Marine Corps shooting teams: Competition breeds excellence (Part 1)

Sgt Sean Morris, member of the Marine Corps shooting team, sights in during practice at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Dec. 8. For the last 100 years, the Marine Corps shooting team has carried on the legacy of elite marksmanship in the Corps by scoring high in competitions as well as instructing other Marines in the fundamentals of marksmanship. Photo by Cpl Chelsea Flowers Anderson.

Sgt Joshua Martin, member of the Marine Corps shooting team, evaluates another team member during rifle practice at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Dec. 8. The Marines on the team bring their skills to help each other become better marksmen and then pass that knowledge on to other Marines around the Corps. Photo by Cpl Chelsea Flowers Anderson.

MARINE CORPS BASE Quantico, VA. (September 3, 2012) — 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 re-qualifying 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.

MARINES MAG is the Marine Corps' Official Magazine and is maintained by Marine Corps News at the Defense Media Activity Marine Corps Element.