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The Weakness of Taliban Marksmanship

Last week, At War opened a conversation about Afghan marksmanship by publishing rough data from several dozen recent firefights between the Taliban and three Marine rifle companies in and near Marja, the location of the recent offensive in Helmand Province. The data showed that while the Taliban can be canny and brave in combat their rifle fire is often remarkably ineffective.

We plan more posts about the nature of the fighting in Afghanistan, and how this influences the experience of the war. Today this blog discusses visible factors that, individually and together, predict poor shooting results when Taliban gunmen get behind their rifles.

It’s worth noting that many survivors of multiple small-arms engagements in Afghanistan have had experiences similar to those described last week. After emerging unscathed from ambushes, including ambushes within ranges at which the Taliban’s AK-47 knock-offs should have been effective, they wonder: how did so much Taliban fire miss?

Many factors are at play. Some of you jumped ahead and submitted comments that would fit neatly on the list; thank you for the insights. Our list includes these: limited Taliban knowledge of marksmanship fundamentals, a frequent reliance on automatic fire from assault rifles, the poor condition of many of those rifles, old and mismatched ammunition that is also in poor condition, widespread eye problems and uncorrected vision, and the difficulties faced by a scattered force in organizing quality training.

There are other factors, too. But this is enough for now. Already it’s a big list.

For those who face the Taliban on patrol, the size and complexity of this list can be read as good news, because when it comes to rifle fighting, the Taliban – absent major shifts in training, equipment and logistics – are likely to remain mediocre or worse at one of the central skills of modern war. And the chance of any individual American or Afghan soldier being shot will remain very small. The flip side is that parts of the list can also be read as bad news for Western military units, because Afghan army and police ranks are dense with non-shooters, too.

Limited Appreciation of Marksmanship Fundamentals
Let’s dispense outright with talk of born marksmen. Although some people are inclined to be better shots than others, and have a knack, marksmanship itself is not a natural trait. It is an acquired skill. It requires instruction and practice. Coaching helps, too. Combat marksmanship further requires calm. Yes, the combined powers of clear vision, coordination, fitness, patience, concentration and self-discipline all play roles in how a shooter’s skill develop. So do motivation and resolve. But even a shooter with natural gifts and strong urges to fight can’t be expected to be consistently effective with a rifle with iron sights at common Afghan engagement ranges (say, 200 yards or more, often much more) without mastering the basics. These include sight picture, sight adjustment, trigger control, breathing, the use of a sling and various shooting positions that improve accuracy. (For those of you in the gun-fighting business, forgive this discussion; many readers here do not know what you know.)

Related skills are also important, the more so in Afghanistan, where distances between combatants can be long and strong winds common, especially by day, when most Taliban shooting occurs. These skills include an ability to estimate range, to account for wind as distances stretch out and a sense of how to lead moving targets — a running man, a fast-moving vehicle, a helicopter moving low over the ground. And there are many more.

We noted last week that our discussions about Taliban marksmanship rely on what can be seen and heard of incoming fire; this is because we don’t embed with the Taliban. Without being beside Taliban fighters in a firefight or attending their training classes, it can be hard to say exactly what mistakes they are making when they repeatedly miss what would seem to be easy shots, such as Marines and Afghan soldiers upright in the open at 150 yards. Two things are clear enough. First, for combatants who become expert shots, the skills that make up accurate shooting have formed into habits. Second, many Afghan insurgents do not possess the full set of these skills. This is demonstrated by the results, but also by a behavior easy to detect in firefights: they often fire an automatic, which leads to the next point.

A Frequent Reliance on Automatic Fire
Few sounds are as distinctive as those made by Kalashnikov rounds passing high overhead. The previous sentence is written that way – rounds and overhead – for a reason, because this is a common way that incoming Kalashnikov fire is heard in Afghanistan: in bursts, and high. Over and over again in ambushes and firefights, the Taliban’s gunmen fire their AK-47 knockoffs on automatic mode. The Kalashnikov series already suffers from inherent range and accuracy limitations related to its medium-power cartridges, its relatively short barrel, the short space between its rear and front sights, and the heavy mass and deliberately loose fit of the integrated bolt carrier and gas piston traveling within the receiver.

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the few IP's I saw shoot

the few IP's I saw shoot seemed to close their eyes and wave the AK47 back and forth in front of them, lots of firring from the hip with an almost "Allah guide my bullet" attitude.

not very good at modern fighting with assault rifles.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Plato



"We can see with our eyes, hear with our ears and feel with our touch, but we understand with our hearts."