Podcast: Play in new window
The very first podcast interview I ever did was with John Simpson. He’s a veteran of Army Special Forces, sniper, author, and an encyclopedia of shooting knowledge. John is actually responsible for connecting me with many of my original interview guests, and I’ve been thankful ever since. Ever since that first conversation, we keep in touch from time to time and I always appreciate his forthrightness and willingness to call me on a my occasional mistakes.
Not long ago, John let me know that he had a new edition of his book, The Foundations of Sniper Marksmanship. The second edition has 48 more pages of material, some of which we talk about in this interview, as well as the usual updates and fixes that authors like to make. You can find it on Amazon or through his publisher at Blue 360 Media if you prefer.
We decided to sit down and talk a bit more about some of the topics in the book, both the original and revised edition.
The Fundamentals Don’t Change
One of John’s motivations for the book is a no-nonsense manual that a police sniper team leader could hand to someone preparing to go to sniper school and get them to understand the basics up front. There’s not really any ink wasted on variations or nuances that you might find in other books.
John holds the opinion, and rightly so, that you must understand and master the basic concept before trying to change it. A lot of instructors try to think of variations of things just to say that they could put their stamp on it even if there was nothing wrong with the basic version.
To illustrate this, when discussing the basic shooting positions, John uses illustrations from the 1889 US Army marksmanship manual. The positions illustrated then are exactly as any good marksmanship program would teach them today.
As with many things in life, there’s nothing wrong with the basics. Most people are better off mastering the basic positions and skills before trying more advanced items.
In 1953, President Eisenhower received a letter from Mr. Howard C. Sarvis of New Meadows Idaho. The letter, as reported in history, explained that current army marksmanship training was ineffective at teaching combat shooting. Mr. Sarvis went on to detail an improved program based on combat experience during WWII and Korea.
The improved program launched in 1955, and sought to teach soldiers improved combat shooting skills. You can read about TRAINFIRE I over at DTIC.mil
While TRAINFIRE is somewhat controversial today amongst a competitive shooting-oriented basic marksmanship rogram, I bring this up because early in John’s book, he discusses 9 principles that I thought were valuable.
- Enemy personnel targets are rarely visible except in close assault
- Most combat targets consist of a number of men or objects, linear in nature, irregularly spaced, and using cover
- Targets, detected by smoke, flash, dust, noise, or movement are usually only seen fleetingly
- These targets can be engaged by using nearby objects as a reference point
- The range of combat targets will rarely exceed 300 meters
- The nature of the target, terrain, and “digging in” requirements of the defensive often preclude the use of the prone position (but do favor supported standing or squatting positions)
- Selecting an accurate aiming point in elevation is difficult because of the low outline and obscurity of combat targets
- The problem of proper elevation is complicated by using six o’clock holds on the bull’s-eye to achieve a center hit
- The conditions of rifle fire in combat rarely require or permit the use of windage adjustment
What stood out to me in this list was how many of these items came to manifest later on in the AR-15 program. With its emphasis on 300 meters and closer engagements, rugged fixed iron sights, and ergonomic enhancements contributing to good marksmanship- it was a true gunfighter’s rifle.
One of the new additions to the updated book is a discussion on police sniper engagements. John had access to the American Sniper Association’s survey data. He was able to do analysis on time of day, range, position used, and other factors. The findings were interesting, and challenge some of the commonly-held “myths” about police sniping, such as the average engagement distance being 74 yards.
I won’t get into details here, you should check out the book, but three things stood out to me. First, while the most common position used for police snipers in 2021 was the prone (about 54% of shots), the second most common was the standing position (24%). That tells me that we should all seriously consider spending more time practicing precision rifles from the standing position.
Secondly, the longest shot was about 280 yards (from the prone). But the second longest, about 230 yards, was from the standing. The distribution of shots breaks out a lot closer, though, with the most shots being taken at 50 yards.
That gets to the third point, and John’s suggestion. If you’re involved in police sniping, then know that 98.5% of engagements happen at less than 200 yards. While most are even less than that, John suggests that a professional police sniper should routinely practice up to 200 with consideration to what happens out to 300 yards.
Don’t Cheat Yourself
Another of the new sections involes playing the game in training. Jon tells me that this is something he learned in the military from a bunch of hardened Vietnam veterans. There’s a mentality out there that, “If you ain’t cheatin, then you ain’t trying.”
The problem with this is the idea of delayed consequences. If someone is circumventing the training value of a thing by brending the rules, then they haven’t correclty learned the lesson they were supposed to learn. If that’s the case, then they don’t actually realize the consequence of doing that thing wrong until it happens to them for real, and it could be deadly.
John highlights that the mentality is particularly bad in the infantry community. He uses the example of figher pilots and naval deck officers. In both instances, weak trainees are weeded out long before they have the opportunity to severely harm themselves or their equipment.
He left me with the quote I posted at the start: if you cheat in training, then your’e stealing from yourself.
I take that in a lot of ways, not just from shooting. That’s true of “training” in the gym, in a skill you’re trying to learn, or anywhere that your future self would have benefited from you doing the right thing today.
Hey Matt! Excellent subject matter so regularly overlooked. Fundamentals, always fundamentals. John Simpson seems like a great guy to know. I was never in combat but his 9 principals sound based in experience. I consider myself fortunate I went through the old USMC ‘marksmanship training’ (early 80’s) which emphasized strict fundamentals of position, sights, trigger control and breathing with a qualifying test to ensure you understood. I feel they’re still with me although ignored way too often. Looks like I have another book to read and some dry firing to do – thanks!
Paul, nice of you to say so. I do have to point out that those aren’t MY 9 assumptions about rifle marksmanship in combat but rather the work of the soldiers and scientists of the TRAINFIRE project that was published about two years before I was born. I admired the process that they used where they defined the job before figuring out how to train people to do it. What I came up with were the 4 characteristics of a sniper target. I’m always amused by competitive target shooters in and out of the Army that think TRAINFIRE was the… Read more »
John – thanks for the reply. Sounds like the Marines held onto most of the TRAINFIRE aspects for decades. Until fairly recently USMC marksmanship training started in boot camp, several hours a day just dry firing at a marked up 55 gal. drum we all circled while getting strict positions (sitting, kneeling, standing and prone) instruction from the D.I.s. (a major aspect of their job – ‘every Marine a rifleman’). This was a few weeks before we headed out to Edson range at Camp Pendleton where we received approx. 40 hrs. of marksmanship instruction and then another week on the… Read more »
Yeah, the Marines wanted nothing to do with TRAINFIRE. They continued using the KD ranges and targets that were replaced by the popup targets used in TRAINFIRE. The problem became one where after the 4 years of research conducted to create the program, it began to be “improved” and had stuff removed until it didn’t work anymore.
Being a Marine you’ll appreciate a lot of the stuff in this book.