Saturday, September 29, 2007

So You Want to Write About Guns - Part Three: One Shot One Kill

That was a not very bad scene, from a not very good movie, "Sniper" starring Tom Berenger. Of course, as sniper movies go this one actually was pretty good; unfortunately, that's not saying much.

There has never been (to my knowledge anyway) a really good, technically accurate, sniper movie.

"Enemy at the Gates" was a good movie, but to my mind it wasn't really a sniper movie, it was a conflict drama that happened to be about a pair of snipers. "Sniper" as I've said, was a mediocre movie (and spawned 2 quite bad sequels). There were some good sniping scenes (though completely unrealistic) in "Saving Private Ryan", and some great fun (and even more unrealistic) sniping scenes in "Navy SEALS"; but neither were sniper movies.

About the best sniper movie technically, is the recent "Shooter", which I actually liked. There were a lot of good moments, and much of the shooting detail was good. Unfortunately there were also a lot of glaring errors (some deliberate, or for better storytelling; some just dumb), and some ridiculous political posturing that detract greatly from the movie.

I want to see a great sniper movie made; and before it gets made, somebody has to write it.

It would seem that the sniper is a naturally interesting subject for fiction. In dramatic terms, he is a warrior, stalking through enemy territory without backup. He fights the enemy from a great distance, concealed in the environment; while at the same time, making the kill very personal, one on one, seeing each face through his scope as he kills.

The inbuilt drama of the sniper just makes for a good story. Unfortunately, most of the people writing those stories have no idea what a sniper does, how, or why (or that the reality of it is quite a bit more prosaic. Eons of boredom punctuated by moments of terror).

As in the other posts in this series, I want to teach writers a little bit about what it is they are trying to write about. Yes, you have to write the story first, but with a story that places such a great importance on guns, and shooters, you NEED to get the details right, or you ruin the story for your readers.

Sooo... this is a big topic, it's hard to know where to start, so I think I'll just talk about the basics, and build from there (warning: about 10,000 words, or 25 typewritten pages, to follow).

What is a sniper?

That one is easy. A sniper is a combatant who exclusively engages the enemy with precision aimed fire against specific individuals at medium to long ranges, from concealment. Snipers also act independently of larger infantry formations, most often as a two man team operating far from conventional forces and without support.

If one engages in precision rifle fire from short to medium ranges, and not specifically from concealment; especially if there is an emphasis on multiple shots in rapid succession or shots on moving targets; then that person is a marksman, or a sharpshooter, not a sniper. Marksmen and sharpshooters generally act organically to larger conventional force formations, in support of their actions.

It is possible however (even common in our current conflict), for trained and dedicated snipers to act in a marksman or sharpshooter role.

How are snipers different from other soldiers, or from hunters, or target shooters?

From a purely technical standpoint, a sniper is someone who is capable of extremely precise and accurate shooting; under adverse conditions, at long ranges, from concealment. Although historically, most sniper engagements occur at less than 300m; professional snipers prepare and train for ranges out to 1000m and more.

The vast majority of hunters and recreational shooters would never take a kill shot beyond 300 yards; nor would they practice beyond that range. Also, most military services never practice beyond 300m for non-snipers (excepting the U.S. Marines who practice out to 400m).

A "serious shooter" (I am one for example, and in fact I'm a hobbyist/regional competitor in 1000m precision rifle shooting) of credible skill but not necessarily a full time professional or advanced level competitor, MAY, with the right rifle and good conditions; be able to make hits consistently at 600m

Serious benchrest, highpower, DCM, and service rifle competitors (and there are about 20,000 of them in the U.S.; almost all civilians, almost none cops, snipers, or ex snipers) can; with relatively field practical, but still highly specialized, expensive, and incredibly precise rifles; make hits consistently at 800m. Some exceptional shooters, with exceptional quality rifles can make hits consistently out to 1200m.

Ok, so what is "precise and accurate shooting"?

Well, what a hunter generally considers adequate is the ability to group 3 shots in 6" at the ranges desired. Most hunters, with most rifles can only perform to this standard at 300 yards or less.

Some hunters, with exceptional skill and a very good rifle, in a relatively powerful chambering such as 7mm magnum; will be able to make and take shots to this standard, out to 400 yards.

Few responsible hunters will take shots at ranges past that, except under ideal conditions; where with a rifle chambered in something like .300 win mag, you might be able to reliably take a shot on a thin skinned animal at 600 yards. This however would be an EXTREMELY uncommon shot, that very few hunters could, or would attempt; because it is likely to leave a wounded animal, which is both cruel, and difficult to recover.

At 300 yards this level of performance is called "2 moa" which is what a "typical" generic hunting rifle was capable of in years past. MOA stands for "minute of angle" a measurement of arc, used to express the deviation of bullets from their intended point of aim.

1 moa is approximately 1" at 100 yards, and it progresses linearly from there to 2" at 200, 4 at 400 etc... If you have a "2 moa rifle", you can expect that if you do your job right as the shooter, and the weather co-operates, at 300 yards range, your bullet will impact within a 3" radius circle (6" diameter) of your point of aim.

A sniper needs to be able to make consistent hits in an 8" wide 12" high oval at whatever range they expect to engage. Typical sniper engagement ranges are out to 800 yards. If they are ranging out to 800 yards, then they need to be able to make 1 moa or better at that range (which is in fact a very difficult thing to do).

How hard is that shot, and is it harder than shooting a deer?

In films and novels, it seems like snipers can hit someone in a speeding car on a bumpy road while firing from a helicopter a half mile away. That is just is not true (actually one of the critical plot points of the movie "Sniper" is that you can't). The slightest bit of extraneous motion on the part of the shooter can throw a shot off by FEET not inches; and it is EXTREMELY difficult to hit a moving target at even close range never mind from 800 meters away.

No responsible hunter will attempt a shot on an animal moving at more than a slow walk; and at that never more than 300 yards away. Even military snipers won't attempt a shot at someone moving more than a few inches per second, unless they are at very close range (under 300 yards), or their speed is VERY predictable, or both. They'll wait until the target stops moving, even if only for two seconds, before taking their shot.

