Why the Taliban Can’t Shoot Straight

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

So, the rank-and-file Taliban can’t shoot straight, but why is that? Their great-grandfathers were known to shoot each other, and Brits, from a mile away. Well, the kids these days, they never learned to shoot with a good old-fashioned bolt-action rifle. No, they’ve only ever shot full-auto Kalashnikovs:

Few sounds are as distinctive as those made by Kalashnikov rounds passing high overhead. The previous sentence is written that way — rounds and overhead — for a reason, because this is a common way that incoming Kalashnikov fire is heard in Afghanistan: in bursts, and high. Over and over again in ambushes and firefights, the Taliban’s gunmen fire their AK-47 knockoffs on automatic mode. The Kalashnikov series already suffers from inherent range and accuracy limitations related to its medium-power cartridges, its relatively short barrel, the short space between its rear and front sights, and the heavy mass and deliberately loose fit of the integrated bolt carrier and gas piston traveling within the receiver.

For many shooters, the limitations resulting from these design characteristics are manageable at shorter ranges and with disciplined shooting. In certain environments and conditions, including in dense vegetation where typical skirmish distances shrink, the limitations are easily overcome. Add distance between a shooter and a target, and fire a Kalashnikov on automatic, and the rifle’s weaknesses can emerge starkly. There are reasons for this. One is perceptible to people who are shot at but not struck. When fired on automatic, the weapon’s muzzle rises. Bullets start to climb. At very short ranges, a round from a climbing muzzle might still hit a man. At longer ranges, which are common in arid Afghanistan, the chances of a hit decline sharply. Rounds travel over heads.

For decades, those who have trained Afghan fighters have cajoled, preached and drilled the importance of firing on semiautomatic mode (read: one shot for each trigger pull) for most situations. A Marine lieutenant colonel I served with in the 1980s and 1990s had been previously assigned to Pakistan to train anti-Soviet mujahedeen. His accounts of Afghan and foreign fighters who were impervious to instruction on the importance of single-shot fire would seem to describe many insurgents in the field in Afghanistan today.

A commenter named Ben makes this same point:

Having recovered many many caches of weapons while in country we always found stores of Mausers and Enfield rifles in the caches but failed to find many AK 47/74 type weapons. This is due to the status symbol the AK brings to the soldier. Because of this the younger soldiers were never taught to really shoot or even maintain their weapons. The old spray and pray marksnmanship now comes to play. Many of todays Taliban were born during the Russian or Post-Russian era in Afghanistan.

The older veterans are tired of fighting. On one such occassion we had taken some of the Mausers and ammunition to the range. One of our hired workers who was approximately 50 years old came along to clean up the area and help. He may have also been curious! During the event we were practicing marksmanship with captured weapons and ammunition. The American soldiers were really impressed with the accurracy of the bolt-action rifles and their range.

I had noticed our Afghan worker had started coaching some of our troops and offered him the chance to shoot. He accepted and proceeded to school the American soldiers on marksmanship. I later found he had been Mujhadeen fighting the Russians. After offering him a position with our militia he proceeded to turn us down. He said he was tired of fighting and just wanted to keep his position supervising the kids we hired for general labor and trash collectors on our base.

The older Afghans who learned to shoot with old single-shot and bolt-action rifles still know how to shoot and shoot well. Fortunately for us, they are tired of fighting and not interested in choosing any side in this conflict. Our worst nightmare would be a couple hundred older soldiers with the old Mausers and the knowledge to use them. Our problems would greatly multiply fast as would our casualty rates.


  1. ETat says:

    Fortunately for us, they are tired of fighting and not interested in choosing any side in this conflict

    If Ben is worth his allowance, he knows full well that in Afghanistan that could change in a matter of seconds – as soon as that old guy’s tribal lord gets bigger handout from yet higher-up tribal lord.

    Soviets learned that the hard way.

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