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For the most part, it is used for special purposes. Once more, a tracer bullet is not an incendiary. Merely hitting a flammable object, even a gas tank, will not start a fire, let alone one of those huge fuel-air mushroom cloud explosions you see in the movies. They certainly CAN start fires, though. Tracers and incendiaries are, as a matter of fact, illegal to use in a National Forest. A tracer continues to burn to its “burn-out” range, usually 900 yards for the .30-caliber stuff. If it doesn’t make it to 900 yards, it continues to burn for the amount of time it would take to get there. In fact, it will even burn underwater for that amount of time. Lodging in the duff of the forest floor in a dry year, this can certainly start a forest fire. One of the most useful things I’ve ever seen a tracer do, BTW, was to start a fire in back of an M60 machine gun range at Fort Knox, KY. Kentucky was, and maybe still is, the #1 dope growing state after the People’s Republic of Kalifornia. If you grow the stuff on public land, i.e. National Forests and Military Reservations, you don’t get caught with it on your property. Thus, our tracer fire set someone’s marijuana field afire. We responded immediately by rushing to the fire and then leaning on our shovels and flappers and inhaling as deeply as possible of the smoke. No, it did not work, but it was worth the try. Murphy’s Laws of Combat quite succinctly notes, “Tracers work both ways,” and this is certainly the truth. Grunts have a love/hate relationship with the tracer, mostly leaning far toward the latter emotion. “In general, our use of tracer ammunition at night was very infrequent because its use tended to disclose our positions with no compensating advantage gained.” AAR from the 4th Army in Italy, WWII. “By using only a few tracers at the beginning of each belt we have found that the guns draw less arty and mortar fire than by using the usual 4 and 1 load. Some NCO’s believe we should eliminate tracer altogether.” CO, Heavy Weapons Co., France. “Discontinue the use of tracers for night firing. They give away your position.” Col Merritt Edson, USMC Raiders, AAR Guadalcanal. In many cases, this had proven painfully true. During the Falklands War in 1982, firing tracers at night did the Argentine machine guns more harm than good, revealing their locations. “Since the Argentines fired visible tracer rounds on a one-toone basis with their ammunition, the 84mm [Carl Gustav recoilless] and 66mm [LAWS rocket] gunners could easily identify precise locations of enemy positions and direct their powerful area weapons against them.” The Germans were known for using tracer with their MG42 machine guns in the Second World War. With a cyclic rate of 1,200 rounds per minute dispersion was considerable, even when fired from the tripod mount and much more so from the bipod, and tracers were necessary to keep the guns on target. This often helped Allied troops either locate the guns or avoid their fire.
“Many times our patrols could observe the trajectory of enemy fire and move from place to place under this fire without endangering themselves. When ball ammunition was used, only the "crack” was heard, and since it was difficult for our troops to tell how close the bullets were passing they had a tendency to stay under cover. Many times the Germans on one side of a hill would fire grazing tracers along its crest, thereby disclosing the approximate location of his position and informing our troops exactly where his defensive fires were sited.” 4th Army AAR. In Italy, one veteran infantry NCO also noted, “Look about 30 feet beyond where the tracers begin to burn in order to locate the weapon.” On the other hand, an infantry company First Sergeant in France noted how the Germans used a neat trick to take advantage such tracer fire: “Germans sometimes employ their machine guns this way: One man will fire tracer ammunition high and wild and at the same time another will be laying down pretty effective fire with ball ammunition. They use the tracers to make you think their fire is wild when it’s not.” Pretty sneaky, eh. When it comes to tracers being used in suppressive fire, studies conducted in Vietnam on the subject were pretty inconclusive, being about equally divided between “had a greater suppressive effect”, “had a lesser suppressive effect”, and “I don’t care what the hell kind of bullets they’re shooting at me when they’re shooting at me.” Most times, tracers are used by field infantry to mark targets. When the squad or platoon leader spots an important target, he yells, “On my tracer!” He then fires tracers to identify the target’s position, and the rest of the men concentrate their fire there. The military now also has infra-red only tracers which can only be seen at night with the aid of night vision devices for the same purpose, while not giving away one’s own position. If the enemy does have his own night vision, see above. This is also the case with infra-red laser designators and aiming devices, too, if the bad guys have NVD’s. In at a few cases, Mujahideen fighting the Soviets, with their limited communications, fired a full magazine of solid tracer from an AK47 in lieu of a flare to signal the start of a night attack. Some folks who use weapons that do not lock the bolt to the rear after the last round has been fired, such as the AK’s or HK’s, load the last three rounds in the magazine with tracer so that when firing they know they are due for a mag change. In the desperate fighting against the surprise massed Red Chinese onslaughts around the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, the then unheard of practice of night aerial ground attacks was utilized. Ground forces marked the target by firing tracers from two widely-spaced machine guns over said target. Where the tracer streams crossed, there was the pilot’s target. X marks the spot, as it were. This was not a new idea, either. The Japanese in Burma, when they infiltrated friendly lines and located British mortar positions, would use the X of tracers from light machine guns to help their artillery spotters direct counter-battery fire onto the spot. So, despite what they said in Ghostbusters, you can cross the streams.
