Carl Taylor's Surgical Shooting I

30 September 2000
By Ken Miller

I recently attended an especially interesting firearms course.  Here's my review:

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to go through Marine Corps Scout Sniper training - now you can find out.  Carl Taylor's Surgical Shooting I is essentially a condensed version of the ten-week Marine Corps Scout/Sniper training program with emphasis on the fundamentals as they apply to Law Enforcement situations.  Carl, and all of his instructors, are qualified MOS 8541 Marine Corps Scout/Snipers.

What makes Surgical Shooting stand out is the field craft training.  There are many courses that stress marksmanship, positional shooting, and other important skills, but this is the first class I've been to where it is expected that the student show up with a ghillie suit and where nearly one-half of the week-long course is spent stalking in that ghillie.

I didn't yet have a ghillie suit so I purchased one of Carl's.  I was interested in seeing firsthand how Marine Snipers with field experience would construct a ghillie and since Carl's ghillies are hand-made by Marine snipers this was a great opportunity to find out.  You can see in the picture how effective the ghillies are - and how even something as normally unobtrusive as the muzzle crown (visible near the spotter's left wrist) and bare skin (the spotter's hands) can easily give the sniper away.

Like many firearms instructors, Carl has a home base but also takes to the road in order to provide instruction to those that can't make it to his facility.  The home base for Surgical Shooting is Pomeroy, WA, about an hour from Spokane.  Carl also has a second home - Camp Pendleton, near San Clemente, CA - where he was trained as a Marine Scout/Sniper and where he still has many friends.  That's where my partner and I took Carl's Surgical Shooting I.

We spent five days at Camp Pendleton.  On the first day we went over a very detailed manual on ballistics and other sniper-related information.  The written material was the most comprehensive I've ever received at a firearms training class.  If you're an experienced shooter, especially a long-range shooter, much of the information will be familiar.  But you can never have too much of the fundamentals so it served as a good review and preparation for the marksmanship portion of the class.

Two full days were spent on marksmanship.  Normally, Carl has students shooting every day but this was the first time the course was being done at Camp Pendleton and some logistical issues necessitated a slight schedule modification.  After zeroing at 100 yards, we shot at successively further distances until we were back to the 1,000-yard line.  None of the students, myself included, had ever shot at these distances and it's a credit to Carl's instructional ability that all but one of us was on paper with the first shot - calculating our own come-ups and calling our own wind.

The marksmanship portion of the class included an exercise in simultaneous shooting and we didn't stop practising until there was only a single crack on the command to fire.  It took a good deal of time (and a lot of balloons) but we finally got to the point where the entire class could repeat this exercise on command.

As far as stress shooting... suffice to say I guarantee you there is no one better able to induce artificial stress in a shooter than a Marine Corps Sergeant.  I quickly lost count of the push-ups, crunches, jumping jacks, and the number of times we ran to the backstop and back in "preparation" for shooting.  We were taught techniques for dealing with shooting on command when your heart is racing and your lungs are burning for air.

The curriculum also included a KIMS game and an observation exercise.  In the KIMS game you're shown a dozen items and must later produce a description of those items.  For the observation exercise, common items, like a cleaning brush, grenade, shell casing, etc., are placed in plain view in an area perhaps 30' by 30' immediately in front of you.  You're given an hour or more to locate and identify a dozen such items using binoculars and your spotting scope.

I don't think my spotter will ever forget the observation exercise.  One of the items was a small green toy soldier that he failed to locate - despite the fact it was only inches in front of him.  He awoke that night screaming "Near danger! Near danger!"  He had a nightmare that during the following day's observation exercise dozens of toy soldiers were attacking him!

There are several things on which Carl places special emphasis.  First, he has designed the field exercises so you struggle if you don't have the right equipment.  When the guy next to you is scoring tens and you're scoring sevens and the only difference is a short length of cord with which to make a field expedient shooting stand you quickly add a little cord to your call-out bag.  There's other equipment you'll be adding too after taking this class.

You must also learn to "burn through" the brush.  The natural tendency is to look over - nothing is easier to spot than a human head popping up.  It's actually comical to see from the spotter's end of the binoculars.  One moment you're looking at the outline of a particular bush and the next moment there's a head-size blob slowing growing from the top of it!  Burning through the bush is the skill of finding a spot where you can see through well enough for the job at hand but where the spotter is extremely unlikely to be able to see you.  This is important not only if the need arises to shoot, but also to enable the sniper to convey intelligence reports back to command.

All of these exercises contributed to improving stalking skills and stalking was definitely the highlight of the course.  The details of the stalk are interesting.  An observer acts as a target and while students fire blanks at the observer, he doesn't fire back - at least not with a firearm.  The observer directs his fire through a "walker" that roams the area through which the students are stalking.

If the observer thinks he's seen a student, he calls his walker on a radio.  At that point the walker yells "FREEZE!" and all students must cease movement.  The observer then directs the walker to the location where he believes he saw a student with directions like "Take 5 paces forward, now turn left 90 degrees, two paces forward, now one baby step to your right."

When the observer thinks the walker is on top of a student he says "Pig at your feet."  (Graduate Scout/Snipers are known as "Hogs".  Students are "Pigs".)  If the student is there, he's been busted.  If not, the walker informs the observer that the observer is "Walking on Elvis" - he saw a ghost.

Often, the observer will be close but unable to exactly pinpoint the student.  Sometimes depth perception is an issue, sometimes the observer saw overhead movement and knows the student is in the area but doesn't know exactly where, and sometimes the student just plain gets lucky.  In any case, by virtue of the feedback the observer relays through the walker, the student learns quickly what they can't get away with.

All stalks are scored on a ten point system as follows:

4 - Show up
        Known as "falling off the truck", just showing up gets you the first four points.

6 - Fire first shot
        Another two points for getting a shot off without being spotted.

7 - Identify spotter
        The spotter makes some gesture or holds up an object that you must identify.  If you can tell the walker what he's doing you obviously have him in your sights and didn't just let a shot fly for the points.

8 - Stay still
        The walker points at you.  If the spotter is unable to get him on top of you it's time for the real test.

9 - Fire second shot
        With the spotter guaranteed to be looking at you, you fire your second shot.  If he still doesn't see you, you're ready for the final test.

10 - Hold your breath
        If the walker is touching you and the spotter still can't identify you, you've momentarily mastered the art of camouflage and concealment.

The effectiveness of the ghillie suits was amazing.  During one of the stalks the walker nearly stepped on me without knowing it while commenting to my spotter, about ten feet behind me that he almost didn't see him.  He hadn't seen me and he was within inches!

None of the students had doubts about the proficiency of the instructors, but if anyone had they would have been put to rest both on the range and during the stalks as the instructors were happy to demonstrate (most successfully) what they preached.

As an example, we all wondered what was within the realm of feasibility when it came to stalking.  To accommodate our curiosity, Carl and another instructor both successfully scored tens against the students and a professional Scout/Sniper observer while dressed in their street cloths.  It was… enlightening… to be stalked by pros.

This is a class, and these are instructors, that I can recommend without any reservation.  Carl has done a phenomenal job of condensing down the essence of Marine Corp sniping into a class of immense benefit to the law enforcement community.

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