The Guns of Lone Survivor
In the middle stages of our long war in Afghanistan, after the initial overthrow of the Taliban and before the desultory Coalition draw-down into isolated enclaves, the U.S. Marines operating in the Korangal Valley aggressively pursued and eliminated a series of anti-Coalition militia leaders with the assistance of U.S. Navy SEAL teams providing intelligence and target tracking. After 2005’s successful Operation Stars (named after the Dallas Stars hockey team), the surrender and capture of the insurgent known only as Najmudeen left a power void in the valley that was filled by a man named Ahmad Shah, who wasted no time in making a name for himself in the IED and ambush business, earning a top spot on the Marines’ most wanted list and their undivided attention.
Borrowing the playbook from Operation Stars, Operation Red Wings began with a four-man SEAL team dispatched to covertly approach and observe Shah’s suspected hideout, a small village on the slopes of the Sawtalo Sar Mountain. Led by Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson and Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, began the mission with high morale and confidence, but soon everything went wrong.
Discovered early on by local villagers and isolated by constant radio communications failures, the team was ambushed by a large force of hostile militia and despite inflicting a significant number of casualties on their enemy, the team was whittled down to a single survivor, Luttrell. An American rescue attempt ended in disaster when one of the two MH-47 helicopters composing the quick reaction force was downed by a one in a million rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) shot, marking the loss of sixteen Army Aviators and Navy SEALs.
Alone and critically wounded with multiple gunshots and broken bones, Luttrell was saved by the kindness shown to him by a group of Afghan villagers, who put themselves at risk to not only give him care and shelter but also to alert nearby American forces of his presence.
Luttrell put his amazing story of tragedy, survival and hope to paper in 2007, and his book was an instant best seller. It also captured the imagination of talented filmmaker Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, Hancock) who worked closely with Luttrell to develop the screenplay, literally moving Luttrell into Berg’s house so they could collaborate. The resulting movie is a faithful and honest retelling of the events of Operation Red Wings that also manages to be a fantastic movie experience. Berg skillfully unfolds the story while avoiding worn out war movie tropes, building up an unbearable tension leading up to the gunfight and harrowing escape off the mountain.
Special care was taken to ensure the uniforms, equipment, tactics, and combat all rang true, and this was especially true with the firearm props. It’s a rare movie that pays as much attention to the authenticity not only of the types of guns chosen but how they’re employed. For the modern weapons enthusiast, Lone Survivor is one of the best movies yet.
Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) rifle, from the moment he steps off the helicopter to when he is retrieved by U.S. forces, is the MK12 Special Purpose Rifle derivative of the M16. Developed in the early 2000s as reports and requests began to filter back through the system from the Afghan battlefields, the SPR was designed to give shooters a rifle that offered better long-range performance while not giving up the lightweight and ammunition commonality of the issue M16 and M4. Originally designated the Special Purpose Receiver, as it was intended to be a custom upper half mated to M16 and M4 lowers in the field, the Mk12 became an entire issue rifle in its own right as it entered the system. Combining an 18-inch stainless steel match grade barrel with a tubular free float handguard system, and a suppressor compatible muzzle brake, the Mk12s showed considerable influence from the State of the art in multi-gun and practical competition rifles.
The other half of the SPR program was the development of a new 5.56 NATO load, the Mk262 77-grain open tip match cartridge. With a significantly improved ballistic coefficient and sectional density over the 62-grain SS109 that had been a standard issue since the early 1980s, the Mk262 offered dramatically better downrange performance and accuracy.
Both SPRs in the movie mount OPS Inc. sound suppressors. While unable to reduce the supersonic report of a full velocity rifle round, muffling the gas expansion of the burning gunpowder diffuses the overall sound of the rifle, making localizing the shooter via sound difficult. High magnification Leupold MR-T variable scopes top both Luttrell’s and Axelson’s SPR. Axelson’s rifle scope also features a piggybacked mini red dot, another technical advance directly borrowed from competition rifles, giving the shooter a low magnification option for engaging close targets that would be difficult to make hits on with the primary optic.
While giving improved long-distance performance over the more common M4, operators in the field demanded more reach and power than the Mk262 load could deliver, so SPRs have begin to be replaced by FN SCAR-H rifles chambered in 7.62 NATO. Mk12s continue to linger in inventory, and their success in the field continues to influence later designs such as the sixteen-inch barreled SEAL Recon rifle.
The two team members not carrying SPRs are seen with M4A1 carbines. Almost immediately after the 20-inch barreled M16 was accepted into service in Vietnam, Colt began shopping around shorter barrel variants to the armed services. A variety of these saw action and became demanded by Special Forces and vehicle crews alike. The M4 project was an effort in the late ‘80s to standardize these models into a single type for all the services. The M4, with its 14.5-inch barrel and lightweight collapsible telescoping stock reversed the weight gains of the M16A2 at the same time that weight adding bolt on field upgrades such as visible and IR lights, lasers, and improved optics became popular. The M4 soon outnumbered the M16 in the regular Army and Marine forces, although the velocity loss from the shorter barrel became an issue in the long-distance, hilltop-to-hilltop engagements in Afghanistan.
