The longest sniper shots on record are amazing feats of marksmanship. The men who made the shots got about as much performance out of their weapons systems as possible. But not everyone’s convinced those shots happened. So we ran the ballistics, talked to a few experts, and had look for ourselves.
By Will Grant
A British sniper currently holds the publicly known record for a confirmed kill shot. As a Corporal of Horse in the British Army, Craig Harrison used a .338 caliber L115A3 Long Range Rifle to shoot a man from 2,707 yards (1.54 miles) in Afghanistan in 2009. Prior to that, the longest shot was by Canadian Rob Furlong from 2,657 yards (1.51 miles) in Afghanistan in 2002 using a .50-caliber McMillan TAC-50. Apparently, just days before Furlong’s shot, Canadian Arron Perry, of the same unit as Furlong, made a shot at 2,526 yards. Perry’s shot is unconfirmed.
For the record, these are the world’s longest shots.
Long shots, let alone the “Longest Shot,” are the stuff of Hollywood legend. In the movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Clint Eastwood, as “Blondie,” uses three shots to split a lynch rope that his partner is about to hang from. A few more well-placed shots remove the hats of onlookers for good effect. Entire movies have been made about “the kill shot.” But in the real world, long, clean shots are few and far between.
Tom Lindberg’s job is take humans, tools and the pressure of combat and turn Navy SEAL snipers into cool-headed killing machines. He’s an instructor at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, and a former SEAL team sniper. He now makes snipers for the SEAL teams. As well as nearly anyone, he understands what goes into shots like those made by Harrison, Furlong, and Perry. And like any professional operating at a high level and in the real world of combat, he is skeptical of extraordinary achievements.
Until he has reason to believe otherwise. And when he hears about two Canadians in the same unit making two of the most remarkable shots in history within days of each other, he just shakes his head.
“The odds are extremely narrow,” he says. “But I guess anything is possible.”
Prior to these long shots on Afghan soil, US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock held the record for the longest confirmed kill shot. He shot a man at 2,500 yards with a scoped .50-caliber Browning M2 machine gun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Everyone agrees that Hathcock is the father of long-range sniping, that he was using rudimentary tools to achieve extraordinary results. He became a legend in the industry and was instrumental in developing the Marine Corps sniper training program. For 34 years, no one killed someone at a farther distance. Then in 2002, two Canadians of the same unit put shots on their targets within days of each other and broke Hathcock’s record.
For Lindberg , that’s a lot to accept at face value. He considers the SEAL program to be among the best in the world. He’s not sure how the Canadian or British militaries train their snipers, but he knows how the US Navy does it.
To make a SEAL sniper, the Navy goes to exhaustive lengths to establish a high degree of predictability with each weapon system. They shoot frozen ammunition, they shoot heated ammunition, they shoot every weapon through a chronograph (a device that measures the muzzle velocity of a bullet), and, in an ideal world, confine each sniper to his own rifle so that he gets a feel for its individual performance.
The snipers establish data on as many mechanical, controlled aspects of the weapon system as possible. And then they record data on as many different environmental factors as possible – everything that affects the bullet after it leaves the barrel. Piling all that together gives them data on previous engagements, or DOPE. And whereas in the past snipers relied on laminated cards for their DOPE, those cards have largely been replaced with electronic devices that are more accurate and effective, and can handle a wider range of input.
That’s all part of how the SEAL program produces sub-minute-of-angle marksmen. But fieldwork seldom allows for the preferred prone position and a low heart rate. So Lindberg takes his snipers-in-training hunting. Wild boar hunting at night in Texas. The snipers work in teams to engage the feral pigs: There are multiple targets, they’re on the move, and there’s adrenaline involved. It’s not combat, but it gets the heart rate up. And it gives the instructors a better idea of how the shooters will work when the heat’s turned up a little.
Lindberg runs his finger across one of the ballistic charts that snipers carried before they went to PDAs. The chart gives adjustments for air density, temperature, distance, drag coefficient, and more. Where the chart stops is information only the snipers need, but there’s no data for targets at 2,700 yards. That’s an extraordinary distance. Snipers, men who make life and death decisions in the field, are trained to work within accountable, predictable, and legal limits.
Bob Palmer, a technician for Hornady Manufacturing uses Sporting Arms and Ammunition’s External Ballistics Calculator Version 4.01 (Beta Version) to crunch the numbers for a 2,700-yard shot. Palemr’s, and Hornady’s, job is to work within the laws of physics to make clean, predictable ammunition that delivers consistent results.
