Origin of “sharpshooter”

by Fred Ray on September 23, 2006 · 9 comments

When giving presentations I am often asked if the term “sharpshooter” has anything to do with the Sharps rifle. A persistent story attaches it to Berdan’s Sharpshooters, who with their Sharps rifles were then (so the story goes) called “Sharps shooters,” and later just sharpshooters. Trouble is, it’s not true, any more than is the tale that Fighting Joe Hooker gave his name as a synonym for prostitute.

In fact, sharpshooter goes back in Germanic Europe at least as far back as the early 1700s or so, when the modern rifle-armed troops were first used in the Austrian and Prussian armies, and probably has a civilian origin. It survives today as the Germans have never adopted the term sniper for precision shooter and continue to use scharfshutzen instead. The poster below, which is typical, dates from the thirties.

sharfshutzen.jpg

Thus when Christian Sharps was born in 1811, the term had already been in use for a hundred years or so. Sharps did not patent his breech-loading design until 1848.

Interestingly, the word means the same in German and English, and appears in both Old High German and Old English. One etymologist, Carol Pozefsky, traces the English variation of the term as applied to riflemen back to 1802. My surmise, then, would be that it came into modern English by way of the 5/60th Royal Americans, a mostly-German unit raised by the British Army as a result of their experiences during the American Revolution. The 5/60th pretty much went with the practices of the German jaeger light infantry, including, one would presume, the term sharpshooter.

Update: Since this was posted I have added two more posts on the origins of sharpshooter, here and here.


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

James April 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The modern iteration of the term “Sharpshooter” originates on or about October of 1861 when the first units of the 2nd United States Sharpshooters Regiment was being formed. The term very simply comes from the required expert use of the Sharps falling block rifle.

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Steve Addison July 26, 2012 at 6:44 am

The origin of the term “sharpshooter” is so well-documented as coming from the Sharps rifle in the Civil War all I can say is you really got this one wrong.

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Dude January 11, 2017 at 8:38 pm

Simply put…….uttering an opinion without a basis in fact is the very definition of ignorance. The term sharpshooter appears regularly in European war chronicles as early as 100 years before the birth of the good mister Sharps. Therefore the use of the Sharps rifle could not possibly be the origin of the term “sharpshooter”. Moreover the Germans and Austrians have hundreds upon hundreds of war related historical documents dating back to the early 1700s which specifically use the term “sharpshooter”.

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Brett Schulte December 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm

You guys may want to read Fred’s new article on this topic. It seems the term sharpshooter was in use in America 50 years earlier than the Civil War:

http://www.brettschulte.net/CWBlog/2013/12/06/origins-of-sharpshooter/

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John Smith February 22, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Personally I think the word has origins way back to when a bow and arrow were the number one choice in long range attacks. It very simply describes shooting a sharp object. When barrages of rocks and other random objects failed you would bring in the “sharp shooters” to puncture armor and cause serious wounds. Remember, sharp tipped arrows were not cheap to come by back in those days. Although most movies portray archers as throw away soldiers. I think their position was much more prestigious and sought after. Killing from afar was at first deemed a cowards way to fight but now is the number one rule in warfare. To me, a highly skilled archer was the original sharp shooter.

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Tom Chura January 9, 2017 at 3:14 pm

Q From David Jaundrell, Cheshire: I once read that the origin of the word sharpshooter harks back to the days of the buffalo hunters in the American west. They used the old Sharps rifle and hence became known as Sharps’ shooters. Do you know if there is any truth in this?
A It’s a story that’s sometimes told and you can understand why, as a connection between sharp and Sharps seems obvious. It has also been said that the term was popularised during the American Civil War of the 1860s. Wrong war, wrong country, wrong rifle. The stimulus was the Napoleonic Wars and the term is British. So the short and sharp answer is, no, there’s no truth in it.
Doubters may like the facts. The Sharps rifle was designed by Christian Sharps in the late 1840s and made from 1850 onwards by his firm, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. But the term sharp shooter had been in use in Britain since no later than 1801. The Experimental Group of Riflemen had been set up in the British army in 1800; this led to the creation of the 95th (Rifle) Regiment in 1802 as a specialist sharpshooting force using the Baker rifle. If you’re familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s books about Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles, then you will already know about this period and milieu.
I found the term in the Edinburgh Advertiser for 23 June 1801, in an item on the North British Militia: “This Regiment has several Field Pieces, and two companies of Sharp Shooters, which are very necessary in the modern Stile of War.” It quickly became common, appearing in the Times more than 20 times in the next three years. In 1805, a report could say baldly in the expectation of being immediately understood that “Lord Nelson was wounded by a French Sharpshooter.”
Bavarian and Austrian riflemen and sharpshooters are recorded earlier. The Tirailleurs (French for sharpshooters) were Austrians who fought on the French side early in the Napoleonic Wars. The German term Scharfschütze for them is recorded in Jacobsson’s Technologisches Wörterbuch of 1781, so it seems certain that the term was borrowed into English from German as what linguists call a calque or loan translation, in which each element of the word is translated literally.

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David Minshall July 27, 2017 at 12:40 am

Ref Tom Chura’s post, I can nudge the use of the term back a little further. The Kentish Weekly Post newspaper of 20 April 1798 carries in a report on a meeting of local dignatories that “Sir John Honywood, made an offer to raise a Corps of Rifle-men and other Sharp Shooters, for the defence of the County of Kent.”

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P.lafleur January 27, 2018 at 6:56 pm

I have ray band sharp shooter since more than 40 years i was told the reason why they called sharp shooter is that in the war soldier use to put there cigarettes in the hole of the glasses is that possible.

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