The official use of snipers within the construct of the US military began in the civil war, but the acceptance of snipers by military leadership has had a varied history that fluctuated between disdain and banishment, to the full embracing and praise of these unique assets. When examined from a strategic perspective, these two-man sniper teams are insignificant to the overall contribution and are seldom considered as anything more than just a part of the infantry that helped contribute to the mission objectives. It is this same single-minded focus on the large-scale global strategy that has contributed to the US struggles with Irregular and Unconventional Warfare for the past century. As the US found itself in lower intensity conflicts and counter insurgency (COIN) operations in the second half of the 20th century, the role and capability of the sniper was refined out of necessity and a new phase in sniper development and understanding was entered into, one that increased the significance of what the snipers are able to offer and to the defining of a role that nicely compliments the COIN and Irregular Warfare (IW) environment.
By exploring the development of the sniper’s role in Unconventional Warfare (UW) and COIN operations during the Vietnam war this three part series of articles will examine what lessons were learned and more importantly how those lessons shaped the role of the sniper into the 21st century and how they influenced US operations in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Vietnam was the war that acted as the catalyst to the understanding of what the sniper can offer to these types of operations and by focusing on that conflict in particular we will explore the details of those lessons and how they might be applied in future US UW & IW engagements and why this tight involvement of snipers may be critical to future success in this arena.
It was not until after the Vietnam War that the US military doctrine embraced the sniper as a vital and permanent member of the military organizational charts and then the GWOT gave an opportunity for snipers to prove their effectiveness by operating in many different capacities, utilizing skills and tactics first learned in Vietnam. Unfortunately, senior leadership once again is questioning the utilization of snipers and their place among the US military. By focusing on the formative years of sniper development during the Vietnam conflict, this study will provide history, context, and direction on why snipers are important, how they best work within existing force structures, and ways to effectively organize and utilize snipers moving forward.
The use of specially trained and equipped snipers within the US military officially started during the civil war with the formation of the Union’s 1st & 2nd Regiments of the United States Sharpshooters (USSS), more commonly known as the Berdan Sharpshooters, having been named after their inventive leader General Hiram Berdan. As the USSS units began to operate on the battlefield the Confederacy noticed their use and countered with the formation of sixteen of their own sharpshooter battalions. Together these efforts on both sides of the war became the first official use of US military snipers. These trained marksmen were capable of engaging targets at far greater distances than the typical soldier and they were used as skirmishers, being placed in front of the main troop formations. They would then engage the enemy from long range to slow their advance and then move back to friendly lines. While these specialty units performed their job as well as could be expected, their use did not have a dramatic effect or impact on the outcome of any major battles, but they were respected marksmen and units.
After the Civil War, the USSS disbanded, and the American sharpshooter faded into obscurity. It wasn’t until the 20th century before they finally reemerged when the US finally decided to get involved in World War 1. The stagnant trench warfare of this war is regarded as the birthplace of the modern sniper where the tactics and skills of the sniper were developed during the early years of the war, when the US was not present, and were being taught at the newly established sniper schools in both Germany and the UK. Schools such as the UK First Army School of Scouting, Observation and Sniping. It did not take long for the US to painfully discover the effectiveness of the German sniper, and they too were finally able to attend the allied schools and learn the art from established veterans who taught those classes.
World War I was where the sniper morphed into the role that we see snipers operating as today with the use of specialized scoped rifles and using tactics of concealment and observation to wait for just the right moment to fire a single well placed shot at an enemy target. Snipers on both sides would crawl out into no-man’s land in darkness, lying in wait all day to take the one shot and then crawl back to safety when darkness returned, provided they were not discovered by machine guns or artillery during the daylight hours. This sniper war led to the escalation of inventiveness and creativity by opposing snipers with wild feats taking place, such as hiding inside of dead horses, climbing into burrowed out trees, and even digging tunnels for days to create the perfect sniper’s hide. This same art of creative fieldcraft lives on 100 years later with all current sniper schools in the armed forces teaching similar skills. As the Great War ended with the world dreaming of never again repeating such a worldwide war, so too did the US sniper fade away.
