Sunday, December 18, 2011

Range Practice

One of the things about doing NS is that you can try out stuff that you don't normally do, like shooting a rifle. But unlike in an arcade where a token can buy you endless bullets and moving targets, Army rifle practice is often best remembered for a lot of preparation work and admin.

The trigger word here is Butt Party.

This term conjures up early morning wake-up calls, a mountain of stores, three-tonner rides before sunrise to some god-forsaken rifle range, often infested with mosquitoes out looking for early breakfast. There would also be mental images of starchy smells of pasty glue, of buckets of small squares of patch-up paper and of signal sets that have to be drawn from a Signal Store somewhere, "batteries fully charged and ready". Butt Party is not a party at all. And Range becomes a nightmare if you are one of those BOBO or WOWO shooters. Either way, it means that you are a soldier that cannot even hit an elephant five paces from you.

Going for Range for such shooters is usually a nerve-wracking trip. There would be consequences if you don't shoot well. And if you were in a Butt Party, you would have plenty of time to think about that.

In my day, the rifle ranges we went to were the ones at Upper Thomson Road, Safti (Pasir Laba) and Pulau Tekong. The Pulau Tekong one coincided with live grenade-throwing because the island too had a Live Firing Range.

The job of the Butt Party is simple: Set up and manipulate the targets whilst the rest shoots at it. When it became turn for the Butt Party soldiers to shoot, another detail of soldiers would take over. Most of the ranges were manual, i.e. you would need soldiers to move the targets up (to shoot at) and down (when their shot-time is up). Not all ranges were equipped with line comms then. Communication was typically via the old combat 77 Signal Set, a leftover from the Vietnam War.

The targets we shot at were printed paper pasted on plywood. They came in two designs: 1) A full-height charging soldier called Figure 11; and 2) a chest-up prone soldier called Figure 12. We often used the Fig 11s as Far 300m Targets and also as Near 20m Targets fired at with automatic burst from the hip. Fig 12s were mostly used for shooting at from 200m. For some reason I always did better with the 300m targets. But despite that, I still managed to get my Marksmanship Badge at the end of BMT.

Well, way before we went to the range, we had to learn how to handle our rifle. At the time, we were using the same Colt M16 semi-automatic rifle that US soldiers used in the Vietnam War. It was supposed to be a reliable weapon even in muddy conditions. The rounds it used, 5.56mm, was a common hunting round. And in recent years, it has been adopted by Nato as a standard round for its troops.

The M16 is not single-shot, meaning you do not have to reload a round after each shot. Gas mechanics will make sure your rifle's chamber is always loaded with a round to be fired off - why the M16 is known as a "semi-automatic". In full-automatic mode, you can basically expend all rounds by keeping your finger tight on the trigger. It takes less than 10 seconds to finish off a magazine of 30 rounds, why I think gung-ho folks like Rambo and Arno Shwarz are full of bull when they single-handedly defeat an army with just two belts of ammo strapped across their chests. You'll need a freaking truckload of ammo standing by!!!

Believe me (or any NS man) that it is simply not realistic to be trigger happy. In a battlefield situation a single bullet can mean the difference between you living or your enemy dying. However, that being said, automatic fire has its use in battle: it keeps your enemy pinned down in a pinch (no pun intended). It was something Vic Morrow did often in TV's Combat! In WWII, soldiers carried single-shot weapons whilst troop leaders like platoon sergeants (Morrow) carried Thompson sub-machine guns. There's also a dedicated gunner who carried a more powerful full-automatic weapon called the BAR (Brown Automatic Weapon) - their version of our GPMG or General Purpose Machine Gun that the SAF uses. However, what we used mostly mirrored what the Americans used in Vietnam. I don't why this is so; didn't the US lose the war?

I remember my first time firing an M16. It didn't sound too loud and had little recoil. I was quite disappointed actually. But there was no mistaking the power of the bullet that left the barrel; it could smash through most things hard, let alone soft flesh. And as I later learned in OCS, the M16 round (a Remington derivative) liked to yaw in flesh, i.e. tumble and fragment to cause nasty injuries. It was better to be shot at by an enemy wielding an AK-47 whose round, although heavier, behaved better. The worst you got was a large hole, not itsy-bitsy bits of bullet ricocheted and embedded in organ and flesh.

Recruit Range Practice was quite different from Reservist Range Practice. No doubt the procedures remained quite the same over the years but the motivations for doing well were entirely different.

During Recruit time, you aimed to do well not just for your platoon but for your company too (three platoons make a company). The Company Commander liked to see more of his recruits obtain the Marksmanship Badge; it is proof that his NCOs and commanders have been doing a good job instructing the botakheads (recruits) to excel. In Reservist, you shot well so as not to come back for Retraining. That would interfere with your civilian career or time spent with girlfriends.