If a target is moving, you have to shoot at the spot where he WILL be when your bullet gets there (which from 3000 feet away could be more than 1 second later); not where they are when you pull the trigger. This is called "lead". It is simply impossible to calculate leads rapidly and accurately at great distances on moving targets; and if you miss, you've not only not accomplished the mission, but you've alerted the target, and you are likely to not get a second shot.

Snipers will wait for hours or even days; watching their targets for exactly the right moment, when they can take a high percentage shot.

The high percentage kill zone on a man is a 6" wide 8" high oval on their head, and an 8" wide 12" high oval on their chest. The medium percentage kill zone, is a triangle describing the center of the forehead or bridge of the nose, and both kidneys, or the bottom of the rib cage (some teach that it's from the nose to the nipples, but that excludes a fair portion of the high value target area). This is called "the golden triangle". They are called "high percentage" and
"medium percentage", because a rifle shot fired into those region will have a corresponding chance of creating a lethal wound.

No sniper will ever take a critical shot below medium percentage. Essentially they would not do so, unless they were firing deliberately to cause confusion, or against the exigencies of the circumstances; rather than attempting a precision kill shot. If they feel they cannot make a shot to the high percentage zones or golden triangle, they will not make the shot; preferring a no-shoot to a miss.

What can a sniper rifle do, and how is that different from a hunting rifle or target rifle?

Well first of all, the rifle itself can't do anything, without the shooter.

Simo Hayha (one of the greatest snipers in all history) did most of his sniping with an open sighted service rifle; and Carlos Hathcock made half his confirmed kills with what was essentially a hunting rifle, with a scope that would shoot itself loose.

On the other hand, if you gave somebody who'd never shot anything but a .22 in boy scout camp a modern high end sniper rifle, with a high powered tactical scope, it's doubtful they could hit anything at more than 300 yards away (or even 100 yards away without training).

To answer the question though, the difference between a sniper rifle and a hunting or target rifle is in detail not in nature. Most military sniper rifles started life as civilian hunting rifles.

In the last few years, the standard for acceptable accuracy for factory rifles has tightened; and it is now not uncommon to have a hunting rifle that can achieve 1 moa performance out to 300 yards, and 2 moa performance out to 600 yards, if in the right chambering, and using good quality ammunition (and of course presuming the shooter is up to the job).

Precision rifles that can perform at 1/2 moa to 300 yards, under 1 moa at 600 yards, and under 2 moa at 800 yards in field conditions, are not exceptionally difficult to build or acquire. I have four rifles which will perform to this standard personally, all of which I built myself. And of course, the rifles can be even more precise if fired from a proper target bench and rest, and much more so if fired from a precision mechanical rest.

Hand made, hand tuned, long range precision rifles in standard chamberings (meaning not .50bmg or .50 based) are typically capable of 1/4-1/2 moa performance to 300 yards, 1/2 to 3/4 moa performance out to 600 yards, 3/4-1.5moa performance out to 800 yards and 1-2 moa performance to 1000-1200 yards (if the chambering can handle the range), in field conditions (and more precise from precision rests of course).  It is not difficult for civilians to obtain or construct such rifles (though they are expensive). This is the class of performance expected of most military sniper rifles as well.

.400 class and .50 caliber based sniper rifles are generally not capable of better than about 1/2 moa performance; however they are often capable of such performance out to 1000 yards, and 1 moa or less out to 1250 or even 1500 yards. They are capable of making killing shots as far out as 3000 yards, but such shots are exceptional in every sense and cannot be considered a high percentage shot.

Some highly precise benchrest rifles, which are impractical for field use (they often weigh 40lbs or more, up to as much as 120lbs, are as much as 5 feet long, and 10" or more in the other dimensions); are capable of maintaining standards of accuracy under 1/4 moa out to 600 yards, under 1/2 moa out to 800 yards, or even 1000 yards. The world record (I'm going from memory, from a few months back, so I may be a bit of here) is 1/8 moa at 600 yards 1/4 moa at 800 yards, and just under 1/2 moa at 1000 yards.

Some highly specialized long distance rifles are used by competitors to shoot at distances of up to 2 miles. The targets for that distance, are 4 feet wide by 8 feet high and can only be seen through high powered telescopes. However, such rifles are often capable of scoring hits on a mans torso at 1 mile (1760 yards)

It's important to note that at distances above 1000 yards, the curvature and rotation of the earth are ballistically significant factors; meaning they must be accounted for in taking your shot.

Also, all of the above are presuming fixed targets, and light to moderate wind conditions. The art of the sniper is in dealing with unpredictable targets (like human beings) and less than ideal weather conditions.

Now, lets talk directly about gear for a minute

Rifles: Many major manufacturers make accurized tactically suitable variants of their standard rifles (or in fact offer factory sniper rifles), including Remington, Winchester (production on most Winchesters was shut down recently, but they are still commonly available), FN (who own Winchester), Springfield Armory, HK, Steyer, SIG, and others.

A modified Remington 700 for example, is the standard issue sniper rifle to most U.S. forces, the FBI (and other federal law enforcement agencies), and most police sniper units.

Most sniper rifles are bolt action. The most common designs are based on the two most popular bolt action hunting rifles in the US, the Winchester model 70, and the Remington model 700.

Bolt action rifles are simply more reliable, and more precise, especially at extremely long ranges. That said, for distances under 800m semi-automatic rifles based on the M14, AR10, and HK-G3 are extremely accurate and precise. Designated marksmen, and scout snipers often use these rifles; as do the spotters for snipers using a bolt action rifle.

Common manufacturers for dedicated precision tactical rifles (as opposed to major factory rifles) in the U.S. are McMillan, Barrett, Accuracy international, Robar, Armalite, Stoner, Knights armament, Cheyenne Tactical, Fulton Armory, and Smith Enterprises.

McMillan and AI make both standard caliber, and .50 caliber class rifles. Barrett and CheyTac only make .50 cal and .50 cal based sniper rifles (or rifles in that class). Smith Enterprises only makes M14s (a 7.62x51 semi automatic rifle). Armalite, Knights, and Stoner make AR-10 platform rifles (another 7.62x51 semi-automatic rifle, similar in design to the AR15). Fulton Armory makes both M14 and AR10 rifles.

