A Marine stares through the rifle combat optic of his weapon at a target just 200 yards away. His finger rests lightly on the trigger as he breathes in slowly and steadily. As the Marine exhales, he gently squeezes the trigger. Bang! The carefully aimed projectile twists out of the barrel and sails through the air — striking the target with flawless accuracy.
The acutely honed marksmanship skills Marine marksmen strive to perfect will aid in destroying the enemy. And the dead-on accuracy of expert shooters helps ensure Marines win competition medals as members of the Marine Corps’ shooting team.
Winning, or even ensuring every Marine is a rifleman, hasn’t always been the case for the Corps.
Before 1900, marksmanship in the Marine Corps was far from impressive – less than an estimated 100 Marines could meet basic marksmanship requirements. And when Marines on the Corps’ rifle team finished poorly in their first shooting match in 1901, they decided to take aim on becoming the best.
Born out of that very first Marine Corps Rifle Team were the drive and desire that developed into ensuring every Marine is a rifleman.
The Corps’ leadership instituted training and standards for marksmanship. They also provided incentives, such as a three dollar per month pay bonus for those that qualified as rifle experts. Their hard work paid off –- by 1911, the Corps was winning competitions. Better yet, the ethos of excellence was taking hold and by 1917 every Marine sent to the fight was a trained and qualified marksman.
This dedication to excellence no doubt played a pivotal role in Marines winning in battle as well. The accounts from the fierce fighting at Belleau Wood bear evidence that the enemy could not advance, even with artillery and machine gun fire, against the accuracy and range of Marine riflemen.
“Marksmanship is something that’s in our roots,” said Capt. Nicholas J. Roberge, officer-in-charge of the Marine Corps rifle and pistol shooting teams at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “Marines are good shooters. We should keep that tradition going as long as we can.”
Team members appreciate their unique experience to represent the Corps and are willing to put forth the effort and discipline required to maintain their expertise, said Cpl. Neil Sookdeo, small arms weapons instructor and a member of the 2011 Marine Corps shooting team.
Team members spend as much of their time as possible putting rounds down-range. They host mini competitions to keep training diverse and interesting.
“If you shoot the same thing over and over, you get bored with it,” Roberge said. “We try to shoot different weapons at rapid and slow fires just to change the training up.”
All the work that team members put forth gives them a sense of pride in what they do.
“It’s a big honor,” Sookdeo said. “There aren’t a lot of people in the Marine Corps that get to do it. It takes a lot of work to get here and the people that do get here recognize it. We don’t take it for granted, not for a second.”
Those with the top marksmanship skills to become members of the rifle and pistol teams join a rich history of elite marksmanship in the Corps, a history current members and future members will continue in coming years.
Honing Expertise, Sharing the Skills
Qualifying for one of the Corps’ shooting teams is tough. Roughly a dozen Marines were chosen to compete on the Corps’ 2012 rifle and pistol teams. Although team members represent various military occupational specialties, the Marines have two things in common: their skill in marksmanship and their eagerness to learn then share their knowledge with the rest of the Corps.
“The whole intent of the shooting program is to obtain and master as many advanced marksmanship skills as you can and then share those techniques with other Marines,” Roberge said.
One of the Marines chosen to share his expertise is Sgt. Louis Esparza. He was selected to be head coach of the Marine Corps pistol team after racking up an impressive record for marksmanship competition at division matches on Okinawa and the Marine Corps Championship at MCB Quantico. He furthered his record, advancing to third place out of more than a hundred competitors at the 2011 inter-service pistol competition – the first Marine to place in the top three in the past five years.
Espraza said experience on the teams ensures team members have more in-depth expertise on marksmanship, making them better teachers for other Marines.
“We take Marines and teach them how to digest all the little bits of fundamentals,” Esparza said. “They go out and teach other Marines. That’s why it’s really important.”
