Letter Re: .223 For Long Range Sniping?

I’m a proud Ten Cent Challenge member, and enjoy reading SurvivalBlog daily. I would like to point out something that might not be readily apparent about that Blackwater Sniper incident in Najaf that gets so much press, and it leads to a greater point about the usefulness of small caliber precision rifle fire. The art of sniping is fairly new in the field of war craft, and new and creative ways to employ sharpshooters are being developed quite rapidly. The only limiting factor in sniper efficiency is the inability of infantry commanders to understand and effectively employ snipers on the modern battlefield. I would refer you to, “Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper” by Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin, USMC, Capt. Casey Kuhlman, USMCR, and Donald A. Davis. With modern optics, good communications, vehicle borne mobility and tough, aggressive operators, the ability of modern snipers to completely destroy a coordinated assault is unbelievable. Sgt. Coughlin’s commanding officer certainly found it so when they employed mobile sniping during a division sized urban assault training exercise (Project Metropolis in 2001). The effect of the snipers using mobile tactics and radio communication was so lopsided that in midday the exercise planners broke the sniper elements in two and put half of them on each side simply so that they could continue the exercise. That proved even worse, with both sides being totally immobilized by precision fire, to the point that the two opposing commanders got on the radio and gave each other the coordinates of their sniper teams, who were then rolled up by strike teams so that the exercise could continue.

The relative merits of a .308 (or larger) sniper rifle are well known, but what might not be as well understood is the value of a precision .223, especially in the scenario faced by those contractors that day. An AR-based .223 can lay down fire far more rapidly, more quietly and sustainably than can a .308. The sniper can carry roughly twice the ammo that a .308 sniper can carry and the rifle should weigh about a third less, allowing the .223 sniper to shoot easily two to three times the number of precision shots that the .308 equipped sniper can fire because of the relative lack of recoil of the .223 and the reduction in fatigue and soreness. Faced with hundreds of bad guys (sound like something we worry about?) the ability to reach out consistently to 800 yards with precision fire can be unimaginably effective. With a rapid fire 800 yard precision rifle you are still 300 to 500 yards beyond the capabilities of 99.5% of all rifle armed combatants, and they won’t be very effective closing that distance when they’re leaking, or suffering from that famous “sucking head wound.” The precision rifleman thus armed has the ability to engage very rapidly and to lay down a murderous volume of precision fire (which the Blackwater operator seems to be taking advantage of) to suppress mass movement high-speed assault. Let us not forget that while the .223 performs poorly inclose quarters battle (CQB) and intermediate distance combat because of poor stopping characteristics and poor penetration. Those aren’t factors in this type of engagement. By and large, snipers don’t bother engaging through cover, and stopping power at long range is a more leisurely concern as we don’t really care whether a fatal wound stops a person in two seconds or 30 when they are hundreds of yards beyond their ability to engage you. Indeed, I would submit that many people would be better off with a well built .223 semi-auto precision rifle as they are easier and cheaper to build than their .308 counterparts and their ammo is substantially less expensive, which will lead to both greater practice and the ability to stock far more ammo for long term storage.

Depending on whose version of the back story you hear, those two precision riflemen on that roof (only one is prominently photographed, but look and listen carefully and you will notice a second rifleman working right along side the first one) fire some hundreds of rounds each that morning in keeping the attackers bottled up and ineffective. They likely neutralized hundreds of enemy fighters, and kept the rest pinned down at a distance where their rifles were unable to engage (notice how nonchalantly the Blackwater operators discuss the return fire). What you are seeing on that video is an eyewitness account of modern, skilled, properly equipped and specialized precision riflemen at work.

Just my two cents worth. I don’t think that a precision .223 takes the place of a precision .308 (or larger), but I would suggest that for most people looking for a precision rifle it might make quite a bit of sense as a place to start. – Formerflyer

JWR Replies: Here we go again! If .223 were effective at long range (such as the “800 meters” cited in the Najaf video) then it would be widely used by military snipers. But it isn’t. They almost universally use .30 caliber (and larger bore) rifles, for good reason. There are just too many drawbacks to make .223 viable at long range. First and foremost is the “wind bucking” factor. In windless or light wind conditions, small caliber bullets can indeed be accurate for point shooting past 500 yards. But in moderate winds (say, 12+ m.p.h.) at 500+ yards, .223 ceases to be a “precision” rifle. The bullets just drifts far too much under those conditions. (For example, the much-touted 62 grain SS-109 (M855) bullet has a lateral drift of 125 inches at 800 yards with just a 10 mph crosswind.) That is almost eight man-widths! (Hardly conducive to shooting with “sniper” accuracy.)

Next is the problem of residual energy at long range. Even with the “heavy” SS-109 bullet, .223 is essentially just a wounding instrument past 600 meters. That may be fine for military operations, where wounding enemy soldiers is ostensibly a desirable outcome. That was part of the McNamara doctrine during the Vietnam war, and was cited as one of the justifications for issuing M16 rifles. (The often quoted: “A wounded soldier removes three enemy soldiers from the battlefield: the wounded man himself, and the two soldiers needed to carry his stretcher.”) But let me forthright and blunt: In a post-TEOTWAWKI survival situation you will want your gunfight opponents 100% dead. In the most commonly envisioned post-TEOTWAWKI world, there will be no value in a bad guy crawling away to fight another day. In fact, it could prove downright disastrous. A post-collapse world may very well resemble the city states of Italy during the Middle Ages, complete with multigenerational blood feuds. Wounding or crippling someone is a great way to create a tenacious enemy who might just dedicate the rest of his life, and even the lifetimes of his children to getting even. Not to mention that we might still be living in a society with at least vestiges of a legal system. How would you like to face a crippled man in a wheelchair on the other side of the aisle in a courtroom, with just your word against his? No thanks!