We had range practices that led to range tests. These tests determined if you were to be awarded the Marksmanship Badge. I remember the morning of my test very well. I was feeling a bit out of sorts (I might have eaten something suspect at breakfast). Plus, I also didn't manage to zero my weapon during the previous range practice (I think we had either run out of time or ammunition). In shooting, zeroing is the process of finding your aiming point. If you can fire three bullets to land on the same spot, then you probably got your rifle's aiming point pretty well down pat. In shooting parlance, that's called a "grouping".

Mad Dog Wee was Conducting Officer that morning. He showed particular interest in me and two other guys who had the same problem. Our weapons were yet to be zeroed. Before the actual test begun, he gave us a single detail (shooting turn) to fine-tune and zero our weapons. I didn't like my rifle. It was pretty loose at the barrel guard. I had to twist it in order to hold it firm. That in turn affected my posture. To make sure that I didn't loose my grip, I tried pulling down on my rifle sling. It at least helped align the front barrel, keeping the foresight tip in horizontal line with the rearsight 'O'. It seemed to work OK.

The thing about last minute zeroing is that we still have to run to the butt to get our target papers back, which is tiring. We then hand the results over to a Zeroing NCO who would make an inference about how our shots went. He would then use that to make adjustments to our rifle aiming sights. To do this he would either click the foresight tip (with a sharp pair of tweezers to adjust its height) or adjust the dial that controlled the rearsight (laterally). Sometimes both. But that morning, Mad Dog Wee left nothing to chance and decided to zero our weapons himself. I still remember that scene around the Admin GS table.

My grouping that morning was neither here nor there, which did not give me much clue as to how my rifle was handling. I had hoped for a close grouping so I could relax and shoot a high score. With a not-here-not-there grouping, you tended to question your own technique even. Did I breathe right? Did I squeeze the trigger too fast? Was my sandbag firm? Where did the mistakes come from? Aka a host of insecurities!

The Marksmanship Test (that's what the generic shooting test for all soldiers was called) had four parts. 1) A 300m foxhole grouping; 2) A prone 300m grouping; 3) A run down to 200m prone grouping; and 4) A run down to 20m for burst fire. We each had a different magazine for each test.

I think the 300m tests were an "Own time, own target, fire!" whereas the 200m test was timed. The same with the 20m test.

For the timed tests, the instruction was always "Firers, watch your front!" The targets would then flip from side view (a thin line) to face you full frontal. When time was up, the target would revert back to its 'invisible' side profile.

In "own time own target", when a shot landed on a target (say, 300m away), the Butt Party soldier holding that target up would flip it about to indicate that it was hit. If you saw no action, then your shot had probably gone astray. How did the butt party soldier know? Well, he could feel your shot because he has been holding on to your target. The vibration from the shot landing would tell him.

Shooting at the wrong target was something that happened sometimes. But more so when we had to run towards the 200m line from our 300m foxhole position. Some soldiers would get disoriented and then end up aligning themselves to the wrong target, especially having to prone. Soldiers who wore spectacles were most susceptible. Their sweat-fogged lens made it doubly difficult for them to see when they ran.

I should know because I wore spectacles. But I later abandoned my glasses and preferred to use my good left eye instead. Till this day, it remained 20/20 whilst my right is slightly off.

During Reservist, when aggregate battalion shooting results mattered more than individual performances, we sometimes helped each other out. Those of us who were better would help the bobo or wowo shooters. If I had landed 2 of 3 shots on my target, I would then save the last one for a wowo's target, assuming he had missed one first. Finding four holes on a three-shot target was not ideal as it would lead to much questioning and possible investigation if neutral observers were around.

Then, there's Night Shooting.

Night shooting was fun because we would use tracer rounds with the normal rounds. Because a tracer round would leave a streak of red light, it illuminated a path to the target. I can't quite remember but I think it was one tracer for every three rounds of normal. It was particularly impressive during Night Live Firing when everyone fired at the same time. More so when the GPMG joined in.

The targets would also be illuminated with "illum sticks", or night sticks that glowed.

That day during my BMT Marksmanship Test, because my weapon was not so finally zeroed, all I could do was rely on instinct and trusted techniques. When results came back that I had indeed scored a Badge I was over the moon. Shooting was a fave sport of mine which started during my NPCC student days. Then we had shot with .22 pistols. Although I did ok, I never liked it because my teenage hands were never comfortable with the large pistol grips. With an M16, the story was different. In my platoon, only a handful of us were awarded the Badge. But that did not matter. The whole company finally managed to get an above-average score. Previously, the results were close to failing. If an infantry man cannot shoot, it's like a chef who cannot wield a knife. We might as well go join the Navy or Air Force. If we had failed, that indeed would have been very "malu-malu".

Next story: Road March Songs With Fatt


  1. done a google search on 300m rundown, and your blog appears. Thambs up!

  2. Used to be called CTSS in my days.