. It was nice to have someone to talk to and trade off on the driving. We met Eric for dinner Thursday night. He forewarned us that we’d be shooting from downrange, near the targets Friday morning, so we spent the evening making sure our rucks were loaded up and ready to go.

Friday

We got up early and convoyed out to the range. Once there, Eric figured out that while he’d requested an 8:00 start time for the class, on the S.I. website it said 9:00. So we had a bit of a wait until the last student showed up just before 9:00.

The class had eight students, including three S.I. staff instructors (John McCreery, Alex Nieuwland, and myself). Some of the students had fairly extensive hunting experience but many, like me, had very little previous experience with scoped rifles.

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This class was held at Thunder Valley Precision, a facility that can only be described as magnificent. The owner makes precision rifles and suppressors, and is a world record holder for the smallest group and best score at 1000 yards. The range is spread out over quite a spread of rolling, grassy hills. From where we were shooting, there were target stands at 600 and 1000 yards, steel targets about every hundred yards out to 1000, and a hill in the distance where you could shoot out to a mile. In addition, there’s a short 100 yard range running from the right end of the firing line at a right angle to the main range. This proved very useful allowing Eric to pull off two-man teams for individual exercises while the rest of us kept banging steel out on the main range. The terrain is quite varied and includes some woodland, brush, and tall grass for stalking exercises.

We started with the usual waivers, both on paper and on video. Then Eric described the context of the class. He called this a, “sloppy sniper” class. Everyone talks about the exploits of Carlos Hathcock and others like him, but they are famous because they’re exceptional. Even in the military, the average shot is under 500 yards. In the police context, sniper shots rarely exceed 100. True partisan snipers rarely make very long shots either. The standard for the Guerilla Sniper class is to be able to make headshots at 200 and body shots out to 600. If you can go further, that’s better, of course, but this class is not about super-long range shooting or extreme accuracy. We want to get a hit somewhere on the guy, we don’t care which tear duct it goes through or whether or not you center-punched the third button on his shirt.

We went through a very thorough medical brief, appointing different students to various roles in the event of an accident. We also talked quite a bit about hydration. It was going to be a warm weekend and everyone has to stay hydrated. Finally, we went through the standard four rules of gun safety.

First topic was talking about sniper gear. Eric showed off a prototype of the TSD sniper bag. This was a pretty nice bag, with big pockets on either side to hold the rifle in place, rubberized material to keep it from sliding forward and back, and more rubber on the bottom to keep it from moving if you’re shooting off a car hood or other slick surface. Eric was really big on having some sort of bag, both to carry your gear and to shoot off of.

Next, he talked about gear to use to create sniper hides. In the wilderness this can include an entrenching tool, folding saw and a hatchet or tomahawk, pruning shears, and some sort of burlap or a sniper veil to obscure your outline, along with zip ties, duct tape or wire to attach camouflage. One thing I hadn’t thought about was what you’d need in an urban area: some sort of breaching kit to be able to enter a structure and make loopholes if necessary with things like pry bars, etc. One tool Eric really likes for both roles is a tomahawk. He discussed using it to lop off tree limbs, chop through interior walls, jam it into a tree to make a shooting rest, and, of course, as a fighting tool.

We talked a bit about shooting pads. Eric is really a fan of using a 3/4 length Thermarest air mattress with some grommets added to the corners. He’s really a fan of it’s multirole nature, as it can be used for sleeping, to make a litter to carry a wounded man, as an air splint, for floating people or gear across water, and as a shooting mat.

Next we talked optics (other than the one attached to your rifle). First up and most important in Eric’s estimation was a good pair of binoculars. He likes them somewhere in the 8 to 10 power range. His pair is actually a combination of binoculars and a laser rangefinder (one less piece of gear to carry). Binoculars are for scanning, locating targets, and general observation. They can cover more area than a spotting scope or rifle optic and are much less fatiguing to look through for long periods of time. He talked about techniques for scanning with binoculars, basically picking out an area that fits in the field of view, searching that by moving your eyeballs (not the binoculars) then moving on to the next field of view worth of area to scan. He also mentioned some techniques for stabilizing the binoculars by using your index and middle fingers to grasp your temples or the brim of your hat.

He really likes laser rangefinders to make range estimation problems easier. They take a lot of the guesswork out of long range shooting. In fact, he likes them enough that he thinks in a two man sniper team both members should have a rangefinder, in order to compare numbers and provide a backup.

Last in the optics department was a spotting scope. Eric regards this as secondary to the binoculars. They are for examining a target already located using the binoculars (or naked eye). In a two man team, he thinks one spotting scope is probably enough. For a variable he likes the 15-45 power models. Higher magnification (or even the high end of a 15-45) is often useless due to mirage. Another alternative is a fixed power scope of around 20x (like the one I brought). In addition to the standard tripod mount, he mentioned using a ruck to stabilize a pair of binoculars, much like you would a rifle.

We talked a bit about camouflage. Eric showed off part of his ghillie suit, but he also talked about areas where a ghillie suit, or even BDUs, would be inappropriate. For instance in urban sniping, a ghillie suit would attract attention. The best camouflage is to look like everybody else in the city. One interesting option Eric mentioned was using a camouflage bug suit (a jacket and pants made out of netting to keep out insects) as a way to quickly go from urban camo to rural camo, for a hide site in a park in the middle of a city, for instance. One other interesting tidbit he mentioned from the rural patrolling classes he mentioned was that black boot soles really stand out. You want boots with some color other than solid black.

