Firefight Dynamics

Although television and the movies make firefights look like people just throw bullets at each other and hope to hit, reality is different. Of course some people do attempt to throw bullets in an attempt to kill him/her but professionals aren’t so simple and taking the time to aim is not practical.

Noise, volume of fire and heavy caliber rounds do not kill the enemy. Hits kill the enemy and prevent him from killing you. Many people will brag about heavy caliber rounds, or the capability of their ammunition, or the high rate of fire, but that is all useless if they can’t hit their target. For instance the Mossad (the Israeli’s CIA) uses the .22 caliber round (a very weak, nearly harmless round) as a ‘signature’ weapon in assassinations. A .22 round is nearly harmless and it takes great skill to use it to kill with.

Unlike the movies, people do not stand out in the open and calmly fire at the enemy. When a person is being shot at or about to be shot at, his primary concern is not to get hit. This has to do with a survival instinct, which only fools or suicidal maniacs do not have. It takes a real fool to ignore enemy rounds and stand calmly there while aiming at the enemy. Of course if there are no other options it takes a great deal of bravery. There’s one saying that goes like this; “A Hero is a coward that got cornered.”

In essence firefights are confrontations where one person or group tries to kill the other person, or group, without being killed themselves. Combat is very simple, there is a first place and second place, second place is laying face down in the mud, sometimes, so is first place.

When a firefight begins, training and experience come in to play. These two qualities are more important than the weapons used in many cases.

To avoid being shot a person dodges, takes cover or hides from the enemy. A moving person is a very bad shot in the real world and professionals know it is a waste of ammo to move and shoot at the same time. Standing and shooting are less accurate than laying down and shooting. Also, when a shooter is laying down he/she presents less of a target for the enemy. For example if a person is six feet tall and lays down his target area just went from six feet of target to about two feet (or less) of target, making him over sixty percent harder to hit. Also, that person who just lay down will be able to fire more accurately because he can brace his weapon.

When a person takes cover he/she gets behind something solid which (hopefully) will stop enemy bullets (or beams). From such a position the person has a brace for his weapon, hides more of his body than someone who is prone (usually) and has some shelter to hide behind if the enemy gets the upper hand.

When a person finds concealment he is still vulnerable to enemy fire but decreases the chance of the enemy being able to fire accurately.

Dodging makes it almost impossible to accurately return fire. At most, the dodger can hope to intimidate the enemy and prevent him from firing accurately. Firing is only a little more accurate than throwing a baseball, try dodging and accurately throwing a baseball, it don’t happen.

The term ‘being pinned down’ means that the individual pinned down has been intimidated by enemy fire and his/her survival instinct is going strong. When a person or unit is pinned down, they have lost the upper hand and are unable to return accurate fire. This is the worst thing that can happen to a defender, it is the best thing that can happen for the attacker.

Fire Superiority means that one side is able to fire more rounds and/or more accurately than the other who becomes ‘suppressed.’ ‘Pinning down the enemy’ can be complicated and difficult, or simple. Machine guns are usually instrumental in suppressing the enemy and allowing the attacker to gain the advantage through sheer volume of fire which intimidates the enemy. Accurate fire is also helpful in gaining fire superiority, combined they are deadly.

Training is critical in this. A person who has been trained to be aggressive and gung-ho is less likely to be intimidated by enemy fire. That is why Marines, Rangers, Special Forces, Seals and other elite units are so successful. Many people complain that such units are arrogant and elitist, but that, along with quality training, is what allows them to survive on the battlefield. A fighter who is timid, nice and peaceful is much more likely to be intimidated by someone who is not, even if the fighter is the best shot, very intelligent and resourceful. When the nice guy comes under fire he has fewer reason to try and ‘out do’ the enemy.

When a person is suppressed by enemy fire then the enemy will very likely close in, surround the defender and kill him/her. A suppressed enemy is also more likely to surrender because they are scared and believe the enemy is superior.

A machine gun is an intimidating weapon, so are rockets. A single sniper can gain fire superiority over an entire company if he is good enough. For example, Marine Carlos Hathcock and his partner shot a North Vietnamese soldier in the front of a column. When the enemy column turned around to run he shot the NVA soldier in the rear (now the front) of the column. Not knowing where the Marine Sniper was the NVA took cover. If they left cover Hathcock would shoot them. The NVA became very reluctant to leave cover or even stick their head out to look for the Marine. They attempted to return fire many times without success. Because the NVA unit was ‘pinned down’ they were eventually all killed by the actions of two Marines.

