Some Notes on Sentry Neutralization–Per Request
(I’ve suffered a rather severe case of “I-don’t-give-a-fuck-itis” recently. Hopefully, as HH6 and I were discussing recently, getting back to writing for the blog will help provide me a serious dose of FIDO—Fuck It, Drive On—that needs to occur. The following article is on a subject I’ve been loath to write about, since it screams of Sho Kosugi ninja fantasies. Nevertheless, it is a request from a reader, who I know is a serious student and actually trains. I will get back to the Tribalism series shortly. –JM)
Sentry neutralization is an area of study and tactical knowledge that hold a fascinating allure to many people. I don’t know if it’s related to the cultural heritage of Indian and frontiersman skulking through the woods with knife and tomahawk, or a fascination with William Fairbairn’s combatives teaching during World War Two, or perhaps too many Ninja movies out of Hollywood in the 1980s (paging the Sho Kosugi and Michael Dudikoff fan club!!!), but the idea of possessing the skills needed to sneak up and silently kill someone, while his friends and companions are sleeping nearby, is something I get asked about with an interesting frequency.
The first thing to consider with the subject of sentry neutralization (under which heading I am going to include the general skill set of killing someone without alerting his friends nearby in general, not specifically sentries), is one that is actually of importance in the classical guerrilla warfare paradigm, whether you’re looking at it as John Poole 4GW, or just the historical and prehistoric tribal paradigm of the oldest type of raiding conflict.
Too often, as in so many cases, people’s ideas of what is inherently included in this topic is formed by bad Hollywood movies. The reality is, killing someone quietly is not easy, is not simple, and is certainly not spontaneous, regardless of what your sifu or sensei has told you.
The old Army Combatives manual, FM21-150 is decent place to start:
“Killing a sentry is completely different than killing an enemy soldier while engaged in a firefight. It is a cold and calculated attack on a specific target. After observing a sentry for hours, watching him eat or look at his wife’s photo, an attachment is made between the stalker and the sentry…At such close quarters, the soldier literally feels the sentry fight for his life. The sights, sounds, and smells of this act are imprinted in the soldier’s mind; it is an intensely personal experience…”
This is a severe enough issue that the special operations community has long searched for ways to depersonalize the issue. From the use of “silent” distance weapons like crossbows (does anyone remember the Barrett advertisements in Soldier-of-Fiction magazine back in the 1980s?) and traditional bows (I’ve heard legendary stories about SF and SEALs carrying bows and arrows for the purpose on missions in Vietnam, but I’ve never met anyone who would admit to it themselves), to the more contemporary use of suppressed firearms. The first time I tried to discuss sentry neutralization methods with a squad leader at the Regiment, it was quickly pointed out to me that we had suppressed firearms for that shit.
Unfortunately, the Ninja mythology of all of these outweighs the reality. Neither crossbows or traditional bows are sure sources of a quick, let alone quiet demise for the victim. Ask any deer hunter who hunts with archery tackle of either type about tracking blood spoor of fatally wounded animals. It’s bad when you have to spend the night searching for a wounded deer (especially in bear and cougar country…). It’s a whole other ball of ‘fuck this noise’ when you wound an enemy sentry with a crossbow or arrow. Suppressed weapons offer an increased opportunity for success, but as anyone who has actually fired suppressed weapons can attest, even a sub-sonic .22LR round, with a very well designed “can,” while quiet, still makes a very distinct, very audible sound, and claiming “it’s all about shot placement” is true…but doesn’t change the fact that .22LR is still sub-optimal in the anti-personnel role.
Ultimately, when you start discussing sentry neutralization, you’re beginning to discuss the more primitive aspects of warfare, which of course ties in quite handily to the idea of “unconventional” guerrilla warfare is really 1st Generation warfare. The methods that have worked for centuries have worked for centuries for a reason. Because they work.
Unfortunately, in order for them to work, you have to be able to move past the psychological and social barriers to going hands on with someone and causing them physical harm. It’s a lot easier to imagine sitting back at 500 meters and shooting at a silhouette than it is to wrap your head around grabbing a dude a intimacy-close distances and feeling his blood wash over your hands as you punch a knife into his neck or groin. It’s a lot easier to think about doing a mag dump at 10 meters than it is to think about holding a guy down and choking him until he’s not just unconscious, but dead.
It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer in the adage that “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” and “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.” FM21-150 offered the following information on planning considerations.
