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The Sniper

The release of the film American Sniper by Clint Eastwood staring Bradley Cooper as US navy SEAL Chris Kyle has brought the role of the sniper into the limelight for the moment. I cannot really discuss the merits or otherwise of the film itself as I have not seen it but one thing I know the film has emphasised is that you need to be a special type of soldier to be a sniper. Most regiments/units/armies have their own snipers and trained to slightly different standards, but certainly the military (as opposed to police) snipers are required to do the same job.

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That job is to observe, gather intelligence, target high-value individuals and often to provide cover to infantry on the ground. The sniper will have to stay in the same place for hours, even days, observing their targets, they will therefore have watched their target for a long time before pulling the trigger – that target will have become a person, not just an enemy soldier/insurgent. Very often the sniper will operate behind enemy lines so camouflage, infin-and exfiltration and an element of self-sufficiency are vital requirements. The German and Soviet armies relied on these principles in particular during the second world war. However as often the sniper is required in the theatre of action providing cover to infantry – such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of these requirements sniper training is usually the rigorous of any sort of training/selection. Within the Royal Marines, the training of a sniper (within the Platoon Weapons specialism) lasts for 13 weeks and has a week-long selection process before hand making it the hardest military training course in the world. Snipers act in pairs, with a spotter setting up and choosing the target and providing a constant commentary to the shooter. Often they will rotate roles so as to relieve eye-strain.

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The role of the sniper can probably be traced back to the American revolutionary war when the colonists would sit in trees and take pot shots at British officers. The dawn of the rifled barrel really made sniping (or sharpshooting as it was widely known) a more serious business. Until that point the smooth-barrelled muskets made accurate shooting any serious distance almost impossible. During the Napoleonic wars the British army equipped the Green Jackets (merged into ‘The Rifles’ in 2005) with Baker rifles rather than muskets to enable them to be the first British snipers. The 1990s drama Sharpe (staring Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe) was supposed to be based around this unit. During the Crimean War, the first optical sights were the brainchild of a British colonel but they were never adopted by the British Army. It wasn’t until the first world war, and when the British overran German trenches to discover sniper rifles with optical sights, that the British army stated to take sniping seriously. Until that point it was assumed that the casualties caused by precision German marksmanship were mere coincidence.

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The School of Sniping, Observations & Scouting was formed in 1916 under Major H Hesketh-Pritchard DSO MC. It was around this time too that the term ‘sniper’ began to replace that of ‘sharpshooter’ (though the Germans still use the translation of that in their language). Interestingly the Americans did not have any systematic sniper training in place until the 1950s. Whilst they had snipers within their units in the second world war, there was no centralised and regular training of snipers until the Army Marksmanship Training Unit was set up at Camp Perry in Ohio in 1955. Even then it was not until Vietnam when the first American Snipers came into their own with the 9th Infantry Division started churning out specially-trained snipers on a regular basis from 1968. The scene in Saving Private Ryan when the German sniper gets shot through the scope apparently happened for real – a US Marine sniper named Carlos Hathcock allegedly did this against a Vietcong sniper in Vietnam (although there are doubts as to whether it was a deliberate aim).

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Some of the greatest snipers in history hail from the Red Army – the ruins of cities and towns within the Soviet Union following Hitler’s invasion created the perfect environments for snipers to thrive – Stalingrad in particular. Major Ivan Sidorenko was credited with over 500 kills (compared to Chris Kyle’s official tally of 160). Vasily Zaytsev (portrayed by Jude Law in the film Enemy at the Gates) notched up 242 official kills (but more likely over 400 in total). The Red Army produced 2,000 female snipers – the greatest probably being Major Lyudmila Pavichenko who amassed a tally of 309 confirmed kills (including 36 enemy snipers). Turning to the west, Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow was the most effective allied sniper of world war 1. The Canadian was credited with 378 kills and was awarded the Military Medal three times. In more recent years, a British soldier, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison of the Blues & Royals pulled off the longest confirmed kills in history in November 2009 by despatching two Taliban machine gunners in Afghanistan over a staggering distance of 2,475m.

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Snipers are therefore a rather different breed to your average soldier. They dress differently (usually remaining unkept and without rank slides in the barracks as well as the ghillie suits and other various pieces of camouflage), the tools of their trade are specialist rifles of a higher calibre than the standard issue SA80 rifle, they operate alone and get to know their targets well and they have to crunch a lot of numbers in their head quickly (distance, wind velocity etc). Pulling the trigger is merely the tip of the iceberg – the sniper has to be something of a hunter at heart, becoming part of the ground, tracing targets, remaining unseen.

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Chris Thorpe.

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