12 November 2012

Suppressive Fire with Small Arms

If you haven't read JM's post on small arms suppressive fire here: https://mountainguerrilla.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/suppressive-fire-for-the-irregular-war-fighter/ go do so now.

Everybody on the same page?  Good.

Suppressive fire is about making the enemy unable to maneuver against you (so you can leave such as in a break contact scenario or maneuver your own force against them in an attack).  Suppressive fire means the enemy is fixated on the obvious source of fire and can not effectively maneuver against it for some period of time (nothing lasts forever, no matter what the De Beers advertisement says).  Get that?  There is no "rounds per minute math" here in the very bottom level definition of suppressive fire.  The combat math is useful to figure out how long you should be able to suppress for planning purposes (which lets you plan how quickly you need to get your assault position in place), but it is not a measure for success.

If you have four men in a fire team, all huddled in a mortar crater, and they are all afraid to put their head above the rim because a lone rifleman pings one off their helmet before they get their eyes on the horizon, THAT is effective suppressive fire.

A lone rifleman won't keep the fire team pinned down for long, the Team Leader will issue orders to two of his men to dash in opposite directions at the same time while the other two try to "shoot likely positions of the enemy" to break out of a bad situation.  If our pinned down fire team is able to do so, then the suppressive fire did not last very long.  Suppressive fire must be lethal to be effective.  If you are pulling the trigger and not killing or wounding someone then they are planning to exploit your failure to kill them.

Remember the 77 Maxim's of Maximally Effective Mercenaries: That which does not kill you hath made a tactical error.

Suppressive fire is about the effect on the enemy, not number of rounds fired.  I cannot state that enough.  If I were instructing a class of new Infantry Officers I would have stomped my foot while I said that.  I can't emphasize that enough.  You don't need a machinegun to achieve suppressive fire.  It is nice to have, but it is not necessary.

What is necessary?

First is Accuracy.  A near miss is still a miss.  Enough people have now experienced bullets zinging very close to them that they are not afraid of improperly aimed fire.  You have to hit where you are aiming to be effective at suppressing the enemy.  Calling a miss "suppression" is just an excuse for bad marksmanship (and remember, Marksmanship Matters a great deal at the tactical level). 

How do you choose the weapon systems for your "Fire" element of Fire and Maneuver?  Look at the target, and decide what you need to be effective against it.

The second necessary element is Force.  Will your bullets be able to achieve good destruction of the target?

A reinforced concrete bunker will soak up a lot of 7.62 before giving way.  More than an Infantryman can carry.  It will soak up a lot less 50 cal.  It will just shrug off 5.56.

A brick wall will get punched through by a 50 cal, and get tore up very quickly by 7.62, but 5.56 won't do much.

A wooden wall (barring some thick log cabin monstrosity) is no obstacle to 7.62 and 5.56 will chew through it nicely (for a few walls anyways).

A 22 long rifle has plenty of energy and accuracy for quick fleeting targets under 50 yards for headshots.  Do not discount some crazy guy with a bunch of 25 round magazines for a 10/22 as being able to keep a bunch of men with superior arms pinned down.  Accuracy is the first part of the lethality equation (accuracy, penetration, deformation), and the first part about providing effective suppression..

If your suppressive fire efforts are part of a "reaction" drill, then all those "force" planning considerations go out the window and you return fire with whatever you have in an attempt to gain fire superiority.  React to contact drills are all worth their time in gold to rehearse.  

The third consideration is Volume of fire.  After your bullets arrive at the target with enough force to be lethal, or penetrate whatever barrier you want to break down you need to be hitting the target with the appropriate frequency to keep the enemy from moving.  Your fire must be quick enough that the enemy is stuck in the O portions of their OODA loop.  Whether you do that with five AR-10s at 500 meters or 20 guys with 30-30 rifles at 200 meters is all METT-TC dependent (but make a choice based on those factors). The timing is different for different weapon systems, if you have a bolt action rifle, you cannot fire a second shot fast enough to make up for a near miss, with an AR you can.  As JM wrote, this frequency really depends on range, so use enough volume to achieve suppression, but no more.

