If you have something, anything, in your house that came from anywhere east of Suez, then you probably have a debt to a small band of men who protect our sealanes. I do not mean the Royal Navy or EU Navfor. The navies of Europe have proved themselves singularly incapable of stamping out the pirate threat. But the small group of ex British Servicemen who stand in the decks or ships that transit through pirate infested waters. Sometimes unarmed, these men work in small teams to protect vessels of various flags. Gone are the heydays of security officers, when they earned hundreds of pounds a day. The reality is months away from their families, mediocre pay, reams of red tape and requirements that place a great financial burden on them. On top of all that, they might get shot at, or have a rocket propelled grenade fired at in waters from Indonesia to Aden.

Our government and our police forces dislike the idea of armed maritime security officers, and do much to discourage their existence. Yet the figures speak for themselves. At the time of checking, no vessel that had armed maritime security officers has been taken by the Somali Pirates. If the PM and the leader of the opposition, or the chief constable have a stereo in his house made in China, then the chances are, that one of these British men helped get it here and helped protect the Philippine seamen who operated the ship. When the secretary of state for trade and industry talks about the increase in British exports; he does not mention the teams of men who make those exports possible.

In spite of all of the seamanship courses, criminal record checks and other required courses, there is only one course that concerns the most important part of their job. This is the Maritime FireArms training course. Shooting is skill with an expiry date.  In order to support the maritime security industry, firearms competence course sprung up. As a Civilian marksman and journalist,  I was invited to observe one such course. Perhaps I could demystify the activities of the MSO’s and their expert trainers.


The instructor demonstrates correct position.

There are few locations where you can find the conditions to replicate being on the deck or bridge wing of a freighter, with pirates closing in on you.  One such location is Orion Fire Arms Training in mid Wales. Here John, the lead instructor and former special forces operator has carefully constructed a series of ranges with water recognition targets and metal plates. The recognition is instant. If the shooter hits metal a loud ping is heard. If the target is missed, the splash in the water shows instantly where it is.

But before anyone even starts the course, a careful check of their paperwork has to take place. Britain’s firearms laws are at best arcane and at worst a clear a political knee jerk reaction to administrative incompetence. In addition to this, we live in a world where terrorism is prevalent. For these reasons only a select few can take the course. Every MSO must be a former serviceman (usually infantry) or former policeman in good standing with no criminal record. Most have emailed documents through but they also bring a file of certificates and ID to be physically checked. The candidates are always vetted. Even I have been vetted – just to observe the course. The MSO’s seem to accept my presence and I am despatched to make tea while they do their paperwork.


The paperwork and safety procedures come before anything gets loaded.

The sad reality of spending months at sea, is that while the MSO’s handle firearms all the time, the opportunity to zero their weapons or fire live is very limited. Manufacturing countries around the world, that benefit from the safe transit of their exports, vilify the private security industry. This leads to vessels having no dedicated weapons or security teams. Sometimes antiquated weapons are transferred from ship to ship, via security tenders. They rarely see an armourer. The MSO’s are expected to come on board a vessel, familiarise themselves with whatever weapons platforms are available and then protect the vessel and crew for the transit. As soon as they have cleared the danger area, the MSO’s are trans-shipped to join another vessel.

British MSO’s come from British military backgrounds and their experience is with the British made SA80.

“No one uses the SA 80 at sea- Thank God”  John Jokes as he starts the course. “so we’ll look at some of what you will have access to”.


Just a few of the many firearms you could be expected to use while working on board ship.

The course starts with an introduction to calibres, capabilities and the various weapons that are out there. Orion Fire Arms Training are unique in that they have a full armoury of live and professionally deactivated weapons.  Including the venerable Lee Enfield 303.
“Some of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are still equipped with 303’s for anti pirate defence” he explains. As the MSO’s later prove on the range, it is still a formidable weapon.

After the weapons familiarisation, the MSO’s are taken to the 50-200metre firing range. Here their basic marksmanship and target acquisition is tested extensively. Some of the men have not fired live in a year and this is a trying situation. Rifles jam, and rounds are expended. John is patient, “Check X” and “Check Y” he is constantly reminding. I am surprised at some of the basic mistakes that take place. But with careful training, John builds on the latent skills of his charges. Ex Guards snipers and Ex Royal Marine Commando’s hark back to their days in uniform and remember their training. John keeps at them- check and check and check again. And at the same time, he labours the safety point.


Basic principles of marksmanship at short range.

“A panicked crew member  comes running past you trying to get to the citadel and slams into you.  Make sure you have a firm hold on your weapon. You do not want a runaway gun. You must be able to do your job. You must have excellent muzzle awareness. ” . It takes time, but soon enough all the lads are on target at 200 yards.

Progression is swift to the 7.62 AK47 and 5.56 M4 rifles. The law in this country means that the rifles have to be straight pull (or bolt action) and so the rifle is cocked after each shot. But with rapid reloads and realistic scenarios;  the MSO’s feel the simulated stress. Once they master the rifles, they are introduced to shot guns and their defensive capabilities.


An AK being used to good effect at shorter ranges.

Atfer a tea break the men, bouyed with their success are introduced to full bore scoped rifle shooting. A series of Remington and Howa rifles are produced and  steel plates start to drop.


On to the bolt action rifles and longer ranges.

When everyone is completely confident – the group are taken out to the drim. This is Orion’s  finest creation. A ships railing that shits atop a welsh hillside. Below us are two lakes at varying distances. On the lakes are a rather holed skiff and two mock up skiffs. Each skiff has a variety of brightly coloured steel reactive targets on them.


Looking down to the water from the firing point.

The Maritime security industry is based upon threat avoidance and deflection, rather than engagement.  John puts the MSO’s through the various methods of turning back a threat and dealing with it if it continues. This information is not classified and is basic common sense, but I feel it best to leave this aspect of the course for those who do it.

He then creates a highly realistic scenario, with pyrotechnics and shouted commands. He induces confusion and stress into the MSO’s while calling upon them to shoot with great accuracy at 400 metres down to 160metres. The effect is incredible, I am transported to a bridge wing with smoke wafting past me and pyrotechnics cracking. The MSO’s fire and duck below the bridge rail to reload and clear stoppages.  Soon they are all on target and performing their skills is a pair of teams. Enormous emphasis is placed on technique, spotting and the all important teamwork.


The “pirate vessel”.

At the end of the day the shoot ends, the group returns to the Shackleton hut for a debrief. It has been an intense day- intense, but John and Orion Firearms Training have turned some very mediocre shots back into the marksmen they once were. The MSO’s are certified for another year; and their talk turns to transits and work challenges, for some will be sailing again soon. I find myself rather humbled by their presence. They are polite friendly and yet have no airs and graces. They do not see themselves as anything special, and yet they are special. They and their colleagues ensure the safe supply of a large quantity of Britain’s oil, food, and manufactured goods. Their work also protects our exports and therefore supports British industry. The MSO’s and Orion are essential to our lives.

Perhaps those who bemoan their existence should take a watch on the bridge wing at in the gulf of Aden and see how they like it?


Article and photos by Raf.
Thanks to Orion firearms training for the insight and hospitality.