The Semiauto Sniper Rifle
September 23, 2010
Are semiautomatic sniper rifles a dead-end rabbit hole from the past, or are they the way of the future? Shunned for decades by the U.S. military, semiauto sniper rifles have recently returned to the battlefield. Currently, there is great interest in designs like this ArmaLite Super SASS.
Although bolt-action Mosin Nagants were the primary sniper rifle of the Soviet Red Army during World War II, the advantages of a semiauto were not overlooked.
We sat with a small group of American soldiers trying to beat the brutal afternoon heat in Kuwait. He was a young sniper; his "broken TV" shoulder patching indicated he was from the Army's well-respected 3rd Infantry Division. He was on his way home from Iraq on leave. I too was headed back after being embedded with the 3/7th Cav in Iraq and was spending my last day in the Middle East interviewing as many soldiers as possible.
Lighting a cigarette, he took a long drag before handing back my tattered, green MRE matchbook. In his exhale, he responded to an earlier question, "Naw, the M24 is accurate and all, but it only holds five rounds and is a bolt gun. I don't want to leave the wire with just a five-shot bolt gun; I want a semiauto.
"With an M24 you can zap a Hajji laying an IED," he said quite matter-of-factly, "With a scoped M14, if you're quick, you can get the whole team. That's a big difference. Remember, once you fire that first shot, Hajji isn't gonna just stand around like they did a couple years ago. It's not about 'one shot, one kill' like everyone talks; it's about killing as many of them as possible to save American and Iraqi lives. A semiauto is a big advantage, especially with the distances we're talking about in Iraq. Engagement distances are relatively close for sniping, you don't need a 1/2-MOA bolt gun."
Although his face was young, his eyes were old, and he spoke with the authority of one who had been and done. More importantly, he was repeating what I had heard numerous times before from many other soldiers and civilian contractors serving in Iraq. Although the bolt-action precision rifle has long been the darling of the U.S. sniper community, a large number of American soldiers today would rather have a good semiauto. That this flies in the face of what for so long has been simply accepted as fact does not particularly surprise me for several reasons.
First and foremost, historically, the U.S. military has never placed much emphasis on sniping or sniper equipment. If it did, organizations like AmericanSnipers.org wouldn't exist. Second, the U.S. military's last involvement in a protracted war ended 35 years ago, so many hard-learned lessons have been forgotten. Third, the U.S. sniper community is fairly closed-minded. Last, the Remington Model 700--nothing more than a sporting rifle dating from the 1960s--is cheap, easy to accurize, and suitable for law enforcement engagements.
The words spoken by U.S. service men in Iraq regarding sniping and sniper rifles were not new to me. Actually, they echoed, almost verbatim, the words of Russian snipers I interviewed years ago. Veterans of Russia's wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, many of whom had served in the Spetsnaz (Russian special forces), greatly preferred a semiauto sniper rifle to a bolt gun. Some of the Russian snipers I interviewed had used both in combat in Chechnya, the bolt-action SV-98 (Snaiperskaya Vintovka 1998, also known as Sniper Rifle Model 1998) and semiautomatic SVD (Snaiperskaya Vintovka Dragunova, AKA Dragunov Sniper Rifle).
Designed by Russian competition rifle guru Vladimir Stronskiy, the SV-98 proved capable of 1/2-MOA accuracy with 7N14 sniper ammunition during my testing in Russia. On the other hand, with its long, thin, nonfreefloated barrel, the SVD is perhaps a 11/2-MOA gun when fed the same ammunition.
The Red Army was the first to field semiauto sniper rifles en mass. The soldier on the left has an SVT-40, and his comrade has a bolt-action Mosin Nagant.
Despite being less accurate, the Russians preferred the aging but still effective SVD hands down. Their reasons were simple. The SVD provided faster follow-up shots, it could be utilized for fire support to suppress enemy positions, it was quicker to reload and easier to engage multiple targets, it was capable of being utilized as a fighting rifle if the sniper was compromised, and it proved to be very reliable and sufficiently accurate.
It's interesting to note that many Russian and American combat vets have come to prefer semiautomatic sniping rifles for the exact same reasons.
