By: Rick Telander, speaking to ex-Navy SEAL Scott Tyler
Men’s Journal, Dec 2009
There is a decision you must make. The world is vast and unstructured. In it, things move seemingly at random. There comes a narrowing, a focusing, as the aperture reduces and reduces. The act, combined with training and skill and vision and, yes, philosophy, leads to a gradual, noiseless ratcheting down and down, like ripples in a pond going backward toward the pebble, closer and closer, smaller and smaller, the chaos dissipating into a tiny center of detailed clarity. And then the trigger.
To shoot a man from a distance is a fascinating, awe-inspiring thing. It is nearly mythic in its godlike bequeathal of power. You are here, and he is there, and the connective and intensely private embrace is one of death. The two parties are linked by the flight of a tiny projectile traveling at supersonic speed, arriving to do its work well before the sound does and a moment after the powder flash and smoke are visible. To see that brief flash and to recognize, if only for a millisecond, that you will be the recipient of the explosive message, after which you will cease to exist, must be among the more horrifying recognitions there is. If the chamber noise is reduced and the blast light dulled, the impact – a far-off head exploding, an arm abruptly detached, a body suddenly pierced by an invisible drill – occurs in a world without context or reason for the enemy, and is therefore not just terrifying but dispiriting.
"Long-range target interdiction: That’s the two-dollar phrase," says Tyler, who sometimes speaks so quietly that you find yourself studying his lips. "In a conventional war you’re on the battlefield, and if you look over and your buddy’s head blows up and then you see another friend go down, it freaks you out. It demoralizes you; it makes you question things. It’s a psychological thing. You, as a sniper, try for the highest-ranking person, if you can, to create that chaos. But in an insurgency, as we have now, when the enemy comes out in ones and twos, sometimes right in the cities, without ever being a big force, it’s all ambush. So it can be better to have snipers rather than a man on every corner. A sniper team can stay hidden.”
Part of being a great sniper is having the ability, the mind-set, to blend in, to disguise oneself, to become part of the landscape, to feel and react like soil, like leaves blowing in the wind. In The Ultimate Sniper, a technical guide for advanced snipers that Tyler references again and again, there is a section on Ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that are designed to resemble the surrounding landscape. “A properly made Ghillie suit so well conceals the wearer that it never fails to impress first-time viewers,” writes the author, retired army special forces major John L. Plaster. At sniper school, when an instructor talks about the suits, the point is reinforced when, after a spell, an innocuous part of the ground in front of the recruits slowly rises up and becomes human.
"The most important thing about a Ghillie suit is that you can attach other things to it," says Tyler. "It has loops everywhere, and you gather whatever’s in your environment – leaves and grass and branches – and tape or string or zip-tie them on. It’s a layman’s myth that you cover yourself with burlap and you look like Chewbacca and that’s that."
Snipers, whenever possible, work as two-man teams – one man spotting with a powerful scope, another shooting. But often even harder than shooting is the act of getting within range. It consists of patience almost beyond belief. There is the high crawl, the elbow crawl, the low crawl, and the sniper crawl. “The sniper crawl is the lowest, slowest movement technique…” Plaster writes, “used when movement must be so slow that there is no visible action to detect. [The sniper] creeps along, only four inches per move, using just fingers and toes to propel himself.” With a rifle, of course.
Then come the difficult decisions. “I liked the cut-and-dry, liked it if a guy had a gun and was shooting at our troops, and we shot him,” says Tyler. “It’s a situation of less ambivalence. Nobody wants to go out and murder someone. You don’t shoot just because you can. You have the trigger depressed and there is that final quarter-pound of pressure, and if you make a bad call.… Well, a ‘bad kill’ can create more insurgents, bad feelings, an international incident. But the biggest thing is, you have to live with it.”
Each rifle a sniper uses has unique characteristics that are compounded by the ammunition and many, many exterior factors. There is wind. There is humidity. There is the spin of the Earth. There is even the fact that as a rifle is fired, its barrel heats up, the metal contracts, and the bullets are propelled faster. As a sniper Tyler had a “quiver of rifles,” including a huge .50-caliber McMillan Brothers bolt-action, a .300 Winmag, and an MK 12, which he liked because it was light and small, though it “didn’t pack much of a punch” in the recoil. But his favorite was a CheyTac .408, a weapon he discovered late in his career and never used on a human. “It was accurate up to 2,500 yards,” he says. “The round had a very stable flight. Most rounds, when they go from supersonic to subsonic, start to tumble. This one tumbles and then restabilizes.”