Next up we talked about guns. The big choice here is obviously bolt versus semi-automatic. Semis are more versatile, and easier to press into the fighting rifle role if necessary. Bolt guns are generally more accurate, though semis are getting awfully good these days. However, you’re going to pay a lot more for equivalent accuracy in a semi-auto than in a bolt gun. If you’re operating in a two-man team, a good alternative is to have one bolt gun as the main long range rifle and a semi to provide security and additional firepower to engage multiple targets.

On the optics front, Eric’s rule of thumb is one power per hundred yards of intended shooting range. For semis, he likes 2-7x scopes, with 3-9x for bolt guns to take advantage of their better accuracy. Beyond power, the other big choice for a scope is the type of reticule. There are a lot of options from simple crosshairs to mil dot or ballistiplex reticules that help handle hold-overs and unders.

Eric went over the basics of ballistics, how the bullet starts out underneath the line of sight, climbs to intersect it, rises above it, then drops to intersect it again and falls below. We talked about different zeroing distances and their pros and cons. If your scope doesn’t have a built in ballistic drop compensator or a ballistiplex reticule, Eric’s a big advocate of zeroing the scope out further than 100 yards, allowing you to shoot further out without having to worry about hold-over. The gun he loaned Alex was zeroed at 250 yards. If you hold it dead on, it will shoot within four inches high or low out to 300 yards. This allows quick shots at torso sized targets. If you need a bit more accuracy, for a head shot for instance, you can look at the hold over/under chart (handily glued to the inside of the rear flip-up scope cover and hold over or under by a few inches.

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There are essentially three ways of dealing with bullet drop at longer ranges. One is Kentucky holdover (the vertical cousin to Kentucky windage), just holding above the target as necessary. If your scope has only a simple crosshair and no field adjustments, this is all you’ve got. If you have a BDC, target turrets, or some other means of adjusting the scope easily in the field you can adjust for distance, which requires more time but allows you to hold directly on the target rather than holding over or under. Finally, if you have a ballistiplex or mil-dot reticule, you can hold at the appropriate line or dot for the hold over. On some scopes you can do all three, and Eric is an advocate of being able to do all of them. Hold overs for quick shots, use the reticule if you have a bit more time, or if you’ve got time, adjust the scope for the shot.

The nearest set of target stands at Thunder Valley is 600 yards from the bench. That’s a bit far for our first shots, so we walked out to about the 575 yard line. Since it’s a bit of a hike back to the bench, we hoofed out everything we needed (see, this is why you need a ruck).

Eric went through the fundamentals of marksmanship with a scoped rifle (no need to teach sight alignment here). We talked about how to hold the rifle, pressing the trigger, breathing, etc. He also mentioned one element that I wasn’t aware of, which is that you don’t want any sort of shadow around the edges of the scope (caused by poor eye relief). You want to see a nice crisp view of the circle outline of the scope. If it’s fuzzy or shadowed (particularly if on just one side) the bullet may not go where the crosshairs appear to be. I spent some time fighting with this, particularly in some of the sitting and kneeling positions where my body was close to parallel to the rifle and the stock way back behind my neck.

He showed us prone, including unsupported, shooting off a ruck and shooting off a bipod. One element of this that was new to me is leaning forward into the bipod to help stabilize the rifle. He also showed SBU prone, rollover prone, and shooting with the stock on the ground and the forend held up by your fist.

After working the prone positions dry, Eric showed us sitting, both cross legged and open legs, as well as some odd adaptations like bringing one knee up and grabbing the rifle around it. One element I hadn’t previously appreciated is how changing which crossed leg was on top can adjust elevation. We worked these dry, including climbing up onto the target berm and using them to shoot up and downhill.

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Next up were kneeling and standing. We worked these positions dry, then we moved on to live fire. Our first live string was at 25 yards from the sitting position, to make sure everyone’s zero was reasonably good. Everybody brought a decently zeroed rifle, which is not always the case in these kinds of classes.

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We moved back to 50 and shot from sitting, kneeling, and standing. The area we were shooting from was unmowed grass up to about 2 feet tall, so prone was out of the question. Eric demonstrated using the sling as a shooting support (the hasty sling) and had us practice that as well.

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We moved back to 100, which took us partway up a hill. The slope of the hill made prone a possibility, though you had blood rushing to your head a bit when shooting. At this distance we dropped standing, shooting from sitting and kneeling and prone. Prone was much more accurate, of course. I learned that I need to work on my sitting and kneeling positions, as my wobble zones were pretty big.

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Back at 200, the hill started to flatten out a bit, making prone difficult to use. We shot sitting and kneeling, but at this distance I think we were approaching (or exceeding) the limits of these positions for most of the class. Alex and I tried shooting off the tripod we brought for the spotting scope with a sandbag balanced on top of it, but this was just way too unstable. The best shooting position from this range was actually to have your partner sit in front of you and use his shoulder as a rifle rest. This worked pretty well if you could get your breathing in sync.

