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PART ONE: BACKGROUND
This article provides an overview of the British Army’s Sniper Operator’s Course (SOC).
It is organised into four parts for easier reading:
- Part 01: Background.
- Part 02: Organisation of Training.
- Part 03: Outline of Training.
- Part 04: Miscellaneous.
The aim of this article is to describe the training personnel seeking to become a British Army sniper.
1.2 History of the Word ‘Sniper’
In the late 1700s, British officers stationed in India would go bird hunting. The most difficult of the birds to hunt was the Snipe. Those who could successfully shoot this small, quick bird were dubbed ‘snipers’.
Between the 1700s and 1914, several armies employed specialist marksmen known as ‘sharpshooters’ – think Sean Bean as Sharpe in the TV drama of the 1990s.
However, it was not until the First World War (1914 to 1918) that we see the rise of the Sniper, as we would know the role today. During this period the term ‘sniper’ replaced ‘sharpshooter’.
During the Great War, the Germans fielded thousands of highly trained riflemen, usually equipped with telescopic-sighted rifles. British officers referred to them as ‘snipers’, harking back to Snipes in India. During the war, the word was widely adopted by the British press, and it has since become a ubiquitous term. In response to the German’s sniper capability, the British Army formed their own sniper schools.
Sniping can now also refer to sharp or snide remarks made about another person.
1.3 What is the Role of a Sniper?
On the battlefield, a sniper has a number of roles:
- Remain undetected! Snipers must be experts in camouflage and concealment.
- Scout ahead of the main force to:
- Conduct reconnaissance;
- Conduct intelligence gathering;
- Reconnoitre potential target areas; and
- ‘Call in’ artillery fire, mortars and air strikes (with appropriate further training).
- Utilise their marksmanship skills to lethal effect against key enemy targets, for example, those in command positions such as senior officers.
- Conduct counter-sniper missions i.e. hunting and neutralising their counterparts in an opposing force.
- Support their battalion by providing over-watch/sniper cover, either during offensive operations or by guarding a base from attack.
A competent team of snipers “can have a severe psychological impact on opposing forces by killing the commander and one or two officers. This sows confusion and fear, hence senior officers describe snipers as “force multipliers” because of their disproportionate effect.” (Rayment, 2006).
1.4 The Sniper Rifle
As of 2018, the personal weapon issued to trained snipers in the dismounted close combat (DCC) role across the three Services is the L115A3 Sniper Rifle.
It is a large calibre bolt-action rifle, produced by Accuracy International®, which fires a 0.338 inch (8.59 mm) round fed by a 5-round box magazine. The rifle has seen service on operations since 2008. The rifle measures 1265 mm in length and weighs 7.81 kg. The rifle has an effective range out to 1200 metres.
Equipped with the 5-25 x 56 Schmidt and Bender Telescopic sight, it gives a competent sniper the ability to:
- Achieve a precision shot at up to 400 metres;
- Achieve a first round hit of a man size target at 900 metres; and
- Provide harassing fire out to 1500 metres.
The L115A3 Sniper system comes with several sights, allowing the sniper to operate in all conditions, both day and night. Other elements of the sniper system include spotting scopes, laser range finders, wind meters and tripods.
The ancillaries of the L115A3 Sniper Rifle include the protective case, sights, sling, cleaning kit and other minor components.
1.5 Distributed Training
Distributed training (DT), aka Distributed Learning (DL), is conducted to an approved and assured syllabus outside of bespoke centres of excellence (Phase 3, specialist/role specific training establishments).
This decentralisation allows increased training capacity and flexibility in order to meet the British Army’s Training Delivery Authority’s (TDA) capability requirements.
The Distributed Training Cell (DTC) is the body responsible for assuring compliance with the British Army’s distributed training policy.
1.6 Select History
Major Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Pritchard, DSO, MC (1876 to 1922), commanded the first sniper, observation and scouting school for the British Army during WWI.
Hesketh-Prichard’s background prior to WWI was mainly as a big-game hunter and he was regarded by some as the world’s best rifle shot. Securing a commission in the British Army with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 he was given the post of “sniping expert” to the British Third Army in 1915.
During WWI, ‘stealthy’ snipers had a number of missions which included:
- Exact their toll with a well-placed shot.
- Gather intelligence.
- To demoralise the enemy as much as possible.
- o In practice, this meant they functioned essentially as assassins, often targeting any moving object/person behind enemy lines, even if they were engaged in peaceable tasks (which meant that if a sniper was taken prisoner he could expect no mercy on either side).
Ghillie suits were first used by the British and were obtained from the Lovat Scouts, who were for the most part highland game keepers (ghillies) raised on the Scottish estate of Lord Lovat. The British developed the two man team concept first (officially 1916), while many German snipers preferred to operate alone.
