We occasionally get questions from our readers. Unlike Al Gore, we think this is a good thing. In the comments of the last post, reader Kevin Creighton asks:

Ok, this is quasi-related and may be out of your area of expertise, but when I flew into Baltimore-Washington International last year and saw a lot of soldiers transiting thru the airport with rifle cases strapped on to their baggage carts.

How are rifles and sidearms handed out in the Army? Does each infantryman get their own rifle to have and to hold, or are they doled out on a first-come, first-served basis? I figure the SpecOps crowd probably does things differently and snipers/Designated Marksmen as well, but what is the process to get the average soldier get a rifle when they need one?

Good question. This is the kind of thing people who aren’t familiar with the Army want to know, and which I’m happy to address.

Each company sized unit in the Army is of course, organized along the lines of a Table of Organization and Equipment, or TO&E, which specifies how many troops of which grades and specialties that it is supposed to have, as well as all the equipment is is allocated, from Bradley Fighting Vehicles to 3/4″ ratchet wrenches.  Of course, this list also includes all the weapons that the company possesses.

When a company has a change of command, as they tend to do every 18-24 months, one thing that occurs is that the outgoing CO and the incoming CO jointly hold an inventory of every single piece of gear in the entire company. Indeed, the supply sergeant of a company isn’t there so much to order stuff, but rather to keep track of what is on hand. After the inventory, the new CO will sign a receipt for all the equipment. He in turn, has his subordinates sign a further receipt for the equipment they use. For instance, the CO has a receipt for all 13 Bradleys in the company, then has each platoon leader sign for their 4 Bradleys. The platoon leader then has the drivers for each Bradley sign for their vehicle.  Every piece of equipment in the Army? Someone has signed for it and is responsible for it. Lose it? You just bought it.

When you leave a unit, you have to turn in all the equipment. For large items, like a Bradley, this is simply a matter or signing it over to the next driver. Kinda hard to misplace one. But it’s a foolish driver who signs for a Bradley that doesn’t make a very, very close inventory of all the ancillary equipment, such as the tools that come with it. No sense buying wrenches and sockets that someone else lost.

Weapons are a wee bit different. Guns, and to some extent, night vision devices, are what the Army calls “sensitive items”. They get a little testy if you lose one. In fact, if you misplace a weapon during training stateside, pretty much the whole post will be locked down until it is found. If you’re out in the field, you aren’t going home until the weapon is recovered. Units have been known to spend an entire month out in the field, doing nothing but combing the ground looking for a rifle. So, don’t lose your weapon.

Now, to answer Kevin’s question, let’s take a young grunt reporting in to his first unit as an example. PFC Snuffy is assigned to a light infantry company. The First Sergeant assigns him to the 1st Platoon, and the 1st Platoon Sergeant decides to assign him as a rifleman in the 1st Squad, Alpha Fire Team. As a rifleman, his assigned weapon will be the M-4 carbine. Our platoon sergeant will inform the company armorer that PFC Snuffy needs to be assigned an M-4. The armorer will take a look at his list of unassigned carbines, and assign one to PFC Snuffy. So far, this is all a paper transaction. Snuffy hasn’t even seen the weapon. Heck, he might still not have arrived at the company yet. One of the first priorities for Snuffy will be to take a trip to the range. He’ll edraw his assigned M-4, zero the weapon by firing it at a  short range target and aligning the sights until the rounds are striking where he’s aiming, then go to the qualification range and shoot for record with that weapon.

So long as PFC Snuffy is assigned as a rifleman in that company, he’ll have that weapon assigned as his responsibility. He’ll sign for it every time he draws it from the company arms room. He’s responsible for keeping it clean and maintained. He’ll have to qualify with it every six months.  If PFC Snuffy is later assigned as a M249 SAW gunner, he’ll be assigned one of those, and will similarly zero and qualify with that weapon. He’ll clean and maintain it.

