Why we fear and admire the military sniper

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Snipers are both feared and admired:

“Back in Vietnam, our own people called us ‘Murder Inc.,’” says Jack Coughlin, a retired Marine sniper and author of “Shock Factor: American Snipers in the War on Terror.” “They thought we were psychopathic killers. But the whole point of our existence is to be there on overwatch to minimize the threat to our own men.”

Snipers for the United States military are, without question, exceptionally efficient killers. According to one estimate, in Vietnam it took an ordinary infantryman 25,000 rounds per confirmed enemy kill. Snipers killed once every 1.3 rounds. A recent report from Afghanistan claimed that two US Special Forces soldiers killed 75 Taliban with 77 rounds. Exceptional snipers count their victims in the hundreds—the Finnish World War II sniper Simo Häyhä registered over 500, the most ever—whereas in most wars, ordinary soldiers often kill no one at all, and in many cases never even fire their weapons.


In addition to natural human revulsion at killing, snipers have had to overcome social conventions that stigmatize attacking people by surprise. The military historian Martin Pegler traces this attitude to a more gentlemanly age of war: “It was an officer-class attitude,” he says. “The British thought shooting an enemy from great distance in cold blood was unacceptable, in a way that blasting them to pieces with artillery was not.” Snipers, who were generally enlisted men, tended to aim for officers, which compounded the feeling of unfairness; killing above one’s class rankled some of the more status-minded soldiers. Pegler says snipers in one British Army unit in the 1980s were called “The Leper Colony” because of their colleagues’ aversion to socializing with them.

The reluctance to snipe goes back to the earliest days of sniping, in the late 18th-century. (It was about this time when the specialty got its name, after the game-bird known as the snipe, which required expert marksmanship to hit.) During the American Revolutionary War, a Scottish marksman named Patrick Ferguson spotted an American officer on horseback and reckoned he could shoot the man half a dozen times. He decided not to, he later said, because “it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” That individual was George Washington, and Ferguson acknowledged that he did not regret letting the enemy commander get away.

Up through World War II, snipers were so loathed that they were generally executed on sight, rather than taken captive. Only in the last two decades, experts say, have snipers’ reputations turned from reviled to heroic.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    Sgt. York killed a lot of Germans in WWI through what was essentially sniping, and I can’t recall that he was reviled by the American public.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Leading an attack on a machine gun nest is just about the opposite of sniping.

  3. Victor says:

    In FPS games, “campers” are reviled by other players.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    TrackingPoint is now making a .338, which is good out to 1 mile. Now anyone (literally) can be a sniper. It’s expensive ($10,000), but if there’s someone you just have to kill, it’s doable.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    “Leading an attack on a machine gun nest is just about the opposite of sniping”

    True, but York was a dead shot, and was also celebrated for “picking off” a large number of Germans through his marksmanship. Being an excellent marksman has always been a point of pride with Americans (Boone, Crockett, and Kit Carson come immediately to mind) and I’m not sure that the prejudice against snipers was ever very strong in the U.S.

    When I was in school, I was taught that we won the Revolutionary War and the Battle of New Orleans by hiding behind trees and picking off the British soldiers marching in ranks and firing in volleys. This was regarded as showing how much smarter we were, and how much better we understood modern warfare.

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