2011/11/13

Sniping: History and theory

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Snipers (the real ones, not the occasional rifleman whose position is unknown) have become a fashion during the last about 15 years.
It began in my opinion during the SFOR mission where snipers were wanted for counter-sniping and for giving junior leaders on the ground some 'surgical' weapon that would be practical against a target in between civilians.

New sniper rifles were developed and bought, sniper training was reformed - all measures that responded to the perceived need and were easily squeezed into the budgets.
Civilians with interest in some military things turned into sniper fanbois and there was almost some sniper cult again. The accurate long-range sniping proved to be especially fascinating, and long-range records claimed in Afghanistan with anti-tank  heavy sniper "anti-material" rifles caught a lot of attention.

I'm still not sure that the role of a sniper in the grand scheme of land warfare is understood, thus this text (about my opinion on it):

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First of all let's remember the roots and history of sniping:

Back in the 17th century it was largely about sitting in wait during a siege until an aimed shot of sufficient promise could be fired at either the besieger or the besieged. Even earlier than the 17th century this was regularly done with heavy crossbows, often as means of killing time for terribly bored aristocrats up to kings.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, sniping had its importance in taking out enemy officers. Many 18 century European armies had light infantry units with rifles (muskets were the common infantry weapon).
There was even an age of rifles from the 1850s to the 1880s when blackpowder rifles were practical and often out-ranging the artillery of their time. Artillery personnel became thus badly endangered by sniping. Magnifying scopes were introduced for sniping afaik during the 1860's.

U.S. Civil War sniper
Up till the turn from 19th to 20th century, long range accurate rifle fire was simply not decisive in battles. 

This changed with smokeless powder around 1890; smokeless powder made machineguns practical, gave rapid long-range fire more practical value (and made salvoes less necessary), and it enabled accurate long-range rifle fire. The key was the improved muzzle velocity (about +50%).

The first real test became the Boer Wars, fought on suitably open land. The British were thoroughly embarrassed by the accurate long-range fire of the Boers (to be fair, they were embarrassed by their poor marksmanship training more than once during the 19th century). Even as of today it's easy to find references to great Boer marksmanship - but a statistical look at the duration of firefights, rounds expended and casualties does not support them. The Boers did rather suck less in marksmanship than the British, and were at times in superior positions.

The result was an emphasis on long-range and quick rifle fire during the 1900's, and pointed "spitzer" bullets were introduced to make better use of the smokeless powder's capabilities.

The First World War did not experience much long-range rifle fire, but it's the birthday of modern sniping. Snipers were commonly shooting at few hundred metres distance (still preferring scopes because very often their targets were tiny slits or trench scopes). Suddenly, camouflage, concealment and deception became most important. The ability to hit at very long range was almost irrelevant.
There's more to sniping in WW1: Snipers were almost universally 'disliked' by regular infantry, on both sides. They were only welcome when they arrived to take on a harassing enemy sniper. Sniping at regular infantry was despised, for it regularly provoked revenge in form of artillery and sniping. The regular infantry suffered from sniping and revenge against snipers. Their stance may sound somewhat selfish, but I think it has a lot of merit. Harassing actions rarely serve a good purpose.

First World War sniper
Sniping fell into de facto disuse in several armies during the Interwar Years, the Germany army went to war in 1939 without a proper sniping scope. Some German thought on what's nowadays known as designated marksman or squad sharpshooter didn't yield much more than a poorly designed rifle scope for DMs that became the best scope available for actual snipers.
Eventually, sniping in WW2 turned out to be rather similar to sniping in the First World War (but less trench-specific). Shots that required high-powered scopes were rare and some snipers did much without any scope.

Post-WW2 sniping looked usually quite the same; very long range shots were rare, camouflage was very important. The Germans again allowed snipers to almost fall into disuse because of the dominant 'quick armor clash' WW3 scenarios. Again, it only issued some scopes for normal service rifles, this time at least a mediocre 4x scope.


Now about the theory (actually, my generalising conclusions)

(1) Sniper fire should be held back as a deterrence when both sides have strong sniping capabilities.

(2) The only time when sniper fire is a really great asset is when the enemy cannot retaliate against their use effectively or during combat involving regular infantry fires.

(3) Moreover, nowadays the ability of snipers to see without being seen is much more valuable than their marksmanship.

First about the deterrence thing: Mere harassment is useless unless it serves a real purpose. It merely makes warfare more messy without a real purpose, and that's simply not desirable.

Second the lopsided case; an enemy who cannot retaliate much against sniping will quite inevitably learn that there's little reason to hold said snipers back. This is when they really rack up successes. Keep this in mind when you allow Afghanistan reports to influence your appraisal of the relevance of snipers.

Finally about fieldcraft: The first compact radios were introduced during WW2, and by the 60's really compact radios with decent range were commonplace in modern armies. This enabled snipers to become forward observers. The firepower of mortars and artillery is obviously totally superior to the firepower of a rifle or two. Calling for fire support entails some risk of having your radio transmission triangulated, but you don't need to give away your presence with a shot. I don't even think of muzzle flash and bang, but of the fact that a rifle shot usually comes from within a kilometre, while indirect fire may be based on spotting from much longer distances. Sniping thus provokes a greater (more dangerous) effort for spotting the sniper than do indirect fires.


Snipers with their extreme fieldcraft (camouflage, concealment, deception, movement techniques, choice and preparation of positions) are furthermore important for the improvement of regular infantry. This mirrors somewhat the importance of light infantry heritages for improving regular infantry during the First World War. The "see without being seen" thing should become commonplace in Western infantry (I don't mind it at all if non-Western infantry doesn't do it!).


