Sharpshooters and Snipers a Brief History

By John Farnam

Ft Collins, CO –-( “Your body won’t go where your mind has never been” ~ Training Axiom

Sharpshooters and Snipers:

The American Revolutionary War pitted Colonial frontiersmen against British Regulars.

“Regulars” in all armies of the day were issued smooth-bore muskets. Projectiles were round balls, not very accurate (at least by today’s standards), but reloading was much faster than was the case with rifles.

Period infantry tactics dictated that individual initiative on the part of infantryman was never allowed. You fired muskets only in volleys, and only when directed. Your target was not an individual enemy soldier, but rather a “rank” of soldiers, and ranges were short, always less than fifty meters. Muskets were “leveled,” not “aimed.” Such volleys, sometimes several in number, where followed by bayonet charges, because reloading could often not be accomplished before the enemy closed the distance and was upon you.

This mantra was pretty standard for European land battles, which had been more-or-less continuous since Roman times. Europeans got lots of practice.

However in the American Colonies, farmers and frontiersmen were accustomed to owning and shooting rifles, not military-style muskets. Both were muzzle-loading, but the rifle bullet had to literally “pounded” down the bore as it engaged the rifling, so reloading was slow (which is why infantry commanders didn’t like them).

Muskets were relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture, while rifles were the product of a fellowship of skilled artisans. They were highly “individual,” slow to manufacture, and expensive. But rifles, in the hands of capable marksmen, were accurate enough to hit individual human targets at 200m, sometimes as far as 500m, while muskets were hopelessly inaccurate after 100m.

So, for hunting and general use, rifles were preferred by Americans.

The stage was set!

At the beginning of the American Revolution, smart money was on the British. In fact, during the entire conflict there were precious few genuinely decisive battles, save Yorktown, where the War finally ended (only to reignite during the War of 1812).

Washington and his American citizen/soldiers wore-down the British, using conventional tactics, but introducing a new one, with which the British were not prepared to deal effectively, and during the entire course of the War, never did.

American sharpshooters, employing their own initiative and judgement, roamed independently over the battlefield with their rifles and picked-off individual British officers and NCOs. The tactic was often so effective that entire British regiments were effectively rendered leaderless, sometimes within minutes.

Of course, the British considered all this inherently dishonorable, and these first “snipers” to be war criminals, not soldiers. However, they had no solution to this “problem,” and were too proud to develop one. This new tactic, combined with classic British arrogance, sealed their fate.

Within a few decades, the French conical “Minie Ball” solved the slow-reloading issue with rifles, and by the time of the American Civil War, smooth-bore muskets had thus been mostly replaced with rifles. They were still muzzle-loading, but flint-locks were now gone, replaced with the much less distracting cap-lock.

Now, any enemy combatant closer than 500m, in some cases even further, was in grave danger.

Sadly, most military leaders were naively training and gearing-up, as they always do, to fight the last war, so individual marksmanship training and tactics lagged far behind these fast-moving technological developments, but some innovative and visionary Operators, who were also expert marksmen, saw the potential, and were not about to wait around for the rest of the world to catch up.

Sir Joseph Whitworth
Sir Joseph Whitworth

Sir Joseph Whitworth, a well-known and prominent British engineer and manufacturer, produced his famous “Whitworth Rifle,” expensive, but superior to nearly every other military rifle of the era. Despite spectacular demonstrations, Whitworth enjoyed scant success in interesting his own government in his wares. But, the Confederate Army on the American Continent took keen notice, and purchased a number of them.

If fact, Whitworth Rifles quickly became status symbols within Confederate units, and the best marksmen naturally gravitated to them. Most Confederate soldiers were farmers and frontiersmen, who knew fieldcraft, were expert marksmen, and were fully capable of appreciating this wonderful weapon and what it could do. The industrialized north could not recruit nearly so many.

These Confederate sharpshooters, still not called “snipers,” quickly demonstrated their worth in effectively eliminating leadership of opposing Union units, in short order. This tactic, used so efficaciously during the Revolutionary War (an noted above), subsequently lost on the Federal Army (at least in the beginning), was now being used with devastating effect by Confederates. Confederate commanders thus allowed (reluctantly at first) their sharpshooters much leeway in deploying themselves and determining best locations to set up.

