The rifle cracks and we sit in silence for five seconds while the bullet travels a mile and a half down range, climbing up and spinning down in a long, lazy arc. It bounces in the dirt near our target, a man-sized silhouette on a gravel road.
"I'm still hitting left a little bit, so I'm going to address right," the shooter, Handel Humphrey, tells me. My character is lying in the dirt next to his. We take turns firing over and over, our rifles kicking in the simulated Afghanistan sand. Our bullets scatter around the target like rain.
"What we're doing right now is not too far off from what really happened," he says. "We're missing a lot."
It turns out that recreating the world's longest confirmed sniper kill in a video game is a lot of things. It's a little ghoulish. It's a little tedious. It's also really, really hard.
The real deal
On November 1, 2009, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison was serving as a sniper with the British Army in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Harrison's commander was driving forward to help an Afghan National Army patrol when he ran into trouble. "His vehicle got bogged down in a field and started taking fire," Harrison told media later. An insurgent machine gun team took advantage of the vulnerable vehicle and started pouring fire down on it.
If you're going to recreate the work of a sniper, why not emulate the best?
Parked on a nearby ridge, Harrison and a spotter (an assistant to the sniper) were far beyond their weapons' normal limits. From 1.54 miles away Harrison fired, missed, and corrected nine times. Finally, his round hit a Taliban machine gunner in the stomach, killing him. "The second insurgent grabbed the weapon and turned as my second shot hit him in the side. He went down too. They were both dead," Harrison recalled.
The sniper's skills saved his comrades and earned him commendations from the British Army. The feat earned Harrison the world record for the longest confirmed kill ever made (Guinness Book of World Records has the shot at 2,474 meters).
The record soon caught the attention of military simulation fans. Harrison's deadliness has taken on a mythical status for players in Arma 3, the most detailed military simulation program in the world. Bohemia Interactive, the Prague-based company that develops the Arma series, uses real-world satellite imaging to model terrain, and a version of Arma, VBS, is used as a training tool for the US military.
Players who enjoy portrayals of snipers in fiction gravitate toward reenactments of Harrison's shot. After all, if you're going to recreate the work of a sniper, why not emulate the best? Users on Reddit detail their attempts to pull off the difficult shot. The unmodified Arma game doesn't specialize in advanced ballistics modeling, so players add modified programs that recreate real-life sniper rifles and include factors like wind speed.
Andrew Gluck is the founder of ShackTactical, one of the best-known Arma gaming groups. ShackTactical's scenarios are detailed and complicated. Their missions don't use snipers, Gluck told me, but he can see why sniper mythology appeals to people. "Snipers have a mystique in Arma of being a 'cool dude' role to take, often to the lone-wolf extreme—you get to have a potentially large impact on the battle as a single person operating essentially on your own," he said. "Being able to hit something from long range is a situation that's straightforward to set up and judge—you either hit or you miss—and the range it happens at is an easy metric for one-upsmanship."
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I know what he means about one-upsmanship. As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to recreate the longest sniper shot in the most difficult simulation possible just to say I did it. Unfortunately, I'm not talented enough to pull it off. I asked Gluck if he knew someone who could do a recreation justice. He introduced me to Humphrey, and we started planning.
When I first met Handel Humphrey, I thought that we could just add a mod to use the actual rifle Corporal Harrison used. We'd take the shot, put it on YouTube, and call it a day.
I had no idea.
"I had to do some research on what the latitude is at this particular point of Afghanistan," he tells me. He's a 19-year-old filmmaker living in Colorado, and he's got a passion for Arma and long-distance sniping. "I input that so we could have proper Coriolis Effect." The Coriolis Effect, for the uninitiated, is the force created by the rotation of the Earth. Usually it's imperceptible. When you're trying to make a chunk of lead hit a human over a mile away, the movement matters. The Earth rotates a target out of the way of a bullet.