There it is, accuracy, force, volume.  Now that you know you need to provide accurate fire, that is doing the desired damage to the enemy, you need enough volume to achieve tactical superiority.  This is where machine guns are nice, but not necessary.  The more accurate your fire, the less volume you will need, which means you can use fewer rounds to achieve suppression for a longer time..

How does accuracy, force, and volume of fire interact with tactics?

In the offense, How do you make the enemy fight in two directions?  You have a base of fire (such as a Support By Fire position or an Attack By Fire position)  This lays DIRECT FIRE on the enemy.  This makes the enemy seek COVER if possible, CONCEALMENT if not, to keep from being killed.  If you are "Supporting by fire" then your assault element will maneuver to the enemies flank, and begin their assault.  This is where the support by fire line has to turn off bullets ahead of the advancing assault.  This always involves some sort of front line trace and communication backup.  If it doesn't you will end up with fratricide.

If however you are in an Attack By Fire position, the other direction can come from indirect or air assets.  Your direct fire makes the enemy duck behind something, then mortars or artillery explodes overhead.  The enemy dies without any extra maneuver force moving across the enemy position.  This is a very useful tactic if you have the assets to do so.  If you don't you can set up two Attack By Fire positions, using terrain, to attack the enemy from two directions and achieve the same "destruction" without an active maneuver force.  Think of this as an L shaped ambush without an assault prior to exfiltration.

In the defense, you engage the enemy in prepared engagement areas, using the principle of Attack by Fire or Support by Fire in an "aggressive defense" principle.  The Army Qualification for small arms is based on an "aggressive defense" scenario.  However there is no difference between "aggressive defense" and "suppressive fire" in terms of how you employ the weapon system.
If someone ever asks you "What do you do in this situation?" responding with, "Well it is METT-TC dependent" makes you sound like an unprepared ROTC Cadet.  Ask them where they want to conduct an operation, pull out the map or walk the terrain and go through a hasty planning scenario.  Talk through the Mission, Equipment, Time, Troops, Terrain, and Civil considerations, explain your reasoning and logic for each step.  That is how good leaders are developed.  If you aren't training one or two people to replace you at all times you are failing your organization.  If you don't have a map, or someone is just being a smartass (remember, all tactics can be defeated, there is no Buddha Palm Death Punch) then don't waste your time.

JM listed Rommel's "Attacks" as a good source of learning for small unit tactics involving fire and maneuver.  I've read it, and think that someone should start of with "Battle Leadership" by Adolph Von Schell.  Between the two I think Von Schnell was the better teacher, but that truly is just my opinion after reading Attacks and Battle Leadership.  Everyone should read Rommel (Just like everyone should read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz) but I think if you read Von Schell first it will make Rommel easier to understand.


Ryan said...

I would quibble that suppressive fire doesn't have to be lethal. It is about achieving the desired effect of getting the folks on the other side of it to hunker down and fail to put effective fire on your element or maneuver freely.

Less experienced folks like say deputies from a rural county in Ohio are a lot more likely to duck and cover at a few pop shots than say a Rifle squad on month 7 of a rough deployment to Afghanistan.

Terrain and location are also factors like you said. If the support by fire teams is in pre prepared positions on a ridge line and their targets are on a road (maybe with a convenient ditch for them to hide in;) in the open it is a bit easier to be effective.

Of course killing the enemy is good but not IMO strictly necessary for suppressive fire to be effective.

Bret said...

Interesting you and Oleg make a great deal of how i was confused and marksmanship is the lesser of the skills. Now you come out and say the need for marskmanship for effective supression fire is essential. I'd say you were mixing your metaphors. I've always said that only hits count. Now you are agreeing.

