American Snipers – A Brief History of U.S. Military Sharpshooters and their Weaponry

A Civil War-era marksman trains his weapon on the enemy. The weapons and tactics of America’s snipers have changed over the decades;
their deadly mission has not. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“From their first appearance during the American Civil War, the techniques and technology of sniping have developed together, with each new technological advance making the sniper deadlier at a greater range.”

By Sam Bocetta

SNIPERS ARE A very vital part of any modern combat force, yet surprisingly it has taken quite some time for this to be realized.

From their first appearance during the American Civil War, the techniques and technology of sniping have developed together, with each new technological advance making the sniper deadlier at a greater range.

One of the major driving forces behind the rise of the sniper, and the improved effectiveness of the sniper rifle, has been the ongoing development in optical technology. In the Civil War, sharpshooters attached their own improvised telescopic sights to their hunting rifles. Today, a U.S. Army sniper will make use of red dot sights, laser rangefinders and night vision capability, all of which enable pin-point accuracy at incredible distances and under the most difficult conditions.

This has resulted in the sniper becoming an amazingly efficient soldier. Comparing the number of rounds needed, on average, to kill one enemy combatant is a great way to illustrate the increasing lethality of the sniper.

During World War Two, 25,000 bullets were needed by the average infantry soldier to kill one enemy combatant. If that sounds like a lot, consider modern statistics. In Afghanistan, almost 250,000 rounds are expended by infantry troops to take out one Taliban fighter. The number for a well-trained sniper? 1.3 bullets.

Union general John Reynolds was killed by a Rebel sharpshooter at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Early Years

The equipment and tactics that would later be recognized as sniping made their first appearance in the War of Independence. Many of the American soldiers who fought in the Revolution were already skilled marksmen, long accustomed to hunting for their dinner. Their skills were used to devastating effect when turned against the British — 200-yard kills were not uncommon. The weapons used in this period were little more than standard hunting rifles, but in the hands of a skilled sharpshooter could be very effective.

An 18th Century “Kentucky rifle.” Weapons like these were far more accurate than the British infantry musket. In the right hands, frontier rifles could be especially deadly. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The first telescopic sights were used nearly a century later, during the American Civil War. These early scopes were rudimentary, offering minimal magnification and were often very hard to zero in the field. Still, the combination of several new developments – telescopic sights, but also the percussion-lock rifle and the spin-stabilized Minié ball, meant that snipers could hit targets up to a mile away.

Union sharpshooters liked the breech-loading Sharps rifle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The most popular sniper rifles of this period varied by army. Union snipers preferred the breech-loading Sharps rifle. The standard rifles of this period were muzzle-loaders, and these had a huge disadvantage in the field: the shooter had to stand up to reload, giving away his position and potentially exposing him to enemy fire.

Many Confederate snipers favoured the British-made Whitworth rifle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In contrast, the Confederate army looked to the British Whitworth rifle for their snipers. Though rare, the unique hexagon-shaped rifling and bullet of this weapon gave it then-unbeaten accuracy at long ranges, and it made many notable kills. One of these, a shot taken at 800 yards, killed Union General John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

An American sniper on the Western Front, circa 1918. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The World Wars

The Western Front of World War One offered the ideal conditions for snipers. Trench warfare provided good hiding places for sharpshooters, and the empty no man’s land between the opposing armies offered a wide field of view. During this period, it was not unusual for a sniper to lie in wait for a shot for days at a time, fire off a few rounds, and then quickly relocate to a new position before they could be detected.

These new tactics were also helped by advances in the sniper rifle itself. By 1914, the bolt-action rifle had been perfected, and came equipped with a five or 10-round magazine. The ammunition used was of a much smaller caliber than bullets from the 19th Century, and had a much higher velocity. The new rounds were also propelled by smokeless powder, which allowed the sniper to hide much more effectively.

During the early part of the First World War, Germany led the way in terms of rifle scopes. Long a leader in optical technology, the Kaiser’s generals put 25,000 scoped rifles in the hands of their best shooters. These men would go on to inflict tremendous damage on allied armies. Forced to play catch-up when it entered the war in 1917, the United States responded by deploying the x6 magnification Warner and Swasey scope, mounted on a .30-06 M1903 Springfield rifle. This weapon could be clumsy in the field, and certainly looked strange, but was effective.

An M-1 Garand sniper rifle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

World War Two saw further developments in rifle and scope technology. The important role of the sniper was recognized, and marksmen’s rifles were made rugged enough to stand up to lengthy field deployment. The magnification of the optical systems used on the weapons also gradually increased, from the 2.5x magnification Lyman Alaskan, mounted on the standard .30-06 M1 Garand rifle, to the huge 10x magnification achieved by the Unertl scope, still mounted on the First World War-era M1903 Springfield rifle.

A Marine Corps sniper team, Khe Sanh, 1968. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vietnam to Today

From 1945 onwards, the sniper was recognized as an increasingly important part of modern infantry warfare. Though during the Korean War the role of the sniper was overshadowed by huge deployments of small arms and artillery, it was in Vietnam that the sniper rifle really came into its own.

The primary sniper rifle used during the Vietnam War was actually a product of improvisation. Legendary scout sniper Carlos Hathcock mounted a basic scope onto his M2 .50 calibre heavy machine gun, and used it as a sniper rifle. Though not designed with sniping in mind, the weapon proved very effective. In fact, Hathcock used this DIY arrangement to make what was then the longest recorded kill by any infantry soldier, at 2,286 meters, and this record was to stand for many years.

Barrett M82A1 sniper rifle fires a .50 calibre round. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The army eventually realized the value of the M2 when used as a sniper rifle, and in 1990 purchased the .50 calibre BMG M82 Barrett for use in this role. This weapon proved so effective that it was later standardized as the M107.

In recent years, sniper rifles have evolved again, so that today specialized calibres and high-tech optics are increasingly standard for snipers. Optical systems are one of the major areas of development in modern rifles, and the average U.S. Army sniper today will make use of laser range finders, bipods, high-magnification scopes, and night-vision have to make kills at extreme ranges and in very difficult conditions.

A U.S. army sniper team hones their skills on a stateside training course. (Image source: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Though each development in technology has improved the sniper’s effectiveness, practice and skill remain the most important factor in combat efficacy. Fancy technology can never replace the experience of a good marksman.

Sam Bocetta is a writer at Gun News Daily where he covers US gun news and reviews the latest firearm products and gear.

2 comments for “American Snipers – A Brief History of U.S. Military Sharpshooters and their Weaponry

  1. Iggy
    2 September, 2017 at 10:27 am

    I wouldn’t call the M2 the primary US sniper rifle of Vietnam, as far as I recall it was only used for sniping in that one incident, though it did demonstrate the rounds effectiveness in the role.

  2. Ben Trexel
    3 September, 2017 at 10:39 am

    why can’t they ‘protect the border –MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE than awall!

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