The term “Sniper” originated from the British occupation of India in the 1800’s.

The primary mission of a sniper is to deliver long-range precision fire on key selected targets and targets of opportunity. The secondary mission of a sniper is the collection and reporting of battlefield information. 

Revolutionary War sniper in a tree position

Revolutionary War sniper in a tree position

Revolutionary War

During the revolutionary war a British sniper, Maj. Patrick Ferguson, was known for “The shot not taken”.

Major Patrick Ferguson:  British Sharpshooter, who invented a weapon superior to the standard “Brown Bess” musket.  His rifle was breech loading, and weighed only 7.5 pounds compared to the Brown Bess’s 14 pounds.  He demonstrated his rifles capability by firing 4 rounds per minute at a target 300 yards away and increased his rate of fire to 6 rounds per minute at a 100 yard target.  He established a Sharpshooters Corp which on several occasions was the deciding factor in an engagement.
Major Ferguson is most notably remembered for a shot not taken.  The shot not taken refers to an instance when Major Ferguson and three of his sharpshooters were within range of General Washington and his aid.  Major Ferguson attempted to capture them both when he ordered them to dismount, General Washington turned and rode off and Major Ferguson did not fire at a fleeing enemy.  Had Major Ferguson taken that shot the entire outcome of the Revolutionary War could have been significantly different.  

General David Morgan’s snipers were known as Morgan’s Riflemen.

General Daniel Morgan: Was commissioned as a Colonel of the 11th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line where he subsequently organized 400 sharpshooters who became known as “Morgan’s Riflemen.” The first thing he tested was their marksmanship capabilities; fieldcraft skills can be taught but most of these men he selected grew up in the “Frontier Area” and were already skilled in fieldcraft skills.  His test for riflemen became a campfire legend.  He obtained several broadsides printed with the head of a British Officer and only recruited those who could hit his target with their first shot at one hundred yards.  
Question:  What officer did Daniel Morgan's sharpshooter shoot first in the Revolutionary War?
Answer:  Morgan's Virginia sharpshooters got the British light infantry trapped in a crossfire between themselves and Dearborn's regiment. General Fraser was trying to rally them, Benedict Arnold spotted him and called to Morgan to direct the attention of some of the sharpshooters amongst your riflemen to him! Morgan reluctantly ordered General Fraser shot by a sniper,

Another notable Sniper from the Revolutionary war is Timothy Murphy.



Civil War

Colonel Hiram Berdan: He was the first to recruit and organize Union Sharpshooters.  Colonel Berdan incorporated company size elements of sharpshooters in battle.  He was the inventor of the Berdan Rifle (a repeating rifle), the Berdan centerfire primer, and numerous other weapons and accessories.  In 1861, he was involved in the recruiting of 18 companies from 8 different states which were formed into two sharpshooter regiments.  His men had to pass rigorous marksmanship tests, were dressed in distinctive green uniforms and equipped with the most advanced long range rifles that were mounted with telescopic sights.

The date was May 9th 1864, when Sgt Grace, a Confederate sniper, achieved what was considered to be an incredible shot at the time, and what is definitely the most ironic demise of a target in history. It was during the battle of Spotsylvania when Grace took aim with his British Whitworth Rifle. His target was General John Sedgwick and the distance was 1,000 yards. An extremely long distance for the time. During the beginning of the skirmish, the confederate sharpshooters were causing Sedgwick’s men to duck for cover. Sedgwick refused to duck and was quoted saying “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit Elephants at this distance.” His men persisted in taking cover. He Repeated “They couldn’t hit elephants at this distance” Seconds Later Grace’s shot hits Sedgwick just under his left eye.  General Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union casualty in the civil war and upon hearing his death Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant repeatedly asked “Is he really dead”.

General Patrick Cleburne:  The leading general during the Battle of Dalton, Georgia.  His unit of 46 sharpshooters was equipped with 30 Whitworth and 16 Kerr rifles repeatedly silenced Union artillery from 800 yards and annihilated an advancing Federal skirmish line.  One Federal officer remarked that “so galling was the fire, every man who attempted to rise was shot dead.”  
Southern States were able to field more marksmen than the Northern States, however the Northern Sharpshooters were better equipped.