From the same position we shot at a 12×12 inch steel plate 100 yards beyond the berm, for a total of 300 yards. This was partway up the next hill, so prone was usable. Most folks were able to ring the gong this way.

By this point, everyone’s ass was really dragging. It was hot and humid enough to really suck the life out of you. Even slamming down water and gatorade I probably wasn’t drinking as much as I should have.

With that we took the long hike back to the cars and called it a day. The entire class gathered for dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel. Alex and I made a Wal-Mart run afterwards. I’d been fighting some eye relief issues, especially in the sitting and kneeling positions, so I picked up a recoil pad to increase the length of pull a bit. While I was getting that, I saw they had a shooting stick. I’m a bit skeptical of a monopod as a support for the work we’re doing, but the rifle rest at the top was attached by a standard camera tripod connection, so we could remove it and attach it to the tripod, where it hopefully would be a whole lot more stable than the precariously balanced sandbag.

Saturday

We’d said that we’d try to start at seven, rather than nine this morning to help escape the heat of the day. It was more like eight by the time everyone was at the range and ready to go. In any case we needn’t have bothered as today was considerably cooler. It rained off and on, but frankly it was welcome compared to the heat of the day before. Most of us never even bothered to break out rain gear.
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We started off with a close quarters module. A sniper rifle isn’t the best weapon for shooting from 5 to 25 yards, but if it’s what’s in your hands when a threat appears, it will have to do. We began with some snap shooting. With a magnified optic (even on the lowest setting) at close range this consists of filling the optic with your target and pressing the trigger. We worked this at five, fifteen and twenty-five yards.

Next up was some point shooting. Eric explained the basics and we shot from underarm assault at 5, shooting while looking over the scope at 10 (or canting the rifle for folks with very high mounted optics). At 25 it was a bit far for point shooting, so Eric had us take some snap headshots.
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The last part of the CQB module was transitioning to pistol. If you’re using your sling as a shooting aid, it’s going to be too short to do the standard over the head transition that S.I. teaches, so we practiced slinging the rifle on the support side, muzzle down (African carry) and drawing the pistol. We worked this with dry rifles first, then practiced firing one round from the rifle and going to pistol. This could simulate running out of ammo for the semi-autos, but is probably the best course of action for a bolt gun.

Once the CQB stuff was finished, Eric gave a lecture on range estimation and wind. As he mentioned during the gear discussion yesterday, he really likes laser rangefinders and considers them a crucial piece of kit. However, if your laser goes tits up or you don’t have one, you can range in other ways. If you have a mildot scope, or simply know what angle different markings on your regular scope subtend, you can compare that to the size of known objects. If a particular piece of your scope covers three inches at 100 yards, and it covers half of something a foot across, that object is at around 200. Another method of finding ranges is to use a topographic map to locate yourself and the target. He passed around some examples of range data cards, which show different features and their ranges from a given shooting position.

Eric talked about different features that can make something appear closer or further than it really is. Many of them seem to boil down to the fact that people judge distances based not on how big something appears, but on how much visible terrain there is between you and it. If you cannot see all the terrain between you and an object (due to a hidden depression) the object appears closer. If you can see more terrain between you and an object than the pure horizontal distance, a large visible valley, for instance, objects appear further away. We had examples of both of these conditions visible from right where we were sitting.

Next up we talked about wind. Eric talked about different wind directions and how much they contribute the effect on the bullet in flight. He also went through some basic methods of estimating wind speed, based on what you can see moving or blowing. Another, more advanced method is to use the mirage visible through high magnification spotting scopes to read wind speed. This requires a lot of practice to do well, however. Finally, we ha a few examples of hand held wind sensors, but these will only measure the wind at your location. It may be different at various points in the bullet’s flight path.

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We spent most of the rest of the day shooting at steel targets at various ranges. There were 12×12 steel plates set up from 135 out to 1000. We paired up in teams and each team picked out a target to shoot at, trading around after everyone was done with a given range. Alex and I started with a 300 yard target. I got first round hits on it from rucksack prone, the bipod and unsupported prone. It took two shots to get on target from sitting, but this was substantially better than I was doing yesterday. Still need more practice though.

As teams traded off targets, we moved out to 400, 450, 500, and 600, working mostly from prone. I found hits out to 500 were fairly easy. The ballistiplex reticule in my rifle worked fine. It might not be exactly calibrated to the load I was shooting, but any differences were small enough that I was usually able to hit plates on the first shot. Alex’s rifle only had crosshairs, without any bullet drop markings or mildots. It was zeroed at 250, so he was able to hold right on the plate all the way out to 300. At 400 he had to start using Kentucky elevation, which was a bit more of a struggle. This was down in a valley and there was relatively little wind, so we never needed to do more than hold one side of the plate or the other at these ranges.

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At 600, it got substantially more challenging for me, since I had to hold the bottom mark on my ballistiplex above the target to hit it. This was compounded by the fact that I didn’t have a good drop table for the gun and the berm was wet enough that missed shots weren’t kicking up enough dirt to see on the spotter. Alex was calling my shots way over to the left, but I didn’t think there was that much wind and I really didn’t have any idea where I was hitting. Eric came over and spotted for me. He explained that what Alex had been calling was actually a vapor trail left by my bullets in flight. Atmospheric conditions were just right (very moist) that the turbulence of the bullet caused momentary condensation. Very cool, and once we understood what it was, we could use them to help spot. I was eventually able to ding the steel, as was Alex, but it was a struggle. He had to hold well over the top of the berm to get a hit at this range.

