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Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Introduction to How Military Snipers Work

For most of us, the word "sniper" evokes some unsettling imagery -- a lone gunman, undetectable, on the hunt. And while military snipers are indeed elite shooters who hide, line up a target in their sights and pull the trigger, there is a lot more to it than that.

When a sniper takes a shot, there are countless variables to consider before squeezing the trigger --- wind speed, wind direction, range, target movement, mirage, light source, temperature, barometric pressure, and that's just the beginning. The work that goes into getting a good position to take a shot is immense. That's why snipers always work in pairs. Surprised? Most people are.

These highly skilled marksmen are often perceived as lone assassins racking up "confirmed kills." In reality, true snipers work for the military and law enforcement agencies and are far more concerned with the number of lives they save than with the ones they take.

Because of the secretive and stealthy nature of the work, not too many people know what's really involved in being a sniper, so we went straight to the source: We interviewed a former U.S. Army Ranger sniper to get the inside information. In the next few sections, we'll go over tools, tricks, and training of these mysterious and deadly warriors.

A U.S. Marine Sniper sights a target through a scope on a 12.7 mm .50-caliber light Fifty Model 82A1 Sniper Rifle.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

What Does a Sniper Really Do?

A sniper is a highly trained soldier who specializes in shooting targets with modified rifles from incredibly long distances. They're also adept in stealth, camouflage, infiltration, and observation techniques.

Military snipers are used in a variety of missions on the battlefield, and the sniper's primary mission has nothing to do with pulling a trigger. The main battlefield role of the sniper is reconnaissance. Because snipers are masters of stealth, they are perfectly suited to sneak behind enemy lines to provide command with information about the enemy's size, strength and location.

When the mission calls for it, snipers can also dismantle and dishearten the enemy with a few well-placed rifle shots. Instead of engaging the entire enemy force like traditional infantry, snipers concentrate their efforts on hunting key people -- officers, pilots, armor drivers, technicians, and communications operators. With deadly shots that kill without warning, military snipers break both the enemy's will and ability to fight.

When there is no specific objective, a sniper will look for targets of opportunity. By tracking enemy movements, snipers wait patiently for the unsuspecting soldiers to present the opportunity for a perfect shot. An officer taking a break to smoke a cigarette, a pilot flight-checking his helicopter, an armed guard on patrol -- these are all targets of opportunity.

"You want to take out what's going to help your buddies the most." This is what Army Ranger Sniper had to say on selecting targets of opportunity. He continues:

... When you're in the military, you have experience knowing how a commander acts. You know a private -- a private Joe Nobody is generally going to be sitting behind a mound or sitting in a hole with his weapon. You can tell who's who by looking -- 'Okay, this guy's in charge and that guy's a nobody' -- just because of the way they act. That's one of the reasons in the field you're not supposed to salute officers. Say, in the field, you're sitting there looking and some guy walks by and salutes somebody and then, 'BAM' -- you know he's an officer. That's one of those things you pick up on.

Snipers are also utilized in support roles. These support roles can be an over-watch position or a blocking action. When a sniper is in an over-watch position, he sets himself up in a concealed place that gives him a clear view of the battlefield. There he can support the assault force by taking out enemy forces that are endangering the advancing platoon. In a blocking action, snipers set up to help secure a position that is controlled by their platoon. They may set up on a roof and help ground forces defend their position.

­Snipers don't just shoot people. They are often ord­ered to destroy material targets. A sniper may shoot generators, radios, transmitters, or fuel and water supplies. Putting a .50 caliber round in the engine block of a helicopter or transport is just as effective as putting one in the man who drives them.

Snipers are what military strategists refer to as force multipliers. Simply put, a force multiplier is an individual or small team that, through the use of special tactics, can do the damage of a much larger force. What's amazing about snipers is that they are capable of force multiplication without ever directly engaging the enemy.