The attention gained by long-range shots fired by snipers is in stark contrast to their relevance in great wars and in even bigger contrast to their real importance. Serious people should not pay much attention to long-range shots, but instead consider snipers as deterrents and forward observers, probably most important as fieldcraft benchmarks for our regular infantry.

S O

P.S.: A WW2 video on a German wartime sniper course, meant to familiarise regular troops with snipers and their skills. It might work on interested blog readers, too.

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8 comments:

  1. I'm in too minds.
    In rapid offensive warfare, they are an utter waste, but once anyone "digs in", they become an essential tool.

    As a tactic, they represent a failure somewhere else has occured.
    Although racking up huge body counts in Afghanistan, the UK's snipers are simply a reflection of the fact that we own the ground in our bases, and a few yards outside them.
    We use snipers to kill fighters in neighbouring compounds, but in reality, we should be bringing up reserves to surround those compounds and destroy the forces inside.

    But then I cant help but wonder, in a "falklands island" type scenario, we would be resource constrained, and may require a few days "harresment" for any advance to be a success.

    I suppose it depends on wether or not sinpers can reduce the enemy position faster than it can be reinforced.

    I dunno, I'd be tempted to argue Designated Marksmen reaching out to the same range as the squad machine gun is worthwhile.

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  2. Nice post, I liked the Der Deutsche Scharfschutze Part.2 at about the 6:06, the camouflage umbrella. Also the Der Deutsche Scharfschutze Part.3 at 4:23 with the zug staying well hidden. I found the videos nice to watch.

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  3. DM capability is useful and should be standard part of the squad (akin to the Wehrmacht system), as he provides precision fire while the MG provides volume fire.

    Super-long range sniping is nice and really impressive but I see it as more suitable for the special forces and political branch of the forces (killing enemy officers, leaders), less so for the regular field army, killing random dudes.

    The sniper's theoretical ability to call in stand-off fire is hampered by the usually too-low rank of that sniper. In a perfect world the infantry squad leader would be FSO and FAC and TACP.

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  4. – Magnifying scopes were introduced for sniping afaik during the 1860's. –

    Out of curiosity I did a quick Google Scholar search to see what popped up and came upon a quote from what must have been the earliest days of scopes: “In general, schemers are of a very sanguine and ardent temperament, and some people who can’t be talked, but must be driven out of their old practices and ideas, may imagine that I am one of them, when I assert that a proper telescopic sight for target practice is as superior to the globe and bead sight, as that it to the old open crotch and silver sight.”*

    – There was even an age of rifles from the 1850s to the 1880s when blackpowder rifles were practical and often out-ranging the artillery of their time. –

    Should they be of interest to anyone, here is a link to three photos I got a couple of months ago during a visit to a location associated with sharpshooters at the Gettysburg National Military Park – http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtbradley/tags/devilsden/

    *Chapman, John Ratcliffe. Instructions to young marksmen […] . New York: D. Appleton & Company; Philadelphia: G.S. Appleton, 1848: p. 96.

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  5. Tough you mention the beginning of sniping in a siege, I think you underrate the role and value snipers have in defense. However you are absolutely right and head on with your objections to fetishising it in common occupational and maneuver operations. For me it get's really ridiculous when someone starts for example to talk about accounting for wind when shooting in an actual operational environment. Yeah the wind... when you are deprived of sleep, with cold hands like 3/4 of the year in central europe at night in the open... you certainly have worry about the wind in meters per second when taking aim at a target.

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  6. 'The accurate long-range sniping proved to be especially fascinating, and long-range records claimed in Afghanistan with anti-tank heavy sniper "anti-material" rifles caught a lot of attention.'

    The american infatuation with anti-material rifles stems mainly from the fact that their marksmen are too poorly trained at camouflaged stalking -or infiltration to fire positions- to be a success at 400 meters or less, where the majority of sniping kills take place.

    But I agree with everything else you stated. Much more work needs to be done on adapting sniper field craft towards the foot soldier. Major John Plasters books are excellant sources on such matters. I hope to contribute some work to this as well. BTW, sven, how well informed do you keep the guys at think defense on your ideas? Their a great bunch, bit rowdy, though.

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  7. The Think Defence guys know me and the blog. Their interests are very UK- and hardware-centric, not so much of theoretical nature, though. They'd rather write and discuss about SUSAT, some AW rifle types and their use in the Royal Marines than a text like the above.

    Discipline and intelligence are important for adapting sniper fieldcraft for regular infantry. Regrettably, the infantry doesn't get a priority for intelligent recruits because the many technicised military jobs require them.

    Maybe we need to go a bit 'Russian' and develop our technical equipment to Playstation-like ease of use to free the right people for the infantry jobs before we can make much progress.
    Much better enlisted personnel pay may be worth consideration, too.

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  8. Russian use is an interesting keyword because it was the Russians who had a very sniper heavy infantry during WW2 and later. In my opinion the sniper and the machine gunner differ in amount of ammunition used, but serve the same purpose against infantry. The sniper has often longer range, more stealth and greater mobility, while the machine gun has volume. In my opinion upgrading the marksmanship of all infantry with suitable rifles with sights helps a lot and adding some snipers and machine guns adds more effective fire by talented specialists. If you're analyzing the history of snipers you should take into account the influence of jägers, rangers, zouaves and chasseurs.
    Perhaps in the 21st century there will be self-propelled trolleys with automated sniper and machinegun robots under the guidance of a human observer. Thus the risk and skill requirements will get much reduced.

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