It’s the most powerful rifle in our military’s arsenal - so powerful it might cause brain damage to those who fire it.
The New Zealand Defence Force has restricted soldiers to firing 30 training shots a day through the long-range M107A1 anti-materiel rifle because of the potential for negative health effects.
A former army sniper who has used similar weapons described firing the heavy weapon as “like being punched - but being punched across your whole body”.
“It’s a ‘whole of body’ experience,” said former staff sergeant Aaron Wood, who was an NZDF sniper. “The firer’s whole body just jolts. Sensorily speaking, it’s f***ing overwhelming.”
An NZDF internal review - released through the Official Information Act - showed concerns were raised about “blast overpressure” from using the weapon and the damage it might be doing to people’s brains.
It reported a soldier suffering a nosebleed after a single shot was fired while others reported feelings of “dizziness, headaches and nausea” after firing the weapon. In some cases, headaches persisted beyond 24 hours.
Commanders were urged to issue a “safety warning” to those using the rifle amid concerns NZDF faced a “significant legal risk” associated with the weapon.
The 16kg AMR is a long-range rifle designed to be used against unarmoured or lightly-armoured vehicles, to penetrate buildings and other hard targets.
But it has also been adopted by militaries - and the NZSAS - as a sniper rifle because of its extraordinary range and power.
The two longest sniper kills in history were carried out by weapons in the .50 calibre precision rifle family with the most distant being a 3500 metre shot that killed an Islamic State militant in Iraq in 2017.
The year following - 2018 - NZDF spent $4 million on 40 of the AMRs and 42 sniper rifles as part of an upgrade of long-range rifles.
The NZDF review dated May 2022 - said there were concerns over potential links between firing the rifle and Minor Traumatic Brain Injury.
Military medicine is grappling with mTBI as an emerging issue among veterans with new research raising concern shock waves from blast overpressure caused by large calibre weapons, heavy mortars and explosive breaching is causing brain injury. The restriction on training shots fired mirrors that imposed in a number of partner nation’s militaries.
Chief of Staff Air Commodore Andy Woods said the maximum number of shots allowed to be fired by a single shooter through an AMR was 30 a day. Once the limit was reached, the individual was barred from firing large calibre weapons for a day.
He told the Herald “significant work” had been carried out to work out the hazards presented by a number of heavy weapons.
He said the hazards were “not through blast exposure” but “other whole body effects”.
“This is an evolving field and the NZDF has been very cautious in its approach, placing restrictions on training and exposure limits with a view to monitoring the emerging science to further establish limits of exposure.”
Woods said harmful blast overpressure events including for the AMR were recorded in its “safety event management tool” - operated by its safety directorate - and no harmful events had been noted since 2021.
The internal review from May 2022 said overseas research had found “small haemorrhages in the brain” of pigs exposed to fire from an earlier version of the AMR.
“The type of brain injury was consistent with brain damage seen in previous wars from soldiers who died, without signs of external injury, after exposure to blasts.”
The review sought the experience of weapons instructors at Special Operations Component Command - which oversees the NZSAS - along with 1st and 2nd Royal NZ Infantry Regiments, the Combat School and NZDF’s shooting team.
The special operations response told the review sandbags were stacked in front of the shooter to act as a buffer to blast exposure. It also had the option of a less powerful round for training, the review was told.
Before using sandbags, it told the review that those firing the AMR could experience headaches at which point they stopped firing for the day.
The reviewer was told “30rds a day as a firer is enough and you feel it at the end of the day”.
The SOCC approach was described in the review as a “mature approach to risk management” where there was awareness “cognitive abilities were imperative for personnel conducting many tasks during high risk activities”.
While 1 RNZIR was not aware of mTBI symptoms while using the 30 round limit, one person had “experienced headaches” after firing 130 rounds at speed across a range of targets.
At 2/1 RNZIR, the review was told mTBI symptoms were seen by those firing the weapon and by others watching those doing the shooting.
“Both shooters and spotters felt mild dizziness, headaches and nausea,” the report said, with symptoms lasting about 24 hours. It reported there were occasions where symptoms emerged after only three rounds with headaches lasting longer than a full day. One student on a recent training course experienced an ‘instant nose bleed’ after firing their first shot.”
It had moderated ill effects through a 10-shot limit, using sandbags to deflect overpressure and using a suppressor.
The review said NZDF’s policies on blast overpressure “or harmful exposures seem fragmented”. “A system-wide review and standard approach is not evident, nor is study of actual blast exposure.”
The review said there was a need for people to train to get the most out of the weapon if needed on operations. It suggested adopting the sandbag buffer, ammunition with less explosive force along with simulated and “dry firing” - without using bullets - although noted “live fire remains an absolute necessity”.
The AMR came with two different barrel lengths and a suppressor. The review reported that use of the longer barrel and suppressor reduced the level of blast overpressure and recommended they be used where possible.
It said a safety warning to educate personnel on symptoms with health advice should be issued and a method for recording adverse exposure be developed.
Those operating ranges were told to “include mTBI danger and signs and symptoms” when carrying out safety briefings and to send personnel showing symptoms for medical assessment.
Wood, who spent 10 years as a sniper and sniper trainer, said those training as snipers fired a high number of rounds to develop and maintain skills. He said there were an extraordinary number of variables when shooting at long range for which snipers had to account and experience in understanding those subtleties was essential.
“I think you can only ever mitigate it to a point. At some stage, you have to step out onto the battlefield. There’s going to be discomfort and there’s going to be risk.”
He said reducing risk in training had the potential to increase risk on operations.
“The further you are then the longer the range and the more rounds you have to do. You need to be comfortable with the weapon and know what it’s going to do.”