USMC Precision Weapons Section

USMC Precision Weapons Section

December 2010, MCB Quantico, VA. ‘Rode hard and put up wet’ is an old Marine Corps horse cavalry expression that could easily apply to these battered and hard-used M40A3 Sniper Rifles that have just arrived at PWS for rebuilding, new parts replacement and upgrade to A5 configuration. (Robert Bruce)

SADJ:  Are you personally interested in firearms and shooting?  

Johnston:  I enjoy hunting, trapping, outdoor sports.  I’ve never been an avid competition shooter but I’ve definitely enjoyed all shooting sports.  As far as privately owned weapons, the one I probably enjoy the most is a Winchester Model 70 – like the one my grandfather used when he was in the Marine Corps.  That’s what I grew up shooting.  Granddad was Marine Corps Recon and he dealt a lot with snipers.  That’s what they carried so he ended up carrying and what he got me growing up.  Other than that I’ve got a Ruger 10/22 rifle.  As far as handguns, I’ve got a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver.  My next one will be a 1911 most definitely.  I’ll start purchasing parts and build what I want – probably something along the lines of an M45.  Custom made that I can build myself.  1911’s a very reliable pistol.

SADJ:  Why did you ask to attend PWRC? 

Johnston:  I’ve wanted to come to this course ever since I was in MOS school in Aberdeen (Marine Armorers, MOS 2111, are trained at the U.S. Army Ordnance School at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland).  It’s more along the lines of what I expected my job to be when I enlisted.  More of a hands-on, doing more manufacturing than just pulling parts and putting new ones in.  Actually getting in there, figuring out a problem and building stuff.

I learned about PWRC from one of the instructors at Aberdeen.  He was a 2112 and he described to us what it was.  As soon as I heard about it I knew that’s the route I wanted to go.  He planted the seed and it followed with me until I was finally able to make it happen.  I tried to come here before but there wasn’t any room in the shop at that time so I went on recruiting duty as a ‘B billet’ (a professional development assignment outside MOS and career field such as Drill Instructor) first.  Coming off that I had to get back into the fleet and get some MOS credibility before I came to the school.  It took a while but I finally made it.

SADJ:  Given the strict prerequisites for PWRC and the very small number of experienced 2111s admitted each year, how is it that you were selected?  What extra or special skills, attitude, performance, recommendations, etc.?   

Johnston:  I hit all the wickets and had my ‘B-billet’ done.  The leadership didn’t have the fear I’d be going out on recruiting duty, drill instructor, any of those special, non-primary MOS assignments after getting trained up.

SADJ:  Does it help to know somebody and get a special recommendation to get into the school?

Johnston:  It does.  Pretty much what I did was to harass the monitor, the guy who takes care of the Ordnance community.  I ended up talking to him and using him for my recommendation and talking to the Master Guns in this shop.  I didn’t personally know any 2112s before coming here.  I picked up the phone and started smilin’ and dialin,’ pestering folks until somebody said ‘you can go.’  Coming straight off recruiting duty I started calling Master Gunny Zolokoffer at PWS at the time.  He told me to go back to the fleet and get some MOS credibility before I head this direction.  I was talking to him for the three years I was at my last unit.  After ‘Z’ left I started talking to Master Gunny Clark who, going off Z’s word that I needed to get orders to come in this direction.

October 2011, MCB Quantico, VA. (Left to right) Chief Warrant Officer 5 Roderick Fiene (left), Officer in Charge of Precision Weapons Section, is joined by two of his top Marines at PWS; Master Gunnery Sergeant James Hoffart, Senior NCOIC, and Master Sergeant Daniel Hanus, Chief Instructor and Production Chief. (Robert Bruce)

SADJ:  Do students still have to shave a perfect square block?  Do you get to keep it?  

Johnston:  Certainly do and you do get to keep ‘em.  They start you out doing the math portion; make sure you can figure it out.  Then basic stuff working with hand tools; hacksaws and files and how to use them correctly to actually come out with a precision piece just using hand tools.  The first thing you actually build is that cube.  I suppose more than anything to teach everybody that you’re able to get precision results with hand tools.  Because you might end up out in the middle of the desert without a mill or lathe, you have to make a gun work with nothing but hand tools; files…

SADJ:  Is this part to make sure a student has both aptitude and patience?

Johnston:  I’m sure it is.  Not everybody gets it on the first block, that’s for darn sure.  I got it on the first one but I took it nice and slow, making sure I was keeping in tolerances as I went with that little booger.

SADJ:  How much time do you get?

Johnston:  A couple of days, maybe even a week.  You can only go as fast as the slowest guy in your class.

SADJ:  How about the math?

