By Mark V. Lonsdale, STTU
This paper came out of a discussion at an Applied Ballistics Seminar concerning the challenges of shooting in mountain environments and dealing with variable winds.
Drawing on considerable experience in mountain terrain and in Afghanistan, and having lectured on the effects of terrain and weather on military operations, this discussion will focus on how military snipers can minimize the effects of wind to improve their first round hit probability.
Mark Lonsdale (center) in Northern Afghanistan – early 2003
First, let’s look at the basic requirements for a sniper hide or final firing position (FFP):
- There needs to be a suitable, unobserved infiltration route to the hide
- The hide site needs to offer good concealment 360 degrees, but primarily from the target location
- There needs to be suitable security positions and minimal potential for compromise from locals or goat herders
- The shooting position should provide a suitable field of observation
- There should be a suitable field of fire that encompasses the target location and surrounding alleys and structures
- If the mission is overwatch, then the sniper position should also have a clear view of the assault teams’ approach lanes
- The shooting position should be as comfortable as practicable, and allow the team to communicate without compromising their position
- On multi-day operations, the snipers should work to continually improve the concealment and comfort of the hide site
- There should be unobserved exfiltration routes to the RV or extraction point; or allow for the snipers to move down to link up with the assault force for extraction
There are more, and hasty overwatch shooting positions are a different animal, but these are enough for this discussion.
The Long Shot:
In environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq, there is not only the opportunity for long shots, there is also the necessity. Where, traditionally, sniper were able to dominate out to 800 meters with their 7.62mm/.308 Win rifles, as soon as they entered the Afghan theater of operations in 2001/2002, it became evident that the harder hitting .300 Win Mag and .338 Lapua Mag were superior weapons systems for long range shooting (1,000+m). These heavier high BC bullets not only extended the effective range of the snipers, they also bucked the wind and had a fraction of the wind deflection.
Mk13 Mod7 clone built on a Stiller’s MK13 300 WinMag action but with a Bartlein Heavy Palma profile barrel
This longer range shooting, from 800 out to 1,600+ meters, also required better ballistics, ballistic solvers such as Applied Ballistics, and wind/weather meters such as the Kestrel 5700 Elite. Without these advanced technologies, the probability of a first round hit was very low.
First Round Hit Probability:
Long range shooting draws on all of the skills of the sniper team while pushing the limits of their equipment. A high probability first round hit requires the following:
- An accurate rifle with rugged, high quality, high magnification optics
- Consistent match-grade ammunition with heavy, high BC bullets
- The ability to accurately range the distance to the target
- The tools and experience to adjust the firing solution for changing environmental conditions
- The ability and experience to accurately read the wind and calculate the appropriate adjustment or hold-off
- ….and just a little bit of luck in erratic windy conditions
The two most common causes of misses at longer ranges are mis-reading the range and mis-reading the wind. With the introduction of compact, accurate laser rangefinders, and the move away from milling targets, the problems related to ranging the target have all but been eliminated. This leaves just wind to contend with.
Compact Terrapin X Laser Rangefinder
No military sniper would expect a first round hit at over 1,000 meters, in unfamiliar terrain, and in cross winds gusting 15 to 25 mph. In fact, many would not risk the shot and opt to wait for better conditions – thus the need for patience and not just wishful thinking (pray and spray). Any of you who have trained or hunted in the desert or mountains will know that this usually necessitates going for the shot in the early morning or last light when winds tend to drop off to near zero.
So this is where planning the overwatch position or sniper hide site comes into play. Again, using Afghanistan as our case study, the entire sniper element needs to become amateur meteorologists and serious students of the local weather, weather patterns, prevailing winds, and the daily changes in wind direction and strength. Just as all snipers keep data log books on their rifles and dope, they also need to begin a separate log book to track daily weather, temperature, humidity, density altitude, and winds in their area of operation (AO).
