What is a Sniper?

Introduction
History
The Modern Sniper
The Designated Marksman
The Law Enforcement Sharpshooter
Conclusion

Introduction

If you are reading this, then you obviously have some basic interest in the art of sniping and/or snipers themselves. But you might be new to this unique specialty and may not understand a lot about the somewhat complex art and sciences of sniping and the individuals who call themselves snipers. We at Sniper Central created this page to help provide a basic understanding of the role of the sniper in both the military and law enforcement arena. This page will deal primarily with the role and responsibilities of the various sniper related specialties in military and law enforcement units and will give you a better general understanding of sniping and hopefully help you understand some of the aspects of each of those specialties. But before we can get to the details we need to cover some basic history about snipers in order to lay the foundation for our understanding of this unique job that has intrigued the world.

History

When referring to the role of a sniper in a military environment, we are referring to a soldier who engages the enemy with precision fire from his individual rifle, often times operating from a concealed position on their own or with a small team. Sniping is a more calculated and precise attack than the normal infantry unit attack where countless number of rounds are expended in the general direction of the enemy to provide suppression as well as direct attack. The word sniper originated during the British occupation of India in the 19th century and referred to snipe hunters. The Snipe is a game bird and at that time it was desirable to shoot the bird in the head to preserve the meat, which required excellent marksmanship. As such, these snipe hunters became known as “snipers” and it was a tribute to the high degree of marksmanship required to be proficient.

World War I is regarded as the start of the modern era of military sniping. When the ground war in Europe came to a screeching halt after the initial phases of the war, it quickly turned into a stagnant war of trench warfare with not much movement of lines in either direction. While this may have been a nightmare for the infantry commander, it became the breeding ground for modern sniper development in military operations. Soldiers soon began “picking off” or “sniping” enemy soldiers in the opposite trenches which then quickly developed into a wildly successful means of reducing enemy numbers and morale at the same time. The letters home with requests for specialized equipment started on both sides of the trenches and soon scopes and other equipment started making their way onto the battlefield, and sniping began to really take form. The Germans seemed to get the initial advantage as they already had some equipment in the works, but all the different participants were soon up to speed. There were several different military sniper rifles that were developed and deployed through the later years of WWI with each iteration improving on the previous. Many skills and lessons were also learned and then taught at various sniper schools held all around Europe and on both sides of the lines. These schools were started by the founding fathers of modern sniping such as Pritchard, Kipling and others.

The War to End all Wars eventually ended and the world became a more civilized place again where there was no need for the uncivilized tactics of sniping, as such, the military sniper rifles were put into storage and specialized training ceased in most modern militaries. There were a few, such as the Soviet Union, that did not easily forget the value of the battlefield sniper, and their employment of snipers continued, even if the development of their equipment and training did not. There was some continued development of equipment in some nations, such as Germany, but sniping as a whole nearly became a forgotten and extinct facet of modern warfare.

Then Hitler came to power and Germany went on the offensive and Europe was at war again. When looking at the history of World War II there is one particular part of the world conflict that jump started the advancement of sniping during the war and that actually occurred prior to the official start of World War 2 during the Winter War when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. As was mentioned, the Soviets actually continued their sniper program and still had snipers integrated into their military, but they were poorly trained and poorly equipped and then they ran into a determined Finnish military that adopted guerrilla style warfare that allowed the Finnish sniper to thrive. In all honesty, the Finns really dominated the actual warfare during the Winter War even though the Soviets had a vastly larger and superior army. A large part of that was due to the employment of Finnish snipers who were mostly members of the home guard and had grown up in the forests of Finland. They were experts at fieldcraft and skiing and had an intimate knowledge of the terrain on which they were fighting. All of these things made them extremely mobile and efficient at this style of warfare. The Winter War is where the famous Simo Hayha racked up his 542 kills as a sniper. He was a “ghost” in the forest and would strike with a well-aimed shot and then disappear. Simo was not the only one, just the most famous, and the relentless attacked of the feared Finnish sniper went a long way toward stopping the Soviet invasion.