Smaller makers of high precision tactical rifles include Dakota, Wilson combat, Les Baer, Precision weapon systems, Tactical Operations, Lauer custom, Lazzeroni, Jarret, SK systems, Teppu Jutsu, and Alexander arms (the last two make AR platform rifles exclusively).

Excepting Accuracy International (which is British) all of those precision rifle companies are US based. FN, HK, Steyer, and SIG are all based in Europe (Belgium, Germany, Austria and Switzerland respectively). Winchester and Remington are US companies; though actually both are at least partially foreign owned.

A high precision tactical rifle will typically cost somewhere between $3000 and $5000 dollars; though you can sometimes get in on bargains for $1500 to $2500. Some highly specialized rifles can go for $10k or more.

For under $750 dollars however, you can buy a high quality factory hunting rifle, and accurize it to achieve perhaps 80% of the performance of a dedicated precision tactical rifle; with under 1 moa performance out to 400 yards, and under 2 moa to 600 yards. In fact, some companies even offer a performance guarantee for their rifles (like the Weatherby Vanguard).

The biggest hurdle is that most factory rifles have very poor triggers, and iffy mounting into their stocks. $200 worth of gunsmithing (that can even be done at home with the right tools and experience), and those problems are greatly reduced.

Beyond that, and a little bit of work on the barrel (fire lapping, and cutting a better crown), you won't see much performance increase without spending an awful lot of money on precision hand work. Mating all surfaces precisely by hand, checking and testing for true constantly etc... This can take dozens of hours of highly skilled gunsmithing work, at $60 to $80 an hour.

Accuracy and precision cost a lot of money for very small differences in practical performance; just how good does your rifle need to be?

Scopes: Up until very recently snipers used fixed power scopes almost exclusively. The original dedicated sniper scopes of World war 1 and world war two were mostly 2x to 4x. Postwar developments improved optics significantly; but prior to the 1970s these scopes remained low magnification, in the 6-8 power range. Most snipers now use 10-16x scopes (because optics technology has improved); and fixed power is still very common.

This is because fixed power scopes are tougher, and have a brighter image for a given size and magnification; and also because it is easier to calculate bullet drop and drift compensation, and estimate range, using a fixed power scope; because you can easily memorize the tables for a fixed power; whereas with a variable you need to do the math in your head for every different power setting.

In the last few years, variable power scopes have become much brighter, and much tougher; and they have seen an increase in field tactical use. This change has primarily been lead by Night Force, a specialty tactical optics manufacturer.

There are a few manufacturers that are unquestionably dominant in the tactical precision optics field. On US made rifles, the leader is definitely Leupold, though Marine snipers and the FBI often use Unertl. Leupold is also one of the dominant manufacturers of premium hunting optics. Night Force would be the number two manufacturer of tactical scopes in the US today, and are actually leading Leupold in the variable power tactical scope market.

Outside the U.S. (and seen on many U.S. made rifles) the leaders in optics are Zeiss, Schmidt and Bender, and Swarovski.

Those six manufacturers provide optics for, I would guess, better than 90% of all tactical precision rifles; and most high end hunting weapons as well.

In terms of night vision weapon sights (they are not called starlight scopes. Only the original late 60s models were) the dominant vendors are Elcan and ATN; and they are largely limited to low magnification (6x and under).

It is very unusual for a sniper to use a night vision sighting device; they generally prefer to use a large, high quality, bright rifle scope of medium magnification ; which will actually gather far more light than the human eye; and to allow their eyes to adjust to darkness. This is because night vision devices have poor resolution and depth of field; and cannot reliably make long distance shots; and also because they tend to be fragile.

Most snipers will range in their scope, and have their spotter backstop their ranging with a spotting scope. Recently, the use of optical laser range finders has become more common; as they have become more rugged and available; but some of them may be visible with night vision equipment, and they are not extensively field proven (or soldier proof) as of yet, so they are not common.

High precision tactical optics typically start around $1500, and go up to about $3000. High end spotting scopes, and range finders are in a similar price range. Current, or recent generation precision night vision sighting devices start at around $2500 and go to about $15,000. It is common for scopes to cost as much as, or more than, the rifle they are mounted on.

Again, as with rifles however; you can achieve 80% or more of the performance of high end tactical optics with medium range high quality factory scopes in the $750 to $900 price range; and even some in the $300 to $500 price range.

Leupold and Zeiss both offer medium priced lines, and Burris offers some excellent mid grade optics at the top end of their line which give almost all the performance of the top grade scopes. The only differences will be the images wont be quite as bright in twilight or at night (in fact they most likely would not be suitable for night use), and the scopes wont stand up to nearly as much abuse (Zeiss demonstrates the toughness of their optics to customers frequently by throwing them down on a concrete floor for example).

Chamberings and ammunition: A rifles chambering (or any other weapon for that matter), is the type of ammunition it is designed to shoot (which is normally designated by the size of the bullet an the cartridge in question). Ammunition performance is absolutely critical to any precision shooting; second only to the performance of the shooter (yes, in fact, sometimes more important than the performance of the rifle).

Different chamberings have different levels of performance, accuracy potential, and range; and therefore will be chosen for different missions. You don't choose a 600 yard cartridge for a 1200 yard mission; conversely, a 1200 yard cartridge may have drawbacks to it, that make using it at 600 yards a poor choice.

By far, the greatest majority of precision tactical rifles, whether military, police, or otherwise; are built in the 7.62 nato chambering (7.62x51), which is for the most part functionally identical to the commercial .308 winchester chambering (there are some very small technical differences, but they are mostly not relevant).

This large majority, is because the round is the standard medium bore military chambering for rifles and light machine guns in western nations (and has been since 1956); and because historically the majority of sniper engagements are at ranges under 300 yards, and rarely exceed 800 yards; a performance envelope within which the .308/7.62n is quite effective.

.308 is also among the most common hunting rounds in the U.S.; and is used to take deer, and deer sized animals at 300 to 350 yard ranges very consistently. Deer are of course much tougher animals than human beings (we are surprisingly easy creatures to kill).

