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Origin and Development of the Military Sniper

Marksmanship is a skill as old as the first aimed spear made its lethal impression on an animal or enemy. The measure of accuracy with a lethal weapon, no matter how “primitive” was the measure of survival. The necessity of accuracy in combat developed in parallel, to a point, with the technology of warfare. While highly accurate archers were prized and no doubt part of the battlefield through the Middle Ages most combat was close in, hand-to-hand and blade-to-blade.

Even the development of gunpowder, an es-sential element for long-range attack, simply made the close-order set-piece battles, from Ghent to Gettysburg, much bloodier at the usual close range. Eventually the distinctly American concept of marksmanship, so necessary for frontier food and survival, found its place on the battlefield and developed into the contemporary military sniper. Unlike many military weapons and systems, the development of sniper weapons and tactics brought an entirely new personal and psychological element to the art of war.

In their dramatic histo-ry of American combat snipers, One Shot One Kill, authors Charles Sasser and Craig Roberts relate the thoughts of a sniper in Viet Nam: I am, in effect, playing God, in contrast to my upbringing that it is wrong to kill and all the Commandments. I realize the power that I have, being in a position to execute people. You don’t have that in a regular firefight. The blood of the dead isn’t directly on your hands. With the precision shooting of the scoped rifle, there is no question in anybody’s mind who squeezes the round off.

The person falls and there’s an everlasting imprint on my mind. (Sasser 200). Over three hundred years earlier, during the British First Civil War of 1642 it is certainly plausible similar sentiments ran through the mind of John Dyott. Author Andy Dougan, in Through the Crosshairs, recounts the event: John Dyott and his comrade in arms had clambered on to the cathedral roof with the express purpose of trying to do whatever they could to turn the moment to their advantage.

It is argued that Dyott and the other man were on the roof when they saw (Robert Greville, Lord) Brooke watching his gun crew from the door-way…and stepped out from the protection of the door lintel…as he did so John Dyott, who had been watching intently, took careful aim and fired… The musket ball struck him in the left eye and he died instantly. (Dougan, 10) This was arguably the first recorded sniper “kill” and the beginning of what Dougan refers to as “the shadowy craft” of “one shot, one kill” (13). The necessity of good marksmanship in combat with a musket then or a rifle now is of course obvious.

The evolution of the marksman-turned-sniper turns on a key event: the musketeer or rifleman must be accurate with any target of opportunity facing him on the battlefield; the sniper must be accurate with a specific target on or off the battlefield. The death of British Brig-adier General Simon Fraser in 1778 may be the first American case in point. According to Dougan Fraser was an imposing sight and his mounted exhortations to his troops caught the notice of General Benedict Arnold who instructed a subordinate to “dispose of” him (46).

The subordinate officer, Daniel Morgan, was the commander of the Continental Rifle Corps, also known as Morgan’s Rifles. These riflemen were considered the best in Washington’s army. Morgan, giving the command to his best shooter, states “that gallant officer is General Fraser…I admire him, but it is necessary that he should die. Do your duty” (46). Fraser was mortally wounded at a distance of 300 yards. The art and science of sniping developed in pace with the weapons technology brought about by wars in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America.

The effective use of specially trained marksmen was not lost on the British who used sniper tactics during the various wars with Napoleon. According to Dougan “the rifleman came of age during the Peninsular War…this sort of shooting (snipers) was rare, but the Baker rifle and the tactics it allowed…changed the way the British Army fought its wars” (83). The American Civil War saw a similar advancement in training, weaponry and tactics to exploit the advantages of the “one shot, one kill” method.

In several fundamental ways contemporary military sniper theory and practice is the direct descendant of Civil War-era inventor and marksman Hiram Berdan. For several years prior and up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 Berdan was by all accounts one of, if not the best target shooter in the United States. Although without any military train-ing he became a flamboyant and tireless promoter of the concept of specially-trained and equipped “marksmen” companies.

He successfully lobbied President Lincoln and wasted no time in touring the Union, holding shooting matches and soliciting the best shooters to enlist for his special corps. His promises to the potential snipers amounted to the trappings of what was the beginning of an unprecedented military elite: his soldier-snipers would be equipped with the latest, best and most accurate rifles. Their training would concentrate on marksmanship and the peculiar if not antithetical military tactics of the sniper. They would be clothed in unique uniforms colored to blend with the seasonal foliage.

Best yet was an absence of the monotony and drudgery of routine soldiering: “we were exempt from all labour on earthworks and trenches, and we did not have night duty but were al-ways relieved at nightfall when we could return to our camp” (118). At Gettsyburg, Fredericksburg, and other engagements “the value of Berdan’s men to McClellan’s forces was incalculable” (119). The Confederacy was not without knowledge of the value of the sniper. Howev-er, southern attitude and economy conspired against the Army of Virginia in establishing a sniper cadre as it had with so many other endeavors.

