Toby Worthington looks at the origins of the word ‘Sniper’

American sniper 555

Love it or hate it, with the new film ‘American Sniper’ now in our cinemas I thought I’d take a moment to take a look at the origins of the term ‘Sniper’ which at first glance might appear to have little relevance to the definition.

Today ‘Sniper’ is the broadly accepted term used to refer to a marksman or sharpshooter who has been trained to engage targets from concealed positions, at long distances, using a high powered rifle.  

But why the word ‘Sniper’? The word appears to have originated in or around the mid 1700’s and was first coined by the British Military in India where troops hunted the Snipe, a bird which, by virtue of its speed and size, was extremely difficult to shoot. Those who were successful at shooting a Snipe in flight were referred to as Snipers.

snipe 250It was not however until WW1 when the word was used to portray its current meaning for a highly trained sharpshooter or marksman. During this period it was the German army who led the field in the use of sharpshooters, their mission to exact a toll on the enemy with well placed single shots.

The spectre of the Sniper was said to have preyed heavily on the psyche of the British soldier in the trenches. Here German sharpshooters dominated ‘No man’s land’ and were reported to have been particularly efficient at picking off any soldier unfortunate enough to reveal themselves above the parapet.  

It was with reference to these sharpshooters that the British soldier gave the name ‘Sniper’.  

Despite the clear advantage gained by the German Snipers, it was to be some time before the British followed suit and developed their own sniper schools. Indeed even during WWII the Germans still had the advantage. During this time the motto for the German sniper was “Camouflage 10 times – Shoot Once”.

sniper WW1 250In part the advantage that the German Sniper had over their counterparts can be attributed to optics. A long established history of fine glass making insured that the German / Austrian alliance were able to produce superb lenses in some of the first telescopic sights seen on the battlefield. Today the quality of German and Austrian rifle scopes can still be seen in some of the top brands used today, namely Swarovski, Schmidt & Bender and Zeiss. .

Whilst the British were slow in their realisation of the use of Snipers, the Americans took even longer and had no official Sniper course throughout the whole of WWII. It was in fact not until 1968 during the Vietnam war that the US began its first Sniper course.   

In WWI the German sniper typically used a German Mauser Gewehr ‘98 chambered for a 7.92x57mm cartridge, today in Britain the trained sniper typically uses a more powerful flat shooting calibre in the form of the .338 Lapua Magnum. Whilst this calibre, and associated weapon system, is designed for one shot kills out to 600 metres and harassing fire out to 1100 meters, the longest confirmed sniper kill is recorded by Craig Harrison Corporal of Horse in the Blues and Royals, the record for which is recorded to be 2,475 metres. 

For more about Rifle Calibres follow this link: rifle-calibres.

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