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Messengers of Death
JANUARY 9, 1815
THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
The Shooter stood tall on the earthen rampart, his rifle at his side. His right hand held its barrel while his right foot backstopped the weapon's hand-carved stock. He wore buckskin leggings, a shirt and pants of woven linsey-woolsey, which gave him a tramplike appearance. A broad-brimmed felt hat shadowed his predator's eyes.
He stood alone, immune to the battle raging around him. The din had no parallel in his life—the crash of gunfire, the roar of cannon juxtaposed against distant bagpipes, and a New Orleans band belting out "Yankee Doodle." Around him, men died by the hundreds.
Across the battlefield, a group of British officers rode together. One, Lieutenant L. Walcott, sighted the Shooter and marveled at his poise. Suddenly, the Shooter moved. He shouldered his rifle and its barrel swung toward Walcott's party. The officers began to laugh. The American was over three hundred yards away, no way he could hit any of them. The gesture seemed ridiculous.
The Shooter pulled the trigger and shot one of the British officers right out of his saddle. His lifeless body flopped to the ground. The others in Walcott's group gaped at their dead comrade, shocked that one of their own could be killed so effortlessly at a distance that rendered their own weapons ineffective. Several long seconds later, they wrenched their attention back to the rampart. The Shooter had returned to his statuesque stance, rifle in hand, stock at his toes again. Beneath the brim of his hat, he tracked them and selected another target. The rifle came up and belched black smoke. The officer next to Lieutenant Walcott jerked back and fell off his horse.
Two shots, two kills. Walcott later recalled, "The cannon and the thousands of musket balls playing upon our ranks we cared not for; for there was a chance of escaping them … but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us … one must surely fall … that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this and still march on was awful."
The Shooter reloaded and resighted his weapon. Walcott and his surviving comrades exchanged terror-filled glances and wondered who would be the next of them to die.
Death on the battlefield is a random act. In the middle of a fight, a man can endure flying bullets and falling artillery because of their indiscriminate nature. The soldier in the heat of combat has built in psychological defenses to such incoming. It can't hit me. The odds are with me. They aren't aiming at me.
The Shooter stripped away those defenses, leaving Walcott naked to the primal fear aimed fire instills. For Walcott's group, there was no escape, and they realized it after the Shooter's second kill. Such a realization causes entire units to seize up in the midst of battle. Men who moments before were filled with courage or resolve will forget everything as their self-preservation instincts kick in. They will go to ground. They will cease advancing. They will lose control and run. Such elemental fear breeds panic, and in a test of arms, the ability to create panic wins battles. We call this the Shock Factor. It is a sniper's greatest weapon.
The Shooter's finger curled around the trigger, his rifle's front sight pinned on the officer riding beside Lieutenant Walcott. The Shooter had no scope, just his remarkable eyesight and a knack for gauging the wind and his bullet's drop. He took a breath, released half of it, and gently squeezed the trigger. Another of Walcott's friends was shot out of the saddle, probably dead before he even hit the ground.
Unlike his targets, the Shooter was not a professional officer. He was a frontiersman, born and raised in Tennessee or Kentucky, where a man's marksmanship determined the margin between life and death. His rifle was his most valued possession, precision-made by hand with loving care, its stock inlaid with ornate silver designs. It had probably been a family heirloom, handed down from one male member of the family to the next as part of his culture's rite of passage. Like his fellow "Dirty Shirt" frontiersmen, he joined this battle carrying his personal weapon. There were no government-issued guns waiting for him at the end of his passage south to face the British.
That was fine with him. His rifle was an extension of himself. In all likelihood, he'd been shooting it since he was a boy as he learned to hunt with his father or uncles. Bullets and powder did not come easily, so every shot counted in his world. In time, he developed such precision with his weapon that he could kill a squirrel by shooting the branch it was sitting on and sending wood shrapnel into the creature. That left the animal intact and edible. On the battlefield, such skill translated into deadly precision—and lots of headshots. He was an American rifleman; marksmanship was coded into his DNA. At New Orleans, future president Andrew Jackson had assembled the only sharpshooting army in United States history—and being on the receiving end of it must have been horrific.
Lieutenant Walcott was one of the lucky few British officers to survive the Battle of New Orleans. American rifleman killed or wounded virtually the entire British chain of command in less than twenty-five minutes of battle. The 93rd Highlanders, who marched toward our Shooter on the rampart with bagpipes blasting, went into the fight a thousand strong. Just short of the American lines, their regimental commander ordered his men to halt. Seconds later, an American rifleman killed him with a headshot. The rest of the regimental leadership went down before anyone could give an order. The 93rd stood there, shoulder to shoulder, its veteran soldiers completely at a loss for what to do next. They had never faced this sort of accurate fire before, and it paralyzed them. Not a man even returned fire.