Because of the nature of their missions, snipers travel with very little gear, patiently moving under the cover of brush or night. But they never travel alone. Snipers teams often have to stay completely still for hours or days at a time to avoid detection, waiting for the right moment to take the shot. In the next section, we'll learn how sniper teams work together to achieve "the perfect shot."

A U.S. Marine Corps sniper team at work in the Korean War.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Sniper Teams

Crew-served weapons are weapons that take more than one person to operate. Weapons like heavy machine guns or artillery pieces are examples of crew-served weapons. A sniper rifle is also considered a crew-served weapon. Though it only takes one person to fire a sniper rifle, it really takes two soldiers to get the most out of the sniper-rifle weapon system. That's why snipers always work in pairs. ­

A sniper team consists of a sniper and a spotter. The two-man team offers many advantages over the deployment of a lone sniper in the field. The spotter carries his own special scope that is much more powerful than the scope on a sniper rifle. The spotter uses his scope to help the sniper observe objectives and set up the shot. The two soldiers work together to get to the objective safely and discreetly and then set up a position. Here's the general process:

  • The sniper team uses maps or photographs to determine the best route to the objective.
  • They walk or "stalk" (more on this later) from the drop-off point to the objective.
  • They set up a position.
  • They verify that the position is well camouflaged.
  • They establish an escape route and a second, well-camouflaged fallback position in the event they are separated.
  • They locate the target (or know it's on its way).
  • They get into position. The sniper takes a spot on the ground that offers him the best field of fire. The spotter lies on the ground next to and slightly behind the sniper. He places his spotter scope so that it is as close to looking down the rifle barrel as possible.
  • They work together to range the target, read the wind, and angle and adjust for other variables that may affect the shot.
  • They wait for the target.

And in the words of Army Ranger Sniper, "Then you just take your shot and get the hell out of there."

In the next section we'll look at the relationship a sniper has with his spotter.

A training sniper confers with his spotter.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

The Spotter

Once the shot is taken, the spotter watches the shot to help the sniper readjust his aim or his position in the unlikely event that he misses his target. The way that the spotter watches the shot is fascinating. High velocity, long-range rounds like the kind used in a sniper rifle actually leave a vapor trail as they fly through the air. The spotter can track the shot by watching for that vapor trail. Army Ranger Sniper says, "It just looks like mixed up air. You can see through it, but you see the distortion."

In observation missions, the two can take turns using the spotter scope to spy on the enemy. This helps to avoid eye fatigue and allows one team member to rest while the other watches. This is important, since in many cases they can be out there observing for days at a time.

The most important job of the spotter is to protect the shooter and the team. For this task, the spotter shoulders an automatic assault rifle like an M-4 or M-16. Army Ranger Sniper explains why this added firepower is important: "If you're sitting there and you get attacked, a sniper rifle is not real good for fighting your way out."

The relationship between a sniper and his spotter is very important. First and foremost, the two depend on each other for survival. Sniper teams work in the no-man's-land between or behind battle lines. They often have little or no support from their unit, and if they don't accomplish their mission, the safety of the whole platoon may be compromised.

Being the spotter in a sniper team is a sort of sniper apprenticeship. The sniper is the team leader. He coordinates with command to put together the mission. In the field, he has the final word in determining the route, position, rendezvous point and escape route. A spotter learns in the field from his sniper and then eventually gets his own team to lead.

In the next section, we'll learn about the tools that sniper teams use to get the job done.

As part of a training exercise, the members of a sniper team man a 7.62mm Springfield Armory M21 Sniping rifle (left) and sights through the scope of a 7.62mm M24 Sniper rifle (right).

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Sniper Rifles

"One shot, one kill" is the sniper motto. Accomplishing this would not be possible without the specially modified rifles used by snipers in the field. A sniper rifle such as the M-21 or PSG-1 in the hands of a highly trained sniper can be a deadly weapon from more than a mile away. Army Ranger Sniper used an M-21: "It was a military M-14 with match-grade upgrades -- hollowing out the wood, fiberglass-seated receiver, different trigger mechanisms and optics."

