|A Look at One of Four Extreme Long Range Military Sniper Engagements|
By Thomas B. Hunter
This article is the first in a series of four looking at some of the longest verified sniper kills in modern military history.
It is debatable, and certainly a matter of personal choice, as to whether the "records" involving extreme long range killings should be a matter of importance or even praise. To speak to a military sniper, many would say that these proven long range snipers are impressive in their skillful use of fieldcraft (earned over years of harsh and demanding training in often deplorable conditions) and should be viewed in that light, as the quiet professionals they are.
Moreover, given the clandestine or covert nature of some sniper missions, often conducted by highly classified units such as the U.S. Army's Delta Force, Britain's Special Air Service (SAS), or any one of a number of the paramilitary teams assigned to shadowy intelligence agencies, these "records" are themselves inherently called in question as to their true status as the longest kills on record.
Others praise the weapons systems themselves, which indeed have evolved significantly over the last 50-plus years. Small arms and ammunition manufacturers have created a virtual cottage industry in the pursuit of delivering a lethal round more accurately and at greater distances ...
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There is little doubt that this trend will continue into the near and mid-term, given the remarkable successes noted in the public domain. However one views the practice of extreme long-range target interdiction, there is no question that it has brought with it a new dimension to modern combat.
Also, the identification of the shooter should in no way be construed as diminishing the role of the highly trained spotter. Sniper teams are often designed so that any member can take advantage of the rifle in order to engage any necessary target. This, sadly, is often overlooked in modern press accounts - most of which do not understand or explain the myriad dynamics at play when a sniper team is operating in the field.
It is in this spirit that the following accounts in this series of articles, while focusing on the sniper who took the shot, are intended to include equally all team members
present during the engagements and to acknowledge their critical role in these actions. Any lack of acknowledgement on this aspect of these operations is solely the responsibility of the author.
Gunny Hathcock's Longest Kill: Duc Pho, Vietnam, February 1967
US Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock II is perhaps the best-known sniper in American military history. During his first tour in Vietnam he was credited with a remarkable 86 enemy kills, with another 200 assessed as probable. This track record made Hathcock one of the most experienced and successful snipers then operating in country for not only the Marine Corps, but also the entire US military.
Hathcock was born in 1942 in rural Geyer Springs, Arkansas. As a young boy, he would frequently hunt small game in order to help feed his family. It was here that he learned some of the basic skills involved in moving quietly and the necessity of exercising patience. To ignore these could lead to scaring off any alert animals, was well as leaving the family table bare at dinnertime.
Hathcock joined the United States Marine Corps in 1959 and was soon training at the new USMC Scout Sniper course in Hawaii. Following completion of this training, he deployed to Vietnam in 1966 and was assigned to the Military Police before being transferred to full time duties as a scout sniper.
During this first tour (1966-1967), Hathcock would go on to accumulate 86 confirmed kills, with many more probables. His preferred weapon during this time was the Winchester Model 70 chambered in .30-06 Springfield, with a Unertl eight-power scope. This match-grade weapon had been custom modified by Marine armorers such that it was accurate, in the hands of a well-trained shooter, out to distances as far as 1,000 yards.
By this time, Hathcock had established himself as an experienced and professional Marine sniper. For this reason, he was selected to travel to Duc Pho, Vietnam, to test a potentially new weapon system for the Marines in their long-range sniping actions: the Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun.
The Navy's Seabees had recently constructed a purpose-built mount to fit the same Unertl 8x scope. Upon his arrival, he removed the scope from his rifle and affixed it to the new mount. The combination, Hathcock estimated, would double the effective range of his own rifle, reaching out perhaps as far as 2,500 yards (2,286 meters) - an unheard-of distance in 1967. Only experience, however, would show if this was a realistic distance or something beyond the edge of effective sniping.
Over the next three days, Hathcock and his small team observed the movements of Viet Cong as they scurried about on the plains below. So heavily infested was the area, in fact, that the Marines did not even send out patrols over concerns that the enemy would overwhelm them.
On the third day, Hathcock zeroed his M2, first at 1,000 yards, then stretching out to a fixed distant position 2,500 yards downrange. Later that day, a lone VC came out from the treeline and walked to the edge of an adjacent rice paddy. There he kneeled down to wash his face in the water and rest for a moment.
