One Shot, One Kill — Guaranteed?

A US Army sniper team from Jalalabad Provincial Reconstruction Team near Dur Baba, Afghanistan, Oct. 19, 2006. The sniper is armed with a 7.62-mm M24 (US DoD).

This week Lockheed Martin won a $6.9 million contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further develop a system that is said to radically increase a sniper’s chances of achieving a first shot kill in daylight or darkness. Lockheed Martin has agreed to deliver fifteen field-testable prototypes of the new weapon system by October 2011.

With the lengthy US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an increasing demand for trained snipers and designated marksmen, far more than the American sniper schools can produce. Today, many of the American snipers operating in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are not school-trained. They’ve learned their stuff on the job, from other snipers. Part of the reason for this lack of school-trained snipers is the length of time needed to train a sniper — between eight to ten weeks — a lot of it devoted to the skills needed to shoot at long range; skills that a sniper must retain because no piece of equipment is available to replicate it.

Warfare has changed a lot in the last one hundred years. We’ve seen the warplane develop from a struggling motorized kite with less horsepower than a lawnmower, to a near-invisible death-dealing robot that can be controlled from halfway across the world. We’ve watched as the lumbering cast iron box of Amiens became the sleek, fast and efficient killing machine that is the modern main battle tank (MBT). We’ve seen the rise of the all-steel battleship, the king of the sea, and watched it humiliated and exiled into obsolescence by the aircraft carrier, the greatest single weapon of naval power projection the world has ever seen. We’ve watched aerial ordnance develop from hand-held bombs no larger than a light mortar shell into the nuclear monsters that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before going on to become virtually controllable missiles that can differentiate between your house and your neighbour’s. Soldiers no longer need to trudge through the mud as they did on the Somme, or race their horses through machine-gun fire as they did at Spion Kop; they ride into battle — by land, sea, or air — ferried over obstacles and armoured against the enemy’s fire.

To cope with the changing technology, warriors have had to be more intelligent and literate, trained for longer and with ever greater expense. Militaries today must maintain an ever growing component of support and technical personnel that have far surpassed that of the number of fighting men. In fact, in a modern multi-arms force, the warriors are in the minority, outnumbered by technicians, IT specialists, mechanics, and electronics experts. Even a lowly grunt in a western army today must have a basic working knowledge of computers, the ability to communicate over various networks, and operate electronic systems.

Canadian sniper with .303-in SMLE MkIII in WW2

However, in the midst of all this technological advancement, one weapon has remained virtually unchanged in the last one hundred years; and that is the sniping rifle. The weapon used by the modern sniper is still a bolt-action single-shot rifle, just as it was on the Western Front in WW1. It must still be loaded manually, sometimes with a magazine, but sometimes one round at a time, just as it was done almost a hundred years ago. If a sniper were to walk out of the trenches of WW1 France and into downtown Basra today, he could put down his antique SMLE Mk III HT, Mauser Gewehr 98, or Springfield M1903, pick up a modern M24, M40A3, or L96A1 and use it effectively with little or no training.

Today’s state-of-the-art sniping rifles may have free-floating cold-forged stainless steel barrels, their stocks may no longer be wooden, but constructed of super-hard composite materials in camouflage colours, and adjustable to a shooter’s height and reach; they may be able to fire a half-inch bullet group at a hundred yards; but they still remain essentially unchanged — heavy, single-shot, bolt-action hunting rifles.

In contrast, the basic infantry battle rifle is virtually unrecognisable from one of a hundred years ago. Advancements in technology and materials have enabled individual automatic fire on a scale unimaginable to the infantryman of WW1. Even at the end of WW2, the average infantryman carried a single-shot rifle, or at best a semi-automatic one such as the US M1 Garand. Automatic fire was reserved for machine-gunners with their heavy crew-served weapons, and NCOs who carried light submachine-guns that were mostly ineffective beyond pistol range. The British Army’s 5.56-mm L85A2 of today would look like something out of a sci-fi movie to even a soldier of the 1960s.

