October 10, 2014

DESIGNATED MARKSMEN OR SNIPER?



SO WHICH POSITION DO YOU PLAY?

If you read this Blog on a regular basis, you know that I try to shape the postings as a response to the questions I get via email or that are posted as comments in response to a blog article.  I should be clear though.  The question I ask in the header is not one that I never specifically ask of any player. That's because people define how they play differently. Labels often don't help clarify things at all unless we are on the same page with the definition. In actuality, the queries I most often get are asking for suggestions on equipment such as scopes, rifles, or the other shooting equipment.  Before I can really answer those questions, however, I have to know a little about the person asking and what kind of game he/she wants to play.  Normally, once I have the answers to a few quick questions of my own, I can make some informed suggestions on equipment.  

In truth, lots of people consider themselves to be snipers, when in reality they tend to play more the role of, at least what I term, a designated marksmen.  In fact, I would say that the overwhelming majority of players shooting first strikes actually fall more into the designated marksmen role. It's important to know what kind of game they actually play because recommending equipment suited to playing as a sniper may not help that person's game at all.  

For those who have been around a while, they will remember a certain paintball retailer (who shall remain nameless), who used to market their products for certain kinds of players according to how that player saw themselves.  It used terms like "broadsword" and "dagger" to define whether you played fast and light or as more of "heavy gunner."  It then designated its equipment (such as its vests) in that way to clearly suggest to the potential purchaser what kind of gear load-out you should build.  Much of it was an attempt to translate traditional speedball team positions, into corresponding woodsball positions, and it was a marketing approach that was clearly geared toward younger players.  

The problem with placing people in categories is that, in my experience, people playing in scenario games tend to do a bit of everything, depending on the opportunities that present themselves during the event. Once you have enough playing experience to really know what it is you like to do on the field then that knowledge will dictate your own specific equipment purchases. They will reflect your individual playing style.  The reality is that what works for me, may be a horribly choice for you.  If, for example, shooting spice drops consistently gets you kills at 100 yards, then by all means stock up on spice drops.  I, on the other hand, have never found spice drops to fly all that straight and they leave lots of sugar residue in the barrel that has to be cleaned out after the game. 

It is not my intent with this posting to repeat the mistake of shoehorning players into only specific categories by using the terms "sniper" and "designated marksmen." There are very few players out there who absolutely only do one thing or the other. I do believe, however, that players will tend to play more often in a way that more closely fits one role than the other.  In other words, I believe most players shooting first strikes will spend the vast majority of their time playing a mobile game and shooting at ranges between 40-70 yards.  On occasion, they may set up for a longer shot when the opportunity presents itself, but they don't generally take up a static position with the thought of trying to control certain points on the field for long periods of time.  In my eyes, that kind of player is more of a designated marksmen that he/she is a sniper and the equipment that that player is interested in should reflect those interests.



Every piece of equipment we select for use on a paintball field is a compromise in some way.  Life is just like that. When a player choose to use first strikes he or she is picking accuracy over high rates of fire. When I choose to wear a ghillie suit, I gain increased concealment on the field but I sacrifice some mobility and have to contend with heat and its side affects.  

Similarly, a player trying to decide what kind of sighting system to choose, and what rifle platform to purchase has to compromise. In other words, I don't believe you can choose a weapons system that is perfectly adapted to shoot from 20-120 yards and do it all equally well.  What I want to do here is to identify the compromises you will have to make. Once you have had a chance to think about what it is you truly like doing on the paintball field then I hope this article helps you make well thought-out choices so you can up the level of your game. 

I want to start out this posting by defining some terms so we all know what I mean when I use them.  I dearly love to play sniper and for that I use CCM's SR1, but, for a number of reasons, the last two events I have ended up playing as a designated marksmen using my DAM.  For illustration purposes, I will use those rifles as my jump-off point for describing why I chose to equip them the way I did and why I made the compromises I made with each one.  If you know anything about my Blog, you know that I am not going to tell you that these two rifles are the only platforms that should be used.  I always leave equipment choices to the shooter. You know the fields you play on and the way you play.  I don't.   

So, let's get to it.  

SNIPER V. DESIGNATED MARKSMAN


First strikes changed the game of paintball.  It just stands to reason that when a manufacturer introduces paintballs that can consistently strike targets at 80-90 yards, certain players will move to take advantage of that.  Look what has happened to the position of paintball sniper.  Before the advent of first strikes, the forums were full of the nasty arguments over the issue of  whether paintball snipers even existed.  Now, nearly all players understand that there is such a position. As a sniper, your game play itself is the best argument at your disposal. After all, a player who just just been taken out by a another player that is 95 yards away and whom he can barely see or can't see at all, will have just had his mind changed about whether snipers exist. I happen to believe that the best way to convert players about the viability of snipers is one long-distance kill at a time.

If you have played in a scenario event in the past few years, you have undoubtedly heard the call go out for the assistance of a first-strike shooter to deal with an opposing player who has taken up a good position and can't easily be dislodged because there is a lot of open ground between him and your team.  It would be a mistake to think, however, that that has been the end of the changes occurring because of first strikes.  Yes, snipers did come into their own, but the real change was far broader than snipers.  I firmly believe that most first-strike users aren't really what I would term "snipers."  