The following URL allows you to look over some of the weapons available during the Civil War and their capabilities:

During the Civil War both sides possessed Key Target lists consisting of:
Right Guides
Enemy Scouts
The Sharpshooter Battalions of both sides gained enormous experience through the four years of the conflict, not only in inflicting damage on the enemy, but also in scouting, observation, and intelligence gathering and certainly gained them the grudging respect of the men and officers on both sides.
In addition to the Sharps rifles, Union and Confederate sharpshooters were armed with a variety of other weapons.  Some of these rifles had scopes and others used iron sights.  Most were single-shot, while many had magazines and repeated.  Confederates favored target rifles, like the Whitworth or the Kerr with each costing about $500.00, as compared to the $43.00 Sharps.

On today's modern battlefield our key target list really hasn’t changed much.


WWI Troops

WWI Troops

World War I

During WWI a stealthy riflemen emerged, whose mission was to exact his toll with the well-placed single shot, to gather intelligence and to demoralize the enemy as much as possible. Along with the continuous dread of Army Sniper Assn - WWI sniperdeath-dealing artillery fire and poisonous gas, the specter of the sniper preyed on the infantryman’s psyche in the trenches of WWI. German Sharpshooters dominated the trenches and “No Man’s Land” between the lines.

The term “Sniper” replaced “Sharpshooter” during this period. Major H. Hesketh-Pritchard, DSO, MC, (shown in the photo at right) commanded the first sniper, observation and scouting school for the British Army during WWI.

Into this sometimes surreal existence stepped a stealthy riflemen, whose mission was to exact his toll with the well placed single shot, to gather intelligence, and to demoralize the enemy as much as possible.  Beyond a shadow of doubt, along with the continuous dread of death dealing artillery fire and poisonous gas, the specter of the sniper preyed on the infantryman’s psyche in the trenches of World War I.

Additional information regarding Snipers during WWI can be found at:

Sniping as a military practice had proved its worth throughout the ages, but it was given an added importance in conditions of trench warfare.  Working day and night, trained marksmen would function essentially as assassins, often targeting any moving object behind enemy lines, even if they were engaged in peaceable tasks (which meant that if a sniper was taken prisoner he could expect no mercy on either side).  Although the overall number of casualties claimed by snipers were small (many snipers kept count of their number of “kills” often reaching triple figures), they played an important role in sapping enemy morale.

Major H. Hesketh-Pritchard became the Commanding Officer of the first Sniper, Observation and Scouting School for the British Army during World War I.  The Americans selected as snipers attended the British Sniper Schools, however the war ended before their employment could have an effect.  After the War Major Hesketh-Pritchard broke down the scouting and sniper involvement in the trenches into four phases:

Phase 1 (1914-1915)  German snipers control the trenches(Clear German advantage)

Phase 2 (1915-1916)   British sniping gets organized(Advantage even)

Phase 3 (1916-1918)  British sniper program takes off(Slight British Advantage)

Phase 4 (1918-UTC)  Allied Offensive has its effect(Snipers began scouting)

Ghillie suits were first used by the British and were obtained from the Lovat Scouts, who were for the most part highland game keepers (ghillies) raised on the Scottish estate of Lord Lovat.  The British developed the two man team concept first (officially 1916), while many German snipers preferred to operate alone. 

The U.S. entered the war with an outstanding rifle, the M1903 Springfield, but with virtually no optics.  Sharpshooters, such as Sgt Alvin C. York, did some impressive shooting with iron sights in many instances throughout the war.  The shooting skills of the Marines at Belleau Wood are legendary as they were obtaining kills out to 800 yards.

To learn more about sniping during World War I follow this URL:

If the American Civil War marked the origin of the true sharpshooter, then the First World War marked the arrival of the full fledged modern sniper.  Sniping had previously been a business carried out by a talented few.  They were good shots who had a feel for operating over natural terrain.  As a result of the First World War sniping became a recognized part of the military machine:

German Snipers in position

German Snipers in position

World War II

The Germans dominated sniper operations during WWII. The German motto, during WWII, for their snipers: “CAMOUFLAGE 10 times-SHOOT ONCE”. These snipers were the first to start fielding specialized equipment. Matthias Hetzenauer was credited with 345 KIAs and Sepp Allerberger with 257 KIAs.