At many other times, tracers have been used to mark the route and/or direction for night attacks. A fixed machine gun or two, such as a Vickers or a Browning, placed well to the rear, fires bursts over the target. The tracers give the infantrymen in the dark something to guide on to keep going in the right direction. Don’t kid yourself from your well-lit easy chair in front of the TV; in real darkness, it’s awful easy to get turned around at night. Tracers were mostly geared towards machine guns and anti-aircraft fire, from the days when .30-caliber machine guns were still considered effective AA guns. In this day and age the infantryman generally has no business shooting at aircraft. Passive air defense, aka not being seen in the first place, remains the best tactic. However, if infantry is spotted and attacked, especially by helicopters, there’s nothing to lose by shooting back. As noted before, greatly increasing the number of tracers in a machine gun belt had an effective psychological deterrent effect on ground attack pilots in the Falklands. It’s much harder to concentrate on your flying and targeting when you are aware you’re being fired upon by the pyrotechnics whipping past in your field of vision. The Australians offered this advice on the advantages of engaging attacking aircraft head-on. 1. The head-on shot is the easiest target. (In some respects the position is akin to tiger shooting, provided the tiger is charging.) 2. An aeroplane is more vulnerable in front. 3. When tracer is used, the pilot may see the tracer coming up towards him. Even if this does not turn him away from his target, it will certainly distract him, possibly putting him off his course and missing his target. 4. Penetration is increased if the aircraft is flying INTO rather than away from the bullet. On January 26, 2009 it was reported that two U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, engaging in evasive maneuvers in an attempt to avoid hostile ground fire, collided, killing all aboard. The same thing happened to two UH-60 Black Hawks in November 2003 near Mosul, Iraq. These aircraft were technically not “shot down” with the use of tracer fire, but the effect was still the same as if they had been. On the other hand, Chechen rebels in their conflicts with the Russians used no tracers at all in their light anti-aircraft guns and tried to take only ass-end shots at Russian aircraft so as to keep their firing positions concealed. And they were using the heavy 12.7mm (.50-caliber) and 14.5mm stuff. The Russian Frogfoot is a heavily armed dedicated ground attack plane in the same category as the A-10 Warthog, and they didn’t want to draw the pilot’s attention to their location. If small arms anti-aircraft fire, from .30-caliber to .50-caliber, is to be effectively delivered, tracers are pretty much a necessity to even come close. Even the dedicated fancy ring sights involving leads and speeds are used mainly
just to get the tracer stream close enough to the aircraft for the gunner to observe it, and the sights then ignored.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT WWII Junkers JU 88 bomber Max Speed: 300 mph Modern Mil Mi-24 Hind-D attack helicopter Max Speed: 200 mph Below are the British Army instructions for infantry small arms AA fire during WWII. The techniques are still valid, as WWII aircraft still presented much faster targets than modern helicopters, which have proven vulnerable to ground fire on numerous occasions. As for ground pounders shooting at fast-movers, well, they’re so fast and deliver their ordnance from so far beyond small arms range it ain’t funny. Anyway, here are the instructions if you happen to have any . 303 Bren guns lying around and are attacked by a Zero or a Stuka. “When available, tracer ammunition can help to improve the results of anti-aircraft L.M.G. fire, by making use of the hosepipe method of directing fire on to the target. In this, the sights are not used except for the initial aim, and the eyes are focused on the target, allowing the arrival of the tracer near the target to indicate the corrections of aim necessary. The appearance of tracer…should be carefully studied…the appearance to the eye, when following an aircraft, of a successive number of rounds fired from a swinging L.M.G. is that of a curve. This is because the eye is seeing, perhaps, six separate tracer bullets, and thinks it is seeing the flight path of a single one. It is therefore MISLEADING TO FOCUS ON THE TRACER AT ANY PART OF ITS FLIGHT, because every bullet, of course, follows a straight line path and therefore no help in aiming is possible from an illusory curve.
Once the necessary lead has been gauged, the eyes must be trained—and this will take practice—TP FOCUS AT ONCE AND ONLY ON THE AIRCRAFT, the tracer being taken notice of only as it passes the target, when it will aid any correction of aim necessary. The .303 tracer bullet is a lighter bullet than the Mark VII and a shot or two may ricochet when striking a metal plane at an oblique angle. When this is observed, the firer should not be discouraged, because it shows him that he is hitting the aircraft and many of his bullets will penetrate.” Sounds easy enough on paper, but even WWII aircraft gave the infantry AA gunner only about a 4 or 5 second window in which to perform all the above tasks and get the tracer on target. A helluva lot easier said than done. For those who find such things of interest, these are the modern United States Marine Corps’ instructions on tracer sensing for the .50-caliber Browning M2HB machine gun. Apparently, the big .50 BMG is still considered somewhat effective as an anti-aircraft weapon since even the Humvee-mounted Avenger, with quad Stinger missile launchers, has a .50-cal MG as a back-up weapon.
