I remember the first time my father taught me how to shoot in the basement of our house. I was twelve at that time. He took out an RWS pellet rifle complete with a six power scope. When he pulled it out of the case I felt like I was taking a big step towards becoming a man. While all of the other kids were at home studying, my father was passing down skills that would last a lifetime. Anytime I wanted, we went to the basement and while I was shooting, he was reading. My father knew what he was taught, but shooting was not a way of life for him; he was an engineer who spent his days making seemingly impossible things for some companies, possible for dozens of them.
After a few days, my skills seemed to level off so I embarked on a journey to the library to find anything I could about marksmanship. There, I found a book about high-powered rifle competition that I must have read a dozen times for a month. Every other day, I would be down in the basement converting what I had read into reality. My groups were shrinking and I was trying many of the different shooting positions in the book. I was hooked from that point on. However and after a while, shooting with the scope became too easy; that winter I went from knocking tin cans over, to shooting dime sized groups in almost any position with iron sights.
As spring came about and in abundance the birds with it, I decided to start hunting. I didn’t want the neighbors to see what I was doing as being in the communist state of Massachusetts would make them probably call the police even if they saw a squirt gun. As this meant that I had to take my prey from inside the house, I learned how to set up positions all around it, so that if anyone looked into the window nothing could be seen. The only telltale signs were the bottom corners of the screens being pealed back just enough to allow a clear field of view into whatever tree I was watching.
By mid-summer that year, there seemed to be a no-fly zone around the house. Birds would not land on any of the trees; squirrels would not venture into the yard… It turned boring. I thought all there was to hunt was sitting and waiting in the right spot for an opportunity to present itself. Boy was I wrong.
At the middle school I went to there was a man called “Psycho Janitor” who kids and teachers seemed to avoid. Some of the rumors were that he had been shot in the head, had a bomb shelter in his back yard, and was in general bat-shit crazy. One day when I was leaving school late and had on a BDU coat, I saw him out of the corner of my eye and did my best not to make eye contact. As I walked by, I could tell he was staring at me. As I passed I heard him say: -“hey kid”… I thought I was going to “get beat”. He asked what I was wearing that coat for and just told me I was out of uniform. The “Psycho Janitor” did not seem so mean after all.
The next day I stayed late again and when he saw me out of uniform for a second time I was stopped once more. This time and before he could chew my ass, I asked him what the difference between an M21 and an M25 was. I think this caught him off guard. He finally introduced himself and gave me a detailed answer and then went back to work. I would then stop by after school every few days to learn more. Some weeks after, I asked if he would help me improve my shooting if I assisted him with his work. Tom (that was his name) asked for my father to come meet him first and it turned out they had met each other many years prior.
My father gave him the green light and I started helping my new mentor clear out the brush on his property during the weekends. After the first day I worked for Tom, we went to the local gun club where he broke out his sniper rifle. Once again I felt like I was about to get one more step closer towards becoming a man. Out of the case came a highly customized Remington 700. He gave me a detailed class on the rifle, how it worked, how and why the scope functioned and then handed it to me.
As I settled behind the glass, I felt at home. I applied pressure to the trigger and just like a glass rod snapping, the trigger let loose and a round departed the barrel and found its way onto my aiming point 100 yards away. The next few rounds were all over the place. Tom asked me not to be a pussy and not to be afraid of the recoil or muzzle blast. He told me I should disregard the outside world once I was behind the glass and “get the job done”. I attempted to do as I was told, but the blast over pressure was too much at that time. Every time I pulled the trigger I felt as if a bomb was going to go off in front of me.
I would help Tom at least twice a month and in return he would take the time to share his knowledge with me. In working with him I learned he was an Army sniper and had been to a number of great schools during active duty and a few more while in the reserves. When I finally asked Tom if he could teach me how to be a put rounds on distant targets from concealed positions, he laughed but he also saw that I was serious. It turned serious for him too. In the years that followed, Tom took the time to attempt and impart everything he knew upon me. One session at at time, I learned from one of the best.
By the time I was in ninth grade I was old enough to get my firearms license so I bought my own rifle (a Savage 110FP), did my own bedding and camo job, and took pride in what I worked hard all summer to obtain. Once again, I was turning rather proficient at 100 yard shooting and wanted to shoot further. The only problem was the fact that I only had access to a 100 yard range. There were a few places in town where I could reach out to 800 yards, but doing so was against the law. That’s when I began to carefully plan where I could gradually shoot further and further. A number of these locations would require me to set up near houses so I could thread my round out of my location, across the river, and through the vast open fields into targets located at the base of the hills. The hard part about doing this was getting out of the area after I had sent the round downrange. People would call the cops and report someone shooting nearby, thus there would be an officer in the area looking for a hunter or the like. However, after stalking out of the tree line, I became quite adept at hiding things in plain sight. Who would think anything of a kid riding a bike with a large backpack on and with the obvious end of a fishing rod sticking out of it?