The Soviet Union was the first to employ Snipers in two-man teams. Vassili Zaitsev (left) and two sniper comrades observed German positions in Stalingrad, Jan 43. He had 400 KIAs by war’s end.

The Soviets also fielded female snipers. Over 2000 were trained as snipers.


Although the US Army set up an advanced marksmanship course at Camp Perry, Ohio, the Army had no official sniper course during WWII. Between wars, the USMC sustained limited sniper training but not enough to compete with other countries during WWII.

Korean War

With the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the upper hand was initially with the Communist forces. The Soviet Union and China trained and equipped North Korea’s snipers.  Korean snipers used the Moisin Nagant Model 1891/30 rifle.

During 1955-1956, the Army Marksmanship Training Unit operated the first US Army Sniper School at Camp Perry, Ohio. Unfortunately a lack of understanding, and appreciation for the effectiveness and potential that snipers could add to the fight, caused sniper training to be abandoned after this short training period.

During the Korean War, Snipers were used during the first recapture of Inchon, Seoul, and the Battle of Chosin.  When the war went into its static period in 1951 the Army and Marines as in WW I and WW II were deadly, especially during this static defense period of the war.  Fifty (.50) caliber weapons with scopes were also used for sniping purposes by the U.S.  The favorite was a M2 .50 caliber machinegun with a target scope attached; due to the weight, this system was not very mobile.  Major advances were implemented in sniper tactical mission planning, information gathering, harassing and delaying the enemy.  The top sniper of Korea was Sgt Boindot from the U.S. Army with 70 confirmed kills.  After the Korean War, the U.S. sniper program was again discontinued.



In Viet Nam, on July 1968, the US Army began centralized training in-country. The 9th Infantry Division established one of the first in-country Sniper Schools. The course, run by Major Willis Powell, lasted 18 days with the failure rate being 50%. In December 1968, a full complement of seventy-two snipers were ready for action.

The 6th Bn, 31st INF RGT of the 9th INF DIV, killed thirty-nine VC from 12 April to 9 May 1969, in the Mekong-Delta.

In November 1968, 8 enemy KIA’s were recorded by Army Snipers; December 1968, saw 11 kills. During the period Jan 7 to July 24, 1969, Army Snipers accounted for 1245 enemy killed.

The XM-21 with suppressor and the ART I (Auto Ranging Telescope) were issued and utilized beginning on February 14, 1969.  The photograph on the bottom left shows an XM-21 with a Starlight Scope mounted and a Suppressor.

Sergeant Adelbert F. Waldron III was the U.S. Army’s top sniper during the Vietnam War with 109 confirmed kills.  Sergeant Waldron received two Distinguished Services Crosses for his actions as an Army Sniper.  Philip G. Moran, U.S. Army, has been credited with 53 confirmed kills.  Terry Mathis, U.S. Army, has been credited with 48 confirmed kills.

From Lt Gen Ewell in the US Army’s Center for Military History's archives "..., our most successful sniper was Sergeant Adelbert F. Waldron, III, who had 109 confirmed kills to his credit. One afternoon he was riding along the MekongRiver on a Tango boat when an enemy sniper on shore pecked away at the boat. While everyone else on board strained to find the antagonist, who was firing from the shoreline over 900 meters away, Sergeant Waldron took up his sniper rifle and picked off the Viet Cong out of the top of a coconut tree with one shot (this from a moving platform)."



Present Day

The US Army Sniper School was established in 1987, at the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, GA, and continues to produce top-notch snipers today. It’s continuous existence reflects the longest sniper training course in the history of the US Army and is a testament to the high priority sniper training now enjoys among the Army’s leadership. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings, the U.S. military entered into combat operations in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom. Snipers proved themselves as an invaluable asset due to their ability to engage targets at great distances in a mountainous battlefield.


Soon after O.E.F. and the fall of the Taliban, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced. Again, Army snipers were in high demand mainly due to their abilities to use precision fire to engage high value targets, to destroy Vehicle and Suicide-borne Improvised Explosive Devices. Snipers also provide over watch with their high powered optics (day/night) and demoralize the enemy forces. Coalition snipers are the most hunted soldiers on today’s modern battlefield. Currently Army Snipers are deployed: Kosovo, Bosnia, Egypt, South America, Africa and Korea.