­

Match grade means the rifle has been fine-tuned by a professional gunsmith to ensure the highest possible accuracy and reliability. Match-grade rifles are also used for competitive shooting. A match-grade rifle coupled with handmade, match-grade ammunition ensures the consistency that is so important for a marksman.

In addition, sniper rifles sport a free-floating barrel to ensure that the barrel touches the least amount of the weapon possible. This reduces vibration from the recoil. Also, sniper rifles are usually designed or modified to incorporate fiberglass or composite stocks to avoid the effect of humidity on the receiver. Any swelling of the wood can affect the accuracy of the shot.

Sniper rifles are generally bolt-action rifles. That means the sniper must load and chamber each round he fires. Once he has fired, he has to clear the shell casing and load another round. Though they are more difficult to operate and have a much slower rate of fire, bolt-action rifles are preferred because they have fewer moving parts than automatics. There are semi-automatic sniper rifles, though, such as the M-21. Army Ranger Sniper had this to say about how the nature of the different rifles can affect a sniper in the field: "If you fire something on a bolt action, you have to reload one, and that movement could give you away. But also, the round flying out of the rifle could give you away on the semi-automatic." In the end, it comes down to the personal preference of each sniper.

There are many different types of sniper rifles manufactured by countries all over the world. On average, they cost between $8,000 and $15,000.

Sniper scopes are essentially specialized telescopes. Here you see a basic telescope design.

Sniper Scopes

After the rifle itself, the second major component of the sniper-rifle weapon system is the sniper scope. A sniper scope is basically a specialized telescope containing components that lay a targeting reticule (crosshairs) over the amplified image.

When sighting a target through a scope, snipers are comparing point of aim to point of impact. Simply put, when firing a bullet from over 600 yards, where you are aiming is not going to be where the bullet lands. All sorts of variables work on that bullet during its long flight to the target. Ideally, snipers want point of aim and point of impact to be the same. They line up these points with fine adjustments to the scope once range, heat and windage have been factored into the shot.

A sniper sights in a target on a range.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

The Unertl sniper scopes used by the U.S. Marine Corps house the optics in steel tubes that are mounted to a bracket on the top of the rifle. They weigh 2 lbs, 3 ounces (~1 kg) and are 10 inches (~25 cm) long. They are fixed, 10-power scopes with a 32mm objective lens. This means that they are capable of magnifying an image to 10 times its size. The sniper uses the wire reticule with mil dots to range and sight the target. The mil dots surround the target center and allow the sniper to estimate the distance between objects and make adjustments for wind or moving targets.

These scopes sport ballistic drop compensators (BDC). The BDC looks like a small, round dial and helps the sniper adjust the scope to compensate for battlefield variables as well as the natural behavior of these rounds in flight. With the BDC, snipers can make fine changes to the scope without touching the range settings. A sniper can adjust for any range up to 1,000 yards, as well as make adjustments up, down, left or right.

Snipers modify a type of camouflage clothing called a ghillie suit to match their surroundings.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Ghillie Suits

If you've ever seen a sniper on the news or in a film, then you have probably noticed that unsettling, half-man, half-shrubbery appearance. That is thanks to a ghillie suit. The point of the ghillie suit is to make a sniper disappear into his surroundings.

The word ghillie is an old Scottish term for a special kind of game warden. Ghillies were tasked with protecting the game on their Lord's lands. From time to time, the ghillies would stalk the game by hiding in the grass and lying perfectly still. They would wait for unsuspecting deer to amble by and then leap out and grab it with their bare hands. Ghillies would then haul their prize back to the keep so the Lord could shoot it in the castle courtyard in a "mock hunt."

Ghillie suits are basically old military uniforms that snipers modify for their special purpose. The belly of the uniform is reinforced with heavy canvas to help pad a sniper's torso during hours or days of lying on his stomach. Camouflage netting is attached to the uniform. This netting is used to attach shredded burlap and other frayed materials. Ghillie suits are usually painted to match the environment of the battlefield. Local elements like twigs, vines, and branches can be incorporated into the netting to further camouflage the ghillie suit.