Note: Even for extreme long range shooting competitions, I begin collecting local wind and weather data days before a major match. Using Raton, NM, as an example, the temperature can swing as much as 30-40 degrees F from morning to early afternoon, and the density altitude can change as much as 3,500 feet in the same period. Apart from the effects on exterior ballistics, the temperature swings also affect ammunition as much as 30+/- feet per second.
While still State-side and before deploying to an AO, the sniper team can begin compiling data from open sources on the internet. These can include access to weather sites, tourism guides, and topographical maps. Websites used by mountain climbers, global trekkers, and pilots are particularly useful since weather has a significant impact on their travels.
Immediately following the tragic events of 9-11-2001, I was invited to give a presentation on Afghanistan to Force Recon Marines at Camp Pendleton. Even though most of the material presented on terrain and weather was open source information, the Recon Marines commented that it was better than what they were receiving from in-house military sources. But an interesting side-bar, immediately following 9-11, I had visited several major bookshops in Los Angeles to check out any new books or maps on Afghanistan, but the sellers said that FBI agents had come in and bought up everything on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The lesson here is don’t neglect open source research.
Author at USMC MWTC with Force Recon platoon the night before 9-11-2001
At the military level, the sniper team should study reports not only from the teams currently deployed in that AO, but from teams that were deployed at the same time, and in the same location, the previous year. The goal is to identify the daily wind and weather changes which can be dramatic in arid and mountainous environments such as Afghanistan. Flying into Bagram (north of Kabul), the team will already be at 4,895’ MSL, and the surrounding mountains go up to 15,000 feet. So on any given day, a sniper team could be operating in a large town in a valley or hunting bad guys in the mountains at much higher elevations.
One of the more useful tools for advanced planning, to better understanding prevailing winds, is aeronautical charts. Anyone who has had any pilot training will know that airfields and air strips are laid out into the prevailing winds, so aeronautical charts actually diagram these airfields. If an airfield or air strip is designated 270, this means that planes will approach from the east and land with a compass heading of 270 (west) since the prevailing wind will be out of the west (270). If the wind switches 180 degrees later in the day, then the landing runway will be designated 90.
Aeronautical charts showing the airfield directions at Jalalabad and Kabul Afghanistan, plus the height of the surrounding peaks in thousands of feet.
In mountainous areas where airfields are usually in a valley, such as Jalalabad (1,840’ MSL), the wind is invariably channeled down the valley, so the airfield will also follow the direction of the valley. In the case of Jalalabad, the valley and the airfield run NW to SE (309 / 129 degrees). So once the sniper team knows the prevailing wind in the entire valley, they can plan for a shooting position that puts the wind behind them (6 o’clock) or ahead (12 o’clock). By doing this they will not be dealing with a challenging crosswind.
The disadvantage of having the wind behind the sniper is that noise and smell travels on the wind. If the range is 800m+ then this is probably not a concern, but animals downwind may pick up the scent. The advantage of being up wind for the snipers is that when the enemy is looking towards the snipers’ hide, they would be looking into the wind which could cause their eyes to water or blow dust in their eyes. Most people, including local guards, will generally turn their backs to the wind.
In addition to the wind, the location of the sun is also a concern. If a sniper sets up before dawn facing east, he will have the sun in his eyes at sunrise. Similarly, if he sets up facing west for an evening shot when the wind drops off, he may be facing into the setting sun when it comes time to take the shot. Anyone who has shot on a range that faces into the sun when it is low in the sky knows just how difficult it can be to see the target clearly. The flare in the scope can completely obscure the target.
Part of daily life in a farming village community, which includes most of Afghanistan, is that cooking is done on open fires, even inside the house. So just before first light the sniper team will see smoke coming from the mud hut chimneys. An excellent wind indicator.
Images illustrate smoke and dust in Afghanistan on overwatch.
Even though much of Afghanistan is dry and barren, and all the trees have been cut down for firewood, if the village is near a river there will be standing crops or poppy fields that will be sensitive to even light winds. In the mountain communities, perched on the sides of hills, it is a safe assumption that the wind will be channeled through the valleys and ravines.
