Guerrilla Sniper with Gabe Suarez in Kingman, AZ
I recently attended the Guerrilla Sniper class that Gabe Suarez taught in Kingman, Arizona. This is not a new class for me, I’ve attended the with Eric Pfleger in Ohio, and with Scott Vandiver in Georgia, along with Gabe’s Guerrilla Sniper II class last fall here in Kingman. However, it's always one of may favorites.
My main rifle for this class was my PTR–91GI. Last fall I sent this rifle over to Investment Grade Firearms to have them install a picatinny rail on top of the receiver for mounting optics (they also added a paddle mag release). Gabe was kind enough to loan me a TA33 ACOG with a .308 reticle. While this is a very high quality piece of glass, a fixed three power optic with a BDC isn’t necessarily the optimum optic for the GS role. It’s more of a Universal Rifle or DMR optic. That said, I figured it would be a good choice for testing out the rifle at distance. I added the wide HK forend and an HK bipod to help stabilize the rifle. For this class, I wanted the best cheekweld possible, so I put on my Magpul PRS stock and adjusted it to put my eye right in line with the ACOG. The ACOG is a bit higher than I’d like, with a lower optic I could probably dispense with the adjustable stock and use the regular HK stock instead.
For close up work, I brought some 147 grain M80 ball, as well as some Hornady 155 grain Steel Match and Prvi Partizan 175 grain match that I wanted to get rid of. For the longer range stuff, I brought a quantity of my usual Hornady 168 grain AMAX.
I also brought along my Savage Model 10FP bolt action. This is the rifle I’ve used in previous GS classes, and it has served me well. At the first GS class I took from Eric Pfleger, I had some issues with the stock and eye relief. After the class I replaced the stock with a nice Bell and Carlson model, custom made for a longer length of pull. It’s topped by a Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 3.5–10 FF TMR M5, which is a great piece of glass.
Previously, I shot this rifle mostly with 168 grain AMAX, but this time I brought along some Hornady 178 grain Superperformance Match. I had some trouble out near 1000 yards in previous classes, which may have had something to do with the bullets destabilizing as they entered the transonic zone out at that distance. The heavier bullet, and the fact that it is loaded to a higher velocity mean that this ammo should stay well above the speed of sound out to 1000 yards.
The other students in the class brought a variety of firearms, with a slight majority being semi-autos. Most of the semi-automatics were AR–10 designs from top tier manufacturers, but there were also a pair of M1As, a SCAR 17 and a TSD VEPR. The bolt guns were a mixture of Remmington 700s and CZs. The only non-.308 rifle in the class was the SIG 556 DMR shot by Gabe’s son, Eric. Four of the students brought suppressors for their rifles.
Students scopes were uniformly high quality, including Nightforce, Leupold, and Schmidt and Bender. Almost everyone had graduated reticle, either mildots or MOA. There were a couple with BDC reticles, similar to my ACOG.
When we assembled out at the range on Friday morning a fairly strong wind was blowing. If this kept up, it would make things pretty challenging.
Gabe started out with the usual administrative stuff: liability waivers, etc. He talked about some of the environmental hazards of shooting in Arizona in May, including dehydration. Keeping well hydrated is absolutely critical, especially when you’re going to be out there for three days. He also mentioned that this was the season when snakes start getting more active, so it was important to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.
Moving on to the content of the course, Gabe talked a bit about the context of a class like this. While Gabe served as a SWAT sniper, this is not SWAT school, nor is it a military sniper course. This is a sniper course for the private citizen, drawing on lessons from conflicts like Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Northern Ireland.
He talked a bit about sniper gear. Here the foremost thing is not the rifle, it’s the optics. There are really three main types of optics: the spotting scope, binoculars, and a rifle scope. A spotting scope is really more of a range tool than a field optic. Binoculars are useful for searching for targets, but the riflescope is by far the most important optic. Second only to the riflescope is a good laser rangefinder. There are other methods of range estimation, and they’re good to know, but a laser rangefinder really is the easy button in this regard.
