What Kind of Rifle Training Did John Muhammad Get in the Army?

Beltway sniper suspect John Muhammad earned an “expert” marksmanship badge while serving in the Army. What does that mean?

It means Muhammad got the same basic rifle training as other soldiers but scored slightly higher than most on his final exam. The Army never trained him to be a military sniper.

All new Army recruits must learn to use an M16A2 rifle, a close cousin of the XM15 allegedly used in the Beltway murders. To pass basic training, recruits must show their proficiency with the M16A2 on a rifle range set up like an outdoor bowling alley. Every soldier has a lane with man-sized targets that pop up between 50 and 300 meters. To pass the course, a soldier must hit 23 of 40 targets. To pass with the rank of “expert,” the distinction Muhammad earned, a soldier must hit 36 of 40 targets.

Army officers estimate that 10 to 20 percent of soldiers “shoot expert.” The honor earns the recruit a silver badge worn on his dress uniform, as well as a line in his personnel file that counts toward promotions and other favorable actions.

To become a military sniper, however, soldiers must volunteer to enter a rigorous course that takes five weeks to complete. The Pentagon says John Muhammad held the jobs of metal worker, combat engineer, and water transport specialist but never attended sniper school; it’s unclear whether he even applied.Field commanders select potential snipers based on marksmanship, physical aptitude, intelligence, vision, and the ability to work in small teams for long periods. Muhammad’s shooting ability was up to par, but his ex-commanders claim he didn’t work well with others, which would have almost certainly sunk his application.

Military snipers learn to shoot their prey from distances of up to a mile away. (That’s far greater than the distances of 100-200 yards from which Muhammad allegedly shot at pedestrians in the D.C. suburbs.) They also practice the art of moving stealthily. The capstone to the training is a sniper competition, where students attempt to evade detection for days on end as they stalk and shoot a target. Sniper school is one of the most demanding programs taught by the military, and even someof the most elite troops—Rangers, Green Berets, Marines—don’t earn the title of sniper.

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