Nothing in nature has perfectly straight lines, so equipment like rifles and antennas often betray concealed positions. To counter this, snipers also make little ghillie suits for their rifles. Using the same principles of camouflage, snipers wrap their rifles in canvas and create little sleeves that make them blend into the environment.

Soldiers are trained to keep their eyes peeled for strange things in their surroundings that could represent a threat. The human form is one of the most recognizable shapes in nature. Snipers, spotters, and trained observers all look for color and contour when trying to spot an enemy in the brush or other terrain. Ghillie suits help the sniper to break up his outline, hide straight lines in his gear and blend his overall color with the surroundings. "With a good ghillie suit," Army Ranger Sniper explains, "you could hide in a yard and people wouldn't be able to see you."

American snipers of the 166th Infantry exchange fire with German snipers on the outskirts of Villers de Fere, France, July 30, 1918.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

A Day at the Office

Sniper teams are attached to special operations units. The soldiers that make up these units represent the elite members of the armed services. There is always conflict in the world somewhere, and special operations units may be involved in these conflicts even if the regular forces are not. A military sniper must spend his days training and preparing to be deployed at any time.

In the words of Army Ranger Sniper, "There really is no average day. If you're on a mission, your day would be ... moving to the objective ... walking through the woods all day to get to where you need to go or just laying in bushes and watching over a position all day long. If you're in garrison, back in the barracks, then you're training."

A great deal of planning happens before soldiers hit the field. The sniper in a sniper team is part of the mission planning. Army Ranger Sniper describes the pre-mission process:

What you do is study the mission -- the mission statement, the operation order, which tells who's going to do what, where people are going to be at a certain time, and this goes not just for the sniper, but ... for people in the unit ... all the way from the private up to the company commander. Everybody has to know what is going on. You have to memorize radio frequencies. You don't want to be carrying a lot of this stuff around with you. Because if you get compromised, then the enemy has all your frequencies, call signs ... So you want to memorize as much of this as you can -- study. You study your terrain, where you're going to be, your mission, your route, how to get to the objective the best way, how long you have to get there -- because everyone else is going to be coming up behind you, so you have to get there before them. So, basically, mission prep entails knowing what's going on with everybody else.

In the next section, we'll see what the training is like for a military sniper.

The spotter uses a range card to help him estimate the range to the target.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Sniper School

Every branch of the military uses snipers in some capacity. The SEALs, CCT, and Army Rangers all have sniper elements in their units. And although they all have their respective sniper schools, there is one school that stands out -- the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper School.

The USMC Scout Sniper School is widely regarded in the military as the finest sniper training program. The Marines offer a tremendous program that trains eligible sniper candidates in all branches of the armed services. The few candidates who are chosen to attend the school typically represent the some of the finest that branch of the service has to offer. Fewer still emerge "Scout Sniper Qualified."

When selecting a candidate, commanders aren't looking for "good shots" or "natural born killers." There are a lot of soldiers that are skilled with a rifle and have the training and ability to take an enemy's life if necessary. Being a sniper comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. What command is looking for is a soldier that possesses good decision making and a level head.

"You don't want a real hot head to be a sniper," Army Ranger Sniper reports. "Snipers need to be able to work on their own. You have to be independent, you know, so when you're not with your unit you need to be able to make sound decisions on your own without having to call up, 'What should I do here?' or 'Should I shoot this guy or what?'"

The Marine Scout Sniper program is a two-month course. Students have physical training and firing-range practice every day. In addition, there are "games" that teach the skills snipers need in the field. Classroom time is spent learning the principles of range estimating, windage, barometric pressure, and deployment and tactics. Over the two-month course, students drill on the three basic components of sniper training:

  • Marksmanship
  • Observation
  • Stalking

According to Army Ranger Sniper, "It's not like you can read a book and go do it. You have to do it over and over, and if you quit doing it for a while you can lose your skills. It's a perishable skill."