A few students got out beyond the 600 yard plate to 750, but out there the wind started picking up a lot more out that far (a flag at 1000 was standing almost straight out some of the time). Now, compared to the 1000 yard hits seen at the Kingman guerilla sniper classes this may seem like a poor performance, but you have to remember that these plates are only 12 by 12 inches. At the Kingman classes they’re shooting much larger steel, the size of an IDPA target, roughly 18 by 30 inches. Eric said that we could call any round that would have hit a man sized target at that range a hit, but all of us wanted to ring the steel. There’s just something about that boom . . . ding of a long range hit on steel. It’s almost like a drug: you want to do it again and again and do it at increasingly longer ranges.

At lunch, Eric talked about the odds of observing a standing man at different distances with the naked eye. According to a study by the Army during Project SALVO, the odds are 90% at 100 yards, but decline to just 30% at 200 yards, 15% at 300, 5% at 400, and drop to zero at 500%.

We went over some team shooting drills, with Eric calling out commands and everybody shooting in unison. Eight sniper rifles going off within a second is pretty impressive.

The commands are:
On Rifle
On Glass
On Target
On Trigger
Sending
One
Two
Bang!

Firing on bang, obviously.

We worked this in our two-man teams, with one shooter giving commands and both firing. Giving commands has a tendency to screw up your shooting. It messes with your breathing and you’re trying to concentrate on two things at once.

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We went back to shooting steel while Eric set up a drill off on the 100 yard range to the side (it’s really nice having two separate ranges to do this stuff on, allowing him to split individual teams off for exercises while the reset of us could keep shooting. The first such drill involved simultaneous precision shooting on a 1.5 inch dot at 100, 75, and 50 yards. This was a change of pace from the long distance stuff we’d been doing (Alex had to remember to hold under rather than over at this range). It also showed how you could practice some of these skills even if you didn’t have access to a one-mile or 1000 yard range.

For the next split off drill, Eric handed the team a piece of paper with pictures of the ten most wanted terrorists on it with two circled. He told us we had 90 seconds to get over to the other range and kill those two guys. You’ve got to grab your gear, get over there, ID the two guys and put rounds into them, preferably simultaneously.

While trying out an unconventional shooting precision (holding the sling mount in your fist and using that as a rest and putting the bottom of the butt into the dirt, I got a bit too close to the scope and it recoiled into my forehead. It was only a small cut, but as usual with head cuts I bled like a stuck pig for a bit.

I also played with my TSD Glcok with the RMR on it a bit. Dinging a target at 150 yards was fairly easy.

Later that afternoon Eric brought out his HS Precision Remmington 700 and tested how much his dope had shifted with the change in altitude from Montana to Ohio. Once he got it figured out, he had a round left and offered me the chance to shoot it. I held exactly where he told me to and dinged the 600 yard plate on the first shot. It’s definitely easier when you’re not holding over using Kentucky elevation.

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Alex put a few rounds through Eric’s rifle as well.

To finish out the day, we did a version of the Columbian Special Forces Drill. In this drill, you run towards the target, stopping at regular distance intervals to shoot. Usually, it’s done with AKs or ARs from 100 yards. We did it over 500 yards. None of the shots were that long (nothing over 200 yards), but had to fire between 100 yard dashes, which messes with your aim.

With that we wrapped up for the day. The owner of the range suggested a restaurant in town (The Forum) and it was a really good choice. Good food and fellowship were had by all.

Sunday

We rolled out early again for a 7:00 start time on Sunday. We started off with some more free shooting the various plates. I was able to bang plates at 300, 400, and 500 from prone with relative ease. This sort of thing gives me confidence in my ability to apply the skills we’ve been working on. One fellow in the class made a 700 yard cold bore first shot on a 12×12 inch steel. That is impressive.

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Our first break out drill was a variation on the face hunting drill from yesterday. This time, Eric had us shoot from under a table, simulating a cramped, improvised urban hide. Given my six foot five frame, this was a particular challenge. I shot with my rifle resting on my arm on top of the seat of a chair, sort of half sitting half lying. A totally improvised shooting position. Alex, who’s not quite as tall as I am was able to get a picture perfect seating position. To add a bit of stress, Eric was banging on top of the table, simulating a train going by. Like yesterday, we synchronized our shots, firing at the same time.

While the other teams shot the drill, we went back to shooting steel. On Saturday I’d found that the ballistiplex reticule works real well out to 500, which is the longest range marked on the scope. I had some real trouble at 600 using holdover. Last night I looked up some numbers on the Burris website and used a ballistics calculator and if I had my numbers right, turning the magnification from 9x down to 6x would increase the drop of the 500 yard mark on the scope to right about the drop for my cartridge at 600 yards. Now I wanted to see if I’d gotten the math right. I was able to get the first shot within minute of man and ding the plate with the second. This gave me confidence that I could use this rifle to meet the Guerilla Sniper standard of 200 yard headshots and 600 yard body shots.

