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Inside the Crosshairs: Snipers in Vietnam, by Michael Lee Lanning, Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, 1998, $20.

There have been sharpshooters and snipers ever since the advent of firearms. In the military in Vietnam, it took some 204 hours of special training to produce a sniper. It took less than a second for him to earn his pay. Whether he “pulled down” on a highly decorated NVA officer or some anonymous VC cadre, the American sniper faced unique challenges in Vietnam. He was fighting in unfamiliar jungle terrain, forced to “outguerrilla” the guerrilla enemy–with the element of surprise and a telescope-equipped rifle.

Novels and movies have portrayed snipers as heartless killers, but they were just highly skilled soldiers and Marines, trained for a specific job. They included men like Ed Eaton, who recorded most of his kills beyond 500 meters, including one from a moving helicopter at night. Marine Sergeant Charles Mawhinney recorded 216 probables and 103 confirmed kills–the equivalent of three NVA companies. Battlefield commanders depended on the sniper’s mental toughness, knowing that effective sniping could mean the difference between a mission’s success or failure.

One of the more interesting facts in Michael Lee Lanning’s book concerns the relative efficiency of the sniper vs. the ordinary infantryman. In World War II, U.S. troops expended 25,000 small-arms rounds per enemy killed. With the advent of more automatic weapons, that number doubled to 50,000 rounds per kill in Korea. In Vietnam, since every soldier carried a rifle capable of fully automatic fire, the number swelled to 200,000. By contrast, U.S. snipers averaged one kill for every 1.7 rounds fired. Lanning believes that a pilot who shot down enough enemy planes to become an ace would be called a hero by the public, but a sniper who killed five enemy soldiers might be called a murderer–a thought-provoking point.

Colonel Calvin G. Bass
U.S. Air Force (ret.)