“A detailed schematic of the layout of the area guarded by sentries must be available…Mark known and suspected locations of all sentries. It will be necessary–
a. To learn the schedule for the changing of the guards and the checking of the posts.
b. To learn the guards’ meal times. It may be best to attack a sentry soon after he has eaten when his guard is lowered. Another good time to attack the sentry is when he is going to the latrine.
c. To post continuous security.
d. To develop a contingency plan.
e. To plan infiltration and exfiltration routes.”
f. To carefully select personnel to accomplish the task.
g. To carry the least equipment necessary to accomplish the mission because silence, stealth, and ease of movement are essential.
h. To conceal or dispose of killed sentries.
As anyone who has actually studied the troop-leading procedures that we all discuss as so critical to actual operational planning will recognize, all of these details should be easily acquired as part of your leader’s reconnaissance and planning. Other aspects, like categories f, and g, are TRAINING issues. If you’re not training in combatives, or you’re not physically fit, no amount of planning for “silent dispatch” is going to do you a fuck-all bit of good.
A lot of the skills necessary for sentry neutralization, as far as infiltration and stalking, have been covered at various times over the history of this blog, and they are touched on in classes. From the necessity of an overwatch element for the maneuver element, to the need to plan a route that maximizes cover and concealment as long as possible.
In the context we’re discussing however, there are a couple of additional considerations that are seldom covered in the typical “I’m a ninja! I’m a master of sentry neutralization” courses….
The impact of technology
NODs and even hand-held thermal imaging devices are not particularly expensive anymore. They’re certainly not rare. I often have students ask me, “what if we don’t know if they have NODs or thermals?” My answer, unequivocally, is: assume they DO. NODs are not particularly difficult to hide from, as I’ve demonstrated in classes regularly over the last two years, and even before. Thermals are harder to hide from, but still not impossible. Planning your routes with the threat of thermals and NODs in mind will go a long, LONG way towards mitigating their threat.
In a worst case scenario, you’re compromised during your infiltration because the enemy has NODs and/or thermals (honestly, if you get compromised because of NODs, you deserve to die just to cleanse the gene pool of your stupidity…thermals are more understandable), if you have an overwatch element that is doing their job, they can still save your ass. Your mission of silently neutralizing the sentry may be ruined, but you can survive if they do their job and protect you by smoking the dude that spotted you or is trying to sound the alarm. If it’s a sentry in an overwatch position, rather than the guy you’re trying to eliminate, then it may not be the end of your tasking, but your overwatch HAS TO DO THEIR JOB! A single designated marksman, with a suppressed weapon, at 200 meters out can provide an effective defense against compromise by thermal-equipped sentries if necessary, it’s just not going to be as quiet as most people tend to think. It doesn’t have to be though, as long as it’s not drawing immediate attention to the maneuver element that is trying to infiltrate past the sentry.
My fighting load is set up in a tiered system. Beyond the normal Survival Load, Fighting Load, Sustainment Load, I’ve broken my fighting load echelon into tiers as well. Fully kitted up, I’m wearing a RACK chest rig over a slick plate carrier, with a war belt below it. My war belt has run the gamut from a fully-loaded patrol kit, to just carrying a couple of spare magazines, a pistol, and a knife. The reason I run this tiered system is for when I do need to be all “sneaking Pete, the ninja dude.” I can move pretty quietly with all of my kit on. When I dump my RACK though, or even my RACK and war belt, I can still be armed with a pistol, a knife, and my rifle (METT-TC) and still have ballistic protection from my plate carrier, while being extremely light-loaded. This allows me to be particularly quiet when necessary, as well as increasing my agility and mobility. Do I want to get engaged in a gunfight while loaded that light? Abso-fucking-lutely not.
In the old days of the ALICE LBE, the standard was to ditch your LBE and do your stalk with just your knife or garrote or hatchet, or whatever tool you were using. Of course, in that case if your stalk goes wrong, you’re REALLY fucked. While a sidearm is a piss-poor choice in an infantry fight, it beats the shit out of throwing your knife at a guy equipped with a rifle, because all your other gear is with the rest of your team 20 meters away where you started your final stalk. At a minimal level, I don’t personally believe there’s any sense in performing a stalk without at LEAST a pistol and two or three spare magazines for it on your person.
Tools of the Trade and Applications
The most popular method for the silent elimination of sentries in the popular imagination has to be the knife. From Fairbairn’s tutorials on stabbing the throat or subclavian arteries in the World War Two texts, to the FM21-150 instructions of stabbing to the kidneys or heart; from the depictions of O’Neill teaching the 1st Special Service Force in “The Devil’s Brigade” to every 1980s commando action movie, the knife seems to be the ultimate sentry neutralization tool. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s man’s oldest tool. We have almost an instinctive ancestral memory of using knives.