The tide can suddenly turn in a firefight if suppressive fire is not maintained. If the machine gun(s) or riflemen run out of ammo or have to reload the slack in suppressive fire can allow the enemy to start fighting back effectively again.

When maintaining suppressive fire, machine guns will fire aimed bursts (of three to eight rounds, three to five is average) and riflemen will fire aimed shots. If the enemy manages to stick his head up, it is likely it will be ventilated, especially if he sticks it up where it is expected.

Gaining suppressive fire is an art form. Advantageous positions, good weapons, excellent training, concealment as well as cover, coordination and more, all effect the fire fight.

Actually seeing the enemy is not as common as in the movies. Usually only a few people will see the enemy. Camouflage is designed to hide the soldier from enemy view. If the soldier can’t be seen he cannot be easily shot, furthermore, when a soldier is firing at an enemy he takes cover and tries to hide from enemy bullets as well as enemy observation. Of course when someone ducks behind a tree, rock, car or some other object he/she can’t be seen at all and so he/she can’t be shot.

What this usually means is that both sides are hiding from the each other at the same time they are trying to kill each other. Sticking your head up to look for the enemy usually means you get shot at or start attracting fire. This is a bad thing so most fighters don’t spend a lot of time looking for the enemy. This means it is important for professionals to communicate and inform each other when and where they see the enemy. There are a great many ways warriors use to inform each other of where the enemy is at. Team leaders can use tracers, smoke grenades, or shouted commands to show their team where to fire. Just because a unit can’t see the enemy doesn’t mean the enemy cannot be suppressed with a high volume of fire. What is important is that the suppressive fire be close enough to the enemy to scare them.

Amateurs will just fire blindly at anything that moves, sometimes even each other. Team leaders and squad leaders lead the panic fire. For instance, one US unit in Vietnam was fired on by a VC sniper and the entire battalion opened fire on their surroundings expending incredible amounts of ammunition.

Something else that must be considered is the will of the firer. Some conscripts, for instance, don’t want to be fighting and don’t want to have the death of another person on their conscious. For this reason they may not fire at all and this is not good when a unit is trying to suppress the enemy. Of course if cornered, even a conscript will fight back fiercely.

The way warriors fire is also important. If troopers fire over the head of the enemy the bullets are wasted, if they fire too low the bullet can ricochet off a hard surface and still kill the enemy. Also the enemy can see the bullets bouncing off the ground and the enemy will fear them. Tracers are also an excellent way to intimidate the enemy because they can be seen as they ricochet and zip by. Regular bullets make a crack as the pass the listener and break the sound barrier but they travel too fast to be seen, tracers fix this problem.

For example, in Africa, one commando team parachuted into their area of operations at night and attacked, by using a very high mix of tracers (usually there is one tracer for every four regular rounds, these bold fellows had more). Their targets were severely frightened by this high volume of fire and although they were outnumbered more than ten to one, and attacking, they were still victorious because the enemy soldiers ran away.

Flanking an enemy is also important. When a person becomes scared their attention frequently focuses on the source of their fear and this is called tunnel vision. It is like the person is looking down a tunnel at the source of his fear and he can’t see to either side. Even if rounds are coming from the side he might not notice. Good training teaches the warrior to constantly look around, amateurs submit to their tunnel vision. In addition to tunnel vision there is also the formation to consider. During a fire fight everyone tries to get a shot at the enemy and nobody likes being shot past or shooting past an ally. For this reason fighters line up facing the enemy. If an attack should come from the side, fewer people could return fire because they would be firing past friends. Moving to deal with an attack from the flank means that the defenders have to redeploy to face the new attackers. If they are being fired at from the original group then moving is a lot more difficult. Also another thing to consider is the fact that when a person takes cover to deal with a threat to the front then he might be vulnerable because he has to protection from the sides.

Another way to make the enemy put their head down and keep it down is artillery and mortars. Fighters and attack helicopters are another method of discouraging enemy initiative and keeping where they’re at.

As you are beginning to see combat is as much physchological as physical and attacking the enemy in a firefight is attacking his mind as much as his body because if the enemy cannot think well enough to resist he is simply waiting to die.

As mentioned before machine guns are instrumental in suppressive fire. Light machine guns usually have a higher volume of fire (because the gunner can carry more ammo). Medium machine guns are good for suppressive fire because they are more intimidating and have better penetration (they can go through more than one soldier and light cover). Heavy machine guns are even slower but have a higher level of penetration. Machine guns can lay down a wall of fire that is lethal to cross. More details about machine guns in the defense will be covered later, it is important to note here that the heavier the machine gun, the more intimidating it is, this does not mean a heavier machine gun is always more dangerous.

