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.
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.
Leave a Reply