In the high desert north of Phoenix, 17 men lie prone on a concrete platform behind sniper rifles. Their heavy rounds kick up dust and pockmark the steel targets on a hillside six football fields away. Into this storm of whizzing lead ambles a 10-point buck. Far from the noise of the rifles, he calmly chews on some mesquite leaves.
A shooter yells, “Deer!”
An instructor jumps behind a spotting scope. “Shit, that’s the first one I’ve ever seen out here.”
The shooter’s spotter slaps his partner on the back and studies the majestic stag through his scope. “What a beautiful animal,” he says. “Can we kill it?”
Day One: Lock and Load
0900 hours: In the state of Arizona it is legal to carry a handgun into a bar. This is gun country. And in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, at the dead end of a state highway snaking through a parched rolling landscape of Bursage and Saguaro cacti, is GPS Sniper School.
Perched atop a dusty hill, GPS has the look of a makeshift military outpost airlifted in by Chinook helicopters. There’s a portable classroom, a steel storage container housing rental rifles, and a tented concrete platform with four picnic tables. The school overlooks a valley with a mock Iraqi village at one end and a shooting range at the other. Across the valley are steel targets staked into the hillside.
Unlike notorious sharpshooters such as, say, Lee Harvey Oswald or the Beltway snipers, the students of this school are not the fringe. They are not survivalists, ultranationalists, or domestic terrorists. They are firemen, cops, soldiers, and mechanics ranging in age from mid-20s to early 50s. Bob is a soft-spoken policeman from D.C. Kevin and Cesar are Army buddies back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul, a 52-year-old from Denver, builds his own AK-47s. There’s even a dentist from the Pacific Northwest, here for a week of shits, giggles, and simulated violence.
At 9 a.m. on the first day of school, the gravel parking lot buzzes with activity. Open trunks and truck beds expose jugs of drinking water, boxes of high-end match grade ammo, gun cases, and all manner of camo and olive drab tactical gear. Nearby, under the white canvas tent, scoped rifles sit side by side on butts and bipods: Sako, Barrett, Savage, Remington, Accuracy International––tens of thousands of dollars in weapons systems. At $5 per round, the Barrett’s .338 will cost Brent, a Texas fire chief, $350 in bullets every day, on top of the $1,100 course tuition. Precision shooting isn’t cheap.
We’ve all come to shoot, but everyone has his own reasons: fun, the challenge of it, or––for many––the opportunity to cash in as a certified sniper on a private security contract overseas. As one GPS student put it, “I’m tired of working for $31,000 a year. That’s the most you’re ever going to make in my job. But I can go overseas and more than triple that. Military and law enforcement you do for country first, money second. Contracting you do for money first, country second.”
I grew up shooting .22s in the piney woods of North Louisiana, and I always had a gun in the house as a kid. I’ve had my shoulder bruised by the kick of a 12-gauge shotgun and my eardrums nearly ruptured firing my uncle’s .38 Special. But I never shot a high-powered rifle 60 times a day for five days straight. It’s no vacation.
“You know what trunk fucking is?” school owner William Graves asks the men hovering in the lot. “It’s standing around the back of your car, getting ammo and food and wasting time.” The 42-year-old former Dallas police officer and lifelong competition shooter has been teaching pistol and rifle courses since his teens. Graves has framed letters of commendation from George W. Bush and Tony Blair in his office, and he’s somehow the caretaker of conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s gun collection. “You will carry three boxes of ammo at all times and carry food in your bag. You won’t have time to go back for more ammo, and we don’t break for lunch. That means no trunk fucking.” As if on cue, 10 trunks slam closed at once.
The classroom is a single-room prefab with an A/C unit at each end, exposed insulation poking through the ceiling, a plywood floor, and two double rows of white plastic lawn chairs. There are about a half-dozen tactical schools in the U.S. that offer high-level sniper training, but Graves describes GPS––which he founded in 1998––as “the only school in the country dedicated to sniper training.” Graves now trains about 350 students a year, with a per-day tuition of $220 civilian and $190 military.
“This is not a handholding, ‘Here, honey’ class. This is a big-boy class,” says Graves. “I figured in a shooting course, we should spend more time shooting than listening to someone talk about it.” The instructors start hitting us with equations, cosine angles, theories on wind and gravity. Physics. I quickly come to know that there are no dumb snipers, though there are some wild ones.
