Targets, bullets and soldiers... deep in the Wicklow mountains
Defence Forces International Marksmanship Skills challenge takes place in Glen of Imaal
Sgt David Greene helps Cpl Nigel Callanan find the target at the Defence Forces’ International Marksmanship Skills Competition in the Glen of Imaal, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Defence Forces
David Greene sat down fully clothed in the cold, peaty brown water of the River Slaney flowing off Lugnaquilla mountain, and tried to make himself comfortable.
As the water penetrated his boots and trousers, he wrestled with a bipod, its two spidery legs refusing to anchor themselves securely among the rocks on the river bed. No matter how many times he jabbed them into the river, or leaned further back into the water to alter the angle of attack, he could not get a steady purchase.
Behind Sgt Greene sat his Defence Forces colleague Cpl Nigel Callanan, he too up to his chest in water. Callanan got as close to Greene as he could, wrapping his legs around his midriff like a pair of children sitting on a floor and playing train.
After a few seconds they gave up on the bipod and concentrated instead on their target – a matchstick-like object, silhouetted on the brow of a hill and just left of a small, wind-bent tree, 240 metres away.
In the absence of the bipod, Callanan improvised, placing his .308 calibre sniper rifle on Greene’s right shoulder and lowered his eye on to its sight.
“Target,” shouted umpire Sgt Tom Weldon at the top of his voice, “lone bushy-top tree, top of the horizon. . .”
“Seen,” interrupted Greene, playing the role of sniper team spotter.
“...slightly to the left. . .” continued Weldon, pointing out the matchstick.
“Seen,” said Greene.
Weldon: “. . .any questions?”
“How many rounds?” asked Callanan.
Weldon: “Five rounds.”
Make the target
From the moment they heard the conclusion of Weldon’s instructions, Greene and Callanan had three minutes to choose where to sit in the river, settle themselves down, make the target and establish a firm platform from which to shoot.
In this instance, it would have to be Greene’s shoulder.
Sniper partners say the key to a successful spotter-shooter team is talking and breathing. As Callanan eyed the target, Greene watched the swaying of the bracken and told him as much as he could deduce about the strength and direction of the wind.
And when they got their breathing in harmony, inhaling and exhaling in sync and then holding still to take the shot, Callanan squeezed the trigger.
Five cracks rang out across the valley followed by four distinctly audible “pings” as the distant target was struck, just one bullet going astray.
“Four out of five, that’s a great shoot,” said Weldon as the pair disappeared to the next stand. “They’re the top snipers that we have. . . Everyone thinks sniping is all about lying on a nice piece of grass and shooting. That’s not the fact of it. We all shoot from crazy, awful positions like that.”
From Monday to Thursday, 36 competitors from defence forces in Ireland, the US, UK and Germany took part in the 2017 Defence Forces International Marksmanship Skills Competition run in the Glen of Imaal, Co Wicklow, by the Infantry Weapons Wing (IWW) of the Defence Forces.
Many of the international participants were from their respective countries’ special forces units, including US Navy Seals and the Deutsche Marine Sea Battalion reconnaissance company sniper platoon. From the UK, there were two infantry teams from the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) 1 Battalion sniper platoon.
Snipers and spotters
Ireland’s anti-terrorist special forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing, also took part, as did about a dozen pairs of snipers and spotters from ordinary infantry and cavalry units around the country.
The Army Rangers have earned considerable international standing in recent years, winning the 2015 US Sniper Competition run by the American military at Ford Benning in Georgia, the first foreign team to take both the international and overall categories.
Army Rangers snipers kept a low profile in the Glen of Imaal, letting their shooting do the talking.
Thursday was stress day – five shooting situations (they call them stands), each several hundred metres apart, to be completed within 30 minutes, testing accuracy and judgment under pressure. All under the gaze of the chief of staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, the British and US military attachés and some reporters.
“Nothing this week has been easy,” said Comdt Kenneth O’Rourke, chief umpire and chief instructor in the IWW. “They’re under pressure. Their heart rate’s up. We don’t see high scores at events like this.”
At Stand 2, the pressure was palpable as two RIR member tried close-range pistol shooting at a static and a moving target – 10 bullets each; time limit was two minutes.
The Texas Wheel (five metal spokes, each with a disc at the end) spun around when the first disc was shot off. . . and stayed spinning, allowing for just one more to be hit by the first soldier. The second soldier fared better with the Duelling Tree, shooting off all five metal discs sticking out of a metal upright at right angles.
“Okay guys, that’s it,” said the stand umpire, “Move on.”
At Stand 3, to which they ran fully kitted in body armour, the umpire explained the scenario hurriedly.
“You’ve escaped enemy captivity. You have captured an enemy weapon. OK? You have 10 rounds in the magazine. Each person will fire five rounds from a standing, supported position. OK? Your target is, see the dogleg outside the river. . .
“White target?” asked one soldier.
“White target, yeah. As soon as you pick the weapon up, you have 45 seconds each in which to engage the target five times, standing supported. Understood. Okay?”
On the ground is the enemy weapon, a sniper spotter rifle, unfamiliar to many and with the sighting systems removed, save for the pin hole for the shooter’s eye and tiny V at the end of the barrel removed, and the foregrip detached.
Close by is a wooden makeshift tripod which would aid accuracy considerably but such is the urgency with which each team want to get shooting at the target that none notice it.
Most teams rest the rifle on the shoulder or across the back of the spotter and try to hit the target. Anyone hit it, reporters ask the umpire. “Yep,” says, “and I think it was probably luck!”
At Stand 4, a long-range shot, the sniper and spotter have 60 seconds to get in position, establish the range of their target, 534m away, and engage it. They have just two bullets – one in their main sniper rifle, a second in the back up if the first misses.
Stand 5 is manned by two instructors from the Army Rangers who are out to test decision-making, judgment and marksmanship – under extreme time pressure.
Vice Admiral Mellett addresses the competitors at the end of the day. “It is great to see this level of professionalism,” he says. “This is the fundamental skill of being a warrior – a man and his weapon and his ability to be accurate and to be precise and to be able to deliver that lethal effect. That is the difference between you and the man in the street.”
The Army Ranger Wing was declared competition winner on Friday in both national and international categories. Sgt David Greene received the Sgt Steven McColgan Perpetual Trophy. McColgan, Greene’s former sniper team partner, died earlier this year after an illness.