It is said that hunters make good snipers, while that may be true, deer and elk do not shoot back. There is much more that goes into a sniper’s training than just making the kill shot. The sniper is a self-motivated person that ranks top in their class; they are the best of the best in their units. Some of the duties of the sniper include reconnaissance/observation, fieldcraft, camouflage/concealment, infiltration and exfiltration, the ability to call in fire support, to be able to take out key hard and soft targets (both mechanical and organic). Depending on whom you are speaking with, the word sniper conjures many different images and feelings. For the folks on the muzzle end of the sniper rifle, fear and anger would be applicable and the ones directing where the sniper’s projectile will hit might describe a sniper as a force multiplier or a stealth warrior. I guess it really depends what side of the rifle scope that you are on that will determine how you would describe a sniper at the moment of impact. With countersniper tactics getting more formidable all of the time, even the sniper himself becomes the hunted one.
The term sniper is derived from a fast moving little bird called a snipe. The snipe is a master of camouflage whilst they are on the ground and they are hard to shoot when they are airborne because of their erratic flight pattern. During the 1770s, British soldiers, serving in India, used the verb “to snipe” to describe the skills that a hunter needed to possess to be able to shoot the quick moving snipe. Though we may not have referred to our military’s finest marksman as snipers throughout our nation’s history, our ancestral warfighters certainly used some of the techniques of the modern sniper on the battlefield.
During the Revolutionary War, our minutemen would shoot at key targets from concealed positions. The best shooters in those days were referred to as Marksmen. Many marksmen made use of the Jaeger rifle or Pennsylvania long rifle. The Pennsylvania long rifles utilized rifled barrels and were far more accurate than a firearm with a smoothbore barrel. In a letter to the King of England, General Lord Howe wrote about the Pennsylvania long rifle and referred to it as, “The terrible gun of the rebels”!
During the American Civil War, a “skirmisher or sharpshooter” would describe a sniper. The death toll rose significantly in this war because the soldiers from both sides were good hunters and skilled frontiersmen. The utilization of breech loading firearms, like the 1859 Sharps carbine/rifle, combined with the use of the percussion cap that increased the volume of fire that each soldier was capable of, also increased the death toll. In the Confederate Army, the Whitworth and Kerr rifles were the best rifles to be had and only the best shooters received those rifles. Probably the most famous marksmen during this period were Berdan’s Sharpshooters. This regiment of Union sharpshooters, armed with the Sharps rifle, turned the tide in many battles throughout the Civil War.
In the Confederate Army, individual marksmen and two man teams were attached to regular infantry units, a tradition that still holds true today. Sniper techniques used in the Civil War included the use of special fieldcraft (camouflaging, making hides to shoot from), utilizing telescopic sights, and taking out key targets like Officers, artillerymen, or enemy sharpshooters. The psychological impact of seeing the head of the guy next to you explode or the loss of leadership can be devastating to enemy morale. On one occasion, Union General John Sedgwick, whilst under fire from confederate sharpshooters, told his troops, “They couldn’t hit an elephant from this distance!” The general was promptly hit in the head and killed by a confederate bullet. These techniques of days gone by are still valid on today’s battlefield.
The evolution of the “Modern Sniper” can be traced back to the Germans during World War I. The German Army had sporting rifles that were topped with hunting optics sent to the frontlines and later they fitted the Gew 98 rifle with telescopic sights for sniping purposes. The German snipers were free to operate independently from the unit and carry out observation missions and they were also able to take out targets of opportunity. The German marksmen’s sniping efforts were demoralizing to the British troops in the trenches of No Man’s Land. Countersniping techniques were slow to evolve on the British side. The Germans had the best optics technology of the time and they had already stockpiled telescopic sights for use in the war. By the end of the war, the sniper tactics of America, Canada and Britain were being put to good use. One thing that was learned by all sides during World War I is that the use of snipers was an effective tool on the battlefield.