An hour into class we get a latecomer, whom I’ll call Jim. He speaks with a thick South American accent and is the only one here wearing civvies—T-shirt, jeans, and Asics running shoes. His wife kicked him out of the house, he explains, so he doesn’t have any other clothes. He has to borrow a pen. He takes the open seat next to mine. “You want to be my partner, bro?”
Turns out Jim is former U.S. military, and at a very boyish 30 years old he is a door gunner on a Little Bird (a fast, light helicopter) for a U.S.-based security company in Baghdad. He pulls down $600 a day protecting the diplomats who buzz around the Green Zone, hanging outside the chopper door cradling an M4 assault rifle. He’s doing this course to be better at his job. “These days we can’t spray bullets,” he says. “If you have to take a shot, you take one shot.”
As anyone who’s seen Full Metal Jacket knows, the complex piece of machinery you fire is not your gun (your “gun” is between your legs); it’s your rifle or your weapons system. My weapons system is a Remington 700 chambered in .308 caliber, the standardized NATO round. It’s a single bolt action with a capacity of five rounds plus one in the chamber, a matte black barrel hacked down to 18 inches for reduced weight and increased concealment, a black synthetic stock with bipod, and a Leupold adjustable 10-power scope.
We start off with dry firing drills, learning to call our shots, proper breathing, and trigger control––always shoot on empty lungs and keep a steady pull on the trigger, even after the round leaves the barrel. The bullet starts at a dead stop and leaves the muzzle at 2,600 feet per second, so you can’t just pull the trigger and then relax or you’ll throw off the shot. You have to remain almost perfectly still––eyes on target––as you rechamber the next round.
Soon the range goes “hot” and we get our day’s first taste of live fire. Your body has a strong inclination to anticipate the shot, but running 60 rounds a day through your rifle eventually kills the urge to flinch. Like many guys my age, I've sniped a few thousand virtual enemies in Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield Bad Company 2. But first-person shooter video games have no relevance to the experience of firing an actual sniper rifle.
Day Two: Chubby Chasing
1000 hours: “Down range,” yells Nate Hahn, a GPS instructor.
“Down range,” we answer in unison, and then carry our rifles—bolts up, chambers empty, scopes powered down––to lock in on our targets after a 100-yard-zero warmup. Jim shot the tightest six-round group of the class on day one, but his shots are all over the place this morning. His contract in Iraq is 60 days on––30 off. And when he’s off, he attacks the night like a marauding Mongol. After our fine dinner at Hooters, I collapsed exhausted in bed, while Jim went out for more action. “I went to Wal-Mart at midnight to get some bottled water, and these two fat chicks in the liquor aisle asked me, ‘Which kind of booze will get us more drunk?’ So I thought, Game on, right? I hooked up with both of them, bro.”
The absence of female students in our class keeps the humor at military-grade filth. “We get women taking the class sometimes,” says Graves. “We had a husband and wife who did this for their honeymoon.” Rob Pettorsson, one of the instructors, recalls a redhead he nicknamed Red Dawn: “For a female, she had a lot of insight.”
In fact, one of the most legendary snipers in history was a 24-year-old Russian woman named Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who killed more than 300 Germans during the World War II. The history of sharpshooting is a long and distinguished one. Leonardo da Vinci may be the world’s first sniper: The original Renaissance man designed his own scoped gun and is said to have taken 300-yard potshots at enemy soldiers while Florence was under siege. During the American Revolution, a crack-shot changed the tide of the war with his long-barreled Kentucky rifle when he killed a British general from five football fields away. The Civil War saw Americans’ first use of rifled barrels—grooves that spin the bullet for distance and accuracy—and Union general John Sedgwick’s famous last words were, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” before he was shot in the face by a Confederate sniper 800 yards away.
From the trench warfare of World War I through the urban battles of World War II to the jungles of Vietnam, the sniper’s art was honed into a science. But despite their significance in military history, sharpshooters have historically been forced into the role of outsiders in their own armies. They are lone wolves on the battlefield: You can tell them who to kill, but not how to kill. Sniping (never snipering) wasn’t even an official military career until 1977, with the founding of the USMC Scout/Sniper School in Quantico, Virginia. Today snipers are proving effective in the urban warfare of Iraq and the treacherous mountain terrain of Afghanistan. Just this spring a British sniper broke the record of longest kill shot when he took down two Al Qaeda fighters from a mile and a half away.