For the sake of argument, we’ll consider engaging a target at 2,700 yards, at an elevation of 9,000 feet above sea level. For a .50-caliber rifle that has a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second using match-grade Hornady 50 BMG A-MAX ammunition with a 750-grain bullet, the round will reach the target in 4.5 seconds and will have dropped 3,073.9 inches (256.2 feet) from the highest point in its trajectory. This is assuming the crosshairs of the sight are 2.5 inches over the center of the bore, and that the rifle was sighted-in, or zeroed, at 300 yards.
To lob a shot at a target a mile and a half distant, the rifle has to be tipped at such an angle to allow for the bullet, in the case of a .50-calber A-MAX round, to drop 256 feet. The scope has to be mounted high enough off the bore to permit the tipping-up of the rifle, and the scope has to have enough adjustment clicks to compensate for the distance. Reportedly, British sniper Craig Harrison didn’t have the adjustment in his scope for 2,700 yards, and therefore had to put the crosshairs above his target, only the vertical reticle where he wanted to place the shot. That doesn’t serve well to convince SEAL instructor Lindberg.
When you’re talking about targets at extreme distances, there’s no room for wag. The due diligence for long-range shooting is nearly 100 percent science.
The bullet spins clockwise. The spin affects the trajectory, called spin drift. Just as a tennis ball hit with top spin arcs downward, a clockwise-spinning bullet drifts to the right. When wind interacts with the spinning bullet, it further influences the trajectory. There’s a vertical component to crosswind, and it’s called crosswind jump. A right-to-left wind will decrease the bullet’s downward trajectory. A left-to-right wind will drive the bullet down. A sniper team’s PDA accounts for this.
But over a mile and a half across a mountain valley, there comes a point where the different environmental factors become too numerous to consider, and where even recognizing the factors at work is tremendously difficult.
“Science will show that we’re not that accurate when dealing with all these different factors,” Lindberg says.
Canadian Rob Furlong made a confirmed mile-and-a-half kill in Afghanistan in 2002. Furlong grew up hunting moose, caribou, and whatever else he found in the rugged Canadian province of Newfoundland. Hunting wasn’t so much of an outdoor interest as it was a way to put food on the table. He hunted for meat. Though never a competitive shooter, he sure enough knew his way around a rifle. And earning a spot on a sniper team was a mountain of an achievement.
“Just to get on a sniper course, gets you held in a very high regard,” he says. “On my course there were 15 guys only five passed. And if you pass, nobody ever questions you. You’ve mastered the craft.”
In March 2002, Furlong was a sniper with the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. His team was in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot Valley as part of Operation Anaconda. The valley sits at a lofty altitude of 9,000 feet. The day he made his famous shot, the conditions were close to ideal; slight wind, clear day, just a bit of a mirage, and armed hostiles in his spotter’s glass. And Furlong was feeling at the top of his game.
Furlong and his spotter saw three al-Qaeda fighters moving along a mountainside. His first shot missed, but the spotter saw the shot and gave Furlong a correction. His second shot hit the target’s backpack, which means the DOPE was right. His third shot hit the man and killed him. With a drop of more than 256 feet, the bullet is coming down at a sharp angle, which makes the target smaller, decreases the vertical dimension of where the round can meet the target.
“There was a bit of luck in there,” Furlong says. “But I think luck is always a factor in extraordinary feats.”
There’s a point, however, where the difference in making a shot like that involves a little luck or a lot of luck. And that point is when the velocity of the bullet becomes less than the speed of sound. Going from hypersonic to subsonic—the transonic phase—greatly compromises the stability of the bullet. After a bullet is subsonic, where it ends up is anyone’s guess.
“When I hear these claims about people making these shots at 2,700 yards,” SEAL instructor Lindberg says, “the real question is, is the bullet still in a stable state of flight. Because you can’t tell where it’s going to go once it goes subsonic.”
David Tubb is one of the world’s leading experts on long-range shooting. He’s won an unprecedented 11 NRA National High Power Rifle Championships, among a long list of other competition wins and awards. He works with military snipers and trains the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), or SEAL Team Six to most civilians, how to engage targets at long distances. He regularly shoots at a range of 2,300 yards.
“The key here is the atmospherics,” Tubb says. “And with a .50-caliber bullet, the center of pressure and the center of gravity are a little farther apart, which can make for more turbulence through the transonic range.”
