Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rifle Madness

Firstly, I am in Kuwait, sitting in Starbucks sipping an iced cafe americano, and doing fine. I'll do a couple more posts about Camp McCrady to close it out, working up to the present. I always seem to be a week behind. I'll try to get caught up to real time while sitting in Kuwait.

I had previously wrote about the pistol training we recieved, so I think it fair that you get a quick synopsis of our rifle training. It begins with some classroom instruction, and then moves to a simulator, kind of like a big video game. There they correct your stance and mechanics, review safety procedures, and go through a dry run of what happens on the range- all in a controlled environment. Next, we're off to the range.

Range days are early days. The goal is to put the first rounds downrange at first light, so if you do a little backwards planning, you start to see why getting up at 0400 is the norm on range days. After a very quick breakfast. (shove it down now, taste it later) The class, wearing all of our battle armor, is loaded onto busses for the 30 minute drive from Camp McCrady to the ranges at Fort Jackson. Sleep is the norm.

About ten minutes into my nap, I woke up and looked around the bus. It was dark. There was a pool of red light coming from the small fixture above the rear exit, and a smaller pool of white light surrounding the driver emanating from the dash. On each seat, there were two classmates jammed together sleeping, leaning on each other for support . In the dark, with helemeted heads slunked down inside of body armor, we looked like a bus crammed full of soundly sleeping turtles- turtles with M16's. The drill sergeant driving the bus, who must have done this a thousand times before today, timed her pressure on and off of the gas pedal with the gentle rises and falls of the dead straight two lane road we were travelling, so there was no sense of inertia, no leaning left and right nor head bobbing casued by speeding up, slowing down or turning. It was complete and utter stillness. The only sounds came from the rolling friction of large bus tires on pavement, the intermittent acceleration of the diesel engine timed to the rise and fall of the road, and if you listened very closely you could hear the song Cyanide by Metallica coming from the radio on the dash. The bass and drums seemed to help push the bus down the road. As I glanced out the window, and into the predawn South Carolna morning, I noticed that the narrow two lane road was lined on both sides by a dense pine forest. The greyness of the sky faintly outlined black shapes of trees, creating an infinite jagged, grey black horizon on both sides of the bus. There was also a thick, knee-high mist that clung to the forest floor and road alike. As the bus sped down the road, the mist would reluctantly part, then reform behind the bus in defiance of our passing. I nodded back off to sleep to the faint smell of pine.