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Simo Hayha – Winter War

What the success of the Finnish snipers did was bring awareness to the Soviets that their program was lacking in preparedness and furthermore, there was a definite value to a successful sniper program in modern warfare. They quickly developed new equipment for their snipers as well as developed sniper schools. By the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets actually had a more developed sniper program than the Germans did. The Germans paid a heavy price for this oversight, much like the Soviets did when fighting Finland. The Soviet advantage did not last long as the Germans quickly advanced the development of their sniper program and had the full engineering might of Germany to produce some excellent sniping equipment during the war. The Germans then utilized their advantage over the British, who then had to scramble to catch up as well. By the end of the war, all of the major fighting forces had dedicated sniper schools, sniper rifles, and other sniper specific equipment. The sniper, both men and women, had once again proved their worth in modern warfare. And then the war ended.

Once again the major military powers abandoned the uncivilized sniper and thought the use of such a tool would never again be needed. But through the ages that has proven to be a misguided philosophy and the sniper has been called to action in conflicts around the world time and time again. Places such as in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Falkland War, and many other such conflicts. Each time the military powers seemed to remember the value of snipers just a little bit better until eventually, around the 1980’s and 1990’s, most modern military powers around the world had developed full time snipers as a part of their standard military ground units.

The Modern Sniper

The modern sniper is an integral part of most all modern military ground armies around the world and while the general mission of the sniper is about the same in each of those armies, the employment and makeup of the sniper teams themselves tends to be different for each. What is the mission of the sniper? Any soldier that attends a sniper school from around the world will probably hear these same missions defined and they go something like this:

The primary and secondary missions of the Sniper are:

  1. Engage and eliminate key select targets and targets of opportunity with long range precision rifle fire
  2. Provide reconnaissance and intelligence gathering to battlefield commanders

These two missions remain the primary capabilities of sniper teams today on the modern battlefield and are the key reason snipers are force multipliers. Sniper teams are expertly trained in the art of camouflage and concealment and perhaps the most widely known ability of a sniper is to precisely engage a target at long range and with extreme precision. While movies and novels like to portray snipers as battlefield assassins capable of miraculous feats, this is not typically how sniper teams operate. While the traditional highly trained sniper team is capable of engage targets beyond 1000 meters, the opportunities to do so are not as common as one might expect, especially in certain types of locations around the world. Typically the conflicts today have limited rules of engagement and are battles against insurgents and guerrilla type of operations in built up areas where high numbers of non-combatants are present, some hostile and some not. Additionally, irrefutable evidence of hostile intent is required before a shot can be fired and while these restricted rules of engagement make it difficult for a sniper team to execute their traditional role of long range elimination of valuable targets, it does actually increase the value of the sniper team to commanders as they have the ability to positively identify hostile intent and to selectively eliminate threats even when innocent non-combatants are nearby. It is this capability that has seen the demand for qualified and capable sniper teams rise since the start of the 21st century.

The second mission of battlefield reconnaissance and scouting is still just as important today as it always has been. Having trusted eyes on an objective or over watching suspected and dangerous areas, providing battlefield intelligence, has always been a critical component for commanders and the sniper teams today are better than ever at providing those eyes on the target. The use of drones and other high tech equipment has helped in providing additional capabilities, but there is still nothing that can replace trained eyes on the objective that have the ability to adapt and overcome. The additional capability of being able to provide precision rifle fire, call for indirect fire, direct an air strike, remain on station for days, and make intelligent decisions based on the environmental and combat conditions, is an invaluable resource.

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The traditional sniper team has always operated as a two man team and used concealment as their primary defense. The modern sniper is still trained with that capability, but with operations in built up areas, such as cities, so much more common in the 21st century, the modern sniper team commonly will operate with an additional security element to essentially ‘watch their back’ while they operate from a hide while inside of urban environments. Modern training has also placed more emphasis on camouflage and concealment in these urban environments than what has traditionally been the case. The same can be said about operations in desert environments which also has been the norm for the past decade or more. Desert operations stretch the engagement and operational ranges of the sniper teams even further, requiring more skill and capability from snipers and a different set of skills for concealment.

