How hard was it for the Navy snipers to shoot the pirates from 100 feet away?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 13 2009 5:25 PM

Open Sea Sniping

How hard is it to shoot someone in a lifeboat 100 feet away?

Sniper.
How does a sniper operate on the high seas?

Navy snipers killed three Somali pirates who had been holding an American hostage in an 18-foot lifeboat on Sunday. The SEALs fired from a Navy destroyer 100 feet from the pirates. Can a sniper reliably hit a human target on a small boat bobbing on the ocean, or were they taking a chance with the hostage's life?

If the pirates' heads were fully exposed, it would have been an easy shot. A sniper rifle is accurate to within a "minute of angle," provided the shooter can keep his or her target in the crosshairs. That means that a good marksman can reliably hit a 1-inch target at 300 feet and reliably kill someone at 3,000 feet. The bobbing of the lifeboat would have been a factor, but snipers regularly shoot at moving targets from moving vehicles. (Advanced Navy SEAL training includes target practice from helicopters.)

Advertisement

There are two techniques for hitting a moving target—trapping, in which the sniper holds the rifle still and waits for the target to move into the sight, and tracking, in which the sniper moves the rifle to keep the target in the sight. Trapping is the easier method and is preferred among less-experienced marksmen. However, the Navy snipers needed to strike all three pirates simultaneously. Once the countdown began, they could not allow their target to drop from their sight and wait for him to return. (Sniper teams generally count down from five and fire in unison on the T in "two.")

The snipers had other challenges. First, they had to remain stealthy. If the pirates had noticed that gunmen were lying on the destroyer's fantail waiting to pick them off, they never would have exposed themselves to fire. During the day, the SEALs likely used nylon netting to keep themselves in the shadows. Second, they were a little too close for standard sniping tools. Because the barrel of a rifle sits a couple of inches below the sight, it's angled slightly upward. The center of the sight shows the spot the bullet will hit at 300 feet. At a little more than 100 feet, the SEALs would have had to compensate by aiming slightly above their targets. Finally, the SEALs were shooting from a tall destroyer into a tiny lifeboat, and shooting downward is difficult. A sniper rifle rests on a bipod, and the butt rests on the sniper's shoulder. In order to aim below the level of the bipod, the sniper has to prop his chest up. This can create some instability if it's not done properly.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks William Graves of GPS Defense Sniper School and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

Even by Russian Standards, Moscow’s Anti-War March Was Surprisingly Grim

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

The Best Thing About the People’s Climate March in NYC

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

Trending News Channel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 22 2014 12:30 PM Turkey Just Got Forty-Six Hostages Back From ISIS. How Did That Happen?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 12:44 PM The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy
  Life
The Shortcut
Sept. 22 2014 12:31 PM Down With Loose Laces A simple trick to tighten your running shoes for good.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM Escaping the Extreme Christian Fundamentalism of "Quiverfull"
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 22 2014 1:10 PM One Photographer’s Beautiful and Devastating Response to Climate Change
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.