The first day on the range our task was to "group and zero" (G&Z) our weapons. G&Z is a two step process. You can guess what the two steps are. To properly group, you fire three rounds, see how close they are to each other. The bulls-eye is irrelavant at this point, the goal is to get 5 of 6 consectutive shots close enough together to demonstrate that you have a consistent aim point before moving onto zero'ing the sights. Based upon my experience in the simulator, and my marine background, I didn't think I would have too much trouble. I loaded my first three rounds, sighted in, and pulled the trigger twice. After the second shot I was out of ammo. What the..? I loaded three rounds, didn't I? I went down range to check my target and had two holes next to each other and one far off to the side. This made no sense. Did I actually shoot three rounds? Did someone else shoot my target? Oh well, it was still pretty early in the morning. I loaded my next three rounds, and same thing. Two trigger pulls, empty magazine. I walked to my target with the drill sergeant, telling her I only pulled the trigger twice, and she replied with a respectful, yet condescending, "I am sure you did, sir." We looked at my target and the resluts were the same, two shots nearly on top of each other, and one nowhere near the others. She pointed out that I had four of six close enough together, but needed five to move onto the zero'ing phase. I was still a little confused, and as her and I walked back to the firing line she told me to go ahead and fire six rounds this time instead of three. I loaded the six rounds, sighted in and waited for the command to fire. I fired the first round, and when I pulled the trigger the second time I heard and felt a familiar, but unexpected blurp of fully automatic weapons fire. A-ha! I guess my trigger and/or hammer were wore out. I took the weapon out of my shoulder to remove the magazine and noticed that the expended casing of the fifth round was not fully extracted from the chamber before the live sixth round was rammed underneath causing the bolt of the rifle to be jammed about three fourths of the way forward. The drill sergeant was already at my side looking slightly perturbed at me for firing a four round burst on full auto. She was glaring at me, until I dropped the magazine from the rifle and pointed to the jam. I asked her for permission to try to clear the jam and she said yes. I vigoroulsy yanked on the charging handle to pull the bolt back, but it didn't budge. I banged on the forward assist a few times, then yanked the chrarging handle again- still stuck. I got up to a kneeling position and while holding the weapon at a 45 degree angle downrange, proceeded to repeatedly bash the buttstock of the rifle on the sandbag in front of me. On about the fifth, full wind-up, overhead smash, and as the people nearest me started to look concerned, the bolt finally released and both rounds dropped out. The drill sergeant then kneeled beside me to look at the weapon. I broke it down shotgun style and performed a function check on the trigger and hammer. I found that if I pulled the trigger slowly to the rear and held it back that the hammer wouldn't reset, causing it to repeatedly fire on one trigger pull. I also found that, if instead of applying slow steady pressure (the correct way to shoot) I jerked the trigger to the rear and let it go quicky the hammer would reset. I showed this to her, and she agreed to let me continue with grouping. It took a little getting used to yanking on, and quickly releasing the trigger because it is the exact opposite of what you are supposed to do. But, hey, you go to war with the weapon you got, not the one you wish you had, right? Nine shots later I had a good enough group to move on to zero'ing. Once you get a good, consistent group, the drill sergeant takes the weapon and adjusts your sights so that your consitent group ends up in the bull's eye. Now you repeat shooting sets of three shots until you get 5 of 6 in the bull's eye. It took about 18 shots for me to zero the damn weapon by yanking on the trigger, and I really didn't trust the sight corrections the drill sergeant made. To center my shots I had to compensate for the trigger yanking by aiming low and left. I don't know how I got 5 of 6 in the center, but was relieved when I fianlly did. After walking off the range I ate an MRE and waited for the weapons truck to show up with the armorer to have my rifle repaired. He showed up and I told him I probably needed my trigger and hammer replaced. Personally, I hate it when people tell me how to do my job, by saying, "Back when I was a fill in the blank, this is how we did fill in the blank." So I didn't tell him anything more than was necessary when I gave him my weapon. Back when I was an armorer, I would have replaced both the hammer and trigger, because they tend to wear out at the same rate, and if you only replace one, it won't be long before the other fails. I only said that in my head. The army amorer inspected my weapon, found that the hammer wouldn't reset, replaced it, then performed a function check. The hammer still wouldn't reset, so as he mumbled profanity under his breath, took the new hammer back out, took out and replaced the trigger, then put it all back together again. This time it passed a function check.

The next day we went to a LOMAH range. LOMAH stands for location of misses and hits. Each firing position has a small computer that is connected to a single microphone near the muzzle of the rifle and eight small microphones near your targets at 50, 150, and 250 meter distances. When you pull the trigger the microphone picks up your shot and the eight microphones down range triangulate the sound of your shot passing through or near your target. The computer then shows, on a little screen, where you hit, or missed. I got into position to fire my first five rounds at the 50 meter targets. First shot-a miss, second shot- a miss, third- miss, all five shots were misses. I looked at the range coach and he couldn't even tell me where my shots were missing. I was a little frustrated. Most of my hits on the 150 and 250 meter targets were registering. When we cycled back through the 50 meter target again, the results were the same as the first run. All misses. The third time through the 50 meter target I aimed directly below the target, and was rewarded with five puffs of dirt exploding out of the berm. I later found out that the microphones on my position for the 50 meter target were broken. It would have been nice to know that before I started shooting.

Later that night, while cleaning my rifle, I noticed that one of the locking lugs on the bolt face of my rifle had sheared off at some point. Jeez, when did that happen? The locking lugs on the bolt face rotate and lock the bolt into the chamber a nano-second prior to the round firing. After the round is fired, the compressed gas generated from the fired round gets fed back through a metal tube running along the barrel which casues the bolt to unlock, move to the rear and feed the next round. This all happens very quickly. At a minimum, a missing locking lug could cause a lack of gas pressure and interupt the cycle of fire resulting in a jam. The worst case scenario would be that the bolt was covered with hairline cracks, resulting in the metal bolt shattering into a thousand tiny steel fragments that would explode out of the side of the rifle the next time the rifle was fired. I had only seen an M16 blow up in this fashion once before. Luckily for the shooter he was right handed, and the fragments exploded out of the right side of the rifle, away from him. If it ever happens to a left handed shooter, the hot exploding, shards of metal would be blasted into the shooters face. Not a pretty picture.

