Well, I finally made it back to BadLands Tactical Training Facility for the final course in their Sniper series of classes. It took a little bit longer than I wanted to get there, but it was sure worth the wait.
I initially attended my first Badlands Basic Course (reviewers have written about that course here on Sniper Country; see reviews one, two, and three) in 2002, followed directly by their Advanced Phase One course (also reviewed here on Sniper Country). I had been down on other occasions to the facility since then, which probably didn't hurt anything. I am not as young as I was, nor as agile; I needed all the help I could get.
I arrived early with my shooting partner Keith, and once again the shooters started piling up and laying out all of their gear at the Hooch. It is still very useful to have a bunk facility there on site, as there is a lot of class camaraderie and learning to be had after hours (I sure found this to be the case during the prior classes there). With the amount of gear that our team took with us, I was glad we were able to drive to the class in a Suburban, versus flying in.
For instructors at Badlands, there were not many surprises this time around, which was handy since the rest of our time tended to have a surprise or two for us. Bobby Whittington again ran this course, with Steve Suttlesas the primary instructor. Chuck Jones assisted in teaching the teams throughout the course as well. All of the instructors would again prove their dedication and desire to help others learn the skills of the trade. Their real world experience was great, but sharing it by continuing in teaching honest citizens was even better ...
We had nine people who decided to go for the gusto in the final class; I saw some old faces, and some new. All of the folks present had been to at least the two prior courses at Badlands; other than that, experience and background varied. The instructor to student ratio was 1:3 which was needed; this course proved to be very wearing on the instructors, their helpers (including Bobby's family), and of course the students! Some of us attending the course were police, some of us were former military, some had completely unrelated civilian backgrounds. This would prove interesting as the course went on.
This course was five days in length; I'll admit up front I cheated and confirmed my rifle data out to 1000, and snuck a cold bore in prior to the course beginning. This course, unlike the prior courses, had no classroom time of any kind. If the students were not ready for learning in a field environment, they were definitely at the wrong course. I've mentioned it some before, but while this course is doable by many folks, you DO want to be in some kind of shape before the course. I had lost some weight before this course, and it sure helped out! Of the courses I have attended at Badlands, this was by far the most physically challenging, which would challenge most of us during the course.
The evening before the course began, Bobby told all the shooters that there was to be a meeting later that evening. At the meeting, I could tell that folks were motivated and had some experience, as most had small notebooks in hand. This was a "Good Thing" , as there was a tentative schedule of events put out. All students were of course expected to be prepared for anything posted, to commit to memory at least the next 24 hour's worth of schedule, and to organize their gear to be ready to accomplish missions as they came up. We could tell that while there was definitely shooting content in the course, this was going to be a lot less "standard range time", and mostly harder shots under practical field conditions. There is a lot we would have to go through before being allowed to take that "one shot" ...
As in the Advanced Phase One course, all teams were expected to carry all needed mission gear on their person (usually involved a ruck sack), and carrying all gear (conceivably needed for anything during the course) in your vehicle. As teams were mated up during the meeting, folks also shook down their gear, and a few of us made some quick trips to Wichita Falls. Better to have it and not need it ... I noted that almost everyone, including my team, was shooting .308 rifles of some sort, with the exception of a lone .300 Win Mag; the ammo was individual as well, some shot handloads and others went with factory ammo.
The first day involved being to the known distance range on time, and with all of your gear laid out to confirm your prior log book data (for those fortunate enough to be shooting a known rifle / scope / ammo combination, which I think was all of us). This was of course dutifully recorded by everyone, and the sniper dialog was practiced. Team work was paramount to everything that was going to be done during this course, and the KD range time was certainly the easiest thing we did during the week. I felt pretty good at this point, not even aching yet, and the teamwork was working well for at least 2 of us, so far.
After confirming data, we moved out and immediately ran into the first of a number of unknown distance shoots. The range cards came out, and the teamwork came into play. The time increments from prior classes had shrunk; I will only say that efficiency was needed for each sniper team to complete all tasks properly and on time. We wrote in our predicted data as to the ranges, come ups, wind, etc. and then a team would be called, and a target. Once all team shooters had shot through, we switched spots, again on the clock, to be ready to reengage the targets, so the shooter and spotter dialog was reversed. It wasn't even noon yet; I could tell that this was going to be good.
During the first day we also covered stalking techniques as well as team movement; I could see that all my fellow students knew that field craft was going to play a large role in our immediate future. We looked at some different stalk areas, and also worked on a practical tracking exercise. We continued to work on improving our intelligence gathering and record keeping through the proper use of operational logs, various types of target and sector sketches, and range cards. This course was about actually doing it, not on reading about it. We got to stay back at the hooch that evening, and everyone seemed intent on getting their gear squared away before they worried about food. I for one didn't want to mess up because of a lack of priorities!