After I was done doing some shooting, I went to deploy my bipod to ground my rifle and found that one of the springs had come off the bipod leg. Closer examination revealed that the spring had come loose because a nut holding the leg screw on had backed out, allowing the leg to come loose. I hadn’t actually been shooting from the bipod very much, just using it to hold up my rifle when it was grounded, so I pulled the bipod off and went on without it. I didn’t have much hope of finding it out in the field, but Alex located it on my shooting mat (yet another use for a mat, catching bits of your gear when it breaks). I got it threaded back on and think the bipod will probably be repairable.

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Our next team drill had us shooting from behind a woodpile, and some piled up roof trusses, simulating a construction site or farmyard. This time, rather than simultaneous shots on two different targets we had to make simultaneous shots on one guy. Assigning two snipers to the target increases the odds of a hit.

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By this point we were doing pretty good shooting 100 yard headshots on static paper targets. In the real world however, people tend to move around, especially the head. Eric talked a bit about ways to practice shooting moving targets. A simple method is to tape some balloons out there that can blow around a bit, or to hang a gallon jug with just a little bit of water in it and let it swing. If you want to get more complex, you can attach a target to a fiberglass pole atop an RC Car, or rig up a clothesline with the rope running from the pulley up range to a buddy.

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Next up Eric brought out a truck windshield so we could test shooting through glass. We fired a variety of different .308 rounds through it, along with 6.5 Grendel, .22-250, .220 Swift, and 7.62×39. All of the rifle rounds busted through the glass, of course. The all produced a substantial amount of spalling. Auto windshields are made up of two layers of glass with a plastic laminate in between. When you shoot them, particularly with high velocity rifle rounds, the second layer of glass shatters in a 1.5-2 inch ring around the bullet hole and sends fragments and glass dust into the target. Some targets looked like they’d taken a load of birdshot to the face. Even if your round misses the target, the spalling may screw them up pretty bad. All of the rounds were deflected at least a little bit, but the direction might not be what you expect. When a round hits an angled piece of laminated glass like an auto windshield, it will be deflected down (when you are shooting into the car). The round bites into the glass and gets pushed downward. The .220 Swift round (at around 4000 feet per second) actually broke up going through the glass shedding jacket through one hole and lead hole through the other.

Although this was a sniper class, since we had the windshield out there we also shot some pistol rounds through it. First up was frangible .357 SIG, which basically vaporized on the glass. 9mm ball saw some major deflection (about five inches). The carry ammo did better, with Alex’s Winchester Ranger showing little deflection and my DPX almost none.

The context of some of these more urban focused drills led to some discussion of the book Fry the Brain by John West. I had brought a copy to read on the drive up, so I brought it out and passed it around, along with copies of Guerilla Sniper and Guerilla Sniper 2. Eric mentioned that if he could make those required reading before anyone took this class, his lectures could be a lot shorter.

The wind was blowing a bit more at this point and Alex asked about what it was doing at the moment. Since there was more wind than yesterday when we had the wind lecture, Eric was able to talk about it a bit more with some actual examples of trees blowing around, etc.

We also talked a bit about internal ballistics and how free float or button floating barrels affects accuracy. When fired the barrel vibrates like a tuning fork. You want the barrel to vibrate the same way every time, so you get consistency. This vibration can change if your barrel isn’t free floated and you are putting pressure on the fore end, or as the barrel heats up.

Eric gave an excellent lecture on camouflage. He went through the “S”s that you want to minimize to avoid detection:

Shape
Shadow
Shine
Silhouette
Spacing
Scent
Speed
Sound
Spoor

Shape is anything that is distinctive or not seen in nature. Rifles and the circular lenses of optics are very distinctive and unnatural. The human head and shoulders is instantly recognizable by another human being. You can hide these shapes by breaking up the outline, either through the object’s color (camouflage patterns) or by physically altering the outlines with things like ghillie suits, sniper veils, attaching burlap to your rifle, or adding some local vegetation.

Shadows can give you away even when you are completely out of sight. Be aware of not just whether you are visible, but whether your shadow can be seen. Use shadows cast by other objects (trees or buildings, for example) to hide in.

Shiny objects are highly visible and rather rare in nature. We can try to avoid anything shiny by taking off your watch then stalking, but as long as we’re dependent on optics we can’t avoid them completely. A killflash filter or a long sunshade can minimize visible reflection on optics. Sunglasses are another source of shine. You can do without them and rely on the brim of a cap to shade your eyes, but I’ll admit that doesn’t seem very appealing to me after a discussion on eye protection during the glass shooting exercise earlier. Another option is sunglasses with a camo pattern printed on them.

Object that are silhouetted against the sky or a light background stand out far more than the same object against a neutral background. Avoid ridge lines and be aware of places when the sky might be behind you.

Almost nothing in nature is regularly spaced. Humans, on the other hand, have a natural instinct for order. Regularly spaced objects are easy to recognize and we end up spacing things evenly even when we don’t consciously attempt to (a line of men walking in a file, for instance). Avoid regularly spaced items on your gear and when working in a team don’t space yourselves evenly.

