U.S. Army Rangers perform a water infiltration on a Zodiac inflatable boat.

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Introduction to How the Army Rangers Work

T­he U.S. Army Rangers are an oddity of the U.S. military special operations forces. Though they can trace their lineage as far back as colonial times, they didn't become a permanent presence in the military until the 1970s. Called to duty, their original purpose was to complete a mission and then disband.

The Rangers are known for their skill at remaining undetected in a war. If you're in a combat situation and you see a Ranger, most likely he's already spotted you. There's no telling how long he's been observing you, and what's more, by the time you detect a Ranger, you're probably too late.

It wasn't until the outset of the United States involvement in World War II that the Rangers were officially activated for the first time in the 20th century. American commanders decided that the United States needed a specialized fighting force based on the successful special operations force, the British Commandos. Tasked with the creation of such a force, Major William Darby took the idea and made it a reality in just a little more than three weeks. Darby formed the First Ranger Battalion at Sunnyland Camp in Carrickfergus, Ireland, choosing 600 candidates from a pool of thousands of volunteers [source: SpecialOperations.com].

The British commando forces were also involved in the formation of Rangers. They created a specialized training regimen so intense that one-sixth of the men washed out -- they couldn't complete the training -- and one died and five more were injured.

These first Army Rangers served, at first, alongside the British commandos that trained them. Then, on their own, they conducted small-scale invasions in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and France, breaking through enemy lines and opening the way for larger forces to enter behind them.

But during these raids, many Rangers were lost, and out of necessity, the Rangers adopted a new tradition of replenishing their ranks by absorbing other companies and groups of soldiers who had shown skill and fortitude in other operations. These select remnant groups have come out on top against formidable odds, battle-experienced and Ranger-ready -- like the 5307th special composition force formed to regain control of the Burma Road from the Japanese during World War II.This regiment marched 1,100 miles from its training camp in India through the Burmese jungle, emerging victorious after dozens of firefights with Japanese soldiers [source: SpecialOperations.com].

And in the Vietnam War, long-range patrols -- small platoons capable of remaining undetected behind enemy lines for long periods of time -- conducted raids and reconnaissance. These patrols were then absorbed by the Ranger regiments fighting there. Because of the wartime status and the need for new recruits, the Ranger candidates trained in the form of actual missions -- the "in-country Ranger school" [source: SpecialOperations.com].Only after proving that their value and skill sets were in line with the Rangers' were the recruits formally indoctrinated.

So what are the skills and qualities required of an U.S. Army Ranger? In this article, we'll look at Rangers -- where they came from and what they do. In the next section, we'll look at the history of the Army Rangers.

Confederate Colonel John Mosby is known as the most successful Ranger leader in the Civil War.

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

Army Rangers History

The Army Rangers were heavily influenced by the American landscape and the people who populated it before the Europeans. The rough terrain and forests of the newly settled land were much more conducive to the ambushes and raids carried out by Native Americans in battle than the traditional pitched battles fought in open fields by European armies. To have any sort of chance in war against the Native Americans, European soldiers had to adopt the same guerrilla tactics.

This was what Captain Benjamin Church had in mind in 1670 when he assembled the first Ranger-like team in American history. Church created a band of men who conducted hunting parties to find and kill "King Philip," the English moniker given to the Wampanoag tribe chief, Metacomet. Church's scouts and raiders spent long periods of time "ranging" -- quietly covering distances in search of the enemy. This gave rise to the term "ranger." Church's Rangers used the Native Americans' own methods against them, conducting short, sporadic surprise battles and ambushes resulting from the information gathered during ranging [source: U.S. Army Ranger Association].

The man credited with establishing the first Ranger company is Major Robert Rogers. To help the British in their fight during the French and Indian War, Rogers assembled the first official Ranger group in the colonies in 1756. This regiment was made up of deer hunters who knew how to move swiftly and quietly through the woods and hills, how to track, and how to shoot precisely with the highly imprecise weaponry available at that time [source: U.S. Army Ranger Association].

Rogers expanded upon the knowledge these men already had, adapting it to the context of war and creating 28 operational rules that included advisements on ambushing, marching formations, prisoner interrogation, retreat, scouting and reconnaissance. These were documented in Rogers' now-famous Standing Orders for Rangers (more on that later), and 19 of the orders are in use for the 75th Ranger Regiment [source: SOC].