I want to clarify what I mean when I use the term "designated marksman" and "sniper."  I will do that by quickly describing their duties on the field in the purest sense of the term.  Please understand, I know that there are very few players playing in absolutely one role or the other.  I describe them in absolute terms to make the differences, as I see them, as clear as possible.  

DESIGNATED MARKSMAN:





There are lots players who appreciate the far-improved level of accuracy that first strikes can give them and who want to shoot at longer ranges, but who still want to play a very mobile game.  They like the idea of the stealthy game and taking people out at close range but they also enjoy the ability to reach out and touch someone at longer ranges.

So what do we call a player like that?  Often, when I am trying to define something pertaining to paintball that, heretofore, hasn't really been accurately defined, I fall back on either the real-steel world or the military.  I did that when coming up with a workable definition of "maximum effective range" for first strikes.  I am going to do that again here.  The military would call someone using these tactics a designated marksmen.  That kind of soldier or marine would be equipped slightly differently with a weapon that has been accurized and usually equipped with an optics package.  He or she would still be expected to participate in whatever kind of dust-up occurred while his unit was in the field, but would also be tasked with dealing with targets at longer ranges.  A designated marksman increases his/her unit's lethality.

A designated marksman on a paintball field should also serve to increase his team's firepower. Normally someone playing in that role plays a highly mobile and stealthy, game. Good camouflage and smart field position could put them in a place where they can cover a critical position such that their shots may take place at very short range such as 20-30 yards. That takes them into what I call spacegun-range.  That means that they have to spot the other guy first before he has the chance to turn on them and start shooting at some insane rate of fire.  In other words, double tap and gone.  That means good camouflage, knowing how to move quietly, and having enough experience to pick the correct shooting position.

On the other hand, it can also mean dealing with an opposing player who has some type of elevated position (hill, building, etc.) and who is causing problems by constantly long-balling your guys from 60-70 yards away.  Having the ability to take that kind of player out so your team can advance is important and well within the capability of a player who knows how to use first strikes.  It means, however, that the designated marksman has to be close enough to the front line of the firefight to hear the call for help and then act on that call by scrambling to a position where he/she can provide support.

As I said early in this article, I am firmly convinced that the overwhelming number of first strike users fall into the designated marksmen category.  There are a few good reasons for this.  First of all, playing as a designated marksman is not that big a departure from playing a typical game of woodsball.  It is a familiar form of play. Lots of players already play the sneaky game and enjoy camoing up and stalking other players.  They stay out, if possible, of just getting involved in the high-rate-of-fire, 50/50 gunfight situations.  They prefer to shoot a player in the back who hasn't yet seen them. Those types of players eagerly embraced first strikes because of the extra measure of range and accuracy.

In its purest form, a designated marksmen needs to be lightly equipped for speed and have the equipment necessary to be extremely accurate at any range from about 20-70 yards. Ideally, he/she needs to have some ability to provide suppression fire for teammates who are caught in the open.  His ideal field position will be somewhere just behind the CQB guys and very close to the action.

SNIPER:




True snipers play a different game.  First off, they are trying to take full advantage of the range of first strikes.  While it may happen, they aren't looking for the close-up encounter. In my view, if I find myself engaging with the enemy at ranges from 20-30 yards, I have done something really wrong. Ideally, a sniper wants a position at least 70 yards away and more likely in the 80-90 yard category.  Playing inside a tree line that gives him/her a vantage point over a field choke point at long range is the ideal.

True Snipers will always trade mobility for the best camouflage and thus many use ghillie suits.  A sniper looks for a choke point on the field or an important piece of real estate and then hunts for a good position that gives him/her a good shooting position overlooking that location.  Much of a snipers game can be spent in a limited number of static positions.  What's more, a sniper can do more than shoot.  A sniper can, because of his/her higher level of camouflage, simply conceal himself in a position and call in, via radio, tactical information on the actions of the other team.

In its purest sense, a sniper uses enhanced camouflage and static positions to control advantageous fields positions and radio in field information to keep his team informed.  A sniper's shots will generally occur in the 60-120 yard range.  As you can see, those shooting ranges overlap, somewhat, those of a designated marksman.


COMPROMISES, COMPROMISES, COMPROMISES

Players need to look long and hard at how they usually play and where they tend to find themselves on the field.  Are you the action guy? Are you always on the move, always going to where the firefight is the loudest?  If so, you need to be honest with yourself.  While you may like the idea of playing in the true sniper role, you may find yourself getting bored and wanting to move.  Many players just don't have the patience or interest in hunkering down in a fixed position and waiting for targets as a sniper would do. Movement defeats camouflage every time.  A big heavy rifle with a scope may not lend itself to that front-line action you enjoy and you may chaff under all its weight.

It's not only a question of how you play but also what type of fields you play on and the type of games that are played there. Maybe you most often tend to play on fields or terrain that doesn't really offer any real opportunities for long-range targets.  A lot of people play outlaw ball that typically involves 7-10 people on a smaller field playing games that are short such as 15 minutes in length. The sniper position in that setting just doesn't work that well.  The designated marksman role, however, really excels in that setting.