During World War II, snipers were utilized by both Allied and Axis forces. A variety of new tactics and techniques were employed, as this war was fought in all types of different terrain and conditions. From the extreme heat and jungle conditions of the Pacific, to the bitter cold and snowy winter forests of Europe. There was a lot of “Close Quarter Combat” in Stalingrad, Russia, as well as in all of the cities, towns and villages throughout Europe. The famous Russian sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, used a Mosin-Nagant rifle and a telescopic sight to great effect in the Battle of Stalingrad. The German sniper primarily used a karabiner 98k rifle with a scope. The British had let their sniper program die after World War I. The Brits first used the Pattern 14 rifles with telescopic sights from WWI, but later started to use a sniper version of the .303 Rifle No. 4 with telescopic sights. The Americans were no better prepared for sniping warfare than the British. The United States used Springfield 1903A4 rifles that had a Weaver scope. The Garand M1C and the M1D rifles were also used as sniper rifles and were topped with a telescopic sight. Most snipers during WWII operated in the sniper-spotter two-man team configuration. The Japanese used the Type 97 rifle with a telescopic sight for their sniper rifle, which was a variation of the Arisaka Type 38 rifle. The Japanese effectively used the height of the palm trees for sniping and observation.
The United States Marine Corps really stepped up its sniper program during WWII. The Marines were issued Springfield 1903A1 rifles with 8x Unertl scopes. The sniper training for the Marines consisted of marksmanship, observation, map reading, photography, camouflage and fieldcraft.
Unfortunately, in the Korean War, past lessons were not learned and the United States was once again not prepared for the use of snipers on the battlefield. The American snipers used old Springfield rifles with telescopic sights and Garand M1C rifles. The snipers, getting tired of the range of the .30-06 cartridge, began to master firing just one shot from a .50 caliber M2 machinegun mounted with a telescopic sight. Two-man sniper teams with 4 riflemen were commonly deployed to direct air support missions and artillery fire, as well as to take out targets of opportunity. The full potential of the sniper was still far from being realized!
The proving ground for snipers was in Vietnam. Sniping proved to be very effective against the guerilla warfare used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. It was during the Vietnam War that a Sniper Doctrine was formed and sniper training schools were established, so that the art of sniping would not be put on the shelf and forgotten about ever again. Some sniper legends and hard earned lessons evolved from Southeast Asia. Carlos Hathcock, the white feather, was a sniper in the Marine Corps that achieved 93 confirmed kills, not to mention all of his probable kills. Carlos was instrumental in developing the USMC Sniper Training program. Hathcock summed his sniping career up by saying, “I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job, If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.” Carlos experimented with shooting the .50 caliber M2 with a telescopic sight, but he primarily used the Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle.
Chuck Mawhinney holds the Marine Corps record with 103 confirmed kills during his 16 months in country. Chuck used the M14 rifle and the M40 rifle (basically a Remington Model 700 chambered in .308 Winchester). After the war, Chuck remained silent for two decades about his sniping career; his wife didn’t even know what he had been through. A book mentioned Mawhinney’s record in 1991 and he has been attending shooting competitions and speaking at sniper training seminars ever since.
Another name that should be mentioned when talking about snipers in the Vietnam War is Adelbert “Bert” Waldron III. Bert had 109 confirmed kills. After serving 12 years in the Navy, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and headed to Vietnam. Bert qualified as an expert marksman and was then sent to sniper school. Waldron primarily used the M-21 SWS (sniper weapon system) rifle, which was a semi-automatic version of the M14. After Vietnam, Bert taught at the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit before retiring from the army.
The snipers of the Vietnam era helped to establish an ongoing tradition of expert training for snipers in the U.S. Military. Today, snipers are taught marksmanship on a variety of weapons, as well as fieldcraft, reconnaissance/surveillance and tactics. The sending of two-man sniper teams out in the field has been utilized since the Civil War. The sniper will lead the stalk, he selects and helps to build the hide, observes and will take the final shot in an operation. The sniper typically has a scoped rifle, binoculars, and a handgun. The spotter will provide defense for the team, help build the hide, observe and identify targets, operate the radio, estimate wind and range and will sterilize the hide after exfiltration. The spotter is also an accomplished sniper and is able to take the shot if the conditions of the mission warrant it. The spotter will usually carry a rifle (an M14 or M16A2 with an M203 40mm grenade launcher), a spotting scope, a laser range finder and a handgun. Just like a military sniper team, police snipers operate in two-man teams. Police snipers are usually part of a SWAT division and will go where they are needed to provide support for their unit. Countersniping tactics are also utilized by the Police Sniper.