Anonymous said...


Don't go there. It's a trap!

The entire excellent distillation goes to show that terrain, abilities, etc. (METT-C) dictates tactics. If you plan, either purposely or out of necessity, on large numbers of poorly trained conscripts bullet-hosing the landscape, marksmanship pales. (cf. Warsaw Pact Threat Doctrine 1946-1989). If you have the advantage of distance and a higher skill level going against Team SprayAndPray, you can prevail with a vastly smaller force and footprint. Machete vs. Scalpel begs the questions of Where? Against What and Whom?

Mosby's comment about universal 2MOA accuracy for all hands is a great benchmark, as that means anything chest-sized inside of 600m is at grave risk. (The dissertation of Gen. Oleg notwithstanding.)

Better skills than that adds options.

Best Regards,

Hefferman said...

nkeingd 699If an enemy is taking fire, but no causalites, he will manuevor on you. It may take longer for the guys from rural Ohio, than a trained rifle squad, but it will still happen.
However if they are taking casualties, they have to go to cover,to avoid more casualties. That only happens when they are bing hit.
Gen. Rupertus was right when he said, "My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, or the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit."

pdxr13 said...

The world is full of accurate bolt-action rifles with 5-round internal magazines. As has been mentioned, they fire too slowly to allow for a miss.

So, the shooter must hit, if he fires. Without laser-guided heat-seeking psychotronic autonomous bullets, he needs a good 'scope set up perfectly, training/practice in fundamentals, and lots of psychic prediction skill to know when the target will appear so that he can fire (x) seconds earlier with the proper lead/etc.

He can't miss, and he can't be too close to a shooting-back target unless buddies have some overwhelming fire & maneuver to bail the shooter out with.

Why are men with rifles considering attacking a non-domestic superior force? Has nothing been learned in Iraq or the 'Stans? This is a job for placed-charges and mucho deception with very high return on effort/cost.

Hiding and not-shooting is a realistic option for a partisan rifle-toter when it's not a good day to die. "Observe and Report".


Max Velocity said...

I enjoyed AmMerc's article, all good stuff, it seems we really have something going with the suppressive fire topic right now. If it educates and passes the message, then that makes it worth it.
I have a pressing need to anounce that this topic of suppressive fire and related tactics (such as attacks/small unit tactics etc) are covered in depth in my two books (Contact and Rapid Fire). So yes, that's a plug, but I wrote them to pass on this information to people. If you want to read about how to do this stuff in depth please have a look at those books.

Now, I don't want to disappear up a collective rectum of introspection about suppressive fire, I am more interested in getting the main message across. However, I have one sematics issue with AmMercs definition:

Suppressive fire is effective fire. If you were the one experiencing it, that experience would be defined as 'fire that is causing casaulties, or will cause casualties if you continue (or don't take cover). For a squad advancing to contact, it is receipt of effective enemy fire that makes them take cover and go into squad battle drills.

Thus, if you are the one suppressing the enemy, you have to produce effective fire, in the required volume, accurancy etc. My point is that it should intend to kill and be accurate enough to do so, but does not need to. It does not have to be lethal to suppress the enemy. You either kill the enemy or force him to take cover (put his head down) so that he canot effectively fire back or move out of that position. If he puts his head up to fire, rounds are either hitting him or very near to him, so he is forced back down. There is a separate subject here related to the ability of riflemen to generate such effective fire under the pressure of battle, and in reality fire tends to be less effective/accurate, which is why often we/the enemy are not effectively suppressed.

So, my point? Great articles by Mosby/AmMerc: I take issue with one small point of AmMercs that only fire hitting the enemy is effective suppression. The crack of a high velocity round passing close overhead is violent like a bullwhip and if the enemy sees rounds passing close or into the cover where his fire position is, he will mostly keep his head down. As per the 'squad battle drills' this allows you to maneuver and at this pont we would move on to the rest of the tactical story, as AmMerc alludes to.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate both JM's and you blog and come to read daily. However, I've come to realize that Aesop's responses are just as much value to me as your postings and only wish he had a blog as well. Thanks for allowing him to respond!


