USMC Precision Weapons Section

USMC Precision Weapons Section

There’s nothing else like it in any of the other branches of America’s Armed Forces.  Its uniquely lethal products, the work of a small and tightly-knit group, must function flawlessly and consistently 24/7 for the Corps’ Scout Snipers and other hard-chargers in some of the world’s most harsh terrain and weather.  Other weapons and custom loaded ammunition created there must also consistently deliver pinpoint accuracy for world class shooters of the USMC’s Competition In Arms Rifle and Pistol Teams.

And while they’re at it, each year this little known team trains and certifies about a dozen highly proficient practitioners in what may be the smallest Military Occupational Specialty in the Marine Corps, members said to number only about sixty currently on active duty.

SADJ is privileged to be allowed “inside the razor wire” for a visit to Weapons Training Battalion’s Precision Weapons Section, aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.  PWS builds and maintains to that kind of razor sharpness what many consider to be some of the world’s most effective military sniper and special-purpose rifles, the toughest combat pistols and a line of tack-driving match weapons; all the proud handiwork of an ultra-exclusive fraternity of Marines who proudly claim the title Precision Weapons Repairman, MOS 2112.

Home of Precision Weapons
Located due west of main side Quantico on the spacious campus and range complex of Weapons Training Battalion, PWS has been comfortably housed since 2005 in about 34,000 square feet inside Harlee Hall and Twitchell Test facility.

This is an ideal location, says Chief Warrant Officer 5 Roderick Fiene (pronounced “Feeney“), Officer in Charge of PWS, noting the close proximity within short walking distance from both the Sniper School and the Corps’ Rifle and Pistol Teams.  This makes it easy, he told us, for regular and close collaboration between these super shooters and his meticulous craftsmen.

December 2010, MCB Quantico, VA. In a corner of the sprawling campus of Weapons Training Battalion, intimidating coils of stainless steel razor wire top the high fence surrounding Harlee Hall, specially built and dedicated in 2005 as home for its Precision Weapons Section. It‘s named in honor of Brigadier General William C. Harlee, known in the Corps as ‘father of Marine Corps rifle practice.’ At the time of our first visit to PWS, Chief Warrant Officer Fiene, Officer In Charge, was awaiting formal notification of his promotion to CWO5. (Robert Bruce)

Its current manning includes 27 Marines and six Civil Service technicians, augmented at this time by four civilian contract personnel working on specific short term “surge” projects.

PWS is one of the specialized platoons in Weapons Training Battalion’s Headquarters Company that, in addition to administration and supply, has elements specializing in combat shooting, competitive marksmanship, foreign weapons, breachers, and snipers.

SADJ’s information gathering for this report spanned more than a year, beginning with an invitation to meet Chief Warrant Officer Fiene and key members of his team.  This also included the opportunity to receive the formalized Command Briefing that’s usually reserved for military and government VIPs, and getting up close and personal with a display of historic and current examples of PWS handiwork.

Show ‘n Tell
On our initial visit, Staff Sergeant Jose Herrera, Sniper Section Senior NCOIC, had set up more than a dozen weapons in the conference room, mostly sniper rifles, spanning decades from a wooden stocked 1970s vintage Remington 700 to today’s super refined M40A5.  With pride and professionalism, he walked us in step by step detail through PWS’ contributions to the evolution of this venerable bolt action sniper rifle.

Herrera also treated us to a lesson on how the M14 rifle, discarded in favor of the M16 in the Vietnam War, was resurrected by the Corps early in the Global War on Terror.  PWS took mothballed “Fourteens” in for a tuneup and some custom parts to arm the new “Designated Marksmen,” filling the gap between riflemen and snipers.  DMs quickly got a cost effective, hard hitting, semi-auto solution to the problem of multiple targets at ranges that challenged the capabilities of the current standard-issue M16A4 rifles.

While the combat performance of the M14 Designated Marksman Rifle was good he said, it got better in M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle configuration, readily identified by its chassis stock.  We were also shown the 7.62mm AR10 type SR25 rifle that PWS modified in response to requests from Marines downrange routed through Systems Command.  This, Herrera said, was part of a program that eventually led to the Corps now buying quantities of the Mark 11 rifles.