Occasionally, the pressures of duty will dictate that someone carry a weapon that isn’t their normal assigned weapon. Let’s say that Snuffy’s team is in the field. The normal SAW gunner is away attending an Army course, and not available to go to the field. PFC Snuffy might be termporarily assigned to act as a SAW gunner for this trip to the woods. He’ll sign out SPC Jones SAW and perform those duties. Afterwards, he’ll get to enjoy the thrill of stripping and cleaning a SAW. But his normal assigned weapon still awaits him.

Let’s take a personal example from my days in Colorado, at Ft. Carson. When I arrived at A/1-12IN, I was  a Specialist (E-4) assigned as a Rifleman/Dragon Gunner for the 1st Squad, 1st Platoon. I was duly assigned an M-16A2 rifle (S/N 1714966, if I recall…). Soon after my arrival, I was promoted to Sergeant (E-5) and assigned as team leader for one of the two fire teams in 1st Squad. As a team leader is supposed to be armed with the rifle, I didn’t change my assigned weapon. I was later assigned as a gunner for a Bradley, and still later as a Bradley Commander. All these positions are normally armed with the rifle, so I never changed my assigned weapon. But when I left the company and moved to a different unit, I left the rifle behind.

To answer Kevin’s question in  a shorter form, what you do for Uncle Sam in large part determines what you are armed with.

As to the Designated Marksmen part of the question, what generally happens is that the company will have a given number of DM rifles, and the company will distribute those between the platoons, who will then choose the troops best suited for the job. There’s not a real hard and fast doctrine to this. There’s bound to be a good deal of latitude extended to very low levels of command to choose who shoots what. But as  a rule, a young grunt doesn’t have much say in what he ends up carrying. That’s up to the needs of the platoon he’s in.

7 thoughts on “Ownership”

  1. So, in essence, the soldiers I saw in BWI had their rifles with them because that rifle was checked out to them personally and God Himself (in the form of the U.S. Army) would descend on them if they lost it.

    Makes sense.

    Follow-up question: Who decides who gets ACOG scopes, rails, and all that other tacticool stuff on an M4?

  2. Well, the ACOGs are getting to be pretty much universal, at least in combat units. And so are the rails.

    As to the rest, there’s presumably a TO&E or at least a table of allowances for a unit, that specifies who gets what. There’s bound to be some latitude there as well. For instance, if the tables don’t specify that the CO gets some gun-Gucci, who’s going to stop him if he grabs it anyway?

  3. Hi.
    Potosi Joel has a new name.
    Anyway, I know it was a movie, etc, but in We Were Soldiers…, Sam Eliot’s character doesn’t carry a weapon because he says he always finds a bunch laying around when the shooting starts… and some notorious adversaries of freedom have sent infantry in waves with some folks expected to grab some comrades weapon after he is mown down.
    Are there US soldiers, not counting Chaplains and Medics, who don’t carry arms? Issued arms, but leave them in the locker?
    And speaking of Chaplains and Medics…. who decides when to use the IHRC emblem and leave the side-arm behind, and can/does the medic or chaplain in the field have the right or permission to abandon his Geneva-status and take up arms?

  4. dgw, from what I’ve seen, troops inside the wire are required to carry at least a sidearm.

    As to medics, even under the auspices of the ICRC, they were permitted sidearms for the protection of the wounded. But, while I’ve seen no official statement on it, it sure appears that they have, as a policy, abandoned their markings and protections when serving as medics with combat units, and carrying arms.

    Chaplains are never armed. In fact, they are the only folks in the service who are never armed. But each chaplain has an assistant, who serves as his bodyguard in the field.

  5. Items lost or damaged/destroyed on the battlefield are paid for by Uncle Sam. But items that are lost or stolen are often charged to the soldier.

    In Bradley units, one item with a high loss rate is the 3/4″ socket for the ratchet wrench. They tend to “walk off” a lot. And you really need one, as something like half the bolts on the vehicle are 3/4″. I never had to pay the Army for one, but I new some guys that bought several over the course of an enlistment.

    Other stuff, like night vision goggles, while not weapons, are treated like them for security purposes, because they cost so much, and are highly pilferable. Lose your NVGs, and nobody is going home.

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