Delving into history, the two countries with the most combat experience relating to semiautomatic sniper rifles are Russia and the United States. Although Germany rightfully may be regarded as the genesis of modern sniping, it was the Soviet Union that took the lead following World War I. The Red Army placed a huge emphasis on sniper training, equipment, doctrine, and deployment following its revolution. While the rest of the world forgot the lessons learned in the trenches, the Russians reviewed and built upon that knowledge.
The French fielded scoped MAS Mle. 1949 rifles in Indo-China and Algeria, later replacing them with Mle 1949/56s.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, great emphasis was placed upon developing modern sniper rifles and equipment. More importantly, in-depth, systematic training of snipers was also undertaken. During that time, Soviet designers were hard at work trying to develop a suitable self-loading rifle for general issue. They went on to field self-loading rifles, the SVT-38 and SVT-40 (Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokareva AKA the Tokarev self-loading rifle 1938/40) designed by Fedor Tokarev. Tokarev's design was a short-stroke gas-operated rifle chambered in 7.62x54R, fitted with a muzzle brake, and fed from a 10-round detachable box magazine. Approximately 1.6 million SVT-40s were fielded by the Red Army with some 55,000 being built as sniper rifles.
Fitted with a compact 3.5X PU scope, the SVT-40 sniper rifle was intended to replace the various bolt-action Mosin Nagant M1891/30 sniper rifles then in service. The result was not entirely satisfactory due to accuracy problems. Although SVT-40 sniper rifles remained in service, the Red Army reverted back to Mosin Nagant-based sniper rifles on the Eastern Front of World War II. The scale of sni
ping practiced by the Red Army was unparalleled. With perhaps 400,000 sniper rifles fielded, the German Wehrmacht was never able to counter it.
As an example, in just one month's production, the Russians built almost as many sniper rifles as the rest of the Allied nations fielded during the entire conflict. Soviet snipers, a number of whom were women, ran up such impressive tallies that they were dismissed as mere propaganda claims until recently. With 309 kills to her credit, Ludmila Mihaylovna Pavlichenko was the Soviet Union's highest ranking female sniper. It wasn't until American snipers recently began racking up impressive kill numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq that it became clear what a well-trained sniper could do in a very target-rich environment.
After the war, the Soviets systematically reviewed lessons learned on sniping and began looking for a modern sniper rifle in 1958. This led to the adoption of the world's first rifle designed from the ground up specifically for military sniping, the SVD Dragunov. A short-stroke gas-operated design, the Dragunov is built on a machined-steel receiver, has a three-lug rotating bolt and 24-inch barrel, and it feeds from a 10-round detachable magazine. Designed to be fairly light, easy to manufacture, and extremely reliable, it is sufficiently accurate for the ranges in which the majority of military sniping takes place. Its designer, Evgeniy Fedorovich Dragunov, is best known in Russia for crafting competition rifles, and his biathlon rifles have taken several Olympic gold medals. Concerning the SVD, he stated he could have made it noticeably more accurate, but the military weight and reliability requirements demanded a thin-profile barrel and loose tolerances.
A Russian sniper, with his SVD slung across his chest, takes a smoke break in Chechnya. Highly popular in Russian service, the SVD led to similar designs in Eastern Europe.
Along with the basic rifle, the Soviets fielded a remarkably advanced scope (4X 24mm PSO-1) and a dedicated 7.62x54R sniper load. The result was the most sophisticated sniper system in the world when it was adopted in 1963. Soviet advisors subsequently field-tested the new design on American personnel in Vietnam. Nicknamed "Oar" by Russian troops, it went on to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Although aged, it remains highly popular with Russian troops.
More importantly, the SVD served as the model for other communist sniper rifles fielded during the Cold War. The 7.92x57mm Yugoslav M76 and Romanian PSL (Puska Semiautomata Luneta) are conceptually similar, but both are based upon a Kalashnikov-type action. China reverse-engineered the SVD design to come up with its Type 79 and Type 85, which are carbon copies of the original. The Iraqi Al Kadesih is a very close counterfeit, but it is not exact. In addition, the Soviets exported large numbers of SVDs, and they can be encountered in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and South America. Today, it is commonly encountered in the hands of terrorists and insurgents in Iraq.
The U.S. Joins The Fray
The United States, on the other hand, was totally unprepared for World War II. There were no sniper schools and almost no sniper equipment available. To make up for this shortcoming, in early 1943, the Army hastily fielded the 1903A4 sniper rifle using commercial mounts and 2.2X scopes. The rifles were not accurized, and the hunting scopes that topped them were not particularly rugged.