Talking to Humphrey is always interesting and math-intensive. We go down the list: our simulation will use the exact same rifle (L115A3) chambered with the exact same round (.338 Lapua Magnum). Your standard, off-the-shelf copy of Arma 3 doesn't account for variables like elevation, temperature, air pressure, and wind, but we find everything we need in Arma's prolific modding community. We load up a rebuilt ballistics model, a map set in Afghanistan, and a recreation of Harrison's sniper rifle. One of the mods, ACE 3, uses a physics model so detailed that we used it wrong: When we took a wind reading at the beginning of our target shoot, we should have been standing up. You can't get a good wind reading down in the dirt. Obviously.
As we ran down the list, I started to feel less like we were making a war reenactment and more like we were making a snuff film. This isn't a world record for the largest samosa or most pubs visited. Two humans died. They were Taliban trying to kill a British soldier, yes, but still. I reached out to Joris-Jan van 't Land, Project Lead at Bohemia. "We try to show warfare from all sides, including the horrible," Land told me. "We try to not glorify killing and to treat warfare with respect. Though, we realize that is partially hypocritical when developing an entertainment product based on war." Unlike popular shooters like Call of Duty, which gives points and bonuses for multiple or stylish kills, Bohemia takes steps to not reward killing. They provide the tools to use and the sandbox to play in, but the players build their own castles.
I put the same question to Gluck. After all, ShackTactical spends a lot of time recreating the horrors of modern war for fun. "I find it interesting to attempt to recreate themes, but generally not the meticulous details of any given battle," he told me. "A one-to-one recreation suffers from the differences between real-world and virtual—you won't get the outcome you're hoping for simply by virtue of how much isn't represented within a computer game you're playing while sitting comfortably in a chair, air-conditioned, well-fed and rested, with nothing on the line."
Corporal Harrison's recollection of November 2009 bear this out. He was far from home, watching friends in immediate danger. "I was sweating, stripped down to a T-shirt under my body armour, even though it was a mild winter's day," he wrote in a recently published memoir. By contrast, I recorded my part of our video while drinking a beer.
Pushing the thematic weirdness aside, Humphrey and I dialed into a game of Arma to put it to the test. After using a mod to extend Arma's visual view distance, we were able to see the target on a distant hill. We missed a lot, took wind readings, and pondered the impact of relative humidity on a bullet weighing two-thirds of an ounce. After twenty minutes, Humphrey pulled the trigger as we chatted and paused mid-sentence. "I think—hopefully I hit this one." He waits for the line marking the arc of the bullet to come back down into his field of view. "Come on…" The bullet streaked out of the sky and punched through the target. Though I missed every time, Humphrey managed to get a perfect shot in the central mass of a steel target a mile and a half away.
"We didn't have it perfect," Humphrey told me afterward. "The map we were on, we were off by five hundred meters elevation. We were off by a couple hundred in barometric pressure… Some people might nitpick it, and that's OK, I understand that." We'd gotten pretty close using the mods available, but without programming it ourselves it would never be perfect. I ask him if the discrepancies bother him. "Yeah," he says. "Oh yeah." He wishes it was closer to the real thing.
For Corporal Harrison, the aftermath of his world-record kills was a world of shit. The Ministry of Defense accidentally released Harrison's name to the press, which it admitted was a "catastrophic error." Militants targeted Harrison as a trophy to kidnap and kill. Harrison sued the government that had employed him for two decades. He got £100,000 to take his family into hiding and start a new life.
Games are a unique tool for understanding difficult situations. They'll never replicate heat, exhaustion, loss, and terror in the same ways soldiers experience them, but hearing 1.54 miles isn't the same as walking 1.54 miles in a simulation. It damn sure isn't the same as shooting 1.54 miles, even with a virtual gun. When I first started trying to make this shot, I needed a map and five minutes of orientation to find my target. After watching Humphrey do the math and take the shot, remembering that a real person did it in real life was solid for me in a way it hadn't been before.
"I had a pretty good idea [of the difficulty], but once you're behind the scope and you can't even see where it is, yeah, that's insanity," Humphrey agreed. "Someone did this in real life? They actually found a target and engaged?" Our stupid human brains can't process large numbers, so every news story includes a reference to dozens of football fields (including NFL end zones!). We can't grasp large numbers just like we can't grasp the horrors of war, but that doesn't stop us from trying—even if it is tedious, ghoulish, and really, really hard.
All Fronts is a series about technology and forever war. Follow along here.