Likewise, as the battlefield has changed, so has the emphasis on equipment and rifles. The late 20th century sniper focused on a single sniper rifle system, usually .30 caliber, which was capable of making hits up to 1000 meters. The training then focused on engaging the enemy from a concealed position at the range that offered the best ballistic advantage over the enemy. This training also focused on typically taking only one and never more than two shots from the same hide position. The ballistic advantage was typically considered optimal in the 600-800 meter range, giving the best chance of first round hits, yet being sufficiently far enough away from the enemy to give a very low probability of the them locating the sniper position. Even if the location of the sniper team was located, there was a very low probability of being able to hit them. In the 21st century this has changed a bit with several different approaches being used. Higher powered rifles with a true 1 mile capability (1609 meters) are now common with many sniper teams around the world. This not only allows a greater ability to engage targets even further out, but it also provides improved armor and barrier penetration. Another development has been the employment of a 2nd sniper rifle system to complement the higher powered rifle. This second rifle system is normally a semi-auto sniper rifle used for engaging multiple targets very rapidly. This rifle system usually has the capability of engaging targets effectively out to around 800 meters. This requirement came from the experiences of combat in built up areas and situations where sniper teams found themselves engaging many targets, and sometimes even operating alongside infantry line units in a more Designated Marksman type of role (See Below). Combining the two rifle system methodology for sniper teams has further enhanced their flexibility and capability.

Almost all of the armies around the world that employ sniper teams have their own specialized sniper schools. Typically these schools are 1-2 months on average and usually cover the four main skills of sniping which include Marksmanship, Stalking, Range Estimation and Target Detection. Of course, there are many other skills that are taught and covered as well and each tends to have its own specialized areas of emphasis that they cover. These schools tend to be some of the most difficult to get into and very difficult to actually graduate with failure rates running as high as 50-70%.

While the role of the traditional sniper in military units today has evolved over the years, it has actually increased in value and importance and has become a more widely accepted part of ground combat units around the world. With continued low intensity conflicts and “police” style actions conducted by military units, their value will continue to grow in both these limited engagements as well as in the traditional sniper role.

The Designated Marksman

The Designated Marksman, DM for short, has a similar but more simplified role than the Sniper. The role of the DM is one of extending the range of the standard infantry squad and to give some increased capability of precision rifle fire as well as improved observation capability. It is true that some early concepts of sniper employment was essentially identical to the modern role of the DM. For instance, every squad in the former Soviet Union was equipped with a single “sniper” who was issued an SVD, this sniper would then be able to engage enemy units beyond the capability of the standard AK47 or AK74 battle rifles. This is how most units utilize the Designate Marksman today. The US Army had a similar conceptual approach to sniping after the Vietnam War and up until the 1980’s when they adopted a more traditional role for their snipers.

In today’s world the concept of the Designated Marksman is in wide use but it is not as formally organized as snipers. In many branches of the World’s militaries, it is up to the Battalion commander, or their equivalent, to organize any form of DM’s in their unit. In other areas it is much more formalized and structured. Typically the adopted standard is to have one infantryman within a squad of usually 9-11 soldiers designated as the DM. Some units prefer to have one DM assigned per platoon of 30-40 soldiers. Depending on the level available resources, there may be some specialized training in long range marksmanship for the DM, but for other areas it is simply a matter of selecting the best marksman and handing him or her the Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). The DM will then operate as a normal member of the squad performing all their normal duties just like any other member of that same squad.

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(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

The main emphasis of the DM is purely on marksmanship at what is typically considered medium ranges of 300-600 meters, though some DMs are capable of extending that range even further. Because they are operating as part of an infantry squad, the DM can, and typical do, find themselves in full scale firefights. As such, their rifles are generally all semi-automatic to allow for rapid engagements and to also provide the ability of delivering suppressive fire. Rifles such as the M-14, AR10 variants, MSG-90, MSSR and others have been employed with good success in the DMR role. The accuracy requirement is typically not as high as that of a modern sniper rifle and the optics are usually not as powerful or advanced, but the rifle, optics and mounts are all required to be more rugged than a normal sniper rifle since the DM’s life among an infantry line unit can be hard on a rifle and optics. The rest of the DM’s equipment is usually just standard infantry issue just like the rest of his squad mates which would include the same body armory, helmets, and other gear.

When training is available it usually runs 1-2 weeks and is focused primarily on marksmanship. Occasionally topics such as hide construction and counter-sniper techniques are also taught, but the focus is mainly on the marksmanship and use and maintenance of the DMR. Lots of times snipers are used to teach and conduct DM schools on a local unit level but there are formalized schools as well, such as the USAF Advanced Designed Marksman (ADM) School. The USAF switched a number of years ago from having traditional snipers to having the ADM which is more in line with their use of snipers as part of their security forces.

