The skills and reflexes of the combat-rifleman are acquired in training. They cannot be replaced successfully, not even by volume of fire.
It was on the Normandy beach-head, just before the break-through at St. Lo in July, 1944, that I found this redheaded, pink-cheeked boy from the woods of far-off Oregon. He was fighting a one-man battle with his semiautomatic rifle.
Like an old-time Indian fighter, Red would peek over the hedgerow, spot a target, and in a second take deadly aim and fire. A German suddenly jumped up and started to run from one position in concealment to another. Red dropped him in his tracks. I had been in many battles, but I had never seen anything like this. In the seconds it took me to cover the few yards separating Red and me, he had dropped three more of the enemy.
At the time I was operating as an Infantry observer. The battalion to which I was attached had been in action only two days. It was designated to drive the enemy out of a small bulge in the line. The attack was well planned and, following the opening artillery barrage, the companies advanced over the hedge-rows without opposition.
It was soon apparent that the enemy, taking advantage of the battalions' inexperience, had withdrawn hastily, so that we would stick our necks out too far and too fast, and be in no condition to withstand a counter-attack. The machine-guns and mortars had not come up and there was no communication with the battalion commander or the artillery. As the counter-attack was intensified, the command was given for the battalion to withdraw. Before pulling out, I looked over the hedgerow and saw Red still there.
As I watched Red's business-like efforts to exterminate the enemy, suddenly the burst from a machine-gun crackled over our heads. The enemy had succeeded in placing a machine-gun on a rise of ground three hundred yards to our left. It was enfilading the hedgerow which protected us from the front. We ran to the right and got behind the hedge-row I had climbed a few minutes before when I joined Red. The Germans would be on us in a minute.
"We'll have to get out of here in a hurry," I said, "unless you want to stay and get a posthumous medal."
"OK, let's go," said Red.
We beat a hasty-retreat to rejoin the battalion, which was again occupying the same strong defensive position it had left early that morning.
During the few remaining minutes that I was with this boy, I learned that he had grown up in the woods with a rifle, learning to shoot wild game to supplement his family's meat ration, that he hadn't learned anything about shooting in the Army, but that graduating from the old blunderbuss to a service rifle was like turning in the old family T-Model Ford and driving a new Lincoln in its place.
Red was contemptuous of the tremendous waste of ammunition in battle. He maintained forcibly-and I agreed with him-that ten good shooters could have covered the whole front and flanks, and stopped the attack in which I had witnessed his accurate shooting.
The rifleman is the key to an army's ground operations. Equipped with a weapon he can operate alone and ammunition he can carry himself, he is a complete combat unit. Operating with other similar units in battle for a common objective, the rifleman is the backbone of a nation's army. It is his duty in battle to move forward, seize, and hold that objective. The other elements of the ground combat team support and assist the rifleman in doing that job.
Even in this day of more destructive sceintific
weapons, the rifleman must move forward to capture
the enemy's stronghold. No electronic device or
atomic weapon can do that job for him.
In order to reduce the enemy's ability to fire when he attacks, the rifleman needs all the supporting fire he can get from artillery, mortars, machine guns, and other weapons. When he is on the defensive, he needs the fire from the heavy weapons to reduce the fire of the enemy's supporting weapons and to render the enemy's position untenable. Troops moving across the 'no man's land' between opposing forces are a poor target for supporting weapons. They are good targets for riflemen who can shoot accurate, aimed shots.
How well the rifleman, with his M1, ammunition belt,
and grenades, does his job is dependent on his
familiarity with his rifle
Very often, due to the terrain, or to poor light, or to the distance between opposing forces, targets are not always visible to the unaided eye. No rifleman, however accurate, can do highly effective shooting if he can't see his targets. In such a situation there is nothing riflemen can do but build up the rate of fire by shooting more ammunition at the areas where the enemy is known to be. But even then good riflemen will cover these areas with more effective concentrated fire.
The skills and reflexes of the combat-rifleman are
acquired in training. They cannot be replaced successfully,
not even by volume of fire.
Situations such as this, however, should be the exception rather than the rule. The rifleman is nearest the enemy. He is armed with a very accurate rifle of great potential killing power, and with very accurate ammunition, which costs only ten cents a round. If he were properly trained, if be were equipped with the proper optical instruments to locate targets and a telescopic sight, to see what he is shooting at, he would be vastly more effective in all battle situations.
There are many occasions where a highly skilled rifleman with accurate knowledge of range and windage, and with a high-power telescopic sight, could effectively put machine-guns out of action up to 1,000 yards-a situation in which our artillery, the finest in the world, can be of small practical assistance.
