The Listening / Security Halt

Getting ready. You don't skyline yourselves like this forward of the lines.

Getting ready. You don’t skyline yourselves like this forward of the lines.

The most annoying person in the world is the write-only device. You know that guy: he never shuts up, yammering on and on, and never stopping to listen, only to take a breath. As you might expect, that habit which makes everyone want to kill him in a peacetime classroom or office, makes it easy for the enemy to literally kill him in combat.

There is much to be said about stealth and silence. The first thing that we will say is this: truly silent motion across terrain is not possible. It is an ideal for which you must strive, but even Mark Twain recognized it as nothing but a literary convention, when he was beating the defenseless James Fenimore Cooper senseless in a battle of wits:

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

It was always a Cooper white man who broke the twig, because Indians were born to patient stealth, at least in his universe. (Cooper, one must remember, was no frontiersman, but a cashiered Naval Academy midshipman). The Indian, in fact, was no more capable of silent movement than a ninja, an SF soldier, or you.

It was a crushing disappointment to learn that we would not, in SFQC, learn the Indian ninja art of silent walking on dry oak leaves. Instead, however, we learned something more practically useful: how to be quieter than the other guy, and as quiet as we needed to be.

If silent movement is not possible — and it isn’t, if your enemy can’t hear you, his dogs, with their superhuman hearing, can — then moving stealthily at night requires several things:

  1. Masking local noise with background noise;
  2. Altering the kinds of noise to attenuate sound travel; and,
  3. Periodic listening halts.
Not hard enough? Try it in MOPP.

Not hard enough? Try it in MOPP.

The first two are fairly obvious: you can move much more rapidly without giving yourself away when a train is passing by, and high-pitched sounds travel poorly. (You do need to bear in mind that sound travels differently in different atmospheric conditions). The most complicated of those three principles of night movement to apply is the periodic listening halt.

Immediately after inserting, assembly, or crossing a danger area (of which more in some subsequent article), the patrol or team must conduct an initial listening security halt. While the details of the halt may vary, something like this works:

  1. Freeze in place.
  2. Remain there for five full minutes. 
  3. Maintain 360º security.
  4. Actively listen the whole time.
  5. After five minutes, make a decision: move, or continue listening?

Why five minutes? You can change that time if you like, but it’s a good minimum because it’s quite a long time to be frozen in one place. Even a patient enemy, who stops when you do, will move and give his existence and position away before five minutes is up.

Active listening? That means concentrating on listening. You’re not only listening for the enemy, but also to develop a mental picture of what normal night sounds in your location are like. What are they like immediately when you stop? If you have been halted for a time, are there animal noises that come back (and that presumably stopped while you were moving)? Knowing this gives you an edge in the woods, compared to someone who doesn’t.

After the initial halt, the element leader must have a way to silently signal the element to begin moving again. If there is sufficient illumination, hand and arm signals may be effective; if not, touch signals should be used. Only in the most extreme case should a command be verbalized, and then, it should be whispered (remember, a higher-pitched whisper will travel much more poorly than a normal-pitched vocalized word — which is a good thing in a night full of hostiles).

It goes without saying that all these modes of command and control, and the listening security halts themselves, must be practiced in controlled conditions in garrison before attempting them in the face of an armed enemy. Night combat patrol operations are at the far end of a long crawl-walk-run pipeline; they’re the Boston Marathon of crawl-walk-run.

Animal and bird sounds make both effective stealth command and control means, and also excellent “cover” if you inadvertently make a sound in the possible presence of the enemy. Do a Leatherstocking and break a twig, or snap back a branch? The risk of exposure may be mitigated, if you can fake the snort of a deer or porcine species native to the area.

Once the element is on the move, further listening security halts should be executed at relatively short but variable periods. You can set these by distance or by time; it’s also helpful to be cognizant of terrain. If you have just passed through some stuff that was impossible to be truly quiet in, like dense mountain laurel or the dry leaves of an oak forest in winter, a listening security halt on the far side should be able to reassure you about the prospect of being tracked or tailed. As in all patrol technique, principles are iron but the means of serving those principles are best mixed up so as not to simplify the enemy’s counterpatrol planning.

Don’t be the foot-shufflin’, twig-snappin’, noise-makin’ equivalent of the yammering guy in the first paragraph. On patrol, the silent man comes home; the guy who loves the sound of his own noise dies from it.