The Americans selected as snipers attended the British Sniper Schools, however the war ended before their employment could have an effect.
After the War Major Hesketh-Pritchard broke down the scouting and sniper involvement in the trenches into four phases:
- Phase 1 (1914-1915) German snipers control the trenches (Clear German advantage).
- Phase 2 (1915-1916) British sniping gets organized (Advantage even).
- Phase 3 (1916-1918) British sniper program takes off (Slight British Advantage).
- Phase 4 (1918-UTC) Allied Offensive has its effect (Snipers began scouting).
In 1920, he published his critically acclaimed book “Sniping in France”.
During World War II, the Germans dominated sniper operations, with their motto being ‘camouflage 10 times, shoot once’. They were also the first to field specialised sniper equipment.
The Soviet Union was the first to employ snipers in two-person teams, and employed over 2000 female snipers.
The conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s rekindled interest in sniping, but it was as late as the early 2000s before battalion commanders were obliged to field snipers.
“But, until relatively recently, it was in danger of dying out in the rest of the Army through lack of use.” (Rayment, 2006).
However, due to the success of both American and British snipers in targeting and killing terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2006 it was reported that the British Army was:
“…to create an elite force of almost 700 snipers in a reorganisation of the infantry. It will be the first time since the end of the First World War that formal platoons of sharpshooters have existed.” (Rayment, 2006).
In 2008-2009, the British Army formally established sniper platoons in each Infantry battalion (38), nominally with 18 personnel in each – meaning a sniper force of 684. Candidates for the centralised sniper training attended a nine week course delivered at the School of Infantry in Brecon, with approximately 40% passing.
In 2008, the Portsmouth-based company Accuracy International (AI), which equips the British Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Air Service (SAS) with sniper rifles, signed a £3.7 million contract to supply almost 600 sniper weapons to the UK Ministry of Defence (Jennings, 2011).
In 2016, the Head of Capability Ground Manoeuvre, formerly known as the Head of Capability Combat, a Brigadier (OF-6), approved the Training Authorisation Document for the SOC, meaning sniper training could be delivered at the unit-level under the banner of DL. The revised policy was introduced to better meet the British Army’s sniper capability requirement. This differs from the other two Services (Section 3.5 & 3.6).
The first sniper DL course was conducted by 2 MERCIAN between 27 June 2016 and 02 September 2016.
Previous iterations of sniper training failed to meet the British Army’s needs. Initially, training was planned and delivered at unit-level, but the level of external assurance was limited and standards amongst units was variable – visibly evident during Tri-Service and international sniper competitions.
In an attempt to raise standards across the Army, the Basic Sniper Course was centralised and delivered by SWS Sniper Wing at Brecon (Section 1.9). However, the course failed to provide sufficient numbers of trained snipers to meet the Army’s front line needs, which was due to limited course capacity and unacceptably high student failure rates.
Given the shortcomings of the two previous iterations of sniper training, which did not produce sufficient throughput and quality, the SOC delivered as distributed training at unit-level amounted to a compromise solution that might better meet the Army’s front line sniper capability needs. The SOC embraced key elements of the previous two iterations of the Army’s approach to sniper training, thereby increasing training capacity, while also aiming to maintain standards.
Previous centralised Sniper training comprised of training and evaluation of the seven key sniper skills:
- Judging distance;
- Static map reading;
- Mobile observation; and
These skills were formally evaluated during ‘badge week’, passing this week of tests qualified a student as a sniper and allowed them to wear a Sniper’s badge on their uniform.
1.7 Sniper Platoon Key Personalities
A sniper platoon will usually be part of a company within an Infantry Battalion, with key personalities including:
- Sniper Platoon Commander, a Colour Sergeant.
- Second in command (2IC), a Sergeant.
- Section Commander, a Corporal.
- Sniper Instructor, a Corporal.
1.8 Sniper Team Roles
A sniper team usually consisted of two people in the following roles.
- Number 1, also known as the firer.
- Number 2, also known as the spotter.
- Is usually the more senior of the two and is in command of the team.
- On the range and in the field, the spotter is responsible for assisting the firer by observing and correcting the fall of shot.
- The Number 2 will:
- Be responsible for planning routes;
- Selecting targets;
- Gauging shooting parameters, such as:
- Judge the distance to the target;
- Angle of shot;
- Humidity, temperature, and air density; and
- Gauge the wind speed.
1.9 Specialist Weapons School Sniper Wing
Based at the Land Warfare School in Warminster, the Specialist Weapon School (SWS) Sniper Wing holds the corporate knowledge for specialist weapons and provides centralised courses for commanders.
SWS is part of the School of Infantry, located at Waterloo Lines in Warminster, and is composed of (British Army, 2018):
- Communication Information Systems (CIS) division.
