A Sniper in his ghillie suit blends in with
The very word conjures up
images of camouflaged stealth, deadly lone wolves
hunting for prized prey. Eagle-eyed shooting
talent mustering the most from specialised tools
of this unique trade. Military mystique at its
very best. And truly a case of giving being
much better than receiving.
For all this allure, it may
amuse you to know that the word "sniper"
has much more humble roots. The word takes its
origins after a creature -- no, not some dark,
stealthy and deadly cat of prey, but rather
a small, dull-coloured game bird called a "snipe."
It seems that way back in
the 18th century, British Army officers pitted
their skills against this small, agile target,
those officers displaying better stalking and
shooting skills being rewarded with the reputation
of being good snipers.
In other parts of the world,
military men who displayed good marksmanship
were known simply as sharpshooters, or in other
words, those possessing sharpened skills in
shooting. This should not be confused with the
American-made, single-shot breech-loading rifle
that was made by Sharps in the mid-1800s. The
US had already raised two regiments of "sharpshooters"
even before the rifle was selected, so these
were not shooters using Sharps rifles. Just
From the earliest days of
sharpshooting and sniping, it was recognised
that by the time soldiers joined up, there was
only so much that could be taught them in terms
of shooting. While some may have been instinctively
better shooters, armies quickly identified that
those young men who had grown up in rural settings
where stalking and killing animals for food
from a tender age provided the best foundations
for this military vocation.
This also included those
from related walks of life such as hunters,
gamekeepers, and even poachers. The latter were
wily and street-smart (woods-smart?), with their
shooting and stalking skills handsomely augmented
by their tactics of stealth and evasion.
As an example, the great
Finnish sniper, Simo Hayha, was a farmer and
hunter who was reported to have responded in
a business-like manner when the Russian Red
Army invaded his country. Picking up his trusty
rifle, he simply went out "to hunt some
Russians" doing so with considerable skill:
before being wounded himself, he was reputed
to have taken 500 enemy lives.
A further and perhaps more
graphic example is a demonstration of the shooting
skill (and confidence) of sharpshooting riflemen
during the American Revolution, with this account:
"Two brothers in the (sharpshooting) company
took a piece of board five inches by seven inches
with a piece of paper the size of a dollar nailed
in the center (sic), and while one held the
board upright gripped between his knees, the
other, at 60 yards, shot eight balls through
it successively and spared his brother's thighs."
Now to avoid confusion, let
me explain that the rifle used -- called the
Kentucky Rifle -- fired single "rounds"
of simple lead metal balls. These are the balls
that the first brother shot ... sparing his
brothers thighs, knees, and other important
objects. Let me state categorically that I do
not recommend that you try this out with your
M-16s, no matter how good a shot you think you
are. There are some body parts that medical
science has not yet found replacements for (think
The weapons of choice in
those early, knee-trembling days naturally do
not quite compare with the weapons that form
the basis of today's sniper rifle. However,
some basic principles in the choice of sniper
rifles have remained throughout the years.
Accuracy is naturally of
the greatest importance but at the time that
sharpshooting was introduced as an integral
part of the battlefield, the mass-produced rifles
that equipped the soldier at large lacked the
necessary performance. Thus military forces
around the world turned to the civilian target
shooting community, adopting and modifying even
sporting rifles for the purposes of hunting
Up to the present time, bolt-action
rifles which fire a single shot at a time are
generally felt to be the most accurate over
longer distances. This is simply because once
the bolt is locked up and the trigger squeezed,
the round is fired with no other movement than
that of the firing pin. This is not the case
in semi-automatic rifles where primer ignition
is quickly followed by movement of the bolt
propelled by the ignited gases in order to load
the next round. This movement may not be very
critical for shots fired over a distance of
400 meters, but may be telling over a 800 meter
engagement especially if the effects of wind
and temperature are considered.
Sniper Rifles are always fixed with optical
Another determinant of the
sniper rifle's accuracy is the barrel. Barrel
length aside, there are two other considerations.
The first is the stiffness of the barrel. The
stiffer it is, the less likely it is to flex
as the bullet passes through it and as it heats
up with repeated firing. Generally then, this
is translated into a barrel that is thicker
than what you and I are accustomed to in our
The second factor is the
possibility of barrel mis-alignment as a result
of warping of the rifle stock that supports
the barrel. The traditional sniper rifle stock
was made of wood which, being a natural material,
changed its dimensions under varying conditions
of heat and humidity. To put it crudely, the
hotter and more humid the weather is, the more
the wooden stock swells. This places pressure
on the rifle barrel and disrupts its alignment.