I want to make one thing really clear.  I don't view the designated marksman role as an inferior position or something of less importance than the sniper role.  The two roles, while overlapping in some ways, are just different. Each has something to recommend it and I enjoy both positions. You won't be surprised to hear that my first love is playing as a sniper, but since I acquired the Dye DAM, I have been playing a bit in the designated marksman position on both the scenario field and in a few outlaw games.  While I don't have any desire to play that way all the time, when I do it scratches an itch.  I love playing the long game, but there are times I just want to get in the brush and mix it up at those shorter ranges.

So let's talk gear and why a player needs to make any compromise at all.




MONEY:
Funny place to start I know, but trust me there is reason I begin with money. We all know that first strikes are certainly more accurate than regular paint, but they are hard to accurately shoot at ranges beyond about 70 yards.  The velocity starts to really drop, meaning that holdovers (for both wind and elevation) take practice to accurately predict.  Most first-strike shooters know all about the tremendous drop that a round experiences when it is shot at long range, however, the pull of gravity is easy to figure out compared to wind.  Gravity is constant,. The wind never is, and it is almost always present on the field to some degree. Getting good enough to have some substantial chance of striking a target at 90 yards and beyond is only achieved one way - practice, practice, and more practice at the longer ranges. 

First strikes are not cheap.


Whether you are a designated marksman or a sniper you will need to practice your shooting. Each time you pull that trigger, you are sending about .40 cents downrange. The truth is, however, shooting at ranges from 20-70 yards is much, much easier than shooting at longer distances. Sixty to seventy yards is a bread-and-butter range for first strikes.  They are still travelling pretty fast, they aren't hanging in the air for quite so long, nor are they travelling in quite so high of an arc.  That means the wind doesn't have quite so much of a change to push them around.  A designated marksmen can sight in at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 yards pretty quickly.  The sight adjustments are not huge and the shooter can easily see where he hitting on the target without ever leaving the shooting position.  

On the other hand, there is nothing more frustrating than shooting at long range and not being able to hit your target because your rifle scope is not precisely zeroed or you haven't practiced enough to know how the wind on the field is affecting your rounds as they go downrange at 80 yards.  



Shooting at very long range requires excellent (read expensive) gear.  A Hammerhead barrel, a good optics package, bipod, range finder of some sort, and lots of practice. First strikes aren't cheap, and before you can hit long-range targets with any real consistency you will put a lot of rounds downrange.  Unfortunately, there is no substitute for getting out and pulling the trigger.  A good ballistics software program will open your eyes a bit and give you a better idea of what to expect when you get to the firing line, but nothing is better than actually seeing the effects of gravity and wind on a paintball travelling downrange.  What's more, even after you have all your zero-wind impact points for the various ranges (once you manage to get a zero-wind day) then, and only then, can you later begin to learn how to estimate wind speed and  see what various wind speeds do to your rounds.  For example, do you know what the wind hold-off is at 80 yards for a 10 MPH wind blowing straight across your target area?  (I'll give you a hint.  It's probably much more than you think.)  Can you accurately guess wind speed?

Spending money on paintball is money you don't spend on other things.  I think it is fair to say that true paintball sniping gear is more expensive that that needed for playing as a designated marksmen. That's because you need more precision to do long-distance shooting.  If you are happy with the idea of shooting at shorter ranges, don't really want to think about estimating wind effects, don't want to spend a lot of time and money practicing, then compromise by shooting at shorter ranges and equipping yourself as a designated marksman.   You might be compromising on the ranges you shoot on the field, but you also just might find yourself spending less money, having a bit more fun, and enjoying yourself more on the field.  Shooting at real long range is an exciting challenge, but it is also an expensive one that requires lots and lots of attention to detail.  


GUN WEIGHT:
I have come to some conclusions about how I want to equip my DAM. Certainly, I want it to remain light. No bipod.  When I need to shoot at longer-range targets, I can get an acceptable measure of stability by proning out and resting the rifle on the 20-round magazine. Yes, I sometimes shoot my DAM at ranges of 70-90 yards.  Am I compromising here? You bet.  I readily acknowledge that shooting off a magazine is not hear as steady as shooting off a properly mounted bipod, but I want the weight savings. In other words, a lighter-weight rifle is more important to me than absolute accuracy at the longer ranges.  That's because I don't take those really long-range shots all that often, and when I do I am generally just trying for a low probability shot at a target of opportunity.  If I miss, odds are I am not going to get eliminated.  On the other hand, I could get shot if I can get the gun on target fast enough when facing off against two guys in the weeds at 20 yards. I'll make that kind of compromise every time.