The most famous Ranger brigade of the war is arguably Colonel John Mosby's band of Confederate troops, who, according to Mosby's mode of operation, shared loot from Union Army camp raids with the local population. But it was Mosby's raids and guerrilla-style warfare that became the hallmark of Rangers. Mosby was very successful at striking the Union Army randomly, always catching them off guard.

Although they didn't make any formal appearance in the Spanish-American War or World War I, the Rangers were activated once again in World War II. In North Africa, Europe and South Asia they fought, forming the basis for the modern Ranger Regiment in existence today. We'll learn more about that later, but first let's look at Rogers' Standing Orders for Rangers, the criteria for ranging.

An engraving of Robert Rogers

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Army Rangers Standing Orders

Robert Rogers' orders are sensible and direct. When he created them, no one else had assembled so many tactics into one comprehensive guide. What's more, they have withstood the test of time -- the standing orders were so effective, that much of the operational standards are still in use by Rangers today.

Rogers' orders to his men were:

  1. Don't forget nothing.
  2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, 60 rounds powder and ball and be ready to march at a minute's warning.
  3. When you're on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.
  4. Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don't never lie to a Ranger or officer.
  5. Don't never take a chance you don't have to.
  6. When we're on the march, we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can't go through two men.
  7. If we strike swamps or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it's hard to track us.
  8. When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.
  9. When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.
  10. If we take prisoners, we keep 'em separate till we have had time to examine them, so they can't cook up a story between 'em.
  11. Don't ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won't be ambushed.
  12. No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank and 20 yards in the rear, so the main body can't be surprised and wiped out.
  13. Every night you'll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.
  14. Don't sit down to eat without posting sentries.
  15. Don't sleep beyond dawn. Dawn's when the French and Indians attack.
  16. Don't cross a river by a regular ford.
  17. If somebody's trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.
  18. Don't stand up when the enemy's coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree.
  19. Let the enemy come till he's almost close enough to touch. Then let him have it and jump out and finish him with your hatchet.

[source: U.S. Special Operations Command]

To illustrate the worth of these orders, consider that Rogers once moved his company of 200 Rangers over 400 miles in 60 days, culminating in a successful raid on an enemy camp [source: U.S. Army Ranger Association].

These are time-tested and battle-proven tactics that serve as the foundation for 21st-century Rangers. In the next section we'll look at the structure of today's 75th Ranger Regiment.

­

Ranger companies are supported by three sniper teams, including a team outfitted with .50-caliber guns like this one.

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Army Rangers 75th Ranger Regiment Structure

At the outset of the Korean War, the 75th Ranger Regiment was created and headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga. The volunteer pool was drawn exclusively from the 82nd Airborne Division. That recruiting tradition continues today: All Ranger candidates are required to have first graduated from airborne school before becoming an official Ranger.

To be selected as a Ranger, a soldier must prove that he's physically capable and most undergo calisthenics and endurance tests like long runs and hikes. Once he's accepted to Ranger school, his training begins. Training is split into three different phases: crawl, walk and run.

  • Crawl training is the most basic training in Ranger school. It includes instruction in hand-to-hand combat, pugilism -- fighting with fists or sticks -- and tests on comfort level in water immersion.
  • Walk training is intermediate. It includes training in rappelling, knots and planning and executing ambushes and airborne operations.
  • Run training is the most advanced training and includes graduation from Ranger school. In this phase of training, Ranger recruits learn water-bound infiltration, urban assault and troop extraction -- removing troops in hostile environments, usually with a helicopter. Throughout their training, Rangers also learn skills like sabotage, navigation, explosives and reconnaissance.

[source: U.S. Army]

Officers completing the training program go on to enter the Ranger Orientation Program, a series of courses aimed at introducing an officer to the policies and the procedures of the Rangers [source: U.S. Army]. The Ranger Orientation program is similar to the Ranger Indoctrination Program given to enlisted soldiers.

Though it was activated at the beginning of the Korean War, the 75th Ranger Regiment was deactivated after hostility ceased. The Regiment was similarly activated and deactivated for the Vietnam War. It wasn't until one commander recognized the value of having a Ranger force at the ready that a continuous Ranger unit was established. Chief of Staff for the Army, General Creighton Abrams, ordered the establishment of the 1st Ranger Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1974 [source: SpecialOperations.com]. This was the first time that a Ranger force was ever activated during peacetime and lead to the formation of the 75th's current structure:

  • 1st Battalion - stationed at Hunter Airfield, Ga.
  • 2nd Battalion - activated in 1974 and stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
  • 3rd Battalion - activated in 1984 as part of a larger Ranger force expansion and stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga.

