A study on the evolution of the modern military sniper.
On the wall of the Marine sniper school at Camp Pendleton is a Chinese proverb: "Kill one man, terrorize a thousand."
Ever since man started using projectile weapons he has striven to use them from greater distances. After all, the reason they were invented was to permit hunting from a safe distance. As primitive tribes came into close contact with each other, it was inevitable that there would be disputes, be they cultural differences, hunting rights or any one of a thousand other reasons. Inevitably, in one of these conflicts someone used a weapon that had previously been used only for hunting game. The race was on.
The Arms Race. Man's attempt to kill each other from ever increasing distances with a greater degree of accuracy. Whether it was with the spear, arrow, catapult, firearm or missile, this battle of skill and technology has continued down through the ages and will continue to do so as long as there are two men to argue over something. In the following article I'll be concentrating on the evolution of the modern military sniper starting with the American Revolution.
In the 18th century, armies consisted mainly of infantry, supported by cavalry and artillery. The infantry would march towards the enemy under cover of their own artillery while the cavalry was usually held as a reserve. Of course, the enemy was doing the same. So here you are, with two opposing armies formed up in ranks, marching towards each other until they're close enough (generally about 50-100 yards) to fire at each other with a reasonable degree of accuracy with muzzle loading muskets. And all the while, there's artillery fire falling all around you. Its no bloody wonder that the officers led from the rear. So it was only a matter of time before someone tried to start the killing from a greater distance.
Armies all through Europe mainly used muskets for their infantry because they were cheap and easy to manufacture (sound familiar?). But they were slow to load, and inaccurate. Enter the breech-loading rifle. One of the leading developers of this type of rifle in Britain was Patrick Ferguson, inventor of the Ferguson Rifle, which was adopted by the British Army. Ferguson was a Major in the British Army when he achieved his second claim to fame, the "Shot Never Taken". If he had have taken the shot, the world would be a much different place today.
During the American Revolution, near Germanstown, Pennsylvania, Major Ferguson had an officer of the Continental Army in his sights. At a distance of 125 yards, the enemy officer turned away. Being an officer and a gentleman, Ferguson chose not to shoot. The enemy officer was none other than General George Washington. Major Ferguson was killed by a member of Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen on the 7 October of 1780 at a distance of approximately 450 yards. Upon the death of Maj. Ferguson, his unit surrendered to the colonials, forcing Gen. Cornwallis to abandon his invasion of North Carolina. Not only had the British lost a battle, but also one of their better weapons designers.
In October, 1777 the British lost the Battle of Saratoga, a major turning point in the war for independence. The loss of the Battle of Saratoga can be directly attributed to the actions of a sniper. General Simon Fraser was leading a reconnaissance in force for the British Army against the rebels at Bemis Heights when he was shot and killed by Timothy Murphy, a rifleman in Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen, at a distance of approximately 500 yards. Murphy was using the renowned Kentucky rifle. With the death of Gen. Fraser, the recon failed, leading to the British loss.
These two examples illustrate how a good sniper can affect not only the outcome of a battle, but ultimately a war. Good commanders need to understand tactics and strategy to succeed in war and the best way to gain this knowledge is by studying history. It was only a matter of time before someone realised snipers could be used as a force multiplier and developed a dedicated sniper unit.
During the American Civil War the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters, commanded by Col. Hiram Berdan were responsible for killing more enemy soldiers than any other unit in the Union Army. Under tutelage of Col. Berdan, skilled Union marksmen were trained and equipped with the 52 calibre Sharps Rifle.
General William H. Lytle was mortally wounded by an unknown Confederate sniper while leading a charge at the battle of Chickamauga on Sep. 19, 1863. The sharpshooter used a Whitworth .45 calibre percussion rifle. The Confederate Army used sharpshooters quite a lot to counter their lack of heavy weapons and material. The Confederate snipers were skilled and harried the Union troops and artillery, specialising in killing Union officers. However, there weren't enough snipers to stem the tide, and as we know from history the better equipped Union forces won the war.