While the use of DM’s is not as flashy or well known as snipers, they have developed into a vital part of the infantry and security forces today. They are widely utilized and extend the range and capability of the infantry squad and in some ways are more easily employed and managed than traditional snipers. It must also be realized that the DM does not have the same capabilities as snipers and must be utilized accordingly. The two roles of Sniper and DM are distinctly different and equally effective when used in their own respective elements.

The Law Enforcement Sharpshooter

The last category of sniper is the Law Enforcement Sniper or Sharpshooter. For the sake of this discussion we will refer to them as a Sharpshooter only to try and avoid confusion with the military sniper. In the law enforcement community the two terms are interchangeable. The Sharpshooter’s role in a law enforcement crises situation is typically very similar to the mission of the Military Sniper:

  1. Bring a hostile situation to a close and protect innocent lives with precision rifle fire
  2. Provide accurate and up to date information about ongoing crisis to the incident commander

The sharpshooter has transformed into an integral and even critical part of the modern law enforcement response teams such as SWAT, CRT, ERT, HRT, or whatever other acronym is used. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the concept of a sharpshooter was all but nonexistent and it was through necessity that the development of this position happened. The Texas Tower shootings was one of the main contributors to this shift in logic. The local police departments had no response to a barricaded suspect with a scoped rifle on the top floor of the clock tower at the university who was shooting anyone he could put his sights on. This tragedy helped increase the demand for a properly trained armed response by law enforcement, this demand helped begin the development of the role of the modern sharpshooter.

Today the sharpshooter is one of the first to deploy on an active shooter or hostage scene and is typically there until the end. The make-up and configuration of the law enforcement units and their sharpshooters varies a lot between agencies around the world. Back in the 1990’s the FBI HRT had fully 50% of their 50 man team comprised of certified sharpshooters. Typically a smaller agency without a full time Response Team will have two to four qualified sharpshooters on their force. The larger departments that do have a full time Reaction Team typical have a sharpshooter section that comprise of a larger number of sharpshooters, upward of 10-12 and sometimes more, like HRT.

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Training for sharpshooters is typically a week long course that provides certification. The focus of this training typically includes topics such as marksmanship, active incident reporting, and especially justified use of lethal force as there is always a chance that the sharpshooter will be called on to end a hostile situation with one well aimed shot. The marksmanship side is primarily at 100 or less yards which is the most likely engagement ranges, but some training out to 200+ yards is common especially for more rural jurisdictions. The emphasis of marksmanship is for extreme precision at close ranges, the need for instant incapacitation is required for hostage situations where the ability of the bad guy to pull the trigger needs to be decisively removed. Long range marksmanship is not typically required, or trained for by sharpshooters. While field craft is far less important to a sharpshooter than a sniper, there is still the need for hide construction and sound tactical fieldcraft in certain situations. Though many times it is advantageous to broadcast the presence of snipers by placing them in obvious areas such as on rooftops since this may act as a deterrent to would be criminals.

By far the bolt action rifle is the most common rifle in use by sharpshooters and in the USA the 308 Winchester is the caliber of choice by over 90% of the agencies and departments. Additional equipment includes binoculars, advanced ear radios, proper attire, and now even cameras are finding their way onto rifles, especially as litigation against departments continues to be on the rise. The technology side of sharpshooting has made some strides forward over the years but it seems not as much as it has for the military sniper.

The role and demand of the sharpshooter has grown by huge amounts in a relatively short time frame as even the smallest departments are now getting part time sharpshooters activated as the need for them can easily be quantified. This vital and important role in law enforcement will more than like continue to rise over the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

These three very unique and important jobs in the military and law enforcement are what Sniper Central is devoted to. We focus almost all of our efforts on providing information pertaining to these three specialties and their equipment, training, and tactics. While the military sniper is the most well-known and is what most people think of when they hear the term sniper, it does not mean that it is the most important of the three. All three of these specialties are vital in their own unique way and we are devoted to helping and serving the men and women that serve as Snipers, Designated Marksmen and Sharpshooters in any way we possibly can. We do this because we have been there and know what its like. Sniper Central is for both the professional and the enthusiast and we encourage all to read and enjoy the pages as much as you would like and take the time to learn more.