The tactical envelope for the 7.62x51 nato, in modern sniper loadings from a high precision rifle; is between 350 and 425 yards high percentage (depending on the load), 600 yards medium percentage, 800 yards low percentage; and it has a maximum tactical usefulness of about 1200 to 1250 yards (when the bullet drops to subsonic speeds).

At that range, the bullets point of impact is 50 feet below the point of aim; far beyond the adjustment range of standard scopes and mounts; and has a 2 second time of flight. In comparison, at 800 yards, that same bullet would have a drop of about 10 feet; which is within the adjustment range of most tactical scopes, and a time in flight of about 1 second.

Scout snipers, rifle scouts, and designated marksmen (who are organically attached to infantry units; not in a dedicated sniper role) will often use 7.62x51 as well; but in the US and NATO forces (or allied nations) they may be using the same round (in an accurized version) as the general soldier, the 5.56x45 nato.

This round is not as effective as the 7.62n (it has a maximum tactically effective range of about 600m, and high percentage is under 300m), but it gives the scout sniper or designated marksman the advantage of ammunition and accessory commonality with his fellow soldiers.

No dedicated sniper would use this chambering, because it simply isn't effective at long range; but a snipers spotter may have a rifle chambered in it, or the sniper may carry it as a secondary arm.

.30-06 (7.62x63) was the most common U.S. sniper chambering, from the institution of of modern sniping programs in WW1, up through the late 60s. It was the official chambering of the U.S. service rifles for most of that period (until 1956), as well as a very common hunting round. In fact, often hunters used converted military rifles in the chambering (and still do. I have one myself). The .30-06 has a similar ballistic performance to the .308; excepting that it has somewhat less inherent accuracy, but somewhat more energy (because it can use slightly heavier bullets).

Russian and former eastern block snipers generally use the 7.62x54r round; which is also called the "three lines" cartridge, based on an antiquated system of measurement from the Tsarist age. The cartridge went into service in 1891, and is still in service today in machine guns and sniper rifles. With the right load, the chambering matches the capabilities of the .30-06 out to 800 yards, but performance falls off very rapidly after that; with a maximum tactical envelope of about 1000 yards. Unfortunately, most of the rifles chambering it are not capable of such accuracy and precision, but 600 yards is not unreasonable with the best quality of available weapons.

Some snipers use the 7mm Remington magnum cartridge (though it is not common); which has a performance envelope somewhat higher than the .308. The round has about 100 yards more effective range than the 7.62n in most situations; but doesn't carry as much downrange energy as the larger magnums.

For tactical environments where ranges beyond 600 yards are expected, snipers will most often use a more powerful chambering, which shoots a heavier bullet, faster. This delivers more energy down range, and provides a flatter trajectory (tighter groups, smaller MOA numbers); and especially important, greater resistance to adverse weather conditions.

Most commonly, these chamberings would be the .300 winchester magnum, or .338 lapua magnum.

The .300 winchester magnum is a powerful hunting round, that is very effective and flat shooting; with high percentage shots out to 600 yards, medium out to 800 yards, and low percentage shots out to 1000 yards (vs the 800 yards of the .308); and a maximum tactical envelope of about 1350 yards (kill shots have been made with it out to about 1450 yards though).

It is quite common for American hunters to use, and hand load .300 winchester magnum (often called .300mag, or .300 winmag) for elk, moose, ram, and bear hunting.

The .338 Lapua magnum is an extremely large and powerful round, specifically developed for use by snipers, and other long range precision shooters. It provides perhaps 2/3 the performance of the .50bmg round, at ranges out to 1250 yards; with high percentage performance out to between 700 and 800 yards, medium percentage out to about 1000 yards, and low percentage out to 1250, or even 1350 yards. Under normal conditions, the bullet doesn't drop below supersonic until between 1400 and 1500 yards (depending on the loading), and at least two acknowledged extreme range kill shots have been made with it out to about 1750 yards.

This round is uncommon outside of long range competition, and precision tactical shooting; because it is extremely expensive, and very hard recoiling.

Of these chamberings, only the .338 has what a seasoned shooter would describe as very heavy recoil. the .300 winmag is a hard kicker, but tolerable for 50 or 100 rounds in a day (especially with a proper butt pad and shooting jacket). The .338 Lapua magnum is EXTREMELY hard recoiling, and is chambered in relatively light weight rifles; so it can be quite punishing to the shooter. It would be uncommon for a shooter to shoot more than 20 rounds through a .338 in a given range trip.

There are numerous sources of match grade ammunition for these chamberings, as well as handloading.

Most serious shooters either hand load, or have someone hand load for them (including Marine and Army special operations snipers, who either hand load themselves, or whose armorers hand load rounds matched to their particular rifles).

With hand loading, you can achieve a precision not possible with factory ammunition; but each individual round may take as much as 30 minutes to manufacture. Every single cartridge can be loaded and tuned exactly for the individual rifle, barrel, and shooter doing the shooting. The factories simply cannot achieve this level of precision, and consistency; and no-one will give up that advantage if they don't have to.

The other common sniping round is the .50bmg. BMG stands for "Browning Machine Gun", and the round was originally designed for (and is still used in) heavy machine guns.

Officially, .50 bmg (and other chamberings in that class) are generally classified as "anti materiel" rifles; in theory designed for use against gear, equipment, supplies, vehicles etc...

They are certainly useful in this role (you should see what a .50bmg does to an engine block); but in the reality of combat, they are often used in the antipersonnel role.

In the right rifle, the round is extremely accurate to about 1500 yards, and is capable of making kill shots at double that range under the right circumstances. It has a high percentage range of about 800 yards, a medium percentage of 1250, and a low percentage of about 1500 yards. Its maximum tactical envelope is somewhere around 2750 yards, depending on conditions and loading.

It is also very large, heavy, and heavy recoiling. Weapons in this chambering must generally weigh at least 20lbs just to contain the forces of the round, and often weight more than 40. Even at 40 lbs, they kick very hard. The weapons are also very physically bulky; often reaching over five feet long.

The round is extremely expensive in match grade loadings (typically over $10 per round for match grade ammunition, sometimes twice that). As such it is generally only used by high precision long range shooters, and by snipers.

