Is it just another rifle match? Or is it superb training for our troops headed into harm's way? We found out firsthand.
I had just walked out of the Richmond airport and took a seat on a bench to wait for my hotel shuttle. Glancing to my right, I noted a tired looking soldier quietly enjoying a cigarette. Leaning forward, I looked for his rank on the front of his Army Combat Uniform (ACU) blouse. Noting a gold oakleaf, I introduced myself to the major and simply thanked him for his service. The look on his face, I will never forget.
Unlike in a civilian High Power match, silhouette targets are utilized at the All Army. Type D targets are engaged at 200/300 yards, and the M9 pistol, above, is used at 500 yards.
He had just arrived home on leave during his second tour in Iraq and was waiting for his ride. Although I only intended to thank him, we ended up talking for a very long time.
We talked at length about how our troops are doing--the never-ending string of challenges they are overcoming, positive contributions they have made to Iraq, their total lack of support from the popular press, and the enemy they face. One comment he made--the importance of quality marksmanship training--made me nod in agreement. High-tech gadgetry is good, but the foundational skill of the infantryman cannot be overemphasized. And that is the ability to properly run a rifle.
In March, I went to "The Home of the Infantry," Fort Benning, Georgia, to attend a rifle match specifically designed to improve our soldiers' skill with the most basic of infantry weapons, the rifle. Thinly veiled as a rifle competition, the Army Small Arms Championships (All Army Matches) are, in reality, a clever way to provide additional and enhanced training, as well as good-old trigger time for our troops. Rather than just a series of boring bullseye-type matches, the All Army Matches are intended to teach the foundational skills of marksmanship and position shooting.
Although the M16A2 was by far the most common rifle on the line, Fort Monroe's MPs brought their M4 Carbines. They felt it was best to compete with what they fight with and did well with them even at 500 yards.
During the rifle phase, competitors use a rack-grade iron-sighted M16A2/A3/A4 combat rifle or M4/M4A1 carbine to engage targets at distances from 75 to 500 yards. As standard Army marksmanship training ends at 300 meters, this is the first chance many competitors have to shoot all the way out to 500 yards. Plus, they do it in their helmets, combat uniforms, and field gear. Shooting jackets, shooting gloves, and other competition gear? Don't bother to bring them, because they're not allowed. The same holds true for your fancy match rifle/pistol. Only standard-issue firearms with no modifications are allowed, period.
My introduction to the All Army Matches came in 2006, when I was invited to attend as an observer by Lt. Col. Liwanag (who was the commanding officer of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, which hosts the matches). I came away very impressed. This year, Liwanag made me an even better offer.
SFC Arroyo, a combat vet of Afghanistan and first-rate NCO, and M/Sgt. Huston clean firearms after a day's shooting. Huston made sure his team kept their guns well maintained throughout the match.
Although he had moved on from the AMU, he asked if I'd be interested in being part of a rifle team he was bringing down from Fort Monroe in Virginia. This was quite an honor, as civilians simply are not allowed to compete. He didn't have to ask twice, and I spent a couple weeks burning 5.56 rounds in knee-deep snow on my range getting ready. I then packed some khaki Woolrich Tactical Elite clothes, Blackhawk Striker body armor, a Kevlar helmet, and my Nikon for the trip.
Flying down to Georgia, I met up with M/Sgt. Blaine "Bud" Huston, the man responsible for whipping Fort Monroe's fledgling rifle team into shape. A muscular NCO, Huston is what I envision Sgt. Rock would look like if he stepped out of his comic book.
Recognizing the training value of the All Army Matches, Huston had looked for volunteers to build a team. He ended up with 14 men and women consisting of infantrymen, military police, and a number of members of Fort Monroe's band. Although only a couple of them had ever shot in competition before, he quickly set to work getting them into shape. Many hours were spent at 0'dark thirty teaching the foundational skills of marksmanship, how to properly employ a shooting sling, and position shooting. To this, he added extensive dry-fire practice and a can-do attitude. Because they had no practical competition experience behind them, I could only wonder how the team would perform.
As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. The Fort Monroe Rifle Team consisted of a good group of motivated shooters. Some of them had served in Afghanistan and others in Iraq. A very diverse group, the team consisted of everyone from two meat-eating Special Forces officers to a number of highly skilled musicians. They were actually a pretty good cross section of not only the Army but of our great country. Some of them seemed much older than their twenty-something years would indicate--a hard maturity that could only be earned in combat. Although I was a civilian outsider, I was made to feel right at home by the team. In turn, I shared what shooting knowledge and insight I could with them.
Competitors charge to the firing line during a match. Depending upon the match, competitors either began from position or had to run up to 1.5 miles to demonstrate their level of physical fitness and to get their heart rate up.
The All Army consists of a number of small matches shot over a period of 10 days. Many of the matches are similar, although not identical, to a civilian High Power match. The main difference between the two being the use of military silhouette targets (Type D at 200/300 yards and M9 pistol at 500 yards), no sighters, firing at 500 rather than 600 yards, and shorter time limits in the rapids. While you get 60 seconds to shoot a Sitting Rapid Fire stage in Hi
gh Power, you have only 50 seconds at the All Army. Move back to 300 yards for Prone Rapid Fire, and you have 60 seconds rather than the 70 of High Power.