Scent is often overlooked, both as a detection tool and in being detected. Eric is a bow hunter so this is something he’s very well versed in. One pitfall of a lot of students in this class, or the rural patrolling class he teaches is bringing a freshly painted rifle that still smells strongly. You can also give yourself away through scented soap or deodorant, strong scents like gasoline, or even eating distinctly scented food. On the other hand, you can use strong smelling locations to mask your own scent. If your hide is next to a feedlot, no one is going to smell you.

Nothing draws the human eye faster than rapid movement. We had actually seen a demonstration of this on Friday when a deer moved across the range. When it was still, it was almost invisible (despite not being colored particularly similar to the green background). When it bounded, however, it instantly drew the eye. The same thing applies to humans. As Eric put it, don’t be in a hurry to get shot. Move slowly, not just your body, but also your head and hands. Eric mentioned seeing guys in the patrolling classes with everything covered in camo except their face and hands. What was moving the most? Their face and hands.

Noise can be a dead giveaway. As if to highlight this, during our discussion of sound one of the student’s cellphones went off. Leave your phone off, leave the change at home, and tape down everything that jingles, rattles or squeaks. Eric also showed us some methods for moving quietly. I knew about rolling your feet from heel to toe to walk quietly on hard surfaces, but he showed us a new one for walking on things like gravel called pancake steps. Hold your foot level and lower it gently so that it all touches at once. This will keep the pieces of gravel from grinding against each other.

Last up was spoor. This can be literal spoor, as with animal droppings, or prints but it can also apply to any other trace you leave behind, like dropped gear or empty casings.

Eric talked a bit about applying face paint. While we didn’t do any practical work with it in this class, he said that you want to color depressions, like your eye sockets, a light color and paint protrusions, like the nose a darker color.

Next, Eric demonstrated how to apply some vertical displacement to your movement when stalking. The easiest, but most visible way to move is to simply stand and walk. You can lower your height a bit by bending over. This can be almost as quick as walking, but it can be very fatiguing. You can lower your profile further still by crouching down into kind of a duck walk. To get lower than this, you’re going to have to go down on your knees, which is going to cut down on your speed by quite a bit. Next is getting down on hands and knees, followed by knees and elbows, forearms and thighs, and the sniper crawl, where you lay face down and propel yourself with just your toes and fingers. This only allows you to inch along, but it lowers your profile as much as it can be lowered. He gave us a chance to practice these various movement methods on the range.

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Our next assignment was to get into a hide position somewhere on the hillside below the firing line. Some of the folks were able to get very well hidden, but Alex and I weren’t really able to find a very thick bit of cover. It might have worked if Alex and been able to get down prone, but that would have meant occupying an ant pile. I made use of a sniper veil (camo netting) to break up my outline and cover up my bare, uncamouflaged arms. Eric said it did a pretty good job of hiding me and it was definitely a lot cooler than putting on my BDU shirt would have been. Eric observed our positions by sneaking downrange wearing his ghillie suit. This was in interesting application of some of the “S”s listed above. When he was still, with his silhouette broken up by the suit, he looked like a bush. As soon as he moved, he was immediately visible. When he broke out the binoculars to observe our positions, those two shiny circles stood out a huge amount. We finished up the exercise by having each team take coordinated shots from their hides.

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We took a bit of a break as Tom, the owner of Thunder Valley Precision, brought out some of his rifles and suppressors for us to take a look at. He both sells other manufacturer’s suppressors and makes his own (mostly for rifles, I believe). He brought out a Glock 17L with a titanium suppressor. Between the extended slide and the can it was quite long, but the can was so light it didn’t impede shooting at all. With subsonic ammo it was exceedingly quiet. He also had a .22 can that he fired from a rifle and a Ruger .22 pistol. The real fun was with the rifle suppressors. There was one in .260 Ackely Improved, which sounded like a door slamming. The other big suppressed rifle was in .300 Hulk. This is Tom’s own custom cartridge that he used to set a 1000 yard record. It launches a .30 caliber round out to distances of over a mile. He fired it all the way out to a mile, and several students who took up his offer of a chance to shoot it were easily able to ding the 600 yard steel. Next time anyone tells you that a suppressor will make your sniper rifle inaccurate, call their ignorant B.S.

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After having fun with suppressors, we began our stalking exercise. The route Eric had us travel involved all of the different heights and movement methods that he’d talked about earlier, including a sniper craw across the road. I found that some of these low crawling movements can be very fatiguing, especially when you’re pushing through heavy grass. Your gear catches on everything, hanging up your rifle, popping scope covers open, and tugging on you. I lost one of the adjustment knobs for my Peltor electronic ear protection sometime during the crawl. Moving like this through the thick grass also leaves a heck of a trail. About two feet wide of crushed grass after two shooters move through it. As I realized later, belly crawling is also a really good ab workout (man I was sore!)

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Once we reached the top of the hill, he took one team at a time over to a pre-made sniper hide that’s part of the facility and asked us to estimate the range to two different targets. We eyeballed it and I did some work using dimensions of different lines on my reticule. Despite this our guess was off by about 100 yards. We finished this off with simultaneous shots on the two targets.