The second day began with what I consider one of the defining sniper skills, the stalk. It was none too cold for me; our team elected to beat ourselves up earlier rather than later in the day. We carried only the essential gear. Moving through the water and field on your belly makes for some good excitement when the temperature is hovering in the low 40 degrees. As this was a bit more advanced in pace, an instructor acting as a walker actually gave advice to the stalkers during their stalk, which helped out. Of course the downside to this is another instructor was giving advice to the observers, who were trying to pin us down with their binoculars. I was glad for the work our team had put in on our ghillie suits (and painting and taping all of our gear) prior to the course.
Our team managed to cross the final firing line, and we again made sure that our bore was clear, and I chambered a blank. It certainly was not a 'normal' position, but the partner assisted position we took was good enough to keep the reticle centered on an observer's chest from our hide. Some teams during our exercise were able to even fire a second blank without being 'busted' by the observers; this was with a walker within 10 feet of their position, by the way. After all the water I'd emptied from my camelback, I can sure say I prefer stalking in November in the Grandfield area. The prior July, at 107 degrees, was NOT fun stalking time. When someone fires a blank at you from within 200 yards, it does tend to get your attention, and make you think about things.
Observing was just as much fun, taking shifts, and having half of the team resting (and taking Tylenol, thanks Chuck!) while my partner glassed the stalk lane first. Ahem. Anyway, having done it several times now from both sides of the exercise, I find that you still learn a lot even from observing. If you've ever helped with a good sniper match, or watched folks doing a stalk, you know what I mean. I even managed a "bust" this time out, before the opposition crossed the final firing line. I sure haven't always been as lucky with that.
After the stalk exercises, we had a walkthrough and field exercise, and everyone was involved in pointing out the positives and negatives they had, both during the observation time and the stalk time. Instructors pointed out better ways to move, and other techniques that helped with stalks. I could see that even though most of us were tired, and wet, and some of were full of various sharp things from our snail trailing, everyone was picking up on the hints, and having a good time in learning real world skills. I'd pretty much only expected motivated folks to show up for this class, after they'd seen the prior two classes ... but it was still good to see the teams' humor and our desire to improve.
After everyone got some food down, we went into a land navigation exercise. Each person was issued a map, protractor, and a sheet with multiple points on it that we were to find. Of course each team's sheet was different, wouldn't have it any other way. Everyone had done a similar timed exercise before in the advanced phase one course, but it was good to refamiliarize during the daylight hours. It was a good time for us, plotting out all of the points we had to find and we also got to use some GPS skills, as well as using the standard map and compass. Most teams seemed to use a mixture, as it turned out that every team brought a GPS of some sort.
Some of us learned that having the correct map datum and declination is important. Of course, this was certainly a good time to learn it, rather than having to rely on it in a potentially life threatening situation, perhaps a search and rescue in our home communities. Even though it was a brisk pace for the exercise, safety was still stressed, and we kept in contact with the instructors via radio checks. Terrain association still came in pretty handy for our team, as well as the typical pace counting. After some invigorating miles, we turned in all of the points we had found, and squared away our gear before we left the area.
By the information that was put out before the course started, we knew that this was the last time during the week we'd have any chance at "town" chow, so many of us took advantage of that. The second night of the five day course, everyone was preparing their gear, and trying to get a good night's sleep at the hooch, since it would be our last sleep for a while, at least in a bed of any sort! I of course did not sleep well this night, which didn't help out any, but those are the breaks.
Friday morning was the third day of the course, most of the students were having a pretty good time with each other, which for sure made the difficult tasks easier. We started out with more unknown distance ranges, and various stresses were added in during our preparations and actual shooting. After this, there was an expanded (compared to earlier courses) qualification test on the known distance course, with of course reduced time requirements as well. Almost all of us made at least one "not so perfect" shot during this qualification; for a good student, there is always room for improvement. Working with mil dot hold overs and unders was taught, and we shot real world data using several techniques. Incorporating mil dot holdoffs for wind with this technique made for some practical data for us.
This was important as many of us realized that in real life it's pretty unlikely a target will sit still while you twiddle with windage and elevation knobs. It was gratifying to be able to make precise shots at 100 with my weapon system, using my 700 yard comeups. The particular .308 handload I used was flat enough to shoot from 100 to 1000 using only the 700 yard dope on the scope. So if I can't fault the rifle or ammo, then I just need to get better at my shooting and wind calls!
After any needed rifle maintenance and gear packing, many of us found that 2003 packed MRE's actually can taste pretty good (they're certainly better than what I remember in the army). With lunch out of the way, the instructors were now watching how we did on yet another set of unknown distance targets. Setting up your position, all of your gear, finding the targets, drawing all the needed info out on a range card, determining the distance to the targets, and preparing to fire : we were doing this in much shorter time increments now.
