MARSOC, Part 2: Training SOCOM’S Devil Dogs

7 April 2009, Reno, Nevada. This photo puts us shoulder-to-shoulder with an operator from MARSOC’s 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion as he hammers silhouette targets with precisely aimed shots in rapid fire during Dynamic Assault training drills at the Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility. MSOS instructors provided SADJ with identification of his gear and weapons from head to toe: Peltor headset for MBITR radio, 5.56mm M4A1 SOPMOD Carbine with 14.5 inch barrel and telescoping buttstock with battery compartments, EOTech SU-231 reflex sight, PEQ-15 or LA-5 laser aiming module, SU-233 white light, Grip-Pod foregrip with drop-down bipod, M45 MEU-SOC .45 cal. pistol in Safariland 6004 1911 holster, Eagle Industries body armor load carrying system. (USMC photo by Lance Corporal Stephen Benson)

They rate the 5.56mm M4 series carbine as a “good weapon but needs improvement” to increase reliability in adverse environments.  One instructor underscored this by recounting a personal experience of his M4A1 “jamming at the worst possible time” during a firefight.  The SOPMOD version (also used in MARSOC) is a step in the right direction, he said, but all agreed that replacement of its direct gas system with a piston is urgently needed.  The relatively simple and inexpensive substitution in their standard issue M4A1’s upper with the right piston kit would meet their approval.

Several of these Marines had a hand in MSOS’ recent evaluation of the FN SCAR – not coincidentally a piston driven design – and their report up the chain of command listed more likes than dislikes in its overall form and function.  The piston powered HK416 has also undergone some trials so it may be inferred that some change may be in the wind.  Not likely a wholesale changeover, they said, but any new carbine/rifle would be used in specialized situations as a supplement to existing M4A1s.

While on the subject of 5.56mm weapons it was said that the standard issue green-tip M855/SS109 ammo’s tendency to over-penetrate in soft targets is problematic.  Before a lively discussion of alternative calibers could overwhelm the available time, we learned that a quantity of the new MK318 cartridges is on hand for evaluation.  Perhaps a step in the right direction in terms of stopping power, but some skepticism over accuracy was noted around the room.

They like the 5.56mm M249 SAW for its portability, versatility and high volume of fire.  Asked about persistent problems outside the SPECOPS community with hard-used guns and their old and worn innards, the roundtable consensus was favorable toward reliability of their own guns.  They saw no need to replace the current SAWs with FN’s MK46 or other designs.

This begged our question of belt fed 7.62mm guns, particularly in light of MARSOC‘s standard M240 that some call an uneasy tradeoff between heavy weight with high reliability vs. man-powered portability.  Not surprisingly, another serious discussion ensued where the combat utility of 5.56mm vs. 7.62 belt guns was contrasted.  Heads nodded around the room when M60E3s and MK48s were noted for their compactness and light weight.  But, while acknowledging the case made by “higher-ups” for the long reach and potent target effects of the 240’s rifle caliber cartridges, these muddy boots Marine operators say they prefer the lighter, handier 5.56mm M249 SAW in nearly all dismounted applications.

14 April 2010, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. MARSOC Marines explain the capabilities of a variety of weapons to VIPs from the Lebanese Armed Forces, touring the Marine Special Operations School and other facilities of the command at Stone Bay. In the foreground of this interesting selection of U.S. and foreign arms we note a suppressor equipped M4A1 SOPMOD carbine with underslung M203 grenade launcher and an exotic combination of top mounted sights, an Uzi submachine gun with a pair of what look like Glock pistols, an HK G3 battle rifle, and the massive blast deflector on the muzzle end of a .50 caliber Barrett M107. (USMC photo by Lance Corporal Kristian Karsten)

SADJ believes the oft-spoken truism that “pistols are intensely personal,” and noted with great interest when the instructors pointed with pride to the superiority of MARSOC‘s M45, a modified M1911 series .45 cal., over the 9mm Beretta M9s used by most of the Marine Corps.  Perhaps acknowledging the practical arguments for various combat calibers from .40 and up, one declared, “Don’t go to war with anything that doesn’t start with point 4.”

Their potent .45s are based on Marine Force Recon’s tried and true MEU (SOC) pattern from Quantico’s Precision Weapon shop.  They are readily identified by their distinctive beavertail safety, light mounting rail on the frame and extra cocking serrations on the front end of the slide.  We learned that some, custom made by the commercial firm Springfield Armory to MEU (SOC) configuration, have been fielded.

A discussion of the many merits of this heavy-hitting slim line single-stacker was clouded by another “intensely personal” anecdote.  General agreement was evident as one instructor pointed out from much experience that John Browning’s venerable design is also vulnerable to invasion of environmental elements like mud and sand.  So, we asked, what would you recommend instead?  Before things got completely out of hand a good case was made for some Glocks that have somehow made their way into the Schoolhouse’s armory.  Said to be tough, simple, reliable, and effective, these angular, polymer frame pistols also find instructor favor as being quite suitable for concealed carry when required by circumstances….