[source: SpecialOperations.com]

Each battalion is composed of a Headquarters and Headquarters Command (HHC) and three rifle companies. Battalions are made up of no more than 580 Rangers: Each rifle company consists of 152 riflemen, and the remaining Rangers make up the fire support and headquarters staff.

Rangers' fire support is vital to their operations. The Ranger weapon company provides moderate firepower to Ranger operations, including heavy machine guns, Stinger missiles, a mortar group and the Carl Gustav Anti-Armor Weapon. The Gustav, unique to the Ranger forces, is a shoulder-fired launcher, capable of firing a variety of rounds, including armor-piercing ammunition and smoke rounds. In addition, fire support includes two two-man sniper teams and a third two-man .50-caliber sniper team. Even with these weapons, they are still a light-infantry troop. For larger fire support, Rangers must rely on the company on whose behalf or in whose support they are carrying out a mission.

The Ranger Regiment is capable of deploying anywhere within 18 hours. This is possible through the Ranger Ready Force (RRF), a 13-week designation that rotates between the three battalions. When a battalion is the designated RRF, they can't perform any off-base exercises or training. All soldiers receive inoculations, and all weapons are checked for readiness and replaced if necessary. All supplies needed for a mission are crated and packaged.

In the next section, we'll learn about the kind of operations Rangers carry out once they're tapped for a mission. ­

Rangers are capable of carrying out quick, direct-action raids with minimal troop numbers.

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Army Rangers Duties

The foundation of Ranger operation is performing as a quick "shock troop" -- one capable of carrying out surprise strikes . But how they get to their strike zone, what they do there and what command is calling the shots varies widely by operation.

Since they're Airborne graduates, Rangers often parachute to the designated insertion area. But they're also trained for other types of insertions -- or means of getting soldiers quickly and quietly behind enemy lines -- like a small boat in a swamp or down fast lines (ropes lines that allow a quick descent) from the sides of a helicopter. Once on the ground, their operations take many forms. In a strike situation, the Rangers' archetypal operation is the seizing of an airfield.

They're also extremely versatile and can easily move from a special operation into a conventional one, once the initial mission is fulfilled. For example, if the Rangers' mission is to take an airfield, they may parachute in, eliminate any threats, take control of the airfield and signal that the mission is accomplished. When conventional forces move into the secured airfield, Rangers can link up with them, moving onward as part of the larger conventional-fighting force.

These kinds of strikes and raids are called direct-action operations, and they can eventually get pretty loud due to the gunfire that erupts. There's another type of operation for which Rangers are suited -- reconnaissance, or recon. Recon is Ranger tradition, born from the Colonial scouts and honed by the long-range patrols in Vietnam. All Rangers are taught recon, but there's also a small specialized group of Rangers extensively trained for scouting and recon -- the Regimental Reconnaissance Detachment (RRD).

Created in 1984 as part of the Ranger expansion, the RRD consists of three, four-man teams of seasoned scouts who can survive for up to five days behind enemy lines in a silent state with minimal movements [source: SpecWarNet]. There are only 12 of these soldiers for the entire 75th Regiment, and each team is attached to one of the three battalions. RRD Rangers are asked to confirm or deny existing intelligence, place surveillance equipment in enemy territory, report on troop movement and call in strikes or acquire targets. In some very uncommon circumstances, these teams may be called upon to carry out specific direct-action strikes, but for the most part, their main objective is to come and go undetected.

Rescue missions are also tailor-made for Rangers. These missions are often a combination of direct action and reconnaissance. Rangers must first confirm intelligence concerning the whereabouts of a lost troop or prisoner of war (POW), and in many cases must engage the enemy with fire to gain control of their objective. Rangers are suited for rescue missions because of their ability to get in and get out, their endurance for long-distance movement, their ability to remain undetected and their light-infantry capabilities. All this means that Rangers can get to places that most others can't.

Perhaps the most notable Ranger-rescue mission was carried out by troops led by Colonel Henry Mucci. In the next section, we'll learn about Mucci's Rangers and some other notable Ranger operations.