Why do I want to keep my DAM light?  When engaging targets at 20-30 yards a rifle needs to be light and fast so you can engage multiple targets, if necessary. Plus, when I need to rapidly change field position, often on the dead run, I don't want to be weighed down with a heavy gun.  Most of my shooting with the DAM is done from the  standing or kneeling position and holding up a heavy gun over several hours is not my idea of a good time.  In my experience, players who bring the 38-pound gun on the field quickly get tired and end up walking around with the muzzle pointed toward the ground because they are just too tired to hold it up for very long after the game starts. That gets you shot when you suddenly stumble on an enemy player.

On other other hand, my SR1 weighs a ton because of the big scope, the PRS sniper stock, bi-pod, and the Daniel Defense Rail that it is mounted on.  That works for me because 99% of the time I am shooting it from the prone position off the bipod.  The weight tends to steady the gun and make it a very stable platform. While I am moving, the rifle is slung and I have my pistol in my hand in case I inadvertently stumble on an enemy player, so I don't spend much time holding the rifle up for long-range shooting.

SIGHTING SYSTEMS:
When I purchased my DAM and began setting it up as a designated marksman rifle, what I struggled with most was the the sighting system.  Judging by the questions I am getting, I am not alone.There is no other topic that draws more questions than those about sights.  Do I need a scope?  Am I better of using a red-dot sight?  How much magnification do I need? Other than the choice of rifle, there is no other single piece of equipment that is more style-dependent that a sight.

The choice of whether to mount a red-dot sight or a scope on a designated marksman's rifle is a very personal one.  Over the years, I have come to know that any discussion of what sighting system is the best for paintball causes some really intense discussions.  Know too, that this particular kind of discussion very much extends into the real-steel world too.  The gun forums are just as equally divided about whether a red or a scope is the best tactical choice for mounting on an AR.

The red-dot or reflex sight began with the Aimpoint back in the late 1980s.  While it has come to be named a "red-dot sight," the aiming reticle doesn't always take the form of just a dot.  Sometimes it can be a chevron, circle or other pattern. It works by using a red diode to project a beam of light forward from a point behind the objective lens and is then reflected back off the objective lens toward the shooter's eye.  That means that the objective lens is a partial mirror.  That also means that because of those properties it will not let as much light pass through as would be the case if it were just a clear lens. In a quality red dot, that isn't as big a thing as you would think because the optical coating is fine tuned to permit all colors except the exact red wave length used by the internal diode. The red dot you see when you look into the sight is the light from the red diode being reflected back at you. The end result is that you see the red dot and your target in the same optical plane.Players become very attached to one or the other.  I have been playing with both scopes and red dots for almost 15 years. 

In the real-steel world, red dots are really favored by assault-rifle shooters for targets out to about 100 yards.  That's a real up-close-and-personal type of engagement distance for those kinds of guns. Normally, they would be zeroed at 100 yards.  Real-steel ammunition shoots very flat and the amount of adjustment for 50, 100, or 200 yards is really small compared to that of a first strike round.  As a point of comparison, my red dot is zeroed for 20 yards and I adjust up from there.  While the arguments in favor of using a red dot sight do have application, I believe that because of the limitations of first strikes, the distance scale for what is considered a close-range engagement in paintball has to be greatly reduced.  It's also important to remember that real-steel shooters are often concerned with shooting static silhouettes fully exposed on an open range at known distances and targets don't shoot back.  I don't know about you, but the guys I play against almost never present me with that kind of opportunity

There is a reason that the members of our military are increasingly using red dots in combat situations.  That reason is that you can aim more quickly than you can using iron sights or a scope. Red-dot sights are for high-speed engagements at close to medium range.  On a paintball field that is anywhere from 20-40 yards. The red-dot sight in my opinion is the fastest type of reticle to bring on target and gives you the highest probability of hitting an opposing player who is on the move. That's because you don't need to precisely position your head behind the sight.  It has unlimited eye relief. You can hold your head however you like, and as long as you can see the red dot and put it on your target, you will hit what you are aiming at.  Maybe that doesn't seem all that important, but try using anything else while lying on your back after just rolling backwards down a small hill because an enemy player surprised you (been there, done that).  Simply put, nothing comes on target faster than a red dot sight and you can keep both eyes open so you maintain your tactical awareness of what is going on around you on the field.

In addition, to being able to fire with you head held in any position, the other major advantage of a red dot is being able to keep both eyes open when you are shooting.  Closing one eye to get a sight picture greatly restricts your awareness of what is going on around you. You maintain your peripheral view and avoid tunnel vision.With a red-dot sight, you can move while pointing the gun in the same place that you are looking while both eyes are open.  The dot just floats out in front of you and you know that if you pull the trigger your paint will go to whatever that dot is resting on.

Initially I used a Vortex Strikefire on my DAM.



After playing with it for awhile I have now gone back to using a scope.  There was nothing wrong with the Strikefire.  It is a superb red dot sight.



All right, you're thinking, if the red-dot sight was so great then why is this guy now using a scope?  It all comes back to that individual-style-of-play thing.  The red dot was great for shorter ranges, but when I was trying to pick out a set of camouflaged goggles in thick brush at 70 yards,I found myself craving some magnification. I quickly realized that when I am on the move, I do frequently engage targets at close range, but more often I am shooting in that 40-70 yard range. That is my happy place. The gun is deadly accurate at that range and I only need just a bit of target to get a kill. On top of that, my eyes aren't what they once were. The extra magnification definitely does help me see better.

