Bill Brophy - Rifleman, Researcher, and Writer
by Hap Rocketto
The most significant man at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in 1941, was General Julian Hatcher. Hatcher was one of the most prominent members of the nation's shooting fraternity. He was also the Commanding General of the Ordnance Training Center.
Perhaps the most insignificant man at Aberdeen, at the same time, was a young enlisted man by the name of Bill Brophy. In time Brophy's star in the firmament of firearms would shine as bright as those on Hatcher's shoulders. It is a curious coincidence that two of America's finest firearm writers and researchers would pass, like ships in the night: one at the peak of a distinguished career and the other at the start.
While at Aberdeen Bill Brophy would graduate from Ordnance Officer Candidate School and be commissioned a second lieutenant. After working in ordnance for about two years the adventuresome, and fiercely patriotic, Brophy would seek combat duty. After completing training as an infantry officer at Fort Benning, he would lead a company in combat in the Philippine Islands. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and a host of campaign and service ribbons. When World War II ended he returned to civilian life.
More than just a theoretician Brophy was a skilled craftsman. After leaving the service he returned to school to learn metal working skills. After completing this program he opened and ran a successful gunsmithing business. However, world politics would not allow him to pursue this line of work for long.
During the early morning hours of June 25, 1950 Communist troops from North Korea swept south from staging areas north of the 38th parallel. The United Nations swiftly reacted at this violation of South Korean sovereignty by authorizing armed intervention. Brophy soon found himself back in uniform and in Korea as a captain and the maintenance officer for the 66th Ordnance Battalion. Active as a competitive shooter since the early 1930s, Brophy was surprised to find that the issue sniper rifles, within his area of responsibility, were in a poor state of repair. The reason for this substandard state of maintenance became apparent when investigations discovered that soldiers who were issued the specially equipped M1-D Garand rifles had no training in either sniping or maintenance of the rifles. At the same time the supply system was not set up to support the snipers with spare parts or appropriate ammunition, setting them up for inevitable failure.
From his own experience Brophy knew that a quality 30 caliber target rifle, in the hands of a trained individual, is capable of groups as small as one to two minutes of angle, six to 12 inches, at 600 yards. He purchased a Winchester Model 70 and fitted it with a Unertl 10 power telescopic sight to test his theories. He trained others in its use and together they made several convincing demonstrations of the ability of a properly armed sniper to inflict casualties at long range. The adoption of a civilian target firearm to the military's need was rejected because of logistical concerns and the belief that they were too delicate for use in the combat environment. The commercial bolt-action sniper rifle would not be employed until Viet Nam, when Winchester Model 70s and Remington 700s would be purchased and used effectively by both Army and Marine sniper teams.
A man's chest is about 15 inches across making the bolt-action 30-caliber rifle capable of a kill at 1,000 yards. It takes calm nerves, a well-tuned rifle, scope and ammunition combination, a rock steady hold, and the ability to read wind conditions to make such a shot. However, beyond that distance the .30-06 bullet's accuracy and energy drop off rapidly. Looking to inflict casualties at longer ranges eyes soon turned to the 50-caliber machine gun. The idea was not new, it had been investigated towards the end of World War II, but had been shelved at the war's conclusion.
The 50 caliber round is in a whole other league when compared to the .30-06. The .30-06 M2 Armor Piercing round was the cartridge of choice by snipers as the hardened steel core of the bullet resisted deformation better than the softer core of the 150 grain M2 Ball round with its flat base. The extra weight and boat tail base made the AP bullet the more accurate of the two. It had a weight of 168.5 grains, a muzzle velocity of 2,775 feet per second, and a maximum range of 3,500 yards. It's bigger brother, the 50 caliber M2 ball slug weighs in at 709 grains, with a muzzle velocity of 2,850 feet per second, and a maximum range of some 7,275 yards. In both cases the range at which respectable accuracy can be expected is considerably shorter, about 1,500 yards for the '06 and 3,000 yards for the big 50.
Charles Henderson, in Marine Sniper, his biography of legendary Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock, tells of a 1967 incident when Hathcock, used two shots from a Browning M2 50 caliber machine gun to dispatch a Viet Cong soldier bringing up supplies. Hathcock had, according to Henderson, pioneered the use of the M2 as a sniper weapon. In reality, employed as it was in this case, it was more like long-range varmint shooting than traditional sniping. Mounted on an M3 tripod mount with its precise traversing and elevating mechanism it might well be a bench rest shooter's dream. A sniper has to be mobile and Hathcock, a master at the art, employed this combination from a fixed position with protecting troops. A firearm with a bulky profile that tips the scale at 42 pounds, not including the tripod, scope, and ammunition is not made for dragging through the bush.
Hathcock's successful 50-caliber experience rests on work Brophy began with the 50 caliber in Korea in 1951. However, Brophy redesigned the firearm to make it more easily usable and deployable. Thinking that turn about was fair play he took a Soviet PTRD 14.5mm (57 caliber) bolt-action antitank rifle and fitted it with a 50-caliber machine gun barrel. The rifle had a skeleton tube stock, an elevating device as a pistol grip, a bipod for stability, and a cheek piece that projected from the stock. With a scope mounted on top it looked like a Jurassic Age ancestor of the rifles that running boar shooters use
today. Some years after his retirement from active duty The Ordnance Center arranged to present this historic artifact to its creator.
