Since the invention of the long rifle, snipers have made a tactical difference.
In March 2002, during early combat operations in Afghanistan, a Canadian sniper shot and killed an al Qaeda fighter at the remarkable range of 2,430 meters. The shot has been widely celebrated as a record, beating the old one of 2,250 meters, set in Vietnam by U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock. For security reasons, the name of the Canadian soldier was not revealed at the time. Hathcock, on the other hand, became well known, indeed famous, as one of the best ever at his craft, a blend of solitude, skill, guile and infinite patience.
Hathcock’s feats included stalking a North Vietnamese general for four days, moving by inches across an open field, at one point remaining motionless to keep from being bitten by a bamboo viper. On another occasion, he engaged an enemy sniper in an extended cat-and-mouse duel, firing only when he saw the glint of reflected light that gave away his target’s position. The round went through the enemy soldier’s scope and into his eye. Hathcock later concluded they must have been simultaneously aiming at one another—staring down each other’s barrel—and he simply fired first.
Hathcock wore a single white feather in his camouflage boonie hat. The North Vietnamese offered a bounty of $30,000 to anyone who killed the man they knew as “White Feather.” Some of Hathcock’s fellow Marines took to wearing white feathers by way of protecting him and as an homage. The bounty went unclaimed.
Hathcock was wounded, however, when a vehicle he was riding struck a mine. Before jumping to safety, he pulled several fellow Marines clear, suffering severe burns in the process. He returned home a legend, subject of nonfiction books and a series of novels by Stephen Hunter in which he was immortalized as “Bob the Nailer.” Hathcock died in 1999 of multiple sclerosis.
Hathcock was undeniably one of history’s finest snipers. But his fame is unusual, even problematic. Not, certainly, because it was undeserved. His bravery and skill were irrefutable. But attitudes have changed. The sniper has not always been a hero. Certainly not to those he stalked and not necessarily to those he fought beside. Feared by one; shunned by the other. Too good, perhaps, at his job not to take satisfaction from it, though Hathcock himself once said, “I like hunting, and I like shooting. But I never did like killing anybody.”
The earliest American snipers were hunters first, then soldiers. They hailed from the frontier, where long-range shooting was a survival skill. Military muskets of the time were smoothbores, accurate out to 50 yards or so—adequate for massed volley fire. But in the American wilderness, where one had to fight Indians and live off wild game, a weapon needed to be lethal at much greater ranges. So gunsmiths made long rifles with grooved barrels that gave spin to a ball, making it possible to fire accurately out to 200 yards and beyond.
Thus, weapons like the Pennsylvania long rifle changed war and gave rise to a new kind of warrior, the sharpshooter, who could engage his enemy from a concealed position far beyond the range of the massed, disciplined troops moving toward him in line, intending to finish him with bayonets. The British considered this form of warfare uncivilized or, at least, unsporting, particularly since Patriot sharpshooters often targeted officers. Like Hathcock, snipers in those days could be selective about their victims. The range might be great, but the intent was up close and personal.
At a critical moment during the Oct. 7, 1777, Battle of Bemis Heights, part of the Saratoga campaign, an American sharpshooter shot British Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser out of the saddle as he was rallying his troops. This single shot turned the tide of the battle and inevitably took on mythic proportions. The soldier who reportedly fired the shot was Tim Murphy, one of Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters—rough customers who dressed in skins and moved through the woods like smoke. The range of his shot was said to be anywhere from 300 to 500 yards. Later research cast doubt on whether the shooter was Murphy and whether the range was much more than 200 feet. Regardless, Fraser was mortally wounded, the Americans won the day, and a single shot by an expert marksman may have been the deciding factor.
The single long-range shot became the sine qua non of this new soldiering specialty—some would say calling— of military sniping. And as warfare became increasingly a matter of massed men and massed firepower, its aura grew. An individual could now strike the decisive blow in battle. But that individual had to be able to shoot.
Americans, of course, have long been avid shooters. During the Civil War both the North and South employed sharpshooters. On many occasions, one man was able to neutralize an enemy artillery piece with aimed rifle fire, shooting from a concealed position until he had killed or scattered its crew.
Of the war’s many recorded long-range kills, perhaps the most famous occurred during the May 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania, when Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick reproached his men for taking cover when fired at by Confederates half a mile distant. What he didn’t know is that the Rebels were using state-of-the-art Whitworth rifles mounted with a military innovation— telescopic sights. Sedgwick insisted to his men, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later a bullet struck him just below the left eye. His death was, in the words of historian Shelby Foote, “a knee-buckling shock to the men of his corps.” For a while the Union advance halted. Then Sedgwick’s enraged men directed shells and grapeshot at the position where they thought the Confederate sharpshooter lay concealed, shredding the trees in their fury—a common reaction to sniping.
During the Revolution, when a sharpshooter’s position was overrun, he was often not taken prisoner. And this was in a time of relatively “civilized” warfare, when prisoners were released on their word not to fight again and a general might accept his opposite’s surrender in the morning and entertain him at dinner that night. But snipers were, in a word, different. Men on both sides of the line feared and hated them. This was even true during the Civil War, when brother literally fought brother. One Union officer at Gettysburg remarked on the relief of Confederate sharpshooters captured at Devil’s Den who believed they would be hung as snipers until they realized they were in the hands of Union men who did the same job.