Room for improvement was clearly stated regarding MARSOC’s main 12 gauge shotgun, the same Benelli M1014 that is standard issue throughout the Marine Corps.  At the same time acknowledging the utility of its semiautomatic operation for quick-firing multiple buckshot and slug rounds, one instructor recalled experience as an operator in combat.  “I’d rather have an 870 (Remington 12 gauge pump),” he said.  “You don‘t need to put it on safe when you fire a round then transition to your M4.”  It was also mentioned that the M1014 won’t automatically cycle with frangible lockbuster rounds and doesn’t come in a handy no-buttstock version with stubby barrel that‘s favored by many Breachers.

With the available time running out we asked why some ITC students were failing to meet the course’s shooting standards.  With “every Marine a rifleman” and all students coming from the ranks of seasoned Marines with plenty of range time, what was the problem?

One instructor jumped right in with the answer, “We’re not teaching marksmanship in ITC, we‘re teaching CQB (close quarter battle).”  The difference, he explained, is more like gun fighting where moving and shooting at briefly glimpsed targets is a world apart from what most Marines learn in Boot Camp and reinforce in periodic re-qualification firing.  “Unfortunately,” he said, “some students have a lot of trouble adapting to the high stress and special skills needed.”

17 April 2009, U.S. Army Depot, Hawthorne, Nevada. An operator with 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion is reaching out to a thousand meters or more with a Barrett M107 – most recently designated by the Marine Corps as LASR (Long Application Scoped Rifle) – in high angle marksmanship training from a position on Rocket Mountain. The M107 is Ronnie Barrett’s powerful .50 caliber semiautomatic rifle, widely used throughout the U.S. Armed Forces and USSOCOM. (USMC photo by Lance Corporal Stephen Benson)

We put specific questions regarding FN SCAR rifles, MEU-SOC M45 pistols and related issues through MARSOC’s command structure.  The responses were surprisingly candid.  “MARSOC is currently divesting from the SCAR-L (MK-16), which means they are being turned back into Crane and MARSOC will not pursue acquiring this weapon.  The SCAR-H (MK-17) and SCAR-EGLM (MK-13), MARSOC is keeping a small quantity to employ as an augment to the current service rifle and grenade launcher.  It will be assessed if this capability is required for additional weapons in the future.”

SADJ:  Are any other new weapons (Glock vs. M1911), optics, ammunition (MK318, etc.) likely to be adopted?

“MARSOC is currently working with the Marine Corps on a replacement for the M-45 (aka MEU-SOC 45).  MARSOC is continuing to utilize the SOPMOD accessories (i.e: optics, aiming devices), the new sight is the grenade launcher sight for the M-203 that is being tested by both SOCOM and the Marine Corps.  The Marine Corps is conducting testing on AB49 (MK318) ammunition as a replacement for the current 5.56mm round.”

There you have it, right from the source.

Meet Some MSOS Instructors
In addition to the briefing by Lieutenant Colonel Watson and several informal discussions, SADJ got answers from three of the Schoolhouse’s instructors to a series of questions submitted in advance of our visit.  We met on Stone Bay’s storied Hathcock Range (namesake of Marine sniping legend Carlos Hathcock) in between some very long range firing exercises that were part of the Advanced Sniper Course.

Comments that follow are from Staff Sergeants Nicholus Blackmon and Jason Salvog, along with Sergeant Matt Yohe.  Blackmon is a native of Villa Rica, Georgia, with ten years of service in the Corps and 18 months at MSOS as a weapons instructor.  Salvog also has a decade of service as a Marine and the last three years at MSOS as a tactics instructor.  Yohe has been a Devil Dog for eight years and recently chosen as an academics instructor for MSOS’ Advanced Sniper Course (MASC).

SADJ:  Why did you join the Corps?  Why did you ask for assignment to MARSOC and MSOS?  

Blackmon:  Three things I enjoyed while growing up in the backwoods of Georgia were hiking, camping and hunting.  So, at the end of my senior year in high school I started looking at the military.  The Marine recruiter was a standout and I enlisted in the Corps.  I was attending the Small Arms Weapons Instructor Course at Quantico in 2005 when I learned that my unit of assignment was disbanding.  Senior leaders urged me to try out for a new unit called MARSOC and I was accepted into the Foreign Military Training Unit (now 3rd MSOB).  I’m happy that I made the move.  I did three deployments with my team and after the last one I was assigned to MSOS.  Because of my background and training in small arms, I was assigned to the weapons section.

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