On 9 May, 1864 the outcome of yet another battle was affected by the actions of a sniper. During the Battle of Spotsylvania, Sgt. Grace of the 4th Georgia Infantry, using a British Whitworth target rifle, shot and killed Major General John Sedgwick at the incredible distance of 800 yards. Maj. Gen. Sedgwick was in the process of berating his aides for suggesting that he should be careful of snipers when he died with the words "Why, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..." on his lips. The death of Maj. Gen. Sedgwick caused a delay in proceedings, giving General Robert E. Lee the edge. Confederate forces carried the day.
As technology has increased, so has the range at which targets are being engaged. The following account features another incident from the American Civil War, but at a range which didn't become common for almost another hundred years.
During the Red River Campaign in 1864, using a surveyor's transit to calculate the range, Captain John T. Metcalf of the US Army Engineers fired at and hit a Confederate officer who was standing outside a tent on a distant hillside. Capt. Metcalf used a .50 calibre muzzle-loading rifle, with a 24x scope. The weapon reportedly weighed between 23 and 27kg. The distance? An almost unbelievable 1666 metres, which took the bullet over 5 seconds to traverse.
Now we move forward to the 20th century, where weapons have improved immeasurably and breech loading, magazine fed rifles are the order of the day. No longer do armies fight by marching towards each other until the enemy is within range. Soldiers are equipped with rifles with complex iron sights, capable of ranges in excess of 600 metres. Machine guns have also become more prevalent, as has artillery. Because of this, trench warfare evolved rapidly. The infantry charge is still in the text books, only now they charge against entrenched troops armed with similar weapons and machine guns. War was, and still is, madness.
However, the ability to kill from an ever greater distance breaks through defences, creating openings where previously there were none. Sharpshooters are becoming more common with snipers being used to counter snipers. A little known Australian was another of these exceptional soldiers.
In June, 1915 at Chatham's Post, near Gallipoli, Trooper Billy Sing of the Australian Fifth Light Horse Regiment made his mark on history. Along with his spotter Ion "Jack" Idriess, Billy Sing would leave the trenches in the dark hours before dawn to take up his vigil for the day, not returning until darkness had fallen again so as to reduce the chance of being seen. During his time at Chatham's Post, Tpr Sing made 150 confirmed kills. During one of his many forays, "The Assassin of Gallipoli", as he had come to be known was wounded, along with one of his spotters by an enemy sniper. Tpr Sing spent a week recuperating, while his spotter was repatriated back to Australia. Once he had recovered, Billy went right back to the business of killing Turks.
The Turks soon wearied of losing up to nine soldiers a day to Tpr Sing, so they sent in their own champion, "Abdul the Terrible" who had been decorated by the Sultan for his proficiency. Abdul took to studying every kill that was thought to have been made by Billy Sing. Eventually, he narrowed Billy's location down to a small rise on the heights of Chatham's Post. With a skill to rival Billy, Abdul went about selecting a hide from which to shoot and set about waiting for the Australian sniper to show, disregarding lesser targets. One morning, Abdul took up his position, certain that he had pinpointed the Australian sniper.
That same morning, Billy and his spotter were setting up for the day's vigil when the spotter saw a target. Looking through his 'scope at the designated spot, Billy saw Abdul, with his rifle pointing directly at him and prepared to shoot. Abdul also saw Billy and started his preparations, but before he could fire, he caught a bullet between the eyes. Shortly after this duel the Turks began using artillery against Tpr Sing, forcing him to find another hide.
Now we move forward to another war, this one 21 years after the "War to end all wars" finished. War has become more mobile. Tanks and aircraft entered the fray en-masse, and yet the average infantryman was still carrying essentially the same equipment as his father was in the First World War. The British, for example, still use the Lee Enfield .303 calibre rifle. Despite the changing of the way that war is waged, snipers are still being used effectively in battle.
