The fifth annual international sniper competition, known as Golden Owl–2014, took place in June at the Spassk Training Center near the city of Karagandy, Republic of Kazakhstan.1 This event was held under the auspices of the Central Asia Forum for Sniper Arts, as part of its contribution to the global fight against terrorism. The main purpose of the Forum, which was created in 2009, is to train members of Central Asia's security forces to become masters of marksmanship.
The first Golden Owl competition saw only three countries take part alongside Kazakhstan: Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Belarus. Every year since then, the number of participants has increased, and the meet now welcomes competitors from around the world. The 2014 event, which was organized by Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense (MoD RK), was larger than any of the MoD's previous such competitions. Forty participants came to Karagandy from seven countries—the United Kingdom, Jordan, Kazakhstan, China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States—to show off their skills and ability with sniper rifles over the course of five days. To prepare, representatives of the MoD RK had participated in marksmanship courses all over the world and brought back with them a variety of exercises to incorporate into the Golden Owl competition.
The participating national teams fielded competitors from various military and law enforcement agencies. Kazakhstan sent three pairs from the regional commands: South, East, and West; one team comprised a sniper pair from Airborne Forces; and nine pairs came from the Special Forces of the MoD RK and other law enforcement agencies, for a total of 13 two-man teams. Russia sent two shooters from a Special Forces brigade of the Armed Forces, stationed at Novosibirsk. This year China sent two pairs from special units of the Lanzhou Military Region, while the United States sent a pair of competitors from the 2nd Special Forces Brigade of the US Central Command. The United Kingdom's armed forces were represented by an intelligence unit of the 160th Infantry Brigade. The representatives of Jordan and Pakistan were counterterrorism personnel from the various law enforcement agencies of their respective countries.
Winners were determined in two categories—general and international. The general category is for all teams; the international category is for one team from each country. Some tests were for individuals, but the final score for such tests combined the results for both shooters on a team. To ensure that the judging was fair and transparent, the main judge was Major Rukhi Bulgee from the Armed Forces of the Republic of Turkey, which had no participants. The judge also had to deal with any disputes or concerns that arose during the competition.
Major Bulgee noted, "The fact that I am here is giving us an opportunity to look at the real results of the competitors. Attendance at such events by representatives from a neutral side is very important. There is no chance for cheating."
The participants had to demonstrate their expertise and marksmanship in 16 exercises during five days, in which the main requirements were not only accuracy in shooting, but also proficiency, endurance, strength, concentration, and the ability to apply camouflage and orientate in unfamiliar areas without any modern navigation technology. The exercises included proficiency in shooting at a target at unknown distance, shooting at moving targets, shooting after running over a long distance on the field, shooting from a concealed position, and so on. The task in round one, for example, was to push a big 200 kg tank for 20 m; the second round required competitors to carry a small 20 kg tank for 30 m, then climb a 1.5 m fence, crawl a short distance through a tunnel, and finally shoot at a moving target.
The weather in Karagandy can change several times during the course of a single day, which complicated things even more for the participants. Some shot in calm weather, while others would have to adjust for a constantly shifting, gusty wind. The second day of competition was held under a steady rain and the sound of thunder. High humidity then gave way to burning heat and occasional windblown sand. "It is very cold here in the morning, but in the middle of day it is hot," Captain Abid Zaman of Pakistan said of the ever-changing weather conditions. "Such weather is practically impossible to encounter in my country. So if my soldiers adapt and learn to fire in such circumstances, this means we have become stronger. This is an invaluable experience."
To ensure that the participants would be comfortable with their weapons, the MoD RK allowed each country to bring its own weapons to the competition. Because of certain customs rules, policies, and other issues, however, not all of the participating countries were able to do so. The Chinese sniper pairs used rifles of their own making, which had technical characteristics that were much better than the weapons of some other participants. The Pakistani team brought a sniper rifle made in Great Britain, called the Accuracy International L96A1; ironically, however, the UK team arrived without their own weapons. The shooters who needed guns were issued Sig Sauer SSG 3000 rifles by Kazakhstan's MoD. As Jordanian Colonel Wael Al Numan Esayd Davavneh remarked, "Using this type of rifle added to the experience. It was the first time we have used the Sig Sauer, so it was another challenge for us. Being in these different climatic conditions and using a new weapon are going to make us even stronger. We have improved because of the experience, and this is why we came here."
The most difficult stage of the exercises, according to participants, was an obstacle course and 5 km run that included orientation in the field as well as a camouflage component. In this exercise, which took place at night, participants had not only to find the perfect place to set up a concealed fire position, but also to endure harsh weather conditions: the night was cold, rainy, and windy. (Some participants even drank a little brandy to warm up.) The sniper duel exercise, which took place at the shooting range on the final day of competition, was the most decisive. Teams shot by pairs, and every pair had three targets: one small plate and two big poppers. The pair whose popper fell first was the winner. Every sniper pair went up against each of the other pairs once, and each of the duels offered a spectacular show of marksmanship. In some of the matches between international teams, determining the winners was very difficult because the time difference between shots was within a few tenths of a second.
At the end of the first day of competition, it was already obvious that the main rivalry would be between Kazakhstan's own teams. The overall prizes were won by the Special Forces teams of the MoD RK and other Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies. First place went to a pair from the Special Forces of the MoD RK Main Intelligence Agency; the team from the National Security Committee "Arystan" service (for counterterrorism) was awarded the silver medals; and by a small margin, third place went to the RK State Security Service, which is in charge of security for state officials. In the international competition, first place went by a wide margin to a pair of snipers from the Main Intelligence Agency of the MoD RK, who worked the most harmoniously of any pair throughout the competition. Second place went to a pair of marksmen from China. Chinese shooters are among the best in the world, as all the competitors saw once again. The bronze medals went to representatives of the United Kingdom.
"We are quite satisfied with second place. All of the opponents were strong, and the weather was very unpredictable," noted Lieutenant Zhou Jian of the Chinese Liberation Army team. "But this is not the limit. The next time we will prepare better, and we will fight for the medals of the highest standard."
US Staff Sergeant Courtney Daniels in turn noted that he was impressed by the variety of individual exercises, which he had never encountered before. "Besides the weather and the weapons, we met totally new exercises. Now we know what we will need to practice for in the near future, and I would like to say thank you very much for these competitions."
The Russian team didn't find anything unexpected in this competition; nevertheless, the members were not satisfied by their results. "There is nothing new for us here, but we wish we could do better. We will tell our guys to pay attention and prepare much better for the next competition," said Sergeant Vladimir Saliy of the Russian Army.
To sum up, it is worth noting that the Golden Owl competition is only in its infancy. In the future, the MoD RK is planning to increase the number of participants. Observers of the 2014 competition from Armenia and India have already expressed their desires to field national sniper teams for the next Golden Owl in 2016. (In 2015, the MoD RK will host a similar competition for Special Forces groups.) The planners hope that expansion of the event will enable it to become a platform for counterterrorism professionals to find a common language in the fight against global terrorism and that the Sniper Art Forum of Central Asia will transform into a World Forum for Sniper Arts.