June 29, 2020
As the United States committed to helping South Vietnam in 1959, the U.S. military was caught unprepared for the requirements that the Vietnam War would place on precision, long-range, small-arms engagements.
In the initial stages of the war, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong were operating in the open because of the inability of the U.S. military to bring accurate long-range fire to bear. Not to mention, NVA snipers harassed U.S. troops from ranges that the U.S. troops could not reach with return fire.
Up to this point, sniper training in the U.S. had been ad-hoc and informal. The situation quickly changed as the U.S. military adjusted its attitude and approach towards snipers and sniper training. One of the men behind this new emphasis on sniping was U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Major Edward James “Jim” Land. He established the first organized sniper training program in 1961 in Hawaii for the USMC. According to him, the school was the springboard for early sniper schools in Vietnam for both the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions.
Maj. Land was also the man behind improving shooting skills and techniques, while Marine sniper Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock wrote the book on stalking. The principles and practices developed by these two legends are still the basis of sniper training today.
The Vietnam War spurred the development of sophisticated small arms including entirely new rifles and ammunition. It was at this time that the U.S. military developed its first serious purpose-built sniper rifles and set up sniper training programs. It was the first time that sniper doctrine was penned in history. However, at the start of the war many of the small arms used by both sides were recycled World War II technology.
According to Peter Senich in his book “Long-Range War: Sniping in Vietnam” (1994), the U.S. Army didn’t begin organized, in-country, division-level sniper training programs until early 1967. By mid-1968, however, the Army had several well-organized in-country sniper schools supported by the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU).
The NVA, on the other hand, benefited from the Soviet Union’s World War II training doctrine and large numbers of World War II-era Soviet sniper rifles. With these two elements, the NVA held an advantage in sniping during the early part of the war. This gap was rapidly closed by resourceful men, such as Maj. Land, who did everything necessary to put effective snipers and equipment in the field. So let’s step back and examine the sniper rifles that were available to both sides early in the conflict, and their capabilities.
U.S. Sniper Rifles
Sniper rifles available to U.S. troops early in the Vietnam War were mostly World War II small arms pressed into service again. Early on, soldiers were primarily issued M1D rifles along with a few M1903A4 rifles, both in .30-’06 Springfield. The USMC initially armed their snipers with M1D rifles, but realized a better rifle system was needed.
Very early in the war, stateside Marine Corps armories were emptied of every available Winchester Model 70 (M70) target rifles. A number of sporting rifles and scopes were also assembled and sent into service by the Marines. All these rifles were chambered in .30-’06, also.
One of the most significant decisions made during the initial deployment of Marine snipers in 1964 was the use of the .30-caliber M72 Match ammunition. This gave Marine snipers an advantage in accuracy and effective range. The Army was slower to respond and initially issued Ball ammunition, which proved very early to lack the accuracy required for long-range sniping. By mid-1966, the Army was recommending the issue of Match ammo for snipers.
The M1C/D were developed during World War II. Both rifles were a development by Springfield Armory and were accepted for service in July 1944.
The rifles differed in their method of scope mounting. The M1C used a side-mounted scope base that was screwed into the receiver. This scope base proved problematic because the screws loosened, which caused zeroing and accuracy issues. This problem led to the M1D with its pinned, barrel-mounted scope base becoming the type standard in the early 1950s.
The initial scopes on these rifles were the M81/82. Both scopes were the 2.5X Lyman Alaskan scope with a sunshade and differed only in reticle design. The M81 had a fine crosshair and the M82 had a post-type reticle. Both scopes were replaced by the 2.2X M84 scope in the early 1950s.
The M84 was a marginal improvement over the M81/82 with a range compensating elevation turret. The M1D with the M84 scope was what was issued early in Vietnam. The 2.2X flat-post reticle in the M84 scope significantly compromised the capability for serious long-range sniping.
Another issue that snipers had to deal with was with the M1D’s offset scope. The top-loading enbloc clip caused parallax problems. The rifle also had to be zeroed at 200 to 300 yards to avoid large windage adjustments with increasing range. The offset scope also made for a very uncomfortable rifle with a poor cheekweld for the sniper. The M1 platform also presented issues maintaining accuracy because of the complex stock fitting and the damp, wet environment of Southeast Asia.
As for the M1903A4, it was a World War II desperation acquisition by the Army for a sniper rifle. The M1903A4 was standardized and accepted in January 1943. A commercial Weaver 330C 2.5X hunting scope was mounted, later redesignated the “M73B1.” Significant numbers of these rifles were produced by Remington.