AM said...


I don't take any issue with your caveat. Your premise is that the volume of fire WOULD be lethal if someone were dumb enough to expose themselves. Either way the suppressing element has the full intention of causing lethal effects on the enemy.

But simply shooting over their heads has never been an effective way to pin down regulars. Regulars know that the longer they are pinned down the worse it will get, and like Rommel or Von Schell, will break out into an attack. They will accept fewer casualties from the attack than guaranteed destruction from inaction.

So that is why suppressive fire MUST be lethal, when the enemy tries to break out of position he must die to force the rest of the enemy to stay in position.

AM said...


Marksmanship is a tactical skill. You can win all the tactical victories you want and still lose the war.

Winning a war is the result of having a winning strategy. I'll take a winning strategy with poor marksmen than a losing strategy with excellent marksmen.

Think about it the NVA and VC were not as good marksmen as the Soldiers and Marines they fought. They had a winning strategy.

The Taliban absolutely sucks at marksmanship (for the most part, there are exceptions) but they have a strategic plan that is really tough to beat.

Please do not confuse tactical prowess for strategic relevance. At the tactical level marksmanship is a life or death matter. But to the cause of liberty, or the cause of the caliphate, or the cause of the empire, marksmanship is of little importance.

But there is no point that I can find in history where good marksmanship won the war. The Boers were better shots than the Brits, they lost. The NVA were worse shots than GI's, they won. The Finns were better shots than the Soviets, they lost quite a bit of territory.

The belief in marksmanship and rifle ownership alone as a preventive measure against tyranny is just a fetish. Study some damn history and figure it out for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Marksmanship isn't a fetish. Asserting it is requires a host of assumptions not in evidence.
You can't have it both ways simultaneously, and compare apples to oranges.
You can't praise a tactic, then almost simultaneously damn it because it's not a strategy.

If the Taliban or the NVA had shot better, they'd have won faster. If we had leaders with spines, no matter how well the enemy shot, we'd root any enemy out, slaughter them to the last man, pull their houses down to the last stick and stone, kill their livestock, and sow their fields with salt. And then leave. (Nota bene that no one in Carthage gave the West any crap for 5 centuries after the last Punic soiree'.)

But we don't do that, because for 60 years our jellyfish political leadership has oozed from one half-assed foray to the next.

Before we became gutless, and were instead generously supplied with both firm will and marksmen, we devastated the pride of the British Army at News Orleans in 1814; on another occasion we launched the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in WWI, and ended a 4-year trench war stalemate in 4 months despite being commanded by a French general.

In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq both had will in spades, but couldn't round up so much as a squad that could hit anything (both sides being only trained extensively in shooting bound captives in the back of the head from 3 feet away), and so for nearly a decade, they flailed and chewed each other up bloodily, and ended with a draw.

So the lessons are that even with abyssmal marksmanship, if your dedicated group can outlast a spineless enemy, you can still bumble along and prevail.
And that without political will, you can have laser-aimed death rays and still get your strategic asses kicked, conflict after conflict, from Korea to Vietnam to Somalia to Bosnia to Baghdad to Kandahar, and ever onwards. And finally, that if you have the will but lack the marksmanship, you'd better have metric buttloads of willing cannon fodder and a decade's worth of patience, provided your enemy lacks the will that you possess.

Thus we see that marksmanship, far from being a fetish, is important, but not primary. Claiming otherwise is nonsense on the order of stating that a surgeon could do as well with a meataxe or even a sledgehammer as with a scalpel. If we believed that, we'd get plastic surgery at auto bodyshops, and appendectomies from sawmills.

We must further note that assuming marksmanship will always be tied to a similar lack of political will is monumental folly. Of a type generally counter-productive on the side of one's allies, but heartily encouraged amongst one's enemies.

