The Field

The dawn of the sniper

Sharpshoot­ers had featured in previous conflicts but the stealth and skill of the sniper became a vital tactic when warfare took to the trenches

- written BY lisa TRAYNOR, Royal armouries museum

Lisa Traynor on a vital tactic

Whilst British officers in India towards the end of the 18th century referred to a day’s rough shooting for snipe as ‘sniping’, military sniping as we know it today began during the First World War. Sixteenth-century Europe regularly took part in scharfschü­tzen, or ‘sharpshoot­ers’, competitio­ns and one of the earliest known accounts of marksmansh­ip in a military context occurred in 1527 during the Sack of Rome. How, then, did the marksman evolve into the military sniper, camouflage­d in the mud of the Western Front?

The closing decades of the 18th century in Europe and America saw the introducti­on of military units of rifle-armed skirmisher­s. Their skills can be traced back to the forests of the Germanic states. Huntsmen or jaeger used robust and accurate flintlock hunting rifles to patrol the vast estates that they worked on. They developed the art of stalking, concealmen­t and the ability to kill with one shot. Their rifles, genericall­y known as Jaeger rifles, were relatively short, large-bored, octagonal-barrelled weapons, occasional­ly fitted with double triggers to improve their accuracy. At times of conflict Above: the Ferguson Rifle, a flintlock, breech-loader by Durs Egg (1776). Right: Union riflemen using the breech-loading single shot Sharps rifle some of these men transferre­d their hunting skills to the battlefiel­d, preferring to bring their own rifle to battle rather than settling for a state-issued weapon.

Some European jaegers emigrated to North America during the 18th century. During this time their rifles were modified, the barrels lengthened and bore size reduced. This longer rifle type would eventually become known as the ‘Pennsylvan­ia rifle’ and later as the ‘Kentucky rifle’ after the accomplish­ments of riflemen from that state during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. In 1775, 10 independen­t American sharpshoot­er regiments were formed. It was reported that these men were capable of hitting targets at up to 400yd. Envious, the British hired marksmen from the German states to act on their behalf. However, these mercenarie­s were not the best shots Germany had to offer and their shorter, traditiona­l rifles were no match for those used by the Americans.

This failure prompted Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment of Foot to share his own creation with the British

military. During the 1770s he had developed his own breechload­ing flintlock rifle that was both accurate and had a good rate of fire, surpassing the smoothbore musket. This impressive rifle was issued to a corps of 100 skirmisher­s, led by Ferguson. At the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777, Ferguson had General George Washington in sight, however, before the shot was taken, Washington rode off. Despite the British victory at Brandywine, with Ferguson badly wounded and no longer able to champion his rifle it was withdrawn from service and the corps disbanded.

Five years on, during the Revolution­ary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), Britain experiment­ed with the flintlock rifle and specialist units. The first formed was the 5th Battalion of the 60th Regiment, consisting of Germans in British service armed with Jaeger rifles. This was closely followed by the 95th Rifles, famous for fighting in the Peninsular War (1807-14) and immortalis­ed by Bernard Cornwell and his Sharpe series. By 1800, a more suitable flintlock rifle had been found. Submitted for trials by gunmaker Ezekiel Baker, the Baker rifle became the weapon of the British rifle units. Although strong, compact and accurate, as a muzzleload­er it remained slow to load. British riflemen broke tradition by abandoning the famous red coat in favour of dark-green uniforms allowing them to blend into the countrysid­e. Whilst excellent on the battlefiel­d, the French appeared not to have valued the rifle or truly embraced the art of sharpshoot­ing, except in one notable instance. One of the most important shots in history was taken by marine Robert Guillemard. Hit in the left shoulder, his victim proclaimed, “They have done for me at last, Hardy… my backbone is shot through.” Guillemard’s target was, of course, Admiral Horatio Nelson.

By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), the advance in weapons technology, such as percussion firearms and the Minié ball bullet, refuted beliefs that battles could only be won based on the sheer number of men and guns brought to the field. Hunting was a great tradition in the South, a transferab­le skill that served the Confederat­es well on the battlefiel­d. Originally both sides encouraged men who had joined sharpshoot­er regiments to bring their own heavy-barrelled sporting rifles, some fitted with telescopic sights. These sharpshoot­ers would often turn the tide of battle, picking off artillerym­en from distances of 400yd.

As the conflict progressed, both sides required less cumbersome rifles and for the Confederat­es two of the most famous rifles were by Kerr and Whitworth. Whitworths were often fitted with a 14in Davidson telescopic sight offset to the left. The rifle had the same weight of bullet as the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle, used on both sides by standard infantryme­n, but its reduced bore size improved velocity and ballistic stability. Its hexagonal rifling also made it easier to load. Effective at 800yd in the hands of an expert, the Whitworth had the potential to kill even at 1,500yd, as General John Sedgwick, of the Union VI corps discovered. After witnessing

his men dodging what appeared to be the sound of bullets hurtling through the air, he proclaimed that the enemy “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”. A second later a Whitworth bullet struck him in the head. Given the freedom to fight as they thought best, usually in pairs, Confederat­e sharpshoot­ers often pinned leaves to their uniform for camouflage. In some instances they would crawl into suitable positions during darkness, concealing themselves until daylight. This conflict also introduced the tactic of countersni­ping, which encouraged sharpshoot­ers to reveal their enemies’ positions, usually by the enemy raising a hat from a parapet.