The M21 was replaced by the bolt-action M24, shown here in the hands of a 3/7th Cav trooper in Iraq. Although it is accurate, many snipers in Iraq would prefer a semiauto. (Photo courtesy of the 3/7th Cav)
The 1903A4 was supplemented with M1C and M1D sniper rifles in 1944. Based upon the standard M1 Garand rifle, these two models were fitted with 2.2X scopes offset to the left of the rifle's action. In addition, the U.S. Marine Corps also fielded small quantities of 1903A1 rifles fitted with Unertl 8X target scopes.
Due to how it's loaded, the M1 does not lend itself to scoping. The scope ends up offset very far to the left of the bore line. This makes the rifle fairly uncomfortable to use. Also, the low-magnification scope was poorly suited for its intended mission.
Although accuracy was not outstanding, the rifles were simple, rugged, and reliable. However, for a variety of reasons, sniping never played as big a role on the Western Front as it did on its eastern counterpart. After the end of World War II, the U.S. military promptly shut down all its sniper schools, safe in the knowledge that any future conflicts would be solved through atomic force. Due to this flawed thinking, the U.S. military ventured off to war--this time in Korea--once again ill prepared. Sniper schools had to be started from scratch, and the same model rifles were fielded once again.
In 1958, Evgeniy Dragunov began work on designing a purpose-built sniper rifle. His task was to build a lightweight, reliable, and accurate semiauto rifle, and the result was the SVD. (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Dragunov)
After the cease-fire in Korea, the U.S. military closed its sniper schools only to end up back at square one in Vietnam. Initially, M1903A4s and M1Ds were all that were available as hostilities ensued. The Marines hastily fielded Winchester Model 70 target rifles taken from rifle teams before eventually developing and adopting the Remington Model 700-based M40 in 1966.
The U.S. Army utilized the National Match version of the M14 rifle as the basis for its next sniper rifle, the M21. Fitted with a 3-9X 40mm Leatherwood ART scope, the M21 became the first decent sniper rifle fielded by the U.S. Army. In the hands of snipers like Sergeant Adelbert F. Waldron III, the M21 countered the sniper threats of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. Waldron had 109 confirmed kills to his credit, including a 900-meter kill of a VC sniper from a moving Riverine Boat on the Mekong River. Fitted with the then-state-of-the-art AN/PVS-2 night vision sight and Sionics sound suppressor, the M21 instilled fear in the VC and NVA.
As good as the M21 was, its optic/mount was its Achilles heel. Neither the Leatherwood ART nor its successor, the ART II, was sufficiently rugged or weatherproof for hard military use. In addition, the standard military stock was designed with iron sights in mind, and it offered little in the way of cheekweld when the rifle was equipped with an optic. More importantly, the National Match-type bedding required freq
uent--about once every 2,500 rounds--maintenance to keep the rifles shooting at their best. This required the attention of a knowledgeable armorer.
By the 1980s, the U.S. Army had grown weary of the M21's issues and went on to replace it with the simpler bolt-action Model 700-based M24 sniper rifle. Just as the M1D had remained in service long after the adoption of the M21--some National Guard units had M1Ds up until Desert Storm--so too the M21 soldiered on long after the adoption of the M24.
Other Nations' Semiauto Sniper Rifles
Russia and the United States are not the only countries to have fielded semiautomatic sniper rifles in quantity either. The French made large use of 7.5mm MAS Mle. 1949 rifles fitted with Model 1953 APX L 806 3.85X telescopic sights in both Indo-China and Algeria. The postwar German army also fielded semiautomatic sniper rifles based upon the standard Heckler & Koch G3 combat rifle. The most basic of these was the G3A3ZF, which was simply a standard rifle issued with a compact 4X optical sight. A step up in performance was provided by the G3SG/1. This Scharfschutzengewehr, or Sharpshooting rifle, was built using rifles hand selected for their accuracy and then suitably modified. Heckler & Koch also developed the G3-based MSG-90 for military use and PSG-1 for LE use. The PSG-1 features a fully adjustable stock, adjustable match trigger, heavy free-floating match barrel, silent-bolt-closure device, and Hensoldt scope. This model is required to group 50 rounds inside a 3.14-inch circle at 300 meters. Like the French, the Germans eventually moved to bolt-action sniper rifles, with their semiautos relegated to the role of a designated marksman rifle (DMR).