The Weaver scope was a small objective that lacked waterproofing and was, at best, a stop gap. So desperate was the Army for scopes that buyers were sent out around the country to sporting goods stores to buy up the stocks of the Weaver 330 scopes. The Weaver scope began being replaced by the M81/82 scope late in the war with the M84 scope, during and after the Korean War.
Very early in Vietnam, a small number of M1903A4 rifles with M84 scopes were pressed into service by the Army. The Redfield Junior scope mount was flexible and led to the use of many commercial scopes seen on the M1903A4 rifles. The M1903A4 was capable of high levels of accuracy, but performance was limited by the low-power 2.2X scope and Ball ammunition.
When the Marines accepted into service their Winchester M70 target rifles, they mounted Unertl 8X and 10X target scopes. Built with glass-bedded actions and heavy barrels, and used for long-range target competition, the M70s were capable of great accuracy with the Unertl scopes. This is the rifle that Gy. Sgt. Hathcock used for much of his time in Vietnam.
Maj. Land told me that early in the war members of the sniper platoon collected contributions. They sent a non-commissioned officer (NCO) to Okinawa to visit every services’ PX exchange on the island to buy up every .30-caliber hunting rifle and scope — to include bases and rings.
Upon arrival back in country, the platoon went through the rifles and glass-bedded them. In some cases, they changed the barrels. They used these as sniper rifles for a period of time until the Remington Model 40X rifle became available in January 1967. These types of activities were what started the demand for standardized sniper rifles and optics that quickly lead to the USMC’s M40 sniper rifle built on a Remington Model 700/40X action.
Early NVA Sniper Rifles
Besides the early advantages NVA snipers had, thanks to Soviet sniping doctrine and training, they also had the legendary Mosin-Nagant 91/30 PU. A World War II veteran, the Mosin-Nagant was made available to the NVA in large numbers. The NVA also used whatever types of scoped rifles they could get their hands on including scoped MAS-49 rifles captured during the French Indochina War, as well as scoped World War II-vintage German K98s.
The 91/30 sniper rifle was accepted in 1932 and was originally scoped with the 4X PE/PEM scope. The PE/PEM scope was a copy of a German Zeiss design with the optics supplied by Zeiss. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the manufacture of the PE/PEM scope was no longer viable. In early 1942, work began on a simplified scope that could be mass produced to meet wartime demand. The first PU scopes and 91/30 PU rifles arrived off the production line in late 1942.
The PU scope was a simple 3.5X optic and mechanical design. It used a pointed post reticle and had a range compensating elevation turret calibrated to a very optimistic 1,200 meters for the 147-grain 7.62x54R light-Ball round.
Despite the crude appearance and poor fit and finish of the 91/30 PU, it was a very rugged and dependable rifle that was surprisingly accurate. At the start of the Vietnam War, the Marines Winchester M70 Target rifles were the only U.S. rifle in theater to match and exceeded the capabilities of the 91/30 PU.
Rifle Performance with Period Ammunition
Maj. Land said that .30-’06 M72 Match ammunition was used by the Marines from the beginning of sniper operations in Vietnam. It came loaded with a 173-grain FMJ boattail Match bullet. The reported ballistic coefficient (BC) of this bullet was a .494 G1. It was loaded to 2,640 feet per second (fps). This would correspond to a muzzle velocity of approximately 2,690 fps from the 24-inch barreled M1D, M1903A4 and M70. The M72 would provide supersonic bullet performance to approximately 1,150 yards at sea level. The Army realized quickly that its .30-’06 Ball ammunition lacked performance. By mid-1966, the Army recommended that M118 Match ammunition, 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Win.), be used with a future sniper rifle to be developed on the M14 platform classified “M21.”
To explore the accuracy and effectiveness of the sniper rifles used in the war, I borrowed several period rifles and acquired period ammunition from a few different sources. For the U.S. rifles, I was able to use a limited amount of the 1960 lot of Frankfort Arsenal M72 Match ammo. Due to the small amount of rounds available, I was forced to limit each rifle to two five-shot groups at 100 and 300 yards. Incidentally, Maj. Land reported he had several boxes of the 1964 lot in his collection from the war.