During the Soviet invasion of Finland in the winter of 1939-40, Simo Hayha of the 34th Infantry Regiment struck fear into the hearts of the Russians. Using an iron sighted Mosin-Nagant Model 28, Simo killed 505 Russians over a period of nine months, a record that stands to this day. It was men and women like Simo that caused the Soviets to lose two thirds of their 1.5 million man invading force in their victory over Finland. The Finns lost 25,000.
That same winter saw another marksman display his skill, killing more than 400 Russians in 105 days. Suko Kolkka often went behind enemy lines, causing mayhem in an area thought by many to be relatively safe. Suko finished the war with a tally of more than 600 kills, 200 of these were made with a submachine gun, so aren't counted as part of his sniper tally. Suko was another marksman involved in a duel with another sniper, this time over a period of days, finished by Suko with a 600 yard shot. A Soviet General is quoted as saying: "We gained 22,000 square miles of territory. Just enough to bury our dead."
And now we move onto the most famous of the snipers of WWII. A Russian, this time, Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev. For those who haven't heard of him, Zaitsev was involved in the most famous sniper duel of all.
Zaitsev v Koning/Koenig or Thorvald? Whilst researching this topic, I've encountered conflicting reports regarding the name of the German sniper, however for the purpose of this article I will use Thorvald.
In the winter of 1942, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, previously an ally. In the process of the invasion, the city of Stalingrad was besieged and ultimately invaded. It was during this siege that Zaitsev was credited with killing 242 German soldiers. Sick of losing so many soldiers to a solitary sniper, the German high command decided the best way to kill a sniper was with another sniper. They sent in SS Colonel Heinz Thorvald and as everyone who has seen the movie "Enemy At The Gates" knows, Zaitsev emerged victorious after a duel which took place in the Ninth of January Square in the southern end of Stalingrad. Zaitsev survived the war, with a final tally of 400 kills.
Now, to answer those who say it was Koenig that was shot by Zaitsev, let me say that there is considerable controversy over whether it was Koenig or Thorvald that the Germans sent in. The Russians say Thorvald, the Germans say Koenig. History is written by the victors, so I'll stick with Thorvald. In a telephone interview with David L. Robbins, author of "War of the Rats", Zaitsev said he had always felt that the Germans claimed someone named Koenig had been shot in the duel and not Thorvald because the Germans didn't want to admit their ace was down. He opined that Koenig was very close to the German word for king, as in a chess analogy; you win the chess game when you take your opponent's king. Zaitsev was certain the papers he took from the body said Thorvald, and that's the way he wrote it in his memoirs.
Again we move forward a generation, where war has jumped ahead in leaps and bounds, both in technology and tactics. Jet aircraft and helicopters roam the skies, armed with guns, bombs & missiles. On the ground tanks and armoured personnel carriers are the modern day cavalry. Massed infantry attacks have largely given way to more refined methods of killing the enemy. Despite the rapidly evolving battlefield, there remains a need for highly proficient marksmen.
Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock II of the United States Marine Corps was just one of many snipers trained by the United States military. With 93 confirmed kills and the person probably most associated with modern military sniping in the United States, Carlos Hathcock was a legend in his own lifetime.
With the aid of Corporal John Burke, Hathcock pinned down and slowly decimated a company of NVA in the Elephant Valley during the Vietnam War. With nowhere to go, the NVA regulars had no choice but to find what cover they could and die, one by one. After 5 days, artillery fire was called in on the NVA position, wiping out the remaining forces. Few, if any of these kills were recorded by the snipers.
Carlos Hathcock was one of several snipers to use the Browning .50 calibre machine gun in the sniping role and he holds the record for the longest recorded kill with a .50 BMG using a telescopic sight. The successes displayed by the US snipers in the Vietnam War with the .50 Cal BMG led to the adoption of the .50 calibre cartridge as an anti-personnel and anti-equipment sniper round.
The shot which I contend proved Hathcock as a master of the art was also a relatively short one. However, it's not the shot, but the field craft that enabled the shot to be taken that I think is important. Hathcock spent four days crawling about 1000 yards across an open field, under constant risk of discovery by dog patrols, with only a canteen of water for sustenance so that he could get into position for a shot. At a range of 700 yards, Hathcock killed his mark, a Vietnamese general. Unfortunately, instead of weakening the enemy, the killing seemed to strengthen their resolve.