South African Dutch (Boers) were to show themselves equally effective, and for the exact same reason, during the Anglo-Boer War at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

The aforementioned “cultural lag” proved the undoing of highly-respected Union General John Sedgwick during the Battle of Spotsylvania (VA) on 9 May 1864.

During this Battle, several Confederate sharpshooters fired upon Sedgwick’s entourage from a great distance. Some of Sedgwick’s subordinates quickly got down and went to cover. Sedgwick was annoyed, considering himself and his party well out of range of enemy rifle fire.

He scolded them, with:

“They couldn’t hit elephants at this distance…”

Just as he completed his sentence, a bullet struck him under his left eye. He instantly collapsed, dying within seconds. His precipitous death was devastating to the Union Army, and to General US Grant personally.

Decades after the War ended, at least five (now aging) Confederate sharpshooters claimed credit for the fatal shot. There is little doubt that it came from a Whitworth rifle.

Sergeant Charles D Grace, of Company B, 4th Georgia Infantry, is the one most likely to have delivered the shot in question, but that is by no means certain. In any event, Sgt Grace did have an iron-sighted, 451 caliber, Whitworth rifle. If it was Grace who made the fatal shot, range was in excess of 500m.

Russian SniperLyudmila Pavlichenko
Russian Sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a Red Army Ukrainian Soviet sniper during World War II. Credited with 309 kills, she is regarded as one of the top military snipers of all time and the most successful female sniper in history.

“Snipers,” (the term comes from the Nineteenth Century practice of using rifles to shoot small birds, snipe, at long distances) always a dashing, cliquish group, were from the Civil War forward, the “bastard stepchildren” of Western armies.

Sniper units were thus always the first to be disbanded at the end of every war, only to be frantically reconstituted, retrained, and re-equipped at the beginning of the next.

During WWII, the potency of snipers was not lost on Russians, who themselves learned this bitter lesson fighting savvy Fins during the Winter War of 1939. Russians subsequently trained and equipped thousands of snipers, including many women.  (learn the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko)  Russian snipers effectively paralyzed an entire German army at Stalingrad in 1942/43.

The thought of an individual with a capability, upon his own summary command and judgement, to strike a precise and deadly blow, from an invisible position, at long distances, has always been uncomfortable, even frightening, to military commanders and politicians alike, and always will be.

All self-respecting Operators are competent marksmen, “sharpshooters,” if you will.

Snipers take it to the next level!


About John Farnam & Defense Training International, Inc
As a defensive weapons and tactics instructor John Farnam will urge you, based on your own beliefs, to make up your mind in advance as to what you would do when faced with an imminent and unlawful lethal threat. You should, of course, also decide what preparations you should make in advance, if any. Defense Training International wants to make sure that their students fully understand the physical, legal, psychological, and societal consequences of their actions or inactions.

It is our duty to make you aware of certain unpleasant physical realities intrinsic to the Planet Earth. Mr Farnam is happy to be your counselor and advisor. Visit:

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C. Holman

During the Revolutionary war designated marksmen were known as Sharpshooters from sharps rifles. However the Whitworth rifle changed the face of the battle field. This rifle could shoot 1,800 meters fairly accurately 250 were used during the American Civil War. The term was coined close to the first World War and it was a title given to the Confederate sharpshooters as the Grandfathers of modern sniper rifles. I could go on and on about this topic. I am writing a historical paper about the Whitworth rifled musket for a Senior project. It will be a 20 page paper and very… Read more »

2nd Amender

Great article! The gist of which to most should be to learn more, not question a short, but informative introduction to single shot weapons of the modern era!

John V Waltz

What’s the difference between a Whitworth and a Wentworth rifle since the author mentioned both?

John Dunlap

Typo. No such animal as a Wentworth. Navy Arms offers a very nice reproduction.

Richard Pearson

The author said was a few decades after the War of 1812 the Minnie Ball was developed. He never indicated it was in use in the Revolutionary War or the war of 1812.

Samuel Vanderburg

I have never read anywhere in a historical reference or seen cited a single use of a “rifle (conical rather then spherical) bullet” until well after the American Revolutionary. You seem to be saying that it was used extensively by the marksman of the Revolutionary War. Could you either provide some clarification or cite some references on this? I am most interested. I was under the impression that until the appearance of the miniball in the early 19th century that molds for bullets were round.

w kummerow

in the rev war most rifles used round ball, not conical