Different operations demand different weapons systems to accomplish the mission. In most Law Enforcement scenarios, the range of engagement is usually within 100 yards. The Police Sniper must consider the many legal complications and laws before taking a shot. A common chambering for a police sniper rifle is the .223 Remington (equivalent to the military’s 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge), as it is a round that will not over penetrate. The .308 Winchester (equivalent to the military 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge) is a cartridge that would be good for shooting through glass or for a longer engagement distance. Some SWAT units and other agencies employ the .50 BMG cartridge, however, the need to stop a bus or a train does not come up very often.
The Military, on the other hand, can utilize the energy unleashed by the .50 BMG cartridges on a daily basis! In a war zone, it may be very necessary to disable a car, a bus, a train, or even an aircraft. The .50 caliber round is used for ordnance disposal and detonating IEDs and car bombs from a safe distance, as well as taking out soft and hard targets. If you need penetration, the .50 BMG and a Barrett Model 82A1 (M107) rifle would be a good choice! Some of the other firearms and chamberings currently used by the military are: the M14 in 7.62x51mm NATO, the M24 bolt action rifle (the US Army’s equivalent of the Remington Model 700) in 7.62x51mm NATO, the M40 bolt-action rifle (the US Marine Corps’ equivalent of the Remington Model 700) in 7.62x51mm NATO, the M110 SASS (Semi-Automatic Sniper System) rifle, which is manufactured by Knight’s Armament Company. Other cartridges that are in use are the .338 Lapua Magnum and the .300 Winchester Magnum.
A snipers rifle, first and foremost, must be extremely accurate and reliable. The optics must be just as good as the rifle itself. Leupold, Nightforce and Schmidt & Bender come to mind when it comes to quality scopes. A bipod can be a handy addition to a sniper rifle, as it offers stability for accuracy and follow up shots. A suppressor can aid in masking your shooting position or hide and should be considered for certain missions. Muzzle brakes certainly have their place in taming recoil, however, steps must be taken to hide the dust and debris from the increased muzzle blast and the report of the rifle is significantly louder.
Before being selected for sniper school, you must be found to be both mentally and physically fit. A sociopath or someone hung up on “thou shall not kill” would not make good candidates. As you might suspect, a sniper’s training first consists of being taught expert marksmanship. Without scoring high in this category, the other teachings become a moot point. All types of shooting are taught, from handguns to the Barrett .50 caliber rifle. Snipers learn about firearms maintenance, design and function, ballistics, bullets, optics, wind and range estimation, mantracking, survival techniques, and shot placement. Scope sight picture, shooting position, breathing patterns, grip, trigger control, and follow-through are all emphasized to acquire the best accuracy. Good physical conditioning is always a requirement. You have to be able to make an accurate shot, even when you are exhausted. It might be really physically challenging to get yourself into an optimal shooting position. Once you are in position to make the shot, it might be hours or days before you can actually take the shot. This takes a person that is patient and one that is physically capable of staying in a cramped position for a really long period of time.
Camouflage and concealment are important factors in sniping. When people can see you, they will kill you! One of the most useful tools for camouflage is the Ghillie suit. This is a type of clothing that is used for concealment and incorporates the colors, shapes and foliage of the environment that the sniper is working in. The full Ghillie suit includes a hat (sometimes with a veil), gloves, a jacket, a pair of pants and usually some type of camo wrap for your rifle. A Ghillie suit can be made by attaching strips of burlap, jute twine and cloth to a BDU (battle dress uniform) or to some coveralls. The strips of cloth can be painted the colors that will enable you to blend in with your operation’s surroundings. It is always a good idea to treat your suit with a flame retardant, as nobody wants to be burnt alive. Leaves, twigs and other foliage can be added to the suit as needed. The Ghillie suit was first used by Scottish gamekeepers for hunting and the Ghillie suit was later used in battle. If heat is a factor, a Ghillie poncho or a large camouflaged cape may do the trick. The face is a very identifiable shape. A face veil is a great addition when there are mosquitoes and bugs all around but it is not a substitute for face paint. The basic rule in camouflaging your face is to make the depths of your face (eye sockets, inner ears, under the chin and neck) stand out by using lighter colors and the protruding parts of your face (nose, lips, forehead, cheekbones) to be recessed by using darker colors. The colors that you use will once again be determined by your surroundings but typically various shades of brown, green and black are used. A sloppy application is good because you don’t want your face to look like a face when you are finished.
