A Discipline of Mind:
The history of sniping, in contrast to Hollywood lore, has consistently delivered a pattern of exceptionalism in many of its feats. Snipers it seems have always managed to do more with less. In sniper history, across the ages, a scenario repeats itself. Working under pressure, against the odds snipers manage to transcend the realms of the ordinarily human and enter into a different plain altogether.
The pattern that often repeats itself across history, cultures and countries, has distinct moving parts. There is no underestimating the enormity of the task facing a sniper. Becoming familiar with just five of the variables which make up each shot, however helps us understand it a little better. In many cases they appear all at once. In others only a couple pop up but they are at their most extreme:
- The weather’s too hot or too cold. There are cross-winds or updrafts. There is glare or the visibility is poor. Nature is simply refusing to play ball. The terrain is too flat or too mountainous. Its colors monochromatic, making it difficult to spot movement from a distance.
– Lives are about to be lost. Friends are in danger. Comrades are under attack, besieged from all sides and, sometimes wounded and running out of ammo. The sniper himself may be coming under fire or he may be behind enemy lines, operating on the fly, without a spotter. The myriad calculations of each shot now resting only with him.
A ticking clock
– Time is never on the sniper’s side. The situation is always tense. Anxiety levels are always high. It is only a matter of time before a position is overrun and colleagues are killed or captured. A high explosive device is being placed in the path of an unsuspecting patrol or a machine gun that’s pinned down friendlies needs to be silenced. There is never enough time for the careful deliberation and planning we see in the movies.
- As if having to calculate all the variables that can affect a shot isn’t enough, the variables themselves keep on changing. Targets move. The wind changes. The situation on the ground becomes worse. The sniper who lingers too long over his calculations risks never getting off a shot that will do any good to anyone.
- The universe has a sense of humor. It doesn’t matter how powerful a sniper’s rifle may be. How high energy the ammunition being used is. When the crisis hits the sniper will always have to take a shot that’s beyond his weapon’s effective range and somehow still make it work.
If this were a Hollywood set piece all of this would add up to the scene titled “The Impossible Shot”.
Being a sniper in these circumstances is not only not glamorous or punctuated by the kind of tense deliberation that Hollywood films make out but, as any gamer who’s into first-person shooters will attest to, adrenaline and excitement alongside the tension of the game create over-reactions that force obvious mistakes. A sniper attempting a shot that’s against the odds has to battle a combination of all the difficult conditions the situation throws up to his face, plus his own human nature.
There is a Rudyard Kipling poem called “If
”. It was written in 1895 and its opening stanza goes:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs…
In his autobiography Kipling left clues that it had been inspired by Leander Starr Jameson who was to become the 10th Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in what today is South Africa and the man who led the failed Jameson Raid that sparked the Boer War. He might as well have been thinking of snipers. If
is an inspirational poem about enjoying a natural competitive advantage through discipline of thought.
On the morning of November 2009, as his comrades came under attack, Craig Harrison may not have been thinking of Kipling. His brain, engaged in its calculations had little capacity to think of itself and the situation he was in, in terms of Hollywood films. He was however about to exhibit exactly the extraordinary nature of mental discipline and concentration that Rudyard’s poem celebrates.
As he watched the ambush unfold through the lens of his sniper scope, he did indeed, keep his head. His training coolly took over and he started doing what he had been conditioned to. Over the course of three hours Harrison used his long distance and elevated position to harass and suppress as much of the enemy as he could in an attempt to create opportunities that would help his fellow soldiers escape. It was at the end of that three-hour stint, when human concentration levels begin to flag and mental and psychological fatigue kick in however that Craig Harrison made shooting history.
The Taliban had managed to set up a two-man machine gun in an elevated, well-covered position on a hillside. From there it started bringing down a hail of fire on the exposed British soldiers in the plain below, pinning them down in the open. The British unit that Harrison had been protecting up to that point was suddenly threatened with being overrun.
Through the scope of his rifle Craig Harrison could see the men behind the machine gun, lying prone on the ground. He knew that he did not have a lot of time to do something to help the troops pinned by the machine gun’s withering fire. The problem he was facing however was one of distance. The L115A3 Long Range Rifle Harrison was using is designed to achieve a first-round hit at 600 metres and harassing fire out to 1,100 meters. British snipers have recorded kill shots with it at 1,500 meters. The machine gun Harrison was looking to silence that day however was positioned more than 900 meters beyond that range.
