“We have been trekking hard all these last days. Heat and dust terrible… We got in a wood and were
surrounded by Germans. The Germans are very fond of wood fighting and
detail snipers to get up trees. We lost considerably including nine
officers.” Letter from Lt. Neville Woodroffe during the Mons Retreat, 1914.
Snipers can trace their lineage to hunters who began using rifled firearms that could fire accurately at longer rangers. In the North American colonies, settlers adapted the rifle to warfare, and riflemen were used as snipers by both sides during the American Revolutionary War, and by the British in the Napoleonic Wars. During the Second Boer War, Boer marksman with accurate Mauser rifles took a heavy toll on regular British forces. In response, the British formed the first professional unit of trained snipers, the Lovat Scouts, using telescopic rifles and wearing camouflage suits. Their commander said of them that they were “half wolf and half jackrabbit.“
A British officer shoots from a camouflaged position.
The trench warfare of the First World War suited the sniper perfectly. At the beginning of the war, sniping was an amateur affair, practiced mostly by officers used to hunting from before the war. Armed with personal hunting rifles, sharpshooters spent their spare time trying to pick off enemy soldiers. Only the Imperial German Army issued out telescopic sites, and soon the trained German snipers developed a fearsome reputation in the Entente armies.
In response, the British and French set about professionalizing their own marksmen. Big-game hunters like Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard worked hard to develop sniper tactics to counter the Germans. All armies set up training schools, and following in the Germans’ wake the British and French began issuing standard-issue scoped rifles. Optics underwent significant development; a major example was the “periscope” rifle that used sloped mirrors to allow soldiers to fire without revealing themselves above the trench parapet.
A British soldier at Gallipoli tries to lure Turkish snipers into firing; his friends don’t seem amused.
As snipers improved in quality, the danger they posed increased. Working in pairs, snipers were expected to memorize the layout of the land in front of them, noticing any subtle change. They wore camouflage and shot from disguised or armored positions to remain safe themselves while they watched for any sudden enemy movement. Even a man who exposed himself for a fraction of a second might become a casualty. The most valuable targets were officers, signalers trying to lay communication lines, and soldiers bringing up rations from field kitchens.
A camouflaged British marksman next to a fake tree he used as a platform.
The sniper war became a daily feature of life on the front line. Soldiers developed methods to cope. Robert Graves remembered being troubled by one particular German sniper, but he found a response: “Later we secured an elephant-gun that could send a bullet through enemy
loopholes and if we failed to locate the loop-hole of a persistent
sniper, we tried to dislodge him with a volley of rifle-grenades, or
even by ringing up the artillery.”
The randomness of death scared troops. It even created one superstition - never light a cigarette three times from the same match. “The sniper sees the first light, he hones in on the second, and when he sees the third he takes the shot.”
Anzac troops use a periscope rifle on Gallipoli.
Soldiers hated snipers and a captured one could expect no mercy. Nevertheless, sniping had a mental toll of its own. Some treated it like hunting, but others were disturbed by its oddly personal nature. R. A. Chell remembered feeling so during his first try at it:
“After about fifteen minutes quiet watching - with my rifle in a ready
position - I saw a capless bald head come up behind the plate. The day
was bright and clear and I hadn’t the slightest difficulty in taking a
most deliberate aim at the very centre of that bright and shiny plate -
but somehow I couldn’t press the trigger: to shoot such a ‘sitter’ so
deliberately in cold blood required more real courage than I possessed.
After a good look round he went down and I argued with myself about my
duty. My bald-headed opponent had been given a very sporting chance and
if he were fool enough to come up again I must shoot him unflinchingly. I
considered it my duty to be absolutely ready for that contingency.
After about two minutes he came up again with added boldness and I did
my duty. I had been a marksman before the war and so had no doubt about
the instantaneousness of that man’s death. I felt funny for days and the
shooting of another German at 'stand-to’ the next morning did nothing
to remove those horrid feelings I had.”
Photograph of one of the D.C. Snipers crime scenes, prior to the removal of the body of Sarah Ramos. 34 year old Ramos had been shot shortly after she had left her bus and sat down to read her book on the bench. The D.C. Sniper spree shootings resulted in ten deaths and three injuries, and were committed by John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo(who was only 17 years old at the time of the crimes). In total their true body count was 17 deaths, due to crimes they had committed prior to starting their shooting spree.