MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- A quick flash catches the eye of the Marine as he gazes through the sights of his Winchester Model 70 .30-06 Sniper Rifle at a cluster of bushes on the opposite side of a hill. He zeroes in on the target, releases a breath and takes his shot. The round explodes from his rifle and penetrates the scope of the hidden sniper’s rifle, killing the enemy instantly.
This is not the plot of a high-action film. This is the true story of a legendary former Marine Corps scout sniper named Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock, who holds a service record of 93 confirmed kills and more than 300 probable kills during the Vietnam War.
Sgt. Jeremiah B. Johnson, chief scout sniper of Scout Sniper Platoon, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, said he believes legendary Marine Corps snipers like Hathcock blazed a path on which all Marine Corps snipers strive to tred on.
“When you look at Marine Corps snipers, you see they’re well known in history for their skills,” said Johnson, a Hemet, Calif., native. “We live off those legends and hope to become those ourselves. People come into scout sniper platoons for multiple reasons – they are one of the most elite services, are held at such an incredibly high standard and hold the utmost level of responsibility.”
The definition of a Marine Corps scout sniper outlines the most sacred role of a sniper: “A Marine highly skilled in field craft and marksmanship who delivers long-range, precision fire at selected targets from concealed positions in support of combat operations.”
What this definition does not reveal is the level of training Marines endure before they are even eligible to step foot on the ground of one of the four scout sniper schools in the Marine Corps.
In addition to being proficient in the swim qualification, physical fitness test and firing an expert score in the known-distance rifle range, Marines pulling for a position in a scout sniper platoon need to show mental fortitude, patience and a whole lot of heart, said Johnson.
Although many weapon and technology systems today use assistance elements like GPS, Marine snipers are given only what they need to survive when tasked with a mission, he added.
“We take our Marines back to the days of bows and arrows,” he said. “For instance, when they do their land nav [navigation], we give them a map, a compass and a mission. Then we start the time on our watches and say ‘go.’”
Sniper training can be summed up in five categories; stalking, or moving tactically toward a target, the shooting package, observation, range estimation, and academics, added Johnson.
Those Marines who attend a scout sniper school are dubbed Hunters of Gunmen, or HOGs, while Marines being trained in scout sniper platoons prior to receiving school instruction are called Professionally Instructed Gunmen, or PIGs, said Johnson.
1st Sgt. Roger F. Griffith, Company A first sergeant, 1/7, who served four years as a scout sniper with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, said being selected to train with a sniper platoon is in itself a tremendous accomplishment.
“The company submits a list of names of Marines who volunteer to be in a sniper platoon,” explained Griffith. “As the training carries out, Marines are weeded out and narrowed down to those who really want to be there. By the end of the training, you have the cream of the crop.”
From that small group, individual Marines are selected to attend a sniper school to enhancing the skills they have already learned, added Griffith.
Johnson agreed, saying basic skills are taken care of long before a Marine is hand-picked to attend a sniper school at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Marine Corps Base Hawaii; or Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Scout snipers are also trained in medical assistance, rules of low visibility, ballistic physics, weapon systems, security, gathering intelligence, target assessment, land navigation, communication and more, added Johnson.
Traditionally, Marine Corps snipers work in two-man teams consisting of a shooter and a spotter, said Johnson. The solitary nature of being a sniper or spotter demands tireless patience and focus.
“Snipers are used to being completely self-contained,” he explained. “They can carry as much as 20 quarts of water and an 80-pound full combat load of mission-essential gear on them for a three-day mission.”
Griffith also reiterated the importance of a sniper’s individual performance.
“Snipers have to be able to think, react and run quickly,” said Griffith. “They don’t have that backup an infantry battalion has. The easiest way for a sniper to survive is to not be compromised.”
Cpl. Ronald P. Lashley, 1/7 scout sniper, said he takes great pride in his title as a sniper.
“Scout sniper platoons are the only reconnaissance and surveillance asset organic to an infantry battalion,” said Lashley, a Great Falls, Mont., native. “I like the small team operations and knowing what we can do to the enemy psychologically. For them it’s like fighting an invisible foe. We don’t have to kill someone to take them out of the fight.”
Hathcock quoted a well-known passage written by President Theodore Roosevelt called “The Man in Arena” that expresses the challenge and valor that comes to those who are brave enough to fight. In these lines, those who have not sacrificed or bled for a cause may understand the motivation that drives courageous men like Hathcock and those who strive to become just as legendary.