World War 2 introduced a more fluid battlefield, one that did not have the fixed trench warfare that gave birth to modern sniper fieldcraft, but one that still demanded the skills the sniper offered. Once again, US sniping had to quickly adapt and rise to the challenge presented by the many varied types of operational areas and combat that US forces found themselves in. Once again, the US was late to the war and there was not time to establish formalized schools like the British had and many sniper rifles that were rushed into service from the World War I stockpiles were just given to the ‘best shot’ in the unit with no training in sniping tactics or even with the weapon itself. But if there is one thing that defines the American Sniper, it is their quick adaptation to any given environment, and of course the widespread culture of outdoors and hunting that is prevalent in the US helped tremendously in these efforts. A few US servicemen once again attended British sniper schools and brought that knowledge back to their units, but this was a rare occurrence. Without an official adoption of US sniper schools or the official organization of snipers during this war, it was easy for the US sniper to fall into obscurity once again as the war ended and the American GI came home.
Korea marked the end of the old era of US sniping. The early portion of the war with the initial invasion from the North, followed by UN intervention and counterattack, was quick and fluid, very similar to World War 2. The war then progressed into a more stagnant back and forth and finally settled in a stalemate. As the war moved into the more stagnant phase, once again, the need for sniping rapidly developed and the US adopted another ad hoc solution to the problem with individual units developing their own snipers with no official military sniper doctrine in place beyond providing some specialized weapon systems. The sniping activity was not as high as in the previous world wars, but it was still a part of the conflict, and once again the short-sighted nature of US military doctrine took hold and when the war went away, so did the snipers.
Then came the Vietnam War, a war that changed US military doctrine in many ways, and especially with sniping. The history of the Vietnam War is well documented and will not be covered here, but once again the US found itself ill prepared to fill the need for snipers within its ranks, a need that arose when the traditional combat units of the US Army and the USMC found themselves fighting a guerrilla and insurgent war where the enemy blended in with the populace and the hit and run tactics were a deadly nuisance that proved effective. The conventional infantry units found it easy to take assigned objectives and “defeat” the enemy, only to have that same enemy melt into the jungle and reemerge and take back what was lost just as soon as the American’s left. This was a war that required a different approach.
The USMC had led the sniping charge in each of the previous wars, and they would again lead the efforts in Vietnam. Several different Divisions within the USMC realized early in 1965 that there was a definitive need for snipers and each resorted to their own methods to fill that need. This included sending out requests for competitive target rifles to be sent from the Division shooting teams from around the world so they could be used as sniper rifles. Division level sniper schools, usually lasting from 1-3 weeks, were established to help teach the tactics and skills of sniping, sometimes with the instructors learning the skills one day and teaching them the next. As the snipers started reaching their units, they quickly made their presence known, proving to be extremely effective at countering the guerrilla tactics of the Vietcong and denying the freedom of movement that the enemy had enjoyed up until then. They were equally as effective fighting the more conventional forces of the NVA by targeting leadership and eliminating critical individuals manning crew served weapons.
As the demand for snipers from unit commanders grew, the USMC began to formalize both the weapons systems and the training of their snipers starting in 1967. The US Army found the same demand and need with several division level schools starting with the same scramble for suitable rifle systems. The Army formalized their rifles and training in 1969. Their effectiveness was highlighted by the permanent bounties offered to the Vietcong and NVA soldiers by their leaders for the death of any US sniper.
It was claimed by the USMC snipers that the average amount of rounds fired by traditional soldiers to achieve one confirmed enemy kill was 50,000, for the sniper it was 1.3, a statistic that is documented by the USMC. But the efficient way snipers killed the enemy was not what made the Vietnam War the turning point for US sniper development and their integration in COIN and UW doctrine. Rather it was the way in which snipers developed their tactics and techniques and the way that leadership learned to effectively employ snipers and how to let them thrive at their unique trade that made the transition possible. This led to dramatic impacts upon enemy morale, reductions in combat effectiveness, and a successful counter to many of the enemy’s own guerrilla tactics.
Mel E. – Editor in Chief, Sniper Central
with assistance from Stirling E. – Global Affairs Analyst, Sniper Central
Part II will cover what made Vietnam different