The low-power scopes on the M1D and M1903A4 limited serious shooting to no greater than 500 to 600 yards since a man-size target is virtually covered by the post-type reticle. Senich reported that although hits were made with M84-scoped rifles at ranges of up to 800 yards, these longer-range hits were considered “pure chance.”
The rifles I used for our testing included an M1D with a M84 scope that has won or placed highly in CMP Vintage Sniper Rifle matches, a 1950-production Winchester Model 70 Heavy Barrel Target model with an 8X Unertl scope, and a 1944-vintage 91/30 PU. The 91/30 PU was tested with 1945-vintage 147-grain light Ball ammunition. Velocity from each rifle was chronographed at 10 feet from the muzzle. At 300 yards, I did not try to dope the wind beyond trying to shoot in the same conditions.
The M1D performance with the M72 Match ammunition would have been effective on a man-size target out to, but not more than 600 yards. Like the reports from troops, the gun was uncomfortable to shoot and a stock weld was difficult at best. The 2.2X and post-reticle M84 scope certainly would have limited effective shooting much beyond 500 yards. I was curious to see how the M70 would perform with the vintage match ammunition as compared to stories from Gy. Sgt. Hathcock and Maj. Land.
Stepping up to the M70 from the M1D, the rifle was a total pleasure to shoot. The gun was comfortable providing a good head position and stock weld. It shot extremely well with the M72 Match ammunition At 100 yards, it shot right at 1½ MOA. At 300 yards, the wind unsurprisingly pushed a couple of my shots, but it still shot 1½ MOA. The elevation on both groups at 300 yards was 1 MOA or better. Although it isn’t shown in the chart, I also fired several groups with Hornady’s M1 Garand Match ammo at 100 yards and both groups were right at 1 MOA. That’s excellent, even by today’s standards.
Gy. Sgt. Hathcock stated he liked to try to keep high priority shots inside of 800 yards to ensure a high hit probability. Based on my testing with the M70, this is spot on. With the ammunition I had, the M70 would have shot groups in the 10- to 12-inch range at 800 yards. This is well inside of minute-of-person. By 1,000 yards, the M70 would have been effective, but considering range estimation, wind doping and a system accuracy of 14 to 16 inches at that range, there would certainly have been some misses.
The Mosin-Nagant 91/30 PU, however, was the big surprise to me. It shot well with the lot of ammunition I had. I seriously doubt that this level of performance would have been consistent with military manufactured Ball ammo. With the 3.5X scope and the sharply pointed post reticle, the 91/30 would certainly have been effective out to 700 yards in the hands of a good sniper, but it would not have kept up with the M70 and its higher-power scope and more accurate and consistent match ammunition.
Building a Replica
With the advent of the CMP Vintage Sniper Rifle Match in 2012, the interest in shooting vintage military sniper rifles has exploded. Several replica rifles have been offered and replicas of almost every model of U.S. military optic are offered along with mounts. Two of the more prominent companies offering scopes and mounts are Leatherwood (hi-luxoptics.com) and Numrich Gun Parts (gunpartscorp.com).
Leatherwood offers high-quality replicas of the U.S. M73B1/330C Weaver scope for the M1903A4; M81/M82 scopes for the M1903A4 and M1C/D; and the Unertl 8X for the USMC M1903A4 sniper rifle and M70 target rifles. Leatherwood also has replica bases and rings for the M1903A4, as well as bases and turrets for the 8X Unertl scope.
Numrich Gun Parts has an accurate copy of the M84 scope including the original hermetically sealed packaging, mounting ring and cheekpiece for the M1D. They also offer replica Russian PU scopes and mounts. Planning, assembling and shooting a replica of these rifles is very rewarding and a lot of fun. It definitely gives the shooting enthusiast some historical perspective.
While the U.S. was caught largely unprepared for the requirements of the Vietnam War, perseverance by key members such as Maj. Land evened the odds and swayed the advantage in the U.S. military’s favor. These efforts also paved the path for equipment development and training doctrine still used to make modern military snipers.
Today, U.S. and allied snipers continue to make a difference on the world’s battlefields. Engagement distances with the enemy now occur at ranges unthinkable during the Vietnam War. Using an M2 .50-caliber machine gun given a scope, Gy. Sgt. Hathcock killed an enemy at 2,500 yards in February 1967. That record was broken in March 2002 and has been extended six times since and currently stands at 3,871 yards. We owe a lot to Vietnam veterans including those who, with store-bought hunting equipment and target ammunition, effectively took on a determined enemy.
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