As he recalled in The Longest Kill
, the book he wrote about his time in Afghanistan afterwards: All the evidence said that it couldn't be done; that this shot was impossible. It was far outside the recognized range of the rifle.
I was out of adjustment in my scope and my position was appalling. Every time the rifle recoiled a little chunk of wall broke away and I had to hold the bipod with my left hand just to stop it falling off. Accurate shooting is all about the minimal transference of interference to the weapon. I was struggling with that one today.
None of all this factored consciously into Harrison’s thinking. All too aware of the catastrophic scene that was about to unfold he was busy changing the settings on his scope. To make things interesting, along with the five factors that make our staged Hollywood “Impossible Shot” scene we shall now add a slightly more technical sixth. It’s called the Coriolis Effect. Put most simply, the Earth rotates. It spins around its axis at a speed of 1,040 miles per hour. When we turn and talk to a person standing next to us they appear stationary because we are both connected to the planet. We are both standing on it. So the relative speed of our friend and ourselves is exactly the same. Like two speeding trains, running side by side to each other at the exact same speed, objects with the same relative speed do not appear to move at all. But this courtesy does not extend to flying bullets.
The moment a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun it is on its own. It is not connected to the planet. Whatever momentum it carries with it from its time in the gun barrel is constantly bled off with distance while the sniper who fired it and the target he fired it towards, continue to speed, along with the planet at 1040 miles per hour.
For Harrison the problem was compounded further. The advertised muzzle velocity of his gun is 936 m/s. It sounds like a lot but it’s not constant. With no other motive force beyond the initial velocity of its firing a bullet’s reach is a factor of its weight, height, angle of elevation, air temperature, muzzle velocity and the temperature of the bullet itself. At that speed and with no other factors to take into account a target’s drift due to the Coriolis effect is just a few inches to the left or right (depending on the Earth’s Hemisphere the sniper is at) and up or down (depending on his elevation). The Coriolis effect is at its maximum at the Poles and totally negligible at the Earth’s equator.
Afghanistan is approximately half the distance of the North Pole from the Equator and the Coriolis effect can produce noticeable drift there. At the distance Craig Harrison was shooting at, that day, when combined with all the other factors he had to take into account and the bullet’s six seconds of flight time to target, it made all the difference between scoring a hit and a complete miss.
As I am writing all this I am of course introducing each element sequentially, building up the picture of that day one careful sentence at a time. This is not how it happened however. The day Harrison made sniper history everything was happening at once. He was mentally and physically fatigued, anxious, pressured by time and constrained by distance and the limitations of his equipment. Because of the extreme range he was shooting at, his scope was of little use to him. The target was beyond its settings so he had to fire test shots, see how they flew there and where they hit, gauge what adjustments he should make manually using guesswork and his own knowledge and experience and fire again, hoping his guesswork had made an improvement possible.
Yet, within less time it’s taken you to read and digest all this, he’d fired off nine shots to gauge firing conditions and find the range.
One of those shots found its mark. The bullet flew across the 2,475 meters separating Harrison from the enemy machine gun position, the bullet’s flightpath changed by the day’s heat, the updrafts it was encountering, the temperature of the gun barrel and the Coriolis effect, curved all the way to the man lying in the prone position behind the machine gun. Unerringly guided by a mind that in that moment of extreme stress calculated everything and fired off a shot into the future so that the bullet would intersect with where the target was going to be.
And then, as if appearing to be superhuman and making military history all in one go was not enough, Harrison repeated the feat a few seconds later, neutralizing the second of the two-men team who’d taken up the machine gun, cementing his name in military history with an identical shot.
When it comes to snipers something happens with great regularity and it’s the seemingly superhuman way they deal with problems, stress and human limitations. To a man they all appear quite confident about themselves. Understand this: the problems we face challenge who we are. Either they are technical and we are worried we don’t have the skillset, qualities and tenacity to see them through or they are circumstantial and we are afraid they will make us fail, show to us first and then anyone who happens to be watching just how weak and powerless we are.
This is the internal monologue of self-destruction. Problems are not problems faced outside ourselves. They are problems that cast deep shadows inside us first. If we cannot find a way to deal with those shadows, the problems appear overwhelming. They raise up fears we all secretly have that can tear us apart. Successfully dealing with them requires emotional control.
Adapted from: The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions