On the range at the 15th annual Canadian International Sniper Concentration
It’s probably not the thing you’d expect to be most impressed about if you were sitting in a field watching elite Canadian snipers compete against some of the world’s best shooters, but there it is—Corporal Corey is an absolute demon on the calculator.
I know for sure that I can’t do anything in the world with the focus with which Corey calculates his distance and windage corrections. His fingers slam the calculator. His intensity gives me a weird feeling. I would wager that even if his right leg were blown off in mid-calculation, he wouldn’t blink or stop or even hesitate. In short, he is behaving as if his life depends upon what he does.
And, of course, it generally does.
He passes the corrections to Corporal Dave. “Down 1.2, left 3.” Bang, the bullet goes skidding harmonically out toward the target more than a kilometre away, a mini-missile of supersonic steel.
Snipers, I learned, are kind of unique among modern combatants. And what makes them different is that they possess skills that can seem a little supernatural. They can become invisible in broad daylight. They can control the pace of their own heartbeat. They can sit motionless for days. And they can deliver the enemy to his destiny at 2,000 metres.
They are specialists. They have special weapons. Special attributes. Special skills. They are craftsmen of long-range killing trained to do a special job—they stalk and kill humans.
But the facts miss the point, as they often do.
Snipers have an impact greater than the sum of their parts. To put it bluntly, snipers are battlefield avengers—an absolute menace to the life and safety of the enemy.
Where quite often your standard-issue crusty infantry soldier will slyly roll his eyes at other specialists, that is not the case with snipers. It’s genuine respect. The reason for that is this: in a place like Afghanistan the snipers often had the best, sometimes the only shot at bringing a little mayhem to the enemy’s personal situation, i.e. his chest and head.
In a war where the enemy constructed their entire campaign around staying unseen and fighting via dirty tricks—improvised explosive devises everywhere—on paths, in walls, in bikes, on mountains, strapped to donkeys, in the middle of barren fields that seem like no one had walked across in 60 years, the snipers were a dirty trick of our own: they could kill the enemy and the enemy couldn’t do a single thing about it. Or see it coming.
And that was good.
A Concentration Of Snipers
The Canadian International Sniper Concentration (CISC) was held at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, N.B., this year on Sept. 6-16 and involved 27 teams of snipers from all over the world. There were New Zealanders, Irishmen, Italians, Aussies and even some swaggering fellows from the French Marine Commandos. The Canadian Forces were represented by soldiers from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal Canadian Regiment. There were also many police teams, including the RCMP and SWAT members from all across Canada—from Halifax to Calgary.
All these shooters, spotters and coaches came to New Brunswick to test themselves in the toughest, most stressful situations the course planners could devise. While the main focus of the event was really to see who the best shooters were, it was set up kind of like a hybrid of competition, plus a training seminar. Also, being honest, it seemed like a bit of a party as well.
Corey And Dave Zero Their Weapons
Snipers, you should know, aren’t really different than anyone else. Perhaps they’re a little more lethal, but they still tell jokes and like to have fun.
Cpl. Corey and Cpl. Dave are from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and they were kind enough to let me tag along with them for the first few days of the competition.
Dave is about six feet tall, blue eyes, shaved head, and has the build and demeanour of a high-level hockey player. Corey is a bit taller, a bit thinner, and a bit more introspective—he almost always seems to think before he speaks and over time generally gives the impression of being much older than his early-twenty-something age. Both guys had been to Afghanistan, not as snipers, but as infantry, and their tour was as full of chaos and bad news as any other.
The team—who quickly dubbed themselves the Thundercats—started at a bit of a disadvantage. They’d been instructing a sniper course and didn’t have the time (or ammunition budget, for that matter) to get out and train all that much. The last time Corey shot their primary weapon—the .338-calibre C14 Timberwolf—was much earlier this year. Dave last shot around the same time. And they’d never really worked as a team before.
On the first day of the concentration all the teams trekked out to the range to test fire their weapons. More than anything, the Thundercats need to get some dope today. If they’re going to get through the competition in any sort of winning style, they’re going to need some pretty serious dope—data of previous engagement (dope). Of course.
The idea is to keep detailed statistics on how the guns shoot at various ranges, so that next time they shoot at that range they know what adjustments to dial into the scope.
Gathering dope is frankly quite a lot of work. Especially when it needs to be collected for three different weapons—the aforementioned Timberwolf, plus the C15 McMillan .50-calibre long range rifle and Corey’s backup personal weapon, a C8 assault rifle.
The range day did not go so well. As the guys were shooting at the 300-metre targets, it became clear there was a problem.
“What is going on?” Corey said to Dave as he stared down the range through his spotting scope. “That last shot didn’t even hit the target. You’re a full mil (milliradian) out.”
The two sniper rifles proved so inaccurate that twice Corey and Dave had to ‘slip’ their scopes, which meant taking out tools and adjusting the way the scope sat on the rifle.
Unfortunately, the scope problems didn’t become clear until they were almost done the range, which meant that all the previous dope they’d collected was now next to useless, and they wouldn’t be getting another chance at it.
“We would have done this already, if we had time,” Corey groaned as he fiddled with the scope.
Despite the setbacks, at the end of the day the team was feeling pretty good about their chances.
“In order to win, basically we’ll just have to come together as a team and use all the previous skills that we’ve learned to maximize the information we’ve gathered from each range and each stand,” said Corey, sounding so articulate it seemed he’d been rehearsing the sentence for a few months.
Dave gave him a sideways look. “Listen to him!” he said. “And then there’s me just sitting here going (sung to the tune of the famous Meow Mix song): “meow, meow, meow, meow, meow.”
“But yeah,” Dave noted after he’d stopped singing. “There’s a competition standpoint here, but really we’re always just striving to do a little better.”
About The CISC
Captain John Bourgeois is the man in charge of the sniper cell at the army’s Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown. And he’s also the man responsible for designing and running the sniper concentration.
A veteran sniper himself, Bourgeois was commissioned from the ranks while on tour in Kandahar back in 2007. He’s about as gruff and surly as you’d expect a veteran sniper to be, but he definitely loves his job and running CISC is a huge part of that.
“CISC started back in 1997 and it was basically a sniper team from each of the Canadian battalions. Then word got out and now it’s like a big rolling monster. Everybody wants to come and do it and it’s known worldwide. Throughout the year I get calls from all over the world like ‘Hey, it’s Sweden calling, we wanna come to your concentration.”
And indeed, it has taken off. While the international snipers were reticent about talking to the media—and even Dave and Corey didn’t want their last names used—it was definitely interesting to hear Australians and Irish and Italians compare Afghan war stories with their Canadian counterparts.
“The guys who come here, they’re all on an equal plane. The internationals, they probably already won their home competition and their reward is to come here. They call it the world championships, we don’t see it that way, but they do,” said Bourgeois.
According to Bourgeois, the main point of the concentration is not the competition, but instead is an effort to create a kind of high-pressure learning environment. “The aim of the concentration is to get a place where we gather the Canadian snipers, and it’s focused on them. We bring them here to challenge their skill and help them learn new skills. The way we do that is bringing in the international teams and the police teams so that it’s a big gathering of information.”
In addition to an award for best overall team, there are individual awards too, including one named after Rob Short, a former sniper who was killed in Afghanistan in 2003. “This goes to the guy voted best sniper—the most determined, most motivated, open to new ideas,” said Bourgeois. “That’s really the award you want to win. It’s the one that shows how people think of you, how good you are.”
The Competition Begins
The first challenge for the Thundercats is the dryly named Alternate Position Shoot, which is really a bizarre and difficult series of very unusual shots—perched on a roof, swaying on a boat deck, using the rifle sideways, using the opposite hand and firing from unstable scaffolding. The different stands are meant to throw all the teams out of their comfort zone.
Before the event, Corey and Dave talked strategy, which was basically to stay as close to the fundamentals of marksmanship as possible: get in the most stable position, gun pointing at the target without undue stress, correct sight alignment and aim, and release the shot without disturbing your position.
The event works like this: once their stand is called, they have 10 seconds to take their first shot. If they miss, they get five seconds for a second shot. After the primary shooter goes, the spotter takes his turn shooting at a much closer target with his secondary weapon, in this case a C8.
The first stand was meant to replicate shooting off the deck of a ship at sea. The team lay prone on a wooden platform suspended by ropes.