Our last exercise was shooting from a vehicle hide. We’d pull a vehicle up to the firing line with one driver and one shooter, and let loose a round at a target 100 yards away, then immediately roll out of there. The best one was probably John McCreery and his teammate shooting out of the trunk of a Chevy Monte Carlo. The pulled up, popped the trunk open a little bit, took the shot, then drove right off. Alex and I were probably too tall to shoot from my trunk, so Alex and I shot from the rear passenger seat of my car, firing from the left shoulder, resting the gun on the front seat and firing out at a slight angle through the passenger side window. I shot first (since it was my car we were putting at risk of a bullet hole). Then we switched and I drove while Alex shot. The concussion of a .30-06 going off in the car, even with the passenger side window open, was like getting slapped in the face. I have to say that shooting from the vehicle hides was awesome, one of the highlights of the class.

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This was our last exercise, but we had a chance to shoot around a bit more. Alex was doing some shooting and had trouble opening up the bolt after a shot. When he got the case out, we found that he’d shot one of my .308 rounds through his .30-06. The case was now fire-formed to be almost straight walled, but the bullet had left the barrel. The next round of .30-06 that he fired hit in almost the same spot, so the .308 was pretty accurate (at 200 yards, at least).

Conclusions

This was a phenomenal class. This is my 21st S.I. class and it was truly one of the best experiences I’ve had (and I’ve had some great ones). Eric is an excellent instructor and the facility was just top notch for what we were doing. If you get a chance to take a Guerilla Sniper class, particularly at Thunder Valley Precision in Kimbolton, OH, by all means take it!

Coming into the class with relatively little experience, as I did in this case, I learned a tremendous amount. Often with pistol or tactical rifle classes these days, much of what is covered in a given class is stuff I already know; I’m just looking to have a fun time, fine tune my skills, and pick up some tidbits (particularly on the instructional side). For this class, almost everything was new. I’m sure that if I go practice this stuff regularly for a year and took the exact same class again I would learn a tremendous amount just because my skill level would have risen enough to pick up all sorts of new stuff.

As Alex found using Eric’s old deer rifle, you don’t need a $1500 rifle and $2500 worth of glass to take this class. For what we’re trying to teach (headshots at 200 yards, bodies at 600) almost any rifle will do if you will do. If you won’t do, all the rifle in the world won’t help. As Alex said afterwards, if you can’t read the wind or estimate range, your sub-MOA rifle just allows you to miss more accurately.

After taking this class I feel confident enough in my skill and with my rifle, that I can hit anything I am at out to 600 yards IF the wind isn’t bad and I have a supported position. Reading the wind is something that requires a lot of experience going out and shooting in different wind conditions, not something that can be developed over a three day weekend.

Shooting from supported prone, particularly off a pack, is just stupidly easy. You can take the shooter’s unsteady muscles almost completely out of the equation. However, as we found out on the first day, in the field, prone is often completely useless. You need to be able to shoot from higher positions. I need to put in a lot more time practicing the sitting and kneeling positions (I sense a lot of dry practice in my future).

The other thing I’ll be pursing is methods for steadying the rifle in higher positions. Shootings sticks, tripods with cradles, using your partner or his rifle for stability, or shooting with the ruck on a chair, car, or somewhere else up off the ground. You also need to be able to shoot from improvised positions. There was no way for me to get into a conventional shooting position under that table, or in my car, but by adapting to the situation I was able to make the shots. You can’t practice for every possible position, but you can work firing from both shoulders, and practice figuring out how to meet many different challenges. The bench rest guys my look at you funny at the range, but your practical rifle skills are far beyond what they’re doing.

I was very pleased with how my rifle shot. The gun liked the Prvi ammo and was consistent even during strings involving many successive shots. Even with the improvements in my skills over the course of the class it’s clearly more accurate than I am. It’s also far more accurate than is necessary to meet the 200 yard headshot, 600 yard body shot standard of the class. However, it’s also accurate enough that I know when the bullet doesn’t hit the target, it was either my shooting or my judgement of the wind. I can eliminate the rifle as a factor.

Within its envelope, the Burris 3-9 with the Ballistiplex worked very well for me. All I have to do is call the range and put the appropriate hash mark on the target. Everything else is just a study hold and good trigger press. Beyond 500 yards, however, things got much more difficult. With no markings for holdover, it was hard to find the correct elevation. I was able to figure out the right math to shoot reliably at 600 by reducing the zoom, which meets the GS standard. Because I’m loosing magnification to get more drop, there’s a point of diminishing returns here. I feel like the rifle (and the shooter, at least from a good supported position) could have gone out further with a different optic. So, I’m considering eventually replacing it with something with a mildot reticule and field adjustable turrets with nice, repeatable adjustments. The current scope will do the job, but something like the optic Eric has on his rifle might allow me to take it out even further, and give me a chance to master the mildot system and making scope adjustments.

The support gear I brought worked fairly well. The pack, forestock saddle rest and rear bag are a great system; when I could use them all I could be very confident in my accuracy. The shooting mat was a great addition. The TAB gear mat was small enough I could roll it up and put it in my pack, so I could take it out in the field, which wasn’t true of the mats most people brought. I wasn’t fighting the Arizona lawn, like the folks out in the Kingman class were, but it was useful on the wet grass and the rough hillside where we set up our hide. The sniper veil was also enormously useful in the hide. For a piece of kit I picked up for less than $15 on Amazon it was extremely cost-effective. I’m probably going to pick up another one or two of them (perhaps in different patterns for other environments).

