You have two hours to move within 200 metres of the observers and fire your first blank round. You start about one kilometre out, give or take. You cannot be seen at all. If you are seen, you fail.
Each year only 12 soldiers devote six weeks of their lives honing skills which they hope will match the exacting standards required to emerge out the other side as a badged sniper of New Zealand Army. Historically less than half make the grade. In 2020 just six passed.
Private (PTE) D and PTE M from 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment were two of the soldiers to make the grade.
PTE D who was already posted to the sniper cell, said he had an idea of what the role of a sniper entailed, and wanted more advanced training.
“I wanted to challenge myself, be confident with navigation and to gain a better understanding of what snipers actually do,” he said.
PTE M said she wanted to do the course as she enjoys a challenge and is always after the pursuit of knowledge.
“The sniper is someone who by mastering their skills and a little bit of luck, can directly change things for good, or bad in the course of battle.
“If you want to measure yourself against some of the best, being a sniper isn’t a bad yardstick,” she said.
The course consists of six weeks’ worth of theory, shooting, judging distance, observing, reporting information and stalking an objective.
Sniper theory involves learning about sniper roles, employment, ballistic theory and working the kestrel (weather meters).
“At first all of this information seemed like a lot to take in, but the instructors made it easy to understand. If you want to do well on your summative theory test, you need to put in a lot of study in your own time,” said PTE D.
Following theory and shooting, the course consists of what are called ‘groundhog days’ where soldiers do the same thing over, and over, and over again, for days on end.
“You complete a judging distance and observation stand in the morning, then you stalk an objective in the afternoon. You do this consecutively for around 12–14 days, before you get tested on all three.
“At first, most of us were failing pretty much all of these tests. It’s ok to fail on these practice days, as long as you learn from your mistakes and don’t make the same mistakes again,” said PTE D.
This course was also the first time the new Barrett MRAD Sniper Rifle was used for testing. The MRAD provides two calibres to the sniper, a .308 calibre round and a larger long range .338 round. The .388 allows for accuracy out to 1500m on targets.
PTE M said once they got over not wanting to get it dirty (as they were basically brand new), they had some fun.
“It was easy to learn and use as well as extremely accurate. The recoil is very manageable and when paired with the Nightforce ATACR scope with TreMor3 reticle, you can spot your own shot impacts and quickly take up follow shots.
“Then, with the kestrel ballistic computer which is essentially weaponised mathematics, and with accurate spotting we were able to push them out to some impressive ranges,” she said.
PTE D said the MRAD has the capability to hit targets at long ranges and he “felt confident when it came to the badge shoot” using it. He said the toughest part of the course was the stalks.
“Moving into a firing position without being seen was extremely challenging. On my first few stalks I made some silly mistakes, like being spotted on my move in. My next issue was being spotted when I was at my firing position.
“Despite failing continuously on my stalks, I was happy with my progress.
I knew that I could now move in, unseen and fire my first round.
“I treated every groundhog day, including badged day, the same. Taking each day seriously, but not putting too much pressure on myself when it came to badge day,” he said.
PTE M said the hardest part for her was not only mastering the art of seeing through the tussock, but also failing. She also believes being the New Zealand Army’s first female sniper is not especially significant.
“Passing the course is an achievement for any soldier, regardless of gender. I am the first female given the opportunity to attend the course, or maybe I am the first that has wanted to.”
“No one likes to fail, that’s human nature. But on groundhog days almost everyone is confronted with failure on a daily basis.
“Once I came to terms with the fact that I might fail it took away a lot of pressure and opened the
doors for achievement,” she said. PTE D said he is very proud to be badged and what motivates him is the other soldiers in the 2/1 RNZIR sniper cell, “they hold a high standard that I aim for”.
PTE M is a one of a handful of females who are in the Infantry Corps and said that undoubtedly
women can, and do bring a myriad of skills and perspectives to the table.
“In the current operating environment having females in combat roles has proved to be crucial for intelligence gathering due to the fact that they can naturally navigate cultural differences when dealing with local populations overseas.”
She said despite this it seems most of the debate against women in the infantry tends to focus on physical strength, or gender equality “rather than if or how they could make our army more effective”.
Carrying the load is something that PTE M is passionate about and encourages those aspiring to do a job typically done by men to “meet or exceed the male fitness standards”.
“We use the same weapons, carry the same equipment and do the same job so there should be no difference when it comes to fitness standards. If you can do that, you’ll gain some respect.
“I believe that the right women should serve in the infantry, under gender-neutral combat-focused standards,” said PTE M.
PTE M said completing and passing the course gave her a basic standard and recognised future potential for her, and others.
“It’s the start of a lot of learning. The good thing about sniping is that you will never master it, there’s always some new way of doing something.
“I’m looking forward to improving what I already know and learning new things,” she said.