Sniper from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, extracts an empty cartridge and chambers a fresh round in his 7.62-mm M40A3 rifle (

The difference was that snipers realised very quickly that their rifles had to do just one thing, and one thing only — fire a single round at a time, very accurately, out to ranges beyond that of the average infantry rifle. And the average rifle of the early 20th Century already did that. All it needed to increase its effective range was a better sight and a good shooter. So while the infantryman’s battle rifle evolved — became semi-automatic and then automatic, with smaller ammunition and larger magazines to feed their faster rates of fire, as well as shorter and lighter for use in all environments — the sniping rifle didn’t need to. Once ammunition was more or less standardized after WW2, all that remained was to make the sniping rifle more accurate, durable and less prone to environmental damage such as warping and rust. None of this required any change to the core design of the weapon, and so the rifle has mostly retained its classic shape of a long heavy barrel, a hunting stock, and a bolt action.

With such little evolution needed in the sniping rifle itself, snipers looked at the other major component of accurate shooting — the sighting system. Simple low-magnification telescopic sights from WW1 developed into variable-power scopes with attachments for use in low-light and at night. Today, the recticle of a sniper’s scope can resemble that of a fighter pilot’s head-up display, providing — in addition to the crosshairs — numbers and striations that help the shooter estimate range and decide how far left or right to aim off to compensate for crosswinds and target movement. These indicators within the scope, along with several other variables, then contribute to a mental calculation that the sniper must make.

And there are many variables that a sniper needs to calculate for when shooting. A rifle bullet doesn’t travel in a straight line, but rather in a parabola, like a thrown stone, and the further the range to the target the steeper the curve of the parabola. To the average infantryman, firing at an enemy 300m away, this curve is shallow, and a resulting mistake in estimating range would only place the bullet an inch or two above or below the point of aim. For a sniper shooting at a thousand metres, the margin of error might be as much as a foot, resulting in the bullet landing in front of or beyond the target. Humidity, air temperature and altitude above sea level will also affect the parabola of the bullet, and must be taken into account. A crosswind can push the sniper’s bullet left or right of the target, and again while this hardly matters at regular battlefield ranges, it can make a sniper miss his target completely, depending on range and wind speed. As an example, in April 2003, Corporals Matt and Sam Hughes, brothers in a two-man Royal Marine sniper team, each killed an Iraqi insurgent at 860m using 7.62-mm L96A1 rifles — at the time the wind was so strong that the snipers had to fire their shots seventeen metres to the left of their targets so that the bullets would bend back in the wind! This parabola combined with the wind-bend effect has sometimes had its own advantages, with snipers able to hit targets at long range that were standing behind cover such as sandbags or cars, the bullet approaching the target at an angle that defeated the cover (remember the Angelina Jolie movie Wanted?), which would have been impossible at closer range. Add to this the fact that the target might be in motion, and the calculations necessary become a complex mathematical problem that the sniper needs to figure out in the time between spotting the target and firing.

British snipers engage targets close to Basra with their L96A1 rifles.