My mother had also taken up the shooting sports, primarily for self-defense when working in downtown Boston. She took the required safety course to get her concealed carry permit, but the training didn’t stop there. She wanted to become an NRA pistol instructor and she did just that. My mother and I spent many days on the pistol range together.
By the end of the fall that year, I had reached my goal and made a 800 yard shot in a neighboring town. Hunting season was starting and for the first time I could go off into the woods with my own firearm and hunt alone. That season I learned that hunting with an accurate firearm in Mass didn’t require much skill at all. It was all about watching patterns over time and getting undetected into an area which would give me the best chances of success.
That winter I purchased my first bow and applied most of the fundamentals I had learned on the rifle to archery. I could practice with my bow in my backyard so in only two or three weeks I was making great hits out to 50 yards (which is a long way for a bow). Shortly thereafter, I started bow hunting. Rifles and shotguns allowed me to take game out to a few hundred yards if I had the distance available, but it was a different story with a bow. Bow hunting really made me focus on patterns, reading light and terrain made me aware of all of my surroundings. These skills would end up saving a number of my friends lives many years later. Tom had taught me how to read the terrain and plan stalk routes. This knowledge really helped when moving into areas. However, there was a downside to hunting with a bow: I was often too close to my prey and it seemed that if I blinked it would bolt as when you prep to make a shot, moving some major body parts is a must. Doing so is rather hard when under observation from animals whose sense of awareness is ten times what the hunter’s is.
By the time I was a Jr. in high school, I had taken up NRA high-power rifle competitions. There were not many in Mass, but my father’s friend often let me borrow his AR-15 or joined me during the matches where I would take the time to ask the top shooters and the military shooting teams to share their knowledge. In one of these matches I had a national champion all to myself. The data dump I got in 8 hours from this man is still ingrained in me today. From shooting pellets at 25yds in my basement, I had gone to hitting at 600 yards with iron sights. I had come a long way in a few years.
During my senior year in high school I spent inordinate amounts of time bow hunting during fall and winter. I often skipped out of school early around twelve, or even did not go if I wanted to get into some great hunting areas. Every now and then I was caught skipping and was given a one or two day suspension for doing so. That was fine with me: “more time in the woods”.
From the first time when my father took me down into the basement with that RWS until I was seventeen and getting ready to join the Marines, I never stopped learning about marksmanship and field craft. In the summer of 1998 I found myself on the rifle range at Parris Island SC. For three weeks the Marine Corps PMI’s (Primary Marksmanship Instructors) dumped their knowledge onto us recruits. I came out of boot camp as the company high shooter, and would be the company or battalion high shooter in every unit I went to thereafter.
Then and for two years after boot camp, I was in 29 Palms CA where it surprised me how little firearms training the Marine infantry actually did. During my first year I was promoted to Corporal (E4) -nothing major-, but being an NCO meant that I could sign out the base rifle range on the weekends, reason why most of them I found myself on the range at 29 Palms.
The wind conditions on that range are probably the worst to shoot in out of all the Marine Corps ranges. After a few weekends of shooting this made me realize that my Savage 110FP and my Simmons scope had their limitations. That’s when I purchased a rifle from a custom gunsmith and put some quality glass on top. I also started running hand loads as I had done in high school, and the combination of all, made for a great long range rifle.
One of the only downsides of the range at 29 Palms was the fact that it was a known distance range. Once I knew the dope for a certain distance, it would only change if the weather did. My friends and I started to hunt coyotes off base. We would park the truck on the top of a hill and set up our positions. Spotting a coyote at distance took tremendous observation skills. If they are moving it’s easier, but if they are just hanging around an area and lying low, it really requires work to find them. Once we did, we had to do old-school range estimation and could not use laser rangefinders. The further out the prey, the more precise we had to be. The coyotes are small, thus any error in range at distance means a miss. To this day I miss my time out there dropping coyotes at distance.
That summer I purchased my first .50 caliber rifle. The rifle was a classic single shot bolt action that was developed for the SF community in the early 80’s. I bought the rifle from an old man who lived out in McCoy. The guy was a strange cat who kind of pioneered low-drag monolithic projectiles. He got me set up with the correct loads for the rifle and took the time on many of weekends to teach me the finer points of extreme long-range shooting. I can remember a few paychecks that went directly to buying .50 cal ammunition.
In 2000 I was sent to Pakistan where I spent a year with one of the Departments of States most respected agents and one of the guys who stood up their mobile security division. We did not go to the range that often, but I had access to an electronic firearms simulator that was somewhat realistic. Since there was very little to do up until 9/11, I spent hundreds of hours running through scenarios on the simulator under his watchful eye. It was not until 2003 when I went back to the US that I was able to begin shooting on a regular basis again.