Best regards,

AM said...


You are confusing a tactic with strategy. Tactics are about winning on the field, strategy is about winning your political goals. If you still don't see how those are two very different things you are not paying attention to history.

You wrote the phrase "win faster" without understanding, and you are trying to put words in my mouth, go back and read what I wrote again. A surgeon can be perfect with the scalpel but not save the patient's life. First have a plan to get the patient healthy, without that plan of care removing the wrong leg won't get rid of gangrene or cancer. Strategy is what was decisive, marksmanship not so much.

To say it again, it is the belief that marksmanship alone being an effective detterrent to tyranny that is the fetish. A fetish is a charm or totem that the irrational believe will ward off evil. Some people carry a handgun they never train with, but truly believe the are ready to deal with evil. We know that is stupid, but for some reason a lot of people feel justified believing the same stupidity when talking about a deer rifle.

Anonymous said...

I get very well the difference between strategy and tactics. I have an abiding interest in where they may overlap.

Marksmanship is always a good tactic, but never a sufficient strategy. It does not follow from either of those premises that it therefore must be meaningless. We need other information before justifying such an otherwise illogical leap.

Dissing marksmanship because it won't all of its own accord win a war is like dissing brushing your teeth because it won't get you elected president.
That's why "Marksmanship As Strategy To Deter Tyranny" is a straw man. In the main, it's only the results of marksmanship that deter tyrants, as Col. Qaddafi learned too late one morning in a Libyan strip mall. But it obviously took more than just good range qual scores to put him there.

I would cheerfully agree that guys can shoot like Stevie Wonder and win a war, or shoot like Carlos Hathcock and lose one. We've already done both.

And in both instances, not because marksmanship is meaningless, but because it usually has little fundamental to do with grand strategy.
Marksmanship can be just a tactic, or a component of a strategy, but never all of it.

One famous example was the Swiss and German commanders reviewing the Swiss Army of 500,000 men in the late 1930s. The German asked, "But what if we invaded with 1,000,000 men?" Whereupon the Swiss general answered "Each man would shoot twice, and we'd go home."
Since they haven't been futzed with in 5 centuries, presumably the German took the statement to heart, doubting neither the marksmanship of the Swiss, nor their resolve if forced to give an account of themselves. Neither component alone was sufficient, but the combination was.

Marksmanship unelected a president in 1963, which got us into a needless 10-year war. In 1865 it turned what likely would have been a reconcilliation of the South into a ham-fisted subjugation, and set civil rights back 100 years, even indirectly leading to the Affirmative Action elections we're still paying for. Marksmanship put out the Unwelcome mat for a king, and it started WWI.

Say it's a therfore a dangerous, a poor, a questionable, or a merely incomplete strategy, or anything within a country mile of any of that. But let's don't knock it to pieces because it's not something no one in their right mind expects it to be.

If it really didn't matter, we wouldn't put sights on rifles, and we'd put blind people in the infantry (instead of the Pentagon). We'd probably even just issue blanks, or skip the whole thing and just put loudspeakers playing recorded gunfire on tanks with no guns. But we don't do that.

So it does matter, it is an essential tactic, and it's never meaningless, as a bare appreciation for the fate of the two SOBs at either end of the barrel would inform us.

Best Regards,

AM said...


So you agree with me, marksmanship is important at the tactical level, and largely unimportant at the strategic level?

Do I really need to demolish your "Swiss Marksman" argument? There is a very good geographic and political reason for Switzerlands ability to stay neutral. You would have been better off to point to Swedish neutrality in WWII, "Peace through Strength."

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's vital at the tactical level, and of -at best - secondary importance at the strategic level. Not unimportant or meaningless, and not omnipotent, as the ten or twenty reasons you'd bring up re:Switzerland would plainly show. (I used the Swiss and not the Swedes for the simple expedient that there's no comparable tale regarding their marksmanship. I could make up my supporting data, but if I did that I'd end up writing for NPR and CBS, and I have too much self-respect to do that.)

