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A sniper uses precisely aimed gunfire to hit a target at a distance, usually in excess of 100 yds (approx. 100m).

The word comes from the word snipe, a bird difficult for hunters to sneak up on.

Irish sniper on ground with ghillie suit

Table of contents
1 Snipers in warfare
2 Sniper training
3 Sniper equipment
4 Sniper tactics
5 Anti-sniper tactics
6 Attitude to snipers
7 Snipers outside warfare
8 Snipers in history
9 Related topics

Snipers in warfare

Russian and derived military doctrines include squad-level snipers. They do so because sniping capability was lost to ordinary troops when assault rifles were adopted.

Russian military doctrine uses snipers for long-distance suppressive fire and targets of opportunity, especially leaders. During World War II Russians found that military organizations find it hard to replace experienced non-commissioned officers and field officers in a war. Personnel selection, training, and doctrine can improve the cost-effectiveness of the expensive, delicate sniper rifles to levels comparable to a conventional assault rifle. Additionally, sniper duties fit women well, since good snipers are patient and merciless, avoid hand-to-hand combat, and need higher levels of aerobic conditioning than other troops.

U.S. military doctrine uses snipers in two-man teams attached to companies or brigades for anti-sniper missions, civil pacification, assassination, scouting and surveillance. U.S. snipers are usually far more highly trained than others, but doctrine limits their usefulness to small unit commands, the bread-and-butter of the Army.

Police forces use snipers in hostage rescue situations. Ideally, a police sniper kills criminals only to prevent harm to police or civilians.

Since police snipers must often break armed stand-offs, they are usually trained to shoot for the cerebellum, a remarkably difficult target at the base of the brain (literally right between the eyes). If they hit the cerebellum, the criminal does not pull the trigger, and the hostage is freed without harm, even if the criminal was holding the gun to the hostage's head. Police snipers never attempt trick shots: shooting around corners and at non-lethal body-parts.

In peacetime, elite police snipers like those of the FBI's Critical Intervention Resources Group (e.g. the Hostage Rescue Team) have longer terms of service, more training, and often more real mission experience than military snipers.

The current record for longest range sniper kill is 2430 m, accomplished by a Canadian sniper in 2002, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

In the Bosnian Civil War, snipers were mostly used as a means of terror against civilians. During the Siege of Sarajevo, the main street of the city became known as "Sniper Alley".

Sniper training

Good training is of paramount importance for snipers. A well-trained sniper can compensate for poor equipment. The goal of sniper training is to produce a sniper that can reliably place bullets in a 30 cm circle at 300 m in all weather at all angles.

Training selects personnel for talent, and then trains them over a period of several months of daily shooting with diverse ranges, angles and weather, especially winds. The critical talent is a willingness to look a man in the eyes, and shoot him between the eyes without flinching.

Snipers are trained to squeeze the trigger straight back with the ball of their finger, to avoid jerking the gun side-ways. The most accurate position is prone, with a bipod supporting the barrel, and a stock's cheek-piece against the cheek. They may use a sling wrapped around the weak arm to reduce stock movement. They hug the earth and shoot between heart-beats and breaths to reduce shaking of the point of aim from body movement. This position also reduces their silhouettes so they are harder to see.

Sniper equipment

Sniper rifles

Sniper rifles are built to more stringent specifications than any other firearm. The critical requirement for a rifle is to have a reliable cold zero. That is, when the rifle is cold, the first shot's placement must be predictable to less than a minute of arc, given controlled ammunition and a bench rest. This is because most sniper missions get one crucial shot. Once a rifle is predictable, adjusting the scope to put the reticule on zero is a trivial matter.

Armorers adjust sniper rifles to have a controlled distance (headspace) between the chamber containing the round, and the start of the barrel. This prevents bullet deformation and wobble as it enters the barrel.

It is common to countersink a smooth bore into the muzzle for 5mm or so, so that the crucial end-of-bore rifling cannot be accidentally scratched or bent by hitting the muzzle against an object.

Most rifles include lightened hammers and firing pins (sometimes of titanium), and stronger springs to reduce the time that can elapse between the trigger release and the bullet exit. This helps reduce inaccuracies from unavoidable wobbles in human hands and bodies.

