Captain Sam Woodfill
Competition Marksman and Pershing’s Favorite Doughboy
by Darryl Davis

Rifle Marksmanship is an imperceptible process with results visible only to the practitioners and understandable only to other practitioners. Marksmanship is nearly impossible to describe to others. [Note 1]

General Pershing did not want American soldiers to learn to be cave-dwelling trench denizens. He wanted cross-country fire and movement to be the major calling, with trench adeptness as sideline. But “fire,” “shooting,” “marksmanship,” have no standard meaning. Those with equipment familiarity think it applies to what they can do. Those with rifle marksmanship skills (e.g., who have fired more than 1500 rounds, each carefully aimed, each result carefully inspected) hear it as referring to their much higher capacity. Pershing thought of it in the latter sense, hence his regard for Captain Woodfill, who had been a target shooter for many years before the war and had skills accordingly. He also was a skilled hunter.

Argonne Patrol

The vagueness and distortion in Woodfill’s Medal of Honor citation (quoted in the summer 1996 issue of Relevance) practically erases Woodfill’s stellar marksmanship performance. The text is symbolic of the fact that marksmanship’s ineffability and invisibility kept it from the notice of the non-proficient with the result that it was seriously neglected in training and seriously under-utilized in live-fire under American control. Troops were even delivered to Europe without having fired one clip of rifle cartridges. And troops in Europe were not thought of as in need of more rifle practice once they had been trained. When pulled back from the line they would be given squad marching and company marching and other things to do with never a thought of instead being sent to the rifle range or at least doing some dry-firing. Time available to train them to shoot better was not used.

Two separate rifle marksmanship communities were present during the war. One was the vast number of those with “equipment familiarity.” They “knew” they were getting the best out of the splendid Enfields (M1917) and Springfields. Some had vague knowledge of other individuals who seemed to be able to do magical things, far beyond the ordinary, with the same equipment, but it seemed to be some sort of innate gift, beyond scrutiny. The other community, rifle marksmanship practitioners, never existed outside of a civilian shooting range, and there never was a “community”, but only solitary individuals. These underutilized, under-equipped, unorganized, unnamed bearers of the lengthily acquired skills were never able to explain what it was or that others could become as skilled with practice. Those in charge of them never realized that a rifleman with skills is a radically different weapons system with features not the same as those of ordinary riflemen. Rifle marksmanship stayed hidden with the fingers of the practitioners, and has not yet emerged, except into the sniper ghetto.

Woodfill’s citation was assembled by those who did not realize what he did. His cited performance was very dangerous work, but it was not the valiant defiance of death. Nor was he engaged in saving lives through removing the less able from danger. Instead, he was saving lives by eliminating the threat. He was using his stalking skills to allow his rifle marksmanship a chance to be used (i.e., moving to acquire line-of-sight to the target, not moving to achieve proximity to it). As a force manager, he was unleashing a powerful weapon, his own skills, against the enemy threat because he had the highest skills of all those within his command. He was doing that which none of his soldiers could do. His skills exemplified Davis’s Rule of ten (a corollary of de Saxe’s Rule of ten) that a person with rifle marksmanship skills can reach ten times further or hit things one-tenth as big as a person trained to equipment familiarity. Woodfill’s exploit at Cunel has appeared in print several times in various places, and is as follows.[Note 2]

German MG Team

When his company began to cross the fields toward the village of Cunel and came under machine-gun fire, Woodfill detailed himself to stalk and take out the machine guns. His reach with a rifle was as long as that of a machine gun (except for indirect fire, of course), as with his neurophysiological control he could emulate the steadiness of a tripod. He lacked the noisy, inconspicuous visibility of a machine gun, and his aiming skills were superior to those of a machine gunner. His reach was considerable. Suffice to say, he could make the rifle hit as if it were locked in a vise. This would be shooting (on a very bad day) within a four-inch circle at 200 yards, or shooting within a cone of probability with a diameter of two minutes of arc. Woodfill saw several machine gun sites. He began with the church tower, where little flashes could be seen in the belfry, around 300-plus yards away. He aimed behind the flash, where the gunner would sit, and very carefully and slowly put a clip of five rounds into that spot, timing successive shots to meet the four replacement gunners. The gun was silent. The stealth characteristics of rifle marksmanship do not reveal the nature of the threat to succeeding gunners who are new viewers to the scene.

