Tactical Skills for an Adventurous Life

Builder’s Guide to the Designated Marksman Rifle

There really is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the designated marksman rifle. That’s partly due to the fact that it’s more of a concept than anything else. Since the idea embedded itself into the US military, the actual rifle configuration is changed every few years.

The role of the rifle has not, however.

When I talk about a designated marksman, I’m specifically referring to an organic member of the rifle squad. Their primary role is engaging targets, or supporting friendly movements, by accurate fire from intermediate ranges. This is primarily a fighting role that moves and fights along with their squad.

In contrast, the traditional sniper fills a different role. A sniper is part of a separate team designed to observe, provide intelligence, and engage with precision fire. In the real world, snipers do a whole lot more observing and communicating than shooting. Snipers fall under an entirely different unit structure and operate somewhat autonomously on the battlefield.

Put another way, think of the sniper team as if they were a special asset you could ask for if they were available, like air support, while the designated marksman is always in your squad.

If that’s not clear, don’t worry. I’ll get back to it in a minute. I think looking at a little history might help you out.

Origin of the Designated Marksman

History is full of examples where superior marksmanship produced outsized results. One of my favorite examples is the work of Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen during the revolutionary war. But for our purposes, we’re going to start with World War I.

In the late 1850s, the first optical gunsights entered widespread use. By the early 20th century, they were fairly common on hunting rifles, especially in Europe. As the Great War ramped up, Germany was the first to field dedicated soldiers trained in camouflage, observation, and precision rifle fire. They drew these first snipers from skilled hunters, park rangers, and competition shooters.

The brutal warfare of WWI often took place between trenches an average of 50 to 300 yards apart. The sniper’s job was to stealthily reach a vantage point, watch the enemy trench, and kill high-value targets when the opportunity presented itself.

The Germans proved almost immediately proved exceptionally effective with this tactic. The British entered the war with no such capability and paid dearly for until they started their own sniper school a few years later.

The Great War channel on YouTube has a great video detailing this portion of the war.

Some key takeaways from this video:

  • Sniper operated alone or in pairs
  • They provided observation and precision fire
  • Training included camouflage and intelligence gathering

Those other elements take a long time to train, and sometimes all you need is a soldier with an accurate rifle. Theorists believed the should be some kind of middle ground between the regular soldier and the sniper, a sharpshooter.

Again, the Germans were the first to it in World War II.

WWII

Forgotten Weapons did a great video highlighting some key examples of designated marksmen rifles over the years. The first true example is the German K98 ZF4.

This was a standard K98 infantry rifle equipped with a forward-mounted 1.5x magnification scope. The eventual intent was for such a scope to adorn every infantry rifle, but German industrial capacity never caught up. The point of the forward mounted scope was to keep the breach clear for fast loading via stripper clips and a fast rate of fire.

German WWII soldier K98 ZF4
German Infantryman equipped with K98 ZF4. Image courtesy of the German Government

This produced a rifle that added some precision capability to a standard infantry soldier. He remained as light and nimble as others in the unit and could use the same ammunition. This configuration saw limited use with actual snipers, but they preferred the higher magnification available in other optics with shorter eye relief.

Later in the war, the Germans fielded the G43 rifle. It was semi-automatic, magazine-fed, and equipped with a 4x magnification optic. It wasn’t terribly accurate, but it did represent what was to come.

The Cold War

I think this is where the real magic starts to happen as each country develops is doctrine. Late in the 1940s, the US started attaching 4x optics to the venerable M1 Garand. This model, the M1C, saw service through Korea. By the end of the Korean conflict, we switched to a follow-on model known as the M1D.

Both were intended for use by snipers but the interesting thing about the M1D was that the conversion was supposed to be an easy-to-use kit. The idea was to take any current infantry rifle known to shoot well and quickly modify for a sharpshooter.