The American dirty shirts poured it on. Six hundred Highlanders went down before the unit finally broke and ran. All across the battlefield, other British units did the same thing. Men who had never taken cover during a fight now sought any fold in the landscape that might offer respite from the deadly American bullets.
General Adair, commander of the Kentucky Riflemen, walked his line, pointing out targets to his men. He tapped one dirty shirt from behind and said, "See that officer on the gray horse?" The marksman nodded at the distant, moving target. Adair ordered, "Snuff his candle." The Kentuckian took aim and shot him right off his horse.
On the opposite side of the battle, a British colonel named Rennie led an assault on an isolated American redoubt emplaced ahead of the main rampart. He struck an impressive figure at the head of his men, coaxing them forward. The Americans in the redoubt abandoned their posts and scampered back to the main line. Rennie pressed forward and scaled the rear wall of the redoubt with two of his officers by his side. As he turned to urge his troops onward, several shooters from the New Orleans Rifles, a militia unit from the Big Easy, opened fire. All three officers went down. The leaderless British soldiers froze, then fell back pell-mell, their ranks savaged by the American fire.
Afterward an argument broke out among the New Orleans sharpshooters over who killed the British colonel. The best marksman in town, a merchant named Mr. Withers, flatly said, "If he isn't hit above the eyebrows, it wasn't my shot." After the battle, the New Orleans Rifles retrieved the colonel's body from a ditch—and found he'd been struck in the forehead. That settled the debate.
A half hour into the Battle of New Orleans and the British army had been reduced to panicked survivors cowering amongst heaps of their dead and dying comrades. Some sought to escape from the American shooters by low crawling. It didn't work. The Shooter on the rampart was joined by hundreds more who waited patiently until their quarries exposed legs, arms, or parts of their heads. The dirty shirts were used to bagging quail, squirrels, and hares on the run at seemingly impossible ranges; the British soldier who gave up even the tiniest part of his body paid the price. A flash, a report, and the target went down.
Others tried to flee the kill zone in quick rushes. The shooters were too adept for this to work. Those British soldiers died almost as soon as they stood up, except for one who proved particularly fleet-footed. He rose several hundred yards from the American ramparts and dashed like a rabbit toward the rear. Several shooters fired and missed him, which emboldened the Brit. He flopped to the ground, waited a few seconds, then stood up and mooned the Americans. Shouting obscenities, he sprinted rearward and took cover before anyone could kill him. Finally, the Americans brought forth one of their best sharpshooters. He eased into his stance, sighted his rifle, and waited. After a long pause, the Brit stood up, mooned the Americans again, and started to run. The American pulled the trigger and killed him with a shot to the spine, right between his shoulder blades. Mercy was absent that day.
For most of those soldiers trapped in the American kill zone, there would be no escape. One by one, the frontiersmen picked them off. Terror-filled cries rang out. Calls for help went unheeded. When the last shot had been fired, over fifteen hundred corpses littered the battlefield. Sixty Americans had died, almost all to artillery fire at the start of the fighting.
New Orleans is a case study in how precision marksmanship can destroy a numerically superior foe's will to fight. Despite having better weapons, better supplies, veteran troops and leaders, the British stood no chance in the face of the dirty shirts and their stunning accuracy. In minutes, that accuracy shredded their officer corps and left the foot soldiers leaderless and panicked in the kill zone. When they started to break and run, they received no respite. The British army came apart in a welter of blood and terror, victim of the Shock Factor applied on a macro scale.
I witnessed the Shock Factor firsthand many times during my career. During one fight in Iraq in the 2003 invasion, I spotted a two-man Iraqi machine-gun team in a window of a building while I was scanning for targets from the hatch of one of our Amtracs—an amphibious armored personnel carrier. The two men were so close together, I couldn't tell who was the loader and who was the gunner. I drew a bead on them just as they swung their weapon toward another Amtrac not fifty yards from their building.
I pulled the trigger once. My M40 barked, and the loader vanished from the window. The gunner was so stunned by his comrade's death that he couldn't move. This surprise and fear-borne paralysis is a significant way we snipers psychologically dominate our battlefields. I racked my M40 rifle's bolt and killed the frozen gunner with my second shot.
