New Range in High Demand for Fort Bragg's Heavy Weapons


Fort Bragg is home to more troops than anywhere else in the U.S. military, and its vast training areas are used every day of the year.

But until recently, local soldiers couldn't qualify on their biggest weapons without first getting a waiver.

A new multipurpose machine gun range, known as Range 66A, changes that.

The sprawling facility, with nearly 150 targets ranging from as close as the length of a football field to nearly a mile away, opened in September.

"It hasn't been unused any day since it opened," said Wolf Amacker, a retired 82nd Airborne Division command sergeant major who now serves as Fort Bragg's installation range officer.

The range is booked through the next four months, he said.

The multipurpose machine gun range is the first of its kind on Fort Bragg, which has more ranges than any other two U.S. military installations put together. But Fort Bragg had lacked space to train with some of the Army's most powerful individual weapons.

The facility also is a big improvement over Fort Bragg's older ranges.

All of the targets are automated, meaning they can move at will. And sensors provide accurate readouts of soldiers' scores in real time. Soldiers can fire from the ground or shoot from turrets on military vehicles.

"This is the only range of its type on post," Amacker said. "This is a state-of-the-art Army facility."

The range, estimated to cost between $3 million and $5 million, was supposed to open in 2011, two years after construction began. But contractor issues pushed back the opening another four years, Amacker said.

It was specifically built for soldiers to train using the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, M2 .50-caliber machine gun , MK 19 grenade launcher and M240 machine gun.

Before it opened, soldiers used a smaller machine gun range that was one-third the size and had one-fifth the targets.

On other ranges, the soldiers had to secure waivers for the Army to count their qualification scores on the heavy weapons.

The older facilities were a concern to Amacker and others.

As the former senior enlisted soldier for the 82nd Airborne, he noted that machine guns are often the biggest firepower paratroopers carry.

"When they deploy, they can't carry a lot of rounds," Amacker said. "So they better hit what they shoot."

Their qualification scores on the weapons can have other, broader impacts on their Army career, too.

"It deals with promotion, it deals with training but most of all it deals with saving their lives," he said, referring to real-world deployments.

On Thursday, a small team of 82nd Airborne paratroopers -- resting on a berm overlooking the range -- peered at the targets from their weapons.

The soldiers, training for the Army's Best Ranger Competition next month, watched as green silhouettes popped up and down or moved side to side.

Broad white targets, meant to mimic vehicles, appeared over hills then disappeared seconds later as part of the synchronized display.

The ability to vary speeds and control targets from a nearby tower was important, said the Best Ranger team coach, Master Sgt. Kris Barnette. Being able to program different scenarios essentially creates new ranges, he said.

"We have the options," Barnette said. "That's great. They won't become familiar with one thing."

The soldiers said the new range could give them an edge over other competitors.

Staff Sgt. Carlos Mercado said his friends at other installations don't have the facilities that Fort Bragg can provide.

"It's very, very convenient," he said.

First Lt. Erik Seidel said the soldiers were more than happy to help break in the new range.

"With any new range or new weapon system, soldiers are excited to try," he said. "It'll be good."

Range 66A is one of the newest ranges on Fort Bragg, but it's far from the only updated training facility on post.

Amacker said other ranges were being renovated, adding that Fort Bragg's 87 live fire ranges were "more than any other two installations put together."

Of those training areas, one-third are automated, meaning there are more than 2,400 automated targets in all.

And with more than 4.9 million training events on Fort Bragg each year, Range 66A and others like it will remain in high demand.

"There is always somebody out here in the live fire training areas," Amacker said. "It is a very, very busy place."

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