"It was the ultimate hunting trip: a man hunting another man who was hunting me. Don't talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don't fight back with rifles and scopes." These are the words of Chuck Mawhinney, the most proficient USMC sniper in Vietnam. During 16 months in Vietnam, Mawhinney made 103 confirmed kills, with an additional 216 listed as "probables", simply because it was too risky to search the bodies. With a bounty on the head of US snipers, Mawhinney took to carrying a sidearm to shoot himself in the event of imminent capture in addition to his sniper rifle and the M14 he carried as backup. After twice extending his tour of duty, Mawhinney was told by a chaplain that he was suffering from "combat fatigue" and was repatriated stateside. Working as a rifle instructor, Mawhinney continued to have nightmares and eventually left the Marines to work for the US Forest Service.
Team Sergeant Gary Gordon and Weapons Sergeant Randy Shughart of C Squadron, Delta Force were both Medal of Honor recipients. Anyone who has seen the movie, or read the book "Blackhawk Down" should already know the story behind these two soldiers.
On October 3, 1993, US forces in Mogadishu, Somalia were on a mission to capture Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid and his staff. The mission went pear-shaped when they encountered greater than expected opposition. A Blackhawk helicopter was shot down and Gordon & Shughart were in another chopper nearby when they heard about it. Shooting from the chopper, Gordon, Shughart and another sniper on board started engaging the enemy, but the chopper they were in was receiving effective ground fire, and the Somalis were closing in on the Blackhawk crew. Not even the help of gunships could hold the Somalis back. Gordon & Shughart made numerous requests to be inserted, offering to set up a small perimeter and hold it until a reaction force arrived.
Braving the ground fire, Goffena, their pilot, hovered about two meters above the ground. With all the sand and dirt thrown up by the downdraft, visibility was severely reduced and the snipers became disoriented in the maze of huts. With the aid of the helicopter crew they managed to locate the wreckage, lifting Durant, the pilot out. When they moved to the starboard side, the enemy came in to investigate the wreckage. Durant shot at them with his MP-5 in an attempt to hold them off.
The Blackhawk crew were too badly wounded to be moved to an OH-6 "Little Bird" chopper about a hundred metres away, which was running low on fuel and eventually left.
Shughart went back to Durant and asked if there were any more weapons. Gordon was hit and after he said he had been shot, nothing more was heard from him. Shughart grabbed his (Gordon's) rifle and gave it to Durant. After asking Durant for the radio frequency Shughart called in and asked how far away the reaction force was. "En-route", he was told, "hang tight". Taking his rifle, he went back to the opposite side of the wreckage as the Somalis were closing in. Under heavy fire, Shughart continued to fire until he was shot and fatally wounded. The whole ordeal was captured on video by P3 aircraft flying overhead. Durant was captured and spent a few days as prisoner, while the bodies of the dead US soldiers were finally released after negotiations by the CIA. Gordon's body was severely mutilated and dumped in front of the U.S. Mission in a plastic garbage bag.
I'll finish this with the Canadian snipers in Afghanistan, particularly those involved in Operation Anaconda. The U.S Government wanted to award bronze stars to two Canadian sniper teams from the 3rd Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group that made roughly 20 kills while defending U.S. forces from enemy fire. For various reasons, these awards were blocked by the Canadian Government.
Using a .50 Cal BMG McMillan LRSW, on their first day in-theatre, they were making kills with ranges varying from 777 to 1500 metres. In the first week of the operation, Alex, a 10-year veteran, made his longest shot at an enemy FO (forward observer) at a range of 2310metres. "The first shot was high and left, the second shot was left, and the third shot was a hit." Later on in the operation, the other sniper team made a kill at a range of 2430metres, however it's not known whether this was a one shot hit or not. Still, it's a remarkable effort.
For emphasis, I'll leave you with some data for the .50 BMG round to ponder:
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