- Direct Fire Support Division, composed of:
- Machine Gun Wing.
- Anti-Tank Wing.
- Sniper Wing.
- Mortar Division.
- Assault Pioneer Division.
- Training Support Company.
1.10 Ghillie Suits and Hides
Snipers must be proficient in the art of camouflage and concealment. To aid in achieving this, snipers may wear a ghillie suit, and other forms of covering.
These ghillie suits are made from camouflaged materials that the sniper adapts so they can blend in with their surroundings and natural environment.
While sniper training courses teach snipers how to make and use full-body ghillie suits, it is common practise for snipers to wear smaller coverings such as ghillie capes, hats and shrouds.
If intending to stay at a fixed location for a long period, a sniper team may establish a hide by digging into the earth and covering the hide with camouflaged netting. Hides may also be constructed in an urban setting.
PART TWO: ORGANISATION OF TRAINING
The following is an example of the key personalities that may be involved in the planning and delivery of a distributed learning SOC:
- Major (x1): Senior Planning Officer (SPO) with responsibility for planning the Live Fire Marksmanship Training (LFMT) and ensuring the Range Action Safety Plan (RASP) is fit for purpose.
- Colour Sergeant (CSgt, x2): One will have overall responsibility for the planning and supervision of the SOC, acting as the Course Planning Officer. The junior CSgt will assist the senior CSgt and may have responsibility for the planning and delivery of a phase of training. They also act as Range Conducting Officers (RCO), reporting to the SPO.
- Sergeant (Sgt, x1): Provides combat service support (CSS) to the SOC and may also act as a RCO.
- Corporal (Cpl, x6): Act as directing staff (DS) delivering training to students, such as weapon handling tests (WHT). They also provide safety supervision during live fire ranges.
PART THREE: OUTLINE OF TRAINING
The potential sniper must be:
- Proficient in all basic infantry skills;
- A marksman on their individual weapon; and
- Above average in field-craft skills.
By being competent in all infantry skills, the candidate can then advance to a specialist standard incorporating all the sniper skills.
Units generally deliver training under the DL model (Section 1.5). As I understand it, sniper candidates with the Parachute Regiment and Household Cavalry are provided training via the Household Division and Parachute Regiment Centralised Courses (HDPRCC) School at Pirbright, Surrey. The HDPRCC sniper course is 9-weeks in duration, and divided into two phases:
- Phase 1: Marksmanship (firing the L115a3); and
- Phase 2: Field-craft (stalking, concealment, etc.).
3.1 Eligibility Criteria
To be eligible to attend initial sniper training, candidates must:
- Be volunteers.
- Be in the rank range of Private to Corporal; across the British Army the rank of Private has Regiment specific titles including: Rifleman; Trooper; Fusilier; and Private.
- Have achieved ‘Marksmanship’ standard in their annual combat marksmanship test (ACMT) with the current in-service rifle (currently the L85A2 (SA80 A2) individual weapon).
- Be at a minimum to be of an above average standard in all basic field-craft and military skills.
- Be physically fit and audiometrically tested.
- Have 20/20 vision (non-corrected) or 6/6 visual acuity standards.
- Be mentally and physically robust, self-motivated and capable of operating within small teams.
3.2 Aim of Sniper Training
The aim of sniper training is to train and develop selected soldiers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to operate as Unit level snipers in conventional operations capable of providing long range precision fire and advanced field-craft techniques.
3.3 Outline of Sniper Syllabus
Table 1 provides an outline of the topics and subjects covered during sniper training.
|Table 1: Example sniper syllabus|
|Advanced marksmanship techniques with the in-service sniper rifle||
|Stalking and advanced field-craft techniques||
|Camouflage and concealment techniques||
|Static and mobile observation including recognition of foreign weapons, armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) and aircraft||
|Static and mobile navigation including the use of aerial photography||
|Construction & manning of observation posts (OP) and hides, both rural & urban||
|Counter sniper techniques||
Table 2 provides an example outline of this training in practice.
|Table 2: Example training programme|
|2||Field-craft||3 weeks||Live Fire Marksmanship Training (LFMT)|
|3||Consolidation & Validation||3 weeks||
Under the distributed training model, SWS has responsibility for providing units planning a SOC with subject matter expert (SME) advice during both planning and execution. In addition, to ensure adherence to standards and provide independent assessment, on behalf of the School of Infantry, SWS Sniper Wing is responsible for the evaluation of students during the evaluation week of the SOC.
To qualify as a sniper, a candidate is required to pass each of the sniper competencies, which comprise:
- Judging distance;
- Static map reading;
- Mobile observation; and
3.4 Further Courses
With experience and further rank, students of the SOC may attend two further courses:
- Sniper Section Commanders’ Course (SSCC): The sniper course comprises of a multitude of different phases including:
- Urban operations;
- Counter sniping;
- Command and control;
- Tactical employment; and
- Learning about the estimate at battlegroup level.