The special operations community also bought into the M4 program, but kept the old style fully automatic fire sear instead of the M4’s three-round burst cam system, this modification becoming known as the M4A1. Still, the SEALs to this day favor rapid semi-automatic shots over full auto spraying. Even when wounded and disoriented, Dietz (Emile Hirsch) keeps what little full auto fire he uses to short, controlled bursts as he is being dragged to safety.
Both Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Dietz carry M4A1s equipped with four power Trijicon ACOG scopes and M203 under-barrel 40mm grenade launchers. A fixed power scope, the ACOG features a fiber optic illuminated reticle, a detail that director Berg thoughtfully captures in several first-person shots showing the SEALs view through the scope.
Since its introduction in the 1950s, the most common rifle of America’s adversaries has been the many flavors of the Russian AKM, and they show up in quantity in Lone Survivor. Originally featuring a receiver milled out of solid steel bar stock, the switch to a stamped steel frame enabled high rates of production and the spawning of clones across the globe. The AKs in the movie are mostly Chinese variants, including some AKMS models with steel under-folding stock assemblies, and a few newer AK74s with Bakelite magazines chambered in Russia’s reply to the 5.56 NATO, the 5.45×39.
After the SEAL team repels the initial attack by AK armed militants, the Taliban militia brings up a heavy gun, the belt-fed PKM machine gun. A Russian design intended to replace the WWII era SG-43 and Degtyaryov guns, the PKM is chambered in the evergreen 7.62x54R rifle cartridge first seen in the 1890’s bolt-action Mosin Nagant. First produced in 1961 as the PK, the improved and lighter PKM replaced it in 1969 and remains in production to this day in Russia and is license-built across the globe. Unlike most Western squad-level machine guns, the PKM feeds from the right and ejects to the left side of the shooter, and uses a non-disintegrating belt.
Another favorite weapon of our opposition in this long war is the Eastern Bloc rocket propelled grenade system. In the movie, the Taliban are seen with Russian RPG-7 launchers and Chinese Type 69 clones. A development of the 1950’s RPG-2, which was in turn developed from the WWII German Panzerfaust, which was developed after German engineers were impressed with the simplicity, effectiveness and clever shaped-charge warhead of the American “Bazooka” launcher, the RPG-7 added a degree of user-friendliness and reliability that has made it a staple of all third-world battle zones.
Critically wounded, surrounded by murderous Taliban, unable to escape, and separated from his Mk12, Axelson makes his final stand with his Beretta M9 pistol. The SEALs opted out of the M9 program and instead adopted the SIG P226 after infamously causing a few Beretta slides to break in half while developing 9x19mm ammunition heavy enough to cycle suppressed Heckler & Koch MP5SDs yet still remain subsonic. This process eventually produced both the 147-grain subsonic 9mm load and improvements to the M9’s slide that migrated into issue M9s. So while the M9 is not strictly speaking a “correct” sidearm choice for a movie SEAL, it’s certainly plausible that a M9 would be chosen if P226s were not available for some reason, and after 30 years of service, the sculpted lines and open top slide of the M9 is a familiar sight to American moviegoers.
In the climax of the village confrontation scene, Shah’s Taliban subordinate Taraq (Sammy Sheik) threatens tribal elder Gulab (Ali Suliman) with a bright nickel or chrome plated Makarov PM. A Soviet redesign of the blowback operated Walther PP, the Pistolet Makarov (literally, Makarov’s Pistol) replaced the TT-33 Tokarev semi-automatic and the Nagant revolver, and was the official sidearm of almost all Eastern Bloc military and police. While it was officially in Russian service by the Yarygin PYa in 2003, PMs remain in service with several armies and local police forces. Demand for the Makarov on the civilian export market keeps it in production, and surplus PMs are a popular choice for a budget concealed carry pistol.
There is some debate as to the accuracy of the scene where the team briefly detains the Afghan goat herders who discovered them in the hills, and debates letting them go or executing them. After some heated discussion, Murphy orders their release, quite probably sealing the fate of his team and himself. Detractors object that it is unlikely that a small unit commander would brook such objections from his subordinates and effectively entertain a vote, nor would an American officer disobey standing rule of engagement orders, and that may be the case. But in storytelling, the truth of the story is often more important than the facts, and the truth in this small part of the tale in the shadow of the Sawtalo Sar is that there was a temptation to not do the right thing, even if it was perfectly justifiable and rational. If we only decide to do the right thing because we were ordered to, or because it was expedient, then what value is there in our moral choice? This compassion was mirrored in the decision by the Afghan villagers to adhere to their code and protect Luttrell despite the likely retaliation of the Taliban, not because of an expected reward, but simply because it was the right thing to do and their honor demanded nothing less.
The willingness to do the right thing and bear the consequences is what separates civilization from the savages and we retain any one lesson from our long and inconclusive conflict in the graveyard of empires, I hope it is that.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the August 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.