Infantry combat ranges

Discussions about optimal rifle calibers and optimal infantry armament often include a rule of thumb like '90% of infantry combat happens at less than 200m'. This is of interest because external ballistics influences the effectiveness of weapons differently at certain ranges.

More elaborate discussions and presentations about this have more elaborate information, like this graph based on NATO data:

It's obvious that short lines of sight (as in urban terrain) prevent engagements at long range in most cases, and the graph shows it as well.

I am personally not much interested in this because it's of little utility. You could decide to optimize your weaponry for engagements at less than 200 metres - but that would expose yourself to an enemy who attempts to avoid your strength and to exploit your weakness by preferring longer-ranged firefights.
I'm therefore against some extreme proposals like the use of personal defence weapons calibres as general purpose infantry munition.

My take on the infantry combat range question is different.
I emphasize survivability a lot because we simply don't have much well-trained infantry. High infantry losses could quickly result in an overall infantry quality deterioration if rear-area troops and recruits would need to be pressed into infantry service. Approaches like "Every man a rifleman" and training a well-sized reserve help, but ultimately it's in our best interest to keep infantry casualties low.

Infantry has long lost its role as primary killing/destroying and even maneuvering element of armies. Modern infantry small units focus on taking over control of and exercise control over areas and population. Mortars, artillery air strikes and armoured vehicles are responsible for more killing and higher tempo. The infantry simply doesn't need to sacrifice itself much for what other arms can achieve more easily.

Therefore I'm coming from a survivability-emphasizing view on infantry, and why exactly should infantry engage infantry at 400+ metres distance (and thereby give away its location)?

The tactical situation with the greatest requirement for long-range engagements is a delay mission. Delay shall slow down enemy advances and inflict casualties while keeping the delaying force as intact as possible (or else it would not be able to fulfill the delay mission because it's typically weaker than the attacker).
This means that firing at long range is advantageous because it forces the enemy to take cover early. It also helps to avoid decisive close-in battles; a necessity because breaking contact would otherwise be almost impossible.

Yet, even in this scenario I ask:
Why should we use rifles and machine guns at long range?

Mortar fires (and indirect fires in general) don't compromise the position of friendly forward infantry and its effectiveness requires quite few forward infantrymen at all (mortar support for a small forward observer team doesn't need to be weaker than for a whole company).

Another weapon that can do the job without compromising the infantry's location is a sniper rifle (especially with flash-eliminating suppressors) because of its (potentially) very small signature.

Finally there are command-detonated mines (explosives); including the directional fragmentation mines (a.k.a. "Claymore"). Command-detonated mines are popular among totally overmatched insurgents because their use means very low risk.

This leaves only a small capability gap; running enemies cannot easily be hit with these weapons/munitions (unless a Claymore is in a suitable position).
The usual answer to running enemies are full auto bursts (machine guns), but those aren't exactly accurate at 400+ m. Bipod machine guns aren't even accurate at 200 m in combat.

Let's also keep in mind that a greatly camouflaged soldier is often impossible to detect at 10-20 m distance. A well-camouflaged, disciplined soldier should be able to surprise you at 30-100 m. It's rather unsound to expect competent enemies who present themselves as targets at 400 m or longer range (unless they don't expect combat at all).

Let's assume you could detect and track them at let's say 700m. Why should you shoot them?
That's almost a one-trick pony. You do it once, maybe do it a couple more times, but it wears down after a few days. The enemy adapts. He won't bring hot chow to forward units by walking openly any more. He would walk along concealed routes and crawl at times.
The result? You get less information from observation because the very obvious and pressing effect of lethal fires has made the enemy generally much more careful, more secretive.
This is not just about hot chow bearers, of course.

My standard opinion on infantry combat ranges is therefore that the infantry does not need to prepare for the long-range fight (more than 300 or at most more than 400 m distance).
It would compromise its position for rather limited gain - and superior alternatives are available. The three mentioned weapons/munitions should usually be the only tools of infantry long range combat. Exceptions prove the rule, and are unavoidable because war is and always has been complex

I also apply this to anti-tank weapons. Widely issued infantry anti-tank weapons now range to up to 600m. The hit chances are - no matter how long-ranged a system is - always worse at long ranges than at half maximum range (for example).
The driving factor behind longer-ranged infantry (not dedicated AT unit) AT weapons seems to have been that longer-ranged weapons force the enemy mechanized infantry to dismount earlier (to keep vulnerable IFVs out of range). The longer distance on foot made the mech infantry more susceptible because attacks lasted longer.
I don't consider this Cold War tactical defence scenario as relevant enough any more.

I stick to the opinion that 400+ m range isn't useful. It drives weight of weapons and munitions up and increases capabilities that can be substituted for and don't create a good chance/risk proportion anyway.

This doesn't seem to be mainstream opinion, though (or else I wouldn't write about it).
Instead, the drive for longer ranges is well and alive.
Sniper rifles (and their sights and ammunition) are being meant and developed for ranges like 1,500+ m instead of (usually) about 700 m nowadays.
The long-range sniping in relatively open Iraqi and Afghani terrains has probably created a bias.
Such long-range sniping isn't much of a problem, though. Snipers are difficult to detect, especially at long range. The requirement merely makes sniper rifles longer, heavier, bulkier - and less likely to be issued to general infantry. The quest for longer sniping ranges rather opens the gap between general infantry designated marksmen (assault rifle + scope, sticking to their infantry squad/platoon) and full-blown snipers (long-range rifle, small sniper team).