There are also several less common rounds in the .338, .375, .400, .408, .416, and .460 range. These are not commonly used by military snipers; though the manufacturers of these rifles are strongly marketing them ot the military. They typically offer very flat shooting performance out to extreme ranges, and are thus used by long distance precision rifle competitors; but they are extremely expensive and rare.


What sets a sniper apart from any other skilled rifleman, is their training; and the dedication required to achieve it to the highest standards.

It takes two weeks of rifle training to make a competent soldier; someone who can hit a man sized target with reliability at 300 yards. This should be backed up with training at least twice yearly.

It takes two months of dedicated rifle training to make a designated marksman, or rifle scout. This should be backed up with further training and practice on at least a monthly basis.

It takes two years of dedicated rifle training to make a sniper; or a precision long range shooter of any kind. This should be backed up with further training and practice on a weekly basis (at least if the budget allows it) sometimes a daily basis.

It is important to note, that while the skills of hunting and sniping are related to each other; they are very different, in both nature and degree.

In comparison to snipers, most hunters never receive any formal rifle training (unless they were in the military), and only practice once or twice a year for at most a few hundred rounds. This is why most hunters can barely hit at 300 yards.

A serious shooter shoots at least once a month, usually expending several hundred rounds in the process. When talking just about precision rifle shooting, most would shoot once a month or more, and shoot 50 to 100 rounds at a time through their rifles; unless the rifle was a powerful magnum in which case they would normally limit themselves to 20-50 rounds.

Shooting powerful magnum rounds is fatiguing; and punishing to the shoulder. Shooting too much just tires you out, and can make you flinch and make mistakes. It's not useful to do so.

I personally try to shoot every two weeks, though unfortunately frequently can't shoot that often (life gets in the way), and I will typically shoot between 500 and 1000 rounds per range session. Typically about 200 rounds on rifles split across several rifles, and the rest handguns. When I'm doing long range precision practice, I typically shoot 50-100 rounds or so, again because it is fatiguing, and not useful to shoot more than that in one session. I typically expend between 10,000 and 25,000 rounds per year, perhaps 2500-5000 of those in precision rifle practice.

A dedicated competitor, or a serious sniper will shoot at least every week if they can (though often military budgets don't allow it), and will shoot until fatigue worsens their performance.

A competitor or sniper will (again assuming budget allows) shoot a minimum of 5000 rounds a year, and I know of some shooters who shoot 100,000 rounds per year.

But shooting is only one part of the extensive training which snipers undergo. They learn to stalk in all environment, conceal themselves effectively in all terrain, and survive under the most extreme conditions. They learn how to infiltrate and exfiltrate over long distances while under constant threat of enemy exposure. They learn how to choose their targets and timing to cause the maximum disruption to the enemy. Most importantly, they learn how to gather the most possible intelligence on the enemy, and both use it, and report it effectively.

This training takes years, and the skills associated with it may take a decade or more to truly master. The art of the rifle is a pursuit for those who would dedicate their lives to it, not for a casual shooter.

Being a hunter no more qualifies you to be a sniper, than jogging a couple miles a week makes you an Olympic marathon runner. Even being a great hunter doesn't mean you are capable of
being a sniper, though it's a good start.


Most often in todays world, snipers are not "assassins" as is the perception of popular culture. In fact, the assassination role has historically been very limited. Most frequently throughout history, the primary mission of the sniper has been to target the enemies officer corps, and critical leadership and rally positions (like machine gun emplacements). Today, their primary missions are counter terrorism, hostage rescue, and intelligence gathering.

Sniping began with the introduction of the hunting rifle into military usage, some time around the American Revolution. Prior to this time, service arms were not accurate enough to usefully employ precision shooting; however over the next 50 years, the rifle was developed to the point where a skilled sharpshooter could reliably engage targets as far away as 300 yards. This is in comparison to the typical military musket of the time, which was only accurate to a man size target at 50 yards or less.

In the American Revolution, and the later Napoleonic wars; we first saw the employment of organized units of riflemen, who were used primarily as scouts and skirmishers ahead of the main line of battle. These skirmishers were sometimes capable of precision fire at 300 yards (though that was uncommon); but were most often used to gather intelligence (still a primary sniper mission today), and to harass the enemy, keeping them off balance and preventing them from setting up fortifications and field artillery.

Large scale military tactics didn't take this ability into account in a major way until the American Civil war, when organized sharpshooting units were first employed on a large scale.

The first organized sniping also occurred in this conflict; when individual marksmen of great skill were sometimes selected out and given highly accurate rifles and early scopes; to target high value personnel, at ranges of up to 600 yards confirmed, and 800 yards unconfirmed. There was no formal doctrine or training for this type of action, however most of the men employed in this manner were experienced hunters.

Later, in the second Boer war; when the British were fighting against experienced hunters an trackers from the local populace; the sniper concept gained momentum; but again, no organized professional sniper doctrine or training existed.

The modern sniper was born out of world war one, when the confluence of need, and technical capability allowed for this role to be developed.

The bolt action service rifle had been developed in the late 1880s, and adopted on a large scale throughout the turn of the century. The spitzer or "spire point" jacketed bullet was developed at the same time, which allowed medium bore bullets to be pushed out to 3000 feet per second or more, with great accuracy. These rifles, and their chamberings, were effective out as far as 800 yards. At the same time, the optical sight was made into a field usable, and relatively practical mechanism.

It was these technologies which gave the precision shooter the capability to shoot from a great distance without detection, and thus the modern sniper was born.

As world war 1 bogged down into extended trench warfare, the need became clear for soldiers who could target enemy officers and machine gunners at the long distances across no-mans land, while themselves remaining concealed (so as not to draw counter fire form the machine guns, or artillery).

Individual unit armorers would select particularly accurate rifles out of service lots, and give them to the best shots. Eventually, informal sniper schools were set up at the command level, until finally a school was set up back in england to teach sharpshooting.

Unfortunately, as soon as the war ended, most militaries promptly ended their sniper training (the eastern Europeans and Scandinavians being a notable exception), and it had to be rebuilt from the ground up for WW2; where at least the value of the sniper was better understood.

Training schools for the US and British army and Marines were quickly set up, and again snipers were given specially accurized versions of the bolt actions service rifles of the time (I now own three such samples, a US, a Russian, and a British rifle; which were all unfortunately butchered after the war, and sporterized some time in the 50s or 60s).