The passing on of this knowledge begins with instruction on shooting. The Marines train and coach all 2nd lieutenants who attend The Basic School aboard MCB Quantico as well as Marines requalifying in and around the National Capital Region. Team members also pass their marksmanship knowledge on to more elite shooters and possible future Marine Corps team competitors during intramural competitions and the yearly division competitions at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan.
The best shooters from around the Marine Corps participate in these matches and the top competitors are often considered for the official shooting teams.
In addition to Marines, the shooting team members work with civilian groups and other service members at various matches and clinics around the country. This only further helps to diversify the team’s techniques.
“Whether Marine, other service member, or civilian, each type of shooter brings his individual experiences to the table,” Roberge said. “This exchange of ideas enhances each shooter, and furthers the development of marksmanship throughout the nation. Where we may be limited in certain areas or disciplines, civilians may have different techniques we were otherwise not aware of.”
These additional techniques enhance the Marines’ performance as they prepare for competitions later in the year.
Competing Against the Best
The majority of the team’s competitions occur midyear, between April and August. They compete in inter-service competitions such as the Army inter-service pistol competition at Fort Benning, Ga., and the rifle inter-service match at MCB Quantico. The competitions, whether against the other United States military services or civilian teams, take place worldwide – with teams representing the Corps across the U.S. and abroad in locations such as Australia and England. During these matches, Marines show off the skills they’ve perfected.
“Between both teams, we’ll fly over 25,000 miles, and drive another 7,500 over 200 days for about 20 different matches,” Roberge said.
At these competitions, the Marines have the opportunity to earn points toward becoming a Distinguished Marksman and a Distinguished Pistol Shot through up-to-four leg matches per year to include the Marine Corps Championships, the Inter-service Championships and the National Championships. Competitors can also win a Secretary of the Navy Trophy rifle, typically an M1 Garand, for winning a match or being the highest scoring new shooter, known as a ‘tyro.’
“The overall prize though is to increase a shooter’s confidence in the ability to accurately fire small arms, and bring back these advanced skills to their units for their Marines to learn and apply,” Roberge said.
Even though the mid-year competitions serve as an opportunity for prizes and awards, they are merely preparation for the most important competition: nationals.
“The U.S. Rifle National and Pistol National Championships are the most widely recognized shooting events in the United States,” Roberge said. “Nationals are the primary competitive event the Marine Corps Shooting Team trains for throughout the shooting season. The knowledge gained by competing amongst the best in the nation gives us more tools and techniques to teach marksmanship to others, and positively impacts our ability to shoot better.”
In 2012, the two Marine Corps Pistol Teams placed second and third out of six teams at the 53rd Annual Pistol Inter-service Championship in Fort Benning, Ga. The Marine Corps Rifle Team will head to the 51st Interservice Rifle
“The team has done well so far this year,” Roberge said. “We had a great showing at the Eastern Division Matches and Marine Corps Championships. We also had top placements at State and Regional matches for the Rifle and Pistol teams.”
Joining the Team
The best way for Marines who want to be considered for the rifle or pistol team to get started is with intramural or division matches on Marine Corps bases. They must then get permission from their command before submitting an application to the Weapons Training Battalion at MCB Quantico, Va. If selected, they will serve a normal two-to-three year tour with the team. Prospective Marine shooters should understand up front that becoming a member of the team isn’t an easy commitment and requires more than the ability to put rounds in the black.
“We’re looking for a great shooter,” Roberge said. “But he or she absolutely must have the right attitude. We have developed chemistry on the current team, and we’d like to be able to maintain it. If they’re not a team player, I don’t care if they’re winning everything, we don’t want them.”
This mindset of unity and common purpose drives the members of the Marine Corps shooting teams to not just win competitions, but to hone their marksmanship skills so they are better equipped to bring those skills to Marines Corps-wide. With every shot the members of the Marine Corps rifle and pistol shooting teams put down-range, with every clinic they coach and with every trophy they bring home, they are proving to other military branches and the world that Marines truly are known and feared for their marksmanship. They carry on the proud tradition that every Marine is a rifleman and serve as a call to excellence for all Marines.