At the tactical level, someone who can't shoot straight is usually called a medic or radioman.
At the strategic level, they're usually called generals and congessmen.
None of whom do well if they aren't defended by a lot of guys who *can* hit their targets. I don't expect an army of snipers, but there's little reason to accept an army of doofuses, if only to save lives and conserve forces at the tactical level. Which tends, pretty quickly, to become a strategic issue.

Mathematically, numbers(X) and accuracy(Y) necessary for strategic victory form a standard curve. As X approaches infinity, Y approaches 0. And vice-versa. Thus Y is only unimportant if you have trainloads of X.
As to date I have seen no evidence of Chinese-wave-like hordes of patriots milling about, I conclude Y is going to be rather more critical than not. If, on the other hand, the entire adult population of Texas, armed, were converging en masse on enemy HQ, I'd happily downgrade the necessity (not the utility) of their riflery skills.

AM said...

If you look at the Taliban and Al Quaeda, you see that marksmanship is not their strong suit. Yet both organizations still exist, and the bulk of casualties they inflict on the "Occupation Forces" is through improvised explosives.

There is no doubt in my mind that both organizations will still be around after we leave Afghanistan. So strategically, even though both organizations are incredibly small compared to the Continental militias in terms of numbers, marksmanship is not important to their long term strategic success.

Now I'm not saying that leading an army of Sappers is the key to long term success, but that our light infantry/marksmanship focus is not the only way to do business. If you are a surgeon you can cut out cancer with a scalpel, or you can treat it with chemo, or you can implant rad beads.

But no matter how you treat the cancer (a tactical engagement) you need to have an overall plan to get the patient healthy. Doesn't do any good to get the patient cancer free to die from MRSA in recovery, or overdose on pain meds. When you look at the entire realm of options for the surgeon, the scalpel is only vital for one or two tactical operations, and those might be minor considerations in the overall care plan for that patient.

If you focus solely on marksmanship you will view all problems as a marksmanship problem. If you focus on drones you will see every problem as needing more drones in the air with more missiles on them. Focusing on any tactical capability is short sighted (when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail).

Focus instead on the overall strategic objectives. Allow that to drive the tactical decisions, not tactical capabilities driving tactical decisions.

Anonymous said...


To date, the sum total of "strategic objectives" seems to center around "Government bad. Too big. Mongo no like." and "Survive good. Mongo need more stuff."
As noted on prior occasions, trying to arrive at anything more is like pulling on corn to make it grow faster.

As for others' strategies vs. our military, the brighter ones seem to center around the knowledge that we will tolerate a given number of years of conflict/number of casualties against enemies not stupid enough to go toe to toe with us, and then we're in the wind. I can't say how relevant that will be if the conflict in question is fought at home, but my suspicion is that our overall resolve and patience will be lower, but the tolerance for bloodshed will be far higher.

The tactical concerns seem to center on the certain knowledge that SUT will be used against us, and that lacking air support, artillery, armor, or very many automatic weapons, learning those same SUT are probably as far as anyone herabouts can go.

Mosby's comments regarding Support and Auxilliary Ops, and Lizard Farmer's extensive expositions in the realm of defensive engineering options are a larger field of endeavor, but again without any strategic goals beyond Mongo-level priorities. Secure comm, intelligence/counterintelligence, area studies, logistics, and deception are all fertile, and mostly unaddressed, topics.
(I'm not touching S-1 issues at this point with a 10' pole.)

Which seems to lead back to an emphasis on being able to perform basic functions like shoot, march, and subsist.


AM said...


In any given conflict SUT will be used. However SUT will not determine the outcome of the conflict.

Ireland, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Marksmanship is a tactical skill that doesn't determine who wins or loses the war.