Johnston:  The math was tough for me.  It’s amazing how much you forget since high school.  The first thing you do is take a practice test, a pretty sobering experience when you realize you’ve forgotten how to do long division.  No calculators.  But once it clicks you’re doing fine.  Once they start instructing everything comes flooding back, stuff you didn’t remember or didn’t even know to begin with.  Some guys didn’t even get past algebra in school but by the end of the math portion of this course they’re doing right angle trigonometry.

SADJ:  Would an advance packet of remedial math work have helped you with that part?

Johnston:  It probably would have.  That would make a lot of sense.  Master Sergeant Hanus (PWRC Chief Instructor) is giving people a screening quiz before they come here.

SADJ:  Are the course handouts and study materials adequate?

Johnston:  For the math there aren’t handouts.  Instruction was one-on-one with the instructor sitting down with us.  The purpose of the pre-test was to figure out where he had to start.  For other things like machining, they teach us how to set up the machine, they give us the formula in regards to the feed and speed you need to cut different types of metal, whatever size bit you’re using, whatever size end mill.  Every thing you do consists of math and being able to take that, plug in the numbers and do it correctly so you’re not burning up machinery out there.

SADJ:  Has PWRC lived up to your expectations?  What’s easiest, hardest?

Johnston:  Most definitely lived up to my expectations.  For me the easiest was getting back there and jumping on the machines, being confident with ‘em.  I’d worked with machinery in the past, welded growing up.  So I approached it with a good level of confidence, not being intimidated by the equipment itself.

Some parts have definitely been harder than I thought they would be.  The math was a shocker for one, but the artistic approach to everything….  It’s kind of hard to explain.  You have to have all those skill sets to come here but you also have to be able to have some kind of artistic ability to make all these parts go together and work together and also function.  You’ve got to be proud of what you come out with, the end result.

December 2010, MCB Quantico, VA. At the far end of the table are the first three rifles to begin the famous M40 series and its subsequent evolution in the hands of Marine snipers. Lying on its side is one of the original, unmodified Remington 700s that were bought back in the late 1960s to replace the old Winchester Model 70 rifles used for years by Marine snipers as the M40. In the middle is a survivor from the first version M40A1 rifles, built in the late 1970s by the Rifle Team Equipment shop to the specifications of Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock. ‘White Feather’ Hathcock, ace sniper of Vietnam War fame, headed Quantico’s Sniper School at the time. Note the heavy barrel, with action solidly bedded in form-fitted fiberglass inside the high-comb hardwood stock. It’s topped by a Redfield 3X9 scope, clamped in rings held on a base drilled and tapped into the receiver. Next to it is one of the first A1s to get a McMillan fiberglass stock and overall hand-painted camo. (Robert Bruce)

Anybody can take a 1911, chop it up and put a dovetail on it.  But it takes some time and that artistic ability to blend everything together and make it look good.  It’s hard to put it out there but everybody knocks on one another if they don’t put out not just functioning work, but good looking.  There’s always friendly competition with Marines in whatever you do.

SADJ:  Tell us more about the artistry.  

Johnston:  Taking the time to cut that last thousandth or half a thou of material off.  It’s more than just hacking apart metal and slapping parts together.  There’s a great big artistic approach to making everything fit just right and making the final product look good.  No kidding; artisan.

(Master Gunnery Sergeant James Hoffart, PWS SNCOIC, has been observing for awhile during the interview and now speaks up).

Hoffart:  You could build a gun and have it meet the requirements for function and accuracy, but you can tell the people who truly love it and people who are here just for a job.  There’s artistry; the gun will look beautiful.  Everything will be smoothed out, it’ll look good; the cosmetic factor.  The other people will do enough to get by the criteria and the gun still shoots good but…

SADJ:  Have you had to ‘un-learn‘ any bad habits?

Johnston:  Running my own shop I had gotten some bad habits; forgetting to put on safety glasses, things like that.  You kind of get complacent in the way you go about things when running your own shop.

SADJ:  How’s the quality of instruction?

Johnston:  You always have the instructors looking out for you.  If you’re having trouble they come in and mentor you, help you through it.  There are a lot of details that go into this job that can’t be put down into print.  It just comes by experience.  And there’s a heck of a lot of that experience around here with the instructors; two retired Marines and a prior Marine, all former 2112s.  There’s little ‘tricks of the trade’ as you go along that they show you.  I suppose everybody develops their own way of doing things.  Of course you’ve got to go by the black and white of what’s down in all the building procedures.  But there are certain twists here and there that make things easier for one person.  Just things you learn as you go.  They’re able to point out what they learned and then be able to take the advice from all three of them ….