Unfortunately, following the letter of Fairbairn’s methods today is a pretty good way to either end up seriously injuring yourself, or failing in your task. Using a knife in the anti-personnel role is retarded simple: “Put the pointy part in the soft spots.” Yes, you can make arguments about slashing attacks, blah, blah, blah. Ultimately, the surest way to stop a threat from being a threat quickly is to penetrate his vital organs and cause damage. Fairbairn of course, would agree. Unfortunately, the prevalence of body armor means that stabbing someone in the heart, kidneys, or subclavian, isn’t a realistic option much of the time (as with NODs/thermals, I ALWAYS operate under the assumption the other dude will be wearing body armor). Our selection of targeting points is limited by the protection offered by the armor. Realistically, this means we’re looking at the throat and the groin as targets.
(Important reminder: I’ve never killed anyone with a knife. This is portion of the article is predicated on training and a basic understanding of human anatomy and physiology…)
For sentry neutralization with the knife, the most secure way of attacking the throat is a stab inward to the side of the neck, followed by a pushing cut forward. The theory behind this is that you’ll penetrate the carotid artery and/or the jugular vein during the stab. If you happen to miss, you’ll cut one or the other—probably both—as well as the esophagus, during the cut forward. The drawbacks to this method are numerous: a) someone with a cut throat is NOT particularly quiet, as they aspirate blood and air. b) it’s not a particularly quick way to die, meaning there is ample time for the victim to trash around either in death throes or resisting your attack. c) It requires a relatively high level of complex motor skills to pull off hitting a target that small against a resisting opponent, and if you don’t think he’s going to be resisting, you’re a fucking retard. d) The level of complex motor skills and spatial awareness required means there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to stab yourself in the arm as well as/instead of stabbing the enemy in the neck. e) it definitely requires going hands-on with the victim. This means you need a solid base of wrestling/grappling skills to even get to the point of putting the knife in.
The second “best” way of taking out an armor clad target with a knife is probably stabbing to the heart, under the armpit. This of course, requires gaining exposure the armpit, which means a wrestling match. Dude is not particularly likely to remain silent when he finds himself suddenly wrestling against some scary apparition who just appeared out of the shadows.
Finally, you could stab him in the femoral artery, but I can’t even begin to imagine the howling that getting stabbed in “the dick” would elicit….
Ultimately, the knife, while a potential method, is far from the ideal sentry neutralization tool it’s been made out to be in legend and lore.
(INCIDENTAL PARENTHETICAL NOTE: If any of the readership is an established knifesmith of good repute, please email me. I’m looking for a custom knife to be built for shits-n-giggles. HH6 has offered me that as a birthday gift this year)
The garrotte, or the “assassin’s cord” is another popular method of sentry neutralization, and one I was actually taught in the military. Like the knife, I’ve never actually killed anyone with a garrotte. Thankfully, because I have serious doubts as to the actual efficiency of the method (and no, I don’t care what your sifu has assured you of its effectiveness, unless he’s killed someone with it). Even with the quintessential piano wire garrotte, I can’t see it being particularly fast, and while it would probably preclude the victim from screaming, he’s going to make some noise. The method I was taught involved looping the wire around the neck, turning your back to the victim and lifting him off the ground as if you were going to execute a hip-throw variant. Meh….I don’t know. I certainly don’t carry a chunk of piano wire for the purpose and never bothered.
Unarmed Combat Takedowns
Unarmed combative methods of sentry neutralization range from the fabled neck breaks (if you’ve never actually, you know, broken someone’s neck, or at least watched someone else break someone’s neck with these methods, it’s a fucking fable, period), to the Belgian takedown described in FM21-150, to simply grabbing the dude from behind and choking his ass out. Of all of them, the ONLY one I would put real faith in is grabbing the dude from behind and choking his ass out. Properly applied it doesn’t take very much time, even on a thick-necked dude, and there’s not going to be any yelling involved, in my experience (I HAVE choked more than a few dudes out). While done incorrectly, it could allow the guy to thrash around, simply lifting him off the ground, or falling backwards into a back mount and sinking your feet in as hooks will go a long way towards preventing it (Wait! What!? I need to train!?). The best way to master this is to, you know, train in a grappling system of combatives.
