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Tiradores de la Muerte: The Philippines' First True Special Forces

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

Tiradores de la Muerte

Tiradores de la Muerte

Who Were Tiadores de la Muerte?

The elite unit of the Philippines, the Light Reaction Company is considered to be the local version of the Delta Force for a good reason. They are the bane of insurgents and extremists and are responsible for successful operations against various terrorist groups. Their insignia bears the image of an eagle, with the words "Tiradores de la Muerte," Spanish for the "Marksmen of Death." This unit motto perfectly defines the special forces unit, yet it was actually derived from the name of another group of elite soldiers who fought in the Philippine-American War.

Before the Armed Forces of the Philippines came to be, the Philippine Revolutionary Army served as the armed forces of the First Republic. Back then, after the colonization of Spain, a new enemy emerged. After Spain left the country, another world power took its place. The Philippines were under American occupation, but the First Philippine Republic refused to go down without a fight. In terms of equipment, the Revolutionary Army was inferior. There was a shortage of modern equipment, and so all they had were weapons taken from the Spanish forces. They also had traditional weapons at their disposal, or utility implements turned into infantry blades. One of these was the iconic bolo. But, no matter how iconic or nostalgic a weapon was, it still fell short compared to the superior firepower of the American colonizers.

Nevertheless, General Antonio Luna managed to organize a small group of fierce fighters who helped inflict heavy losses to the Americans despite being outgunned and outnumbered.

General Antonio Luna

General Antonio Luna

Antonio Luna Was No Pushover

Together with Rizal and his brother Juan Luna, Antonio was one of the well-known Ilustrados. And while Juan became a world-class artist, Antonio carved a name for himself in his own way. As a human being, he was by no means perfect. He and Rizal once fought over a woman, and he possessed the infamous Luna temper. He also made a blunder when his words were used to lay down Rizal’s death sentence. Nevertheless, he was schooled in various disciplines, like pharmacology and literature. But it was his military education that benefited the republic the most.

Initially, Antonio wasn’t willing to join the revolution, seeing the underground movement Katipunan as putting up a futile fight. Nevertheless, he received a prison sentence for his alleged involvement in the revolution. He was soon released, with charges against him dismissed. During his time away from the country, he studied various military sciences under Belgian General Gerard Leman. His extensive military education earned him a recommendation from Aguinaldo. He then returned to the Philippines, and saw his first action on August 13, 1898, during the American occupation of Intramuros. During his time in the military, Luna strived to train and organize what he saw as amateurish Filipino troops.

Then, the Philippine-American War broke, and he became one of the best generals to take on the Americans, thanks mostly to his extensive education. His defense lines gave the Americans difficulties in their campaign in the north. And, being a proficient rifleman, Luna organized a troop of sharpshooters comprised of highly trained and professional guerillas. This troop was known as Tiradores de la Muerte (Marksmen of Death).

Various uniforms worn by enlisted men during that period. The Tiradores is shown on the far right.

Various uniforms worn by enlisted men during that period. The Tiradores is shown on the far right.

Elite Sharpshooters

Again, most of the troops serving under the Philippine Revolutionary Army were untrained volunteers. The outbreak of war never helped, as it stopped Luna from training what he saw as an army of amateurs. Yet, he took a small group of infantrymen and trained them into his personal effective fighting force.

It all started when eight infantrymen went to Luna to express their desires to serve in the army. They were then taken by Luna, and from this group, he would form his elite unit of sharpshooters. Most of his men originally served in the Spanish Army.

Again, the Philippine Revolutionary Army lacked modern weapons, yet Luna still managed to arm his unit with one of the best guns available at that time. Training and skills would result in nothing if the equipment lacked accuracy, hence his unit wielded the Mauser rifle model 1893.

The basis of this rifle is a German design, but they had the Spanish version. Being a 19th-century battle rifle, it was bolt action. Meaning, one must manually manipulate the bolt to eject the spent cartridge and chamber a round. Yet it was still quick-firing compared to the muzzleloading firearms that took around thirty seconds to reload. It fired the first generation of smokeless powder rimless bottleneck cartridge, the 7.65x53mm Mauser round. During that time, the cartridge was considered revolutionary and high-performance. The Tiradores wore darker blue uniforms.

Having received the best training, and best quick-firing, high-powered firearm of that time, one might wonder how the unit fared in real life.

The Spanish Mauser Model 1893. The preferred weapon of the Tiradores.

The Spanish Mauser Model 1893. The preferred weapon of the Tiradores.

Major Engagements

The function of Luna’s rifle unit was to spearhead the assault in battles. Meaning they were in the frontlines to lead the attack. They also participated in various guerilla warfare against the Americans. When Malolos fell, Luna, his sharpshooters, and his troops never gave the Americans an easy victory. His forces were heavily outnumbered, with only 5000 strong against the 15000 American soldiers under Arthur MacArthur Jr. What seemed to be an easy campaign for the American forces lasted from March 25 to 31. Though the battle for Malolos only left 8 casualties on the American side, the whole campaign costs the American forces 56 dead and 478 wounded.

A month later (April 25 to 27 1899) the Battle of Calumpit broke, and once again Luna went into the field with his sharpshooters leading the charge. It was an American victory, though casualties were disputed. Luna’s claim is 700 dead on the American side against the 200 dead Filipinos, but the Americans put the deaths at only 22 with 127 wounded.

Nevertheless, the Americans learned to respect Luna and his sharpshooters, while another battle caused them a high-ranking military official.

Death of Henry Ware Lawton

Death of Henry Ware Lawton

How Lawton Fell

Back at home, Henry Ware Lawton was often credited with the capture of Native-American Geronimo. Ironically, it will be another Geronimo that would end his life during the Battle of Paye, also known as the Battle of San Mateo. The battle took place on the rainy day of December 19, 1899, when Lawton took on Pio del Pillar’s forces of 1000 men. As he rallied his men, Lawton took a bullet to the chest, from Luna sharpshooter Bonifacio Mariano under the command of Licerio Geronimo.

The insignia of the Light Reaction Regiment

The insignia of the Light Reaction Regiment

Legacy

The Tiradores de la Muerte only became active in 1899; nevertheless, their legacy lives on until today, among one of AFP’s finest. We could say that they are one of the first true Special Forces of the Philippine army, being an elite that served in the First Republic. It is only fitting that they are remembered today in the insignia of their successor the Light Reaction Company of AFP.

Light Reaction Company in action

Light Reaction Company in action

References:

  1. "Spanish Mauser Model 1893 Bolt Action Rifle" (6 July 2011). mandirigma.org.
  2. Canonigo, JP (n.d.). "Los Tiradores de la Muerte: General Antonio Luna's Feared Marksmen." istoryadista.net.
  3. Ocampo, Ambeth (2015). Looking Back 10: Two Lunas, Two Mabinis. Pasig: Anvil Press.

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