During Vietnam, the M1D phased out in favor of scoped M-14 and a return to bolt-action rifles for snipers. The M-16A1 didn’t lend itself well to optics mounting, so the US military abandoned the concept of regular infantry rifles with magnified optics for a while.

But other countries did not.

The Soviet Union employed a different model for the sniper. While the traditional picture of a camouflaged stalker moving through the hills existed, it wasn’t the norm. Far more common was the “sniper” equipped with an SVD Dragunov and attached to regular infantry or mechanized units. These snipers were much more like regular infantry soldiers with additional marksmanship training and a fancy scoped rifle.

You need to understand Soviet infantry doctrine revolved around massed shorter range weapons fired in automatic bursts. The soldier equipped with a scoped rifle filled the gap between short-range weapons and machine guns.

Failures in Afghanistan demonstrated that this type of “sniper” was not sufficiently trained in either marksmanship or fieldcraft. The Soviets were forced to reevaluate their training programs but stuck with the philosophy.

Post-Cold War

Soviet doctrine was tested again in the early 1990s. As the Russians went into Chechnya, they followed the Russian doctrine of their “snipers” being fast-moving infantry that stayed with their units. The Chechens, on the other hand, employed more traditional sniper tactics of camouflage, hides, and attrition.

It looked a lot like the fighting in WWII Stalingrad.

A 2002 article from Infantry Magazine discusses another effective tactic employed by the Chechens.

Some of the Chechens and their allies who were armed with SVDs deployed as actual snipers, while others joined three- or four-man fighting cells consisting of an RPG gunner, a machine gunner and, an SVD marksman, and perhaps an ammunition bearer armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. These cells were quite effective as anti-armor hunter-killer teams. The SVD and machinegun fire would pin down supporting infantry while the RPG would engage the armored vehicle. Often four or five cells would work together against a single armored vehicle…

Away from the cities, a Chechen sniper usually operated as part of a team–the sniper plus a four-man support element armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. The support element usually positioned itself some 500 meters behind the sniper. The sniper would fire one or two shots at the Russians and then change firing positions. Should the Russians fire at the sniper, the support element would open fire at random to draw fire on itself and allow the sniper to escape.

– Lester W. Grau and Charles Q. Cutshaw, Infantry Magazine, Summer, 2002

This was about this same time that the US Navy SEAL teams started developing the in-house modified Recce Rifles. This provided snipers an intermediate distance lightweight precision rifle with common parts to the rest of the unit.

Modern Conflict

Lore says that the US Army’s 5th SFG toyed with the idea of an accurized upper receiver during the mid-90s. The idea was more or less similar to the SEAL’s Recce rifle, but it never gained traction in the Army.

At least not until the Marine Corps got involved.

In 1997, the USMC’s Warfighting Laboratory performed the Urban Warrior experiment to explore tactics for built-up urban areas. Then, from 1999-2004, Project Metropolis continued the experimentation. By 2002, the word got out that the USMC wanted a new type of rifleman in the squad, one equipped with an accurized M16 and magnified optic.

They called this new position the Squad Advanced Marksman (SAM). The Army quickly caught wind and created their own version known as the Squad Designated Marksman (SDM).

“Our fundamental SAM is a basic rifleman,” said Capt. Joe Tamminen, project officer. “That’s his first and foremost job. Now, we’re giving him some enhanced capabilities. By no means should the word ‘sniper’ ever come into play when we’re talking about the squad advanced marksman. That word is like voodoo.”


If the experiment proves successful, and Marine officials adopt the plan, a SAM will be his squad’s eyes and ears.

He’ll use standard-issue rifles with 4X scopes and night-vision sights to advise his squad leader how to move across the battlefield. The SAM also has a team radio, so he can be linked directly to the squad leader without needing to be next to him.

Both programs resulted in similar rifles equipped with free-floated stainless match barrels and magnified optics, typically a 4x magnification ACOG. As the Mk-12 program finished up, several of them entered service as well with the Marines and Army.

