Geneses of the .50 caliber Sniper Rifle by Paul Evancoe
As the last U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam in 1975 marking the end of over a decade of costly war, the North Vietnamese Army victoriously rolled into Saigon reunifying the country under Communist rule. Strategically situated north of the Mekong River along the coast of the South China Sea, Cam Ranh Bay was the largest deep water seaport with an accompanying modern airfield capable of handling nearly any aircraft in the inventory. It too was now available for the taking. The Soviets wasted no time moving their warships and attack aircraft to the former U.S. base, giving them a warm water operating base from which they could threaten U.S. interests in the South China Sea littoral and easily impose strategic control on the sea lines of communication from the Strait of Malacca to Taiwan. Along with the Arms Race, the Cold War was in full swing. Kinetic war with the Soviets seemed a distinct possibility during this escalating environment of super-power hostility and surrogate-country exploitation. The U.S. Navy was still largely composed of World War II-vintage ships and expansion of Soviet naval and air power into the S.E. Asia region could not go unchallenged. Cam Ranh Bay was fast becoming a Soviet foot hold that would have to be reckoned with.
By late 1977, a plan to neutralize Cam Ranh Bay with a pre-emptive strike was deemed necessary. The Soviets had installed several long range air search radars and surface to air missile sites at key locations on the low hills surrounding the bay. They also had picket ships patrolling the South China Sea. A U.S. carrier-launched air strike against Cam Ranh Bay would be detected and U.S. losses would be unacceptable. Attacking with long range heavy bombers, namely B-52’s, operating from U.S. bases in the Philippians and/or Guam were an option but they would also be detected and need massive fighter support. The Soviet fighter jets now stationed at Cam Ranh Bay would surely intercept our bombers and their escorts and the surface to air anti-aircraft missile batteries would also score a high toll. Again, U.S. losses would be unacceptably high.
Neutralizing the Soviet warning and missile radars to blind them from detecting our attacking aircraft was deemed the only viable solution. By 1978, contingency mission planning for the attack was assigned to the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet. Numerous attack options were developed using a mix of ships and aircraft but none ensured enough of a margin of success to make them viable. The attack had to catch the Soviets unprepared so they couldn’t shoot our planes down and retaliate against our carrier battle groups operating far off shore. But how? The U.S. Special Operations Command was still a decade from conception – it didn’t exist. It was a Navy mission anyway. So how could it be accomplished?
Navy SEALs had distinguished themselves during the Vietnam War operating as direct action commandos who did their dirty deeds during the dark of night in the enemy’s back yard. “The men with green faces,” as they had come to be known by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, were feared and for good reason. A SEAL squad of seven men carried more firepower than a 25 man Army squadand they knew how to apply it effectively against an enemy four to five times larger, and then melt into the jungle leaving their foe dazed, dying or dead. Could the SEALs take on a target like Cam Ranh Bay and succeed?
After much study and analysis Seventh Fleet planners arrived at an answer. Yes, it could be done but not by the Navy SEALs alone. A daring plan was hatched that many saw as a suicidal one way mission but the SEALs believed its probability for success was sufficient enough to justify the risk. It went like this. Departing from a submarine over the horizon under the cover of darkness, a small 7-man SEAL element would come ashore along Vietnam’s barren coast well north of Cam Ranh Bay days before the air strike. After hiding their inflatable boat they would penetrate undetected approximately 8 miles south through dense jungle terrain and hinterland to Cam Ranh Bay. On cue, they would neutralize the enemy’s critical air defense radars. Within minutes a second SEAL attack would follow using three specially configured gun jeeps delivered by a single Air Force 1st Special Operations Squadron (1 SOS) Combat Talon MC-130 E. In complete darkness, the plane would execute a short field landing on the Cam Ranh Bay runway or taxiway – whichever one wasn’t fouled. As the plane came to a stop, the SEALs’ would roll off in their jeeps and head to their assigned target area. Each jeep had three SEALs crewing it – a driver, a heavy machine gunner who stood at the pedestal-mounted gun behind the two front seats and a light machine gunner in the passenger seat who had a pintal dash-mounted 7.62 M-60 machine gun.