Long-range general infantry weapons are another issue.

This is one of the more extreme examples.
A multi-functional recoilless HE projector with 1,200m range.

Now this doesn't make much sense (although a shorter-ranged version would likely not be much lighter). I simply fail to see what it's good for.
Sure, it's technically great, but what is it good for?
It should be possible to do the job with 300m weapons and mortar fire. The latter is absolutely essential anyway.

The rifle and machine gun calibre discussion also tends to drift to long range fire. We already had that after the Boer Wars more than a hundred years ago when the British came back from the open South African terrain and emphasized long-range marksmanship as a lesson. Next, they got bogged down in Northern France with short-range combat only.
That sounds a lot like some Afghanistan lessons learned to me.

- - - - -

It's not infantry terrain at all if you cannot at least close in to 400 m before opening fire.

It's quite hopeless anyway if you're in tank terrain where infantry cannot easily close in to 400 m but have no vehicle, air or indirect fire support. Such a terrible situation would place an even greater premium on stealth.

Let's also keep in mind that long-range weapons and munitions are not only heavier, but you also need more ammunition to achieve the same effect as in a shorter range fight. Infantry equipment weight is a terribly important factor, and presently out of control.

I regret that modern experiences against ill-equipped, ill-supported and ill-trained opponents in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan plus their non-representative terrain forms have likely done some harm to our understanding of modern infantry combat.

The attempt to exploit the opportunities given in these conflicts has led to developments and understandings that would be very suboptimal (in my opinion) in conventional war.

And keep in mind; only conventional war can cost your nation its sovereignty or part of it. Some distant militia/guerrilla fighters in a land far, far away can't do much harm to you if you don't insist on sticking to their neighbourhood.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Hey Sven,

    Do you have any idea how the Wirkmittel 90mm achieves any kind of accuracy at 1200m? Seems like an excessively long shot for an unguided munition.

  2. I don't know, maybe the "1200 m" figure is a fair weather figure.

    My interest in it is limited for the reasons mentioned in the text.

  3. 'Now this doesn't make much sense (although a shorter-ranged version would likely not be much lighter). I simply fail to see what it's good for.
    Sure, it's technically great, but what is it good for?'

    Hi, sven. The answer to your question (regarding the wirkmittel HE projector) can actually be found on your own blog! You provided a link on your small arms discussion article: It was called 'biting the bullet', by nicholas drummond, and anthony g williams. One part jumped out at me:

    The economics of using an inappropriate calibre merit further comment. Infantry platoons equipped with the Javelin anti-tank missile frequently use them to engage dug-in enemy positions at ranges of 1,000 metres. These are hugely effective and their ability to obliterate large areas makes them ideal for suppression even when they do not kill. But Javelin anti-tank missiles cost in excess of €100,000 each and with a conservative estimate of 10 missiles fired per week, the annual cost of these munitions alone is in the region of €52 million. Of the total number of missiles fired since 2002, few if any have been used to destroy an enemy tank. Indeed, the total cost of Javelin missiles fired to date would probably be sufficient to re-equip the entire British Army with a new small arms weapon system.**

    Could the wirkmittel not be used as a vastly cheaper replacement for the javelin in this role? I certainly thought so. One launcher per platoon would seem very useful indeed. Cheers!

  4. Sure, it could be less wasteful. Yet, unlike ATGMs, it's a dedicated design and not an in-inventory item that's already paid for and just being used up before obsolete.

    My point is that the infantry has no need for much long-range firepower because it's (a) not good at the long-range fight anyway and (b) can call the big boys in who are good at it while (c) it can seek or remain behind cover or concealment.

  5. While I mostly agree, I read somewhere that it takes the artillery in afghanistan up to a half hour (if not more) to respond with a strike, and even when it does come, its CEP is about 200 meters, which is unnaceptable if the OPFOR is camped out near a civilian location. Sure, you can always request a high precision munition like the excaliber, but again, your dealing with that high price tag (in this case, its 150,000 dollars per shell, even more than the javelins 40,000).

    It is in light of this that I think the wirkmittel would find its place as a nieche weapon.

  6. Cold War expectation was that everything beyond about 300-400 m could be handled with artillery - dumb artillery. WW2 experiences matched that.
    Same with responsiveness; three minutes is feasible on a regular basis, even without eletronical computing.

    The bureaucracy in Afghanistan shoots itself into the foot by exaggerating airspace deconfliction.

    A look at Afghanistna in summer does show why infantry long-range combat is simply stupid; the soldier's load is already crippling without the heavier weapons and ammunition, especially when you have to carry much water because of the heat.

    Stupidity and poor tactics need to be cured with better behaviour, not with heavier tools.

  7. Sven
    You have a brain. So why do you focus on amateurish lowest-denominator material characterized by US style fixations on: analysis, technology, equipment, low casualties, combat avoidance, bribery nation building, restrictive ROEs and pro-enemy obsessions?
    The army that uses offensive tactics and operational art, like the WW2 Germans and post war Soviets can easily beat such decadence.