In the Army, particularly the combat arms, we expect people of all ranks, but especially NCOs, to be reasonably proficient with the full array of weapons at their disposal. For instance, while an infantry team leader may only be currently qualified on the M4 carbine, as his personal weapon, we expect him to be skilled enough to operate, and more importantly, train other to operate, the other weapons in the infantry fire team and rifle platoon, such as the M249 machine gun, the M203/320 grenade launchers, and the M240 machine gun.
But complex weapon systems such as the gun and fire control systems of the M1 tank, and the gun, missile and associated fire control systems on the M2/M3 family call for an expert not just on the simple operation of the weapons, but of the employment of them. Shooting the main gun is easy. Training a team or crew to effectively fight the vehicle in accordance with the established training methods is a lot more information than the Army can reasonably expect every NCO in a unit to possess.
Accordingly, as the linked article notes, back in the 80s, Armor started the Master Gunner program to provide each battalion (and ideally, each company) with a trained expert on maintenance, operation, and training for the M1 tank gunnery system. The program was a big success, building institutional knowledge both of the technical aspects of gunnery, but also the training aspects. Units have a very limited amount of time and ammunition to qualify their crews, and having a Master Gunner to assist in ensuring as many crews are as qualified as possible with the fewest rounds needed was a big help to commanders. The Master Gunner program quickly expanded from just Armor to mechanized infantry and cavalry as well.
The U.S. Army began its Master Gunner program in the late 1980s, as one of many post-Vietnam innovations and reforms. Army tank and mechanized infantry (equipped with M-2 Bradleys battalions) each had a “Master Gunner.” This was a senior NCO whose job was to continually improve the marksmanship training for cannon gunners (120mm guns in tanks and 25mm autocannon in M-2s). The Master Gunner conducted training courses, worked with those who had difficulty improving their skills, and sought out the best marksmen to become the next generation of Master Gunners.
Actually, while one had to be a competent marksman to be selected to attend Master Gunner School, one didn’t have to be the best marksman. Far more important than being a good shot from a tank or Bradley was the ability to be a good instructor to other crews, and a good advisor to the commander. An NCO who shoots 90% and is a great teacher is a lot more valuable than one who shoots 100% and can’t pass on his expertise.
As the article notes, this success has lead to the Infantry instituting similar courses for other weapon systems. Back in the day, we didn’t have an M47 Dragon Master Gunner course, but we did have a fairly robust, if informal, system of identifying subject matter experts (SMEs) on the Dragon. The Dragon anti-tank missile was a “low density” weapon, in that very few people actually got to shoot them in peacetime. But it was also a very hands-on weapon system that took a lot of finesse to operate well. And so the few folks that had fired more than one were in high demand to coach new gunners to an acceptable level of competence.
Today, other weapon systems that would need similar levels of expertise would include the Dragon’s replacement, the Javelin anti-tank missile. There are also a fair number of other systems in the infantry where it is a good idea to have an expert at hand to make sure training for the end user is up to snuff.
My only concern with the proliferation of such Master Gunner courses is that the NCOs in the trenches must still recognize that no matter how many Master Gunners, for however many weapons systems there are, it is still that the leader’s responsibility to ensure his troops are trained and qualified on the weapons assigned. You can turn to an MG for help, but you can’t dump the responsibility for training in his lap.
Full disclosure, I flunked out of the Army’s Bradley Master Gunner course because I couldn’t draw a Surface Danger Area Diagram. I learned a lot on the course, but my inability to complete a nice, tidy diagram meant I got to go home without a diploma. In the event, after leaving the school, my unit was scheduled for inactivation, and I never attended another Bradley gunnery.