Canadian Special Forces soldier breaks world sniper kill shot record

A member of Canada’s highly trained and secretive Joint Task Force 2 broke the long-distance sniper kill-shot record that had previously been held by British, former Corporal of Horse, Craig Harrison.

Using a McMillan Tac-50 (a 50 Cal. anti-material weapon) the Joint Task Force 2 sniper carried out a kill-shot at 3,540m beating the record previously held by Craig Harrison by some 1,065m.

The distance in itself is pretty astounding with the bullet having almost ten seconds of flight time between the time it was fired and the moment it found its target, but to truly understand the magnitude of such an achievement is worth deconstructing the entire tableau and looking at separately at as many of its moving parts as we can.

The Gun

First, obviously, there’s the weapon. The Tac-50 is designed to stop small armored vehicles and drive bullets through protective walls.

Tac-50 Anti-Material Sniper Rifle
The Tac-50 sniper rifle if a high-velocity anti-material weapon that can be used against light armored vehicles as well as non-material targets. Copyright: MathKnight released under Creative Commons License. 

This video demonstrates some of its capabilities: 

The Sights

Then there’s the scope. The Tac-50 comes equipped with a Schmidt & Bender 5-25x56 PM II sniper scope.

The video below explains a little about this scope and it also includes a POV view that shows some of its capabilities:

Sniper Central, a distance shooting training school, has a more detailed review of the scope and what it can do here.

The scope’s magnification power is also shown a little more clearly in the manufacturer’s website where it states its amplification is 5X which means that it is five times more powerful than the naked eye. So, when looking at a target that’s 3,540m through the sniper scope we see it as if it is 708m away.

The image below uses man-sized targets viewed at different distances through a scope. At 700m the size of a person, standing up (which is what is represented by the target) is just a dot.

Sniper Targeting over Distance

The difficulty however doesn’t stop there. The scope itself tells a tale of obstacles that need to be overcome and each one opens up doorways into fresh universes of its own:

Schmidt & Bender 5-25x56 PM II LP sniper rifle scope
The Schmidt & Bender 5-25x56 PM II LP sniper rifle scope tells its own tale of how difficult it is to be a sniper. Its controls are an indication of just some of the variables that need to be taken into account. Photograph by Francis Flinch - Own work (Original text: self-made), Public Domain.

Objective – The objective lens is on the end of the scope farthest from the rifle's stock. Its purpose is to transmit light back to the ocular lens, which is the lens closest to your eye. The part of the scope that houses the objective lens is the objective bell, while the section containing the ocular lens is the eyepiece.

The video below explains the importance of setting up your objective lens correctly: 

Elevation – due to the curvature of the Earth a sniper needs to take into account the difference between where he is and where his target is and the drop of the bullet as it flies to its target.

Windage - cross winds and updrafts will always affect the trajectory of a bullet, so calculations are needed using Minutes of Angle (MOA) to adjust and compensate for wind drift

Parallax adjustment - Parallax is essentially an optical illusion. Parallax presents itself as the apparent movement of the reticle, in relation to the target, when your eye moves off center of the sight picture (exit pupil) or in more extreme cases it appears as an out of focus image

Illumination -  the lighting up of the reticle in the sniper rifle scope.

Magnification – Despite the scope’s 5X magnification, it will still need to be set up in order to sight right.

To understand the complexity of that consider how even in an over-simplified format getting magnification adjustments right requires expertise and experience:

Focus – learning how to focus right in equipment that are, in themselves, multifactorial in set up, requires the development of new skills and fresh understandings. 

The Terrain

Special Forces units deployed in Afghanistan and Syria frequently talk about the challenges offered by the terrain. Intense heat makes for unexpected updrafts that affect the accuracy of long range shooting. There is always the risk of unexpected hostilities and there is a significant lack of contrasts in the landscape that make shooting particularly challenging.

The Cognitive Dimension of Sniping

Ultimately, the best equipment in the world amounts to little if there is no real sense of agency driving things forward.

Despite the frequently amazing weapons snipers get to play with, what makes it possible for them to perform the way they do are the more complex, mental aspects that are part of their personality.

For instance, snipers are hyper-aware of their role as “force multipliers”. They know that every shot they take is recorded and analyzed and they have a very sniper-specific way of thinking things through.

When it comes to aiming it is the brain’s egocentric and allocentric functions that allow the brain to encode 3D space around the person and then away from him in order to make shots like the one recorded by the Joint Task Force 2 member possible.

Their ability to stay hidden requires a clear understanding of positive and negative space and how it is processed by those around them.

This is by no means the end of a sniper’s complex skillset. Each of the abilities they develop requires intense and intentional networking of many of the brain’s information processing centers. To manage, under pressure and still produce the kind of performance that most people think is incredible you have to be able to do something exceptional. Like Scott Tyler put it in his account of what snipers do in The Way of the Sniper (which you must definitely read) "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."

Without that ability, which is developed through practice and training the equipment itself would be useless; incapable of functioning at any range beyond, maybe, 500 yards (the range at which computer-powered rifles remain accurate).

Putting It All Together

From the deconstruction you can see that snipers are master synthesizers. They take an incredibly array of fluid factors that range from the purely technical to the purely psychological and they put them all together through the interface of their perception.

At the moment of action, as they take their shot, there is that complex executive decision-making process that weighs everything up and makes the call. Despite the small size of its military, Canada has a global reputation for the quality of its snipers. As Scott Tyler said: "Those Canadians," Tyler says, "they're raising the bar pretty high."

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External sources: BBC and its coverage of the record-breaking sniper kill shot