Women Marine Rifle Qualification in 1978

Women Marine Rifle Qualification in 1978

By Corrina Martell

Several years before women recruits began qualifying on the M16A1 rifle in Marine Corps boot camp, many women Marines were already qualifying on the M16A1 rifle in the fleet.

In late November and early December of 1978, I was part of a detail of about 50 women Marines who qualified on the M16 while stationed at Camp Zukeran, Okinawa.  We were told that all women Marines in the fleet had to qualify on the M16 because women recruits were going to begin qualifying on the rifle range in boot camp.  We assumed it meant that women were qualifying in boot camp as of that year, and I didn’t find out until years later that rifle qualification for women recruits in boot camp didn’t actually start until 1985.

We were issued camouflage utilities and given crash instructions at cash sales on how to wear and press them, how to starch the cami cover, and how to blouse our boot laces.  There were no boot sizes for women at that time, so we were given the smallest size mens’ boots that were available – most didn’t fit well and caused blisters and limping by the end of the day.

At 3 a.m. every morning for two weeks we boarded cattle cars and rode north to Camp Schwab.   We were issued our weapons at the Camp Schwab armory, and our rifle range instructors were a burly gunnery sergeant, an older staff sergeant, and a young sergeant who was a sniper.  The gunny didn’t seem to like women Marines in general, and he definitely didn’t like having to teach us to shoot – but it didn’t bother us. We knew he had to make sure we were trained on the M16 even if he didn’t like the idea.

The sergeant held the rifle up in the air in front of us on the first day, told us it was an M16, showed us how to hold and carry it, and proceeded from the ground up pointing out, naming and explaining each part on the weapon.  He drilled us relentlessly on positions, knowing how to and when not to breathe, “setting the dope” for windage and elevation, safety, and endless snapping in.  It was a grueling two weeks, but I remember that we all accepted it as if it was just another day in the Marine Corps – we had no idea we were making history – no idea how important the memories of it all would be someday.

It intrigued me as a young woman back then, how easily we made the transition from skirts and pumps to camis and boots and a rifle.  On the long rides home at the end of the day, we lay and rested on the benches in the cattle car as the motion on the highway made it creak back and forth – the rumble of the motor in the cab ahead and the swish of the vehicles going past lulling us into a sort of half sleep.  There was no grumbling about the discomfort of the cattle car, the ache in our muscles or the grit under our fingernails.  We knew what our Marine sisters who came before us had always known – that we were up to any task that the Marine Corps gave us.

When it was time to qualify, we took turns pulling butts – excited for whoever it was who was shooting when we pulled down the target and found a bullseye to stick the marker in before sending the butt back up.   We were sweaty, dirty, sunburned and tired – but no one complained.

Back then women Marines were discouraged from grunting the famous bulldog sound, but as we sat below the butts and heard the whistle of the rifle fire above us, I think we all wanted to shout a great bit “OOHRAH”.

As I recall, we all qualified with mostly sharpshooters, some marksmen, and a few experts.

"Sgt Corrina Martell, MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii 1981"

“Sgt Corrina Martell, MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii 1981”

  12 comments for “Women Marine Rifle Qualification in 1978

  1. 30 Aug 2013 at 2:25 pm

    It is always really good to hear about our history. I was in that 1st platoon in the USMC to qualify in boot camp at Perris Island. I was the only in in the platoon to qualify expert. It is an honor to be a part of the fewer and the prouder.

    Lcpl Jaquieline Newton

  2. 12 Sep 2013 at 8:39 am

    I, too, qualified at the rifle range but at Parris Island in January of 1979. Graduated from Platoon 19b on December 17, 1978. Returned home for Christmas leave prior to leaving for Military Police school. Rifle qualification for MP school was required. We spent 2 weeks on the rifle range there at Parris Island. Then I had to qualify annually for my 5811 MOS until I discharged in December of 1986. My first time to qualify with the rifle left me with a nice knot on my brow bone!

  3. 20 Oct 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I remember the first time I went to the Rifle Range. It was at 29 Palms and I was an instructor at MCCES. By the time the qual was over I was black and blue from head to toes – my ribs, my hip bones, my knees and absolutely my shoulder (from the recoil) and my arm from where the strap was tightened. I really enjoyed going to the Rifle Range. It was what I knew I should be able to do as a Marine.