In the next sections, we'll go into more detail on sniper training.

Snipers practice marksmanship on a range at the U.S. Army Sniper School at the Sembach Army Annex in Germany.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Rounds Down Range

The skill snipers are most known for is their marksmanship. The ability to hit targets as far as a 1,000 yards away (10 football fields!) is not something that comes naturally. Snipers train to become expert marksman with a deeply ingrained understanding of the principles of ballistics.

MOA (minute of angle) is the unit of measurement that snipers use in school to measure accuracy. The greater the distance the sniper is shooting from, the lower the accuracy, as natural forces like wind resistance work on the bullet while it travels through the air. MOA measures the accuracy of the shot taking the distance it was fired from into consideration. The basic formula is 1.047 inches at 100 yards, or, for practical purposes, 1 inch at 100 yards. For every 100 yards the bullet travels, you add 1 inch of inaccuracy.

The two biggest variables that affect a bullet's flight are wind and gravity. When estimating the range of a target, snipers must consider how the wind will affect flight over that distance. Sniper teams can use indicators like smoke or blowing leaves to help them read the wind.

Despite the high power of a rifle shot, it is still affected by gravity. If you were to fire a sniper rifle level to the ground at the same moment that you drop a bullet from the barrel height, the fired bullet and the dropped bullet would hit the ground at the same time. As a round travels through the air, gravity is dragging it down. When sighting a shot, snipers must often compensate for this by "overshooting" the target.

German and American snipers work together to sight a shot in desert training exercises.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Air temperature affects a bullet, as well. Cold air is denser than hot air and therefore creates more drag on a bullet. On the other hand, bullets can tear through hot air. But Army Ranger Sniper explains that because humidity often accompanies hot air, which will also affect the bullet, this is yet another variable to be considered. "And with winds and heat and humidity -- if you look at all the factors it's amazing you can hit anything."

Even in ideal shooting situations, targets may be at odd angles or moving. Snipers are taught at the range how to deal with these problems.

Ultimately, the farther a sniper can be from his target and still remain accurate the more effective he is and the less likely he is to be discovered. Using a 7.62mm round, snipers can shoot nearly silently as long as they're shooting from over 600 meters. A bullet leaves the rifle barrel faster than the speed of sound. The cracking sound a bullet makes is a tiny sonic boom. Even if a target doesn't hear the rifle shot, he will hear the bullet fly by. But the drag created by wind resistance on a 7.62mm round as it travels through the air slows the bullet down to sub-sonic speeds at around 600 meters. So at ranges over 600 meters, the bullet no longer makes that distinct cracking sound. Army Ranger Sniper tells us, "If you're shooting at a target 800 or 1,000 meters out, you could be shooting at that person all day long and they don't even know they are being shot at."

Snipers spend plenty of time in school cracking the books and in the classroom learning the principles of ballistics, windage, air density, and many other variables that affect the flight of a bullet. But at the end of the day, it comes down to what snipers call "rounds down range." A sniper's most valuable classroom is the firing range. Snipers don't have time in the field to think about theory. Hours at the range help snipers to apply these principles by "feel."

Snipers in Iraq.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Observation Training

Since most of a sniper's time is spent on reconnaissance missions observing the enemy, his observational skills have to be flawless. USMC Scout Sniper School has developed some unique "games" to hone student snipers' ability to look at things critically. This section details the games used to teach advanced observational skills.

Army Ranger Sniper details one training exercise called the KIMS game:

...they would put different objects on the table: a bullet, a paper clip, a bottle top, a pen, a piece of paper with something written on it -- 10 to 20 items. You'd gather around and they'd give you, say, a minute to look at everything. Then you'd have to go back to your table and describe what you saw. You weren't allowed to say "paper clip" or "bullet," you'd have to say, like, "silver, metal wire, bent in two oval shapes." They want the Intel guys making the decision [about] what you actually saw.