A Ranger stands at a roadblock during Operation Just Cause in Panama.

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Army Rangers Notable Operations

The bloody Allied invasion of Normandy, France, in World War II is considered to have been successful largely because of the actions taken by the Rangers. The invasion proved to be a particularly deadly one -- Allied troops suffered as many as 10,000 casualties in just a few days. The German positions were well-stationed, and machine gunners perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea had a vista of the entire beach.

It was here that the Rangers' motto was born. Aware that perhaps no one else could break through the German front, Brigadier General Norman Cota shouted to the 5th Battalion stationed on the beach, "Rangers, lead the way!" The Rangers did just that, penetrating the enemy beachhead -- their foothold along the shore -- and literally climbing the cliff walls to reach and capture the German machine-gun nests, leaving open just enough space for the larger forces to enter [source: SpecialOperations.com].

World War II also gave the Rangers some of their largest losses. In Cisterna, Italy, the Rangers broke through the Axis lines, only to have the front collapse behind them, blocking Allied forces from moving in and leaving the Rangers trapped. Almost three battalions were lost in that battle, and it was after this that the Rangers absorbed the 5307th composite force, nicknamed Merrill's Marauders -- the group that had recaptured Burma Road from the Japanese -- to replenish the ranks [source: SpecialOperations.com].

In the Philippines during World War II, Rangers led by Colonel Mucci executed a raid on a Japanese prison camp that held Allied prisoners of war. These prisoners were scheduled for death once the Japanese no longer had use for the camp. Mucci, along with his Rangers and Filipino guerrillas, attacked the prison camp, freeing 500 prisoners of war, killing 200 Japanese soldiers and fleeing into the jungle, carrying some POWs on their backs for as long as two days [source: SpecialOperations.com].

Rangers have also contributed to peacetime missions, like in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury in 1983. After an airborne insertion, Rangers converged on a medical facility where Americans were trapped by the violent uprising within the Caribbean island nation. Rangers rescued the Americans and helped quell the uprising. The mission was declared a success and, as a result, the next year the 3rd Battalion was formed [source: GlobalSecurity.org].

The Rangers' presence was also noted in Panama in 1989. All three of the Ranger battalions fought together during the invasion of the Central American country to remove the dictator, General Manuel Noriega. As part of Operation Just Cause, Rangers took airfields and airports -- in true Ranger fashion -- and engaged the Panamanian Defense Force in firefights [source: GlobalSecurity.org].

The Rangers have also survived defeats. Operation Eagle Claw --  the 1980 special operations mission tasked with releasing 66 American hostages in the embassy in Tehran, Iran, -- failed and left eight of the force dead. And in Somalia, during Operation Restore Hope, the special operations force, of which the Rangers were part, suffered 18 deaths in as many hours [source: SpecialOperations.com]. The firefight that took place is recounted in the book and film, "Blackhawk Down."

Despite their losses, the Rangers have always had a big impact with minimal numbers. In World War II, for example, out of the 15 million Allied troops, only 3,000 were Army Rangers [source: World War II Army Rangers].

For lots more information on Rangers and related articles, check out the links and on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related How Stuff Works ArticlesRelated How Stuff Works ArticlesMore Great Links

Sources

  • "A Brief Introduction and History of the Exploits of the WWII Rangers." World War II Army Rangers. http://www.rangerfamily.org/
  • "Army Rangers Regimental Reconnaissance Detachment." SpecWarNet. http://www.specwarnet.net/americas/ranger.htm
  • "D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: Your Questions Answered." D-Day Museum. http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/faq.htm
  • "Ranger History." SpecialOperations.com. http://www.specialoperations.com/Army/Rangers/History.htm
  • "U.S. Army Rangers Overview: History." U.S. Army Rangers Association. http://www.ranger.org/html/history.html
  • "U.S. Army Rangers: History: English-American Origins." U.S. Army Ranger Association. http://www.ranger.org/index.html
  • "75th Ranger Regiment: Overview." United States Army. http://www.goarmy.com/ranger/
  • "75th Ranger Regiment." U.S. Army Special Operations Command. http://www.soc.mil/75thrr/75th_home.htm
  • "75th Ranger Regiment." GlobalSecurity.org. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/75rr.htm
  • "75th Ranger Regiment." SpecialOperations.com. http://www.specialoperations.com/Army/Rangers/Unit_Profile.htm