48 thoughts on “The Listening / Security Halt

  1. Soylent_Green

    HN – did you ever play with any type of electronic amplified hearing devices such as Sordin? What was your impression?

    1. Boat Guy

      Certainly not the inestimable HogNose but I’ll say I’ve become a big fan of Peltors especially if there’s the potential for things to get loud of a sudden. Since my hearing sucks from decades of not having such things (and I have this apparently permanent tone in my ears) the possibility of not making things worse is very attractive. I first wore a set of electronic ear protection at Orange Gunsite in 92 (dunno who made them) but when I was able to hear feet on gravel after shooting several rounds of .45 I was pretty impressed. If they were ever to put me in change of anything I’d make them (and eye protection both clear and glare resistant) “items common to all”.
      Peltors had the advantage in the early days of the current fracas of fitting under helmets – even the K-pot.

    2. looserounds.com

      I have used those commercial things over the years and I notice that while you hear more, you can’t tell which direction it comes from. I was thinking about those while reading and wondered if the military had tried those at any point.

      1. whomever

        ” I notice that while you hear more, you can’t tell which direction it comes from.”

        That must depend on the model – I know I have used ones that gave you a normal sense of direction. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that some models just dump both microphones into a mono amplifier, while other ones keep the two sides separate with their own amplifier.

    3. Seans

      Peltors are great. But it can actually make you sound as if you are being louder than you are walking thru the woods. So it can be annoying. Their sound quality isn’t the best(it’s good, just not up to what the market can make). Sordins are better. Having a halfshell helmet with your peltors/sordin on the rail where you can pop one ear off while patrolling is clutch though. Or having a sylinx or invisio.

      1. Boat Guy

        Yeah good point on the “Man, am I being that loud?” effect.
        I predate the halfshells. I’m sure there are much improved goodies out there, just don’t have any experience with them

    1. KenWats

      I hated the rubber overboots even as a mech guy. I can only imagine trying to do a dismounted patrol in those things. It’d be like starring in your own personal Benny Hill version of a drunken Ranger platoon. Absolutely zero traction. The mask sucked too, don’t get me wrong. You don’t realize all the things you need to put up to your eye or ear until you have it on.

  2. Tom Stone

    Whenever I have moved into a new home I have spent time active listening at different times of the day to establish an understanding of the “Safe” background noise.
    If there’s a sound that doesn’t belong at the time of day it occurs I wake up if asleep or take a look if awake.
    It’s only paid off once, but once was enough.

  3. looserounds.com

    This is a great post. I been looking forward to this one since you teased it a few days ago.

    Without the extra part with men actively trying to kill you, this sounds very close to hunting deer by spot and stalk or squirrel. As you says its practically impossible to be silent in the wood if the ground is covered in dry oak leaves, Now if it had been pouring the rain for 3 days that a different story. Some seemingly odd things happen in the woods with sounds. People up or down a river or across a big body of water can hear your nose far further away than anyone would guess. And sounds travels up hill. or at least seems to. You can hear things 500 yards uphill than you would hear if at the same ground level as the noise. Snow muffles. Seems even the average hilljack notices out of place sounds at night that they’d never even give a thought to in daylight hours.

    I’ve spent all might life outside in the woods with and without a gun in my hand. But i get lost inside a city even as small as Harrisburg PA, walking about the hotel door when on foot.

    You mind if I re-post this over on LR.com?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Be my guest, Shawn. Yes, hunters know instinctively that (1) silence is relative, not absolute and (2) Cooper is bullshit. Some fun stories though. The Daniel Day-Lewis Last of the Mohicans is great cinema.

      1. Chris

        Last of the Mohicans is a great War story disguised as a romance. That awful Enemy at the Gates movie was the opposite: shitty romance disguised as a war movie.

    2. Loren

      In Colorado we called dry Aspen leaves “rice crispies” Impossible to walk on quietly but great if you were on top of a bowl. sound carries up and you hear from some amazing distances.
      At my rural I’m on a ridge over a shallow valley. The cabin acts like a receiver and I can hear the crunch of gravel from a slow moving car tire a mile away at night.
      Hard to imagine how tiring it must be to travel silently when people are out there wanting to slice and dice anything that moves.

    3. JohnMc

      looserounds,

      I used to get lost in cityscapes till an ole uncle of mine taught me a key fact. American cities are laid out by one of two factors. Either due to a feature of the landscape or by magnetic north. The colonial cities of yore were laid out with boulevards to move goods off the docks to the shops and buyers as efficiently as possible. (Philly, Baltimore, old NYC) DC on the other hand was laid out in relationship to the compass. Add that st, ave, blvd usually point to a feature in relation to each other and one can develop a rough outline of where one is.