Other matches are quite different, and team matches are included. In the U.S. Infantry Center Infantry Trophy Match, for example, you start on the 500-yard line and have 50 seconds to fire 10 rounds from the Prone Supported position. Moving to 300 yards, you have 60 seconds to go from Standing Alert to Prone Supported and fire 10 rounds. At the 200-yard line, you have 60 seconds to go from the alert position to kneeling and fire 10 rounds.
Following this is Reflexive Fire where the firing line advances from 200 yards to 100 yards and fires two rounds from the kneeling position at random six-second target exposures. The last stage is fired at 75 yards with one round fired standing and two fired kneeling at random six-second target exposures.
Competitors are required to compete in helmet, protective eyewear, and field gear with body armor (including hardplates). Fortier wore a Blackhawk STRIKE plate carrier and shot a rack-grade M16A2.
My favorite match was the Audie Murphy Combat Match. Here, we began with getting pulses into high gear by running one and a half miles with full gear, helmets, boots, and rifles. We then sprinted from the 500-yard line to the 400-yard line and fired 10 rounds from Prone Supported. Next, we sprinted from the 400-yard line to 300 and fired another 10 rounds prone. Getting back on our feet, we sprinted to the 200-yard line and fired 10 rounds kneeling. We finished the match off by sprinting to the 100-yard line and firing 10 more rounds kneeling. Scoring was based not only on shooting but also heavily on each competitor's run time. Due to this, many of the serious yet older guard and reserve shooters fell by the wayside to younger regular Army soldiers.
I was issued a standard rack-grade M16A2, which was by far the most common rifle seen on the line. That said, the Fort Monroe MPs on our teams are normally issued M4 carbines. So, despite the disadvantage of a shorter sight radius and 14.5-inch barrel, they competed with what they carry.
Shooting a rack-grade M16A2 in competition is a bit different than shooting a match-grade AR-15 Service Rifle. The most notable differences I had to adjust for were the substantially lighter weight (my Service Rifle tips the scales at a porky 17 pounds), wider front sight, coarser sight adjustments, lack of a float tube (careful on that sling tension!), and ratcheting three-round-burst trigger. Due to the design of the burst mechanism, you get three slightly different trigger pulls. Although this isn't noticed during the rapids, it can come into play on the 500-yard line.
The AMU issued rifle ammunition on the line. Rather than M855 ball,
competitors received Black Hills 77-grain white box military match ammunition (top). This is very similar to the Mk262 Mod 0/1 (bottom) issued to the Special Forces.
Accuracy-wise, the M16A2 is a fine firearm. Teamed with the 77-grain Black Hills military match ammunition issued on the line, it is capable of excellent accuracy at 500 yards. Zeroing the rifle I was issued on the 200-yard line during the first match, I was pleased to see the two sighter rounds both come up center "V"s. That rifle proceeded to shoot just as well as I could hold it.
So how did the fledgling team from Fort Monroe perform? Quite well, actually. A good group of soldiers, they pulled together and worked well as a team. I truly wish I could tell all their stories here, but I have a few distinct memories that stand out. These include Sgt. Christopher Walter pounding out 10 rounds rapid fire at 500 yards with an M4 carbine and scoring 9 hits. Then there was Sgt. Conrad Ramirez, III, squaring off into a combat stance with his M4 at 75 yards while muttering, "Okay, enough of this target shooting stuff, now you're in my world."
Liwanag and Lt. Col. Jeffery Prough, both Special Forces, grumbled to each other about how they're getting old, all the while smoking my butt. Huston tirelessly offered encouragement and advice to his team. Then there was SPC. (now a sergeant) Laura Bowen. I shot with her, and she went from a total novice to calling wind and making hits at 500 yards in a matter of days. Staff Sgt. Jason Stephens, a veteran of Iraq and member of the U.S. Army TRADOC Band, won high novice in the Audie Murphy Combat Match. Running like the wind and shooting consistently, he beat every Special Forces and Ranger tab on the line to bring home the win.
The high point for our team had to be when the four-man team of Monroe Black (Huston, Liwanag, Woffard, and SFC Domingo Arroyo) won the Sergeants Major of the Army Team Aggregate.
(Left to right) M193 Ball, M855 Ball, Black Hills 77-Gr. MatchKing
My time at the All Army Matches is something I will never forget. It was both a privilege and an honor to compete with the men and woman of the United States Army. Although the country often forgets we are at war, these are the people who have volunteered to go off into harm's way to keep us safe. Each and every one of them deserves our respect and gratitude.
What did the team take away besides some awards? Every member of the Fort Monroe Rifle Team came away a significantly better marksman thanks to the training and lessons learned in competition. Now, this newfound knowledge can be shared with the other men and woman of their units. I highly recommend any and all U.S. Army personnel attend the All Army Matches. It's much more than just a rifle competition.