  4. Pamela Sandoval Nordstrom
    14 Nov 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Yup I was at Camp Courtney, Okinawa Sept 1978 -1979 and like Sgt Martell, one of the 1st ones to the rifle range there. Yes I remember getting on the truck at 3:30AM to go up to Camp Schwab for the rifle range. Sun burned and some days drenched with rain. I didnt get my cammies in time for the range. So I had to borrow from my Gunny. Boots were 2 sizes too big. Cammies were too. But I completed the training.

  5. robatsu
    10 Jan 2014 at 12:59 pm

    I was one of the coaches on Camp Schwab rifle range in 1979, I remember getting the occasional group of Women Marines on the range. We all thought it was novel, my observation was that female Marines shot roughly about the same as male Marines, which is to say way, way better than the occasional contingent of (male/female) Army we sometimes trained.

  6. 31 Jan 2014 at 7:26 am

    After graduating from boot camp in Dec. 78, I qualified in the fall of 80 at Camp Lejeune as part of H&S BN, Comm Co. I have vivid memories of the dark starry nights before the rising sun at the range. I was thrilled to have the opportunity and loved the new experience of being at the range. I had zero prior experience with weapons and was happy to make marksman in my first and only experience at the range.

    • Pamela Sandoval Nordstrom
      31 Jan 2014 at 12:18 pm

      I remember having to qualify in Sept-Oct 1978 when I arrived in Okinawa. It was fun but the torrential rain storms it was hard and cold. I did like learning to shoot. I was expert. That was the only time i went before getting out in 1980. I was a sub for a M50 team but i never got to go out to shoot. I was really disappointed.

  7. Bonny Grigsby
    5 Jun 2014 at 11:58 pm

    My first time qualifying was in ’85 at 29 Palms – 10 years after I completed basic training. I will never forget the look on the range safety instructor’s face when he completed his safety briefing and then asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand and when he called on me, my reply was ‘yeah – how do you shoot this thing?!’ His expression was priceless!! Guess he paid me back though – someone forgot to tell me about ‘eye relief’ and when my eyebrow got whacked on my first round down range – I began to bleed like a stuck pig! I thought I’d blown the whole side of my face off with how much I was bleeding! But I qualified ‘Expert’ on both rifle and pistol!!! Oohrah!!

  8. cecil.montoya@gmail.com
    6 Jun 2014 at 8:53 am

    I didn’t qualify until I was a Sgt with MAG-39 in 1987. I remember going to the armory checking out the M-16A1 with a ‘belt’??? I have not idea nor was I schooled on what or how to handle it. I walked all the way down to the ‘snapping’ in area which was about 1/2 mile down warehouse row and across Basilon road at Camp Pendleton, holding the rifle by the handle with the belt in my hand. No one stopped me to correct me or show me what to do. To this day, I must have looked like Elmer Fudd going off to shoot Wascilly Wabbits 🙂

    • erlinda
      16 Feb 2017 at 1:48 pm

      I did not get any training in bootcamp. Sept 1978 I got to shoot once and all I remember was how the hell do I do this and my M16 getting jammed I think I hit the target once

  9. Colleen
    13 Sep 2014 at 8:09 am

    We were to learn to use the rifle in boot camp at Parris Island. I was in platoon 19B and our drill instructor blew off a portion of her hand. Because of that incident, training was delayed.

  10. Cindy Casavan-Adkins
    16 Jan 2018 at 5:04 pm

    I didn’t receive my rifle (M16 A1) training until 1984 at Camp Pendleton. I belonged to MATSG-38 out of Tustin and they sent me and 4 other females but neglected to tell the instructors none of us had any weapons training. The instructors were not happy to teach female newbies and ignored us as much as possible. When we returned to Tustin we were expected to drill and participate in a rifle inspection with no training. They spent 2 hours with us and then when we had the formation they laughed at us because we didn’t have it memorized by then. Except for those times of cranial rectumitis I enjoyed my time serving my country!

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