Here’s why shooting ‘expert’ may get harder for Marines

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As the Marine Corps experiments with different ways of assessing lethality on the rifle range, leaders already are looking ahead to a future in which earning the coveted expert shooting badge is going to take even more skill and precision.

That’s a major takeaway from the fiscal 2024 combat marksmanship symposium, held late 2023 with the service’s top weapons and range experts in attendance.

And while changes to shooting standards may still be a year or more away from finalization, the work to prove out just how effective Marines are at shooting is ramping up right now.

Col. Gregory Jones, commanding officer of Weapons Training Battalion out of Quantico, Virginia, told Marine Corps Times in an interview that a future shooting evaluation could assess multiple inputs including accuracy and speed to generate a “lethality score,” giving a Marine credit for more skills variables and keeping the focus on combat.

Such a prospective change, he suggested, could be good news for Marines who are exceptional shooters and easily max out as “expert” on the annual rifle qualification, which focuses on accuracy alone, requiring Marines to destroy 43 targets to 50 targets and successfully complete one of each of the three drill varieties: including failure to stop, failure to stop while moving and a box drill involving two targets.

No additional credit is given for additional targets destroyed or drills aced.

Jones likened this standard to the Marine Corps physical fitness test, which maxes out at 23 pullups for men.

“When I could do 25 pullups, I didn’t get credit for it,” he said. “It’s just like, what’s the top end of human performance, right?”

He envisions a system in which the score required to earn the “expert” badge is reevaluated periodically ― much like competitive shooting today ― to keep pace with increases in human performance.

In addition to emphasizing the prospect of exceptional performers getting more credit for their excellence, Jones reiterated a core theme of the service’s ongoing shooting experimentation effort: that lethality has more components than accuracy.

New advanced small arms lethality trainers, or ASALTs, are being installed at bases around the Corps. They’re also installing a “digital score sheet” tool called the joint marksmanship assessment package, or JMAP ― which can record shot cadence as well as placement ― that is set to make shooting speed a much more significant element of rifle proficiency.

“If I shoot you in the heart in five seconds, but you shoot me in the brain in two seconds, who’s more lethal, right?” Jones said, illustrating the value of shooting speed, even without perfect precision.

“So it’s just this exact context of what data analytics, human performance science, and digital scoring can do, at the macro level or the micro level.”

Other previously underevaluated factors are also in the spotlight.

At Marine Recruit Depots Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, recruits since summer 2023 have been integrating the MantisX Blackbeard system into marksmanship training.

The system, which has been purchased for experimentation at the depot level and is not a program of record, provides an automatic trigger reset, eliminating the need to pull back a rifle’s charging handle. The system also includes a sensor that feeds information to a smartphone or tablet about a shooter’s trigger-pulling behavior, Jones said.

“If you’re a right-handed shooter, and you pull the trigger to the right, and you do that over time, that’ll show up on an iPad, and it’ll tell you that you don’t have good trigger control,” he said.

While the depots have yet to decide about how to integrate MantisX into standard training, Jones said the device already has yielded enough efficiency through the automatic trigger reset to cut down the annual rifle training used at entry-level schools from 14 days to 12 days without any loss of lethality.

That extra time is now being used, Jones said, to introduce more shooting skills, including advanced zeroing techniques and supported shooting, which Marines do in the fleet in the recently implemented annual rifle qualification program and at their next training stop, Marine combat training.

“We’re using those two days to give (recruits) a leg up,” Jones said.

As evaluation continues, Jones said, more changes to shooting evaluation and protocols are possible, including rearranging the order of events or adding new ones.

Under the oversight of Lt. Gen. Kevin Iiams, commanding general of Training and Education Command, schools are being given latitude to conduct additional experiments as well.

As one example, the rifle marksmanship assessment, approved earlier in March to replace shooting Table 3 through Table 6 at Marine Corps secondary training locations, will be administered to lieutenants at The Basic School in concert with the annual rifle qualification.

Both are recently developed programs aimed at greater shooting realism. They’ll be used with the joint marksmanship assessment package to collect information as a scale not previously sought by the Corps to zero in on proficiency and training gaps.

Gunnery Sgt. Mike Paugh, who works with the Marines’ infantry shooting curriculum at Weapons Training Battalion, said that the rifle marksmanship assessment “allows us to capture, where are they lacking. Or, how can we train them to be even more lethal based on their one-shot presentations, their reloading abilities, and so on.”

“As we capture more data from following companies afterward, we can continue to improve our training based on data captured.”

Notably, these efforts to experiment with an eye to making shooting standards more rigorous comes just a few years after the Marine Corps debuted its annual rifle qualification regime in 2021.

The qualification, which emphasized more realistic combat scenarios, moving targets and sequential drills, was projected to take the service’s 65% “expert” qualification rate down to just 6%.

Ultimately, the impact was not quite that dramatic. But ”expert” ratings under the annual rifle qualification did dip to between 25% and 30%, officials told Marine Corps Times in September 2023.

The service moved to offset that decline in fall 2023 by offering Marines who earn the lesser “marksman” and “sharpshooter” badges two additional chances to head to the range and try for expert on their own time.

Ultimately, Jones indicated, the Marine Corps is not on a mission to decrease its population of shooters with “expert” badges. Leaders, rather, are working to root out old and flawed assumptions about what makes a shooter effective and proficient.

The past shooting regime, he said, tended to be heavily influenced by Olympic-style shooting competitions, which had valuable skill components, but were not an exact avatar for combat.

“The sports are similar, but they’re not the same,” Jones said. “If rugby is combat, we shouldn’t be training for football.”

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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