M39 EMR DMR rifle
M39 EMR, a modified M-14

At some point along the way, the Army decided it wanted a 308 rifle to fill the role. There weren’t enough M110 rifles available, so the M14 came out of retirement bolted into an accurizing chassis. The newly-dubbed M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle (EMR) was only a stopgap, however.

The extended ranges found in Afghanistan validated the need for some longer range capability in the squad. The USMC’s answer to the problem was to issue ACOGs and free floated rails to every member of the squad, not just the Advanced Marksman. The SAM, in turn, received more magnification.

Today’s Designated Marksman Rifle

All of that brings us to today.

As of right now, the Army and USMC diverged on their approaches. Both services still see a need to fill a role between a standard infantryman within the squad and a full-on sniper, but they differ on the weapons.

The Army elected to issue the HK G28, a variant of the 308 HK417. They chose the 7.62 path over concerns with body armor penetration. A precision-oriented semi-auto 7.62 also offers many of the same benefits as a belt fed machine gun as far as suppression and chewing up cover, albeit with a lower rate of fire.

The Marines, on the other hand, stuck with the general issue M27 IAR, an HK416 in 5.56, and added the same Leupold TS30-A2 2.5-8×36 rifle scope found on the Mk 12. They approach the concept with the same mobility concepts in mind, but the SAM maintains weapons and ammunition commonality with the rest of their squad.

So How do you Build Your Own?

Well, that was a lot of history to get to this question.

As you can see from the history here, there really hasn’t been a single version of the Designated Marksman Rifle. Rather, it’s more of a philosophical concept.

The intent, from WWII to today, has always been to provide a longer range or precision fire capability organic to a team. This is not a sniper. The role is to fight along with and support friendly units in conflict. A designated marksman or squad advanced marksman does this using magnified optics and superior marksmanship.

On one hand, this is very similar to the role of a belt-fed machine gun, but sacrificing volume fire in favor of precision. On the other hand, it allows a squad the benefit of overwatch, where another member of the unit looks ahead for save paths of travel.

If called to it, the SDM/SAM is perfectly capable of fire and movement along with the rest of the unit.

In that regard, you should approach your own Designated Marksman Rifle with the following attributes:

  • Light enough to move freely and fight along with the rest of the unit (this isn’t a “hide and wait” rifle)
  • Capable of holding good accuracy over long strings of shots while supporting others. In other words, no lightweight barrels here.
  • Free floated with a good trigger
  • Enough magnification to shoot further than the “average” engagement distance. If that means 4x, as history seems to repeat, then cool. Or if that means 3-9 or 2.5-10, then so be it.

If the trend seen in the US military is any indication, the Recce was the right rifle all along.

But what about caliber?

I’m not really picking sides on the 7.62 vs 5.56 debate here. A 30 cal will certainly do more with regards to turning cover into concealment, but the trade off is heavier weight and less ammunition capacity. A 5.56 rifle is more than capable of reaching out to 600 yards with proper ammunition selection and magnification, and it will suppress the other guys just fine.

Remember, this isn’t a sniper rifle, it’s a precision fire capability in support of fire and movement.

So what do I buy?

To be honest, I think you’re better off looking over the Recce rifle concept article. In that article, I suggested several barrels, optics, and rails that serve this purpose extremely well. If you want to get picky, just pick up a 20″ version of the 16″ barrels suggested. The rest of it remains pretty much the same.

Wrapping Up

As always, thank you for reading and sticking through my bit of history. The Designated Marksman concept is an interesting one that I come back to periodically.

The concept makes the most sense within the context of a team environment. With properly trained marksmanship fundamentals and magnification, really anyone can fulfill the role. Shooting is only a portion of the skillset, though.

The other stuff? We’ll get there.

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Sunshine Shooter
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I hadn’t heard about the 1.5x scopes the Germans were using in WWII before this. I always find the history of a concept fascinating. The ‘how we got here’ to me is as important as a list of things to buy, if not more important.

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