The Realities of Combat Marksmanship, Part Two: The Speed V. Accuracy Equation (Or, Mathematics for Marksmen)
In a recent article, I opened with the statement, “The importance of precise, well-aimed rifle fire in small-unit combat cannot, and should not, be underestimated.” For anyone who picks up a rifle with the intent of “going in harm’s way,” that statement really should be foremost in their mind throughout any training they do, regardless of where they do that training, when they do that training, and with whom they do that training. If, after all, I’m in a gunfight with some dude 300 meters away (or 30 feet away, the range is really irrelevant at this point), and I simply point my weapon in the air and start blasting rounds out, like a jihadist yelling “Allahu akbar! Inshallah! Inshallah!” I’m not likely to do much in the way of protecting myself. The further away the opponent is, of course, the more critical my ability to aim and fire accurately becomes, because he becomes a relatively more difficult target to hit.
The famous line attributed to Wyatt Earp and all too often parroted by others, with varying degrees of accuracy in the re-telling is, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final.” There is, in recognition of the opening statement of this and the preceding article, a great deal of Truth in that statement as well. Performing a mag dump is really of questionable value. If none of your rounds impact in the necessary area, then it’s not even of questionable value; it’s of no value at all. Accuracy really is critical. Too often however, that statement becomes nothing more than a cliche.
The problem with a cliche however, is not they’re untrue. It’s that nugget of Truth inherent to the statement that allows it to become a cliche, repeated, ad nauseum, by sycophants who generally don’t realize that they don’t realize the actual meaning behind the original statement. I get called to task, rather often, by readers and others who have completed various training courses (and I’m legitimately not picking on Appleseed in this instance. I’ve heard it from other .mil veterans, and guys that have been to classes with other SOF veterans), for my ongoing advice, when applying suppressive fire, of “shoot as fast as you are able to apply well-aimed fire.” Perhaps the “shoot as fast as you are able” part of that statement just gets their knickers in a twist. I genuinely don’t know.
The reality is however, a single shot, precise enough to punch through the opponent’s amygdala is definitely a final statement to finishing him. If it takes you 5 seconds to manage that shot however; to acquire a solid firing position, line up your sights, control your breathing, and gently squeeze the trigger the it’s full range-of-motion until the shot breaks cleanly, with no disturbance of the sight picture, it’s probably not going to be the “final answer” you think it will be. \
Because in 5 seconds, I can dump damned near a whole magazine of 5.56mm M855 into you, at common combative ranges, meaning you’re not going to get that 5 seconds of calm that you apparently need, in order to get the level of accuracy you need, to make your precision shot. That’s the problem. “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final….as long as it arrives in time.”
The speed versus accuracy equation is, as is all too often overlooked, a very, very relative issue. Is a shot that impacts you in the shoulder as lethal as a shot to the upper thoracic cavity or the cerebral cortex? No, of course not, unless you’re a simpering “mangina” who believes that ANY gunshot is lethal, and will blow you backwards through four concrete walls. What if we change the question slightly? “Is a shot that impacts the shoulder as effective at keeping you from shooting me as effective as a shot to the upper thoracic cavity or the cerebral cortex? Probably. Gunshot wounds tend to hurt. How about five shots to the shoulder?
I may need to shoot you again, certainly, but if you’re not shooting at me, effectively (by which we mean, making hits), then I’ve got the time necessary to take that second shot. On the other hand, it can, obviously, be said, that if I take the time to get a shot to the upper thoracic cavity or the cerebral cortex, with the first shot, you won’t need to take that second shot. Let’s go back and look at the previous example. If you’re taking the time to set up that cerebral cortex shot, and I bust a shot into your shoulder, or chest, or leg, or pretty much any other portion of your body, is that, or is that not, going to affect your ability to aim your precision shot?
Some people consider 4MOA to be adequate accuracy. That’s a pretty decent all-around measure. That allows you to hit a 19-inch (across the shoulders) e-type silhouette out to 500 meters, most of the time (I am well aware that 4MOA at 500 meters is 20 inches, not 19. Technically, it’s actually 20.94 inches...) That’s pretty decent. At 100 yards, that’s roughly four inches. That certainly facilitates getting pretty accurate hits. On a stationary, unmoving target.
Personally, my standard for marksmanship with a chrome-lined, 1:7 twist barrel, firing commercial 62-grain M855 “green tip,” is 2MOA. That theoretically allows me to get hits on the aforementioned e-type at 1000 yards. Of course, that’s not accounting for windage and knowing my hold-overs for elevation, or accounting for the transonic effect of the round dropping back below supersonic speeds (which leads to destabilization of the projectile), or even the coriolis effect. At realistic, common combat ranges however, that’s more than adequate. It’s important to understand however, we’re talking about pure marksmanship standards at this point. I’m talking about laying on a nice, groomed range, with a rucksack or sandbag under my rifle’s fore-end, controlling my breathing, and taking my sweet time squeezing the trigger, because the target’s not moving, and it’s not shooting back at me. Accuracy after all, really is relative.
