Three Rules of a Marine Rifleman

By Maj Matthew K Lesnowicz

In March 1967 in Khe Sahn, Company B, 9th Marines engaged the 18th Regiment of the 325C Division of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The company, assigned to Khe Sahn, through its patrolling effort prematurely triggered a division-sized operation to seize the American combat base.1 How was a rifle company able to defend an airstrip and project combat power across approximately fifty-four square kilometers to spoil a division-sized attack? The answer is: they weren’t. A mixture of Marine mechanics, artillerymen, engineers, and Seabees performed much of the defensive work and local security patrols to allow Company B to project combat power into the hills that overlooked the base. The Marine Corps ethos of “every Marine, a rifleman” paid off and allowed the relatively small detachment to hold off an NVA assault until 3d Marine Regiment eventually reinforced the position and held it throughout what became known as the Hill Fights of Khe Sahn.

Today, there is an element of the Marine Corps that is both physically and psychologically disconnected from the battlefield. Marines repeat, “Every Marine a rifleman” as a mantra and struggle to interpret its meaning and how it applies to them. The ethos is at risk of being a hollow and vestigial bromide covered in an undeserved shadow of irrelevance. During an annual rifle qualification, a Marine may rediscover a glimmer of its true meaning, but our ethos, a vehicle to communicate the mindset of one who locates, closes with, and destroys the enemy, possesses a depth beyond marksmanship. Why is this important? “Every Marine a rifleman,” if embraced, gives the Marine Corps flexibility. It frees the infantry to concentrate more combat power at decisive points. Some in the infantry community who see non-infantry Marines usurping and, therefore, diluting the hard-earned title of rifleman have attempted to minimize the ethos. Ironically, infantrymen would be the primary beneficiaries of an entire institution prepared to maneuver and employ modern infantry tactics. Just as in Khe Sahn, Marines entrusted to perform infantry missions, when needed, free infantrymen to fight elsewhere. It is a combat multiplier and our institution should take measures to strengthen it. The Marine Corps should adopt rules for a Marine rifleman to not only improve infantry proficiency but to strengthen its ethos to increase its effectiveness as a warfighting organization.

The three rules of a Marine rifleman, derived from the German Army’s storm troop tactic rules, are functional for the infantryman because they assist understanding of modern infantry tactics. Today, Marines arriving to their first infantry unit are not primed to understand modern infantry tactics. Young infantrymen screaming, “2’s rush!”2 is an indicator that the essence of even basic fire and movement can be lost in the current instruction of our infantry schools. Marines require a more effective yet simple tool to help them understand their tactics.

Modern infantry tactics are direct descendants of the storm troop tactics of World War I.3 During the Great War, the German Army developed three rules (see Figure 1) to guide violent and disorderly operations to break through enemy defenses.4 Though nearly a century old, these tactics have changed little and lie at the heart of a modern rifleman’s trade. While expected to perform many different tasks, a rifleman’s primary purpose is to destroy enemy forces as part of an offensive or defensive tactical system. This system is storm troop tactics.

If storm troop tactics are the system in which the rifleman exists then ideally every rifleman is a basic practitioner of storm troop tactics. Marines require some simple conceptual structure to understand the tactical system they inhabit. The three rules of a Marine Rifleman (see Figure 2), based upon the German Storm Troop Tactic Rules provide this mental framework for the individual. However, this simple tool goes beyond the individual and reinforces Marine Corps doctrinal concepts.

The three rules of a Marine Rifleman are a tool to achieve command and control concepts in maneuver warfare. They provide the framework for the “implicit communication” and “harmonious initiative” that Marine Corps doctrine charges Marines to achieve.5 Modern science illuminates the presence of simple rules guiding implicit and harmonious behavior in the animal kingdom. Scientist Craig Reynolds’ experiments with artificial life simulations demonstrated that complex systems can “arise from the interaction of individual agents adhering to a set of simple rules.”6 Reynolds developed a computer program with just three simple rules for his boids (bird like objects) that produced complex flocking behavior. Without these simple rules, the boids would have been a desultory mess; however, just three simple rules rallied these objects to move as a group with focus. Reynolds’ experiments assisted the scientific community in understanding complex animal behavior. Marines, who are complex animals, require their own simple rules to focus their behavior in a chaotic environment. Marines that internalize the three rules of a Marine Rifleman can grasp the movements of their team implicitly. Gathered in groups, Marines would achieve harmonious initiative as they break through a defensive system. Marines primed with the three rules will ease the task of small unit leaders and more importantly, open opportunities to exploit. The infantry can gain value from simple rules that clarify modern infantry tactics and offer a way to command and control aligned with Marine Corps doctrine. These rules have value beyond their utility for the infantry.

