Snipers, Sharpshooters, and Designated Marksmen

by Fred Ray on August 2, 2006 · 0 comments

There is a great deal of confusion about the various types of riflemen and their duties, both now and in the Civil War. This is pretty obvious in a recent AP article “USMC sniper metes out swift death in Iraq.” What the author of this overwritten article is talking about is really a designated marksman, which is a different type of soldier altogether.

Technically, Wilson is not a sniper — he’s an infantryman who also patrols through the span of destroyed buildings that make up downtown Ramadi. But as his unit’s designated marksman, he has a sniper rifle. In the heat of day or after midnight, he spends hours on rooftop posts, peering out onto rows of abandoned houses from behind piles of sandbags and bulletproof glass cracked by gunfire.Sometimes individual gunmen attack, other times dozens. Once Wilson shot an insurgent who was “turkey peeking” — Marine slang for stealing glances at U.S. positions from behind a corner. Later, the distance was measured at 514 meters — 557 yards.

Snipers, in modern practice, operate independently in small groups of two men, a sniper and a spotter. They receive extensive marksmanship and concealment training and carry modified bolt-action rifles in larger than standard caliber, usually 7.62mm (.308 Winchester) or sometimes even .50 caliber.

The AP writer does not say what kind of rifle this Marine is using. It may be a semi-automatic M-14 rifle (7.62mm) that has been modified for accuracy and has a telescopic sight. Although not as accurate as a bolt-action rifle, it is of more use in a close-in fight. Or, it might be a 5.56mm M16A2 Squad Advanced Marksmanship Rifle (SAMR) rifle which, according to another article, “comes fully equipped with a high power optical sight, match-grade heavy free-floating barrel, and an expandable bipod mount.”

A designated marksman stays with his unit and generally wears no special camouflage, but does have specialized marksmanship training. His job is to extend the “reach” of his unit (which is armed with the smaller-caliber 5.56mm M-16 rifle) and engage individual enemy targets, including snipers. Both the Army and Marines have also found that using both snipers and designated marksmen lets them minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage.

When researching Civil War sharpshooters I was struck by how the cycle of infantry marksmanship has come full circle. During the Vietnam era the emphasis was on short-range assault fire, and few soldiers got any marksmanship training after Basic. Now, however, it is back in vogue, even for the average soldier.

In many ways what they are doing now is similar to Civil War practice. Most sharpshooters then carried a standard infantry weapon, like the Enfield Short Rifle (often called the 2-band Enfield). Some Federal units, like Berdan’s two regiments, carried specially-made Sharps rifles, and later in the war many Federal sharpshooters used Spencer repeaters. Most of these men got far more rifle practice than the average line infantryman. Only a few men on either side operated like modern snipers (a British term that did not come into use until the late 19th Century) with either a Whitworth or a heavy target rifle. Like their modern counterparts, these men operated semi-independently. In fact, if the Army or Marines were to organize their designated marksmen into independent units, they would have something very similar to the Confederate sharpshooter battalions.

Target selection has changed a bit as well. In the Civil War the priority was usually officers and couriers (thus most any mounted man was fair game), and artillery units. Today, the preferred order is officers and other leaders (referred to euphemistically as “chain of command”), then crew-served weapons. Few men get a shot at artillery any more, since they are far to the rear.

Later this month I’ll be going down to Fort Benning, GA, to give a presentation on Civil War sharpshooters at the US Infantry School, and I hope to be able to make comparisons there as well. BTW, my hat is off to anyone who can hit a head-sized target at over 500m!

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