When I moved to Jacksonville NC, I lived right down the street from Norm Chandler Jr & Sr, who I had known for years. There, at Iron Brigade Armory, I immediately started assisting them during the weekends. My duty was to break-in and zero all the rifles leaving for customers. I would show up to the shop on the weekends, load up all the rifles that needed work and spent the day at the range. I learned a tremendous amount from the guys at IBA.
At age twenty-three my primary job was as an infantry platoon sergeant. I was promoted to Staff Sergeant (E6) in four years so when I went back to the fleet I had over thirty Marines to train for war. Some of the Corporals were actually older than I was! I spent as much time as possible imparting my knowledge onto them. If we were not busy running battalion and company level training operations, I would have my Marines out doing weapons manipulation drills. Some of them thought it was overly repetitive, but they later thanked me after they used the same skills to save their lives overseas.
While in Iraq, I had a loaner M40A3 I borrowed from the SSP & would keep close by when on patrol or on the road. There were a number of instances where we would take fire from a distance, yet the only rounds effectively impacting our attackers were coming out of my bolt rifle. I was glad I had spent so much time on that windy range at 29 Palms because most of the areas my platoon found itself in were wide open and rather windy.
On April ninth 2004 I was able to effectively cover one of my squads, later the platoon and company, as they were heavily engaged by insurgents (link). Even though my spotter and I were under heavy machine gun fire from fellow Marines, in addition to the fire we were taking from the insurgents, I just remembered Tom saying “block it out, get the job done”. The long range precision fire from our position was able to thwart a number of flanking attempts by the insurgents and also kept two Marines from becoming POWs. I was hit by an IED that summer and that ended my third trip into a combat zone.
When I got back to the US I had a lot of time off to recover but I didn’t want to sit around. Norm Chandler was running a sniper class at Blackwater by the time I arrived to Bethesda MD and asked me to come down and brief the guys on the AO they would be working in. So two days after getting out of the hospital I was at Blackwater. The nice thing about that place was the vast amount of knowledge walking around the ranges. There was a SEAL sniper instructor cell there those two weeks, so each evening after the Marines were done training I’d park my ass on the range with the SEAL cadre and fill the brain housing group with more information.
During the remainder of 04’ and 05’ I made at least six trips to Blackwater. It was mostly to help teaching but my primary focus was learning all I could after hours from some of the finest warriors the Navy had. During my time moonlighting at Blackwater, I could spend some quality time with MGySgt Ken Roxburgh. Rox, as people call him, was a supply Marine by trade who spent about half his Marine Corps time on the rifle and pistol teams. He held a national record at 1000 yds that stood for over twenty years. The skills and techniques Rox imparted to me over the next eight years made me a better shooter and a better person.
After getting back to Camp Lejeune, the Division Gunner and head CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) in the Division in charge of all infantry weapons training and tactic development called me into his office. He needed an SNCO to start a new section at the DTC (Division Training Center). Getting a squared away SNCO to fill that billet at that time was hard. Most were busy with their respective units, but since I was in the process of getting medically retired, the Division did not have any issues following the Gunners direction to get me orders over to the DTC.
The mission at the DTC was to stand up a new pre-sniper course to provide Marines, new to their sniper platoons, a three-week crash course specifically focusing on stalking and long range shooting. Other skills such as detailed mission planning, non-VHF communication’s, hide construction, small unit tactics, sniper employment, precision aerial gunnery, fire support, target detection & selection, observational skills, land navigation, surveillance etc. would be weaved in between the stalk lanes and the range. Most of the skills we were asked to teach I knew a great deal about thanks to experiences in the Corps and those that reached all the way back to my days bow hunting as a kid.
During the two years as SNCOIC I had about ten sniper instructors working at various times. The information and individual experiences we shared with each other, and most importantly our students, made everyone better. Five years later, some of my instructors have moved up and have become SNCOIC’s of a number of Marine Corps sniper schools. Even some of my former students are now instructors! Another plus about that job was all the schools our cadre was able to attend. From counter terrorism driving courses to advanced sniper courses, if we had time, the CWO would endorse and cut orders, and off we went!
By the time I got retired by the Marines I had already set into motion my own training company. I thought I knew a lot at that time but the more schools I went to, the more I realized education is a lifelong endeavor. I started Tier 1 Group in 2006 and within five years I and my staff had more SOF guys running through my facility than our biggest competitor.
To this day I still seek knowledge anywhere I can find it and always remember Tom saying “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and you’ll go far in life kid”. Looking back, I was fortunate not to have tree-hugging anti-gun parents, but ones who taught firearms responsibility and sent me down a rather fun road in life.
Semper Fi Steve