In June 2018 a British SAS (Special Air Service) commando sniper used a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-gun in single-shot mode to kill an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader some 2,300 meters distant. The SAS sergeant did not have a 12.7mm sniper rifle with him but there was a decades-old M2 12.7mm machine-gun on a nearby vehicle and this was quickly fitted with a scope and, with the assistance of a spotter (using a long range spotter scope) to help with estimating wind speed and direction while the SAS sniper carefully lined up the shot and fired one round. The ISIL leader in the chest, taking one arm off and, after a few seconds, when the sound of the shot caught up with the impact, his audience of ISIL subordinates realized they were under fire and scattered. The ISIL leader was on a “capture or kill” list because he was responsible for a growing list of atrocities (mass killings of civilians for refusing to cooperate).
The last time an M2 machine-gun was used for a shot like this was in 1967. In other words, such long distance sniper kills are a relatively recent phenomenon. For several decades the longest such shot was the 1967 incident when a veteran U.S. Marine Corps shooter rigged a similar M2 machine-gun with a sniper scope and used it to hit distant targets. His longest verified kill with this rig was 2,250 meters. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the .50 caliber (12.7mm) sniper rifle was developed and early users quickly demonstrated that it would be possible to regularly make accurate shots at individuals more than 2,000 meters away using this rifle. It was another Canadian sniper using one of the new 12.7mm rifles in Afghanistan who broke the 1967 record with a 2,400 meter shot. But doing it with a somewhat less accurate M2 machine-gun was rarely even attempted because there are so many 12.7mm sniper rifles available and these rifles are designed to be capable of extraordinary long shots. But the 12.7mm rifles are heavier and many sniper missions require a lot of walking to reach a shooting position and if the expected targets are not at extreme ranges there are lighter sniper rifles available that are accurate out to a thousand meter. But for the longest shots, nothing beats 12.7mm.
For example, in May 2017 another sniper distance record was set when a Canadian sniper in Iraq killed an ISIL fighter at a distance of 3,540 meters using a TAC50 12.7mm sniper rifle. There was a certain amount of luck in a shot that far because the 12.7mm sniper rifle was designed to be reliable accurate at up to 2,500 meters. Anything beyond that depends on a high degree of skill and experience, and a certain amount of luck. Canada was not officially fighting on the ground in Iraq at the time and Canadian special operations troops were there to train and advise their Iraqi counterparts. This normally involved things like calling in air strikes or, for snipers, providing overwatch (looking for enemy ambushes, hidden bombs or snipers). Sniper teams often do this over a great distance because they are accustomed to watching for targets about to come within range of their rifles. In this case, the sniper saw ISIL getting into position to attacks some troops the Canadians were supporting. The long shot disrupted an ISIL ambush that would have killed Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
The modern sniper was made possible by new technology and necessity and it happened in stages. In the 1880s hunters and soldiers began abandoning single shot, black powder rifles for newly developed smokeless powder. By the end of the 19th century smokeless powder rifles (and pistols) were the military standard and that marked the beginning of a trend of technical and tactical changes that made sniping deadlier (more accurate and at longer ranges) and more common. Even before World War I (1914-1918) soldiers and civilian hunters were demonstrating how to regularly hit man size targets several hundred meters distant by taking advantage of the new smokeless powder.