Since we want to cheat as much as possible, some sort of external method of stabilizing the rifle is a must. On the front end you can use a bipod or rest the forend of the rifle on a rucksack. At the rear, some sort of rear bag makes it a lot easier to hold the rifle steady. The traditional method was a sock filled with sand, but these days a bag filled with something like airsoft BBs is lighter and easier to manange.
We drove down to the 130 yard line to start out the live fire portion. Gabe gave the safety brief and then partnered up. After a lecture on the prone position, we began confirming our zeroes. Most folks scopes were well zeroed, but there were a few that needed some work.
Once everybody was dialed in, Gabe demonstrated the sitting position. After folks had a chance to shoot from the classical sitting position, Gabe brought out a ruck and showed how to shoot off of a support. The more support we can get the better. If a ruck isn’t available, you can use your partner (this is a topic we’d revisit later in the class.
Next up was kneeling. After Gabe demonstrated, everyone shot from the kneeling position. Then we moved back to 200 yards..
We started out doing some toro shots on the steel, which was fairly easy. However, one student, Dr. Brian Brzowski, one of our medical instructors, was consistently hitting to the left and couldn’t get it dialed in. He asked Gabe to shoot his rifle, with the same result. Gabe moved the windage adjustment 48 clicks, until it bottomed out. This should have moved the impact a couple of feet, but there was no visible change in the point of impact. This is a classic sign of a broken scope. What makes this a bit unusual is that the scope in question was a Nightforce. It just goes to show that anything manmade can break, even Tier 1 gear.
Gabe had a spare Leupold 4–14, which he loaned to Brian. To speed things up, Brian asked Gabe to do the zeroing. Gabe managed to get on target and fairly well centered in just three shots.
Our performance standard for the Guerrilla sniper is 600 yard body shots and 200 yard headshots. Since we were at 200, Gabe had everyone engage some smaller steels that approximated head sized targets. Everyone was able to get on target fairly easily.
By this time the wind had died down, so we continued moving back, shooting while the air was fairly calm. In short order we shot at 300, 400, and 500 yards. As we got back to 500, I noticed that my shots were consistently to the right, despite winds being fairly calm. I dialed in a couple of clicks of adjustment on my scope. My zero was a bit of a rush job, so I wasn’t surprised that some inconsistencies appeared at longer ranges.
We moved back to 600 yards, the other element of our Guerrilla Sniper minimum. Everyone was able to get on target that this range, though some had a bit of difficulty. I got my hits, although the stadia line of the BDC was thick enough at this distance that it covered most of the target. At this point I ran out of BDC and magnification. I think the PTR could go a good bit further with a different optic. I’ve got a Browe on order, and once it’s here I’d like to put it on the PTR and bring it out to this range. The Browe has 4x magnification, rather than the 3x on the ACOG I was using, as well as BDC lines out to 900 yards.
Until I get the Browe, it was time to switch to a different rifle and optic. I pulled out by Savage with the Leupold 3.5–10 on it. As I went to dial in my elevation, I found that I only had about 3 mils of adjustment before it bottomed out. I knew this wasn’t right, so I concluded that I hadn’t moved the dial all the way back to zero last time I used it. This meant it was a full revolution of the turret off. I dialed it back to what I thought was the real zero and then adjusted for the range. My first shot was dead on in elevation. Failing to return the scope to zero was a stupid mistake, and if I hadn’t been shooting this far out I wouldn’t have caught it before I shot.
With the scope issues out of the way, I got on target fairly easily, with a couple of shots for windage.
One of the unappreciated reasons most sniper shots are taken at just a few hundred yards is that people are actually really hard to see at further distances. Gabe talked a bit about camouflage, then sent a couple of us out to demonstrate. One fellow had on multicam, another just had on muted tans and browns, what we call Hippy EarthTone (HEAT) camouflage. He also sent out one student in a black shirt, to show the visibility of someone who was not at all camouflaged.