For example, the first thing the sniper needs to do is estimate the range to his target. This is done by observing the target figure through the rifle scope and measuring its width in inches. This measurement is then converted to yards by dividing it by 36. So if the figure of a man is 18 inches wide, the answer will be 0.500 yards. This is then multiplied by 1000 and divided by the width of the target measured in mil dots (units of measure marked on the vertical and horizontal arms of the crosshairs) to give the range to the target in yards. Once this is done, the sniper must make allowances for any crosswind, by holding off to left or right of the target, depending on the wind direction. The hold-off distance is measured in minutes of angle (MOA), and one MOA is equal to 1/60th of a degree, or one inch through a scope at a hundred yards. Now to get the correct MOA for windage, the sniper must multiply the range in hundreds of yards by the wind velocity in miles per hour and divide it by the range constant. The latter is a fixed figure which is 15 at 500 yards, 14 at 600 yards, 13 at 700 yards and so on. The answer will be the MOA needed for a full-value wind (one that is blowing at ninety degrees to the bullet path). If the wind is blowing at forty-five degrees, the original MOA answer is divided by two. Now if the target is moving from left to right, further calculations must be made so that the sniper knows how much to lead the target by. For this the sniper must first figure out how long the bullet will take to reach his target, and as any schoolboy or girl will know, this is done by dividing the range by the bullet’s velocity to get the time to target. This is then multiplied by the target’s speed (in feet per second) to get the lead distance in feet. However, feet and inches can’t be measured through a rifle scope, which is marked in mil dots. So to calculate the lead in mil dots, the sniper must multiply the lead in feet by 12, subtract 6, and divide by the range multiplied by 3.5.

Iraqi insurgent killed by an American sniper in Fallujah

Now, if you managed to follow all that, you will understand that a digital calculator is now standard gear for a sniper. You will also understand that if a sniper got any of this wrong, either by miscalculation or simple instinct, he would miss.

As sniping became more organised in WW2, snipers often found that it was easier to have a partner along to help out with the complicated duties and long hours of surveillance. This spotter — often another sniper — armed with binoculars, could help with range and wind estimation, target detection and identification, and other things. The spotter’s role became more established in the post-WW2 period, and as time went by the spotter became a more dedicated role, with its own special equipment and skills. Today, the spotter is armed with his own spotting scope, a more powerful optical device than the rifle scope, mounted on a tripod or hand-held. This scope often comes with an integrated laser-rangefinder, so that range estimating is no longer complicated.

However, upto now, no practical piece of equipment was available to measure the effects of crosswind on the bullet. Sniper teams would estimate wind speed and direction by observing the way it moved trees, leaves, smoke and other indicators. In urban environments, where coalition forces often find themselves fighting today, these indicators are not always available, and this makes the sniper’s job more difficult. It is even more complicated when it comes to measuring humidity and air temperature — weather-gauging equipment such as barometers, and wind speed indicators are just not practical gear for a sniper team in the field.

In February 2007, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that it was looking for a system that would detect all the elements within a sniper’s environment, collate it and produce a point of aim that would result in a cold bore (first shot) kill. In other words, they wanted a system that would read the range to target, the target’s movement, measure the speed and distance of the wind, gauge the humidity and temperature of the air, take into account the angle to the target, the altitude of the shooter, the power, calibre and weight of the bullet, and give the sniper a point to aim at. Obviously, if such a successful system were to enter use, it would drastically reduce the time needed for sniper training, shortening the course to cover just the marksmanship portion of training, thereby enabling US sniper schools to churn out greater numbers of qualified snipers for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sniper candidates are already good shots, with US sniper schools requiring the recruits to be expert-qualified on the M16A3 battle rifle, so with a system that takes care of everything but the shooting, training an expert marksman upto competition level will be a simple matter. Purists might protest this foreshortening, claiming that a sniper shouldn’t be dependent on a sensitive piece of electronics, and that the sniper should be able to operate even if the equipment fails, but the fact is that with such a system in use, the military will be able to divide sniper training into basic and advanced modules, sending basic-trained snipers into combat where they are needed, and reserving the advanced portion — which would teach all the old school skills — for later.

US Marine sniper team in Iraq (leavethegun).

Three and a half years on, DARPA has announced that it has selected Lockheed Martin to go ahead with the second phase of the development of the One Shot System. At the end of the first phase, DARPA tested Lockheed Martin’s system, and in spite of certain failures and shortcomings, announced that it was satisfied enough to award the $6.9 million for further development.