  4. Neil S.

    On an unrelated note, every time that I see a reference to the Mark Twain dissection of the Leatherstocking tales, I have to drop everything and re-read it. Phenomenal.

  5. RLTW

    I played a Ranger for 60 something days once. We learned this technique by the acronym “SLLS” (pronounced Seals).
    Stop: everyone takes a knee in formation, making certain that 360 degrees of security is maintained, for between 3-5 minutes.
    Look: watch for motion, light, etc.
    Listen: vehicles, voices, metallic sounds, motion, and the noises that are supposed to be there.
    Smell: after you’ve been away from civilization for a while, its amazing how striking the smells of food, clean laundry, and other human-based scents are. I don’t recall ever detecting OPFOR by their odor, but we could always tell when Ranger Instructor Changeover was complete because we could smell the showered / laundered RI approaching the patrol base.

    What action to take upon contact and the locations of rally points are an absolutely essential part of the patrol brief (and rehearsals if possible) before leaving the wire / beginning the patrol.

  6. Sabrina Chase

    I am also devastated to learn the super-ninja techniques were not on the roster. Budget cuts? Those submarine-loads of gold bars add up. Or maybe only the “classified” SpecOps got them. You know, the guys who are so sekrit they don’t have records anywhere? Like bozo in previous post?

    Material that reflects sound is another factor. Water was mentioned above, but also flat, hard surfaces like stone floors can “bounce” the sound. I once lived in an old apartment building in California with a stone landing between facing apartment doors. Late at night my (drunk/clumsy) neighbor opening his door sounded *exactly* like someone trying to force *mine*. Great for an adrenaline-fueled launch from drowsy to grab-a-bludgeon… until I figured it out.

  7. TBoone

    I love the way you weave Mark Twain into a ‘simple’ example of elite level field craft. And kinda let the imagination and/or higher level logic functions ruminate on the truth that ‘everything’ in an operation of small or large complexity need approach ‘that’ level of detail. On an instinctual/habitual level. Captivating. Enjoyable. Humbling.

    More of same such, please. Always more…

  8. W. Fleetwood

    My two cents worth. I’ve found that, out of the box, an infantryman can not stand, sit, or lie still for more than about two minutes. This was true across all races, creeds, colors, ethnicities and cultures. With some serious work, repeated practice and some cheating (See below.), you can bring that up to 15 minutes. A four man stick can do it fairly easily. A Platoon can do it. Beyond that, when you’re looking at a Company or so, it borders on the impossible, the numbers are just too steep.

    A short guide to cheating. When a unit is brought to a halt they should have a signal for “take a knee” or “freeze” . This is not a signal for a listening halt, it’s a warning that things may be about to go all Dodge City on you. There is a different signal for a listening stop. When a unit gets that signal every troop has 10 seconds (Which is quite a long time.) to get comfortable; set his feet, set his load, wipe the sweat out of his eyes, and so on. Then, still standing, they all …. Stop Moving! And listen out. It takes a couple of minutes to adapt to the quiet and stop listening close, but once your unit is actually quiet and listening out, within 15 minutes you’ll know if there’s anybody else out there, even if they aren’t traveling. As you mentioned, the enemy isn’t a Hollywood Ninja either. You will hear them.

    Additional cheats. Have one of your guys with proven hearing, close his eyes throughout. If you’re doing this prior to spending a night, always fishhook into position and take thirty seconds to prep comfortable sit-on-your-butt positions. If somebody does make a noise during the listening period, pack it up. move out at a new bearing, travel a full terrain feature away, and start over from zero.

    By the way, quiet time is slower than anyone realizes, including you. You have a watch, use it. You will come to the conclusion the the battery has failed. It hasn’t. Einstein was right, time is relative, and if you don’t clock it you will guess short every single time.

    The above, rigorously enforced and practiced allowed our unit to actually, no bullshit, most of the time, get in the first shot against guerrillas. It isn’t magic, but it was a lot harder to do than it sounds like, or doesn’t sound like, or something, Hell, you know what I mean.