When an enemy force advances into a sniper's zone of control, one well-placed bullet can stop the assault in its tracks. As soon as the enemy troops realize they are under precision sniper fire, they will often seek cover and stay there until the sniper either leaves or is taken out—no easy task. Often, the Shock Factor causes strange reactions. The death of one of their own, combined with the sound of only a single shot, acts like a reset button on the neural circuitry of the men nearby. They'll dive for cover, only to pick totally exposed places. They'll freeze up, as the Iraqi gunner did; they'll run in odd directions or return fire randomly. Some will flee. Some will cower. Some will babble nonsensical orders. A very few will actually continue to function and search for the sniper's position. They are the ones we usually make priority targets.
In Somalia, I learned that a sniper doesn't even need to kill an enemy to create the Shock Factor and psychologically dominate him. My spotter and I had just climbed atop the Spaghetti Factory, a tall building in the heart of Mogadishu that provided a good vantage point of the city. While a platoon of our men conducted a patrol a few hundred yards to our left, we started to scan the area. The first thing we saw was a group of teenaged boys huddled together. On previous missions into the city, we'd seen these sorts of human clusters and learned to recognize that they usually meant the kids involved were up to no good. They were usually smuggling something the huddle was designed to conceal, like drugs or ammunition or weapons. We call behavior like this a tell, or a target indicator.
This time, they were circled around a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy who held an American-made M1 Garand rifle that dated back to the Second World War. I centered my scope on the kid and saw he wore cut-off jeans and flip-flops. Like the other kids, he was shirtless and super-model skinny. We checked the wind. Three to five miles an hour—not a factor at the distance between my rifle's barrel and the kid, who was one hundred sixty-eight yards away.
The gaggle of kids began to move toward our patrolling Marines. The boy with the rifle looked like he was psyching himself up to take a shot. I watched through my scope, reporting everything I saw while praying that he'd lose heart. I could not let him shoot a Marine and tear worlds apart back home, but I could not stand the thought of killing a child.
He and his pals kept moving toward the platoon. Soon, they'd be in a position to open fire. My mind raced, searching for options.
Inspiration struck. I adjusted the crosshairs and pinned them on the M1 Garand's stock. The boy was carrying it low with one hand wrapped around its receiver. The stock jutted out behind him as he walked.
I pulled the trigger. The stock splintered. The stunned children scattered as the boy dropped the Garand. I scanned their faces and saw shock on all of them. They stopped running a few seconds later, then looked around as if they'd been witness to some sort of supernatural event. I hoped this would convince them to go on home, but teenage bravado prevailed. The boy in the cut-offs and flip-flops steeled himself and returned to his weapon. As he bent down, I put a round right into the dirt next to the Garand. It kicked up a cloud of dust and the rifle jerked. The boy leapt backwards, as if the gun were possessed. The other boys scattered again.
Long seconds passed. The boys approached the Garand one more time like kids goading themselves through a cemetery at midnight. When they tried one more time to retrieve the weapon, I put another bullet beside it. That did it. The boys scampered off and left the weapon in the dirt. I later retrieved it and took it home as a souvenir.
Without taking a killing shot, my accuracy destroyed the boy's will to fight. That is significant power, and no other element on the battlefield has it.
In the years since the Shooter killed Lieutenant Walcott's brother officers at New Orleans, the technology and science of long-range precision marksmanship has undergone multiple revolutions. They have served to widen the kill zone for us, which in turn has magnified our psychological power. Today, we snipers are more flexible. Night is no longer an obstacle. Neither is weather. But even as we adapted the latest hi-tech gadgets, the basic skill sets the Shooter used in 1815 have remained the same. They are the same principles I learned when I became a sniper some one hundred seventy years after the Battle of New Orleans.
More than once our community has been disbanded. Wars end and snipers are the first to be trimmed from peacetime military budgets. We've paid the price for those mistakes when we've found ourselves in another conflict and had to build a sniper program on the fly. In World War I, our shooters were given less than two weeks extra training before being sent into the trenches to fight Germans with years of sniping experience. The same thing happened in World War II. The Army's snipers received a nine-day course in theater before entering combat. They suffered an eighty-five percent casualty rate as a result.
Marine snipers had better equipment and better training, but even after they more than proved their worth on the island battlefields of the Pacific, the entire program was dismantled after Japan's surrender. When Korea kicked off five years later, the cycle repeated itself, and both services had to scramble to rebuild sniper programs from scratch.