We walked out to 100, 200, and 300 yards and at each distance we stepped off the range and stood, kneeled, and went prone. Out at 300, even standing those of us in camo or more muted colors were hard to see as long as we were still. Kneeling and prone we were pretty much invisible to the naked eye.
The class moved back up to the 400 yard line to do a bit more shooting to wrap up the day. After being out at 700, everyone agreed that 400 seemed relatively easy.
Starting out the day we worked on some closer range reactive shooting drills. The whole idea of a sniper is to be proactive, to hit the other guy while he’s totally oblivious to your presence. As much as we might try, we can’t guarantee that we’ll always be able to do this. Sometimes it’s necessary to shoot reactively with a sniper rifle. Some sniper rifles are not very well suited to this; they are too heavy or poorly balanced. However, the biggest obstacle to reactive shooting with a sniper rifle is often the optic. A high power scope is great for those proactive shots at long range, but up close it makes things very difficult. A variable power scope is better than a fixed optic in this regard, and the lower the bottom end of the magnification range is, the better. Variable optics should have a low end magnification of 3–4 power at most, any higher and reactive shooting will be difficult. The corollary to this is to keep the power level turned down to the minimum whenever you’re not actively using a higher magnification. If you need to make a 600 yard shot you will probably have time to turn up the magnification. If you need to make a 50 yard shot you probably won’t.
We started out at about 100 yards and worked on quickly dropping into kneeling and breaking the shot. After watching people do this, Gabe took the opportunity to talk about how to work the bolt on a bolt action rifle. Next up was dropping into prone and quickly pressing off a shot. This is a situation where the ability to shoot without using the bipod or a ruck is definitely desirable, but some sniper rifles are so long and heavy that unsupported shooting is really difficult. With guns like my PTR, which has much more of a battle rifle heritage, these sorts of drills are a lot easier.
Next we moved up to 50 yards and did some snap shooting from standing. This was actually a nice demonstration of why offhand shooting skills are necessary, even with a sniper rifle, because at this distance an intermediate berm blocked the view of the targets if you were kneeling or prone. This sort of micro terrain is just the sort of thing that can interfere with the lower positions in the real world.
Gabe had hoped that the wind would die down a bit while we were doing these closer ranged drills, but it was still blowing pretty good. However, it was blowing almost directly downrange (from about the 5 o’clock direction) which would limit its effect on our longer ranged shooting. We went back to the 700 yard line, where we’d left off yesterday. This gave everyone a chance to get back into the long range shooting groove at a distance where they already had some experience.
After everyone was back on target at 700, we moved back to 800. At this distance Eric was starting to have some trouble hitting with the SIG 556. Even though the wind direction meant the crosswind component wasn’t as strong as it could have been if it were full value, it was still blowing the .223 bullets around. The 75 grain match ammo he was using helps with this, but there’s only so much you can do with such a small caliber.
We stepped back again to 900 yards. One of the students had a .308 VEPR with a Texas Weapon Systems top cover on it. He was having some real trouble getting on target, culminating with a round hitting the dirt about 75 yards from the line. I took a close look at his rifle during the next shot and saw that his scope moved oddly during recoil. Gabe noticed this too and took a close look at the mount. The two bolts that hold the top cover to the hinge had come loose and fallen off. This meant that the front end of the top cover was just sitting there, rather than being anchored to the rifle. We were able to find one of the two screws. The student headed off to Home Depot to see if they had a screw there that would work as a replacement for the other.
Next up, 1000 yards. I was able to drill the target with a first round hit (a feat of which I am immensely proud) and went 3 for 4. Compared to my 1000 yard performance at the last GS class (2 hits in 30 rounds) this was an immense improvement. I have to give a lot of credit to the heavier, faster ammo Hornady Superperformance ammo I was using. Unlike the stuff I was shooting in previous classes, it stays supersonic out well beyond 1000 yards meaning it won’t destabilize as it drops though transonic speeds.
Some of the other students using lighter bullets and shorter barrels were clearly struggling a bit with ammo going subsonic before hitting the target. Despite shooting very accurate rifles they were seeing quite a bit of randomness in their bullet impacts. We’re clearly pushing the effective limits of the .308 cartridge.