Such were the conditions faced by our earliest
Singapore Army snipers using their Carl Gustav
This problem has largely
been solved in the civilian sporting rifles
by embedding the barrel in fibreglass to provide
some clearance from the stock, or simply to
fix the barrel only near the bolt area, and
create a space between the barrel and the stock
along its entire length. This is known as a
The military approach has
been to replace the traditional wooden stock
with synthetic material, such as fibreglass,
which not only minimises warping but reduces
weight. Also, such stocks can be made with a
non-reflective finish to assist stealth, and
coloured to aid camouflage. You can see an example
of this the next time you happen to catch one
of our own snipers in action today. Their Austrian-made
Steyr SSG rifle has such a synthetic stock coloured
in -- what else -- green. Out of interest, "SSG"
stands for ScharfSchutzen Gewehr which translates
to "sharpshooter rifle," and yes,
this is a bolt-action weapon.
(Of course, if you do manage
to catch one of our snipers in action, he probably
isn't doing his job properly..)
The Austrian-made Steyr SSG Rifle
Another important characteristic
of the sniper rifle is its need to engage its
target accurately and over long distances. There
is only so much one can do to lengthen the rifle
barrel in this regard while enabling the sniper
to have some degree of mobility and concealability,
and I have already mentioned the issue of barrel
Individual skill and training
apart, long-range accuracy is enhanced by providing
optimal visualisation of the target, and the
through the use of the best ammunition available.
To illustrate this point, we have the Whitworth
rifle used by American Civil War sharpshooters.
Compared to the inexpensive Sharps rifle --
a bargain at $43 -- the Whitworth set the military
back to the tune of $500 for this "formidable
piece of engineering." It bore open ("iron")
sights that were graduated to 1200 yards, and
had a telescopic sight that measured some 14
inches in length.
The Whitworth rifle used by American Civil
This use of an optical sight
is now a standard feature of the sniper rifle,
providing magnification of the target as well
as adjustments for elevation and wind speed,
according to the existing weather conditions.
The challenge with such optical sights, though,
has been to make the structure strong enough
to withstand movement in the field, and to reduce
the reflection off the frontal lens which might
betray the sniper's location.
And as for ammunition, the
majority of general purpose sniper weapons today
still employ the heavier 7.62 mm round. However,
this is a far cry from the ammunition fed so
generously into our hungry GPMGs. Every component
of the sniper rifle ammunition is prepared to
more exacting standards of production to maximise
the consistency and "true-ness' (aka accuracy)
of the bullet flight.
Again, this lesson was learnt
from the civilian target shooters who discovered
that commonly available ammunition lacked the
performance required for competition purposes.
They thus commissioned the production of more
carefully prepared ammunition for their rifle
competitions, these being hand-built. These
competitions were traditionally called "rifle
matches" in which competitors matched their
skills and rifles and pitted them against each
other. This gave rise to the description of
the more accurate shell-propellant-primer-bullet
preparations as "match-grade ammunition."
For our snipers, only the best will do or, as
the Hallmark greeting card company puts it,
"when you care to send only the best..."
On that note, I will sign
off here. Next month I'll introduce you to some
notable snipers, their sniper terms and techniques,
and then examine what effect snipers have on
the battlefield. See you then.
Our image of the modern sniper is usually of
someone clad in a heavily camouflaged garment,
rifle protruding as he otherwise blends into
the foliage. While snipers in earlier days camouflaged
themselves by pinning or sewing leaves to their
uniforms, the commonly used technique these
days is to put on a specially tailored suit
over the uniform.
This suit covers the sniper
from head to his feet and is composed of a mesh
onto which is sewn a multitude of strips of
camouflage-coloured fabric, rather like a camouflage
net. This is called the ghillie suit, often
written as "Ghillie suit" after the
man who developed it. Mr Ghillie, that is.
I hate to disappoint you,
but there wasn't a Mr Ghillie - at least not
one who designed this ubiquitous sniper garment.
Instead, the word ghillie has origins in the
highlands of Scotland. It is the term for the
game-keepers that were hired to work for the
old estates, and whose job was not only to manage
the grounds but also to place food on the table
of their employers. They were thus skilled in
stalking, fieldcraft, camouflage, and shooting,
being trained in their efforts to hunt deer.
Testimony to the skill of
these men was the inclusion of an interesting
"on-the-job" training stint as part
of the British sniper training in the 1940s.
This was made up of a "posting" of
sniper trainees to Scottish ghillies, followed
by a 2-week field deployment in which the would-be
sniper's mission was to kill ... all the deer
he could in a selected area !!