Origins of “Sharpshooter”

Some time ago I did a post on the origin of the word “sharpshooter” – that it came into the English language by way of the German mercenary riflemen hired by the British crown in the late 18th Century. A couple of commenters, however, took issue with that analysis and insisted that it came from the use of Sharps rifles by the U.S.S.S. in the Civil War.

Thanks to a tip by Bryce Suderow I found an article from a New York newspaper going all the way back to 1817, when Christian Sharps would have been five years old (he didn’t patent his famous rifle until 1848).

Albany [NY] Argus January 17, 1817

Col. Forsyth, so celebrated in the last war, as a commander of a band of sharpshooters which harassed the enemy so much, happened in a scouting party to capture a British officer. He brought him to his camp and treated him with every respect due to his rank – happening to enter on a conversation on the subject of sharp shooters, the British officer observed that Forsyth’s men were a terror to the British Camp – that as far as they could see they could select the officer from the private, who of course fell a sacrifice to their precise shooting. He wished very much to see a specimen of their shooting. Forsyth gave the wink to one of his officers then at hand, who departed, and instructed two of his best marksmen belonging to the corps to pass by the commanding officer’s headquarters at stated intervals. This being arranged, Col. Forsyth informed the British officer that his wish should be gratified, and observed he would step in front of his tent to see whether any of his men were near at hand. According to the arrangement made, one of the best marksmen appeared. The Colonel ordered him to come forward and inquired whether his rifle was in good order. “Yes, Sir,” replied the man – He then stuck a table knife in a tree about 50 paces distant and ordered the man to split his butt. He fired, and the ball was completely divided by the knife, perforating the tree on each side. This astonished the British officer. Appropos [sic], another soldier appeared in sight. He was called, and at the same distance, to shoot the ace of clubs out of the card. This was actually done. The British officer was confounded and amazed, still more when Col. Forsyth informed him that 4 weeks before, these men were at work in the capacity of husbandmen. – So much for the American soldiery.

So I think this pretty much settles it and shows that the term was in common use in America at least as far back as the War of 1812. The Col. Forsyth mentioned here is Lt. Col. Benjamin Forsyth of the US Regiment of Riflemen. Forsyth, a Tarheel, made a reputation for himself both as a fearless and effective fighter as well as the leader of “the wickedest corps in the Army.” He also seems to have had an appreciation of the value of psychological warfare.

Bryce’s tip was about a very worthwhile historical web site with archives of New York newspapers going back to very early days. Although somewhat quirky to use there is much here for the patient researcher.


9 responses to “Origins of “Sharpshooter””

  1. Brett Schulte Avatar


    I’ve used the site you mention (and Bryce recommended) repeatedly for my Siege of Petersburg research. The site’s owner is a retired IT executive who hosts millions of pages of old newspapers FREE on his own servers at home. It truly is an amazing labor of love. He works with archival institutions to borrow reels of microfilm and copy those reels over to images which he then stores on his site. I cannot recommend this site enough for Civil War researchers. As you say, searching for things is a bit quirky, but if you read the FAQ, it explains how to use the powerful search engine quite well.

  2. Chris Moore Avatar
    Chris Moore

    Good evening- I came across this site through a search out of curiosity about the origin of the term ‘sharpshooter’. Like others, I assumed that the term came into usage as a result of the popularity of the Sharps rifle, but was wondering if my assumption was indeed correct. From the article above, it would clearly seem that it’s not; however, I’ve spent the better part of an hour searching words and exact phrases from the quote above on the research site that is cited above, and can not find any article from anywhere close to the time period of the early 1800’s. Can someone give me directions on how the search was performed that yielded the quote above from the Albany Argus?

    Your assistance is very much appreciated!


    1. Brett Schulte Avatar


      Fred Ray did the searching, so I can’t speak to that, but I can tell you that there is a FAQ button you can click on at the top of that site which goes into great detail regarding how to do very advanced searches to narrow things down to exactly what you want. You can also go to that paper itself at the following link:

  3. My Two Cents Avatar
    My Two Cents

    Although sharpshooter and marksmen are interchanged by today’s usage and standards, I would disagree that the term sharpshooter originated from Lt. Col. Benjamin Forsyth account – let me explain.
    First, ( defines marksman as:
    1. a person who is skilled in shooting at a mark; a person who shoots well.
    2. Military.
    a. the lowest rating in rifle marksmanship, below that of sharpshooter and expert.
    b. a person who has achieved such a rating. ( defines a marksman as:
    a person skilled in shooting at a mark or target
    So for the sake of argument we can say that a marksmen is a soldier who has been trained to skillfully shoot targets or a mark — kind of like what the soldiers were doing in the store, according to Col Forsyth.
    Second, if this account is the only evidence that we are to consider and we take the Col. at his word. I would then like to point out that the term sharpshooter is not used to describe his soldiers; Col. Forsyth uses the term marksmen. Which I believe he would have used considering the era (1812), situation (war), and his education (military). I cannot find anything that would suggest that the military called marksmen sharpshooters during the war of 1812.
    So far as I have found; the term Sharpshooter was used to describe a marksmen equipped with a Sharps Carbine rifle during and after the American Civil War in contrast to those soldiers equipped with a Spencershooter – for Spencer Carbine, Springfield – for Springfieldshooter rifle, Henryshooter – for Henry rifle, etc.
    That my two cents…

    1. Matt Avatar

      Agreed. Spent some time recently in Gettysburg and this question arose.

  4. Fred Ray Avatar

    I would fault you for using a modern dictionary for 150-old term. You need to go back to the period sources, because it’s changed.

    We have much more than Col. Forsyth’s word. His service as the commander of the 1st US Rifle Regiment is well attested to, and I mention it in my book Shock Troops of the Confederacy. For more detail consult John C. Frederickson, Green Coats and Glory: The United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808– 1821(Youngstown, NY:Old Fort Niagara Publications, 2000). The existence of the word is confirmed long before Christian Sharps rolled out his rifle.

    If you have any actual sources that the term was used to describe only those men with Sharps I’d like to see them. Why, then, would the Confederates call their elite light infantry Sharpshooters, if they were armed with Enfields?

  5. […] addressed the origins of the term “sharpshooter” several times, and it seems to be a popular one for commenters. Lately I’ve dug up a few more […]

  6. […] Since this was posted I have added two more posts on the origins of sharpshooter, here and […]

  7. Russ Grimm Avatar


    Admire your work Mir. Ray….re Forsyth – he wasn’t the Commander (Colonel) of the 1st Rifle Regiment…
    TA Smith was until Jul 1812 – replaced by George Sevier thru May 1815…back to TA Smith (who took a reduction in rank from BG thru Nov 1818 and Talbot Chambers took the regiment until deactivation in June 1821) 3 other Regt’s were formed in 1814.. J McDonald and Forsyth were Majors under Colonel Smith and Lt Colonel Sevier….
    Forsyth was breveted Lt Colonel…(honorary title)
    McDonald had date of rank on Forsyth and would have been Lt Colonel under Sevier whether or not Forsyth had been killed..Forsyth might have gotten Lt Colonelcy in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Rifles which formed in 1814 but..of course was killed…Along with Ludowick Morgan (saved the Army at Conjockta Creek) and Daniel Appling (Sandy Creek capture of Brit flotilla) he was a top-tier Rifleman officer…definitely the most flamboyant

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