The next morning, prior to getting on the bus, I showed a drill sergeant my cracked bolt, and we walked to the armory to have it replaced. Since it was still 0500 in the morning the armorer hadn't shown up for work yet. The drill sergeant suggested we wait for the armorer to show up at the range. Rifle qualification for the army involves shooting from three positions (prone supported, prone unsupported, and keeling) at timed pop-up targets at distances varying from 50 to 300 meters. You get 40 random targets and forty bullets. Each hit counts as a point, perfect score is 40, expert is 34, and you need 23 to quailfy. We would be firing the course four times as a trial run of qualifying the next day. The armorer didn't show up prior to my turn on the firing line. I decided to go ahead and shoot with the cracked bolt. What were the odds that my bolt would explode? And if it did, the pieces were likely to fly out to the right, which was clear, so the peices wouldn't hit innocent bystanders. It was hot and as soon as I got into a prone position my glasses slid down the sweat on my nose, and my helmet rode forward to obscure my vision. The drill sergeants had warned us about this and I forgot to tighten up my helmet straps. I shot poorly to say the least. I had at least five jams, but was able to clear them each time. But as I furiously cleared them, I would have to eject one of my forty remaining rounds, and targets were still popping up and down, compounding my misery. My scores were 17, 21, 23, and 19 out of 40. If it would have been qual day I would have squeaked by with a 23, a small victory.

The amorer never showed up at the range on prequal day, and didn't show up for work early enough to replace my bolt prior to going to the range the next day to qualify. When we got to the range I asked to be one of the final shooters, to give the armorer a chance to get there and replace my bolt. I did many things wrong the previous day, but focused on making three adjustments; slower, deliberate breathing, pulling my elbows in tight after every shot, and keeping my cheek glued to the stock as I scanned the range for the next pop up target. As I was sitting and waiting to head to the line, one of the navy chiefs in our class approached me and asked how I shot yesterday. He had also shot a 239 on the pistol course. I told him I squeaked by with a 23, he told me he got a 35, and proceeded to propose a wager on our outcomes today. He offered to spot me twelve points and 20 bucks on the outcome. I countered with taking ten points, and the bet would be for a buck a point in the difference in our scores. We shook hands and he walked off. The armorer still had not shown up when it was my turn to fire. As I approached the line, I pulled the straps of my helmet so tight that I could no longer move my jaw to chew the gum in my mouth, and yanked on the restraining cord of my glasses hard enough that I felt the frames begin to bend around the front of my face. I calmly approached the line and went through the first iteration of the course. First score- 22, with one jam. The second time through, I was fortunate enough to find the quiet place in my head, the place where nothing matters, and nothing can bother me. I had one jam, but don't remember making the physical movements to clear it. After I fired my final shot of the round and was waiting for them announce the scores over the loud speakers. The drill instructor who was with me two days ago when I was bashing my rilfe on the sandbags, said, "that was really nice the way you cleared that last jam." Since I didn't even remeber doing it, I just smiled back and said thanks. The loudspeaker announced my score- 29. I'll take it, all things considered, and more importantly, the most I would owe chief, with my ten point spread was one measly dollar. That is if, and only if, he shot a perfect 40. I felt relieved and don't really remember my final two scores. I think they were in the low twenties. But it didn't matter. I was happy with the 29. Later, I met up with chief, and he was visibly upset. He had a bad day on the range, and even though he had shot a 35 the day before, the best he could do today was a 28. With the ten points spotted meant he owed me eleven dollars. I told him that I wouldn't take his money, that I just wanted some extra motivation, and just assumed that I would be paying him anyway. I have a general rule, that I will not take anything from an enlisted person. The only exceptions to this rule are beers and shots of liquor. It would be impolite to refuse, and I'll always leave the bartender a decent tip with instructions to buy them another round after I leave.

1 comment:

  1. Dan... good think you're getting all your bad luck out of the way before you get in-country! Keep smiling and keep your head down.