One big advantage of shooting through a magnified scope is that you get an improved sight picture. Players in camouflage who only expose a boot, a hopper or an elbow at 50 yards can be hard to see in dim light because it will blend into the background. In other words, you don't have to be 100 yards away from a target to have problems getting a good sight picture.  A scope can help with that, but it's important to remember what an old shooting instructor drilled into me.  A scope helps you see better, it doesn't help you shoot better.  In other words, all the basics of proper marksmanship still apply.  Everything else being equal though, it is hard to hit what you can't see.

Also, while red dot sights have their advantages, they can also be subject to washout on a bright day. Washout occurs when aiming into a bright area causing the red dot or reticle to become lost in the glare.  Washout, however, can be greatly minimized by making sure that the red dot sight you use has enough brightness levels to ensure that it is useful in bright sun.  Cheaper red dot sights often don't have enough brightness. The Vortex Strikefire actually comes with a specific model marketed as an extra-bright dot and I honestly never experienced any washout with it even against the brightest backgrounds.

Red dot sights also require batteries.  Red dot sights get left on and when the battery starts to lose its charge, the dot can get very dim. No batteries; no sight. When a scope battery dies, the reticle is still usable. In my estimation, batteries in sights for paintball are only a minor annoyance.  I always make it a rule to start every new scenario game with a new battery installed.  Even if you choose not to do that and your sight starts to fail on the field, it's a simple matter, in most cases, to simply leave the field and replace it, provided you carry spares in your gear bag.

In the end, my decision was entirely based on the way I play, I wanted a scope on my DAM and even though a scope was going to be heavier than a red-dot sight, I decided that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.  Like red-dot sights, scopes also put the reticle and target on the same optical plane, but with a magnified scope you must be more precise with the position of your head behind the scope. Otherwise, something called parallax - the apparent movement of a reticle over a target that occurs when you move your head - means that the first strike round won't go to the exact point where you have placed the crosshairs. 


I did a tremendous amount of research because, while I was willing to compromise, I wanted to lose as little of the red dot's advantages as possible.  The first thing I was looking for was a scope whose 1X power setting was as close to a true 1x as possible.  Most scopes, especially cheaper 1-4 power scopes, aren't really true 1x at the bottom setting.  They are something closer to 1.2x or even a bit more.

Why is that so important?   Red dot sights permit you to shoot with both eyes open because they are just tubes without magnification.  As soon as you add magnification, it gets difficult to keep both eyes open.  Having a variable scope is key.  Trying to quickly find a target at 20 yards through a 4x scope can be hard to do because the magnification drastically reduces your field of view through the eyepiece.  Not only that, it is really difficult to shoot with both eyes open at 4x.

In the end, I settled on a Burris MTAC 1-4x24 scope. The Burris is a true 1x scope and I can easily shoot it just like a red dot with both eyes open.

The second thing I wanted was an illuminated reticle that was closer to a red dot than the etched glass crosshair seen on a lot of scopes.  That's because I wanted a reticle that was going to be really quick to pick up. Last weekend, toward he end of the day, I playing in temperatures over 100 degrees. Toward the end of the day, my mask was fogging just a little bit despite the best efforts of my mask fans and anti-fog.  The fog wasn't really even apparent until I looked through my scope which was also just bit dusty from playing.  An etched-glass reticle would have been usable, but just barely and getting a good sight picture would have been much slower and harder to do. On the other hand the brightly illuminated, CQ Burris reticle was easy to pick out and place on my targets.  In short, it kept me playing and shooting accurately.

Burris MTac CQ Reticle


Lastly, but just as importantly, I was looking for a scope with a big eyebox.  If you don't know what eyebox is, you're not alone.  Most players are not really familiar with the term.  Without getting into a lot of technical stuff, eye box has to do with how precise you head position has to be in order to get off an accurate shot.  A red dot doesn't limit your head position.  Scopes do.  True 1x and lots of eye relief help with eye-box limitations.  Cheap scopes often sacrifice eye-box size figuring that the user will just be shooting off a bench at a range or using it to hunt and therefore will have lots of time to line up a shot.  We all know, that is seldom the case in paintball, especially at close range.  The Burris MTAC is often used by real-steel, 3-gun, competition shooters and is well known for having a very forgiving eye box.

I am often asked whether a 1-4x scope has enough magnification for use on a paintball field.  My answer is an unequivocal, yes.  Real-steel competitive shooters use similar scopes out to 500-600 yards.  I have played with various 1-4x scopes for a number of years and have never found myself in a place where I wanted more magnification.

I want to add one more thing about the Burris MTAC.  It is a 1st-focal-plane scope (keeping reading under the rangefinder portion of this post for an explanation of this term).  In essence that means that if I want to range with it, I have to do so at 4x.  That might seem like a pretty-big limitation but in practice it isn't.  I wouldn't be ranging on a guy who pops up at 20-30 yards.  By default, the gun is always set up for that shot when I am not otherwise engaged.  For longer ranges, if I have to shoot too quickly to use the range finder on my vest, I rotate the scope to 4x and use the horizontal parts of the reticle for ranging by placing those line on the edges of the body of the enemy player (object of known size).  Depending on how much they fill those lines (or overflow them) I have a rough range estimation.  