Lockheed Martin’s system consists of an off-the-shelf spotting scope coupled to a dedicated rifle scope. The spotting scope uses a laser to measure range and angle to target, while the externally-attached “magic box” simultaneously measures wind, air pressure, temperature and humidity. These calculations would then be analysed and fed to the rifle scope, presenting the solution as a red cross in the scope’s reticle. Presumably, the sniper would then move his rifle until his crosshairs mated with the red cross or alternately the red cross was laid on the target. This ballistic solution was for the calibre and weight of a .308 round, but a proper prototype will have to provide solutions for any rifle and ammunition in use.

DARPA claimed that the Lockheed Martin system was tested by snipers and designated marksmen out to a range of 1,100m under various weather conditions, and with a maximum crosswind of 8m per second. DARPA’s official statement said that “Under all test conditions, the brassboard system significantly improved the first round hit probability, required fewer rounds, and less time to get the first hit vs. users without the One Shot system.” So still no first shot kill then.

Scout snipers of the 6th Marines in Fallujah in September 2007 (David Castillo/USMC)

On the downside, DARPA noted that the system’s range was inadequate for current sniper rifles. Though they did not specifically say so, DARPA clearly means the ranges that some of the big .50-in rifles operate at. Also, the fact that the system required its own dedicated rifle scope and couldn’t be coupled with existing scopes is a drawback. One of the most serious failings though, is that the Lockheed Martin One Shot system is only able to measure wind velocity and direction at the rifle muzzle, and not further downrange. At ranges beyond 800m, wind movement can vary greatly along the bullet path, and in some terrain, even be moving in the opposite direction to wind at the sniper’s position. Traditionally, sniper teams have overcome this problem somewhat by watching for wind “trace” all along the bullet track — watching foliage movement and clothes on the line all the way to the target and then compensating. This will not be a problem for designated marksmen who operate at ranges under 600m, but will definitely be an issue for snipers in Afghanistan, operating at extreme long ranges in windy mountains.

To illustrate the point, in March 2002, Master Corporal Aaron Perry and Corporal Rob Furlong of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry killed two Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Kot Valley at a range of 2,310m and 2,430m respectively, the latter at over one and a half miles. Both snipers were using .50-in McMillan Tac-50 rifles with 16X scopes, and needed several ranging shots before they hit their targets. Furlong’s kill broke a long-standing record held by US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, who killed a Vietcong guerrilla at 2,286m using a scope-mounted .50-in heavy machine-gun on single shot in 1967. Furlong’s record stood for seven more years as the longest ever recorded sniper kill until November 2009, when Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison, a British sniper in the Household Cavalry killed two Taliban machine-gunners with consecutive shots at 2,475m, south of Musa Qala in Helmand Province. He was using an L115A3 chambered in .338-in Lapua Magnum.

British sniper from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, somewhere in Afghanistan.

Unless Lockheed Martin are able to overcome this problem, the One Shot System will only be useful to designated marksmen, snipers operating at shorter ranges, and to military anti-terrorist and police snipers. For the latter two categories of snipers — often dealing with hostages situations or suicide bombers — a first-shot kill is vital, and for them the One Shot System would be ideal. On the other hand, at these shorter ranges, factors such as humidity and air pressure aren’t so important, just wind. Therefore, to successfully market this system, Lockheed Martin will definitely have to deal with the task of measuring wind all along the bullet path. DARPA states that the One Shot System must be able measure wind and other atmospheric conditions out to the maximum range of the rifle in use, read cant and angle from shooter to target, and plot the GPS coordinates of both. DARPA has also required that the system be usable when attached (by wired or wireless link) to a standard rifle scope, unlike Lockheed Martin’s current system which requires a custom scope. In addition, the system should be capable of using the IAECS face-recognition system out to 600m in daylight and 250m under starlight.

“There survives one lone wolf of the battlefield,” wrote US Marine Brig Gen George Van Orden in the 1950s. “He hunts not with the pack. Single-handed or accompanied by one companion, he seeks cover near the fighting. His game is not to send a hail of rapid fire into a squad or company; it is to pick off with one well-directed, rapidly delivered shot, a single enemy.”

