Small but mighty: How Canada’s military produces some of the world’s best snipers
“Canada has the best sniper training program in the world. I’ve been saying this for years.”
It may sound like a bold statement, but Rob Furlong is among a tiny handful of people with the credibility to make such a brash assertion.
Back in 2002, then-Cpl. Furlong took down a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan from a distance of 2,430 metres. It was the longest kill shot in military history at the time, and broke a record set just days prior by teammate and comrade Master Cpl. Arron Perry.
Cpl. Furlong’s record was broken by British sniper Craig Harrison in 2009, but Canadian bragging rights were restored this past week with the revelation that a member of the Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2) special forces unit shot an Islamic State fighter in Mosul, Iraq, from a distance of 3,450 metres.
It’s not uncommon for people to shoot similar distances in shooting meets and competitions, Furlong says, which is why he’s not surprised at a feat that people without experience with guns find scarcely believable.
“I don’t know why people have really had trouble digesting that this has been able to take place in a combat situation by one of the most elite forces in the world,” he told Global News. “It was only a matter of time.”
While the sniping feats of Furlong and the newly anointed Canadian record-holder – whose identity hasn’t been revealed – are well-known and celebrated, Canada’s sniping prowess isn’t something that dropped out of the sky after the turn of the millennium.
Indeed as far back as the early 20th century, Canadian snipers were being lauded for their exceptional sharpshooting skills.
“There was great enthusiasm in the Canadian ranks for sniping and those selected were sent to one of the sniping schools… where they were tested for proficiency,” military historian Martin Pegler wrote in his book Out of Nowhere: A history of the military sniper, from the sharpshooter to Afghanistan. “The Canadian sniper instructors were ruthless in their selection – of 39 applicants on one course, 11 were swiftly returned to their units.”
Pegler writes that Canada provided some of the finest snipers during the First World War, many of whom were aboriginal soldiers “whose backwoods skills, patience and acute eyesight made them ideally suited to the task.”
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Historical records indicate that Canada could claim eight of the top dozen snipers from all countries involved in the fighting during the war.
“Of those eight, at least five and probably six are aboriginal of some sort – Metis, First Nations or Inuit,” said Maj. Jim McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces department of history and heritage.
None was as decorated as Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, who is credited with 378 kills in his four years on the frontlines of Europe.
“His iron nerves, patience and superb marksmanship helped make him an outstanding sniper,” military historian Fred Gaffen wrote of Pegahmagabow in his book Forgotten Soldiers.
A backwoods upbringing probably has a lot to do with Canada’s history of sniping excellence, fellow military historian Mark Zuehlke posits.
“One thing I think that is probably still a factor at play is what was at play in World War One and World War Two, which is that a majority of the snipers in the Canadian Army were fellows who had grown up in rural situations, and they’d grown up going out hunting with their dads from a very early age,” Zuehlke says. “So they were comfortable around guns and they were probably already good shots when they got to the army.”
In addition to being good shots, army snipers who grew up hunting were also likelier to be adept at moving stealthily through the landscape.
“There are the two things that go hand in hand, that’s the ability to shoot and the ability not to be seen,” Zuehlke adds.
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But Canada’s military is hardly the only one that can count on rural recruits. So what is it about the country’s sniper program that has led the JTF to hold three of the five longest recorded kill shots in military history?
“The Canadian Army’s sniper profession has been continuously maintained, when other nations’ are used only when they become engaged in conflict,” a 2011 article in Frontline Defence magazine suggests.
Furlong’s assessment of Canada’s sniper training is as vague as it is effusive.
“We don’t have a massive budget, but the budget we’re given for such a small army, we make good with that and give proper training to our guys, and proper equipment,” he says. “We’re a sniper program that has been emulated by countries around the world to better their sniping program by making changes based around what we do to train our snipers.”
The dearth of information surrounding the Joint Task Forces and Canadian sniper training in general is likely a key part of what makes them so effective, Zuehlke says.
“It’s very interesting to me that if you look at both non-fiction and fiction writing in the United States and Britain, you have countless books about the SAS [Special Air Service] and the Green Berets and other special services, but there isn’t really anything about JTF,” he observes. “When guys retire from JTF, they don’t sit down and write memoirs, they don’t talk about what they’ve done, they don’t write novels.
“It’s a very tight-lipped culture, and when you’re tight-lipped like that, you develop procedures that nobody else has and nobody else knows what they are. So it makes you very effective.”
Given the culture of secrecy and the aura of wonderment surrounding the modern-day sniper, it’s hard to imagine that the term “sniper” itself originated from a game that bored British soldiers played in India in the 19th century.
The officers used to compete with each other at taking shots from great distances at snipes – tiny birds known for their camouflaged plumage and erratic flight patterns. Those who excelled at downing the small, elusive birds came to be heralded as snipers.
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In the thick of battle however, sniping is anything but a game.
In military jargon, snipers are “force multipliers” – individuals or teams that essentially increase the “combat worth” and “overall capability of a military force” by virtue of their special skills or tactics, according to a School of Advanced Military Studies study.
“Snipers are the cheapest troops to deploy but are the biggest force multipliers, and have a huge impact on the ground,” Canadian Army chief master sniper Patrice Girard told Frontline Defence. “Frequently we can have more of an impact with a single two-dollar round than a CF-18 [fighter aircraft].”
The sniper’s role as a force multiplier could be seen as analogous to the Canadian Forces’ consistent ability to punch above its weight, given its relatively small size and budget compared to other armed forces around the world.
“If we look at the Canadian Army, yes we’re small but we’re incredibly robust and well-trained,” Zuehlke says. “With the JTF people, they’re particularly noted for their professionalism. So while we don’t have a big army, we have probably one of the most professional armies in the world.”
Furlong says Canada’s JTF snipers are the cream of the crop – top-drawer soldiers who are among the world’s very best at their craft.
“It takes a lifetime to get into these positions. A very small percentage of Canadians will ever make it to a sniper in JTF,” Furlong says. “These are smart, strong, capable individuals who have represented their country proudly with integrity, and shown that we may be a small military but we have some of the best soldiers.”
He says criticism from people who complain that celebrating sniping feats is akin to celebrating death is out of order.
“Would they rather we not go over there and just let ISIS continue to grow? Which, if they do, there’s only going to be more innocent people dying,” he says. “We’re not celebrating death here, we’re celebrating and recognizing an accomplishment by a soldier who has dedicated his whole life to becoming a professional at an elite level.
“We lie in our beds at night, safe and sound, because there are strong men who travel to these places in the world and do deeds that most people can’t even consider doing.”
– With a file from the Canadian Press
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