With little fanfare, Dave got his first shot at 450 metres.
“Good shot, man,” Corey said quietly, and then gave Dave a small sniper-style prone fist bump.
Corey also got his first shot for a combined score of, well, perfect.
Unfortunately, things were about to get tougher.
The next stand was some fairly unstable scaffolding and a standing shooting position. Almost no one had so far managed to hit the first target which was out beyond 1,000 metres. Dave didn’t break from that tradition. Corey got his second shot.
The hardest stand by far was the one that forced the snipers to turn their weapons on their side to shoot through a thin horizontal hole at the bottom of a wall.
Corey and Dave approached the stand and stared at the small hole in the plywood.
“You’re going to have to lay on your side and turn the rifle sideways,” said Corey.
“Like, how?” asked Dave incredulously.
“Well, just lay down.”
“I have no idea how I’m going to do this,” said Dave.
Dave managed to wedge himself into position, but needed to brace the rifle against Corey’s boot to stop the scope from recoiling into his own face, a phenomenon known cutely as ‘scope bite.’
It did not look promising.
“Stand one, go on,” the range safety officer yelled.
He started counting down: “ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five…”
BANG. Dave shot.
“Miss!” yelled the officer, before starting to count down for the second shot.
“Five, four, three, two…”
In the end, the only target Dave hit was the first one, while Corey managed to hit two.
Targets Of Unknown Range
On the second day, Corey and Dave were tested in a whole new way. For modern snipers, laser rangefinders have taken much of the work out of figuring out how to hit targets at very long distances. But in this event they were disallowed—the guys would have to judge distance the old-fashioned way.
Corey has his calculator and palm-top computer out, furiously doing calculations and delivering directions to Dave, who furiously turns various knobs on his scope. They’re trying to judge the distance by comparing the size of the target against their scope’s reticle.
The team puts on a great show. Dave hits four targets on the first shot—some as far away as 1,200 metres, which means they’re not visible to the naked eye.
“The only thing we’ve got to work on is our dialogue. We’re too slow. I’m afraid they’re going to call us to shoot and I haven’t even got my dope on. We should go in order: parallax, elevation and deflection.”
“Yeah,” Corey says. As the spotter, Corey is the man in charge of the team.
“Then again it’s your shot. It’s your rules,” said Dave.
“Yeah, we’ll do it that way,” said Corey.
In the afternoon as the sun started to scorch them, the 2 RCR snipers started to berate their coach for his persistent refusal to provide them with iced Gatorade, ice cream treats, or any sort of handholding at all. “Hit some targets and I’ll bring you some,” the coach growled.
The Stress Shoot
By far the most wild of the ranges I witnessed, the stress shoot required the sniper teams to sprint about 600 metres with all their gear, set up and hit some targets, then climb into a vehicle and engage targets while on the move, then drag a wounded man several hundred metres, then clamber over several obstacles to engage more targets, one of them a moving vehicle at about 400 metres.
It’s tiring even to type that. Watching Dave and Corey run it was unbelievable.
“I can’t believe the amount of huffing and puffing I was doing, but I managed to get the shot,” said Dave.
As Dave explained, the trick was to suck it up and hold your breath for the second you need to find aim and take the shot.
Dave hit the moving target four times and hit both the actual targets—two dummies—with one shot.
The Thundercats Make Good
Over the next few days, Dave and Corey continued to improve. They stalked, they shot pistols, they generally had a good time. Here’s Dave via e-mail at the end of the concentration: “The concentration ended up being a great success and Corey and I ended up placing in the top half…as a team effort. We had a blast hanging out with the international snipers and staff. Learned tons and, most importantly, lessons learned on what has to be improved on…hint, hint, pistol, ha-ha.”
At the final tally, this year’s winner was a team from 1 RCR, a team from New Zealand came in second and the Calgary Police Department came in third. The top sniper and spotter went to the RCMP. The Rob Short award went to a sergeant from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment.
It seems fitting to leave the final words to Dave as he sums up the CISC and what it means to be a sniper. “Being part of the sniper community is a league of its own. I am truly honoured to be a part of it.
“You always have to keep your skills sharp in this line of work and you’ve got to be on point to make that one shot. It only takes one shot to eliminate the situation and you’ve got to be the best at it. This is what we do.”
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