I had the chance to finally see their rifles when they were broken out during an afternoon with mild weather and dry decks. Their rifle practice was conducted in groups of four. One of the Brits used the top of the forward scuttle hatch for a rifle rest, kneeling behind it. I was back in the pilothouse but came out for a closer look. The rifles appeared to be M-16A2s, or maybe A3s, with the signature M-16 carrying handle on top, and a round fore stock. These were the rifles I’d carried in Marine Corps boot camp, and they were still in use well into the 2000s, when the carrying handle was replaced with a flat-top receiver milled with a rail to carry optical sights.
Sergeant Major Tolbert was standing with his rifle shouldered, his feet spread apart in a wide stance, dry-firing with no magazine in the weapon. I approached him and said, “Can I offer a suggestion?”
He lowered his muzzle and turned to me. “D’ya really think I need one?”
I put my hands out to take his weapon. “Do you mind?”
He shrugged, said, “Why not?” and passed it over to me.
A glance at the receiver stampings near the safety showed it was indeed a Colt M-16A2. The A2s had a very nice peep sight at the rear of the carrying handle, adjustable both for windage and elevation, with clicks out to 800 meters. The selector switch on the left side had three positions: SAFE, SEMI, and BURST, which fired three shots with each trigger pull. I pulled the charging handle back, checked the empty chamber, and let the bolt go forward. The other men turned to watch me. “This is what works best for me.” I lowered myself into a sitting position, knees up, feet wide apart. “Even on a day like today, if you’re standing, you’re going to move too much. If it was any rougher, you couldn’t stand at all. The best way to shoot from a boat is sitting.” I took a position similar to the military marksmanship position, but with my arms raised.
“If you catch a calm spell between waves you can drop your elbows to your knees, but most of the time you can’t. Up close, standing up is fine, especially since you need to move around and change positions. But either way, sitting or standing, at longer ranges you correct off your splashes and walk your rounds onto your target. Just find a cadence where you’re firing again right after each splash.”
I shouldered the rifle and got a cheek weld. I tested the trigger; it broke with a crisp snap. I laid the rifle across my lap and studied it. The Colt firearms rampant horse logo was stamped on the left side of the magazine well, and below it was imprinted:
PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVT.
M-16A2 CAL. 5.56MM
Something was unusual about the rifle: the receiver had been milled down in a small oval about 2 millimeters deep, where BURST had been stamped. It was also milled down where it was stamped M-16A2. The only reason to grind these areas down was to restamp them where they had once said M-16A1 and AUTO instead of A2 and BURST. I’d seen a few of these oddball converted M-16s in Iraq; they’d been issued to some reserve units. These transitional weapons that had been arsenal refurbished and upgraded to A2 standards were sometimes called “M-16A1-and-a-halfs.”
Tolbert sat near me and I handed him back his rifle. I said, “It looks like the U.S. government is missing some property.”
“If you say so.” He shouldered the rifle and tried my modified sitting position, traversing its barrel side to side.
I said, “Funny thing, M-16A2s winding up in Ireland, and then on my boat.”
“It’s not funny to me. Ironic, maybe, but not funny.”
“I can imagine.” If the SAS ever went back into Ireland on operations, weapons like these would undoubtedly be used against them. It had to feel strange for an SAS man to be holding an IRA rifle. “What do you think of the M-16? I mean, as a combat rifle?”
“An Armalite is plenty good enough. Keep ’em clean and lubricated and they’ll work as well as any. These have like-new barrels and they’re accurate as hell, but their length works against them for vehicle ops and FIB.”
“Fighting in buildings. You call it close quarters battle. And personally, I don’t like the three-shot burst; I’d rather have fully automatic. I used different models of Armalites off and on for thirty-odd years. Seen them from both ends many times. They’re just a tool, and it’s a bad workman that blames his tools. They’ll do their part, if you do yours.”
“That’s how I look at them, too.” My few pearls of wisdom about the best way to shoot from moving boats imparted, I laid aft. My pilothouse provided a picture-window view of the forward decks. After they each fired a few rounds, including a few three-shot bursts, they took their rifles back below. A while later, some others came up and repeated the process. This time I saw that along with practicing from the standing, kneeling and prone positions, they tried my sitting off-hand as well. The old dogs were not too proud to learn a new trick.