To the left of the church, bright muzzle flashes were seen from the loft inside a stable. Only one shot silenced this machine gun. (Was it one of those slimmed-down Spandaus?) In stalking the third machine gun he had seen, he suffered mustard gas poisoning in a shell hole, but continued. He took cover behind a pile of gravel in a ditch, sighting on a machine-gun muzzle poking through a clump of foliage about 40 yards away (this distance is in dispute), and laid out his Ml9l I pistol. Through his stinging eyes, he finally saw a face and fired. He finished his five-round clip on four succeeding faces. A sixth crew member tried to escape and was shot with the pistol (the rifle was empty) through the head — a moving target at more than 40 yards distance, Inspecting the site, he shot a seventh crew member with a pistol when attacked. Shortly thereafter, one of his runners pointed out camouflage in a tree and Woodfill potted a German sniper before he could fire. Advancing through the Bois de la Pultiere. After Cunel, he spotted another machine gun crew. and five more rounds resulted in five more head shots. Three ammunition carriers then wisely surrendered.

A few minutes later he spotted a fifth machine gun with a crew of five, and serviced them also with five more rounds. Then he had to jump into a trench occupied by two Germans. The first took a .45 bullet from the M191 1, which then jammed. A pick was used on the second German, and then on the first who was shooting his Luger instead of concentrating on his stomach wound. Later, reporting to battalion, Woodfill said, “I got a few.” He had eliminated five machine guns by shooting 21 crew members with 21 rounds [Note 3], three pistol rounds, and the application of a digging implement, suffering no injury from the enemy in the process. His performance was in excess of what one would expect because of the Hermann Phenomenon (“individuals with rifle marksmanship skills average one and a half shots per hit in live-fire”). Comparing this with the citation, we find the long-range shooting at the belfry and the stable is missing, and there is no inkling of the 40-yard head shot on the moving target. The text suggests he was leading attacks and charges to close with the enemy, such as to within grenade range, when instead he was in front, alone, stalking to acquire line of sight. Conspicuous daring by charging another machine gun position, killing five men in one machine gun pit with his rifle.” This should read, “Conspicuous daring by stalking another machine gun position, then in plain sight of the machine gun killing five successive machine-gunners with five rifle shots to the head.”

German MG Post

Woodfill astonishes those knowledgeable about rifle marksmanship with his successful stalking and his very accurate shooting, especially with his coolness in taking out the first gunners on every machine gun. It is one thing to carry out calm deliberation of a shooting range, and quite another when the Spandau is swiveling in your face. To those whose rifle knowledge is limited to equipment familiarity or the supervision of the acquisition of same, his actions must have seemed magical in view of the usual cost of taking out a machine gun nest. (In Belleau Wood was the average cost one death or two?) The garbled and misleading citation results from profound ignorance of rifle marksmanship on the part of the vast majority of force managers. This continues through the present time.


1. This is the 17 Iron Rule of Marksmanship delineated in Darryl Weatherway Davis, Rifle Marksmanship. 130 Years of Malignant Neglect, page 12.

2. Editor of Army Times, The Daring Regiments: Adventures of the AEF in World War 1, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1967) pp. 95-101, 103.

3. Martin Blumenson, and James L. Stokesbury, Masters of the Art of Command (Boston: Houghton Muffin Company, 1975) pp. 42-52.

Sources and Thanks: Darryl Davis, a member of The Great War Society, lives in Shoreline, Washington, and works for the federal government. As a high school student he associated himself with the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which was the beginning of his lifelong interest in and study of the subject. His book is appropriately titled, Rifle Marksmanship: 130 years of Malignant Neglect. This version of his article is slightly revised from its original publication in the Autumn 1997 issue of RELEVANCE: The Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society.