In order to complete their mission and not be killed, snipers learn how to properly move and stalk a target and are then able to exfiltrate without being seen or getting caught. It is the spotter’s job to supply defensive fire and protection when infiltrating and exfiltrating. Stalking is simply defined as approaching in a stealthy manner. Stalking is easily defined, yet it is hard to perform correctly. Let’s put it this way, there is a lot of slow crawling involved when you do not want to be detected. Proper camouflage, concealment, patience, as well as slow and methodical movements are the keys to not being seen.
Once you have successfully infiltrated to your FFP (final firing position), it’s time to build your hide. Some of the questions that you must ask yourself before building your sniper hide are: Can I see the entire sector from this location? Can I make the kill shot from this distance/position? Will this location/position properly conceal my whereabouts and can the report of my rifle and its muzzle blast be quickly detected? Can I successfully exfiltrate from this location (as most folks don’t like to sign up for suicide missions)? After signing off on the above questions, you may begin to build your sniper hide. If you are lucky, you have found a hide that is behind a ridge, in a ditch, in a river bed, or by the edge of a forest. It would also be advantageous to have the proper elevation and the direction of the wind in your favor, but you will have to be lucky to retain any of these advantages. Sometimes, building the hide may require you to dig a shallow or a deep hole. Other times, it may be best to build up your surrounding area with rocks, sticks, twigs, branches, soil and plants. In an urban environment, your hide may be deep inside of a dark room or on the top of a building. No matter where you are, it is important to be able to conceal yourself and your shot. When in an indoor setting, fine netting can be used to hide you and your shot. A technique called “loophole shooting” is when the sniper has to shoot through a small hole, crack or gap in order to hit said target. Shooting a loophole allows the sniper to stay concealed and somewhat protected inside of a room or behind a wall.
A sniper can be an asset in many different capacities. The sniper can provide sniper support during ambushes (taking out sentries, guards and other targets of opportunity). The sniper can call in air strikes and artillery support from key overwatch positions. I’m sure that it would be empowering to be able call in an AC-130 gunship or an Apache helicopter to deliver carnage to the enemy’s doorstep or to call in coordinates for an artillery shelling of 155mm projectiles fired from a Howitzer. You may even find yourself on a countersniper mission to take out a particular enemy sniper that has been harassing your fellow troops. With the use of a .50 caliber rifle, the sniper can take out tanks, all types of moving vehicles, artillery pieces and their crews, as well as offer deep penetration into walls, building or other annoying structures. It is amazing what incendiary and armor piercing projectiles can do to remodel someone’s living quarters. The sniper is capable of both defensive and offensive positioning. A few well-placed sniper teams can delay or even stop the advance of a much larger enemy unit by directing artillery fire and by creating confusion by killing Officers and Commanders. Part of the key to utilizing the sniper teams effectively is to be able to teach and instruct the battlefield Commanders on how to best use the sniper team.
You must be a sniper to think like a sniper and thinking like a sniper is one of the best techniques used in countersniping. If you look for the best places that you yourself would build a hide, you will likely find your insurgent sniper. You know that after your enemy takes a shot that he will probably change to a new hide to take the next shot. You may be able to bait the enemy sniper into firing at a dummy or at a partially exposed helmet so that you can spot the enemy’s shooting position and terminate the target. If the enemy is too elusive, you could always use the M203 to shoot 40mm grenades or you could call in air strikes to completely pulverize the building.
Advances in technology have enabled the sniper to effectively engage targets at night. With the use of Night Vision scopes and goggles, IR devices and thermal imaging scopes, todays snipers have an advantage in the dead of the night.
Modern Snipers are effective force multipliers, whether they are deployed in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Navy SEALs, or the Coast Guard. The tactics and techniques of today’s sniper are constantly evolving. It is important that the sniper will never be overlooked again. Luckily, there is some quality sniper training available for Military and Law Enforcement snipers, as well as for the civilian shooter. When the EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards run out of funds, the civilian sniper will become an asset to your neighborhood.
This article is dedicated to Chris Kyle, the American Sniper. I am pleased to say that I got to meet Chris before his passing and thank him for his service to our Country!