Last week, At War opened a conversation about Afghan marksmanship by publishing rough data from several dozen recent firefights between the Taliban and three Marine rifle companies in and near Marja, the location of the recent offensive in Helmand Province. The data showed that while the Taliban can be canny and brave in combat their rifle fire is often remarkably ineffective.

We plan more posts about the nature of the fighting in Afghanistan, and how this influences the experience of the war. Today this blog discusses visible factors that, individually and together, predict poor shooting results when Taliban gunmen get behind their rifles.

It’s worth noting that many survivors of multiple small-arms engagements in Afghanistan have had experiences similar to those described last week. After emerging unscathed from ambushes, including ambushes within ranges at which the Taliban’s AK-47 knock-offs should have been effective, they wonder: how did so much Taliban fire miss?

Many factors are at play. Some of you jumped ahead and submitted comments that would fit neatly on the list; thank you for the insights. Our list includes these: limited Taliban knowledge of marksmanship fundamentals, a frequent reliance on automatic fire from assault rifles, the poor condition of many of those rifles, old and mismatched ammunition that is also in poor condition, widespread eye problems and uncorrected vision, and the difficulties faced by a scattered force in organizing quality training.

There are other factors, too. But this is enough for now. Already it’s a big list.

For those who face the Taliban on patrol, the size and complexity of this list can be read as good news, because when it comes to rifle fighting, the Taliban – absent major shifts in training, equipment and logistics – are likely to remain mediocre or worse at one of the central skills of modern war. And the chance of any individual American or Afghan soldier being shot will remain very small. The flip side is that parts of the list can also be read as bad news for Western military units, because Afghan army and police ranks are dense with non-shooters, too.

Limited Appreciation of Marksmanship Fundamentals
Let’s dispense outright with talk of born marksmen. Although some people are inclined to be better shots than others, and have a knack, marksmanship itself is not a natural trait. It is an acquired skill. It requires instruction and practice. Coaching helps, too. Combat marksmanship further requires calm. Yes, the combined powers of clear vision, coordination, fitness, patience, concentration and self-discipline all play roles in how a shooter’s skill develop. So do motivation and resolve. But even a shooter with natural gifts and strong urges to fight can’t be expected to be consistently effective with a rifle with iron sights at common Afghan engagement ranges (say, 200 yards or more, often much more) without mastering the basics. These include sight picture, sight adjustment, trigger control, breathing, the use of a sling and various shooting positions that improve accuracy. (For those of you in the gun-fighting business, forgive this discussion; many readers here do not know what you know.)

Read the rest of the New York Times blog entry here.

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Last week, At War opened a conversation about Afghan marksmanship by publishing rough data…