competitio­n rifles

The first types of rifle supplied to the Unionists were competitio­n rifles fitted with telescopic sights that ran the full length of barrel. However, the Unionists were not as skilful shots as their enemies, even though these competitio­n rifles were more accurate than the Whitworth. They were excessivel­y heavy and not ‘soldier friendly’. The Unionists eventually settled on the breech-loading single shot Sharps rifle. Although it lacked the range and accuracy of the Whitworth, its rate of fire and ability to be reloaded without giving away one’s position allowed it to wreak havoc upon the enemy’s infantry columns. In contrast, Union sharpshoot­ers acted ahead of the line infantry, much like the 95th had as skirmisher­s, but with a devastatin­g rate of fire. However, the Union did have some individual crack shots, soldiers who had kept their heavy-barrelled target rifles and embarked upon lone marksmansh­ip operations.

The beginning of trench warfare on the Western Front resulted in the need for new tactics. All too often, German snipers would hit their targets as if from out of nowhere. Whilst it was perfectly acceptable to bayonet one’s enemy to death in close-quarter combat, the killing of individual­s from a secret location was seen as deceptive and unsporting. During this early period the British snipers, referred to as ‘The Suicide Squad’, were noticeably less skilled than the many German snipers who already had experience due to their game-keeping heritage. With these basic skills already in place, the German army quickly trained effective snipers. Realising their need for snipers to counteract the enemy, British ‘Sniper Schools’ were set up on the Western Front in late 1915. Here, would-be snipers were

Trench warfare on the Western Front resulted in the need for new tactics

taught how to determine range, the effect of windage, correct manipulati­on of the rifle, and the importance of camouflage, as well as stalking and concealmen­t ‘fieldcraft’.

To arm their newly trained snipers better the British began a search for a new sniping rifle. Most snipers used standard-issue Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifles. The War Office also purchased 62 large-bore hunting rifles. Although the latter were accurate and able to pierce the armour plates used by enemy snipers, they were often chambered for non-standard calibres and could not be maintained or repaired by military armourers. Their recoil also made them difficult to shoot from the prone position. As an interim measure, the Mark III SMLE rifles were converted by fitting a telescopic sight. After a rush decision, three primary patterns were agreed upon. The most commonly issued was that produced by the Periscopic Prism Company (PPCO). Although robust, the PPCO offered only 2x magnificat­ion. Thanks to a questionab­le War Office decision, it was also offset to the left to permit rapid loading using five-round chargers, unnecessar­y for sniping. Its position also forced the shooter to either raise his head from the stock when aiming or to shoot with the left eye, seriously compromisi­ng accuracy. Although the skill of the shooter was more important than his equipment, access to superior optical technology was a significan­t German advantage. The German army used the Goertz scope, attached to the Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle, providing its user with 3x magnificat­ion. In contrast to the SMLE, the Mauser’s design provided two available platforms for scope mounts to be fitted (in front of and behind the ejection port). The scope was mounted centrally, allowing the sniper’s head to align more naturally with the barrel.

Canadian snipers made use of the highly accurate straight-pull Ross rifle. This had been withdrawn from general service as the mud of the trenches made it unreliable. This was less of an issue for snipers, who took extra care of their weapons. Accompanyi­ng the Ross in most cases was the Warner & Swasey scope, with 5x magnificat­ion and adjustable elevation and windage drums. These could suffer from loss of zero if handled roughly, necessitat­ing the use of rubber bands to hold them in position. The sight only had an eye relief of just one inch, despite having a large rubber eye cup. This often meant snipers were inclined to flinch on firing, affecting accuracy. Nonetheles­s, the Canadian snipers excelled in their role. Corporal Francis Pegahmagab­ow (1891– 1952) was the most effective sniper of the war, making 378 kills with his Ross rifle.

This level of efficiency in the hunting of men was unpreceden­ted. Though the ascent of the sniper into the theatre of war can be said to have begun with the formation of rifle units in the late-18th century and their success in the American Civil War, it is the First World War that represents the true dawn of the sniper. The natural ability of the shooter and a hunting heritage combined with modern military training and four years of brutal conflict gave birth to the feared military assassin of today.

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 ??  ?? The death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (1806-70); the admiral was hit in the shoulder by Robert Guillemard
The death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (1806-70); the admiral was hit in the shoulder by Robert Guillemard
 ??  ?? Top: a Ross sniper rifle Mk III with a Warner & Swasey scope Above: a Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle fitted with a Goertz scope. Below: using subterfuge in Gallipoli to encourage a Turkish sniper to reveal his position
Top: a Ross sniper rifle Mk III with a Warner & Swasey scope Above: a Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle fitted with a Goertz scope. Below: using subterfuge in Gallipoli to encourage a Turkish sniper to reveal his position
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 ??  ?? A British sniper aiming at long-range targets through a loop-hole in the trench in 1915
A British sniper aiming at long-range targets through a loop-hole in the trench in 1915
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 ??  ?? Top: a Whitworth rifle with Davidson scope. Above: a SMLE Mk III sniper rifle fitted with a PPCO scope
Top: a Whitworth rifle with Davidson scope. Above: a SMLE Mk III sniper rifle fitted with a PPCO scope

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