How to account for such extreme emotions directed toward the sniper— someone to be killed if captured when he is the enemy and looked on with suspicion when one of your own? After all, artillery killed many more men, with far more gory results. And massed ranks of soldiers, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder behind stone walls, impersonally mowed down men by the thousands.
It was not, it seems, the killing itself so much as the calculated intent behind it that was so distressing. The near leisurely care a sniper took, aiming at his oblivious target from a range that made him virtually invulnerable. His victim would never know what hit him, and his friends wouldn’t know where the shot came from and couldn’t retaliate.
So the frustration and the rage would mount as the unseen enemy struck again. And again. Expertly, methodically, invisibly. Taking out your comrade. Your general. Next time, maybe you. On top of all the other horrors you had to deal with, there was this: one man in hiding, coldly picking off your friends. He was the embodiment of all your dreads. You couldn’t kill the war, but if you could just get your hands on him…
The sniper was an inevitable part of World War I, the most impersonal war yet. Tens of thousands of men faced each other from trenches across a few yards of scorched earth, while snipers in reinforced positions made short work of anyone who carelessly showed his head above the sandbagged parapets. It was a war of machine guns, high explosives, gas— weapons that killed by the bushel in combat that was industrial in scope. But the sniper, like the fighter pilot passing far above, remained a solitary warrior, an artisan in a mass production world.
Combatants had more or less mastered this new kind of warfare by the time Americans arrived on the field. Sniping, by then, had become an established tactic, and marksmen on all sides were constantly scanning for targets. The scoped rifle had also come into its own. Though a few Marines were trained to use it, would-be American snipers were largely obliged to attend training camps run by the British army, which found them eager, willing and quick to learn.
Not being versed in state-of-the-art sniping tactics did not mean, however, that the Americans didn’t know how to hunt and shoot. The American frontier may have vanished since the days of the Revolution, but men still honed their traditional frontier skills. These were, and remain, the fundamental elements of the sniper’s art.
The most celebrated American hero of World War I was a Tennessee mountain boy and conscientious objector named Alvin York, who gained fame for his marksmanship. (Gary Cooper played him in the 1941 film Sergeant York.) York didn’t require a newfangled telescopic sight to get his work done. He’d shot all his life over iron sights, bagging game and winning shooting contests back home. They would suffice for killing Germans. On Oct. 8, 1918, York took out an enemy machine gun nest from 300 yards, killing 25 men and capturing 132 others.
Good shooting. But not as good as that of another country boy named Herman Davis. On Oct. 10, 1918, two days after York’s action, Davis was serving near Verdun when he and his fellow infantrymen observed Germans emplacing a machine gun. Why, Davis asked, didn’t somebody shoot them?
Too far away, came the answer.
“Why, that’s just good shooting distance,” Davis is said to have answered.
The range was about 1,000 yards. Davis killed four Germans and scattered the rest. He used a standard-issue 1903 Springfield with open sights.
Davis was also a master of that other prime sniper virtue—stealth. He once crawled alone to a position within 50 yards of men working a machine gun and speaking a language he had never heard. Figuring they must be Germans, he killed four of them. The rest retreated to cover.
Davis hailed from Big Lake, Ark. Carlos Hathcock was born in Little Rock and grew up poor, living with his grandmother in rural Arkansas, hunting to help put food on the table. Each brought the tools of the trade when he took up sniping.
With fewer expert marksmen and woodsmen to draw on for service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the conflicts that followed, the U.S. military began training snipers. Today, in courses that run from six to 10 weeks, snipers are taught not merely to shoot but also the other elements of the sniper’s art: navigation by map and GPS, concealment and camouflage, surveillance and reconnaissance. The act of shooting, some snipers say, is only 10 percent of the whole package. The number has a certain resonance. In World War II, American soldiers called their snipers “10-cent killers,” since that was, they reckoned, the price of a single round.
The cost to outfit a sniper today is much higher. As with everything in war—and civilian life, for that matter—technology seems to have transcended all other elements in the mix. No more iron sights. No more standard-issue rifles, jury-rigged for sniper work. No more personal arms like the Winchester Model 70 that Marine Lieutenant John George carried with him when he landed on Guadalcanal in 1943. George, incidentally, learned on his own something that had been taught to snipers in previous wars—“aim for the teeth.” That way, if you are a little off in your elevation, you’ll still make a killing shot.
In Vietnam, Hathcock—who normally used a modified Remington bolt-action hunting rifle—once rigged a .50-caliber Browning M2 machine gun with a telescopic sight. The weapon was accurate to 2,500 yards.
Today’s weapons are vastly more sophisticated and powerful. The .50- caliber is now standard in a weapon designed specifically for shoulder fire by military snipers. Rob Furlong, the Canadian Forces corporal whose long shot now holds the record, used a .50- caliber sniper rifle. This weapon is also capable of disabling enemy vehicles and crew-served weapons. Thus, the sniper has become a kind of artilleryman as well as a rifleman, once again stretching battlefield tactics.
But the core of the thing hasn’t changed. The sniper’s work is simultaneously personal and detached. He kills from long range but selects his targets and sees each person he kills, though the target almost never sees him. He is a hardwired hunter, descended from the first snipers, men who came out of the woods wearing buckskins, carrying Pennsylvania long rifles and looking to kill Redcoats. An American tradition.
For further reading, Geoffrey Norman recommends: Carlos Hathcock: White Feather, by Roy Chandler, and Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper, by Martin Pegler.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.