A young Marine officer sitting next to Hathcock peered through his binoculars at the distant figure. Both observers could now easily see the Chinese K-44 rifle slung across his back, the officer through his field glasses, Hathcock through his Unertl scope. At that moment, the guerilla's fate was sealed.
At that distance, Hathcock had to consider not only the standard factors of target distance (range), bullet drop (gravity), wind strength and direction (windage), and target movement in play. At this extreme distance, less common variables also come into play, such as humidity, ambient temperature, and even barometric pressure.
Today, these myriad variables can be programmed into advanced ballistics computers fitted to standard scopes. However, these systems did not exist in 1967 and so snipers had to mentally calculate all these elements into making accurate long-range shots.
In this instance, however, Hathcock enjoyed a benefit not often realized in combat sniping. In the three days preceding this shot, he had chosen a distant point far below the hill on which he had positioned himself. He had fired three rounds from the M2 Browning in order to establish his weapon's "zero," a point at which the crosshairs of the weapon aligned perfectly with a known point of impact.
As fate would have it, the young VC guerrilla had parked himself directly in front of Hathcock's target, oblivious to the fact that the immediate area in which he was squatting had been used earlier for target practice by the deadly Marine sniper. As Hathcock would state in an interview some 20 years later, the VC stepped "right across the spot where we'd zeroed it."
Thus, with the many aforementioned variables already tested and accounted for, a kill that might otherwise have been virtually impossible began to look quite possible indeed.
Hathcock, not one to ignore good fortune, aligned his crosshairs on his target and slowly pressed the trigger. The huge weapon roared as it sent a single massive round down from the mountaintop and across the vast stretch of rice paddies. At that moment, the VC stood up. The huge .50-caliber round, traveling at 2,700 feet per second, stuck him just below the chin, killing him instantly.
A Marine patrol later verified this kill and the distance: 2,500 yards - a distance equivalent to 1.42 miles, or 25 football fields! This record would stand as the longest military sniper kill in combat until 2002, when Canadian Army sniper Cpl Robert Furlong engaged and killed an enemy combatant at more than 2,600 yards (see the next issue of this magazine for the full story).
Tragically, during his second tour in Vietnam, Hathcock was gravely injured when a amphibious amtrack in which he was riding struck an anti-tank mine, destroying the vehicle and killing or injuring all aboard. Hathcock himself was horrifically burned in the ensuing conflagration. Despite this, he managed to heroically rescue seven other injured Marines from the burning truck - an action for which he would later be awarded the Silver Star.
Hathcock would go on to become a legend not only in the Marine Corps, but also in military and civilian shooting circles worldwide. He passed away in February 1993 from complications after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. Nonetheless, GySgt Carlos Hathcock II remains one of the enigmatic standards by which many current and future snipers measure themselves.
About the Author:
Thomas B. Hunter is an analyst and frequent contributor to The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
Next issue: Canadian Army sniper Cpl. Furlong successfully engages a target in combat in Afghanistan at the longest verified distance in military history.
Chandler, Lt. Col. N.A., USMC (ret.), Carlos Hathcock: White Feather (USA: Iron Brigade Armory Publishing, 2007)
Henderson, Charles, Marine Sniper (New York: Berkeley Books, 1988)
Plaster, Maj. John, "Carlos Hathcock: His Own Words," (DVD) LOTI Group, January 2001.
Text box: USMC Shooting Range Named After Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock II
In March 2007, the rifle and pistol range at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (California) was renamed the Carlos Hathcock Range Complex, in honor of the Vietnam veteran sniper. The range is used to train Miramar-based Marines using a state-of-the-art computerized system that operates 200, 300 and 500-yard lines. The new system removed the need for Marines to pull targets, mark scores or move from range to range to engage targets at these various distances. In March 2009, the range complex was further improved with the installation of a new target storage shed, replacing the old, dilapidated 40-foot storage containers which were not protected against the elements (rain, salt air, etc.).
This lack of protection resulted in the rusting of many of the range targets, necessitating costly replacements. The new structure provides better protection and serves to better facilitate Marine training evolutions at the range. Today, this facility remains one of the most modern of all the many shooting ranges on USMC bases worldwide.