Most rifles are bolt-action, firing from a closed, locked bolt, because this also increases the stability of a bullet.

Armorers carefully polish the trigger sears for a moderate, precise release point and force, usually 1250 g (2.5 lbs). This reduces the effect of a trigger finger on the point of aim.

Sniper rifles generally have free-floating barrels that do not touch the stock, and therefore cannot be deformed as the stock expands or shrinks.

Some have heavy "bull" barrels. The extra mass reduces the movement circle caused by unavoidable hand-trembling. The barrel is also somewhat more sturdy.

Good rifle barrels also have precision rifling and boring. There are two basic types: button rifling, where a button is forced through the bore, and cut rifling. Both can produce excellent barrels.

Some snipers claim certain barrel alloys (the low shrinkage steels used in watch springs and sextants) change "zero" less with temperature. Further, some barrels are cryogenically heat-treated to reduce crystallization changes at normal temperatures.

It's common to adjust a small weight (often a flash suppressor) on the muzzle end to control barrel whip caused by resonance.

One company even sells carbon fiber barrels that weigh only one third that of steel barrels. This helps a sniper lugging a .50 calibre rifle over mountains.


Most snipers shoot match-grade military ammunition. Some build their own from components to more precisely control the load and bullet shape. Bullets are hard, heavy, and very aerodynamic. "boat tailed." Powder loads are only moderate to avoid stretching the gun. Noncorrosive primers reduce corrosion and are often preferred.

Gun sights

Sniper sights generally contain ranging aids based on the size of human body parts, especially the head (30 cm) and trunk (50 cm). They usually also contain windage calculation aids. Surprisingly, some sights have quite low fixed magnification, as low as 3x. In these cases, the easiest sighting aid will be a set of curves in the field of view. By matching body parts to a curve, the sniper will define the target's range. Another reticule uses a pair of dots or an oval (head sized) with a zoom adjustment and a numeric read-out of the zoom into range. Another uses a pair of dots at a standard angle, (usually 10 minutes) and trains the sniper to interpret it.

Historic military sniper rifles used to include basic, but adjustable "iron" sights in case the scope was damaged or got foggy. Modern shock-mounted dry nitrogen scopes have been far less fragile, and many modern sniper rifles no longer have iron sights.

These aids are helpful, but training is more important. A trained sniper with a deer-hunting rifle is far more accurate and dangerous than a deer hunter with a sniper rifle.


The basic camouflage item of a working sniper is a combination of cover and shelter, usually a poncho or shelter-half, preferably with attachable insulation and internal waterproofing.

The glint of the scope's optics is the only part of a sniper that cannot be camouflaged, but shine can be reduced by using a piece of fabric or a metal mesh over the scope. Snipers should avoid anything that glints or clanks, including glasses and white faces.

Modern snipers also have to consider the threat of IR (infra-red) systems. For this, when in the prone position, they use thermal blankets to cover themselves with which they in turn cover with local foliage or material. This material is not taken from nearby though - it is taken from at least 300 yards away so their sniping position is not easy to see through disturbed vegetation/ground.

Suits / Ghillie suit

Snipers with extreme requirements for infiltration and camouflage use a ghillie suit, a suit constructed of rough burlap flaps attached to a net poncho. The ghillie suit was originally developed by Scots deer hunters as a portable hunting blind. The suit is usually prepared by assembling it, beating it, dragging it behind a car, and then rolling it in cow feces or burying it in mud and then letting it ferment. This makes it very much like wearable humus.

The ghillie suit, combined with movement discipline, is what makes snipers so hard to see and resist.

A new type of sniping suit is what is called a "Tick" suit. This consists of IR proof material which hangs in folds over the sniper.

Sniper tactics

At distances over 300 yds (little less than 300 m), snipers usually attempt body shots, aiming at the chest and depending on hydrostatic shock to make the kill. At lesser distances, snipers may attempt head shots to assure the kill. In instant-death hostage situations, police snipers shoot for the cerebellum, a part of the brain that controls voluntary movement that lies at the base of the skull.