The SVD's (left) influence can be seen in the Iraqi Al Kadesih (center) and Romanian PSL (right). All three have been fielded against U.S. forces in Iraq.
The M1D was replaced in U.S. Army service by the M21 during the Vietnam War. A superior design, its Achilles heel was the optic/mount.
Numerous other countries have fielded semiautomatic rifles in both the DMR and sniper role. These include Israel, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and many countries in the Middle East, South and Central America, and Africa. In particular, the Chechens used the SVD very effectively both by individual snipers and as part of five-man hunter-killer teams in conjunction with a PKM and RPG-7. Terrorist and insurgent forces in Iraq have also fielded SVDs, PSLs, and Al Kadesihs successfully against U.S. and Coalition troops.
What The U.S. Needs?
Recent combat experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven the combat effectiveness of semiautomatic designated marksman and sniper rifles. Due to this, aging M14 and M21 rifles have been reissued to fill the gap. However, spare parts and trained armorers are in very short supply for these older rifles that have been out of front-line service for decades. In addition, it should be obvious by now that a sniper rifle should not be based upon a standard military combat rifle. This was realized decades ago with bolt-action rifles, so why persist with their semiauto brethren? The demise of semiautomatic sniper rifles in U.S. military service is directly attributed to the U.S. military attempting to use off-the-shelf technology, such as fragile commercial scopes, to make infantry rifles into sniper rifles.
In my opinion, what is needed is a fresh design created from the ground up specifically for military sniping. Such a rifle would need to be designed with its end-user firmly in mind. The average U.S. Army sniper is not a highly skilled civilian hobbyist or special forces trooper, but rather, he's a young 20- to 25-year-old in a line unit. As such, his rifle needs to be very rugged, simple to maintain, and should not require the constant attention of an armorer. It should also be fairly easy to manufacture in quantity, possess excellent human engineering, be capable of accepting current and future accessories, and be acceptably accurate out to 800 yards.
Army SFC Dillard Johnson (far right) holds an M14 mounted in a modern stock he used to eliminate an insurgent sniper at 852 yards. Although old, the M14 remains popular with the troops.
One limiting factor of any future sniper rifle will be the 7.62mm cartridge it must chamber. Although much better rounds are available, such as the .260 Remington, the current ammunition shortage demonstrates the need for a standard caliber. For longer shots out to 1,500+ yards, a bolt-action rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum is far more capable than any 7.62mm bolt gun.
The problem with actually developing such a design also demonstrates the growing weakness of the U.S. in general. Today, the U.S. firearms industry has very few classically trained engineers. Many of the larger arms manufacturers lack both vision and talent--especially regarding military wares--and they tend to copy methods of operation that date from the 1920s and '30s. The smaller U.S. companies lack the financial resources and political clout to be taken seriously. Due to this, the U.S. military has become wedded to foreign manufacturers to supply not only ammunition but also firerams designs. Why? There are simply no institutes or universities in the U.S. for the comprehensive and systematic training of specialized firearms engineers as there are in other countries.
The first U.S. semiauto sniper rifles were the M1C and M1D, which were based upon the M1 rifle. Their biggest drawback was the offset, low-magnification scope.
For those who say a semiautomatic cannot match the accuracy of a bolt-action, I ask, "When was a semiautomatic developed specifically to accomplish it?" Instead of simply saying it cannot be done, maybe trying to accomplish the unthinkable would yield better results. I once tested a prototype that combined both a MAS/Stoner-type direct-gas tube with a conventional carrier-mounted piston. Although the gun was promising, the designer lacked the financial resources to continue. But his concept demonstrated that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Currently the U.S. military is beginning to field the recently adopted Knight's Armament M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System. Without a doubt, this is a step in the right direction. How this rifle performs in actual combat rem
ains to be seen. The SR-25 has had issues; I hope the M110 proves better. Perhaps someday the U.S. military will adopt a self-loading design developed specifically for sniping instead of playing with 50-year-old infantry rifle designs.
Author's Note: Interested in helping out U.S. snipers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan? Take a minute to check out americansnipers.org and see what you can do to make a difference.