Next to a village there will often be a cemetery marked by green and colored flags and banners on tall poles. Another excellent wind indicator.
Strong winds and dust storms kept the helicopters ground in Kandahar so we couldn’t leave the wire in Spin Boldak.
One of the benefits to snipers in Afghanistan and Iraq is the ubiquitous dust. Even though dust is the curse of the infantryman and detrimental to a lot of sensitive equipment, for snipers it offers a great wind indicator. The indicators of wind direction and strength from dust include vehicles going down a road or highway. The dust kicked up by the tires provides a very clear indication of wind direction and can be seen from considerable distance. But even villagers walk, children playing, or goats being herded kick up enough dust to call the wind direction.
One major problem with dust, and the not infrequent dust storms, is the restricted visibility generally grounds all helicopters. When MEDEVAC and C-SAR helicopters can’t fly, troops are usually not permitted to go outside the wire since there may be no option for medical evacuation in remote areas.
Shooting in the Wind:
Scenario #1: The sniper is looking at the side of a ridgeline with the wind coming from his 6 o’clock position (tail wind). If he is scoping targets up on the face of the ridgeline, he needs to know that the tail wind will turn into an up-draft when it hits the mountains, therefore he can expect that his shots could go high. Similarly, when the wind is coming from the opposite side of the ridgeline (12 o’clock), it will come over the ridge and then run down slope causing a down-draft.
FCSA 1.5 mile ELR match in Raton, NM, is excellent practice at shooting from a 1,000 yards out to 2,650 yards while dealing with mountain wind conditions. On this day we had a 6 o’clock wind at the shooting position that was hitting the base of the ridge line and causing a noticeable updraft.
Scenario #2: The sniper team has been asked to set up overwatch on a small village for a direct action (DA) or cordon & search operation scheduled for first light. Looking at the terrain the sniper team notes that there are rocky outcrops to the south and east of the village. The village sits in a valley that runs almost north-south. From this, there is a high probability that the prevailing wind will be up the valley as the day heats up, and down valley in the cooling evening. So since the wind will either be out of the north or out of the south, it is logical to set up overwatch on the rock outcrop to the south so as to avoid dealing with a changeable crosswind.
Scenario #3: The sniper element is tasked with taking out a specific high value target (HVT) and given considerable latitude in their mission planning. This is the ideal opportunity to select a position that avoids potentially high crosswinds even if the selected shooting position increases the range. Adding 200-300 meters to the shot is much easier to adjust for than shooting in gusting 10-15 mph crosswinds. It is preferable to take a 1,200m shot with a tail wind than a 900m shot with a gusting crosswind.
The study of wind and mastering shooting in wind is a lifelong endeavor – especially crosswind shooting. So anything the shooter can do to minimize the effect of the wind will improve first round hit probability.
While sniper teams will not always have the option of adjusting their overwatch position to offset the effects of the wind, it should still be considered when working to improve first round hit probability. In some locations, the mission requirements may take precedence, in that it may be more important that the snipers can see the assault team approach lanes, or spot squirters coming out the back of the building or village. In these cases, it pays to be as close to the target location as possible to offset any potential wind deflection.
For the hunter, there are advantages to swinging wide around a hunting area so that he or she can hunt into the wind (up wind). The mistake of hunting down wind is that the hunter’s scent noise of movement is carried on the breeze and will alert any animals in the area. Walking into an area with the wind coming from the left or right almost guarantees that a shot may have to be taken in a crosswind. So the value of hunting with the wind in your face should be obvious, especially in open terrain where a long shot may be the only shot.
ALPINE OPERATIONS was picked up by 10th Special Forces Group, out of Ft. Carson, CO, as a textbook in 2001. Contains considerable information on mountain weather and sniper operations.
Having worked with US and coalition forces in support of OEF and OIF and being a ranked extreme long shooter, the author is available for long range rifle training or wind & terrain briefs on Afghanistan.