In the transonic phase, or transonic range, the spatial relationship of the bullet’s center of pressure and its center of gravity affects the stability of the bullet. For longer, low-drag bullets, there’s a greater distance between the centers of pressure and gravity, which contributes to greater instability and can make the bullet yaw.
“There are no straight lines in a rifle shot,” Tubb says. And the tradeoff between a long, low-drag bullet that sings out of a barrel at nearly 3,000 feet per second, and a short, round-nosed bullet that’s subsonic, is something that the military and rifle and ammunition companies constantly juggle. “You can’t really have your cake and eat it, too,” he says.
According to Hornady technician Bob Palmer’s ballistics calculator, Furlong’s shot is still hypersonic at 2,657 yards. At an altitude of 9,000 feet, the speed of sound is about 1080 feet per second. Palmer’s data puts a Hornady A-MAX 750-grain, .50-caliber bullet at 1,225 feet per second at 2700 yards. So the answer to the question is: yes, the bullet is still stable. But at sea level, the shot doesn’t happen. With slight crosswinds, the odds narrow further. With a little mirage, the spotter may not be able to see the shots. In some ways, the shot is like Blondie’s in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Possible? Of course. Repeatable? If you got the time and the ammo. Likely to happen again? Not very—or so we might think.
For snipers, change is on the horizon. Furlong, Harrison, and especially Hathcock, pushed their weapons to the limits. Forget the effective range that rifle companies publish in press releases, these guys run up against a wall of physics trying to shoot farther. The optics, the ammunition, the weapons systems can only go so far, only handle so much information.
Precision shooting is a dynamic field, undergoing perhaps more change today than ever before. The Defense Department’s far-flung research arm, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for both the Internet and GPS technology, has a few irons in the fire of long-range shooting. The agency’s One Shot program is developing optics that fully calculate environmental conditions in order to get a higher percentage of shots on target, specifically the first shot.
According to DARPA: “The One Shot system provides a measured profile of downrange crosswind and range to target. This information is then used to compensate the bullet trajectory to offset crosswind effects and range-related bullet deviations, substantially increasing the probability of a first-shot hit.”
The One Shot program is scheduled for field testing sometime this year. Sandia Labs in New Mexico announced earlier this year that researchers there have developed a “fire-and-forget” bullet that can home in on its target. The bullet has fins and doesn’t travel down a rifled barrel. It has an optic sensor in its nose that guides it to the target. Sandia Labs published a video of a projectile in flight that it’s claiming is a test fire of the technology. It could be a while before the bullet makes it to the field, though.
What we’re more likely to see in the near future is another of DARPA’s creations: the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) system. And for this, the pocket protectors at DARPA have teamed up with former US Marine Corps sniper Steve Reichert.
Reichert is no stranger to long shots, having killed a man from more than a mile away in Iraq. For that shot, he used a Barrett M82A3 .50-caliber special application scoped rifle. From atop an oil tank, Reichert and his spotter saw three insurgents enter a stairwell behind a concrete wall. He aimed where he thought the front man was, and the Barrett .50-caliber rifle, which has a wide range and history of anti-materiel uses, sent the round through the wall, presumably killing the man.
“The wall on the opposite side of that stairwell just turned red,” he said in an interview for the History Channel. “We didn’t see the three of them get up.”
Reichert has been working with DARPA for three years on the EXACTO system. Not surprisingly, many of the system’s details are classified, and there’s not much he can say about it. But he did divulge that the bullet is “not fin-stabilized…Bullet looks just like a monolithic bullet but with some unique, classified properties.”
Reichert suggests that the EXCATO system will allow for much farther shots than what we’re seeing today and what traditional weapon systems allow for. Again, the question becomes, if we’re talking about extreme long-range shooting, will the bullet become unstable when it goes subsonic?
According to Reichert, “Going transonic will still create Mach wake issues. However, they have solved the problem, and it works after going transonic.”
So maybe someone in the not-too-distant future will be able to recreate the movie accuracy of Eastwood’s staged shots in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the real world and on the battlefield, such feats of accuracy may not be all that far away.
“This spring, you’re probably going to see the record shot broken by a Marine unit,” he says. “I’m getting them set up with a rig that will break the record with ease. Once the EXACTO program gets fielded, the record will be broken again and again.”
For more about Steve Reichert, go to SteveReichert.com.
To connect with Rob Furlong, check out his Facebook page.
To see the ballistics table provided by Hornady, go HERE.