A trio of Army National Guard soldiers put their marksmanship skills on display this month, taking home the top spot at the 2023 International Sniper Competition, held April 10-13 at Fort Benning, Georgia. 

Team leader Sgt. 1st Class Erik Vargas of the New Mexico Army National Guard, along with Staff Sgts. Benjamin Cotten and Allen Smith, both of the Arkansas Army National Guard, bested 34 other teams representing different branches of the U.S. military as well as snipers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

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For three days straight, the snipers were tested on their shooting skills, physical endurance, and problem-solving abilities across a variety of scenarios and with multiple weapons systems. 

“It’s a full team event,” Vargas told Task & Purpose. “I was primary for the [M-17] pistol and [MK-12 special purpose rifle] carbine, Allen was shooting primarily with the 7.62 round and Ben used the Magnum [.300 Norma Magnum] rounds, but everyone is tested on all their abilities.”

The first event was a “stalking” exercise, which required the teams to “infiltrate at night, and continue movement into the day.”

“For this event, they had drones, thermal capabilities,” Cotten told Task & Purpose. “It was really designed to replicate a near-peer enemy.”

Other events tested the ability of the snipers to think and act quickly. 

“You’d have the team leader have to assemble basically a jigsaw puzzle, and then that would reveal a target designation, then we would have to identify the target and engage,” said Cotten. 

Instead of a jigsaw puzzle, competitors would also have to, for instance, solve a math equation, the answer to which would give them the correct target to engage. Other exercises involved the snipers engaging targets from multiple firing positions, in urban environments, and in timed scenarios. In one event, for instance, the teams were presented with weighted ammunition boxes before a ruck march – the less weight they chose to carry, the fewer rounds of ammunition they would have to shoot. 

“There was always a physical stressor element,” said Smith. “And very little sleep.”

“All the events had a very low round count,” Vargas added. “So you really couldn’t afford to miss.”

Despite winning this year’s competition, the winning team remained humble. 

“The best part is just the networking and learning from everyone else. We all come from different backgrounds, so it’s a chance to interact with other people, learn from other people, and share experiences,” Cotten said. 

“We see a lot of the same people at different events,” Smith added. “Everyone has been training and putting in the work for a while.”

Vargas, the team leader, enlisted in the Army in 2008. He served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, including time as a sniper team leader, before transferring to the National Guard, where he is assigned to 1-200 Infantry Battalion, as well as working full-time as a security executive in Las Vegas. Cotten enlisted in the National Guard in 2006 and deployed to Iraq in 2010. He was previously a sniper section leader and has been an instructor at the Army National Guard Marksmanship Training Center for the past three years. Smith joined the National Guard in 2003, deployed to Iraq in 2004, and has also served as a sniper team leader and marksmanship instructor at the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center. The two of them are also firefighters in Shreveport, Louisiana. 

All three are members of the All Guard Marksmanship Team, composed of some of the best marksmen from across the various state national guards, and all have competed before in the Winston V. Wilson sniper competition, another international sniper competition that is organized by the National Guard. 

“A lot of the train-up, before we come together as a team, is on the individual,” said Vargas. “But once we have all the fundamentals down, it’s all about communication within the team.”

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