Like the North, the South had no shortage of excellent shooters, but the men in Southern state militias were doctrinally op-posed to a centralized, regimental structure. Snipers were selected out of corps-wide competitions but assigned to specific units on an individual basis. The South did not have the deadly accurate Sharps rifle or the industrial capacity to manufacture any weapon near its quality. The British Whitworth rifle was their weapon of choice, but naval embar-gos and cost made the rifle scarce compared to the Union’s Sharps Rifle.

Still, Confeder-ate snipers took their toll; “at Fredericksburg in the winter of 1862, the Confederates put Barksdales’ Mississippians, one of their own sharpshooting regiments, into the line and inflicted serious losses on the Union forces in a withering sniper duel” (123). The development of modern bolt-action rifles and their center-fire high-power me-tallic cartridges, along with the development of rifle optics during the latter part of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century marked the origin of con-temporary military sniper hardware.

A model 1898 Mauser bolt-action eight-millimeter rifle, with or without a mounted scope, is still a very effective long-range combat rifle, and arguably some soldiers to this day are carrying lesser weapons. Classic American large-caliber rifles, such as the Springfield model 1903 bolt-action and the Garand M1A1 semi-automatic were used by snipers in both world wars, Korea and Vietnam. The development of formal military sniper schools was much more problematic.

While marksmanship instruction and competitive shooting has been a military tradition for centuries, consistent sniper training has not. Sniper units were organized and trained on an as-needed basis and then disbanded when no longer required. Historically the sniper has been the military’s “bastard child” and something less then an honorable profession. The famous American war correspondent Ernie Pyle remarked “sniping, as far as I know, is recognized as a legitimate means of warfare. And yet there is something sneaking about it that outrages the American sense of fairness” (212).

The veteran British sniper Harry Fur-ness believes it was because “war in the abstract is bearable while war that focuses on the individual combatant is somehow abhorrent, inhumane…the sniper has made war person-al” (214). From the sniper’s point of view he “does not hate the enemy; he respects him or her as a quarry. Psychologically, the only motive that will sustain the sniper is the knowledge that he is doing a necessary job and the confidence that he is the best person to do it” (251).

This necessity was finally and formally recognized by the United States Marine Corp in 1977 when it started its scout/sniper school and by the United States Army in 1987 when it began its sniper training program at Fort Benning, Georgia (Sasser, 259). Like Hiram Berdan both branches immediately sought what they considered the state-of-the-art sniper rifle, the Remington Model 700. Tracing its history and design to the Springfield bolt-action rifle, the basic Remington is the same for both Army and Marine Corps, with specific stocks and optics for the specific branches.

Berdan would find simi-larities on the rifle range as well as in the tents—the attitude of the sniper continues to justifiably be the attitude of the confident, competent elite. He would also be pleased with the prevailing attitude leading to the establishment of the sniper schools; as Sasser points out “the sniper has come out of the closet” (259). If, as author Dougan writes “what the snipers did in Vietnam was to legitimize their craft” the “new wars fought…in the Middle East (prove) the inexpensive, mobile and usually highly motivated sniper was the ideal combatant” (Dougan, 284-285).

Noth-ing could be further removed from the eighteenth and nineteenth century set-piece battle-fields or the division-sized engagements of World War II than the “new wars” in Afghan-istan and Iraq. In these wars the sniper is not simply an accessory combatant attached to another unit for sporadic use. The geography and dynamics of the battleground as well as the operations of the enemy necessitate deployment of snipers as a main-line frontal of-fensive force. The enemy is not a uniformed soldier moving about with squad or platoon tactics, carrying weapons, gear and radios.

More often than not he is as nondescript as the citizenry and likely appearing just as harmless to the casual or distracted eye. He appears quite different to the patient sniper and his spotter concealed a thousand yards away. They notice him in the crowd, walking a little faster than most, trying to discreetly look for any watching military eyes. They see him idly walking down a street, seemingly pass-ing the time with coffee and a cigarette. They watch intently as he scans the now desert-ed street, and quickly moves to a discarded cart along the road, removing a small impro-vised explosive device from under his loose-fitting garb.

Then they live up to their motto of one shot, one kill. In his closing note author Andy Dougan recounts the 2003 death of American Army private Shawn Pahnke, killed in Baghdad while riding on a Humvee: He had been wearing a flak jacket but the shooter had chosen an angled shot that would miss the armor plate in the jacket…the sniper was not found, nor is he like-ly to be. Unlike the death of Lord Brooke at Lichfield, the shooting of Shawn Pahnke did not change the course of the battle. But more than 400 years later it did prove the invincibility of the sniper.

(296) Unfortunately Iraq and Afghanistan will certainly not be the last battlefields for snipers and Remington 700’s will not be their ultimate weapon. The weapons and fields of war will change. The strategic and tactical use of the military sniper will continue to evolve and yet always remain faithful to the ‘one shot, one kill’ maxim from his origin.

Works Cited

Sasser, Charles W. , Craig, Robert. One Shot—One Kill. New York: Pocket Star Books, 1990. Dougan, Andy. Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.

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