On the other hand, for playing as a true sniper, I believe that scopes are just a necessity.



Having some magnification really helps at long range. You get a better sight picture and you have a better chance of seeing where your paint went if you miss your target.  I use a Nikon M223 IRT scope on my SR1. I didn't pick it because of the higher magnification.  Unless I am shooting at over 100 yards I never use any magnification over 4X. Even at longer range I only use it at 5X. One of the reasons for that is the severe drop of first strike rounds at long range and the resultant rail adjustment you have to do to compensate.  Higher magnification scopes, even good ones, often have smaller eye boxes and decreased eye relief as you increase magnification.  Raising the adjustable rail under the scope to get the necessary adjustment for really long range shooting can cause the scope to be canted at an extreme angle and really mess up your head position. Actually, I wish the scope had a bit less magnification and was lighter than it is.  I bought it because it has an internal range finder so that dictated my purchase.

For snipers, a variable scope isn't quite so important.  A standard 4X scope would work just fine.  I almost never vary the power setting on my Nikon.  For targets at close range, I use a pistol.  I also like an etched-glass crosshair reticle in sniper scopes.  It is more precise at long range and when shooting in the prone position, off a bipod, I have time to get exactly the right head position behind the glass.

I know better than to try to tell anyone out there which of these sighting systems to choose.  Each, after all, is a compromise.  There is no perfect paintball choice for every playing style and every field situation, despite what lots and lots of players will try and tell you.  Don't listen to them. As a designated marksman, it isn't important whether I use a red dot or scope, nor should you make your decision based on what a lot of forum posters insist is the only way to go.

Think long and hard about where and how you play.  If you spend 70-80% of your playing time shooting people at really close range moving through thick cover, then a red dot is probably you're best bet.  If, most often, you tend to stand off and shoot at people from 40-70 yards then I think a 1-4x variable scope with an illuminated reticle is a very good choice.  If you're working as a sniper and shooting at 70-120 yards then spend some money on a very good scope with at least 4x magnification and an etched-glass reticle.

RANGE FINDERS:

I have said this before in other postings and I will say it again here.  Accurately estimating your range to target when shooting first strikes is crucial to precise shooting.  That is doubly true when the ranges get out beyond 70 yards because that's where the drop numbers get really large.  What makes things harder is that, in my experience, the vast majority of players are lousy at estimating range, especially at the longer ranges. Not many people are called upon to accurately eyeball range in their everyday life.  Misjudging the range to a target when using first strike rounds has big accuracy consequences.

For example, what happens if I take a shot at an enemy player that is actually 90 yards away,  but whom I have guessed to be 100 yards from me.  That round will pass about 4 feet over the top of my target.  Sure I can keep shooting and lowering my point of aim until I am on target, but neither snipers or designated marksmen are really supposed to be relying on the principle of firing numerous scout rounds or accuracy by volume. We left that behind when we dumped our hoppers.



This is one of the shooting charts that was originally put together by a UVHalo, one of the first players to really look at the ballistics of the first strike rounds.  If you are operating purely as a designated marksman, then the first part of that ballistic-drop curve (out to about 70 yards) is what you need to be concerned with.  The slope at the beginning is quite gradual.  Yardage estimation still matters, but small errors in range determination will probably still put a round that was aimed at a player's center of mass, somewhere a little higher or lower on his body.  Not only that estimating range at shorter ranges is much easier for most people.

Snipers, on the other hand, are not faced with a gentle downward facing curve.  Beyond 70 yards the drop curve starts to plummet.  Remember too, this chart was created using 300 FPS as the initial muzzle velocity.  I don't know about you but most of my fields are somewhere around 280 FPS and there is an increasing tendency, for some reason, to more carefully chronograph first strike shooters by making them shoot a number of rounds, all of which must be under the limit. Worse yet, some fields adopt lower chronograph numbers for players choosing to use first strikes.  All this means that you may find yourself shooting at closer to 270-75, or lower, just so you can get by the chronograph.  Trust me on this because I have shot first strikes at high velocities, its performance is much better at 300 FPS than it is at 270 FPS, and the corresponding drop off much worse at long range because your round has about 10% less velocity to start with.

Take a careful look at the amount of drop for a first strike round over the various ranges.  Ask yourself this question, "How good am I at estimating distances?" How confident am I that I can come within, say 5 yards, at long range?  Now look at the chart and see what a five-yard, range-estimation error in drop at long range means.  Scary isn't it?  When you add wind into the equation, which is always present to some degree on the field, you can begin to understand why snipers can entirely miss, more than once, a man-size target at 90 yards.