- Sniper Platoon Commanders’ Course (SPCC).
The SSCC delivers Sniper Instructors to the units and covers all Army cap badges including HDPRCC, minimum rank of Corporal (SCBC or equivalent passed). The SPCC delivers Platoon Commanders and 2IC’s to the units (Sergeant to Captain).
SWS Sniper Wing retains training delivery responsibility for both of these courses.
3.5 Royal Marines Sniper Training
The Royal Marines delivers centralised sniper training using established Sniper Training Teams attached to the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM), Lympstone.
Candidates for sniper training must attend and pass a one week selection course, delivered at CTCRM, that tests aptitude for success (Royal Navy, 2014).
Successful candidates can then attend the 13-week, up from 9-weeks (although originally 5-weeks), Platoon Weapons Class 3 (Sniper) course delivered at CTCRM, mostly around Woodbury Common (Royal Navy, 2014), with two courses per year.
In the Royal Marines, Sniper training is conducted by the Platoon Weapon (PW) specialisation. The PW’s are subject matter experts on all infantry weapon systems and plan and conduct infantry live firing exercises. The course features a month of marksmanship training followed by field-craft.
Reconnaissance Troops in both 40 and 45 Commando both include a sniper section. 42 Commando, Juliet Company, is now home to the Maritime Sniper Team (MST). MST’s were previously deployed by S Squadron, 43 Commando, but moved to Juliet Company in 2017 when 42 Commando re-rolled as a Maritime Operations Commando.
The role of the MST is to provide over-watch for Royal Marines/Royal Navy boarding teams. When supporting Fleet Standby Rifle Troop (FSRT) missions, a single MST is deployed. Operations by the Fleet Contingency Troop (FCT) – which may involve opposed boarding’s with hostages on-board – are usually supported by two teams in two helicopters.
3.6 RAF Regiment Sniper Training
The Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment delivers centralised sniper training using established Sniper Training Teams attached to the RAF Regiment Training Wing, Royal Air Force Honington.
Each RAF Regiment Field Squadron has a section of 8 snipers, led by a sniper section commander, usually a Corporal. The section consists of four 2-person teams.
Candidates will attend the 9-week selection and training programme, usually held 3 times each year. The course has two phases:
- Phase 1:
- 4-week Sniper Selection Course.
- This begins with a Sharpshooter Course which provides a grounding in marksmanship and field-craft.
- Only 12 of the initial 24 candidates are selected to progress onto Phase 2.
- Phase 2:
- 5-week Basic Sniper Course.
- Covers the same training as the Army syllabus outlined in Section 3.3, as well as RAF Regiment sniper doctrine and tactics.
- Culminates in a 2-week practical exercise which includes ‘the stalk’ in which candidates attempt to infiltrate across 1.5km of terrain, get in position, fire their weapon and withdraw to a safe area, all without being spotted by the instructors.
RAF Sniper Section Commanders undergo a 7-week Sniper Section Commanders course which enables them to command a sniper section in a RAF Regiment Field Squadron. It also qualifies them as a sniper instructor capable of running continuation training at a Field Squadron level.
PART FOUR: MISCELLANEOUS
4.0 Useful Publications
- Sniper Pocket Book. Army Code 71544.
- Pamphlet No 21: Training Regulations for Armoured Fighting Vehicles. Infantry Weapon Systems and Pyrotechnics.
- British Army Operational Shooting Policy (OSP).
- Army Equipment Support Publication 1005-L-305-201 Rifle .338″ L115A3 (AESP L115A3).
- Capability Directorate Combat Dismounted Close Combat Training – Volume 1 Skill at Arms – Individual Training Sniping:
- Part 1, The L115A3 Sniper Rifle 8.59mm and Associated Equipment (Sniping Part 1).
- Part 2, Fieldcraft & Battle Exercises (Sniping Part 2).
- Joint Service Publication (JSP) 403: Handbook of Defence Ranges Safety.
British Army. (2018) Specialist Weapons School. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.army.mod.uk/who-we-are/our-schools-and-colleges/specialist-weapons-school/. [Accessed: 16 October, 2018].
Jennings, C. (2011) Long Range Killer: Behind the Scenes of Accuracy International. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/long-range-killer. [Accessed: 16 October, 2018].
Rayment, S. (2006) After 90 years, Army sets its sights on new sniper platoons. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1517045/After-90-years-Army-sets-its-sights-on-new-sniper-platoons.html. [Accessed: 16 October, 2018].
Royal Navy. (2014) Royal Marines Sniper Training. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2014/july/31/140731-royal-marines-sniper-training. [Accessed: 16 October, 2018].