TRACER OBSERVATION OF SLOW-MOVING AIRCRAFT 6-15. Track slow-moving aircraft, and read and sense tracers in a manner similar to that for fast-moving aircraft. Slow movers are trickier to track than fast movers. Sometimes helicopters cross under cover or will pop up and disappear behind cover making it difficult to track. Consequently, the observer has to sense the tracer and apply corrections to the gun in the least amount of time. LINE AND LEAD SENSING FOR CROSSING TARGETS Sensing Low 6-16. In Figure 6-6A, the observer knows the tracer passed low of the target. He reads the sensing low. Sensing Ahead 6-17. In Figure 6-6B, the tracer is on line and eclipses the target. The observer reads the sensing ahead. Too much lead has been applied.
Figure 6-6. Observer-Low and Eclipse, Ahead.
SENSING FOR INCOMING AND OUTGOING TARGETS Tracer Right 6-18. Figure 6-7A shows the tracer sensing is read as right. Too much right lead has been applied.
Tracer Left 6-19. Figure 6-7B shows the tracer sensing is read as left. Too much left lead has been applied.
Figure 6-7. Observer-Right and Left. Tracer Passes Target Twice 6-20. In Figure 6-8, the observer sees the tracer pass the target twice. He reads the tracer when it passes the target from nose to tail. He senses the tracer as ahead because the tracer eclipsed the target.
Figure 6-8. Observer-Eclipse, Silhouette. TARGET FLYING DIRECTLY AT SIGHT 6-21. For a target coming directly at the gun as in Figure 6-9, the observer sees that the tracer passed the target twice. He reads the tracer from top to bottom. In other words, the tracer is read only after the tracer hump, regardless of the type of target and what direction it is flying. The tracer is sensed as ahead.
Figure 6-9. Observer-Ahead and High POP-UP TARGET 6-22. Line information for pop-up targets is read as the tracer passes the
target. In Figure 6-10, the observer sees the tracer pass to the left of the target. The sensing is left.
Figure 6-10. Observer-Sensing Left. LINE AND LEAD SENSING FOR TARGET CROSSING UNDER COVER Tracers in Rear 6-23. In Figure 6-11, the observer sees that the round burst is to the rear of the target. The tracer sensing is astern.
Figure 6-11. Observer-Burst Rear. Tracers Ahead 6-24. In Figure 6-12, the observer sees the round burst ahead of the target. The sensing is ahead.
Figure 6-12. Observer-Burst Front. Tracers Low 6-25. In Figure 6-13, the observer sees that the tracer passes low of the target. Sensing is low.
Figure 6-13. Observer-Tracer Low. Tracers High 6-26. In Figure 6-14, the observer sees that the tracer passes high of the target. The sensing is high.
Figure 6-14. Observer-Tracer High. SENSING TRACERS 6-27. It is important to know how to sense tracers. The tracers cannot be properly sensed if they cannot be correctly read. The tracer will have to be read the moment it is passing the target. Tracer sensing will play an important part when adjusting the air defense reticle sighting systems to obtain the correct line and lead to hit a target.
In the Falklands War, all helicopter losses were from small arms fire, although very few helicopters were actually used and, while some were armed, none were dedicated attack helicopters. On the very first day of the battle, a group of about 40 Argentine infantrymen shot at a Sea Knight and a Gazelle light helicopter, knocking the latter down. When another Gazelle came to investigate, they shot it down too. When yet a third Gazelle rounded the point, it was taken under fire by the same platoon of Argentine infantry. Of that bird: “He lost a blade off his tail rotor, had twelve shots all the way down his tail boom, and one through the cockpit was well but managed, remarkably, to struggle back to Gallahad [ship they were flying from], vibrating like hell, to give us our first, very good and accurate, contact report.” The first pilot (of the Sea Knight) reported tracer fire falling behind him and the second (Gazelle) reported being engaged only by “automatic rifle fire”. The Argentine troops were armed with 7.62x51mm NATO FN-FAL rifles with a selector for full automatic fire capability. Ordinarily, shoulder-fired full auto, even from smaller assault rifles, is nothing more than a way to turn money into noise. In this instance, however, the added firepower proved effective against the helicopters. Also worthy of note is that only 14 hits from rifle-caliber projectiles came within a hair’s breadth of knocking down the third chopper. If it had been attacking before, it wouldn’t have been afterwards. It also worth noting that British, German, French, Italian, Canadian, Australian, etc., etc., forces still use 7.2x51mm machine guns in the air defense role on their tanks and soft-skinned vehicles.
British Royal Marines guard against Argentine air attack with the GPMG, General Purpose Machine Gun, in caliber 7.62x51mm NATO on the standard ground AA mount, or Louch Pole.
The standard ground mount components; simple enough for improvised construction.
The Simple Canopy Rail Mount (SCRAM) is used by many Free World militaries on their supply vehicles.
In the end, though, this is all just academic, something which the historian and gun nut might find interesting. It’s not like I advocate shooting at any aircraft, especially military aircraft, tracers or no.
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