FORT BENNING, Ga. — The world’s top sniper duo hails from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Master Sgt. Kevin Owens and Sgt. 1st Class Terry Gower of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), emerged from a field of 32 teams to capture the top spot in the 2011 International Sniper Competition. Fort Bragg wound up placing three teams in the top five at the 11th annual event, which began here Sept. 27 and wrapped up Friday.
The field included entries from Ireland, Spain, Canada, Germany, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Army National Guard. There were state police tandems from Florida and California.
“It gets more competitive every year,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Vest, a U.S. Army Sniper School instructor and team sergeant. “As the technology grows, everyone seems to get better. This also gives us a chance to share ideas and spread our knowledge a little, even with other countries.”
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A wide range of skills was tested as competitors fired rifles at fixed and moving targets, from various distances and positions, both day and night. Instructors said most events required sharp communication between shooter and spotter. Factors such as elevation, weather conditions and wind must be accounted for.
“You can’t see everything at one time,” Vest said. “Ask any sniper — you really have to rely on your partner. It’s not only the guy who pulls the trigger. Your partner has to be able to talk you onto the target.”
In the past, teams in the International Sniper Competition could bring any weapon considered military issue. This year, all used the M110 Semiautomatic Sniper System, a 7.62 mm gas-operated rifle that’s standard in Sniper School.
“We were trying to alleviate guys from coming in here with high-powered scopes and different guns,” said Staff Sgt. Derek Balboa, an instructor. “We wanted to level the playing field a little bit. It had become too much of a gear race. This year, we made it more of a marksmanship skill and competition. I think it turned out pretty good.”
Despite the new threat and changing operational focus triggered by 9/11 and the war on terror, the sniper skill sets reserved for more conventional warfare are still needed today, Balboa said.
Nowhere was that more apparent than on the 360-degree “Stalk Lane,” which unfolded Thursday at Harmony Church. Teams decked out in camouflage had to move through thick brush and over rolling hills in an effort to get shots on targets about 300 meters away — all while avoiding detection.
“Patience and attention to detail are very key,” he said. “We show guys the techniques and exactly how to move when they’re in the school. During the stalk phase, you move in increments. It’s feet and inches.”
All the scenarios throughout the four-day showdown were relevant to real-world missions and operations, organizers said.
“It’s the epitome of our job,” said Spc. Andrew Wonderly of C Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division. “It was free bullets for us. We don’t always get to do that in our unit.”
Wonderly and Sgt. Nik Badovinac formed a Fort Riley, Kan.-based team that finished tied for eighth with 425 points.
“The events were pretty tough,” Badovinac said. “They seem easy. Then, when you get out there, you find out it’s not easy one bit.”
Battling sniper teams from all over the planet also was a learning experience, Wonderly said.
“There’s definitely stuff you learn just watching the other guys,” he said. “It shows us how far we need to go and what we need to work on. But I’m glad they’re all on our side.”
The week included a two-day kickoff symposium with discussions about lessons learned in war zones and a review of tactics, techniques and procedures. A rifle vendor shoot and corporate-sponsored expo took place Friday at Red Cloud Range.
Vest said the annual gathering allows representatives from across the sniper community to meet and exchange information — and the competition stands as a solid training opportunity as well.
“You usually work alone in this profession,” he said. “Bringing these guys together, you learn more about what to teach the students coming through the courses. And there are things we can pick up and use ourselves.”
The networking among the military branches, special operations forces, Sniper School officials and civilians from industry will produce additional benefits for snipers, Balboa said.
“You start seeing trends during the competition from military and civilian teams,” he said. “If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. We’ll incorporate it as training value.
“This is going to get better and better as far as the competitive aspect goes. Within a month or so, we’ll start planning for the 2012 event. We always tweak it a little and try to do different stuff.”