While this remains the core of the sniper’s role today, the battlefield realities of fighting in urban Iraq has made the sniper adapt to conditions. Ranges have become shorter, and the enemy closer and more dangerous, and to cope with this American snipers often operate in packs of four or six, using semi-automatic rifles instead of the traditional bolt gun. They’ve sacrificed camouflage for protection, and mobility for height. In this changing environment, the One Shot System — whether it provides a cold bore kill or not — can only make the sniper’s job easier.

20 thoughts on “One Shot, One Kill — Guaranteed?

  1. Thanks DB, I never knew there’s so much involved. Is it the case that the better and more experienced a sniper is the more he might rely on gut instinct in his aim, or do they always have to make all the calculations as you mentioned?

    1. Well, to some extent you’re right, RD. Experienced snipers do a lot of things on instinct, like a spin bowler not having to calculate exactly where he’s gonna put the ball. Estimating a running man’s speed can be done almost subconsciously, and knowing how much to hold off or high. Also, with tech like range-finders now common, it’s slightly easier. But at really long ranges, every fraction counts.

  2. Woah! what a brilliant article.. thanks a lot for this one.. I’ve always had a fascination with the Military and especially Snipers..

  3. Interesting post… Were you a sniper Mr. Blacker?

    Is this information (particularly the segment on ranging) your own, based on your personal experience on these weapons or similar?

    1. I’m not a school-trained sniper, but I have worked as one briefly, a long time ago. Almost all of the info is available to a layman online, as are many of the US Army and USMC training manuals.

  4. Oh really? Could you pls post a link to these US Army and USMC training manuals?

    What weapon did you use as a sniper? Over what range?

  5. Any luck with hitting anything? You’d have to be pretty shit to miss a stationary or slow moving target at less than 100m with this hardware… 😉

    These weapons are all in regular service with the sri lanka army, is it?

    By the way, since you’ve mentioned the excellent L85A2 in your post, I thought I’d just add that the L86 A1/A2 (aka LSW, effectively a longer barrel version of the L85, with a bipod, fitted with a SUSAT and carried at section level) is also fairly good at dropping targets at up to 800m, whilst on single shot.

    1. Actually, it’s harder to hit a moving target at ranges under a 100m due to the scope’s high magnification. It’s easier with open sights.

      Some of the weapons (such as the G3SG1 and the MSG90) I mentioned are still in service with the SL Army, but not the others. The L96 family of rifles is now the standard issue bolt action rifle.

      Yup, LSWs, accurized M4s, and other automatic weapons such as the new MSR are getting more usage now by designated marksmen and even snipers in the urban environments of Iraq, where snipers and marksmen are tending to try and hit more enemy troops in an engagement rather than take out a specific high value target.

  6. Er.. yes, which is why I said stationary or slow moving.

    So the sl army uses L96’s, does it? I thought they would be using rusky weaponry, somehow.

    You still shoot? You seem to be quite keen on weapons 😉

  7. David,

    Hope you don’t mind me asking this: how’s your next book progressing? Given the twists and turns during and post-war, you must be spoilt for choice with plot lines 🙂

  8. For your info, David Blacker, although you claim its difficult to hit a target at less than 100m using optical sights, British infantry troops are all issued rifles with a 4X optical sight, and are trained to fire through this sight even at close ranges. There is a “battle sight” built into this optical sight, but this is only to be used if the sight fails (which is pretty much never, seeing as the SUSAT is virtually indestructible) and during NSP’s.

  9. Info, what I said was that it was hard to hit a moving target at less than a 100m with the optical sights on a sniping rifle. This is because they are high-powered optics, unlike the SUSAT sights on the British battle rifle which have a low-power setting of around 2x. If you had read Bob’s previous comment you’d have understood the context.

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