As usual, the second shooter on each team had the advantage of some prior data from their partner, since they had just fired the course. This made for even more first round hits, in the famous "variable but often high" Badlands winds. The changes in wind effect, when shooting out across real field terrain in an arc of well over 90 degrees is pretty interesting. There are few places I know of to shoot out to 1000 yards plus under such typical real world field conditions. Students were now gladly doing a small amount of PT prior to deploying to the firing line.
The time finally arrived for the Field Training Exercise, or FTX. We were given a warning order, and told it would be a minimum of 36 hours long, and would end after approximately 36 hours. Teams quickly resupplied as needed on water, rearranged any gear they needed to, and tried to grab any shuteye they could during the 3 hour prep time. Then it was time to move out for some enjoyable time in the field. A number of us were joking that we used to get paid to do this sort of thing, and now we were paying to do it! I was still amazed that for all the work and materials involved in the course, that it was under $100 a day though.
The FTX kicked off promptly at 6:00 that evening. There were night fire exercises scheduled, as well as a walk in the woods. Coordinates were handed out in the failing light, for the night land navigation exercise. Oh, and the teams might have been shuffled a little bit. Even if things changed, everyone present was thinking of how to improvise where needed and adapt to the situation so that we could properly complete our tasks. There is a ton of fieldcraft involved in a proper sniper team night land nav, and as during the other exercises, I certainly learned something with each task.
Proper fence crossing is vital to avoiding sniper busting bulls, for instance, and avoiding tetanus shots, or even worse getting shot. Doing these things at night, and tactically, was far different than doing the same thing under easier circumstances. As well, all of the teams were now a bit more wrung out than at the start of the course, and we could all see how it affected performance. Everyone was intent on learning as well as performing well, and for myself and my partner, old injuries in the ankles were really catching up to us from the cross country footing at night, as well as the miles. After the time limit was reached, all teams were back on time at the recovery coordinates, and more or less intact.
A new operations order was put out, and teams were assigned to various tasks. Copying down the wrong coordinates proved to be a bad thing for one of the teams, and I can't believe anyone was that stupid. I will certainly try not to do that again. Socks were changed, gear rearranged as needed, and the night's activities continued. It was up to teams to perform their assigned tasks within the guidance given in the op order. Some teams managed to rotate duties and get a little sleep in that night, others didn't. In working with different people, I was glad to see how everyone was helping each other. You could see within a team how the members exploited strengths and made up for weaknesses while developing better skills. It sure got cold, even though it was just above freezing that night.
Teamwork continued through the course, in both teams of 2 and teams of 3. Each team was expected to exfiltrate on their own time, and be at a grid coordinate by a given time, per the op order. My particular team made it on time, but not with too much time to spare. At that time we were met by instructors, and had to immediately prep for a sniper task on short notice. No one was quite as sharp by this point as they were the first morning of the class. A few of us that had done some field work before got a laugh as "extra" gear started to disappear from more than one ruck.
During the FTX on Saturday, we continued to work on those fragile sniper skills. Precision shooting was done on very small targets, icluding with angles, at both close ranges, to much farther ranges. The mil dot shooting was used as well as positional shooting. Included in our schedule was more moving target engagements, but there was not time during the FTX itself. We continued to learn some new skills, and practice them (hey I can't give all of the class away!) during Saturday. Then we quickly resupplied and reshuffled gear as needed for the final push ...
In putting it all together, we started Saturday evening, once more under failing light, with a detailed operations order. This would put all of the skills we had worked on together in a practical exercise, to include being actively searched for by "opposition forces". The details of that night were long and painful. I was able to deal with the blisters (instructors estimated we'd moved at least 30 miles with rifles and ruck; hey, I'm not even a police officer anymore, truth hurts but I'm a desk guy), but a final twist of an ankle was a bit too much during the night, and my partner had to be redeployed with another team. Everyone else managed to survive while I sat with a foot elevated, silently cursing deep Oklahoma mud. (did I mention it had rained a lot before the class?)
Without wanting to reveal too much of the final portion of the FTX, it ended in a unique real world shot. I missed several hours of the cross country fun, but at least got to see the teams' final fire mission go off. It is one thing reading about something online or in a book, but it is a little different going and actually doing it all at once. The mission concluded just after 8 on Sunday morning; some of us had only a few hours of snatched sleep since early Friday morning. This even affected the little things, like visual acuity. The teams were transported out, and the class had a mandatory rest period after all the effort. I didn't see any instructor or student argue with that; I sure didn't, even if the swelling wasn't getting worse on my ankle. I was sure not the only one snacking on pain killer though.
Our class woke up after noon, and we held our final after action review. I sure enjoyed working with the rest of my classmates, and my various team mates. Everyone expressed a real sense of accomplishment from this course, and discussed the positives and negatives, as well as lessons learned. I really see a lot of value in the training, and several of us (me included) will continue to work on our fitness, as well as trying to improve our skills. This course is only held once a year, and we could all see why. Only those who are dedicated to taking their sniping skills to the highest levels are going to show up. I'll have a chance to work on things a good deal between now and next year's class.