By Viet Nam, the training and doctrine of sniping was well established; though limited in role and scope; and the sniping schools had been severely curtailed or disestablished between the wars. Again, the tactical environment proved the value of the sniper very quickly, and soon full scale training efforts were underway.

The sniper, scout sniper, rifle scout, sharpshooter, and designated marksman are now understood as valuable force multipliers, and intelligence sources. Since Viet Nam, most militaries have maintained, developed, and advance sniper training; and expanded the presence of precision shooters in their ranks.

"Famous" snipers

The greatest sniper who ever lived (from a technical, and shooting skill standpoint at least), is almost without question Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock.

In Viet Nam he generally used a modified Winchester model 70, with an 8x Redfield or Unertl or 10x Unertl scope (they started with 8x and went to 10x later). His early rifle was chambered in .30-06 but near the end of his service, they switched to .308. This platform afforded Hathcock the ability to take kill shots out to 1200m, but most of his engagements were under 800m.

There is contention for the "greatest" sniper title though, if you count the total number of confirmed kills as more important, rather than the range, or difficulty of shot.

Hathcock is credited with 93 official, confirmed and verified kills; however his actual total is estimated at approximately 340 (it is rather difficult to confirm a kill from 800m away while being shot at by the enemy). This only ranks him in the middle of high kill count snipers. Chuck Mahwinney had more confirmed kills (though about 20 less unconfirmed) while serving with Hathcock directly for example; and Ad Waldron, an Army sniper, had 109 confirmed kills.

What ranks Hathcock so high in the list of great snipers, were his uncanny abilities to stalk, hide, and shoot accurately at long ranges. While most sniping engagements occurred at 300 yards or less; Hathcock frequently engaged at 600 to 800 yards; and his longest range kill was at approximately 2500 yards (2,286 meters), using a modified .50bmg machine gun with a scope mounted on it.

This was the longest range sniper kill on record, until 2002; when a Canadian sniper team shooting a McMillan .50bmg sniper rifle made a confirmed 2430m (1.51 mile) shot. (Since then British and American sniper teams have made publicly acknowledged shots out to unconfirmed distances of 2700m -also using the .50bmg - with AI, and Barret rifles respectively; but Canadian Cpl. Rob Furlong still holds the official record.)

Further, Hathcock performed these feats while unknowingly suffering from early stage multiple sclerosis. His time as an active sniper ended after dragging several fellow marines out of a burning APC, sustaining severe burns over 40% of his body, and nearly crippling him. However, even struggling with MS and the horrid injuries, Hathcock returned to the US and became an instructor for the Corps, serving another ten years before retiring in poor health.

Simo Hayha, a finish sniper in WWII, killed as many as 700 men; though only 500 have been substantiated, and even that claim is in dispute, as only about 300 can be independently confirmed. Of the 700 potential kills, 200 were from close range with a machinegun or submachine gun; so they were not sniper kills. Also, almost all of his shots were from under 300m (all but perhaps 200).

This is not to take away from Hayhas phenomenal effort however; especially since he shot almost exclusively with an iron sighted (no scope) standard issue service rifle. Even more amazingly, all of his kills were accomplished in 100 days, during the Finnish winter; with as little as five hours of daylight per day, and temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Russians claim that Vasily Zaytsev (one of the subjects of the movie Enemy at the Gates) made 242 confirmed kills, and as many as 400 probables; and have made claims of other snipers serving in WWII with as many as 500 kills (Ivan Sidorinko, and Fyodor Ohklopkhov, at least three others).

Recently however, after Zaytsevs death in 2006, documents have been release which purport to show that no Russian (or Soviet) sniper had more than 200 actual confirmed and verified kills.

Again, this is not to take away from Zaytsevs achievement. It is extremely difficult to confirm and verify a kill in the chaos of battle, and unlike Hayha, Zaytsev is confirmed to have taken kill shots from as far as 600m. Also, Zaytsev was noted as one of the best countersnipers in history, with confirmed kills on 11 enemy snipers, and probables on at least 30 more. He later passed on these skills, and trained other snipers responsible for at least 3000 confirmed kills in WW2.

What Snipers are NOT

Ooooh boy, this one is going to get interesting. I'mna put these in a numbered list for a futile attempt at clarity.... I expect I'll add more as the stupidity comes flooding back into my brain.
  1. OK, first thing, let's correct a common media error. Any bad guy with a rifle is not a sniper. Snipers take precision shots on specific targets at long range, from concealment. Your typical bad guy with a rifle is operating more in the spray and pray mode.

  2. The most famous recent criminal "sniper" case, the DC Snipers, could not credibly be called snipers. They took shots from concealment, without being detected, and they chose their targets to achieve their mission objective (which was to create panic and chaos leading to a racial war); but none of their shots exceeded 180 yards, and they were not carried out with great precision.

  3. The two most famous "sniper" cases in American history, once again, could not fairly be called snipers.

    • Charles Whitman was a spree killer, who fired from the Texas tower killing a total of 15 people, and wounding another 31. Out of those 15 however, 5 were at close range with a knife, pistol, or shotgun. Whitmans shots were not taken with great precision, nor were they from concealment. Whitman made little effort to hide his position, and had barricaded himself in for a siege.

    • Lee Harvey Oswald took at least three and as many as five shots in rapid succession, at a moving target that was transitioning from 8 to 15 mph, at a distance changing and from 30 to 180 yards. To do this, he used an inaccurate, barely functional, Italian surplus service rifle, with surplus ammunition, and dime store grade scope. He struck his target once, or twice (depending on whether you believe in the magic bullet or not).

    Those are the actions of riflemen, but not the actions of snipers; and that distinction is important. Honestly, if they were snipers, we would have never known who they were, or where they fired from.

    All three of these cases would be more properly termed as sharpshooters (if Oswald even rises to that level). Of course sharpshooter sounds like someone from the frontier west, whereas the public perception of snipers is dark, mysterious, cool, scary etc...

  4. The press simply seems to think that everyone who uses aimed fire from more than a few feet away is a sniper; even when dealing with soldiers fighting in war. Of course, aimed fire out to several hundred yards is part of normal infantry engagement, not any particularly special skill.