In addition, each SEAL carried a full combat load consisting of an assault rifle, 300 rounds of ammo, a mix of fragmentation and smoke grenades, a Claymore mine, canteen, extra rations and first aid kit just in case they had to escape and evade overland. As an additional backup, each Jeep carried a deflated tightly rolled 7-man capacity Zodiac with a 35 HP outboard and a gas bladder. In the event the MC-130 couldn’t take off, or one of the jeeps got separated, they would drive to water’s edge, inflate the Zodiac, and motor seaward making good their escape.
After leaving the MC-130 E, each jeep was assigned a well-rehearsed and choreographed field of fire as they drove to, through and back from the flight line so as not to accidently shoot the MC-130 or another SEAL jeep. One of the jeeps would take out the airport control tower using a Mk19 Mod 3 40mm grenade launcher, then shoot HIP and HIND helicopters that were neatly parked along an apron close by. The other two gun jeeps would rake the bomber and fighter jet flight lines with hundreds of rounds of 50 cal machinegun fire aiming for critical avionics in the cockpit and aircraft engines. Ironically, the Soviets parked their aircraft in straight lines, nose to taxiway, wingtip to wingtip. The SEALs would spend only 2 ½ minutes shooting the place up then race their jeeps to the rear of the waiting, fully turned up MC-130. As the 3-man jeep teams left their vehicles on the runway just yards behind the plane, they would ignite a 3 minute time fuse that would detonate two 20 lb. haversacks of C-4 carried under the front seats in each jeep for the purpose of both cratering the runway and fouling it with twisted jeep fragments. With the SEALs back onboard, the MC-130 would execute a maximum performance short field takeoff and conduct a treetop-level departure using terrain masking to stay below enemy radar. Total ground time from landing to takeoff was 3 minutes max.
As the MC-130 cleared the area an alpha strike launched from an off shore Navy carrier would be on its way in to continue the airfield attack and do as much damage to the harbor facilities, ships, the airfield and remaining defenses as possible. That would be followed by a massive B-52 bombardment of the entire area and total destruction of the airfield and the harbor. The SEALs who went in days earlier to blind the radar sites would remain behind and rescue any downed pilots. If that was unnecessary, they would exfiltrate back to the sea following the strike for an over the horizon recovery by submarine. If it all went as planned, Cam Ranh Bay would resemble the surface of the moon the next morning and the Soviets would be out of business there for a very long time.
There was just one small flaw with this plan. How do the SEALs who are supposed to take down the radars advance of the main attack accomplish that task undetected? Surely shooting short range LAW rockets into the radar stations or dropping mortars on them would lead to certain compromise and potential capture. After careful study of overhead imagery, it was assessed that the SEALs had ample concealment to make their way to within 1/2 mile of most of the radar sites but attacking them from twice that distance was more palatable and it offered a greatly reduced chance of compromise.
After exhaustive study, the CIA and Naval Intelligence were able to provide more critical intelligence and determine the Soviet’s vulnerability. They knew the key to a successful attack was to shut down the early warning radars and anti-aircraft missile batteries surrounding Cam Ranh Bay. They learned and confirmed that there were no spares for the generators that powered the outlying radar and missile sites at Cam Ranh Bay. The closest spares were at Ho Chi Minh Airport (formerly Tan Son Nhut Air Base) located outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a number of hours away by air and a day by road. Even better, they learned that there were no spare wave guides for the radars anywhere in theater. That meant the SEALs needed a standoff weapon that could effectively punch a hole through a generator’s engine block and be accurate enough to slice the radar’s wave guide – and do it quietly from as far as a mile away. At the time, no such light weight weapon existed. The quest began to develop one, and Naval Surface Weapons Center – Crane, Indiana got the job.
