How to ace the Marine Basic Recon Course

All it takes is all you got.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
recon marine
U.S. Marines with Basic Reconnaissance Course cover each other with sand for camouflage during clandestine landing and withdraw training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, Oct. 30, 2019. (Lance Cpl. Andrew Cortez/U.S. Marine Corps).

The U.S. Marine Corps Basic Reconnaissance Course, better known as the Basic Recon Course, is where young Marines earn their place in the Marine Corps’ recon units. The course puts candidates through a grueling assessment and selection that only the best can pass. 

Recon Marines have a history tracing back to World War II when their predecessors established beach landing zones and provided valuable intelligence on enemy positions, strength, and even hydrographic mapping. Recon units have been activated and deactivated over the years, establishing a legacy of success on the battlefield. 

Travis Nardi, a former instructor at the course and author of “All It Takes,” has molded many Recon Marines through the training. 

“Mentally and physically, it’ll probably be the hardest time of their lives. That’s what the course is for. To find mentally and physically strong, capable Marines who are willing to put their entire heart and soul into the training to obtain the [military occupation specialty],” Nardi said. “To find those types of Marines who won’t quit and always put mission and team above anything else that may come up, personal or selfish.”

A brief history of the Basic Recon Course

Recon Marines have a history that traces back to World War II when the Marine Raiders and Observation Group were first established in the early 1940s. The Marine Corps needed a clearing force for the main assault during the “Island Hopping” campaigns in the South Pacific. 

The history of Marine Raiders and Recon Marines is intertwined; both draw their lineage to the early WWII units. Force and Division Recon units have been activated and deactivated over the years with different training courses that trained Marines on the diverse skillset of the Recon Marine. 

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In the 1980s, reconnaissance training was formalized through two schoolhouses: The Basic Recon Course was established at Coronado, California, and the Amphibious Reconnaissance School was established at Little Creek, Virginia. Both programs had identical standards for training Recon Marines. 

In 2002, the Marine Administrative message 043/02 established the 0321 MOS, which covered the ranks of Private (E-1) through Master Gunnery Sergeant (E-9). According to a Naval Postgraduate School thesis by Albert Nowicki, the formalized job pathway “fundamentally changed the force structure and funding of the reconnaissance community within the Marine Corps.” 

However, due to a decrease in funding, the USMC Training and Education Command merged the two training programs into the Basic Reconnaissance Course in 2007, located at the School of Infantry – West aboard Camp Pendleton, California.

How long is the Basic Recon Course?

The Reconnaissance and Training and Assessment Program (RTAP) is the Marine Corps’ filter for the Basic Recon Course. Many Marine Recon hopefuls wash out during the five-week assessment and selection. Once a Marine successfully passes RTAP, they will begin the Basic Recon Course.

BRC is a 12-week course divided into three phases. It’s designed to train Marines in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of land and amphibious reconnaissance operations.    

Phase one focuses on individual and special skills, phase two involves individual and team pool and open-ocean amphibious skills, and phase three drills team communications and patrolling skills.  

Each phase presents unique challenges for Marines to overcome. But the effects of the training start to stack up as the phases progress, and by the end of the course, newly minted Recon Marines are exhausted but fueled by their new, hard-earned title: Reconnaissance Man. 

Basic Recon Course requirements

Joe Ortiz, a former Basic Recon Course instructor, said the requirements are designed to weed out those not fit for service as a Recon Marine, but it’s not just about the paperwork and fitness. 

“Something I noticed as an instructor, just talking to students and asking them what made them want to be a Recon Marine or what made them want to come to the school,” Ortiz said. “A fair amount said either, ‘Well, I saw a video, and it looked cool.’ For some people, that works. But others should look into it. Figure out for yourself what it is that Recon Marines actually do. What is their task and purpose?”

It takes grit and heart to endure the training, and knowing why you want to be a Recon Marine is important. Ortiz and Nardi both said it helps candidates get through the moments when thoughts of quitting invade their inner monologue while shivering on a beach covered in sand, or while you’re walking for endless miles at night. 

But, like all schools and courses in the U.S. military, the Basic Recon Course has  requirements every Marine must meet before they start: 

  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Have a GT score of 105 or higher, which is non-waiverable 
  • Must meet criteria for interim secret security clearance through the national agency check, law enforcement, and credit check
  • Must be medically qualified for jump and combatant dive qualifications within inter-service requirements established in NAVMED P-117
  • Have intermediate and advanced water survival qualifications to enter RTAP

There are additional prerequisites for Marines before they can attend RTAP. A Marine must be able to complete land and aquatic events with a two-minute rest period between each event, which are listed below: 

  • Complete 10 pullups or more
  • Perform at least 75 crunches
  • Perform at least 42 pushups
  • Run three-miles in 22 minutes and 30 seconds or less
  • 10 minute rest
  • Complete a 500-meter swim in 15 minutes or less using a side or breaststroke
  • Complete a 25-meter underwater swim 
  • Retrieve a rifle at a depth of 16.5 feet
  • Perform a 25-meter rifle tow 
  • Tread water for 30 minutes 

For those already serving in the Marine Corps, you must meet all the above requirements, plus:

  • No derogatory page 11 entries within the last year 
  • No non-judicial punishment (NJP) within the last year and no more than one 
  • No NJP during the Marine’s current contract
  • No courts-martial convictions 
  • Must be a volunteer 
  • Less than two years time-in-grade as a sergeant

Newly enlisted Marines and officers must complete a Naval Special Warfare/Special Operator physical prior to reporting to the course. Marines must bring a Report of Medical History DD Form 2807-1 and a Report of Requested MOS Change (DD Form 2808). The completed NSW/SO physical paperwork needs to be reviewed and signed by an Undersea Medical Officer. 

