By Vincent J. Curtis
For some time now, publisher Scott Taylor has criticized the Canadian government for allowing Canadian soldiers to fight in the front lines in Iraq against ISIS forces. One example of front-line fighting was of a Canadian soldier taking out a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) with a relatively short-range Carl Gustav rocket launcher. The Canadian troops deployed in Iraq are on a training mission, and fighting in the front lines runs contrary to that agreed-upon mandate, he argues.
It appears that Canadian Special Operations Forces in Iraq were paying attention. In June, a Canadian JTF2 sniper made a record-breaking kill shot in Iraq from a twice-confirmed range of 3,540 metres. You can’t get much further behind the front lines than that. Any further back, and you’d bump into the Iraqi Officer’s Mess.
Canadian snipers now hold three of the top five confirmed sniper shots. Dropped into second place, with a range of 2,475 metres, is British sniper Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison of the Blues and Royals, followed by Canadians Cpl Rob Furlong at 2,430, and MCpl Arron Perry at 2,310, both of 3 PPCLI. Fifth place, at 2,300 meters, is held by Sgt Bryan Kremer, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment of the United States Army. The famous Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock III, U.S. Marine Corps, falls into sixth place at a mere 2,286 metres, albeit made with a scope-mounted M2 Browning machine gun — not ordinarily considered to be a sniping weapon, until he made it into one.
The first Canadian experience of sniping occurred during the Boer War. The Boers were armed with the Mauser Model 1895 that fired the 7mm Mauser spitzer cartridge. This combination completely outclassed and out-ranged the British Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, which fired the Mark II .303 cartridge — hard-hitting but ballistically wanting. The Boers were largely an army of snipers, and it was this experience that gave Sir Charles Ross and Sir Sam Hughes the idea of an army of marksmen equipped with a rifle superior in accuracy and range to the Mauser — the Ross rifle in .280 Ross calibre — and with the Colt M1895 machine gun included for additional firepower.
The British learned some lessons too from the Boer War, and they entered World War I with the Mark VII .303 cartridge and the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle. Under Sam Hughes’ tutelage, Canadians stayed with the Ross, adapted for the improved British cartridge. Major H. Hesketh-Prichard, author of Sniping in France, gives his account of “How the British Army Won the Sniping War in the Trenches.”
He writes: “The Canadian Division and, later, the Canadian Corps was full of officers who understood how to deal with the German sniper, and early in the war there were Canadian snipers who were told off to this duty [i.e. counter-sniping], and some of them were extraordinarily successful. Corporal, afterwards, Lieutenant, Christie, of the PPCLI, was one of the individual pioneers of sniping.”
In his book A Rifleman Went to War, W.H. McBride wrote of pre-war Canadian training. “Here, in Canada, the program, which was certainly laid out by an officer who knew his business (I suspect it was Colonel Hughes himself) was one calculated to do just two things: to put the men in physical condition to endure long marches and to thoroughly train them in the use of weapons … In the Battalion were many of the best riflemen in Canada, including Major Elmitt (member of the Canadian Palma team of 1907) … I just mention these things to show how it was that this particular battalion developed into a real aggregation of riflemen … We were using the Ross rifle, a splendid target weapon …”
The top Canadian sniper of the war was Cpl Francis Pegahmagabow, 1st Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, with 378 kills with his Ross.
In World War II, Canadian snipers were equipped with a scope-mounted Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk 1 (T) and organized into scout-sniper platoons. Perhaps the most famous picture of a sniper, then or now, is of Sgt Harold A. Marshall of the Calgary Highlanders, wearing a Denison smock and a Hollywood-handsome look.
In 1972, the Canadian army adopted the C3 Parker Hale, which was based upon a modern target-competition rifle with all the latest improvements for consistent, long-range accuracy. This excellent rifle was in combat service as late as Operation APOLLO, and MCpl Graham Ragsdale of 3 PPCLI recorded over 20 kills with a C3A1 in Afghanistan in March 2002.
The 7.62 NATO calibre C3A1 is being phased out and replaced with the C14 Timberwolf, in .338 Lapua Magnum. The problem with all the classic rifle calibres for sniping nowadays is lack of range. They are limited in effectiveness to the distance at which the bullet falls below the speed of sound, and this typically occurs about 900 metres downrange. Better ballistics dramatically improves range. The Lapua Magnum cartridge is good to 1,500 metres, and the .50 calibre BMG, to over 1,800 metres; and the extraordinary multi-kilometres kills were done with these.
The problem for accurate, long-range sniping becomes accounting for such esoteric factors as atmospheric pressure, and the curvature and speed of rotation of the earth. For this, the sniper’s spotter and his ballistic computer become an absolutely essential part of the team.
The idea of Sam Hughes and Charles Ross of an army of marksmen proved to be impractical, and precise, long-range shooting is now delegated to platoons of snipers with special equipment. Beginning with Hughes, the Canadian Army developed a culture, and now has a reputation for excellence in sniping. Sniping is a skill that is inexpensive to develop. It is a craft that smaller armies like Canada’s, lacking in money and men, can cultivate, and snipers can deliver tactically important results.
With modern tools, Canadian soldiers don’t have to be in no man’s land to be able to dispatch the enemy.