Snipers use deception, in the form of camouflage, unusual angles of approach, and frequent, often slow movement to prevent accurate counter-attacks. Some snipers are able to shoot an observant target from less than 100 yards (about 100 m), while the target is searching for them. Further, they can do this without being seen.

To perform suppressive fire during an assault, a sniper locates an enemy firing loupe, times the appearance of the enemy, and shoots the enemy through the head over his own sights.

To perform suppressive fire to cover a retreat, a sniper positions his hide with a view to a large open space. When a pair of squads attempts a crossing, the sniper disables one person, preferably a leader. Most often this is a hip shot, possibly followed by a jaw shot to prevent effective instruction. When the squad attempts a rescue, the sniper uses rapid fire, aiming for the trunks of enemy soldiers to kill as many men as possible with hydrostatic shock. A prudent sniper leaves the area at this point, anticipating the flanking attack that normally follows. A brave or desperate sniper may ambush one of the flanks.

To perform civil pacification, sniper-suppression, and intelligence a sniper or pair of snipers will locate themselves in a high, concealed redoubt. They will use binoculars or a telescope to identify targets, and a radio to provide intelligence. They will then shoot according to their rules of engagement.

In severe civil unrest, snipers may be instructed to kill any person carrying a weapon and not in a friendly uniform.

A sniper identifies targets by their appearance and behavior. Snipers shoot people in high-rank uniforms, or that talk to radiomen, or that sit as passengers in a car, or who have military servants, or that talk and move their position more frequently than others. If possible, snipers shoot in descending order by rank, or if rank is unavailable, they shoot to disrupt communications.

To demoralize enemy troops, snipers can follow certain patterns, which the enemy is to know. During the Cuban revolutionary war, the 26th of July Movement followed a special routine when ambushing the Batista army's patrols in the mountains; they always killed the frontmost marching man. Realizing this, no one would accept to walk first, as it proved to be a suicide mission. This effectively decreased the army's search after rebel bases in the mountains.

With heavy .50-calibre rifles, snipers can shoot turbine disks of parked jet fighters, missile guidance packages, expensive optics, or the bearings, tubes or wave guides of radar sets. Snipers on hill-tops can often shoot down scout helicopters lurking below a ridge-line. A related use is to shoot locks or hinges instead of using a door-opening charge.

Snipers not only kill people however - they are used in many forces as reconnaissance troops, who will gather information about the enemy and shoot only at opportunistic targets. They use their excellent long-distance observation equipment together with their training and tactics to approach and observe the enemy.

Anti-sniper tactics

The most effective response to a sniper is a flanking pincer by a pair of squads, through cover, or at least concealment, driving the sniper toward the group containing his targets. This decreases the chances that he will find a stealthy, speedy escape route.

Another effective tactic is to use a sniper to kill a sniper. This often results in a sniper duel, in which the most highly trained sniper wins. The duel effectively distracts the sniper from his mission. This usually favors U.S.-style elite sniper forces.

Doctrine and equipment need to prevent observable "leadership" behaviors and signs. Insignia should be low-observable camouflage colors on camouflage, battle-dress identical for all ranks, military servants and rank-based luxuries avoided in a forward area, and commands and instruction should be given in stealthy ways.

Valuable assets should be parked in sand-bagged redoubts until they are launched, a prudent tactic anyway to prevent damage from fragments.

Attitude to snipers

Generally snipers are isolated even from soldiers of their own army by the dislike the ordinary infantry have for this type of combat. During World War II captured snipers were often shot out-of-hand by their captors.

It should also be realised that a psychopathic or sociopathic personality is often seen as necessary for an efficient sniper as, despite the image presented in books and films, most soldiers are not keen on killing (or being killed).

Snipers outside warfare

The use of sniping as a way to murder people outside of war is most common in the United States. The typical criminal sniper fires from a tall building or tower into the landscape below. There have been several sensational murders involving snipers in American history, including the Austin sniper incident of 1966, the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the Washington sniper serial murders of late 2002.

Sniping is also used as a method of terrorism, for example in The Troubles in Northern Ireland, where high-powered military sniper rifles were used to pick off soldiers over a period of years.

Snipers in history

There have been soldiers specially trained as elite marksmen as long as there have been firearms.

Related topics