Piet – King of Direct Fire

There is a poem, Piet, by Rudyard Kipling which reads, in part:

I’ve fought with him the whole day through
At fifteen hundred yards
Long afternoons of lying still
And hearing as you lay
The bullets swish from hill to hill
Like scythes among the hay

Piet being the Boer who fought the British Empire in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, in what is now called the Boer War. The Boers were expert at long range direct rifle fire. Given the wide open veldt terrain, the Brit infantry got shot before they could get close enough to fight. The poem, Piet, is a testament to that direct fire marksmanship skill of the Boer.

The Brits learned their lesson and, by 1907, had outfitted their rifles with aperture sights adjustable to 1500 yards and volley fire sights adjustable to 2600 yards. Further, they trained their soldiers to fire, following the commands of their sergeants and officers, at individual enemy up to 1000 yards and to lay down a beaten zone (see essay of that name herein) out past 2600 yards. When the Brits sent their Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France in 1914, they were the finest group of highly trained marksmen in the World.

The BEF was arrayed against the fast marching columns of infantry in the German right wing. They blunted the German advance. German reports complained bitterly that their intelligence had been wrong and that the Brits had over 10 times the number of water cooled machine guns they were supposed to.

By German doctrine, it is the water cooled machine gun that delivers a beaten zone at long range, their riflemen do not. It was the Brit soldier who delivered that long range fire upon the German, forcing him to the ground and to slog forward rather than march the roads at higher speed. This was a major factor in slowing the German and causing his great Schlieffen Plan to fail in their invasion of France.

From there, the War descended into gridlock as both sides hurled men across the mud and barbed wire, into the face of unrelenting fire. A good illustrator of the bloodbath is the Battle of the Somme, where the attacking British forces suffered 58,000 casualties in one day (1 July, 1916).

On another front, in the mountains of Austria and Italy, German mountain infantry were having some success. One of their battalion commanders was experimenting with using direct long range rifle fire to suppress a mountain top objective and having his attack force literally walk to the objective and seize it. He wrote it up in a book named Infantry Attacks and won the Blue Max for his exploits. His name was Erwin Rommel, who would later have great success in World War II.

In the 1930’s, the US Army placed emphasis on long range direct fires. Men like George C. Marshall (later Chief of Staff for the Army in World War II) wrote extensively in Infantry Journal about the importance of these fires.

In designing the M-1 rifle, John Garand incorporated a “ballistic range drum” into the elevation knob of the rear sight. This allowed accurate fires to well past 1200 yards. Unfortunately, given the rapid expansion of the Army to win the War; advanced marksmanship skills, and the use of the range drum, were omitted; for expediency, from training. We deliberately ignored one of the many advantages of the M-1 rifle.

The M-14 rifle was the follow on to the M-1. It retained the ballistic range drum in the elevation knob. But the Army ignored it. When I entered service in the 1960’s, we were only trained for “battlesight” direct fires to 350 meters.

Now, it is far worse. The M-4 Carbine issued to American soldiers is not capable of long range direct fires and we train our soldiers to fight standing up.

That is right; the nation which places the highest value upon each individual life, trains its people to engage, while standing upright. Yet the enemy, who is numerically superior, is armed with weapons which are of equal capability as our own.

What?? Is this the American Civil War all over again, with its strategy of attrition and horrendous waste of life ?? We have lost our minds because we ignore history and engineering common sense. The United States cannot employ long range direct rifle fires. And we pay for it in blood. Where is Piet, now that we really need him? Oh, the pity of it all.