    One minor disagreement, or maybe an extra viewpoint. Animal / Bird noises. If you are the Locals and the enemy are the Tourists, (Montagnards Vs. NVA) okay. If you’re both Tourists, (US Vs Germans, in France) okay. If you are the Tourists and the enemy are the Locals (And if you’re not really, really Local my friend, you’re a Tourist.) sorry, it’s not a good idea.

    Anyway, excellent post on a important subject that often gets overlooked in our high tech world.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara, Wasara.

    1. staghounds

      Those are good tips!

      The man who taught me used to say “You can’t be quiet, but you can be unnoticed. Don’t sound like someone walking in the woods.”

    2. 15Fixer

      When I am by myself, I found that it is my mind that is impatient. When I need to be still for any length of time, I count the seconds in my head while I am watching/listening/smelling. By the time I reach “one thousand three hundred” (5 minutes times 60 seconds) I know that I haven’t moved for over 5 minutes, and I know if anything else is moving around me. YMMV

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  10. Ned2

    I’m surprised an extensive hunting background isn’t a prerequisite for any SF. I would imagine you would find that most do have that childhood training in the woods.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Actually, no. There is a mix of farm and country boys, city kids, rich kids slumming. But the average SF guy comes from a suburban, middle-class background. And maybe 80% never hunted.

  11. Hillbilly

    When it was my turn as an observer during stalking exercises a couple of the things I looked for was deer being pushed out their beds and birds being startled. Even If I couldn’t see the student because he was using the terrain well I could often track their progress through the lane or guess where he was headed.

  12. Neil

    Here in oregon we have a small chipmunk that takes it upon itself to be the woods hall monitor. When you run into one it sets up a rukus as loud and quite similar to a damned car alarm! Standing still doesn’t help. They’re so small and invisible you can’t see them to shoot the bastards. The only thing I’ve found works is to leave the area. They seem to have proximity of about 50-75 yards. Once outside that range they quiet down. Fortunately they also do it to deer, elk, coyote, bears, big cats etc. On top of that every inch of the woods here is Cooper’s dry twig! It’s ALL been logged and the forest floor is covered in logging debris. It is IMPOSSIBLE to move quietly. If you try you’ll spend the entire time with your eyes glued to the ground try in pick a path instead of paying attention to things further out. Fortunately the same rules apply to game. Elk sound like bulldozers and even deer make clear noises. I stop and listen A LOT! If one was in a listening position there’s no way you could miss an approaching enemy. I’ve also found the clothing you wear to be extremely important. Nothing in the woods sounds like brush rubbing on nylon. I wear a softshell Gortex layer on the outside. Helps immensely but even your boots make a lot of noise!

  13. John Distai

    Here’s my version of listening halt – Tell the children to stop, be quiet, and stand still for a few moments. We wait while the loud voices of yammering yuppies or chatty college kids fade into the distance. When peace returns, we slowly resume and enjoy the woods as they were meant to be enjoyed; quietly and peacefully.

  14. Andrew

    Certainly not a special guy by any means but here are a couple of things I noticed while creeping around after dark real tactical like.

    I find guys can be quiet for a few seconds but then have to shuffle themselves as discomfort sets in. Guys will stop and freeze by then inevitably have to move their foot, or shift a strap or whatever. Learning to immediately adopt a comfortable and stable position you can maintain for five minutes is important.

    Second, I always found it remarkable how much more sound you notice when you close your eyes, tip your head slightly forward, open your mouth/relax your jaw and swivel your head back and forth.

    I’ve also been really surprised at how much noise animals make.

  15. Centurion_Cornelius

    DAMN GOOD POST, Hognose! Many thanks. Put it in practice just last night about 2300, when I sashayed out in total darkness just to eyeball and to admire the Harvest Moon, but was greatly rewarded by sharpening my listening skills.

    Total silence, no streetlights, no vehicle lights. Nuthin, DARK.

    But then–some dimwits 1,2000 meters away were bullshitting on their back deck, playing grabass, and conversing in normal tones all in the dark, and I could actually make out what they were saying! Must have be the terrain, wind, and acoustics. Taught me a REAL BIG lesson, at THEIR COST.

    ..and the five minute “freeze” thing, well I practice a lot, every chance I get. For example, a real good place is at weekly church services where I’ve had congregants approach me afterwards and say: “My, you stood up and were completely still for 20 minutes! Never moved an inch. Almost couldn’t tell if you were breathing at all. How’d you do that?”

    “Respect,” I always tell ’em. Respect and gratitude at multiple levels if you get my drift. Seventy Summers on God’s green earth–and I’m still learning.

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