December 2010, MCB Quantico, VA. The special VIP display that PWS provided for SADJ’s initial visit included four variations of John M. Browning’s inimitable M1911. This side by side view allows close comparison of an early MEU (SOC) .45 made by PWS (top) and the M45 CQBP (Close Quarters Battle Pistol) they’re now building. While this sample has a Caspian Arms frame, most are built from old M1911A1s upgraded with commercial parts. Note the non-snag ramp rear sight and deep serrations fore and aft on the civilian Springfield Armory slide to assist cocking with wet and gloved hands. PWS’ limited purchase of commercial-off-the-shelf frames was made to meet the intense surge in demand by Marine Special Operations units. (Robert Bruce)

It’s worth noting here that the MK11 – originally developed by Knight’s Armament for U.S. Navy Special Operations – became today’s M110 from Knight’s, now slated to replace the current line of 7.62mm semi-autos for Designated Marksmen and Scout Snipers in the Marine Corps.

Pistols were also on the curriculum, with Herrera showing us the differences between two distinct versions of the venerable M1911A1 .45 that are hand-crafted by PWS gunsmiths.  Hard-chargers of Marine Corps Special Operations Command and Reconnaissance Battalions get the tough and rugged-looking M45 – formerly known as the MEU (SOC) Pistol.  World class competitive shooters on the USMC Pistol Team get a finely honed and beautifully finished National Match version of John Browning’s masterpiece.

Meet the PWS Pros
We returned to PWS some months later for in-depth interviews, guided by a long list of detailed and specific questions that we submitted well in advance.  This, we strongly believe, yields extra value to answers that are well thought out and rich in detail.

While most feature stories in gun magazines are spiced up here and there with a few quotes, SADJ’s approach is decidedly different.  We sit down with key personnel and give them the opportunity to tell us what they think is important about the subject at hand.

What follows here can be seen as a chance for our readers to pull up a seat at the table and join us in meeting Marines at three levels in the hierarchy of PWS.

Officer in Charge
A conversation at PWS with Chief Warrant Officer 5 Roderick N. Fiene (pronounced ‘Feeney‘), on 9 May 2011.  The 44 year old CWO5, a native of Cambridge, Nebraska, took command as Officer in Charge of PWS on July 1, 2010.

SADJ:  Tell us about your long journey to OIC of PWS.  

Fiene:  I didn’t intend to join the Marine Corps or the military but I ran into a recruiter who happened to be a 2111 Small Arms Repairman.  In the course of talking to me he found out I was a ‘gun nut’ and filled my head with all the ideas that the Corps would send me to all the schools to learn how to fix the guns and even that there’s a place at Quantico called the Rifle Team Equipment Shop and if you’re really good you can go there and build match guns.  Sounded pretty good to me and I figured I’d give it a try.  That’s how he got his hooks into me and I joined the Marine Corps.

1950, Korea. A 1st Marine Division sniper-spotter team work together to pick off the enemy with a telescope-equipped M1C rifle. Most of the Marine Corps’ snipers in the Korean War were armed with scoped M1 and M1903 rifles, good weapons but not nearly as accurate as today’s precision tools from PWS. (Lt. (Junior Grade) H.H. Searls, 1st Marine Division)

It took me 26 years to get here as PWS Officer in Charge.  I’m still not a precision weapons repairman but at least I got to the shop.  I had applied a couple of times and every time I applied the monitor told me it looks good but every time I got my orders it was to Okinawa, Japan.  I kind of gave up asking if every time I did they’d send me to Okinawa.  I went the Warrant Officer route and as a result I got to end up here.  I wanted to come to PWS as a repairman, to sit on a bench and build guns.  Now I sit behind a desk and read; doing all the administrative things relevant to PWS.

I came into the Corps as a 2111 Armorer, trained at the Army Ordnance School for Small Arms Repairman.  I got lucky and my first duty station was with the Marine Barracks at the Naval Station in Sicily.  Then a tour with the Air Wing as an armorer, mostly aircrew weapons, their pistols and rifles.  Tours in Okinawa with Engineers and Combat Engineers.  A couple tours with the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion.  I got selected for the Warrant Officer program and went back to Twentynine Palms as the maintenance officer for an artillery battalion.  I always kinda bragged as a 2111 coming up, ‘If it shoots I can fix it,’ but there I was and I hadn’t seen a real artillery piece in my life.