  5. Similarly, in the Bosnian conflict, the terrorists shooting nearly randomly at civilian populations from buildings were termed snipers. Again, this is an inaccurate statement.

    There is no "cool" word for someone taking aimed rifle fire from short to medium ranges; it's simply what a rifleman does.

  6. Most police snipers are not in fact snipers in the truest sense of the word. They most often act more in a sharpshooter role; though this is not always the case of course. A fair few police snipers around the country here, and in other countries, are also ex-military snipers.

  7. Sniper rifles are not magic laser beams. They don't hit everything automatically, and when they do, they don't kill it automatically.

    Most often this comes up under the scary headline "Evil sniper rifle can kill an airliner".

    Well, first of all, anything is possible I suppose. Having the wrong O-Rings killed a space shuttle, it isn't all THAT hard to kill an airliner. Ducks occasionally kill airliners. That said, doing so with a rifle would be phenomenally difficult, and extremely unlikely.

    The first problem is hitting it. A .50 cal sniper rifle, or even a 20mm sniper rifle (there are a couple out there) are not capable of hitting a moving airliner with a single shot (or even five shots, the usual magazine limit) and taking it down.

    Hell, even a very skilled sniper is going to have a hard time hitting ANYTHING moving at 140 to 180mph (approach speed for most medium to large commercial aircraft) without a machine gun and hundreds of rounds.

    Thats why they invented flak cannons, which have exploding shells. You don't need to actually hit the thing, just lob a few dozen shells pretty close, and the shrapnel will do the damage (and yes, it is a few dozen shells per aircraft, if you're lucky).

    Now, lets say you manage to hit it, by being just that damned good (and that damned lucky). A .50 caliber bullet weighs a bit less than 2 ounces, and doesn't explode. A 747 weighs 970,000 lbs. Mass vs. mass, which one is going to win?

    In order to take down a large commercial aircraft with a .50 cal, you're going to have to hit it HUNDREDS of times, and as I said, you'd be lucky to hit it once.

    Even if you hit critical systems, they're all doubly redundant, some triply. If you hit an engine.. probably nothing really. Sure that engine is going to have to shut down, and it's going to lose power right quick; but it isn't likely to explode or disintegrate. Control lines? THeres two more. And it's not like you can really aim for these things. Like I said, you'd be lucky to hit the bird at all.

    Now, all that said, let's say you get the perfect lucky shot. Lets say you hit the pilot and copilot through the head simultaneously killing them both (reductio ad absurdium OK). Great, the plane goes down.

    Thing is though, it wasn't because you shot it with a .50. Airplane skins are made of paper thin aluminum (and I mean that literally. The skin of an airplane is about as thick as construction paper). You could have done the same thing with grandpas .30-30 lever gun; or for that matter, just about any rifle.

    Being a .50 cal wouldn't make such a lucky shot any more likely; and the .50 cal simply doesnt have THAT much more destructive power than any other rifle.

  8. Now... I'm a pilot, and I've mostly flown very light aircraft, like the Cessna 172. Would a .50 cal take that down? After all, instead of the 747s 970,000 lbs, a 172 only weighs about 2,400 lbs. Shouldn't the EEEEVIL .50 caliber sniper rifle of doom be able to take down such a bitty thing?

    Well, no.

    At least, as I said above, it's no more likely than any other rifle. You'd probably have an easier time hitting the bird, because it approaches at about 50mph, not 15mph; but it IS a much smaller target; and it moves around a lot more.

    Honestly, light planes have a lot less to go wrong, and a lot fewer places where a single bullet could do major damage. Most of the space inside a light airplanes fuselage is empty air.

    About the worst thing that could happen, other than hitting the pilot of course (and again, as with a 747, you could do that with ANY rifle); is hitting the engine during approach or departure. Now, the engine is the biggest target, but theres this gigantic hunk of spinning aluminum in the way that would almost certainly deflect a bullet fired from the front... and it would be pretty hard to hit the engine from any other angle.

    Say you manage to hit the engine, and disable it, what happens? Again, not too much. The engine doesn't explode, it just sorta stops; and in most light aircraft, if you lose an engine on takeoff, you're OK.

    I'm not saying it's a day at the races. Sure it's nervous, and dangerous; but it's entirely possible to put the bird back on the ground safely. I've never lost an engine on departure, but I have on approach, and you can very definitely safely land when that happens. In fact, all pilots train for jsut such a thing to happen.

  9. John Denver, Mr. Rogers, Steve McQueen, Captain Kangaroo, Bozo the Clown, Ed McMahon, Drew Cary, Gomer Pyle, and Dr. Ruth were not snipers; no matter what your cousins best friend read on the internet.

    Neither John Denver nor Fred Rogers served in the military. Jim Nabors was in the Alabama national guard in between WW2 and Korea.

    Bob Bell (Bozo) and Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) were both Marines in WW2, but never saw any combat.

    Steve McQueen was a Marine between WW2 and Korea, but never saw combat.

    Ed McMahon is a Marine, but not a sniper. He was a fighter pilot in WW2 and Korea. McMahon in fact had a full military career before becoming famous, and he retired as a Brigadier General in the California Air National Guard; with over 25 years of service

    Actor Don Adams of "Get Smart" was not a sniper; but he was a sharpshooter, and served with great distinction in the battle of Guadalcanal. He was severely wounded, and then transferred to stateside service where he became a drill instructor.

    Similarly, Dr. Ruth was not a sniper; though she was a scout and sharpshooter for the Israeli Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli Army during the 47-49 war. She never saw combat.

    Drew Cary also was not a sniper; but he IS a Marine*. Carey served for six years active duty and finished his 20 in the reserves.

    *There are only four ex-marines living or dead: two are convicted spies (the only two marines ever convicted for betraying their country), one killed the president, and the other is a congressman.

  10. To my knowledge, no current or past major celebrity has served as a sniper; though there are several bit players, stunt co-ordinators, and other "military consultants" who come in on action and military movies who have.

  11. Snipers are not, as I said above, assassins. Though snipers have often been used in the past for targeted eliminations, such a use is difficult to accomplish, requires great skill, timing, intelligence (of both varieties), and good luck. There are much easier ways to kill people.