We moved back up to 400 yards. As one student remarked, “This seems so close now.” Gabe talked about coordinated fire. When engaging with multiple snipers, you want the shots to be as close to simultaneous as possible so that the targets don’t have a chance to seek cover or react to the gunshots before all the shots arrive.
There are two main ways to do this. One involves a controller who coordinates fire. He provides a brief count, “one and two and” with everyone firing on count three. This works great when you have someone who isn’t shooting to coordinate. However, it’s really difficult for a shooter to do this and get off a maximally accurate shot. For situations where you don’t have an extra person to be the controller (a two-man team, for instance) there is another method. One shooter calls out “on target”, “on trigger”, and “on me”, pausing after each for the other shooter(s) to acknowledge by repeating back to him. All the shooters load up their triggers just short of firing a shot. The controlling shooter breaks his shot, with the remaining shooters following as quickly as possible (ideally within a quarter of a second). We broke up into teams and practiced both methods.
Sometimes, you need to take a shot from a higher position than prone, and there isn’t any object available to use for support. One alternative to shooting unsupported in this sort of situation is to use your shooting partner for support. If terrain allows you to shoot from a sitting position, both the shooter and spotter can sit, with the rifle resting on the spotter’s shoulder. This can be a bit unpleasant for shorter weapons and especially those with muzzle breaks, but it’s doable. The shooters need to synchronize their breathing, entering the respiratory pause at the same time to break the shot.
This can also be done standing. Here it helps if the two shooters are approximately the same height. Gabe had the students try the sitting method at 400 yards and the standing one at 200. In both cases most pairs were able to get good hits.
While your spotter can serve as a support, something a bit more solid is better. Gabe showed how to use a handy post as a vertical support.
At this point we wrapped things up for the day. We reconvened at a local restaurant that evening for a nice dinner and some great fellowship with like minded people.
When I arrived on Sunday morning, I found one student working on his LaRue OBR upper. He’d taken it apart to clean it the previous night, and after reassembly the bolt carrier would only move about 3/4 of an inch. I looked at it and found that the bolt seemed to be rotating and completely unlocking the lugs, but as soon as it did, something arrested the bolt carrier’s progress. When the student mentioned that he had left out the firing pin when he reassembled the rifle, a hypothesis occurred to me:
Without the firing pin in place the cam pin could rotate freely. The top of the cam pin was longer in one direction than the other, so if it was oriented incorrectly it might not be able to slide down the slot in the top of the receiver where the charging handle rides. This would arrest the motion of the bolt carrier as soon as the bolt unlocked. If so, this could be a big problem since there is absolutely no outside access to the cam pin as long as the bolt carrier was in the rifle. I looked down though the bolt carrier while shining a light in the barrel and didn’t see any light, confirming that the cam pin wasn’t lined up the way it would be if the firing pin were installed.
Pondering for a bit, I tried moving the bolt carrier up and down the 3/4" that we could move it, hoping that this would rotate the cam pin until it happened to line up with the slot. After about fifteen seconds, the bolt carrier came loose. The student got the bolt carrier out of there and reassembled it with the firing pin. The rifle ran fine for the remainder of class.
We started out with an exertion drill. The students ran from the 300 yard line up to 200, then had to do a simultaneous shot on one of the steel targets. The idea is to get your heart rate up and your breathing going a bit and show what it’s like to shoot in these conditions.
Next up we did a bit of position shooting, going back over the fundamentals of shooting from standing, kneeling, and prone. The students practiced getting into and out of these positions quickly and smoothly.
Now it was time for one of my favorite parts of the class: target identification drills. Gabe put up some targets covered with pictures of various terrorists at about 150 yards. Each two-man team was given a terrorist’s face to find among the various faces and had to make a coordinated headshot on the target. Doing this quickly and smoothly requires good communication and good teamwork.