Here is an example of a firefight between a professional unit and one that is not.

A Marine patrol is stalking through the jungle on a search and attack mission. Suddenly the point man comes under fire and hits the ground. The Automatic Rifleman, behind the pointman, opens fire on the suspected enemy position, firing as fast as he accurately can. The third man in formation (with a grenade launcher) starts to fire on the enemy also. As quickly as it can, the Marines will bring as much firepower as they can on the enemy and will get in a line facing the enemy. There will usually be enough room between Marines so that a single grenade will not kill more than one or two. The point man might have a higher content of tracers in his weapon to designate the enemy’s location and because tracers help with suppression.

Grenade launchers will fire smoke, as well as explosives to mark the enemy location for those that don’t yet see the enemy. The smoke would interfere with the enemy’s ability to see the Marines and it will tell the Marines about where the enemy is at, the smoke is also less likely to interfere with the Marine’s ability to see. Fireteam leaders will order their fireteams to concentrate fire on those locations.

If the Marines have managed to suppress the enemy, the squad leader may send a fireteam to the side of the enemy and assault him from there (flanking). If this fails or is not practical then the squad leader will get on his radio and call for mortars or artillery (if he hasn’t done so already). Also, reinforcements might be dispatched by higher authorities.

If the enemy fire is too strong and the Marines are taking casualties then they will retreat under cover of mortars, artillery, close air support or Naval gunfire.

If the squad leader believes he cannot flank the enemy and the squad can assault them he will give the order. At this point he can advance the squad by fireteams, or give the fireteam leaders control. While two fireteams lays down a high volume of fire, and suppresses the enemy, another fireteam will advance. Meanwhile, fireteam leaders are directing their teams to advantageous positions, with the machine gunner taking priority. If there is a target that the machine gunner is having difficulty with then the team leader will engage it with his grenade launcher. Also, Marines on either side of the line will be told to be more watchful so the Marines don’t get flanked.

If the squad leader has a machine gun team (with a medium machine gun) it will receive the best firing position in the squad and remain as stationary as possible. A rocket team will be used against fortified targets or difficult enemy hold-outs as directed by the squad leader (or team leader).

All Marines will place a priority on killing enemy machine gunners, radio operators and leaders, and concentrate fire accordingly.

If the vegetation is too thick and the squad leader is having difficulty controlling the squad, the squad leader may order the fireteam leaders to advance their teams. The fireteam leaders can advance their people two ways, in battleteams of two, or he can move one person at a time while the rest of the team ‘pins’ down the enemy. These methods can be alternated depending on the terrain and situation. If the fireteam does not have a target it will advance until it does or is fired at. A good unit does not waste ammo, because it also gives them away and even when rounds are flying all over the place an individual can still surprise his enemy.

If a team goes to battleteams then one person will move while the other covers. The person that moves will not run far and will have something to hid behind when he gets there. Usually, the Marine gets prone behind something that can protect him from enemy fire, or at least provide him with a little concealment. It is important to note that a person does not always get and run forward. The Marine might crawl forward and he is unlikely to just stop in the open and get down if there is not cover.

During the attack (or retreat since everything can be done in reverse) professionals are always communicating. Fireteam leaders tell their teams where to concentrate their fires, team members yell out when and where they see the enemy, everyone yells out when they are running low, or reloading, when they have taken cover and firing (so the other person can get up and move).

Fireteam leaders and members should also communicate with their fellow Marines on either side regardless of fireteam or unit.

Squad leader are always moving around, directing fireteam leaders, machine gunners, or, occasionally, firing at the enemy.

With all the communication, massive amounts of fire are directed on specific targets which are quickly killed or suppressed. (Having four men fire at you with everything from grenade launchers, rifles and machine guns is very intimidating or fatal.)

Once the Marines get close to the enemy positions they may begin throwing hand grenades. In the jungle this can be dangerous because a grenade may hit a branch and bounce back.

Grenades are not ‘sure kills’ and work both ways. One of the most common words movie goers hear is ‘Grenade!’ This tells everyone to take cover and protect themselves.

To avoid having grenades thrown at them as they get closer, Marines may decide to ‘assault’. This is little more than a banzai charge for a short distances. Firing from the shoulder (since they are closer it is much easier to hit) the Marines charge into the enemy positions and engage them in close combat. Hopefully, the enemy is dead and unable to fight back at this time. Battle cries and ‘war faces’ also help intimidate the enemy into fleeing or not firing back. These tactics can have more effect than most people would credit them with.

