Civil War “sniper” training

by Fred Ray on June 20, 2009 · 1 comment

I received a request for comment on Civil War “sniper” training as compared to WWI:

We’re trying to piece together a longitudinal picture of civil war sniper training and contrast that with U.S. sniper training during WW I.   Our focus is on what is learned; then lost over given periods of time.

The short answer is that there was no “sniper” training at all in the Civil War so far as I know, and of course the word did not come into use until the Boer War at the turn of the century. “Sharpshooter,” as used in the Civil War, covered much more ground and included both what would later be called snipers, designated marksmen and light infantry skirmishers as well.

On the Union side the US War Dept. established a marksmanship standard for sharpshooters in 1862:

No person shall be mustered into the service of the United States as a member of the corps of sharpshooters unless he shall produce the certificate of some person duly authorized by the Governor of the State in which the company is raised, that he has in five consecutive shots, at 200 yards at rest, made a string of not over twenty-five inches, or the same string offhand at 100 yards; the certificate to be written on the target used at the test.

There was no training for this, however—the prospective sharpshooter was expected to demonstrate this level of proficiency to get his job. Just how well this was enforced later in the war for sharpshooters detailed to the division sharpshooter companies is open to question. Once in a sharpshooter unit a Federal rifleman got more training in skirmish drill than a line unit, as well as training in skills like distance estimation.

On the Confederate side I’ve never seen any sort of formal criteria for sharpshooters. By 1862 unit commanders would have known who could shoot and who couldn’t, and made their assignments accordingly. Many of the Southern boys were from a rural background, hunted from an early age, and were quite at home in the woods. They excelled in the arts of woodcraft and needed little training.

As far as a formal training program went, both sides used the same manuals: skirmish drill from Hardee’s (or its equivalent), and rifle practice from Heth’s manual. Both were pretty much word for word translations from the French. Although the men shot extensively at distances of up to 800 yards there was, so far as I’ve seen, no training at all on the arts of camouflage, stalking, or the associated skills that now take up the majority of the modern sniper’s training. You either had to know it when you got there or figure it out on the job. I’m sure that there was a lot of lore that never got written down. All armies develop, during the course of a war, a body of what might be called folk wisdom to do their jobs and this is usually passed down from soldier to soldier. Beginning in the Vietnam war the US Army made a concerted effort to pass this on in the form the Center for Army Lessons Learned, but unfortunately a great deal of this was lost after the Civil War and had to be relearned in later conflicts.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bronnie June 21, 2009 at 2:21 am

Antietam would be just one example of the Confederate Army failing to maximise the sharpshooter’s superior shooting skills by placing them on the battle lines with other regiments.

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