How hard is Navy Seal Sniper School? Hard. In this article former Navy SEAL sniper head instructor Brandon Webb explains that you get instant cred just by getting into the school. I first read Webb’s description of sniper school in his New York Times bestseller, The Red Circle. Here Brandon talks about having a mental edge:
Once we got camped out and settled in the instruction began, starting with classes on stealth and movement. We learned how to use natural vegetation to our advantage, especially in outfitting our ghillie suits.
The ghillie suit traces back to the Scottish Highlanders who served in the British Army in World War I as Lovat Scouts, forerunners of the modern sniper. Many of these men had been gamekeepers in civilian life, often called ghillies (from the Gaelic term for servant, as they served as hunt guides for the wealthy), where they had cultivated the art of weaving bits and pieces of local flora into their loose-fitting robes to help them blend into their surroundings. Their unique skills were later taught at the British Army sniper schools, which were attended by Americans once the United States entered the war.
For our ghillie suits we started out with a base outfit with a neutral desert pattern, then took scraps of vegetation growing in our immediate environment and clipped these onto our suits. We also used scraps of burlap in different shades, which we learned to vary depending on the specific environment in which we’d be stalking. This sounds simple, but it is amazing to see the degree to which this art can be perfected. When you look at a photo of a Navy SEAL sniper in a ghillie suit out in his environment, it’s almost like those “hidden pictures” you may have pored over as a child: you look and look, and all you can see are trees and bushes. The sniper completely disappears.
They taught us how to make a veg fan, clipping branches from Manzanita bushes or whatever happened to be around and zip tying them together. We learned to hide behind this ad hoc camouflage as we would slowly rise up in the middle of the bushes, eyes just peeking over the top of the fan, using either our binos or the naked eye to peer through the veg clippings and get an idea of where our target was, then slowly melting back down again.
They taught us how to use what they called dead space, which proved to be one of our most important lessons. Imagine standing on the street, next to a car at the curb. If someone is looking in your direction from the sidewalk and you crouch down below the back of the car, suddenly you disappear. You’re using the dead space of the car to cover your signature. You can do the same thing with bushes, boulders, even a few feet of rising or sinking elevation, like a dirt mound or shallow ditch—anything you can put between you and your target.
The terrain in Niland didn’t provide much in the way of natural cover. It’s pretty flat, desolate scenery. But even there in that cracked-earth desert, you can find dead space if you look for it. There are tumbleweeds and other desert bushes, slight dips and rises in elevation, rocks here and there, even an occasional scraggly tree. Find even a little gully, and if you can slip down in there, you’ve got dead space.
They also taught us how to camouflage our rifles when setting up in our final firing position (FFP), and how to make sure we had cleared the muzzle by tamping down the firing area or using veg clippers to clip away vegetation surrounding the muzzle, so that when we took that shot, the pressure wave wouldn’t cause any movement in nearby trees or grass. The last thing you want to do is take a shot and have it create a big signature. Even if you are completely hidden and unseen when you take the shot, if someone whips around and looks to see where that sound came from and they see some grasses swaying or branches moving, they might make your position and nail you.
We also practiced building hide sites. We would dig into the ground, sometimes using mesh or chicken wire we’d brought with us, but mostly using whatever natural terrain we might find on-site. It was almost like becoming a burrowing animal. In the desert, especially, it provides not only cover but also a bit of relief from the intense heat. If you build it right, someone can be standing right next to you and never even realize you’re there. And you might have four guys living in this thing for days on end, watching the target, radioing back to base until they give you authority to take the shot.
This skill would prove extremely useful in the mountains of Afghanistan, as I would discover before long.
Then we started practicing in stalking drills. To give you a sense of the experience, I’ll describe a stalking drill:
They take you out to some location out in the desert and say, “Okay, your target is roughly two to four kilometers in that direction. You’ve got two hours to get to within 180 to 220 yards of the target, set up, and take your shot.”
Off you go, crawling on your belly, you and your gun and your drag bag, which you’ve hooked to your belt at your crotch and now drag along behind you, inching along in the sweltering heat. A half hour goes by, then an hour. Some guys around you go to the bathroom in their ghillie suits. What else are they going to do? You can’t stand up, that’s for damn sure. You have to get within that range—and you aren’t allowed to use laser rangefinders, so you have to use your scope to measure your target and then figure out exactly what point you have to reach in order to be within about two hundred yards.
Two instructors are waiting for you in the command tower, scouring the area with their high-powered binos, looking for you and communicating by radio with three or four walkers on the ground. The walkers are instructors who walk the field; they are not there to hunt you but to act essentially like robots, carrying out commands from the tower. If an instructor detects movement, he’ll radio the walker who is nearest to that spot and say, “Hey Eric, I’ve got movement, I need you to run twenty meters to the right … okay, stop, left face, now take three steps forward, stop. Stalker at your feet.” If that walker is standing right next to you, he says, “Roger that,” and you’re busted. You’ve failed the stalk.
