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Bolt Actions Speak Louder Than Words:
Canadian Snipers in Afghanistan, Part II
by Rob Krott

Last month SOF interviewed Canadian snipers as they recounted how they became a “911” unit for the American forces to whom they were attached, for missions at the sharp edge of the Allied assault on the Shah-i-Kot mountain range. We continue our debrief of Canadian sniper Master Corporal “Alex” as he describes a productive shooting position, in the open on a hilltop — but with the sniper’s coveted good fields of fire.

“It was unreal; I was so excited. All of us really, we were just glad to be there. There was a guy that was moving up on the hill that an Apache was shooting at and [we] just turned around, and engaged him.” According to Alex their initial engagement lasted about two hours.

“We were there about an hour or an hour-and-a-half when Charlie Company moved out. The SF guys said they had to catch up to them and asked us if we were okay. We still had targets so we’d keep clearing, that’s our job –- we work alone. So they said if we needed help to give them a call. We were up there about another half-hour or so and carried on the mission. Anytime something would pop up we’d take care of it. We waited another half-hour until everything was good to go and then changed position.”

It was a team effort. “‘Ed’ (the No. 3 man on team security) kept running back and forth through that altitude grabbing optics, ammo, equipment. With the elevation we had there it was great that he did that because if he hadn’t we wouldn’t have had the equipment that we did. The whole team worked great.”

While engaging al-Qaeda forces on the Whale’s Back, Alex’ team was tasked to suppress some enemy mortars. The U.S. infantrymen were in the open without cover. The enemy was protected. After airstrikes were called in to suppress the mortars the enemy mortarmen would merely emerge from their caves and jeer before putting more fire onto the Americans. And when they did, the Canadian snipers took them out. The Canadian snipers were credited with saving the lives of many American infantrymen.

Alex’ team spent 14 days providing sniper-support on Operation Anaconda. “We got switched between the first and second [battalions] and I would just ask ‘where’s Charlie Company’ and I started recognizing the CO. When everything started hitting it our call sign was ‘63’ and the next thing you know it was ‘Canadian Snipers.’ We ended up being free agents on the battlefield going from company to company wherever we were needed. We were more than happy with that.”

The Long Shots

Somewhere in the middle of the first week of Anaconda, Alex made his longest shot. It was an elevated target at 2,310 meters. Alex was shooting from approximately 8,500 feet at an enemy forward observer at 9,000 feet (verified by his spotter via the Leica Vector laser range-finder) with his bolt-action McMillan .50 cal (LRSW), firing AMAX Match ammunition and mounting a 16x Leupold scope. His first two shots missed. “The first shot was high and left, the second shot was left, and the third shot was a hit.” Alex told Soldier Of Fortune that the altitude, the cold, and the thin air might have enhanced bullet velocity. The spotter, according to Alex, “did all the work.” The snipers kept a logbook of the shots themselves, but their emphasis was on the mission: “Get the mission done, carry on to the next mission. We really didn’t want to carry that kind of information with us, in case of capture.” Afterwards, Alex put some notes down for possible intelligence information. Alex was reluctant to talk about the extreme range of some of the shots the Canadian shooters achieved.

When I mentioned comparing this shot to Carlos Hathcock’s 2,250 meter shot near Duc Pho in 1967, Alex said, “It was also a different weapon, a different environment, so you certainly can’t (compare it) … no one can take anything away from Hathcock’s accomplishments. His was an awesome shot. Everyone’s talking about these ‘long shots’ but you know what? I could get yourself down behind it (the McMillan in that situation) and as long as you’ve got a great spotter, he’s the one who makes the shot; then you could make the shot.” Technology certainly has pushed the envelope and Alex agreed with that. He’s modest about the shot and would rather avoid any discussion on it. It’s obvious that Alex and his fellow snipers were not interested in statistics or records, just completing the mission. “We were just so glad that we could be a part of that operation,” said Alex.

The other three-man sniper team from 3 PPCLI made the longest shot of the operation: 2,400 meters. Alex confirms the shot was made, as the team members confirmed the shot and the range was verified by the Leica Vector laser range-finder — the Vector is great piece of kit — but he doesn’t know for certain if it was a one-shot hit. “I was talking to them about that. The two guys running the show there, they confirmed it. It [the account of the 2,400-meter shot] didn’t just come from one guy. They did confirm that [the hit]. I don’t know exactly where they hit. I don’t know if it was on the first shot.” Alex did confirm that this extremely long shot was made against an enemy combatant in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck.

Alex refused to indicate actual numbers of confirmed kills but did agree that several enemy were successfully engaged and the comment from a U.S. Special Forces source claiming the Canadians confirmed well over 20 “kills” was essentially correct. “We decided as a group that we won’t disclose how many we got. We know what we did; we’ll leave it at that. We never expected all this press [media attention]. We did our job and we had a great time doing it.”