The three rules are a tool to expose Marines at the individual level to maneuver warfare doctrine. Our organization holds that “individual initiative and responsibility are of paramount importance.”7 Marines can apply the spirit of these rules to excel and meet their combat objectives within their particular specialty. Conceptually, they challenge Marines to accomplish the unit’s mission under adversity, a common condition to any Marine, through individual initiative and responsibility. Imagine each Marine primed with rules emitting initiative, personal responsibility, and a focus on the enemy whether he is engaged in an immediate action drill during a security patrol of an adhoc unit or turning a wrench on an important set of equipment. Each rule, when seen through the lens of our warfighting doctrine, provides universal themes to all Marines.

Rule 1. If you can go forward, go forward—go through gaps.
  • Maneuver warfare indoctrination: Exploit gaps.
  • Challenge a Marine to observe: Where are the gaps?
  • Challenge a Marine to think: How do I determine if I can go forward?
Rule 2. If you come under fire, take cover! Take the source of fire under attack.
  • Maneuver warfare indoctrination: Avoid surfaces.
  • Challenge a Marine to observe: Where is the source of fire or resistance?
  • Challenge a Marine to think: You have encountered resistance that you can’t bypass. How are you going to fight back?
Rule 3. If you are a supporting unit be prepared to assist units to your flank.
  • Maneuver warfare indoctrination: Re-designate main effort and redirect combat power.
  • Challenge a Marine to observe: Which adjacent unit has a better chance of success?
  • Challenge a Marine to think: How do you support your adjacent unit? How do you reinforce success?

In addition to thumbing through MCDP-1, Marines realistically need introductory guidelines for their ethos and maneuver warfare concepts. While these rules are simple, they are an elegant and accessible “Cliff Notes” to entry level maneuver warfare. At recruit training, Marines should be indoctrinated in the three rules as a complement to the eleven general orders of a sentry. The eleven general orders are an introduction to basic duties of interior guard. New recruits also deserve an introduction to the spirit of our warfighting philosophy. New events at our basic training institutions can test Marines to apply these rules to combat simulations. An early introduction to the three rules conditions legions of Marines to move like Sun Tzu’s water through the battlefield.

In conclusion, the Three Rules of a Marine Rifleman are a way to transform our ethos into a vessel that conveys both modern infantry tactics and maneuver warfare in simple manner to all Marines. At a functional level, the rules provide infantrymen a way to understand modern infantry tactics and their leaders a way to command and control them. This translates to improved infantry proficiency. At a conceptual level, the rules provide a simple way to condition all Marines in our warfighting philosophy of maneuver warfare. Rather than abandon our ethos, the Marine Corps should recognize the opportunity it has to connect its traditions to its doctrine. Nearly 50 years have passed since the Marines at Khe Sahn displayed the tactical benefits of every Marine believing and acting as a rifleman. Our ethos remains a remedy to the challenges of the modern battlefield, but our institution should go further to place meat on its bones and unlock its potential.


1. John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sahn, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 88–89.

2. The phrase “2s rush!” indicates that each Marine in an assaulting unit has been assigned a number by their small unit leader, usually 1 or 2. During the assault, the small unit leader screams a number as a command for those assigned that particular number to advance towards an objective. This trend is not new, see: Michael F. McNamara and Paul J. Kennedy, “Why Doesn’t First Fire Team Rush?” Marine Corps Gazette (Pre-1994) 77, no. 7 (07, 1993): 54–56. Or, Daniel J. O’Donohue, “The Last 300 Yards,” Marine Corps Gazette (Pre-1994) 77, no. 8 (08, 1993): 59–62.

3. John A. English and Bruce I. Gudmundsson, On Infantry, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), passim.

4. These rules were compiled by Dr. Bradley Meyer: Rules 1 and 3 are derived from Manual of Position Warfare for All Arms, Part 14 (Provisional) The Attack in Position Warfare 1-1, 1918 with amendments dated 26-1-18 and 27-7-18, GHQ (General Headquarters) 11 October 1918. Rule 2 is from Waldmer Pfeiffer, Entwurf eines Exerzierreglements fuer die Infanterie, (Berlin: R. Eisenschmidt, 1921), 175–176.

5. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP-1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: GPO, 30 June 1991), 79, 88.

6. “Boids,” Wikipedia, accessed at

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP-1 War fighting, (Washington, DC: GPO, 30 June 1991), 78.

1. If you can get forward, get forward—go through gaps.

2. If you come under fire, take cover! Take the source of fire under attack. Launch a forehead or a pincers attack.

3. If you are a trailing unit, be prepared to roll out to assist units to the flank.