  12. Here's one that really irritates me; the media perception that because of what the sniper does, they must be somehow cold, or unstable, or anti-social. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    A man who isn't EXTREMELY stable will never be able to be a successful sniper. I have known several snipers; and they are generally among the most stable, even tempered, and quiet men I know.

  13. Unlike other operators, who may have developed an occasionally deserved a reputation for having a wild side; the sniper tends to be more orderly, quiet, by the book, precise, and highly detail oriented. Most I know, or know of, are either reserved family men (often with quite large familys), or quietly confirmed bachelors.

    The one thing that they all share though, is there a distinct wall of separation between their family and personal life, and what they do; and that wall is unbreachable in both directions.

  14. Another major irritation I have, is the media perception is that once someone has stopped being a sniper, the "horrors of what they have done" haunt them forever...

    That one is a bit tougher, because I know a few Viet Nam era snipers, and yes some of that is true; but to a man they believed in, and still believe in what they did. They regret that it was necessary, but they don't regret having completed their mission.

    Gunny Hathcock said "I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're gonna kill a lot of these kids we got dressed up like Marines. That's just the way I see it."

  15. Then there's the old saw common to hollywood movies " I used to hunt, but then I was a sniper, and now I've lost the taste for killing"...

    Yeah that one just makes me laugh.

    First of all, killing a man and killing a deer or an elk are two entirely different things, emotionally , physically, and spiritually. Although I'm sure there are a few people who didn't particularly want to be soldiers, or who had horrible experiences as a soldier in war, for whom that may be true, but I'm pretty sure it's rare.

    You know what snipers talk about with each other when they aren't on the job? How much venison they're going to put in the freezer come thanksgiving time; or how long a shot they can take on a prairie dog.

    Almost every sniper I know, or know of, grew up hunting; and still hunts today. I don't think one of them who hunted as a kid stopped because of "the horrors of war".

    This one I think comes from Hollywood and the lefts complete mis-understanding of both hunting, and of soldiering.

    Soldiering isn't about killing, it's about accomplishing the mission. People are killed because they oppose the accomplishment of the mission; but it isn't the goal of soldiering.

    Hunting isn't about killing; you could go work at a slaughterhouse if you wanted that. Hunting is about HUNTING. The killing is just how you know you've won.

  16. Snipers aren't bloodthirsty maniacs. They aren't cold detached sociopaths. They are almost exclusively quiet, professional, and dedicated men, who strongly believe in what they are doing.

A few final notes, and random thoughts

Snipers almost always think in meters. Hunters, non military shooters, and jsut about everyone else in the US, almost always thinks in yards; so I've generally noted in yards above.

Most snipers use a Mil-dot reticle system. This lets them calculate range, drift, bullet drop etc... on the fly, without getting off the glass. There are good resources for how to use Mil-dot reticles on the net.

The motto of the Marine sniper is indeed (or was at one time, they may have changed it in these politically correct days), "One shot, one kill" (as is often publicized), and it is still a mantra and unit motto of many sniper units. Often you will also see mottoes like "Silent hunters", "Swift, Silent, Deadly"; and others which emphasize that snipers are stealthy, and lethal.

Snipers tend to have odd, and very dark, senses of humor. For example, many snipers have been known to think the old AT&T jingle and slogan "reach out and touch someone", an endlessly funny joke. Some have even made it their unit motto.

Most dedicated professional military or law enforcement snipers work in teams, with a spotter. Most often, the sniper will stay on the glass for no more than 30 minutes, taking a rest while their spotter covers their target area; because it is impossible to focus through a scope for extended periods of time without degrading your performance to an unacceptable degree.

Great snipers (and other high precision long range shooters) are unnaturally still people. If you ever meet one, you will not believe how still they can be; it's kinda spooky. When shooting, they slow their breathing and heart rate down, and control their muscle movements to the point where their pulse in their fingertip can have a measurable effect on the shot. This is achieved through both gifted natural ability, and extensive training.

Reversing something I said above; there IS a way to shoot man in a fast moving car from a helicopter. Your bird driver has to pace the vehicle as closely as possible to reduce your relative velocities to near zero; and get you as close as possible. From there you can expect some chance of making the shot (presuming both the target and the bird aren't bouncing up and down too much); but don't expect any real precision. This technique is sometimes used with anti-material rifles (.50 BMG or larger) to disable vehicles. It is also used in certain wilderness areas for hazardous game control, or herd control. While this requires great skill, it isn't sniping.

Oh and that thing thats in every sniper movie, where one sniper shoots completely through the scope of another sniper, killing him? Yes, that has actually happened, several times. Gunny Hathcock and Vasily Zaitsev have both confirmed and documented a shot like that, and several other have claimed it.

For further reading

The best non-fiction book about a sniper ever written is probably "Marine Sniper" about Carlos Hathcock (his biography "Whitefeather" is also good). "Dear Mom: A Snipers Viet Nam", a book about fellow marine snipers Joseph Ward and Chuck Mawhinney, is also worth a read.

The best novel ever written about a sniper is probably "Point of Impact" by Stephen Hunter, which was inspired by Hathcock; and which, as I said above was the basis for the movie "Shooter". "War of the Rats" is also excellent, and was the basis for the movie "Enemy at the Gates".

Wikipedia has a half decent page on sniping, and another on sniper rifles; without too many glaring annoyances and inaccuracies.

Closing up

I've written about 10,255 words here (after revisions), and I've barely scratched the surface of this rather complicated subject. Theres a hell of a lot of detail I've glossed over or simplified here, and a lot of areas I didn't even try to cover. If I did, this post could have easily gone one for over 20,000 words (1/4 of a fair sized non-fiction book).

As it is, I've written about 20 typewritten pages; and I know I'm going to irritate the snipers and other precision shooters who read this page (and there are more than a couple), with my various and sundry errors and omissions (hopefully small).

My goal here, as in all these mythbusting posts, is to give a writer enough information to not make basic stupid mistakes; and for readers to understand them when they see them. I hope I've given enough information here to do so, without completely drowning you in the process.

Please, writers, directors, actors, I beg of you; read and do your research before you put words on a page, or performances on film. You'll end up with a better story, and a happier audience.