After everyone had a chance to shoot their terrorist, we moved up and took a look at the results. Some were really good, but others needed some improvement (not only did we have some misses, we also had some hits on the wrong targets). Compared to a lot of the shooting in the class this was relatively easy, but once you add on more tasks besides just shooting, everything gets a lot more complicated. We pulled back to the line and ran the drill a couple more times. The second and third times through everyone communicated a lot better and we saw better results on the shooting end.
After lunch Gabe divided the class in half and dispatched the students to set up some hasty hides on either side of the range. These are not full fledged dug in sniper hides, meticulously camouflaged and where you are expected to carefully hide for days. This is about what you can do in a matter of minutes to make yourself less visible. We saw a lot of folks using vegetation and sniper veils to break up their outline. One of the challenges was that even though the shots were relatively close, vegetation and terrain made it difficult to find a spot to shoot from prone. Many students ended up shooting from sitting or kneeling.
One of the features of this range is a bermed area off to the right side of the range next to the targets. Gabe took advantage of this by having the students congregate there, protected by the berm, while he fired past them. This allowed them to hear the supersonic crack of the bullet passing by, followed by the bang of the shot itself. Gabe started back at 600 yards, where there is a substantial delay between the crack and the bang. As he moved up at 100 yard intervals the delay became shorter and shorter until at 100 yards the crack and the bang were almost indistinguishable. You can use this technique as a rough ranging tool if someone is shooting at you.
Our final exercise in the class was vehicle hides. Taking sniper shots from vehicles has a long history, employed in Northern Ireland, Iraq, and even by the beltway snipers. It can be extremely effective. Gabe gave the students the overall mission, but he told them to use their creativity in creating a good shooting position from their particular vehicles. As you can see from the pictures, they came up with quite a variety of solutions.
This finished up the class. Gabe handed out the certificates and we all headed for home.
This was really a great class. Guerrilla Sniper is always one of my favorite classes. In part this is because of the excellent instructors we have teaching these classes like Gabe, Scott Vandiver, and Eric Pfleger. It’s also because this is a really good curriculum, one that includes a lot of things most of us don’t get to do on a daily basis.
We had a good batch of students in this class. Everyone brought good gear, so we didn’t have to spend a whole lot of time fighting equipment issues. The students also brought good fundamentals and good gunhandling skills, so we were able to go quite far, quite quickly.
The PTR–91GI did really well. It was dead on out to 600 yards, and I felt that the rifle could have easily gone out further if the optic and BDC reticle had been able to accommodate it. Once I get a Browe for it I need to come back out and see how it does at 700 and 800. The Magpul PRS stock worked well for getting a good cheek weld and the HK bipod provided a solid shooting platform. The one area that was a bit iffy was the rear bag. The HK bipod holds the rifle fairly high, so I had to stand the TAB gear rear bag on end to get the rifle on target. A bigger bag might have helped steady things a bit more.
I was also happy with my Savage bolt gun. The Hornady Superperformance 178 grain was just spectacular at the longer ranges. It definitely solved the issues I’d had out at 900–1000 yards at the class in Blakely. This is going to be my standard long range ammo out of this gun. The Leupold 3.5–10 scope was just a workhorse, as always.
I was very impressed with how well Eric did with the SIG 556 DMR. He’s definitely got the shooting fundamentals down and knows how to apply them well. The SIG shot very well. Between this and what I saw at John Chambers’ Designated Marksman class, I have developed quite a bit of respect for the 5.56x45mm as a long range cartridge. Even with 75 grain ammo it’s not a .308, but it does quite well out to 700 yards or so in the right hands. I may have to bring out a good 5.56 rifle (probably an AR) to the Guerrilla Sniper 2 class in November. Given that GS2 involves a lot of shooting from positions other than prone and moving on foot to different areas of the range, the light, handy nature of an AR (compared to most .308 sniper rifles) a good 5.56mm AR would be just about ideal for that class.
Guerrilla Sniper is a great class, one of the really unique ones that Suarez International offers. I would highly recommend it to anyone who really wants to break the mold of conventional rifle training.