The whole idea is to make this as difficult as possible. By the time you are in firing position, you’re only about 200 yards from the tower. You’re up against two trained sniper instructors who know exactly what direction you’re coming from, know exactly what area you have to set up in, and have not only high-powered binos but also a laser rangefinder. They know you’re coming and would love nothing more than to bust you.
If you’ve made it this far, now comes the moment of painstaking patience, as you slowly pull out your gun, then pull out your scope, and get everything into place. You can’t let your scope give off any kind of reflection or glint of sunlight, so you might cover it with fine mesh, then slowly move into position, get your sight positioned on the target, and squeeze off your shot.
For that first shot, you shoot a blank, which essentially announces that you have made it to your FFP. The walker approaches to within three feet of you, then signals the two instructors in the tower that he is in your vicinity. The instructors take a look, peering in your direction with their high-powered binos. If they see you, you fail. If they aren’t able to see you, then they get on the radio to the walker and say, “Okay, give him his bullet.”
Now they turn away for a moment, so they can’t see the walker come up and hand you your live cartridge. They set up a target right where they had been sitting moments earlier, and clear out. Now you take your shot and hit the target … you hope.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. If your bullet path isn’t completely clear and your bullet even lightly grazes a small twig or branch as it hurtles through the air, that can easily be enough to throw its trajectory off and result in a complete miss. And you’re lying down, remember: there might be a small mound of dirt in the way that you hadn’t noticed.
If you do everything right and hit that target on the chest or the head, you score a ten. Hit just anywhere else inside the silhouette, and you score a nine; just hitting the target scores you an eight. Miss, and you’ve earned a zero.
Then you get up, walk back to the truck, and wait for everyone else. And by the way, after you take that shot you better not leave a trace. We had guys who stalked all the way into position and got off a very decent shot, but then left behind a piece of brass, a zip tie, or a veg clipper—and failed the stalk. You can’t get cocky.
We started doing several stalks a day, a long one (two to four kilometers, which might take four hours or more) in the morning, and then a shorter one-kilometer stalk (about two hours) in the evening. The heat of the day, thank God, was set aside for classes. As with our shooting work up in Coalinga, we would practice for a few days and then be tested.
My first stalk, I ran out of time before I even got to my FFP. It was humiliating. Missing the shot would have been bad enough. I didn’t even get to take the shot. I made up my mind right then and there, that was not going to happen again.
I quickly learned that the first priority was to get eyes on the target. Once you have eyes on the target, then you own it: you know exactly where the enemy is, but he doesn’t know where you are. From that vantage point, you can set about planning your exact route to your FFP.
Jack Niklaus, the legendary championship golfer, used to say that when you’re making a difficult shot, 50 percent of it is the mental picture you create, 40 percent is how you set it up, and 10 percent is the swing itself. In that respect, sniping is a lot like golf: 90 percent of it is how you see the picture and get your shot lined up.
I realized that a lot of the other guys were getting down on the ground and just taking off, crawling in the general direction of the tower without first having gotten eyes on the target. As a consequence, they wouldn’t really know exactly where it was they were going, and they would run out of time … just like I did.
For my second stalk I figured, “Hey, this is practice—let’s push the limits and see what happens.”
Instead of getting down on the ground, I set off in a bold stride in the direction the instructors had told us the target was located. I passed guys who were crawling on their bellies on the hot Niland ground, slowly and painfully, and they looked up at me bug-eyed, with expressions that said, My God, what the hell are you doing?! I figured there was no way the instructors would see me; I was still almost half a mile away, and besides, they wouldn’t be really looking yet, because they wouldn’t be expecting any of us to start getting close nearly that soon.
I kept going until I had eyes on the target—and then immediately got down into a low crouch and started checking out every detail about the terrain between me and the target. Once I had my route planned, I got down on my belly and started crawling the 300 yards or so I still needed to cover in order to get to my FFP. Moving as quickly and as stealthily as I could, it took me maybe thirty minutes to low-crawl into position, set up my firing point, get everything dialed in, and go.
From that point on, it started to click for me. I would find a little high ground, make sure I had eyes on the target, and as soon as I knew exactly where it was, I would map out my approach, put a big terrain feature between me and them, and then I’d just walk right up on them. I started taking down tens, perfect stalks every time.
It drove some of the guys nuts that I caught on so fast, especially those who had come from the country and grown up hunting. There was one guy from Alabama who had spent his whole life hunting in the woods and who was beside himself that I was cleaning his clock. How the hell was this California surfer kid who’d never hunted a day in his life out-stalking them?!
Again, I think it was all the time I spent spear-fishing. The thing that clicked for me was the concept of dead space. That was the key to these stalking exercises. Put that dead space between you and your target, and you can literally run up to them without them ever knowing you’re there. Although you could hardly come up with a greater contrast in environments than underwater versus the Niland desert, that didn’t matter. The concept was exactly the same: find the dead space and use it.
People often assume that sniper stalking is all about getting down on your belly and crawling along incredibly slowly. Yes, that’s part of it—but the greater part of it is strategic. It’s a very mental process.