While the kit I brought worked fairly well, I’ve discovered there’s a bunch more stuff that would be very useful. I’ve got two pages in the little notebook I use to take notes in class titled “Eric is Costing Me Money” filled with stuff I want to get. Some are inexpensive additions like camo duct tape (to cover up shiny bits of gear) and some earth toned socks (so my white ones don’t show when my pants leg rides up). Others are expensive and will probably have to wait for a while, like a laser rangefinder. Lots of the other stuff on the list is either related to camouflage, like a killflash or a camo hat, or to tools for building hides, like a tomahawk and entrenching tool.

One small change of opinion this class has led me to is the Camelback water bladder. For a long time I’ve resisted and relied on water bottles and canteens for hydration, but the virtues of the Camelback in allowing you to subtly hydrate when you’re stalking or in a hide are just too great to ignore. A couple of bladders and a carrier are definitely on the list.

Another thing on the list is a new bipod. The cheap Harris knockoff that came with the rifle is probably repairable, but I’d like something better. I really like the versapod bipod that Eric had on his rifle. It seems like a quality piece of kit and its ability to easily attach and detach fits the way we use our rifles much better.

While I talked a little about it already, one subject that deserves some discussion is how this class differed from the GS class as taught in Kingman. I should preface this by saying that I haven’t been to the Kingman class so most of this is based on conversations with Eric (who has helped Gabe teach this stuff in Kingman several times). The Kingman range is much flatter and more featureless. Since it doesn’t have all the fixed steel gongs at various ranges, Gabe sets up all his targets at one range and everyone shoots at the same range and moves back together. As mentioned, the targets are bigger, IDPA size rather than 12″x12″. It lacks the side range for team exercises while the rest of the class keeps shooting (something Eric was able to take advantage of since there were three other S.I. instructors in the class to keep an eye on the line while he ran the side range.

The biggest difference may be the possibilities for stalking exercises. As mentioned, the Kingman range is pretty flat, and your choices for vegetation levels are basically crouched over in the brush, or down crawling in the cleared areas. The terrain here is much more varied with many different types of vegetation. We only took advantage of a small portion of it for our stalking exercises in this class. You could do a lot more with that aspect if you wanted to. The venue and what you can do here are different enough that I think a veteran of the Kingman class could probably come to a GS class out here and learn quite a bit.

This range gave the one in Kingman a run for its money in terms of heat. The absolute temperature may not have been as high, but the humidity made up for it. Particularly on Friday, it was just brutal. When you’re happy getting doused with rain every half hour because it keeps the temperature down, that’s hot. I would hope that the next class held in Kimbolton be in, say April or October, rather than July.

Another feature of this range that the Kingman one probably doesn’t have is ticks. I had to pry one of the little buggers out of me, and discovered two more on my clothing before they latched on. Eric, however, seems to attract them in far greater numbers. He found a dozen on his clothes just when he was getting ready to leave on Sunday. Eric is a real tick magnet.

If I could leave you with one message, it would be that you don’t have to wait until you have a bunch of gear to take this class. I almost did and I would have missed out on a great experience. You don’t need to bring a high dollar rifle. An average deer gun or a Wal-Mart special .308 will do just fine. You don’t need a Nightforce scope either (though it will probably do you more good than the high end rifle). I did fine out to 600 with a Burris scope that’s available for as low as $150. While I’ve talked a lot about useful support gear, you don’t really need much. Grab a backpack or bookbag, stuff it with something (I used a pillow and some towels before I had enough gear to fill a ruck). Throw in some decent ammo (Prvi works great) and the usual eye and ear protection and you’re ready to take this class.

Before I end this I should make mention of my fellow students. There ware a variety of skill levels, from those with little precision shooting experience (like me) to folks with quite a bit of hunting and long range shooting experience under their belts. Everyone brought a good attitude and a zeroed rifle. They were truly a pleasure to train with. In particular I need to thank Alex Nieuwland, who served as my teammate for the class. He was a great spotter and fine shooting partner.

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Thunder Valley Precision is a phenomenal venue for this sort of class. Tom’s a nice guy (anyone who lets me shoot a suppressed weapon is a pretty good guy in my book) and the facility itself is just phenomenal. I look forward to seeing S.I. doing great things here in the future.

The Guerilla Sniper curriculum is really well done. I have to commend Gabe for how he set this up. It’s a class focused on the shooter, rather than expensive gear. It emphasizes engagement ranges and accuracy standards that reflect the real world, rather than the exceptional Hathcockian shots. The material is laid out in a clear, logical fashion and takes relative novices like myself quickly to a very high skill level.

Eric was really a great instructor for this class. He clearly has an enormous amount of experience and ability when it comes to long range shooting and hunting (both animals and men). He’s an excellent teacher as well, and was able to provide a huge amount of information about what we were studying. I get the feeling that in three days we only tapped a small fraction of what he has available to teach on the subject. I would highly recommend him as an instructor.

In case anyone is still in doubt at this point, let me say I really enjoyed this class!

Images courtesy of Eric Pfleger and Alex Nieuwland.

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