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How Canada’s small military produced deadly, record-breaking snipers

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Canada is not known, at least not in popular culture, for its military might. Fewer than 70,000 active soldiers serve in the country’s armed forces, whose size and strength have been mocked over the years by American and Canadian commentators alike. The United States, by comparison, has about half a million active soldiers in the Army alone, and hundreds of thousands more across the other branches. By American standards, Canada’s roughly $20 billion defense budget is minuscule.

But don’t let those numbers fool you.

Despite its small size, Canada is known for producing well-trained, highly skilled soldiers, who have long fought alongside their American counterparts in major world conflicts, including the current fight against Islamic State militants.

Canadian sniper reportedly hits target in Iraq from more than 2 miles away. (Video: CTV News)

In particular, Canada boasts some of the best snipers of any military, and the world may very well have gotten another reminder of that this week.

On Thursday, the country’s military said that a Canadian Special Operations sniper had shot an Islamic State fighter in Iraq from more than two miles away, purportedly breaking a world record for the longest confirmed kill shot in history, according to the Globe and Mail.

An unidentified sniper from the elite Joint Task Force 2 made the shot from a distance of 3,540 meters using a U.S.-made McMillan Tac-50 rifle, according to the Globe and Mail. The Canadian military provided no details about the operation, nor did it say whether the human target was killed, as The Washington Post reported. But the Globe and Mail cited anonymous military sources saying that the fatal shot, made from a high-rise building during an operation in Iraq, was independently verified by video and other data.

The Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff described the extreme difficulty of hitting an enemy combatant at such a distance, let alone fatally wounding one:

For the soldier to hit his target 3,540 meters (3,871 yards) he would need to account for every atmospheric factor available. Wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, the bullets yaw and the rotation of the earth would all need to be considered before pulling the trigger. These variables, once harnessed from devices such as a handheld weather meter and potentially range-finding equipment on the gun, would then be processed through a ballistic calculator that would let the shooter make the necessary adjustments on the rifle’s scope.

If all that went according to plan and the insurgent was indeed killed, the Canadian sniper’s shot shatters the previous world record, held by a British soldier, by a staggering 1,065 meters.

It also fits a long tradition of expert marksmanship among Canadian soldiers.

During World War I, Canadian snipers were celebrated for their deadly accuracy on the battlefield. Among the legends is the late Francis Pegahmagabow, a Native Canadian sniper from Ontario who fought in Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1914 to 1918. He was credited with 378 kills before he was discharged the following year, and as of 2014 he remained the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in the country’s history, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News.

“Canadian snipers were arguably the best-equipped Allied soldiers in the early year of the war,” wrote military historian Martin Pegler in a 2011 history of sharpshooters. He called Pegahmagabow “arguably the finest sniper Canada fielded.”

“Most of the finest Canadian snipers proved to be Natives, whose backwoods skills, patience and acute eyesight made them ideally suited to the task,” Pegler wrote. “Canadian soldiers provided some of the best snipers of the war. Their kill rate was extraordinary.”

Outdoorsmen played a big role among the Canadian military’s snipers, according to Maj. Jim McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces department of history and heritage. Many British soldiers came from urban backgrounds, he told the Globe and Mail in 2014, whereas Canada had an abundance of farmers, hunters and trappers.

“People realized pretty quickly that sniping was more. It was shooting and hunting combined — the skills of camouflage and concealment,” he said. “The kind of hunting that you do to hunt animals at close range were the same sort of skills for concealing yourself from the enemy.”

That experience carried into World War II, said Mark Zuehlke, author of a dozen books on Canada’s military history. One of Canada’s most iconic photos from the war shows Sgt. Harold A. Marshall, a sniper from the Calgary Highlanders, posing with his rifle.

“The best snipers were usually country boys who knew how to hunt,” Zuehlke told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News. “They knew how to handle a gun and handle a gun well.”

If Thursday’s account of the Canadian sniper’s fatal shot is true, Canadian soldiers hold three spots in the top five longest recorded sniper kills.

It’s a morbid list, to be sure. There are human beings on both sides of those mind-bogglingly long and complicated shots. War is not a video game, and no soldier tasked with such a grave responsibility takes up a rifle seeking to break a record.

But records do get broken, and a degree of bragging does take place.

In 2002, Canadian Master Cpl. Arron Perry shot and killed an Afghan insurgent from 2,310 meters, resetting the bar for a confirmed kill. Just weeks later, during the same operation, Canadian Cpl. Rob Furlong killed an insurgent at 2,430 meters. That record held until 2009, when British Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison shot and killed a Taliban gunner from 2,475 meters.

After the 3,540-meter shot was reported Thursday, some expressed skepticism. The Post quoted a former Marine sniper saying an array of systems likely helped make the shot, such as a spotter with an advanced optical device or an overhead drone. He said the shot was “possible” but extraordinarily tough.

Furlong, now a marksmanship instructor, told the magazine Maclean’s on Thursday that sniping had been taken to a “different level.” Canadian snipers excelled, he said, because they were trained to run complex operations and learn command-type thinking beyond their current rank.

“I’ve been saying this forever,” he told Maclean’s. “Canadian snipers are the best in the world. The sniper training program has been around for a long time. It’s the foundation, and it’s been retooled from lessons learned in Afghanistan. We’ve built it to be the best.”

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