The team works with anything from service pistols to long guns like M16s and M4s. Photograph by Pat Mateo
Culture Spotlight

Run, gun, and win: a day with the Philippine Army Shooting Team

Many soldiers, on a break from assignments in conflict zones such as Basilan, find themselves undergoing a different set of challenges—and welcoming the respite.
Vince Pornelos | Jan 25 2019

If you’ve ever been to a shooting range and done some drills, you’ll know that it’s good to dress light: a comfortable shirt and shorts, a good pair of lightweight outdoor shoes, a speed holster, a couple of magazines in quick draw pouches, goggles, a cap, and ear protection. That’s how people like us—civilians—enjoy a few hours at the range to blow off some steam and practice. Freedom of movement is the key.

In a base in Capas, however, a unique unit of the Philippine Army does things a little bit differently. They’re not dressed like they’re going for a jog. These guys are in full battle gear, magazines, rucksacks, canteens and all. And, at the sound of the horn, they run flat out down range about 200 meters, drop to the dirt, and take out steel target plates at distances that, quite frankly, make them look like peas.

Ear protection is required gear when at a "hot" shooting range.

This is the Philippine Army Shooting Team (PAST). A few years ago I had the chance to get to spend a day with them to see how they train, and shoot a few rounds in the process.

Getting to their training site from Metro Manila takes a while, and that’s because they are based at Camp O’Donnell, all the way in Tarlac. The base itself has a rather infamous past; it was a prisoner of war (POW) concentration camp during the Japanese occupation in World War II. A massive obelisk gives passersby a tangible reminder to take it all in, and learn of bravery amidst the horrors of war.

That, perhaps, is a fitting reason why the Philippine Army decided to use it as the site for training candidates to become Army officers. The facility is used by the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) of the Philippine Army, of which the Philippine Army Shooting Team counts itself as one of the units.

Senior NCO Sergeant Carpio is a portrait of seriousness and unsatisfaction when commanding the team during drills.

We were met by Sergeant Carpio, one of the senior NCOs of the group at the time. He had a unique seriousness about his face; clearly this was a man who has seen his fair share of combat. He spoke of his previous deployment so matter-of-factly that it sounded like just another day in the office. The only difference being that people were shooting at you.

Some shots ring off in the distance, rapid pistol fire. Carpio handed us essential hearing protection and walked us over to the “hot” shooting range. The ones there were mostly female soldiers, shooting at targets downrange. Some were using service pistols like the 1911. Others were shooting with customized “race” guns that had exceptionally light triggers and expensive red dot optics for quick and accurate placement.

Carpio tells us that they’re practicing for competition, but were doing so rather differently. Shooting competitions typically have the shooter on his or her feet. On the other hand, the army shooters were firing from unconventional positions. One drill even had them shooting from a position that looked like they were doing crunches.

As opposed to stances in typical shooting competitions, army shooters fire from unconventional positions.

That, as the Sergeant explains to us, is part of the competitions they engage in such as the ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet (AARM). These events are founded on the principles and situations that would arise in combat, like shooting from awkward positions. And they’d have to do it after a short run and shoot at a series of steel plates. Nothing like an elevated heart rate to test marksmanship.

We then boarded a camouflage-painted military truck, and I found myself sitting in the back with some of our boys in green. Many of them are young, and some, like Carpio, have just rotated to the shooting team after deployment in various parts of the country. Many of the soldiers with the team found this to be a refreshing break from the hotspots of the south. Basilan was the most common answer when asked where they had just come from.

A few minutes of bouncing around on the trail, we arrived at a long, flattened field. Clearly it’s a shooting range meant for long guns like the M16, the M4 carbine, their belt-fed FN machine gun, and the other rifles they had on hand.

We hop down from the truck and walked our way over to what looked like a starting line with four soldiers prone on the ground, waiting for a command. When the officer yells “Up!” they all leap to their feet and run flat out downrange. It’s a straight up run and gun: 100 meters they run, and in full battle gear. At the end, they drop to the ground again, and proceed to take out steel plates a further 100 meters out.

Team members are trained to up and run in full battle gear by command.

When all the plates have fallen, the officer checks the time: 25.5 seconds for the team of four to take out all the targets.

If you’ve ever done shooting or other sport that requires perfect form and focus, you’ll know that controlling breathing and managing your heart rate is key. That’s not easy if you’ve just done a 100-meter sprint in tropical heat with a lot of gear strapped to your waist. And it’s not just for the sake of competition. In combat, a soldier doesn’t have time to calm down to take accurate shots. They’re going to be under a lot of stress, and they still have to perform. Their lives depend on each and every one of their team to be able to shoot even in the worst conditions.

“Wow, that's impressive,” I said to Carpio. He was just shaking his head.

“They can do better,” was all he said as he puffed on his cigarette with a measured look of disappointment.

Like an old master, he walks over to the carbine (a shorter version of a full length rifle) team just as they made their way back. Clearly they have high respect for him. Carpio has a few titles to his name from various competitions that the Philippine Army team participates in. After a few words and pointers, the team runs the challenge again. They clock in at 22.8 seconds.

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The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

The Philippine Army Shooting Team trains at the repurposed base Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. 

“Good,” uttered the Sergeant, but I can tell he wants them to run it faster. To be competitive, they have to get to the 20 second mark.

They run these team drills regularly because it’s a source of pride for the Philippine Army. This team represents the Army in international matches like the AARM and even the international leg of the Australian Army Skill at Arms Meeting (AASAM). The Philippine team does well at these army meets. Any win is especially sweet for the team, especially since the equipment of most—if not all—of their competitors are newer. 

And a win during any competition when you can honestly say that it’s not about the equipment but about hard work, training, skill, and teamwork, is going to be much sweeter.

 

Photographs by Pat Mateo