Lastly, Tolbert came up on deck with the surfers. He gave them a bit of coaching with an M-16, and they each took a few shots, but they spent most of their time working on pistol craft, using a pair of Glocks. I wondered whether these pistols had been taken from an IRA weapons dump, or whether some of the ex-SAS troops had kept them hidden away despite their being banned in Britain. They were reliable pistols no matter how they had originally been acquired, and reliability was half of the battle. More than half.
Squirreling away spuriously obtained contraband firearms is a common impulse among former soldiers, who understand far better than most the difference between being a disarmed victim and an armed survivor. Undocumented firearms were readily available for black-market purchase in the third-world shit-holes these soldiers had frequented. Troops returning from overseas had many opportunities to conceal illegal souvenirs among their official equipment.
This was particularly true with the top-tier elite units, who often looked after packing and shipping their own gear from rucksacks to cargo containers. I wondered what percentage of ex-SAS men back in the UK could lay their hands on a pistol if they needed to. Probably most of them. At least I hoped so. It was impossible for me to imagine leaving the Marines and never being able to own a firearm for the rest of my life, as the British government had forced their former soldiers to do.
The following day I was in the cockpit just after dawn when I found myself chatting with Pat Maguire, who was coming off the three-to-six watch. He was wearing an off-white cable-knit Irish sweater, jeans, and old sneakers. Pat was an untroubled-looking man, with his shock of graying hair always in a new configuration depending on how he’d slept or what kind of hat he’d worn last. Maybe he ran a comb through it every other day, or just his fingers. The Irishman rolled a cigarette with tobacco kept in a sweets tin, lit it with a paper match while ducking low against the breeze, and finally took a drag.
“Terrible stuff,” He said. “I’m looking forward to Africa just to get some decent baccy. You wouldn’t believe what they sell this shite for in Cork—if you can find it.” He took another pull on his short cigarette, exhaled, and said, “I’ve never sailed on a schooner before. She’s quite stout, but she’s not as slow as I’d have thought. Even for motor-sailing, she really goes. What’s her best twenty-four-hour run under sail alone?”
“Our best day without the engine was a hundred seventy miles. Anything over a hundred forty is a good day, but sometimes you’re glad to break a hundred. Of course, sitting on all this fuel, there’s no reason not to use the motor.”
“Most of my sailing was on racing boats,” he said. “But that was years and years ago.”
“Racing? I thought that was for rich snobs.”
“Yeah, I noticed a bit of that too.”
“So how did you get into it, then?”
“Well, I was living near Cork. Not rich, that’s for sure, but there was a big yacht racing scene there.”
“Wait a minute—Sinead said you were from the north.”
“She did, did she?”
“Yeah, she did.” I still felt a little betrayed by her and saw no reason not to make this former IRA man squirm a little.
He grinned and said, “Well, I suppose I was commutin’ back and forth across the border a bit in those days. Livin’ here and there, on friends’ sofas and such. In caravans and in sheds, north and south. Always movin’ about.”
“I’ll bet.” Pulling IRA operations in the north, and hiding out in the Republic. No wonder Tolbert seemed to grate in his presence. I could only imagine how the SAS men felt, reduced to needing the guns of their bitterly hated former enemies.
“Anyway, I wound up crewin’ on people’s yachts. Friends of friends. Even some English toffs, which was quite ironic, considering. We did the Fastnet Race and like that. But I never owned a boat, myself.”
“It can be better that way,” I said. “Sometimes a boat ends up owning you.”
“I’ve heard that said, but I wouldn’t know. Way above my humble station in life, you might say.”
“I never sailed at all before I owned Rebel Yell.”
This revelation seemed to surprise him. “What, then? Did you win her in a poker game?”
“Poker? No, even better than that. I inherited her.”
His hazel eyes widened. “So, you had a rich daddy? That must have been nice, growin’ up rich in America.”