Here’s the catch, so is speed, and the two are relative to necessity, as well as to each other. I can shoot 2MOA or better, taking about 1-2 seconds per shot. If I’m willing to broaden my horizons and accept a 4-6MOA spread, I can put rounds downrange, from the prone position, under field conditions, at a rate-of-fire approaching five rounds per second. From the standing, I can certainly do 8-10MOA at the 4-5 rounds per second rate-of-fire (actually, from the prone, I can consistently ring a 6″ steel plate with five for five, according to the timer, at 5/second, at 100 meters. From the standing, on a C-Zone IDPA steel plate silhouette, and I can pull it off 8-9 times out of ten).
That’s fast, and reasonably impressive, but it’s far from world class. There are guys out there, even in the public eye, who can shoot that accurately, at an even faster rate of fire.
It’s critically important, when shooting at our e-type or IDPA silhouettes and steel plates on the range, to recognize that very, very seldom is the bad guy going to stand there, in the open, at the position of attention, and wait for us to squeeze rounds off at him, at our leisure. Expecting that is the definition of ignorance.
If a dude is behind a rock, shooting at me, at a distance of 100 yards, how much of his body is exposed to me? A shoulder, part of his forearm, and maybe, just maybe the corner of his head? What if that guy can shoot 4MOA, from the prone, at a rate-of-fire approaching five rounds per second? Hell, what if he can only achieve a two rounds per second? Is that going to leave you much time to find your perfect sight picture and delicately squeeze off that shot?
The definition I use of “effective suppressive fire” is “Suppressive fire is fire that is accurate enough and fast enough to keep the enemy more concerned with not getting shot than he is with shooting you.” If that dude shooting 4MOA at 5/second at you, and all he can see, at 100 yards, is the end of your rifle, with your eye behind it, can he hit you? Maybe, maybe not. He can damned sure get close enough though, that you’re going to be more concerned with not getting shot than you are with shooting him, huh? If, every time you lean out to take a shot, there’s five or six rounds zipping close enough that you think a hornet is getting ready to sting you in the eyeball, what’s your reaction going to be? You’re going to duck back behind that rock in a hurry! By the definition above, that IS effective suppressive fire, even if none of the rounds actually hit you.
Speed and accuracy are relative. Ultimately, for your combat-effective marksmanship training, YOU have to decide what is adequate accuracy for you, both for pure marksmanship, and marksmanship at speed, under stress. Then, you have to decide how fast you can achieve that level of accuracy. If you decide that 8MOA from the prone (Honest to God, I’ve seen published standards from militia groups, on the internet, that used a paper plate, at 100 yards, from the prone supported, as their standard of marksmanship) is your standard of accuracy, then how fast do you need to be able to accomplish that?
In the bolt-action days of the Enfield and Springfield, 30 rounds in one minute was the standard, at one point. That’s pretty respectable…from a bolt gun, considering the necessary length of time to conduct a reload with stripper clips, even for a practiced rifleman. With a magazine-fed semi-automatic? That’s a pretty good standard, still, assuming you’re looking for 1-2MOA for accuracy. At the 200 yards that is the outside limit of common, realistic combat ranges, that’s unnecessarily slow. How’s this for heresy? “You do not have to hit the bad guy with every single round you fire. You only have to be close enough to make him worry about getting hit!”
There are caveats to that of course. What if there are non-combatants in the area? Suddenly, you’re going to have to slow down, to ensure that a) the dude you’re shooting at is actually a bad guy, and not a non-combatant ducking for cover because there’s gunfire going off around him, and b) if you do miss the bad guy, that your round isn’t going to go past him and hit a kid walking by. I would argue however, that if you can’t get hits close enough to make the dude duck though, you can’t control your fire adequately to be shooting in a mixed environment like that anyway. Additionally, at that point, we’re no longer talking about just accuracy. We’re also discussing target identification and discrimination, and the real-world application of the safe firearms handling rule.
Past 200 yards, we’re no longer talking about common combat ranges. Not because people can’t shoot that far; we can. Rather, because people aren’t going to stand out there, like an e-type silhouette on a KD range, waiting for you to shoot them. They’re going to move to cover, quickly, and then be shooting back, from behind that cover. If they move, they may very well be crawling. If they’re not crawling, you’d better believe they’re going to be using any available micro-terrain to mask their movements.
So, what is your standard for pure marksmanship? What are your standards for acceptable marksmanship at realistic combat ranges? What are your standards for speed of fire?
Don’t shoot any faster than you’re able; but be able to shoot as fast as you need.