I ask Tyler about the drama shots we see from snipers in the movies, like how they always seem to be shooting one another through their scopes. “It’s mostly Hollywood,” he says. “Head shots seldom happen. Anywhere from here to here” – he indicates the lower chest to the neck – “is good. There are so many variables. A shot that’s off by an inch at 100 yards will be off by 10 inches or more at a thousand yards.”
To ensure he’s as accurate as possible, Tyler meticulously charts the results from his practice shooting, logging all the variances he can think of – temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, direction. He’s looking for patterns – not just, say, how one type of bullet might vary from another, but how one particular batch of that bullet might vary. “That way when it comes down to game time you know what’s going to happen,” he says.
In combat Tyler never took a shot from more than 400 yards. But at a practice range in Idaho, he once hit a foot-square metal target from 1,600 yards. He was shooting across a valley, amid a furious wind and rain, and still hit the target on his first try. “We used the ballistic computers to deal with the environmental conditions,” he says matter-of-factly. That bullet was in the air for well over a second, rising, spiraling, descending, and fading to the right like a Tom Brady Hail Mary pass.
As astonishing as that feat was, it doesn’t come close to the long-distance killing record that was recently set by a Canadian sniper in Afghanistan. His fatal shot traveled 2,657 yards – more than a mile and a half. That bullet was in the air for four seconds and dropped 146 feet, while also curving to the side a good amount. “Those Canadians,” Tyler says, “they’re raising the bar pretty high.”
The range is now silent, even though 15 men have come by from various spots, shuffling and eager, to see the SEAL shoot.
"Going hot,” Tyler says.
He appears to have no breathing at all, no motion, no nothing. His feet are laid out flat on their sides behind him because snipers do not give the enemy even the sight of raised heels as targets.
There is an explosion, and then silence. He racks the bolt, and a bright, smoking casing pops out. He picks it up and lays it carefully to his right. He shoots again.
When he shoots, Tyler keeps both eyes open and lets the floating circular reticules hover like a halo around the target. “I try to get in a good pattern of breathing, try to relax everything. I’ll pull the slack off the trigger and know I’m at the point where only the mechanism is barely keeping the hammer back. You do not slap the trigger. You have to be in the moment. It’s a little bit of an out-of-body experience.” High-powered rifles are incredibly loud. They can be deafening. But Tyler has shot in war zones without muffling devices or earplugs. And a strange thing happens. “I don’t hear the blast,” he says. “I don’t hear anything.”
He mentions that many hunters – regular guys out for deer, longhorn, elk – flinch at the last moment, because they’re not relaxed. Because they’re thinking of what they’re doing. A sniper can do what he does because – after months and months of training and study and reflection – he knows that he has done it all before thousands of times, effortlessly. “It’s like golf,” Tyler says, “except every time you swing there’s an explosion in your face.”
This gun, a gun he never used before, misfires three times on the range, and the scope has never been accurately adjusted, but when we walk the 218 yards – two football fields, two end zones – to the target, the Styrofoam square has three patterns of three holes, each of which could be covered by a quarter.
It’s worth noting that Tyler does not especially like guns. He owns only a shotgun, which he has never shot and which he needed when he lived up in the hills of the Sierras with his wife and young daughter (he is recently divorced) as protection from meandering bears. He has never hunted, never killed an animal, never even shot at an animal.
Hemingway once wrote: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.” But that is not strictly the case for Tyler. He left the service voluntarily, because he felt his principles were being violated by a superior’s decisions. It had to do with responsibility – his for the men under him. And he could not live with his conscience.
He admits he is still searching now, trying to come up with a lifestyle that embraces all that he is, all that he has done. Without a permanent address, he’s basically living in his pickup truck. He’s dating, and he wants to marry again, have more children, continue his art, and live “in a Mongolian yurt along the Pacific coast.”
A nice vision. But it must coexist with Tyler’s memory of, for instance, the first time he was fired upon in Baghdad: “We were in the back of a Humvee and I thought it was cigarette ashes flicked from a car. Heard nothing, had no idea where it was coming from. Just sparks skipping across stones.” The man riding next to Tyler said, “Motherfucker! The turret guy just hit me in the back of the head with the turret!” But the turret was high up. He’d been shot in the neck. By a sniper.
A man, a thinking man, a philosophical man, chooses to be a sniper, to fight his war from a distance. And why would he do so?
Maybe because he can say this, as Scott Tyler does: “If you’re shooting from 700 yards, you become the scope, you go down it, you become the tip of the bullet, you project yourself 700 yards. You’re there.”