Gear, Terrain, Altitude, And Load

After Anaconda the Canadian snipers were flown back to Bagram Airfield. There they did a refit to fight and went out the next day on Operation Harpoon with their parent unit, 3 PPCLI, for five days. The Canadian snipers were well-respected and admired by the American units they worked with. According to Alex, “The 101st guys … wanted us to stay out there. There was no problem with having us stick around. We’d still be out there if they hadn’t brought us in. We were having a great time of it.”

An American general Alex talked to in Kandahar after Operation Anaconda was quite interested in how accurate the McMillan was and how it performed in battle. Alex is effusively laudatory about the weapon. “It’s a great piece of kit. Accuracy –- it’s bang on. As soon as you get your dope -– it’s bang on.” When pressed to evaluate the McMillan, Alex commented that “at first the ammo wasn’t that good, but we fixed that. There was a slight problem with the magazines. The magazines could be better. Other than that the weapon itself was working good. It didn’t seem to be knocked off [the optics] from day one to the end of the operation. I carried it in a drag bag on the back of my pack and it was always ‘max protected.’ For all the stuff we were doing it was right on all the time. There’s no major adjustments that we can see.”

Alex, a bodybuilder with a solidly muscled physique, is 6 feet, 220 pounds. SOF wanted to know how the snipers coped with their soldier’s load in the rugged Afghan mountains. “Honestly, we were low on food. Because of the situation out there, the birds couldn’t get in because of the weather. As a team we worked really well. I mean, yeah, there were a couple of guys out there going hungry, but every time we were asked to do something all three of us were ‘carry on.’ The terrain was desert, rocky, and rolling hills and, of course, the altitude; it made us tired, and the mountains, of course. Some guys were ‘how do you carry that heavy pack’ -– you just gotta do it.” According to Alex their rucksacks weighed approximately 100-110 pounds.

The snipers were carrying some heavy equipment: “We had our own 40-power Leupold spotting scope that our spotter used.” They did everything they could to lighten their load and improve mobility. “We were the only Canadians who didn’t wear helmets or flak jackets. We tried that during rehearsals but it did not work. It took two guys to lift my rucksack, so I could slide into it. The guys that lifted it asked us ‘How are you guys going to carry that?’ Well, we have to. The ‘other guy’ had a radio and extra ammo, and the third guy had an M203 with 33 rounds [40mm grenades] on him, so that’s what we were looking at.” In addition to their normal webbing and sniping equipment the snipers were issued Blackhawk chest webbing (bought from unit funds) to carry eight extra magazines for their C-7s, plus extra pistol magazines.

“I was usually leading. Unless we were in a bad situation or in a valley or something. Usually I’d be up front with another guy and would set the pace because I had the heaviest ruck. We had another guy covering our rear. So it was pretty much up to myself to set the pace.” Alex’s team spent the entire two weeks on foot except for one time when they got a ride on a John Deere ATV cargo carrier because his team was needed quickly somewhere else. “As a Canadian I’m not used to seeing that stuff –- you know when a Chinook drops off a John Deere. The way the Americans treated us was great. It was just unreal; anything we needed, if it was in their power to get it to us, it was there.” The weather was subject to drastic change. Alex showed me photos of the snipers bivouacking in the snow and ice with just ponchos or tarps in hasty shelters. They were all smiling. It wasn’t that much of a challenge to the grunts from Alberta. “Some guys need all that Gore-tex stuff and we had stealth suits underneath, but sometimes you have to leave that nice comfortable stuff behind when you go on operations. You’ve got to carry that stuff. And you know what? You’re not going to die. So, don’t suffer — take care of yourself, but there are different ways of staying warm than carrying all that stuff.” On 9 March, a week after Operation Anaconda commenced, the 3PPCLI was ordered to clear the Whale’s Back mountain on the western side of the Shah-i-Kot Valley of an estimated 60 to 100 enemy holdouts, dug-in or hiding in caves.

The 3PPCLI launched Operation Harpoon, a battalion-strength air- assault against the Whale’s Back, shortly after first light (0730 hours local time) on 13 March. Inserting via CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a single-ship LZ at the northern end of the mountain, the Canadians’ mission was to destroy all remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda on the Whale’s Back and then search all detected caves and enemy fighting positions on the mountain. There were few enemy left on the Whale’s Back, and the Canadians promptly engaged them with anti-tank rockets (the Canadians issue the LAW, TOW and Eryx) and small-arms fire, killing three. They searched more than 30 caves and captured tons of enemy weapons, equipment, and intelligence materials. They spent five days clearing enemy positions on the Whale’s Back and finding large caches of ammunition and equipment.

During this operation, the 3PPCLI snipers continued their mission “to interdict enemy fighters and suppress any heavy-weapons positions.” For their outstanding performance while in combat when attached to the Rakkasans [3rd Bde., 101st Airborne Division], the Canadian snipers have been recommended for the American Bronze Star Medal for Valor.

A sniping advocate, SOF Chief Foreign Correspondent Rob Krott was equipped with an M21 sniping rifle during a tour of duty with the 2nd Infantry Division (Korean DMZ). An account of his KNLA sniper training mission appeared in “Long Range Revenge,” in January ’97.

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