Taking Aim at the Sniper Myth
US Army (USA) Specialists (SPC) Chantha Bun (foreground) armed with a Accuracy Engineering tactical sniper rifle, equipped with an AN/PVS-10 Day+Night Vision Sniper Scope, and USA Sergeant Anthony Davis (background), armed with a 7.62mm M21 sniper rifle, scan for enemy activity at 4 West, an Iraqi Police station located in Mosul, Iraq, following an attack by insurgents during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (Bravo Company snipers, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker Brigade Combat Team; photo by Army Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson.)
With the release of the Clint Eastwood-directed film American Sniper, based on the book by Chris Kyle, a growing debate on the role of military snipers has begun. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore weighed in on the issue via social media stating that as he was taught that snipers are cowards and would shoot people in the back.
Moore, who posted the comments on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, quickly backpedaled on his statement and suggested that he wasn’t actually referencing Kyle or the film. Moore did note that his uncle was killed while serving in the United States military during World War II, and claimed that it was a sniper who killed his uncle—while also suggesting that Dr. King was also the victim of a sniper.
In the days that followed a controversy grew, with many in Hollywood, the mainstream media and social media taking sides. The issue became whether snipers are indeed “cowards” and whether their actions are ever justified.
Sniper vs. Assassin
One point that should be immediately clarified is that sniper should not be used in a general sense to identify anyone who picks up a gun and shoots at someone else from concealment. Mister Moore, who was contacted through his publicist for this article but did not respond, has (as noted) claimed that his uncle was “killed by a sniper.”
With all due respect to his uncle, who did give his life while serving his country, Moore has presented no actual proof that said uncle was indeed “killed by a sniper.” (Moore has said his uncle, Lawrence Moore, was a US Army paratrooper who was “killed by a Japanese sniper” in February 1945—Editor) The Japanese didn’t exactly “play by the rules” in their treatment of prisoners or in the way they waged war, yet Moore’s anger is directed at a supposed sniper and seems to harbor no ill will at the enemy in general.
At the same time Moore attempted to suggest that James Earl Ray, the confessed killer of Dr. King, was also a sniper. This suggests that there is a total lack of understanding as to what exactly a sniper is and is not.
Ray did serve in the military in World War II, but was not, according to any published document, a “sniper,” nor was he known to be a particularly experienced marksman. The same can be said of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Oswald has at times been labeled a sniper. It is true that he served in the United States Marine Corps in the 1950s. During that time the Corps had three levels of shooting ability.
According to his Marine score card, Oswald was tested twice. The first time in December 1956 after “a very intensive 3 weeks’ training period” according to Warren Commission Hearings, Oswald scored 212: two marks above the minimum for a “sharpshooter;” while in May 1959 he scored 191, just above the minimum for a “marksman.” Both scores are well below the score of 220 required for someone to earn the classification of an expert.
In other words Oswald would never be sniper-worthy by military standards. Yet, Oswald and Ray are often misidentified as snipers, which really has sadly played into the myth of snipers. As Marin Pegler, author of The Military Sniper Since 1914, noted “Today, ‘sniper’ is used indiscriminately by the media to refer to almost anyone who uses a rifle. This causal inaccuracy does the trained sniper a huge disservice; only a very few men and women have the unique blend of skills that will qualify them as snipers.”
The cowardly acts committed by men such as Oswald and Ray thus shouldn’t be lumped with the art of sniping practiced by skilled military professionals.
The Snipe and the Origins of Snipers
It is unclear who actually coined the term “snipers” but it came from “snipe shooting.” One story tells that the snipe is a small, fast-flying game bird found in the marshes of England and Scotland. It is known for its agility and twisted flight that make it very difficult to shoot. In the era of flintlock fowling guns it was considered quite an accomplishment to bring down the snipe.
Another story tells that this bird was hunted in British-controlled India during the 18th century, where the concept of “sniper” was used to describe someone who was a skilful hunter, a first-rate shot with the ability to stalk his quarry.
Either way the idea of “sniper” was born.
The true sniper only arrived on the battlefield with the advent of rifling, the cutting of spiral grooves into the inside of a barrel. This imparted spin to the projectile and increased accuracy. It was clearly a superior weapon to smoothbore muskets of the 17th and 18th century.
It came at a disadvantage to these early “riflemen” serving in the militaries of Europe and on the American colonists’ side in the American Revolution, however. While a skilled soldier could load and fire three to four rounds per minute with a musket the rifle was far slower to reload. This meant soldiers had to pick their targets carefully because it would be a longer time to get another chance.
Author Adrian Gilber (Sniper: The World of Combat Sniping)¸wrote “The introduction of greased paper wrapped round the ball made the process faster, but the difficulties of muzzle loading were never satisfactory overcome until the arrival of the Minié bullet in the mid-nineteenth century.”
Even before there were actual “snipers” on the battlefield there were “sharpshooters,” and these men came to prominence during the American Revolution (1775-83). A few companies of Americans were armed with slender, long-barreled, small-caliber flintlocks commonly called Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles, and they were experienced marksmen.