When Korea ended in 1953, it happened again. The courses were abandoned and the snipers sent to other duties. It took Vietnam to break this pattern at last. Both the Army and the Corps established schools in country. The 2nd Marine Division kick-started the effort, closely followed by the 3rd. Both units built ranges around Da Nang and culled through the records to find expert marksmen or aging competitive shooters who had once been part of sniper units. They found shooters in unlikely places, like supply offices and desk jobs. Carlos Hathcock, one of our most successful snipers, had been an MP before he was pulled into the new program. It took time to rebuild and relearn the field craft and skills the Shooter of New Orleans possessed a century before. But when it all came together, our snipers set a fresh standard for effectiveness. Men like Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney established the new legacy and became our role models in the years ahead.
Vietnam ended in 1975, and fortunately this time the community was not disbanded. Since Grenada, we have rolled into every battle with an increasing level of professional acumen and expertise. Gone are the days where our raw recruits were born on the frontier and raised with a rifle in hand. While more snipers hail from urban backgrounds, our classes and schools have expanded in scope and depth to hone their skills to a razor's edge. Today's American sniper has no peer in training, skill, and support. Despite this, we still face friction within our own chain of command over how we should be used on the battlefield.
This is an old problem that dates back to the Revolution. The best officers grasp the Shock Factor and find ways to apply it, but most have no understanding of the psychological power we possess. Those men historically have reverted to their default knowledge base. We've ended up being used like regular line infantry too many times to count, and it only serves to increase friendly casualties.
Part of the problem we face is that the Shock Factor cannot be replicated in a clean, analytical training environment. It is a phenomenon reserved only for combat, and the reaction to it cannot be quantified. Nor can it be fully understood unless experienced or witnessed. As a result, our capacity to influence a battle has almost always been underestimated. Until the War on Terror, New Orleans was the exception, not the rule.
During my career, I only glimpsed the Shock Factor once in training during a 2000 multinational field exercise. One phase of the training included an assault in urban terrain. As we planned how this would look, I suggested we deploy a few of my sniper teams to hold the objective town against a battalion-level infantry assault. I had no doubt we could keep the enemy at bay for as long as necessary, provided we were allowed to use all our skills in stealth and concealment. The leaders running the exercise refused to believe this, and my commander did not want to put two of his men out on an island without support. Even in training, our officers are often casualty-averse. Of course, this is usually a good thing, but when it comes to snipers, this level of caution stems from a failure to understand our capabilities.
After an intense discussion, I finally convinced them to let us give it a try. We were using simunitions—short-ranged projectiles that sting like paintballs when they hit a man—so I knew we would have to rely on stealth and concealment instead of stand-off distance. The result? Our two-man sniper team held up seven hundred Marines for an entire morning. We used surprise and precision to stop every assault, and our red force never even located us.
To our delight, the surprise and mild pain the simunitions inflicted actually created a mild form of the Shock Factor. It was the closest we ever came to replicating it in a peacetime setting. Unfortunately, our leadership did not appreciate our success. They pulled us out of the action so the assault battalion could finish its mission and complete its training objectives. We were seen as hindering the training process, not enhancing it. For the rest of the exercise, we sat on the sidelines feeling like the Corps' bastard redheaded stepchildren. The psychological power we had demonstrated was all but ignored.
Fortunately, since 9/11 this attitude has started to change. Our officers now undergo sniper employment courses, taught by snipers, before they take over battalion-level commands. Since most of the Corps has seen extensive combat over the past decade, our officers are more familiar with the Shock Factor than ever before. They've seen it in the field during firefights with an enemy who wears no uniform and often fights us amongst innocent civilians. They've seen how threats come at our soldiers and Marines from every compass point, and they've learned the value of having a sniper team on their shoulder, watching over them for just such surprise attacks.
In this perilous environment, we snipers are in our element. As the war has dragged on, our role on the battlefield has expanded. Our leaders have recognized the value of our psychological power and surgical accuracy in a fight that is as much for the hearts and minds of the locals as it is to destroy the enemy. Without a sniper's precision, we would have to rely on firepower to take out our enemies. Laser-guided bombs and artillery destroys neighborhoods and kills civilians—side effects that generate bad press, complicate our efforts politically, and spawns fresh recruits to the insurgent cause. A post-Vietnam study found that it required ten thousand bullets for a conventional unit to kill a single Viet Cong. It took a sniper three and a half. We shooters can find, fix, and eliminate the enemy without endangering local populations, all while leaving property undamaged. Our psychological power can crush an attack before the enemy has a chance to launch it.
This is our kind of fight. As Lieutenant Walcott wrote, we are messengers of death. If a sniper is stalking you, his bullet is not To Whom It May Concern, but a very direct and personal Special Delivery to you. That personal aspect makes us more than messengers of death. We are deliverers of fear.
Copyright © 2014 by Jack Coughlin and John R. Bruning