In some previous posts we’ve looked at the origin of the word “sharpshooter,” tracing it back to the early 18th Century in German and to the last part of that century in English, when it passed from German to English. But what about “sniper?” Turns out that goes back pretty far as well, although its dominance comes much later.
And while I’m on the subject, it always grates when I see the term “Civil War sniper” because if you’d used the term then, or anywhere in America in the 19th Century, you’d have gotten a blank look.
Usage of the word, though, goes back quite a ways. The earliest mention of it in print is by the British Army in India. Sir John Fortescue, in his magisterial History of the British Army (Vol. III) says of the siege of Baroach under General David Wedderburn.
This siege has an interest of a curious kind, since it enriched English military terminology by a useful word. The soldiers in the trenches, we are told, put their hats on the parapet for the enemy to shoot at, and “humorously called it sniping.” Letter from India, General Evening Post, 15th June 1773.
In the same volume (written in 1902), Fortescue mentions American riflemen “sniping” at the British at the battle of Saratoga.
The term itself seems to derive from snipe hunting. Notwithstanding that the term “snipe hunt” in this country often means a pointless tramp through the woods for new member of an organization like the Boy Scouts, people really do hunt snipe both in Europe and India. They are small birds who fly fast and erratically and consequently are very hard to hit. Thus a snipe-er has to be a very good shot indeed. There is, however, some disagreement about when it came to describe a military rifleman.
Some authors date it to the beginning of WWI, however it is used extensively to describe enemy riflemen in the Boer War. For example, in a letter from a Canadian soldier: “The Boers are as troublesome as ever, sniping at our patrols and outposts frequently and then running. The boys got even with them the other day, when they shot the worst sniper in the district.” The term seems to have been introduced by British troops from India where, as we’ve seen, it goes back much further. If you look on Google books you can find many more examples from this conflict. At about the same time across the pond the Americans were still using the word sharpshooter to describe enemy riflemen in the Spanish-American War (who, like the Boers, used the excellent 1903 Mauser).
The Americans didn’t start using the term until WWI, which we entered in 1917 woefully unprepared. It was obvious that we would need snipers on the Western Front, but we had no training program. The British, however, had an excellent program in place thanks to men like Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard. Prospective US snipers went to British schools in France and later British sniper instructors came to America to teach deploying units and conduct “train-the-trainer” courses for Army personnel. By the end of the war, “sniper” had completely replaced “sharpshooter” both in military parlance and the press.
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