These American long rifles had a practical range of some 300 yards, compared to the British muskets, which were effective to 200 yards at best. Though the number of American rebels armed with long rifles was always small—they were incompatible with the hand-to-hand combat that generally determined victory on the 18th-century battlefield—marksmen firing from cover used their longer range to “take out” enemy officers, which the Europeans considered improper behavior. Pegler noted in his book that, “On one occasion George Washington appeared within range of a British rifleman, who was instructed not to shoot, as it was not the business of common soldiers to target their social betters.”
Another story has been told that a British rifleman asked the Duke of Wellington on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 if he “could have a go at Napoleon.” Again the answer was absolutely not. Sniping was not part of the British way of doing things, it seems.
That changed dramatically in the century that followed after the Napoleonic Wars. British adventures around the world showed the benefits of using every tool at their disposal when confronting the enemy. The machinegun was used against tribal enemies, for example, but sniping came into its own when the professional British Army faced the Boers in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
The Americans continued to appreciate the role that sharpshooters could play, and during the Civil War Hiram Berdan—long regarded as the top rifle marksman in America—convinced the Union Army to recruit marksmen for two regiments of sharpshooters. Each recruit had to pass a rigid shooting test before being accepted. The Confederates, too, had their own specialized sharpshooter units, proving that military leaders saw a need for skilled shooters who could take down a target from a great distance. Union General John Sedgewick, commander of the Sixth Corps, was killed by a sharpshooter at Spotsylvania shortly after chiding his men that the enemy “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
As rifle development continued, the preferred weapon of marksmen evolved from a slow, muzzle-loading rifle to a quick-firing, bolt-action rifle. Additionally, the creation of improved optical sights allowed for greater accuracy at longer ranges. The first optical scopes were used in hunting rifles before the military issued actual “sniper rifles.”
Snipers in the Trenches
While sharpshooters had become a crucial part of the military in the 19th century the sniper truly joined the ranks during the First World War. It is easy to think about the role the machine gun and artillery barrages played in war, but it was during this time that the role of the sniper truly evolved.
As the lines became static each side looked at ways to not only break through but also to harass the enemy, and that is where snipers had a very valid role to play. The Germans had an early upper hand.
Peglar noted that “One British sniper officer reckoned that exposing any part of the body for more than three seconds would result in a shot from a German sniper, and they had no shortage of targets.” Those new to the trenches simply couldn’t understand how deadly a sniper was, and Pegler cites a report that in 1915 on any given day a single battalion in a quiet sector could lose 12 to 18 men to German snipers. The superstition that it is bad luck to light three cigarettes from a single match came about because keeping a match flaming that long in the trenches tended to draw sniper fire.
The British soon responded by training men to be snipers. However, as noted, sniping is far more than just picking up a rifle with a scope on it. The British military planners found that many good target shooters were not up to the task. While these men could shoot to kill, they weren’t up to the task of stalking and being patient—skills and mentality necessary to being a true sniper.
The most successful British snipers during the war were small game hunters, gamekeepers and deerstalkers. The best snipers were also found in the Commonwealth ranks, with men coming from the more rugged lands of Canada, Australia and South Africa.
The issue of whether a sniper was a “coward” is one for extended conjecture.
Gilbert noted, “The moral repugnance felt in striking down a soldier in cold blood stayed some men’s hands, but such feelings were alien to the true sniper.”
There was also the fact that snipers were typically despised by the enemy and seldom respected. Gilbert also wrote, “That over-accurate German sniping would have brought retaliatory British artillery fire,” and he added, “For the determined sniper, the prospect of enemy retaliation and the curses of one’s comrades were overridden by the thrill of the hunt.”
The Sniper Since World War I
As the first truly modern war, the First World War resulted in a rapid advance in military technology that saw the adoption of the tank, aircraft, and body armor, including the use of steel helmets. The role of the sniper was also better understood, even if it created many of those aforementioned myths.
Today the true sniper is specially trained, which often involves working as part of a team. Whether alone or with a spotter the sniper is often isolated and in a constant state of danger from the enemy; snipers are seldom allowed to surrender, so instead of being cowards these are men (and women) who should be seen as brave for the role they have chosen to play.
Some may think that snipers don’t play fair. Snipers often have chosen targets in quiet areas, but the point of the sniper is not to cause the most casualties but rather to affect the morale of the troops; that hasn’t changed since the American Revolution and those long rifles. If one can’t feel safe behind the lines, then one can’t feel safe anywhere—and for that reason, as well as taking out high-value targets, the sniper continues to play an important role on the modern battlefield.
As Peglar wrote in concluding his book, “the amount of research and development time being devoted to (sniper weapons) is perhaps a sign that sniping has finally been recognized as a necessary and vital battlefield function. One thing is certain: that on the battlefield of the future it will not be possible to hide from the sniper.”
About the Author
Peter Suciu has been collecting militaria and playing military simulations since he was a child. He’s been reviewing computer games for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not waging battle from his desktop he is a business reporter for several magazines and websites. His work has appeared on CNBC.com, Fortune.com and Forbes. He also collects military helmets and runs the MilitarySunHelmets.com website.