Went from there to the Maritime Pre-position Force out of Blount Island, Florida, inspecting equipment on the ships, making sure it was ready to go.  From there to 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, doing two combat deployments to Iraq as the Assistant Ordnance Officer.  Then to Quantico as Ordnance Officer for The Basic School and then up here to PWS.

SADJ:  How did you get selected to the position of chief of PWS?

Fiene:  In my Military Occupational Specialty – Infantry Weapon Repair Officer – there are only two Chief Warrant Officer 5 billets; one at PWS and the other at Systems Command in the Infantry Weapons Program office.  I was the senior CWO4 at the time and I finally got thrown into the ‘briar patch’ when they moved me into PWS.  Soon afterward I was selected to CWO5.

SADJ:  Are you personally interested in firearms and shooting?  

Fiene:  I’ve always been interested in firearms and shooting.  I grew up hunting on a family farm in Nebraska, started developing my interest in firearms.  My first weapon was a single shot bolt action .22 caliber JC Higgins rifle.  I learned how to shoot on that, my little brother learned how to shoot on it, when my kids got old enough I taught them how to shoot on it and my brother did too.  He’s still got that rifle in a gun cabinet back home.  As I got older and got more interested in how things work – not just that they work – it kinda came together.  I like to know how things work, what makes them work.

21 January 2011, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Providing security in combat operations in the hotly-contested Sangin District, USMC Corporal Jordan Gerber is armed with a rugged, versatile, accurate, hard-hitting 7.62mm M39 Enhanced Marksmanship Rifle, built from mothballed M14 rifle receivers by skilled Marine gunsmiths at Quantico’s Precision Weapons Section. All of the Corps’ fast-firing, hard hitting 7.62mm M39s, identified by their skeletonized chassis stocks, typically shoot with two MOA or better accuracy. Gerber is a sniper with Scout Sniper Platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Service Company, in support of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2. According to Captain Rich Barclay, this battalion’s Operations Officer, ‘All Marines have ‘gotten some,’ but the snipers are especially the heavy hitters….’ (USMC photo by Corporal David Hernandez)

I own about thirty weapons and they’re all favorites.  When I get a firearm we have a contract for life, I haven’t gotten rid of a single firearm that I’ve purchased from the time I was eighteen until now.  Two of the latest are a .44 caliber 1860 Colt Army revolver, black powder, cap and ball, and a Caspian .45 ACP M1911 officers model.

I’m not a competitive shooter.  I still enjoy hunting.  I like seeing what industry is doing; the changes in the firearms world.  Things that people come up with.  A lot of things change but some not that much.  A bolt action rifle that Paul Mauser made before the turn of the century is still kind of what everybody else chases to make a bolt action rifle.  To see the changes in the way firearms are made and manufactured has always kept my interest.

SADJ:  As far as your professional interest in the latest developments in the small arms field, is there anything in particular that has caught your attention?  

Fiene:  Long range accuracy.  We have the sniper school here and we talk with those folks regularly.  When you get into extreme long range accuracy and what that takes I find that very interesting.  Just because a bullet will travel that far doesn’t mean that it’ll be accurate that far.

SADJ:  Tell us about your nickname, ‘Primitive Pete.’  

Fiene:  I kind of find myself regressing now.  I’m starting to like black powder guns a lot more.  One of my favorite guns to shoot is the Model 1885 ‘High Wall’ lever action, single shot in .45-70, with black powder cartridges.  I cast the lead bullets for it and do my own hand loading.  It’s something gratifying about making the bullet, building the ammo, getting everything right and being able to hit a target downrange when you’re done with it.

SADJ:  What are your duties at PWS?

Fiene:  They’re primarily administrative.  I make sure my Marines have the tools and equipment they need to do their jobs.  I fight for the money to get ‘em what they need.  Other than that it’s just basic leadership – take care of your Marines.  Probably one of the biggest challenges here is keeping them engaged in what’s going on and what they’re doing.  It’s kind of ‘Groundhog Day’ (referring to the movie) around here; ‘What are you doing today?  I’m building guns.  What’ll you do tomorrow and next week?  Building guns.’  To sit at the same bench day after day and do nothing but assemble guns, that grind can wear some people down.  It’s a challenge to keep things mixed up, find other things for the Marines to do.  Break up that tedium a bit so they’ll get re-energized.

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