They’re all older, they’re definitely wise, and they know what the hell they’re talking about.  They’ve all got their particulars.  Mr. Shoe (Schumacher), Mr. Cowman with the M45.  Mr. Shaloub back in the machine shop is just a wealth of knowledge, a walking daggone computer the way his head works he can about figure out anything.  Gunny Bargusriz back there too.

Mr. Eric Reid has got the experience of being a 2112, working on the sniper rifles and all that.  He was out of the Marine Corps for awhile and worked in industry with GA Precision.  His passion that goes into the M40 specifically is pretty impressive.  That’s his gun, his baby.  He knows the ins and outs of that rifle, all the tricks of the trade.  Probably more than anybody.  He’ll sit down with you and go through the most miniscule detail.  The expectations he has…. Like I was saying before about the quality of work, how we all harp on each other, that’s how he is too.  The way the gun looks after the fact.

December 2010, MCB Quantico, VA. While most of the fine fitting involved in producing match quality weapons is done by hand, highly sophisticated computer-controlled machines are available for some repetitive tasks like cutting chambers and crowns for sniper rifle and match barrels. PWS has come a long way since its predecessor, Rifle Team Equipment, began operations in 1968 with a scrounged milling machine and lathe. (Robert Bruce)

SADJ:  Of the weapons you’ve had your hands on here, what’s your favorite?

Johnston:  That’s hard to say.  We’re only doing maintenance on the M40s right now.  We haven’t even gotten into building the doggone things.  We’re just putting the glass bedding in the stocks, making sure it looks right when its all said and done.  Even down in the bottom of the stock where you can’t see it, better be looking good.

I’ve only built two of the weapons so far; the M45 and National Match 1911.  Of those two I’d say the 1911 National Match is my favorite because it‘s so intensive to build.  All the minor details that go into making that thing shoot and shoot well.  By the time everything is said and done, I think the M40 sniper rifle will probably be my favorite.  It’s already growing on me.

SADJ:  What are the greatest challenges in building/rebuilding these weapons?   

Johnston:  The greatest challenge for the National Match 1911 was peening the rails and squeezing the slide over and over again.  They were down there at Albany (Georgia) about a year and a half ago pulling a bunch of the pistols, getting the ones with the best frames.  Starting with a surplus receiver we have to turn it into a match gun.  Trying to get that old, sloppy, government receiver to be able to tighten up and hold the grouping it’s supposed to hold.  With that gun in particular, just any minute detail, anywhere that thing has contact with another moving part, has to be just right.  You adjust one part of the pistol and another part’s gonna go out of tolerance.  So you have to go back in and peen or squeeze.  It’s a heartache and fun all at the same time trying to get that gun to work.

SADJ:  Any “tricks of the trade” have emerged that may not yet be in official doctrine?

Johnston:  Off the cuff not much really.  Working with the M40 sniper rifle, over the years the trigger had become an issue.  It went away from the Marines here doing a lot of the trigger adjustments to going with a factory set trigger straight from Remington.  But you always have the snipers out in the fleet that are ‘self-certified gunsmiths’ who get in there and start to tweak on the trigger.  So Mr. Reid understands that and he’ll go in and make sure we understand how to adjust a trigger safely and correctly.

SADJ:  What recommendations would you like to send up the chain-of-command to improve PWRC?

Johnston:  I don’t really have any suggestions to improve it.  The course used to be set up as all on-the-job training, self paced, one on one.  In my opinion that would be the way to go but with the way the Marine Corps is structured – getting funds for the Schoolhouse – it’s not possible.  Regarding one-on-one instruction, there’s a lot more that can come out of that method as history has shown.  But some Marines will just focus on one weapon system, that’s all they’ll know, all they’ll do.  It’s just the tradeoff, I suppose, of having a more structured classroom environment as opposed to the old OJT program.  I kind of wish I had come through when it was the old OJT way.  My own personal opinion.

SADJ:  We understand that you won’t return to your previous unit after your time at Quantico.  Do you get a voice in reassignment?  If so, what/where?  

Johnston:  We can go to ‘Master Guns’ (MGySgt Hoffart) and ask him for reassignment after we‘ve finished the course and been on the floor for a couple of years.

(Master Gunnery Sergeant Hoffart speaks up again).

Hoffart:  What we try to do; we know people that are getting out or retiring from the Marine Corps or coming back here.  So we’ve kind of got them in a chute; the guy who’s been here longest is the next guy out the door.  So if you want to go to a particular place you better come and talk to myself and Master Sergeant Hanus.  It’s part of what we do here.  Once we get the names and where they want to go, we send that up to the monitor and they cut orders on them.  While we pretty much direct where the 2112s go from the shop, the needs of the Marine Corps come first.  There are places where people don’t necessarily want to go but they have to be filled, like Twentynine Palms.