Basic Recon Course preparation

You can start by reading the books recommended by Recon Marines who came before you. As the old saying goes, ‘knowing is half the battle.’ Ortiz and Nardi said there are several fitness programs available on the private market that have proven to lead to successful candidates attending the Basic Recon Course. 

“A lot of people that have shown up to our course and succeeded, particularly in the pool portion, are people that have gone to SOCOM Athlete. […],” Ortiz said “If there’s a Deep End Fitness club in your area, I would also recommend checking them out, especially when it comes to things like drown proofing or any sort of hypoxic work.” 

But for those who don’t have a training program in their area or want to train independently, there are a few basic skills to master. 

“I recommend just being as healthy and having the best endurance you can,” Nardi said. “Whether that’s running, doing long-distance swims, or working on your breath hold.” 

That includes mastering both breaststroke and sidestroke styles of swimming, getting comfortable under a ruck, developing your breath holds, and long-distance running. The key is having a tangible relationship with pacing yourself in any strenuous activity. 

Don’t sweat a hasty drop from the course, either. Ortiz said that students have three attempts to pass all written and physical performance tests throughout the course. The only exception is that candidates are limited to two attempts on land navigation, where students will take on day and night land navigation tests.

What is the Basic Recon Course really like?

Basic Recon Course candidates will experience a combination of cold, wet, and sand in places they wish it wasn’t; mixed with a lack of sleep and food, followed by long patrols with heavy packs. But if you thought that was the tough part, think again. 

It’s a mental battle from the minute a Marine arrives at the holding battalion for the schoolhouse. 

“You don’t know until you’re there. That’s just the mindset you got to have, this is something I want to do, even if I get recycled, it doesn’t matter,” Ortiz said. “‘I’m gonna keep going until I die,’ or, you know, break both my femurs or whatever the case is. Even then, I’m gonna keep crawling towards the finish line. That’s just the mentality you gotta have for it.”

Nardi said the pool is the primary culprit in dropping candidates in RTAP, but even those who make it through, face the grueling challenges of “drown proofing” within the Basic Recon Course. Candidates will have to tread water with their hands out of the water and bob from the bottom of the pool to the surface with their hands tied.

Once the pool is done, candidates face the open ocean. Contending with the tides and waves is a challenge on its own, but once the amphibious phase is done, candidates will take on the patrol phase. 

Nardi said phase three starts with candidates receiving a task and objective to conduct reconnaissance surveillance on. They will have  6 to 8 hours to prepare all their gear, and equipment and make and brief a terrain model. As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, candidates step out and into the dark. 

Candidates walk anywhere from 8 to 12 miles with “very heavy” packs. Once they arrive at their destination, they’ll set up a hide site in the middle of the night while making every effort to not give away their position with lights or noise. Once they’ve observed the objective, take pictures, write reports, and send it all via radio to their chain of command. 

When sunsets again, candidates break down their hide sight, and hike back to an extraction point or back to base. Nardi said it will be morning by the time candidates get back to their base where they’ll immediately start planning the next mission. Candidates knock out three 36-hour patrols with little to no sleep.

The other challenge Nardi and Ortiz described is the leadership roles. When candidates are tired, hungry, and sore, they become harder to manage. Any failure as a leader can lead to being recycled to the beginning of the phase. Candidates rotate through different team positions so everyone learns every role available on the team.

The challenge is often perceived as only a physical challenge, but what many discover during the training is their body will do what the mind tells it to. 

“By the six to eight-week timeframe, I remember something clicked in my head. I was like, ‘Okay, if they told me we’re running to Phoenix, Arizona, today. I’m doing it.’ Like there’s no hesitation. No internal dialogue at that point,” Nardi said. 

“It’s amazing. No matter what they tell me to do. I’m gonna do it. So once once you hit that point. It’s pretty cool. Feeling that and just knowing that I can do and overcome anything right now. Just because you’re so physically and mentally strong.”

FAQs about the Basic Recon Course 

You have questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: How long is the course?

A: 12 weeks long, but a Marine must pass the 25-day RTAP first, then attend the Basic Recon Course, followed by several specialty schools, before they can be assigned to a Recon unit.

Q: What can get you dropped from the course?

A: Ortiz said typically, candidates getting dropped from the course is a result related to safety or integrity violations that they’ve been briefed not to do, like flagging someone with their rifle during a live fire range during first phase.

Q: What is a Recon Marine?

A: A Marine with the 0321 MOS and has successfully completed the whole pipeline for Recon Marines. 

Q: Are Marine Raiders and Recon Marines the same thing?

A: No, they differ because of their mission specific to their jobs. Raiders are under MARSOC, while recon marines fall under the Fleet Marine Force. One is special operations, the other is not. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other, and recon marines are who stood up MARSOC. 

Q: The pool is the great equalizer, but have you heard of the cone?

A: Travis Nardi said the amphibious and patrol phases are brutal, but nothing is more brutal than the cone. Correctional fitness applies here, so if you screw up, have fun touching the cone — you’ll have to find out for yourself.

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