A popular misconception of unarmed sentry neutralization methods revolves around the edge-of-hand blow to the side or back of the neck. Could it work? I suppose. Would I be fucking dumb enough to try it? Not in this lifetime.
The other methods I’ve seen, heard, or read espoused as effective all tend to revolve around the same basic principle, applied with different weapons: a heavy blow to the back of the neck or skull with a heavy striking or chopping weapon. The two most obvious examples are a club—like a sand-filled sock (which I have been told by someone I trust that they used in World War Two to great effect) or a chunk of wood—and the infamous Ghurka Kukri. The latter of course, has a great deal of legend and lore surrounding it, ranging from stories of Ghurkas using it to behead foes (including a recent case of a Ghurka beheading a deceased HVT in Afghanistan when it became obvious that they were not going to be able to extricate the target’s entire corpse) to the story a few years ago (since revised to slightly more realistic facts) of a single Ghurka taking on 40 AK-armed bandits with his Kukri….
Can you split a skull or behead a man with one blow from a Kukri? Fuck if I know, but it seems like it would work, and even if you didn’t sever his head, I’d bet good money on the fact that a solid chop, aimed at the base of the skull would at least cause enough damage to the cervical spine to stop pretty much any conscious actions on the part of the victim.
Another tool used for sentry neutralization in the popular American imagination is distinctly more American. If you listen to the advertising, lots of manufacturers will insist on the rebirth of the popularity of the tomahawk in the special operations community. I’ve never met anyone who would admit to having used a tomahawk against enemy personnel, although I’ve known a lot of guys (myself included) who had one tucked away in their gear at various times. We know there is a long history of the tomahawk being used as an effective weapon. Would it work for sentry neutralization? Fuck if I know, but it would be cool as shit to give her hell trying, no? Going all Mel Gibson on the bad guys?
The final weapon in this category that I’m going to discuss is one I’ve heard rumored to be carried by a couple of SF guys in Afghanistan, and used to good effect, although I’ve not been able to track down the source to verify…the lowly, humble carpenter’s hammer. Supposedly, as the legend I’ve heard goes (and I qualify it as a legend until I hear the story firsthand from whomever supposedly pulled it off, or at least someone who actually witnessed it), dude was carrying it tucked into his kit specifically for anti-personnel use in close-quarters combative situations. At some point, he needed to drop Talib boy, so he smoked the dude in the back of the head with the head of the hammer. Nighty-night, for good. (If this is just fable—as I suspect—I really wish it would have been a tomahawk. It would make the story way cooler…)
Putting it Together
In essence, sentry neutralization is going to suck. It’s hard, there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee success or silence, and you’re going to be less than fully equipped for the ensuing firefight if you get compromised. While theoreticians like Poole can discuss his homo-erotic fascination with ninja skills all he wants, the fact is, silent sentry neutralization is probably largely a figment of the imagination. Has it happened? We know it has. Was it as quiet and effective as believed? Personally, I doubt it.
If I were planning a sentry neutralization, how would I go about it? I’d have a buddy team that were expert stalkers. One would be armed with a big fucking knife, machete, or axe. His partner would armed with a suppressed pistol or rifle. If ANYTHING even SEEMED to be going wrong with the stalk, they would be instructed to err on the side of aggressiveness and just shoot the motherfucker.
A Relevant Side Note of a Heretical Nature:
I am a big fan of, if I have to fight, I want a rifle, and I want a bunch of well-trained buddies with rifles. At the same time, photos of the current goings-on in the Ukraine point out an interesting side thought. I’ve seen photo after photo of rioter and policemen armed not only with firearms, but improvised shields and melee-type contact weapons. This came up in conversation with a friend the other night. Do I think you should take up Society for Creative Anachronism sword-and-shield fighting? No. I do however, think there might be some application for expanding combatives training beyond the typical unarmed and knife training. Whether out a desire to conserve ammunition for absolute necessities, to the oft-mentioned on this blog goal of getting close enough that the enemy cannot bring superior weapons to bear, to the idea of running dry on ammunition in the middle of a crowd, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to know how to pick up some other tool (yes, even if it’s a bayonet on the end of your rifle…), to fight your way out. What weapon? Fuck if I know, I’m just tossing out something that’s been in my mind lately. Personally, I’m thinking of joining HEMA or Wurstic and learning to fight with sword-and-shield (not really, but it sounds cool as shit!). This is going to be the subject of a forthcoming article, but I’m still working through my thoughts and theories on the subject…while scouring my hatchet like a good little Ranger.