Here is my bottom line.  A designated marksman who practices a little at range estimation can get by without a rangefinder.  That kind of player just has to know what a man-sized target looks like at 70 yards and be ready to take the extra shot if he/she is a little off the mark.  A scout round from a designated marksman is acceptable in my eyes, but you should be close enough to hitting the target with it that you can make that second round count.  I do use a hand-held range finder when I play as a designated marksman, but only for those shots out beyond about 50 yards.  I don't like to fire scout rounds.  I think a range finder is so valuable for shooting that its pouch has now replaced one of my magazines on the front of my vest.

I believe that because of how crucial range estimation is, true snipers, on the other hand, must have some form of range-estimation tool.  That is why I use the Nikon M223 IR scope with a built in rangefinder.  My partner, DJMatt, and JJRON both use a Bushnell Yardage Pro scope, also with built in rangefinder.  They are very expensive scopes but they allow you keep to see your range without doing any calculations or taking your eye off the scope to look at a rangefinder.  Not necessary, but definitely nice.

A separate rangefinder, the Opti-Logic 400xl is also a viable option.



It has no magnification so you can look through it while holding it at arm's length and wearing goggles doesn't interfere with its use at all.  All you have to do is press the recessed button on top of the unit until a red dot appears in the viewfinder, place the dot on your target, and release the button.  The range to target appears on an external (read easy to see with goggles) LCD display.


No more guessing.  I have been using one for about 4 years now.  It is the next best thing to an internal scope rangefinder.

Lastly, those who know how to do it can, depending on scope reticle, take range estimations using mildots or through the use of certain bars that are placed within the scope to allow hunters to estimates ranges to certain game animals.  With a little math and practice you can make those work for human targets too.



More years ago than I will own up to, I was taught the mildot estimation method using something now called the Mildot Master.  It's accurate and fairly quick to use but you have to stay current with it to make it work in a speedy fashion.  Take it from me, most of the people, including myself, that were trained with the Mildot Master only used it as a last resort once we were introduced to actual laser rangefinders.  That's because you have to master both the mechanics and the math and you have to stay current in its use.  The mechanics simply means placing your reticle on a target of known size (like a man's silhouette) and then carefully placing the mildots in a way so you can accurately read the distance between them.  Trust me, to do this part right you need a very steady, often long, hold.

The math is where the Mildot Master comes in.  In short, if you have the target size (height of an average person for example) and the mildot measurement you can accurately calculate range with it. I understand that when you're a military sniper, miles from any anywhere that you need to be proficient with the Mildot Master because electronics and batteries fail.  For paintball, however, I am content to just leave the field and replace the battery in my scope or rangefinder while I am picking up a sandwich and a beer.  My days of lying in the mud all night are over.  

Range estimation done through a scope requires some thought and understanding of how scopes work.  Most importantly for range-estimation purposes is knowing whether your scope is a first- or second-focal-plane scope.  That's because the reticle in a second-focal-plane scope remains the same size regardless of magnification.  That means those mildots you are are using for range estimation remain the same distance apart regardless of how much you magnify your target. That just doesn't work for range estimation.  The only way to accurately use a second-focal-plane scope for range estimation is to turn it to whatever magnification the manufacture has specified for ranging (usually the highest power on the scope) and then do your ranging.  That can be a slow process and often just trying to clearly see through a canted up scope (due to a raised-up adjustable rail set for long range) at its highest power (say 10x) for long enough to get a good mildot estimation can be a frustrating experience.

First-focal-plane scopes eliminate these problems.  The reticle grows or shrinks in size to match the target size and, thus, can be used at any magnification for ranging purposes.  So, you may be asking yourself, why doesn't everyone just use first-focal-plane scopes? The answer is, like with with so many other pieces of equipment, money.  First-focal plane-scopes tend to be expensive.  Often, they are seen to be so expensive that players (like myself in the past) choose to spend far less money by just using a quality 1-4x shotgun scope with a hand-held rangefinder. You can get a high level of accuracy that way too. I know. I did it for two years.

If you were reading all this range-finding stuff and thinking to yourself, wow, that it is more than I want to deal with, I understand.  That probably puts you closer to the designated-marksman camp. To be perfectly honest, true snipers are pretty obsessed with the details surrounding this shooting stuff. They agonize over barrel length, bore size, rate of twist, round sorting, velocity swings, and rangefinding, because when you are shooting at 110 yards, dealing with wind hold-off and round drop, you kind of have to be obsessed or you won't hitting much.  Constantly missing targets is just not much fun.

CAMOUFLAGE:
Camouflage choice is another very personal choice, but I think there are some playing-style reasons that probably suggest differences in how a designated marksman might dress versus what a sniper would select.  In the purest sense, a designated marksman wants to stay lightly equipped to maintain mobility because he/she is going to be moving on the field far more than say, a sniper who often occupies a static position for long periods of time.

After years and years of playing as a sniper and lying in wait and watching players move around me in every camo pattern known to man, I have finally switched entirely over to using only 3d camouflage gear or a full-blown ghillie suits, depending on terrain and weather.


I wear a ghillie unless it is simply just too hot for it and then I switch into my 3d gear.  I have found that I can play in 3d gear with a tactical concealment vest even on days when the temperature exceeds 100 degrees.



