More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter”

by Fred Ray on February 7, 2017 · 2 comments

As part of the continuing quest to find the origins of the term “sharpshooter,” I directed a query to the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum) in Vienna, Austria. The Austrians, after all, were the first to employ rifle units and true light infantry in the 18th Century, and Central Europe (the Tirol, southern Germany, and Switzerland) was the birthplace of the rifle. Their reply is worth quoting at length.

While they were unable to definitely say when the term “Scharfschütze” came into to use, “your assumption regarding the origins in German language and the transfer to the United States via German mercenaries in the American War of Independence seems to be totally plausible. Furthermore I’m able to confirm that the term “Scharfschütze” was established in German language long before 1795 and that it had already been employed as part of the official designation for military units before that date.”

In the military of the Hapsburg empire the term “Scharfschütze” meant those soldiers who were armed with rifles in contrast to flints [i.e. smoothbore muskets]. The origins of the employment of so called “Scharfschützen” for military purposes lie in the improvised formation of companies of professional hunters (“Jäger”) or members of shooting associations (“Schützenvereine”) in times of war. Shooting associations were sometimes called (in their own right and not to be confused with the nowadays military connotations of this term) “Scharfschützenvereine”. ….

The usage of the term “Scharfschützen” as designation for whole units is documented at least for the beginning of the 18th century (as far as I know, while there might have been even older incidents). As part of the system of homeland or territorial “militia-like” defense of Tyrol (“Landesverteidigung”), companies of “Scharfschützen” were raised in 1702 in order to be employed against a Bavarian invasion during the Spanish War of Succession. Later on in 1704 “permanent” “Scharfschützen-Compagnien” were raised to support the units of the homeland defense. In 1713 they were even turned into two regiments. …. However for the time being still no real permanent “Scharfschützen” or “Jäger” units existed, which were kept under arms even in times of peace. Several temporary units were however again formed during successive wars—for example in the Austrian War of Succession (1740-1748)  or in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

A major step towards the creation of a permanent branch of service of “Jäger” (light infantry, partially or completely armed with rifles) happened in 1769 when it was decreed that in times of war “Jäger-Corps” staffed with “Scharfschützen” should be established. Such units came into existence during the Bavarian War of Succession which saw a “Tyroler Scharfschützen-Corps” and a “Mährisch-schlesisches Feld-Jäger-Corps” (Moravian Silesian Feldjägerkorps). Both units were rather of battalion than corps size. In the War against the Ottoman Empire (1788-1790) again there were raised a “Deutsches Jäger-Corps” and a “Tyroler-Scharfschützen-Corps”. Both roughly in the strength of weak regiments (each with 10 companies). The first “Jäger” regiment ever that was created as formal and supposedly permanent unit, was the “Tyroler Jäger-Regiment Nr. 64” however, established in 1801 and staffed with “Scharfschützen” hitherto employed in other units. Out of this regiment from 1808 onwards the system of “Feldjägerbataillone” (Battalions of light infantry) developed, which was the basis of the branch of light infantry in the Army of the Hapsburg Empire until 1918 (while of course losing their specialty of being armed with rifles with the general introduction of rifles in in the infantry in the mid-19th century). ….

Worth remembering that the term “Scharfschütze” was used in the German military context to distinguish rifle-armed soldiers (who were specialists) from the infantry of the line who carried smoothbore muskets.


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