All this might sound simple but that is the last thing it is. Confusion and chaos reign supreme. If a unit or person gets too far ahead of the rest he mind find himself with enemy in front and either side. Needless to say, this is very dangerous (but he can take advantage of the enemy on his sides if they are concentrating on his fellow Marines in front of them.)

Additionally, there are a great many tactics that can be used to give the defenders an advantage such as machine guns that are shooting an X across the front. This creates a wall of lead which is difficult to cross.

The enemy will also be trying very hard to gain fire superiority and may even try to flank the Marines. They will have their own rockets and special weapons. A great many factors affect who will win with the edge going to the more professional warriors who know their trade.

Communication is critical, just because the enemy is firing at you doesn’t mean you see him, but your buddy might and he can tell you where the enemy is. Usually by saying something like ‘at eleven o’clock, three meters right of that big tree, behind the log.’ Nobody but a fool is going to stand up and point at the enemy. Hand arm signals also work and are very useful because it can get hard to hear. The problem with hand arm signals is they have to bee seen. If it is dark. . . you get the idea. A lot can go wrong.

When looking for or shooting at the enemy it is always wise not to look over something. Visibility might be a little poorer looking around the side but you will be harder to see and won’t be silhouetted. It is also wise to always change the location you shoot from when possible, because the enemy might be aiming there waiting for you to appear.

There are so many variable in a fire fight and training is critical to the survival of the individual as well as the unit. The quality of training is also important. Giving a soldier a rifle and a couple thousand rounds of ammunition to fire isn’t going to make him proficient with it. A soldier can fire a thousand rounds a day and it still won’t make him a great fighter if he doesn’t take cover or gets flanked.

Not every situation can be prepared for and there is never enough information for a leader to act on with confidence. The squad leader in the above example has to make a great many decisions based on his experience or beliefs. He can’t know for sure what he has run into. He can only judge from the amount of fire the enemy is returning. If the squad leader doesn’t do anything and tries to figure out what is going, on it is a sure bet the enemy will be doing something, calling for mortars, artillery, or reinforcements. They might even be preparing to flank the Marines.

By acting aggressively, the Marine squad leader forces the enemy to respond. An aggressive attack can confuse the enemy and make him think he is facing a much larger enemy. Like the commandos in Africa, they were aggressive and intimidating and they were facing poorly trained and led troops.

Another example. In one of the World Wars the Germans were attacking the French across a river. Only one small group of Germans made it across and they were hopelessly outnumbered. However, the German Squad Leader led his men and continued the attack. The French Commander, fearing the Germans had penetrated his lines, and were more numerous than they really were, ordered his troops to retreat and the Germans won the battle.

Another example I like is when Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and the rest were on the Death Star in StarWars. Han Solo encountered a group of storm troopers. Although Han Solo was outnumbered he immediately attacked, with Chewbacca at his side. The Imperial Storm Troopers thought they were outnumbered and ran. When the Storm Troopers found out they were only being chased by two attackers, Han Solo and Chewie were forced to run.

Combat is chaos and confusion. People have to make instant life and death decisions. Often, there is not time to stop, look around, get everyone’s opinion and make a plan so there it is important someone be in command and that person be the most experienced warrior. Every firefight is different in one way or another and experience is the most effective method of figuring what is going on.

patrola.jpg (12002 bytes)One way to consider this is the OODA loop, Observer, Orient, Decide, Act. Whoever has the faster OODA loop is very likely going to win. A person observes what is happening and he must orient himself, how does this affect him? Then he must decide what to do about it, once he has made his decision he must act and the thought process begins again. By aggressively ‘pushing’ the enemy he has to take longer to go through his OODA loop because he is trying to Orient, Decide what to do and then Act. Meanwhile, he is rapidly losing the initiative and becoming confused. A confused fighter begins to make mistakes and eventually one of those mistakes will be fatal.

In most situations it is better to be the attacker than the defender. Even in a defensive position, the defender can be the attacker. It is more the mind set than the situation. The defender is static, waiting to react to an enemy action. With this in mind the defender has already surrendered the initiative to the attacker.

On the other hand it is the attacker who makes the important decisions. What to attack and when, how to go about it and how to deploy.

To aggressively defend a commander must go on the offense. This does not mean abandoning his position. Small groups can make contact with the enemy and call in mortars, artillery, close air support, naval guns and the like. The groups can snipe at the enemy as he approaches the defensive position. In addition the small groups can inform the commander what the enemy is up to. As an old saying goes, “The best defense is a good offense.”