What is so special about 3d gear?  Well, it is my opinion that, as long as its colors match the terrain, it hides better because it breaks up the outline more than 2d (or flat) camouflage. All camoflauge tries to break up your shape.  After all, that is its purpose, however, only a true ghillie suit that has been properly vegged out actually conceals a player. No matter how good your camflouage, any kind of movement on a player's part entirely defeats camouflage.  In short, if you move no matter what you wear you will be seen and as a designated marksman you will be moving and shooting.

When I play with the DAM I wear 3d camo.  It is cooler than its military counterpart and lighter.  As for the military pattern types, much depends on the colors of the terrain.  On really green fields, nothing seems to blend as well as ATACS FG, however, at the peak of summer when the vegetation is burnt brown, FG stands out like a beacon.  If you want to run just one pattern of 2D camouflage then I think Multicam probably works about the best.  The truth is, however, that as long as the colors in your camouflage match the field just about any pattern will work.  For example, on the right field, even the old woodland camouflage patterns work really well.  As long as the colors in your camouflage match the field, it how you move that makes the real difference.

I think a designated marksman wearing a terrain-matching camouflage pattern, gloves and headgear is sufficiently geared up for what he/she is going to be doing on the field. Dressed like that, you remain sufficiently mobile and should blend in with your surroundings until you move.

Snipers, on the other hand, need at least 3d gear to maintain their concealment.  You have to remember that real military snipers are often at extreme distances from their targets, so they may be able to get away with terrain-matching 2d camouflage.  Paintball snipers however, work at distances of only about 100 yards. or less. In scenario events, it is fairly easy to avoid detection from passing players.  My experience is that the vast majority aren't even playing attention to their surrounding if there is no one actually shooting at them.  That all changes, however, after your first shot.  Now they are looking and looking hard. Nothing hides you like a ghillie suit.  Nothing.



ADJUSTABLE PICATINNY RAIL:



First strikes have much more range than regular round paint but they still experience pretty substantial drops, especially as the round slows down.  Much past 70 yards and you start seeing the inches of drop start shooting up as the first strike starts to bleed off velocity and really begins to  yield to the pull of gravity.

Designated marksman can get by with any of the adjustable picatinny rails out there.  They can sight in at distances from 20-70 yards and have no problems whatsoever.  For example, the HHA Sport Optimizer has, when shooting at about 280 FPS, an adjustability range that gives a shooter about 50 yards of effectiveness.  In other words, if you zero the HHA for 20 yards it will be able to rotate up high enough to shoot out to about 70 yards with just a tiny bit of holdover in the scope.  That makes it a perfect choice for the designated marksman because it is light and a player can make quick, very precise adjustments.

An HHA works for a sniper too, but he/she will have to make some compromises (at least until CCM completes their modifications and begins to sell the larger dial).  Here is a photo showing the original HHA wheel compared with CCM's Sniper Wheel prototype.


The increased wheel size and new internal hardware results in lots more elevation for the rail.


If you are currently using an HHA Optimizer (and judging by the multitude of them that I saw last week at Operation End War many of you are) then you know just how much more elevation this modification will give you.

CCM is in the final development stages for the modified wheel and until it is available, a sniper, using the standard wheel, will just  have to select where to put that 50-yard band of effective range and use holdover and holdunder for everything else.  If, for example, a sniper wants his HHA to be zeroed at 100 yards when it is all the way cranked up, then when it is bottomed out, or flat, it will be zeroed for a bit more than 50 yards and he/she will have to learn what holdunders to use at shorter ranges.

Again, if you play a position that is a blend of designated marksman and sniper, you will be choosing that band of range on the HHA where you seem to do the majority of your shooting. In other words, you may have to compromise on the longer ranges and use holdovers just to have the ability to quickly come on point in the shorter ranges.  

CONCLUSION

It's mix-and-match time.  Don't let anyone else tell you how you should equip yourself.  The person trying to convince you of the rightness of their own individual equipment choices may be someone who only plays on extremely large fields in events that last all-day.  You on the other hand, might be a player who nearly always plays outlaw ball on a 10-acre field with games lasting no more than 15 minutes.   

I have tried to lay out your choices and show you mine, along with the reasons for what I chose. There is only one thing of which I am absolutely certain.  There is no one platform or gear that perfect for every style.  Every piece of gear you select will come with compromises; just make sure they are compromises you can live with.  

NEXT TIME

Last weekend, I played in Operation End of War in Copperopolis, California, put on by RAP4.  It was a magfed game and a lot of fun. My next posting will be on this event because I have some thoughts on that style of play. In addition I want to write something up because I think this event has a lot of potential.  It is, without reservation, the best field I have ever had the privilege of playing on. If the future events are handled properly, this could become one of best magfed events in the country, if for no other reason than the field.  I would really like to see that happen, but I think there are some improvements that need to be made to improve the quality of the event so players keep coming back. What's more I want to let players who have put this on their calendar for next year, know what they can expect. I intend to do that in my next posting.


In addition, I had a chance to talk to Omar from RAP4, and I want to pass on some of his comments. I also had a chance to see his shaped-round prototypes and I have a few observation on those as well.




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