There’s something fetishistic about the life of a sniper, which becomes clear at the “show-and-tell” that ends each day. Out come the big-boy toys. The AK-47 maker from Denver lets people test out his merchandise: a matte black semiauto AK with an adjustable stock and an EoTech holographic sight. “I could make this fully auto with a pair of needle-nosed pliers,” he says. He even lugs out his cannon of a .50-caliber sniper rifle with 5½-inch full metal jacket rounds. Jim knows his way around an assault rifle, and he takes an aggressive stance behind the AK-47, unloading 30 rounds into the already riddled stucco walls of the “Iraqi village.”
Day Three: Shooting Dennis Hopper
0930 hours: “Conventional wisdom says the first shot on a cold bore will always be off,” says Nate. “We’re gonna show you that that’s bullshit, and the cold bore shot is just the cop-out shot.”
Jim desperately needs his cop-out shot. I can tell from his terrible shooting that he’s still shaking off last night’s booze and lack of sleep. He claims he took home a dancer from a North Phoenix strip club, or more accurately, she took him home after he asked for “a private dance when you get off work.” By the time Jim steps off into the grass to take a leak, the stripper story has already spread, and Nate yells to him, “Does it burn like a thousand fires?”
“Hell, yeah,” says Jim midstream.
Nate and Rob, our instructors, are both former Marine scout/snipers with combat tours behind them. Rob is 28. He has tattooed forearms, and around his neck he wears his hog’s tooth—a .308 round on a lanyard given only to graduates of Marine scout/sniper school. “Once you get into a sniper platoon, you start off as a PIG [professionally instructed gunman], and you try to become a HOG [hunter of gunmen],” explains Nate, who at 23 has already been a sniper team leader in Iraq. “Out of 50 guys who tried out, only eight made it in, and only four made it through scout/sniper school and became HOGs. They spend a lot of time trying to get you to quit.”
After the warmup come timed “target of opportunity” drills on a paper face we all agree resembles a young Dennis Hopper. We spend the afternoon on our rifles, searching for 9"x15" targets 200 to 600 yards away. “This is a man’s version of Where’s Waldo,” Rob chuckles as we search for the tiny unpainted targets hidden in the distant scrub brush. Targets must be located and ranged for distance using our scope reticles and basic math. (There are also iPhone apps that do this, iSnipe and Mil-Dot.) Once the distances have been calculated, each man on each team takes a turn as both shooter and spotter.
“The shooter’s got the easiest job in the world,” says Nate. “All he has to do is pull the trigger. The spotter’s the one driving the bus.”
Based on how far away the target is, the spotter tells you how much arc you need on the bullet in minutes of elevation, or MOAs. Each tic mark on my scope dial is one MOA: If I’m firing on a target at 300 yards, my spotter might tell me to dial up five minutes to give the bullet’s trajectory a greater angle of arc. He also makes a wind call in “mils”: the distance between each tic mark on your crosshairs. Your spotter uses minutes and mils to direct your round onto the target, sort of like calling coordinates in a game of Battleship.
Another day ends with Jim trying to rally the troops for more off-campus adventures. He finally scores some wingmen through the desperation of Patrick and Roger, construction engineers from Austin, Texas who lost the keys to their truck on the second day of school. Patrick is taking time off to do a “tactical tour” of America; his next stop is a pistol course in Tennessee. He wants to start a sniper school with Roger on his family’s ranch. By the end of day three their supplies are running low and they need showers, so Jim’s charms and the promise of a ride back to civilization win them over.
Day Four: Death and Porn
0855 hours: Jim races down the unpaved road to school kicking up a Roadrunner’s trail of dust and gravel behind his compact rental car. Roger and Patrick are riding with him, wearing hangovers and paper Krispy Kreme hats and carrying three dozen assorted donuts between their two laps.
Given the dust, the dry heat, and the dilapidated, bullet-scarred Iraqi village, it would be easy to mistake our surroundings for the real thing: Ramadi West. But the school shares its hilltop with an abandoned western movie set––facades of a saloon, a blacksmith shop, and a hotel of ill repute. There’s a caretaker’s trailer tucked between the shell of a western dance hall and a condemned ranch-style house. The caretakers never appear, just their dog, Chaz––the closest thing the school has to a mascot––who looks like he was patched together with the fur of five different dogs. “Even the dogs in Iraq weren’t that mangy,” says Rob. The abandoned set is still used for films, just not the type it was designed for. “We get porn shoots up here,” says Rob. “I came up here one day, and there were a bunch of girls standing around butt-ass naked. You try getting 17 guys to focus on their crosshairs with that going on.” (To make matters even more surreal, there’s a separate western-themed gun club down the valley a ways where wannabe cowboys fire six-shooters.)