It didn’t take rocket science to recognize that the only round already in the inventory that could do the job was the .50 caliber round fired by the M-2 Browning Machinegun. Scoped M-2’s had been used effectively against equipment and for counter sniping during the Korean War but the M-2 was large, heavy and it needed a sandbagged tripod to attain its greatest accuracy. Since multiple targets had to be taken out both accurately and simultaneously, agility was required. A small 7-man SEAL patrol carrying a number of heavy M-2’s with tripods, in addition to all their other combat equipment, would be too cumbersome. Increasing the number of men in the patrol so that the M-2’s, tripods and ammunition could be carried in was also out of the question because the success of the entire operation rested on going in undetected. A single mistake would compromise the entire operation. Secondly, the M-2’s report was distinctively loud which was also unacceptable. The weapon engineers at Crane had another solution in mind – design a sniper rifle that utilized the powerful .50 cal. round and put a sound suppressor on the muzzle to quiet its report. Give the Navy SEALs a gun that was accurate out to a mile and could shoot RDX explosive-filled .50 caliber match grade ammo.
Working closely with private industry (which Crane historically excels in) they fielded three prototype test guns in a matter of months. One of them was a drop block design provided by the Navy’s China Lake Laboratory (this gun is on display at the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC). The other two were single shot bolt guns. One of those was built by a “wild cat” gunsmith in Wisconsin and the other built by Haskins. These guns didn’t have a recoil-reducing muzzle brake or sound suppressor. They were heavy, weighing in at a hefty 16-24 lbs, ear splittingly loud and their recoil was so severe that it shattered the interior optical lenses of the various traditional sniper scopes mounted on them after just 2 or 3 shots.
Those test shooting these prototype guns were equally affected. Most could withstand no more than three consecutive shots without suffering blurry vision that sometime lasted hours. Weapon accuracy proved excellent in the Haskins design and its disassembly was simple allowing it to be easily carried. At a mile, hitting 3×2 foot vertically mounted glass panes that were painted white proved no contest. The panes were reduced in size to 2×1 foot, then one square foot. A muzzle brake was added to the guns which helped reduce the felt recoil to acceptable levels. A few months later a luminary suppressor designer by the name of Mickey Finn provided a sound suppressor the size of a one liter water bottle quieting the gun’s earsplitting report to less than the sound of a .22 caliber pistol. The new gun was becoming a pleasure to shoot.
The next challenge was to shave as much weight off the gun as possible without changing accuracy and find a scope with enough magnification to see a target the size of a wave guide at a mile while being rugged enough to survive the gun’s recoil and intended operational environment. Stocks were lightened while barrels were fluted and shortened. Exotic light weight metals were substituted for traditional materials where possible. Scope optics were ruggedized and waterproofed. And, in 1979 the .50 cal. sniper rifle, much as we know it today, was born.
By 1980 the SEALs had everything they needed to conduct the Cam Ranh Bay attack and the mission was assigned to the SEALs Naval Special Warfare Unit One working from the U.S. Navy’s Philippines base at Subic Bay. The MC-130E was conveniently provided by the 1 SOS operating from the U.S. Air Force’s Clark Air Base close by. 1SOS regularly supported SEAL operations throughout the entire Asian-Pacific Theater so the marriage was solid.
The next thing was to rehearse the attack to get the timing right – especially choreographing the gun jeep attack on the airfield and the getaway. There are few places where a live fire rehearsal using a real airfield with mock up planes can be accomplished. The WW-II airfield on Tinian Island located about 120 miles from Guam was chosen. Coincidently, it was the same airfield from which the Enola Gay launched the atomic bomb attack on Japan. One of the 4 runways, now all overgrown by jungle, was bush hogged by Navy Seabees. The SEALs created the Cam Ranh Bay airfield geometry with mockup planes and control tower and numerous full mission profile live fire rehearsals took place beginning in daylight and graduating to total darkness. The mission was certified operationally ready in 1981.
While regularly rehearsed and ready in the starting blocks, the operation was never executed. The Cold War effectively ended in 1992 with the demise of the Soviet Union. But looking back on it…the Cam Ranh Bay strike was so daring that it might have just worked. Ironically, the civilian engineers and private industry partners who developed the .50 cal. sniper rifle had no idea what the real purpose of their creation was (and most remain unwitting to this day). In 1982 Ronnie Barrett revealed his civilian version of the .50 cal. sniper rifle, shocking the gun industry with his revelation, which became an instant sought after success and the rest is history.
Author bio: Paul Evancoe is the author of three action novels, Own the Night, Violent Peace, and Poison Promise. All are available online from Amazon Books.