The use of the 50 caliber enabled Brophy and his team to inflict casualties on the enemy at ranges between 1,000 to 2,000 yards. Army authorities took notice of the success of Brophy's team's efforts and directed that tests be conducted to compare the M-1D Garand, the commercial high power competition rifle, and the 50 caliber machine gun. The combat zone was not deemed an appropriate location for the tests so the Development and Proof Service at Aberdeen Proving Ground was directed to conduct the program.
From December of 1953 through June of 1954 detailed tests were carried out to determine what direction sniper rifle development would head. The tests also included a review of the telescopic sight and its mounts and the ammunition. In the end the report concluded that none of the rifle and sight combinations were suitable as tested, that work be done to improve ammunition, and a better scope be developed. The Proof Director, a combat veteran fresh from Korea and newly promoted to major, William S. Brophy, conducted the tests.
Brophy's early experiences as an infantry small unit commander profoundly influenced his interests and the direction of his professional development. Having served on "the sharp point of the spear" he understood the needs of the ultimate user of ordnance, the soldier on the front line. He took very seriously the responsibility of those that direct and develop material for the front line troops.
These qualities were best summed up by his commanding officer in Korea. In his endorsement for Brophy's promotion to major he wrote, "...He possesses the ability to determine quickly and without apparent cogitation the underlying causes for failures in ordnance service. He has an uncanny feeling for the reactions of combat and other troop units to higher headquarters directives. His ability to see the problem from the user's point of view is of inestimable value in making wise decisions. His performance as maintenance officer has required intelligence, a vast amount of common sense, ability to
organize, and a flexibility of personality capable of sternness and praise as the occasion demands... His overriding interests are for the country and the army before himself."
Brophy's military career brought him increasing responsibility and a tour in Viet Nam, his third war. More enjoyable for him was duty from 1953 to 1957 as a member of the United States Army Rifle Team; from 1961 through 1963 he served as captain of the United States Army Pistol Team. He served as the United States Army's official observer to the 1962 World Shooting Championships and in 1963 he was the Officer In Charge of the United States Army International Pistol Team as well as a coach the United States' Pan American Games Team.
In 1967 Brophy retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He ended a career that had begun prior to Pearl Harbor when, as a young high school graduate from Oak Park, Illinois, he enlisted as a private. He would now launch a second career. In 1969 he joined Marlin Firearms as the senior technical manager. He would continue to compete in highpower rifle competition as a long-range competitor and become one of the nations' most prolific firearms researchers and historians.
In 1968 Brophy earned a berth as a shooting member of the United States Palma Team. The Palma Match, first fired in 1876, is the most prestigious of international long-range competition and is considered the world championship of that particular shooting discipline. The United States hosted the match at Camp Perry, Ohio. Shooting 15 shots at 800, 900, and 1,000 yards at the old V target, Clint Fowler, of the US team, shot a perfect score of 225 with 31 Vs for a record that still stands. Right behind his was Brophy, firing a 224 with 36 Vs! It stands as the third best individual score ever fired over that course of fire in Palma history. The score is one point shy of the record but an amazing 5 Vs better than any other V count registered in the match series. The two shooters led the United States to victory as it established a record for a 20-man team with 4414 out of a possible 4500.
In 1976 he was again at Camp Perry with the United States Palma Team, this time serving as the team's Adjutant when it won the Centennial Palma Match. In 1979 he was appointed Captain of the United States Palma Team when it traveled to New Zealand, the first Palma to be fired in the Antipodes.
Brophy had earlier earned The Distinguished Rifleman's Badge, membership in The President's Hundred and an Excellence In Competition medal for pistol as well as countless other shooting awards. Now it was time for other honors to be bestowed upon him in recognition of his many contributions to the shooting sports. Ye Connecticut Gun Guild, one of the most prestigious firearms collecting organizations in the nation, elected him to honorary life membership. The Connecticut Rifle and Revolver Association named him to its Shooter's Hall of Fame, and The United States Olympic Shooting Center, located at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado,
dedicated a firing point in his honor.
Still Brophy would not sit back and rest upon his well-earned laurels. In his spare time he served as the editor of the journal of, The Marlin Collector, made contributions to various professional journals, served as a director of the National Rifle Association, and continued to research and write about the subject he loved so well. Brophy authored what are considered to be the definitive works on a series of United States firearms: The Springfield 1903 Rifle, The Krag Rifle, and two books on the L.C. Smith shotgun. His Marlin Firearms is a monumental, exhaustive, and finely detailed history of the Marlin
Firearms Company that sets a standard for industrial histories.
While doing research at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site he was asked to catalog the collection. He undertook the task with his customary enthusiasm and attention to detail spending hours assembling, repairing, and cataloging racks of Springfield 1903 rifles. The Arsenal of Freedom: The Springfield Armory 1890-1948 was a by-product of this effort. Upon his untimely death his research notes and documents were sent to the museum to form the nucleus of a research collection that now bears his name.
Bill Brophy passed away in 1991 leaving a huge legacy to the shooting community. Wallace E. Lyman, President of the Connecticut Rifle and Revolver Association perhaps summed the man up the best when he wrote that Brophy was a generous man who was always happy to teach and to share. He gave freely of his intellectual and personal wealth so that others might be enriched. His stern exterior belied his dry sense of humor and gentlemanly code of conduct. He represented all that is good in the American character.