The KIMS game that Army Ranger Sniper describes is played repeatedly throughout the two-month course. As time goes by, students are given more objects to look at and less time to look at them. To add to the challenge, the time between seeing the objects and reporting what they saw gets longer as the course goes on. By the end, they may see 25 objects in the morning, train all day, and then at night be asked to write down descriptions of all the things they saw.

Another observation game happens in the field with a sniper scope. According to Army Ranger Sniper:

What they would usually do was hide things in a field, and you would just line up and have a certain amount of time to find them. There might be the tip of a pen hanging up out of the grass. You'd just have to look at every area in that field, you know, put your scope on it and just stare at it for a couple minutes, and move it over, stare at the next spot for a couple minutes. Basically, after a while, you do get really good where you can just pick these things out easy. You'd just look for things in the field that didn't add up.
Try your hand at sniper observation games.Use the mouse to move the sniper scope around the field to locate the 10 hidden objects. Mouse over and click to shoot. Time yourself to see if you can do it in 30 seconds like a real sniper.

Snipers' observational skills tie into their main mission: reconnaissance. Such intense observational practice rewires a person's brain. Army Ranger Sniper explains, "Even just driving down the road now I see weird little things on the side of the road that a lot of people wouldn't really notice."

In the next section, we'll look at another critical element of the sniper's skill set: the stalk.

A sniper team stalks in an open field in Iraq.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Stalks

Stalk training is the component of sniper school that hones a sniper's stealthy approach. Snipers have to learn to move slowly, patiently and methodically. If necessary, snipers will lie for days in the same position to observe an objective or avoid detection. Army Ranger Sniper describes the intricate process:

When you're stalking, you would be amazed when you're on the ground the things you walk over and don't look at. When you're trying to sneak up on somebody, even an anthill looks like a mountain. You have pick out your positions -- the next place you're going to crawl to. You ask yourself, "Is that going to cover me when I get there, and how am I going to get there?

To develop this ability, snipers have to pass perhaps one of the most challenging training games -- the stalk.

Stalk training takes place in open grassy ranges. Students start at one end of the range. One thousand meters down range, two instructors sit on top of a truck or tower with spotter scopes. Sniper students must stalk toward the instructors without being seen. To add to the challenge, the instructors have two soldiers in the field called walkers. The instructors use radios to communicate with the walkers and try to find the sniper.

Students must stalk from 1,000 meters out to within 150 meters of the instructors, all the while avoiding detection by the instructors and the walkers. Once in position, they take a shot (they are firing blanks). They must take this shot carefully because if their muzzle flashes or kicks up dirt, then they can be easily spotted. After the first shot, the snipers must stalk to a second firing position and take a second shot. To verify that the snipers were actually sighting the instructors, the snipers must read the card or count the number of fingers the instructors are holding up. Stalk training is a pass or fail game. If the sniper is spotted at any point, he fails the game. Too many fails, and the student washes out of the program.

Of course, training exercises are different from deployment. Army Ranger Sniper explains it this way:

In the real world, it's a lot easier to get up to an objective than you would think. When we did stalks, [the instructors] would have us get up to within 150 meters of the objective. In the real world, you would never get that close to an objective. The real world is actually a lot easier."

Anywhere, any time, snipers are prepared to use their specialized skills to sneak into dangerous situations and disable an enemy force through a combination of close reconnaissance and deadly long-range fire. When we asked Army Ranger Sniper if there was one thing he really wanted to get across to our readers about snipers, his response was, "Let people know that snipers aren't assassins, you know, kids always think that. Snipers aren't just assassins who sneak in, kill a general and sneak out ... that's what all the movies always show. That may happen, but it's very rare."

Check out the next page for more great information on snipers and related topics.

Snipers: Lots More Information

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Sources
  • The Unertl Optics Company. http://www.unertloptics.com/.
  • Bundang, Capt. Manuel B. "The Making of a Marine Scout Sniper." http://www.philippinemarinecorps.mil.ph/c6_sscourse.html.
  • United States Marine Corps Fact File: M40A1 Sniper Rifle.