Pot Hunters, Sharpshooters, and Snipers

by Fred Ray on July 6, 2008 · 2 comments

Being raised in the South I’ve heard the term “pot hunter” all my life. It has nothing to do with hunting for pots (a pejorative reserved for archaeological looters) but rather means someone who hunts to put food on the table. Whatever appears on the dinner table was walking around in the woods a short time earlier. For poor families in the rural South, this was often the only way to supplement their diet with meat, and family members of both sexes were often sent out with the family rifle to “get dinner”—not at the supermarket, but in the woods. If you failed you didn’t have any dinner that night, which gave an incentive to shoot straight. Powder and shot were expensive as well, reinforcing the value of marksmanship.

This continued well into modern times, game laws or no, and one recent example is Louisiana congressman William “Cold Cash” Jefferson. “They were so poor that often the only meat was if someone shot a rabbit,” said an associate. “From the time Jefferson was eleven his dad would hand him a rifle with one bullet and say, ‘Don’t miss, son.'”

The most famous pot hunter in American history, however, was a diminutive woman named Phoebe Ann Mosey, better known by her stage name of Annie Oakley.

Born in 1860 in rural Ohio, Oakley began her career at age nine hunting for the family table with her father’s old musket. She also hunted commercially, a skill that eventually paid off the family’s debts. Oakley eventually gained fame as a trick shot with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the years after the Civil War, becoming the country’s first female celebrity in the process.

While there’s no doubt that pot hunters were good shots, some have suggested that the skills needed to hit a squirrel at forty yards are not the same as those needed to hit an enemy soldier at long range. True, but many of those skills—breath control, sight picture, trigger squeeze, target lead, etc.—are directly transferable. It’s also true that while most of Annie Oakley’s shooting was at relatively close range, there is little doubt that she could have been a superb long range rifle shot if she’d put her mind to it (Oakley did in fact offer to raise a unit of female sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, but was turned down). Then there is the issue of “woodcraft”—the ability to move about in the woods and the arts of stalking and camouflage. These are skills not easily taught—modern sniper schools spend much more time on them than on marksmanship. The motto of German snipers in WWII was “camouflage ten times, shoot once.”

One Federal officer, Colonel Augustus Hamlin, thought the Confederates much better than his own men on this score. “The Confederate in his faded uniform,” he said, “was almost invincible in the woods, and his skill as a marksman, his knowledge of bushcraft, certainly compensated largely for a considerable inequality of numbers, and in the thickets of Chancellorsville, and later in the Wilderness, the Confederate soldier was certainly superior to his antagonist, man for man, courage reckoned as equal.” Many of these men probably learned these skills while pot hunting.

For a quick look at the importance of marksmanship in the South I recommend Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper, a biopic of Medal of Honor winner Alvin York (and yes, I realize that as a West Virginian York could have fought for either side). York didn’t serve as a sniper but as a line infantryman, but it was his marksmanship that won the day. The movie has a great segment on a local rifle match.

Both snipers and light infantrymen have traditionally been recruited from hunters and gamekeepers. Both jaeger in German and chasseur in French mean “hunter.” When the British Army needed someone to organize a sniper program for them in France during WWI (where they were suffering heavily from German snipers) they turned to Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, a famed big game hunter. It worked, by the end of the war Hesketh-Pritchard had made the British dominant in that field.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

teuen101 March 23, 2009 at 7:36 pm

York was from tennessee and was not a West Virginian you some what make it sound like he was meaning to or not could be misleading


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