As he grabbed the ammo can, he hoisted it with ease.
“Oh, it’s not that heavy,” Staff Sgt. Jason Godel said with relief. His rifle slung across his back and his pistol holstered above his hip as he moved.
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But as he took a few more steps, the eight days of running and gunning suddenly caught up to him.
“Wait a minute. Now it’s getting heavy,” he said.
“Put it on your shoulder,” said Chief Warrant Officer Two Andy Knote. “Don’t cramp up your fingers carrying it by the handle. We’ve still got pistol to shoot.”
They each carried a can along 600 meters of gravel. Not a huge distance, but already they had traveled 5.6 kilometers while carrying 10-gallon jerry cans, dragged a 75-kilogram dummy across 100 meters of grass, and shot various targets and plates between runs. The dummy itself was so dislocated and awkward that Knote doubled it in half while trying to grab hold of it. For a moment, he looked more like he was pile-driving the dummy into the ground, rather than trying to rescue it.
Finally, after 7.4 kilometers of distance, which included three rifle lanes, two pistol lanes and a lot of rock-and-roll and country singing from Knote to stay motivated, the two Soldiers crossed the finish line in a sprint. Covered in sweat, they peeled off their vests and helmets, and chugged liquids to cool off.
“The hardest part is the mental game. It’s telling yourself that this is going to suck, but it’s going to suck only for so long, so you just keep on going,” said Knote after catching his breath.
This event, called the Rifle Military Biathlon, was just one of more than 30 combat-style matches in the 2015 Canadian Armed Forces Small Arms Concentration, or CAFSAC. Knote and Godel are members of an eight-man International Combat Team from the U.S. Army Reserve competing in this year’s international championship, held in Ottawa each year.
The Canadian Armed Forces hosted the matches and invited multiple allied military teams to compete from around the world. This year, more than 250 Soldiers from Canada, Britain and the United States formed approximately 20 teams to see how they stack up against worldwide competition. Other international combat events are also held each year in Arkansas, Africa, Australia and England.
“Every few months, there’s another world championship and the best military combat shooters come and compete there. So you’re testing yourself against the best,” said Master Sgt. Lance Espinosa, U.S. Army Reserve combat shooter from Skandia, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
However, competitors said this Canadian championship was more physical than some others. All of the matches here incorporated running or military movement before engaging targets. For most of the traditional combat rifle matches, Soldiers ran 100 meters from one berm to the next and shot targets either standing, kneeling or in the prone depending on the scenario.
The competition was held at the Connaught Ranges, with nearly 180 total pistol and rifle lanes combined. The rifle ranges go as far back as 900 meters, and the Canadian atmosphere often creates mirages that pose a challenge to its shooters. Plus there are crosswinds that make it seem like air is moving one way instead of the other. All of these factors add to the mental stress Soldiers endure when trying to hit targets 500 meters away.
During matches, rifle engagements varied from ‘deliberate’ (shooting 10 rounds in 60 seconds), to snaps (targets popping up) and movers (targets moving horizontally across the berm). Overall, the competition included day and night fire with rifles, pistols and light machine guns.
By the end of each day, competitors hung their uniforms and battle gear on fences or their vehicles to dry off and air out the smell of sweat.
“The international combat matches, in my estimate, are the closest thing we can come to a combat shooting environment without actually being shot at,” said Knote, who lives in North Chicago.
“Too often we say, ‘Well, it worked in combat.’ But I say, when you have a fire team on line with full battle load engaging a couple of targets, who knows who is actually [shooting well]? This actually measures the individual marksman’s competence,” he said.
Later in the competition, each shooter went through three dynamic pistol ranges, where they cleared rooms killing enemy targets while avoiding hitting hostages. Each of those lanes was run with live rounds in confined, tight environments. The lanes were timed, with penalized seconds for targets missed or hostages hit.
“Before 2009, the style of these matches was very gentleman-like,” said Capt. Sean Gagnon, infantry officer for the Canadian army and the main range officer for CAFSAC.
Gagnon has been involved with CAFSAC for more than 27 years between competing in it and actually organizing it.
“[Back then], it was very belly oriented in nature, and it was very slow paced. You’d spend a lot of time shooting from your belly [in the prone]. It was more of a gentleman’s sport, like a round of golf,” he said.
But six years ago, it all changed. Top Canadian officials wanted to get more bang for their buck. They told Gagnon and his team: “Either reinvent the matches, modernize them or lose them.”
The style became a lot more physical and combat oriented.
“Oh my goodness. Can I please breathe,” joked Espinosa about all the running they had to do from berm to berm to engage targets.
Espinosa is half Canadian himself, so he felt right at home competing among his “neighbors to the North.” He actually likes to remind people that because he lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he had to drive South from where he lives to come to Ottawa.
Yet, coming to one of these championships is not like going to a typical Army qualification range. Soldiers performed a tremendous amount of training – both physical and marksmanship – leading up to this. Espinosa himself lost 15 pounds before coming here to get in shape. Knote talked about the thousands of dry fire repetitions he practiced at home aiming his rifle at a piece of paper with a dot on the wall.
“That’s one thing people don’t realize. We probably spend eight times as much time dry-fire practicing than shooting live rounds. A lot of commanders make the mistake of thinking that just because you don’t have the budget [for ammunition] that they can’t do marksmanship training at all,” he said.
And when the shooters win matches, they bring home more than trophies and medals. They bring knowledge and experience back to their units. Most of them also serve in mobile training teams with other members of the U.S. Army Reserve Marksmanship Program to train Soldiers throughout the United States. That’s why these competitions are so valuable to their proficiency.
“You know what? The enemy is training to kill us, so we have to train to kill them. By becoming complacent and not training, we are putting our own brothers and sisters in danger, because I’m not only responsible for myself. I’m responsible for my guys around me, too,” said Godel, who lives in San Antonio and is also a trainer with the 91st Training Division.
Godel and his team members are quick to remind fellow Soldiers that marksmanship is a perishable skill. It fades away if not practiced correctly and consistently. And there is no magic bullet to the craft.
“Years ago, I asked a friend of mine, who was a very good combat rifle and pistol shooter … ‘What is the secret to this? Where do you get the magic dust to sprinkle on yourself and the unicorn blood, or whatever it is that (makes you good)?’ And he said, ‘There is no secret. It’s just the fundamentals.’ … And he was absolutely right. There is no secret pill. There is no magic potion. No spell you can cast on yourself. It’s just simply training and applying the fundamentals of marksmanship to every shot.”
Universally, that seems to be the answer to more than shooting rifles. Every Soldiering skill requires training, repetition and constant practice. Every successful outcome is achieved through hard work and a focus on performance. It doesn’t matter whether Soldiers train in Canada, Britain or back home.
Sometimes, a gentleman just needs to strap on a helmet and vest, carry a combat-load and put some rounds downrange to call himself a Soldier.