SAMARRA, Iraq — The sun was sinking at the desert's edge when Sgt. Randall Davis spotted his target, an armed Iraqi on a rooftop about 300 meters away. "It was just getting dark. I saw a guy step in front of the light," said the 25-year-old sniper.
Davis knew he was watching another sniper by the way the man stepped back into the shadows and crept along the roofline to spy down on a squad from his unit — B Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. "Most people, when they get on a roof, will just move around and do what they've got to do," he said in a recent interview here. "But this guy was moving slowly, trying to have smooth motions, trying to stay in the shadows."
From his own rooftop position, Davis tracked him with his favorite weapon — an M-14 rifle equipped with a special optic sight that has crosshairs and a red aiming dot. He didn't have to wait long before the enemy sniper made his second mistake. "He silhouetted his rifle from the waist up, trying to look over at the guys in the courtyard," Davis said. His M-14 spoke once.
"I hit him in the chest. He fell back. His rifle flew out of his hands," Davis said. "You could see blood spatter on the wall behind where he was standing." Confirmed kill, his eighth — which includes seven enemies picked off in one day.
The deadly Dec. 18 encounter took place on the second night of Operation Ivy Blizzard, a joint combat operation aimed at clearing guerrillas from this city of 250,000, a nest of insurgent activity in the Sunni Triangle.
The operation is being carried out by the 5-20's parent unit, Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (SBCT), and 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, out of Fort Carson, Colo. Snipers had attacked the 5-20 three days before the rooftop encounter.
"We had been engaged by snipers in here before, so I was hoping it was the same guy," the Nashville, Tenn., native said. "It's kind of a professional insult to get shot at by another sniper." He seems to take his job in stride, though he admits he's been surprised at how busy he's been since he arrived here two weeks ago.
In April 2001 the Army began teaching urban sniper techniques as part of its five-week sniper course at Fort Benning, Ga. Army leaders recognized the emerging threat and realized that traditional sniper techniques of lying prone and stalking prey in the open would not be enough in a world where terrorists hit and run from inside city buildings and busy streets.
Army Sniper School's urban training course includes lessons on concealment, shooting positions and more. The Army also added more snipers to field units as part of its ongoing transformation to a more mobile and lethal force.
The leaders of the Stryker brigade — the new wheeled combat vehicle that is part of the transformation — say their snipers have proven ideal for limiting collateral damage and civilian casualties in this guerrilla-style fight. "These guys are invaluable to our mission," said B Company commander Capt. Damien Mason, describing how two-man sniper teams are deployed to provide precision fire against hit-and-run shooters or for counter-sniper work. "[Enemy] snipers have been a problem in this town," he said.
The enemy sniper Davis took out Dec. 18 was by no means his first kill here. In the handful of skirmishes since mid December, Davis has been credited with eight confirmed kills and two "probables," a count no soldier in the brigade has come close to matching.
Davis sees his job as vital to saving the lives of his own troops and takes no pleasure in the killing. "That's one of those things you accept when you take the job," he said.
Davis has been working in two-man sniper teams for two years. He's a spotter and mentor for his less-experienced sniper teammate, Spc. Chris Wilson. In many cases, the situation dictates who takes the shot. "The roles switch up constantly between spotter and shooter," Davis said. Davis, though, has done most of the shooting since his unit began operating in Samarra on Dec. 14.
It wasn't long after arriving that he found himself with an Iraqi in his sights and his finger on the trigger. One night, he and Davis were taking sporadic fire in their position when two Iraqis burst out of a mosque with AK-47 rifles. "I shot the trail one," he said, describing how the individual managed to crawl away, so he was listed as a probable kill. "He was hurt pretty bad."
The next day, B Company walked into an ambush designed to draw them into the city. Before the day was over, Davis, armed with an M-4 carbine and an all-purpose optic, would be responsible for seven of the 11 enemy kills.
Most of the shots he took were while on the move at distances of 100 to 300 meters — longer than a football field, but certainly not the greatest distance from which he has hit his human target. On Dec. 20, he killed another sniper with one shot from an XM107 .50 caliber sniper rifle at a distance of 750 meters.
Davis admits he never thought he'd be this busy before deploying to Iraq. "This is the first time I have been in ever been in a combat situation," he said. "Really it was just like targets down range – you just hit your target and acquire your next target. I thought I'd have a harder time shooting. Shooting someone is pretty unnatural."
Davis is described by B Company 1st Sgt. Ray Hernandez as one of the best noncommissioned officers in the unit. "He's very professional — one of those NCOs where you tell him to do a job, and he does it," said Hernandez, who is from El Paso, Texas. Mason, the B Company commander, agreed. "He will make things happen," said the 29-year-old from Kihei, Hawaii. "He will get the mission done no matter what."
Davis said the toughest part of the deployment is that it means a year away from his wife and six-year-old son. Nevertheless, serving in a war zone is the opportunity to fulfill a dream he's had since he was a kid. "It's one of those things I wanted to do since I was 12," he said, describing how reading about famous snipers was a favorite pastime.
Legendary snipers became his role models. Snipers such as Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, a Marine sniper in Vietnam with 98 confirmed kills, Sgt. 1st Class. Randy Shugart and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon, two Delta Force snipers, who died in Somalia in 1993 trying to rescue a downed crew of a MH-60 Black Hawk during the battle of Mogadishu. "What those guys did was amazing," he said.
Born with 20/10 vision, Davis said he has been shooting and hunting as long as he can remember. His favorite deer gun was a Remington Model 700 bolt-action rifle in .308 caliber — the civilian version of the Army's M-24 sniper rifle. "I kind of grew up with the rifle," he said.
The interests of his youth made it easy for Davis to transition into a job he describes as a more humane way of fighting an enemy that can easily blend in with harmless civilians.
"I just thought it was a very smart way to fight a war — very lethal, very precise," he said. "This way I know I'm not shooting civilians. Every shot you take, you know exactly where the bullet is going."