It was the summer of 2011 in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan, and mission after mission, Sgt. Ben McCullar of Third Battalion, Second Marines, would insert with his eight-man sniper team into the berms and dunes north of the volatile town of Musa Qala.
Sometimes they would fire at a group of enemy fighters, sometimes the enemy would fire at them first, but almost immediately, McCullar explained, their team would be pinned down by machine guns that outranged almost all of their sniper rifles.
“They’d set up at the max range of their [machine guns] and start firing at us,” McCullar said. “We’d take it until we could call in [close air support] or artillery.”
The story of McCullar and his snipers is not an isolated one. For 14 years, Marine snipers have suffered setbacks in combat that, they say, have been caused by outdated equipment and the inability of the Marine Corps to provide a sniper rifle that can perform at the needed range.
They trace the problem to the relatively small Marine sniper community that doesn’t advocate effectively for itself because it is made up of junior service members and has a high turnover rate. Additionally, snipers say that the Marine Corps’ weapons procurement process is part of an entrenched bureaucracy resistant to change.
The Marine Corps is known for fielding older equipment. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the Army was driving the brand-new M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, the Marines crossed into Kuwait with the aging Pattons — tanks that rolled through the streets of Saigon in the ’60s. In 2003, when they entered Iraq again, Marine snipers carried the M40A1 sniper rifles, many of which began their careers shortly after the end of the Vietnam War.
Today, the Marines’ primary sniper rifle, a newer variant of the M40, still shoots roughly the same distance: 1,000 yards.
Current and former Marine Corps snipers say their hardware doesn’t match the capabilities of the other services, not to mention what is in the hands of enemies such as the Taliban and the Islamic State.
“It doesn’t matter if we have the best training,” said one reconnaissance sniper who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to talk to the media. “If we get picked off at a thousand yards before we can shoot, then what’s the point?”
McCullar, who was also an instructor at the Marine Corps’ main sniper school in Quantico, Va., until this month, when he left the service, voiced similar sentiments.
“With an average engagement of 800 yards, you’re already ruling out a lot of our weapons,” McCullar said.
McCullar’s most recent deployment to Afghanistan, in 2011, was marked by controversy when other members of his sniper platoon were filmed urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
That year was also a period of improvised tactics on the battlefield, as McCullar and his fellow snipers often found themselves in situations where better rifles were needed.
“Sometimes we could see the [Taliban] machine gunners, and we really couldn’t engage them,” McCullar said. He added that if Marines had different weapons, such as a .300 Winchester Magnum or a .338, their accuracy would be much improved.
The Army, for instance, adopted the .300 Win Mag as its primary sniper rifle cartridge in 2011, and it fires 300 yards farther than the Marines’ M40, which uses a lighter .308-caliber bullet.
In a statement, the Marine Corps Systems Command said it has “evaluated several options for replacing the M40 series sniper rifle; however, the weapon continues to meet our operational requirements.”
The M40 is built by Precision Weapons Section, a component of the Marine Corps that is contracted by Marine Corps Systems Command and is primarily staffed by Marine armorers. It exists solely to build and repair the Marines’ precision weapons.
Chris Sharon, a former chief sniper school instructor at Quantico, says there has been a reluctance to cut the M40 program because it could make Precision Weapons Section redundant.
“Nobody wants to be the one who kills PWS,” said Sharon, who is also a former contractor for Marine Corps Systems Command, noting that killing the rifle would significantly downsize one element of the Marine Corps.
Sharon says the solution to the Marines’ problems lies in a system called the Precision Sniper Rifle, or PSR, which other services solicit directly from a private arms manufacturer.
It’s not that expensive,” Sharon said. “You could buy and maintain two PSRs for one M40. . . . All of our NATO allies have a .338 rifle, and we’re the only ones still shooting .308.”
Sgt. J.D. Montefusco, a former Marine Special Operations Training Group instructor, recounted a mountain sniper course in which he participated with a number of British Royal Marines during training in the rugged terrain of Bridgeport, Calif. Montefusco said the Marine snipers in the course were technically more proficient than their British counterparts, but since the weather was terrible and the British had rifles that fired a heavier bullet, the Marines paid the price.
“Pretty much all the Marines failed,” Montefusco said. “And the Brits just had a heavier round, they didn’t have to worry nearly as much as we did when it came to factoring in the weather.”
Montefusco added: “A .338 [rifle] should have been adopted while we were fighting in Afghanistan.”
The Marine Corps recently decided to upgrade from the M40A5 to the M40A6, a new variant that still shoots the same distance.
“You have to look at those programs and ask who’s driving the bus on this?” Sharon said.
McCullar, Sharon and other snipers all voiced their concern about the next conflict and how Marine snipers will stack up against their adversaries on the battlefield.
“We make the best snipers in the world. We are employed by the best officers in the military. And we are the most feared hunters in any terrain,” said a Marine sniper instructor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “But the next time we see combat, the Marines Corps is going to learn the hard way what happens when you bring a knife to a gunfight.”