On one occasion, when my regiment was crossing a river under enemy fire, one particularly annoying machine-gun was doing a lot of damage to one of the companies wading the stream. This company was driven back to the near shore. I called for artillery to silence the machine-gun. Then, realizing that the chance of a hit by artillery was less than one in a thousand, I called up one of my staff officers who had shot in the National Rifle Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, and who was in the habit of carrying a rifle instead of a pistol.
The machine-gun was at about 800 yards distance, invisible to the naked eye. My staff officer could not, of course, see the machine-gun, But he could see a large rock in a piece of plowed ground one hundred yards in front of the machine-gun. I placed the officer in line with the rock and the machine-gun, and had him shoot a sighting shot at the rock. With a 20-power telescope, I could plainly see the strike of the bullet. I had him correct for windage and elevation. The next shot hit the rock. Then I had my would-be sniper increase the elevation on his rear sight, to allow for the distance to the machinegun and the vertical angle from rock to machine-gun, aim at the rock, and fire another shot. By this time, the artillery had been firing on the machine-gunner for ten minutes with no effect.
The strike of the rifle bullet was again plainly visible in my telescope. It was ten feet in front of the machine-gunner. After a slight correction for elevation, the next shot was either a hit, or so close that the machine-gunner went down in his foxhole. He never appeared again to shoot. The company was able to cross the river without a casualty.
Yes, the Army teaches the fundamentals of marksmanship. But it takes longer to develop a battle rifleman than it does a tennis player, fencer, boxer, or an aviator. In a few hours a man can be taught the mechanics of his rifle. To become a skilled battle marksman, however, he must practice for years to develop those deadly reflexes which will enable him to shoot with extreme accuracy at "targets which may be exposed for only fractions of a second.
Since the days when battles were fought hand to hand with swords and spears, when a whole army would be wiped out in one day, there has been a marked change in warfare. The introduction of weapons which could kill at a distance brought advantage to the army which could deliver the greatest concentration of well-directed missiles.
As weapons developed into firearms of longer and yet longer ranges, the bulk of armies in battle drew farther and farther apart. As the distance at which armies engaged grew greater, visibility diminished. It became more difficult to locate the enemy's position and thus know where to direct fire. To make up for these short-comings, it was necessary to fire more ammunition and cover greater areas, which called for guns with a higher rate of fire. Our weapons today are all designed to produce greater rate of fire and greater accuracy.
Battles are won by the army which can place on its adversary's positions the greater concentration of fire. Of all our scientific weapons, however, there is only one which is practical for sniping-that is, for use against individual soldiers-and that is the rifle. But, in the hands of a man who can't shoot or who can't see what he is shooting at, a rifle is like a ship without a rudder. The United States has the finest military rifle in the world. But it is of small consequence as a weapon if it cannot be utilized to its maximum potential value, which is the highest of of all modern weapons.
The present static condition of the Korean War holds a lesson for us. Almost daily aircraft unload their bombs on the enemy; artillery pounds his positions. But the rifleman-the man who carries the fight to the enemy and takes the ground from him-remains firmly entrenched in his bunker. It is true that positions can be made untenable with long-range weapons and greater rate of fire but these positions can be and are rebuilt or remanned. While the development of longer range weapons has caused armies to fight in more depth, one-seventh of the army-the riflemen-is still up front facing the enemy. They are still depended upon to take and hold ground.
Unfortunately, in our mad scramble for more scientific weapons, we have overlooked the very important practical fact that the rifle, with a man behind it who can shoot, has the greatest potential killing power of all weapons. No other arm, whether aerial bomb, guided missile, artillery shell, can be used more accurately and more effectively against an enemy. Bombs, missiles, shells depend upon area saturation for their effectiveness, and there is tremendous waste in their use.
Instead of working on the man behind the gun, we give him a gun which will shoot more ammunition. The trend is for every rifleman to be an automatic rifleman. When he arrives at the enemy's front lines, instead of being able to shoot single shots with deadly accuracy, at point-blank range, in one-fifth of a second, he will have to rely on bursts of fire. Only the first shot of a burst of automatic fire can be accurately aimed. The poor shooter will empty his gun with very little effect. From then on he will have to fight like a caveman with bayonet or the butt of his gun. And he will be at a physical disadvantage, out of breath after the exertion of the charge. This is going back to the days when armies fought with muzzleloading muskets which, because of the time needed to load, were useless as guns in hand-to-hand combat.
But-by the shades of Davey Crockett!-we could go back a century, pick up where we left off, and train soldiers to shoot, not only like their ancestors but better! Better because they would be much more effective with the improved guns and equipment of the present day.
Red, and the exceptionally fine shooting he did that day in Normandy, show the advantages of early training with firearms. The soldiers who are fortunate enough to have participated in some type of rifle training in early youth have had the opportunity to develop the skills and reflexes necessary to the combat-rifleman.