Jim’s morning groups are terrible as usual, but I know he’ll be back on target soon. In fact, by afternoon we all start hitting steel on the first or second shot rather than the fifth or sixth. It isn’t that our shooting has improved; it’s that our tactical banter has been streamlined.
“There’s some crazy dialogue out there, and we want to cut the fat out,” says Nate. “I don’t want to hear bang, ‘Center. Oh, man, you missed way high and right. Gee that was way off, you should probably come down and go to the left.’ It should be bang, ‘Center. Drop three minutes, two mils left.’ ‘Roger, two mils left.’ Bang. ‘Center. Good hit.’ Do not tell him where he missed. It doesn’t matter. The only one who cares where that round missed is Hadji, who’s running away now.” (Hadji is to the Middle East what Charlie was to Vietnam.) Our shooter/spotter dialogue is all about the perfect mix of military specificity and juvenile profanity. The native Saguaro cacti in our field of fire are identified by the number and shape of their “dicks.” And the shortest increment of distance is a “cunt’s hair.” “Has anybody ever actually measured a cunt’s hair?” asks Rob. “I think a guy in my sniper platoon said it was a hundredth of an inch.” We draw a few rolled eyes from Richard and James, SWAT snipers from Mesquite, Texas. While Jim is still in his Asics and I’m in my Gap cargo pants, Richard and James carry loaded sidearms
and wear matching tactical vests and camo BDUs; one day desert digital, another day woodland. Their field sketches are works of art, while ours look like the works of three-year-olds. Still, by now we can all “get the job done,” military speak for eliminating the target.
Day Five: The Kill Shot
0900 hours: For the last day of school, Mark, an airplane mechanic from nearby Phoenix, brings two bags of grapefruits from a tree in his yard and a lemon cake baked by his wife. There is no sign of Jim, Roger, or Patrick. Last we heard, the threesome had headed into Scottsdale for a night on the town. The “party crew,” as Nate calls them, shows up an hour and a half late. They all got hammered, Roger got lucky, and none of them got any sleep. They’re still drunk when they arrive at the shooting range, and Jim falls asleep while spotting my 1,600-yard shot. It takes me 20 rounds to get a hit.
The course ends with a sudden-death tournament. One round per target—miss once and you get up and start cleaning your weapon. As we go down the line, there are more misses than hits. My DOPE (data of previous engagement) for the first target is 220 yards, up three minutes. So I dial up, make my own wind call and aim slightly left of the target. Bang. “Hit,” says Nate. Again we move through the line. I dial up my minutes for the longer shot and a slightly greater wind hold. Bang. “Hit,” says Nate. As I prepare for the next shot, I realize that only a few guys have made it this far, and my nerves get to me. I empty my lungs, squeeze the trigger. Bang. “Go start cleaning
your gun,” says Nate.
Every man here can now shoot six-round groups at 100 yards with less than a half-inch of spacing. We can clear a jammed round in seconds, and we can dismantle and clean our weapons systems in minutes. We can range targets to within 10 yards using nothing but a scope and a calculator, and we can estimate windage and minutes of elevation. These things can be
taught. But some things are either just in a man or they’re not.
“Being a sniper isn’t like Hollywood,” says Nate. “It isn’t just
going out and making ‘one shot, one kill’ and all that. It’s about being dropped behind enemy lines, walking a few kilometers with 100 pounds of gear on your back. Building a hide with your spotter and sitting outside some village for three days, shitting in your MRE bags and having to sit there with flies on you, smelling your own shit. Being a sniper is about taking notes on how many people walk into a house or how many cars drive by it. Then you get a message over the radio saying that the target won’t be there and you have to pack up everything and hike two kilometers to a pickup point without firing a single shot. A real sniper’s job sucks.”
As we clean our rifles, I ask for a show of hands of anyone who’d now consider doing a security contract overseas. Every hand goes up. In the meantime some of the guys are staying on for the advanced sniper course. Some are heading home, mostly to Texas. And some have their overseas contracts waiting for them. Roger and Patrick, still without keys, are hatching a dubious camping trip with Jim. From dentists and writers to SWAT snipers and guns for hire, we are about as diverse a group as could be expected, but bullets and dirty jokes have brought us together. That we will remember long after the equations have been forgotten.