Sniping did not start with smokeless powder. Hundreds of years earlier hunters worldwide quickly noted the superiority of gunpowder weapons and eagerly sought them. One of the misconceptions of American Indians eager to obtain black powder muskets and rifles was that they were not interested in accurate long-range shots. Actually, they were and for very practical reasons. The media (and historian) misconception was caused by that fact that the Indian style of warfare emphasized getting close and killing your human foe with a handheld weapon. Gunpowder weapons were for hunting game and Indians preferred using their muskets and rifles for that because these weapons were much more effective than bows or spears. It was a simple matter of physics. Indians knew the importance of sneaking up on big game (deer, elk, buffalo) to be close enough (under 50 meters) to get that one shot that would hit the prey before it could run away. But a musket or rifled musket ball (typically over 14mm in diameter) hit with far more damaging impact than an arrow or spear. Primitive bows (usually less than a third the power of European longbows or the eastern compound bow) had sharpened stone arrowheads and rarely achieved a kill shot, whereas a musket ball almost always did. Chasing a wounded deer or antelope was hard work, dangerous and often futile. Indians soon enjoyed a much improved diet by using firearms rather than traditional weapons to hunt big game. Even into the 20th century tribal hunters all over the world still treasure World War I era military surplus bolt action rifles using smokeless powder bullets that can bring down big game several hundred meters distant. This tradition of accurate long-range shooting was popular throughout the Americas and a major reason why, when nations like the U.S. and Canada went to war with largely conscript armies the infantry commanders knew to seek out who the best shots were and assign them to sniper (or “sharpshooter”) duty.
Americans early on adopted the practice of using expert shooters (with black powder muskets or longer range rifled muskets) to aim for the enemy officers and sergeants in order to disrupt the professional troops they faced during the Colonial wars, the revolution and ever since. European armies saw this as dishonorable until they gradually adopted it themselves. Thus snipers were, early on, seen as a disruptive use of precision firepower. Shooting the enemy leaders or constantly threatening enemy troops with sniper fire became more common as the sniper rifles, associated technology and training techniques became more effective and common.
The current use of a “sniper team” was standard practice in the U.S. Army during World War II. Back then the infantry training manuals advised using expert shooters (armed with older, bolt action rifles equipped with a scope) in pairs with the two shooters finding a good location to shoot from and then taking turns manning their rifle while the other used a pair of binoculars to seek out targets and direct the shooter. This was the origin of the spotter and shooter system. Like most infantry tactics it was developed by civilian hunters seeking big game that was hard to sneak up on. One hunter would use binoculars to scan an area where the animals were known to congregate or travel through while the shooter used a rifle with or without a scope to make the shot when the opportunity arose.
During the Korean War (1950-53), American division commanders created "Ranger Companies," composed of their most skilled trackers and scouts, who also tended to be expert marksmen. These rangers were disbanded after Korea but were revived in Vietnam, in the form of LRRPs (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) and other specialized units. After Vietnam, the Ranger Regiment was created, but as a force of elite light infantry, not scouts. More of these ranger type skills were taught to all troops, but not in a concentrated enough way to make a difference and special operations troops were expected to have sniper skills and typically use single shots in combat, even when equipped with assault rifles that can fire on full automatic (like a machine-gun). The U.S. Army Special Forces emphasized sniper skills and the U.S. Navy SEALs and British commandos considered sniper skills essential. The U.S. Marine Corps established small "Scout-Sniper" units, and utilized both these skills to both find the enemy, and kill them if necessary.
Sniper rifle accessories were available from the beginning. Even before smokeless powder arrived there were primitive sniper scopes and by the late 19th century, when most rifles used metallic cartridges, expert shooters found it worthwhile to pay more for cartridges loaded with uniform loads of higher quality black powder. This uniformity of propellant became standard with the introduction of smokeless powder and expert snipers again found it useful to pay more for better quality rifle rounds (“hand loaded” by an expert using higher quality, and more expensive, materials in consistent quantities).
By the end of the 20th century more powerful and better quality rifle scopes were widely available and after 2001 there came more and more electronically enhanced scopes. By 2010 it became possible to build computerized scopes. In 2014 the U.S. Army tested some XS1 computerized shooting systems. These were expensive (up to $27,000 each) but if they could operate effectively under combat conditions they would be worthwhile. These scopes used sensors and computerized calculations to the extent that over 70 percent of first-time users could hit a target over 900 meters distant with the first shot. For a professional sniper, first shot success averages about 25 percent and 70 percent on the second shot. Second shots are not always possible as the target tends to duck after the first one. The army tested the XS1 and found the concept worked and went about transferring the system to a military sniper rifle. The major obstacle was the wear and tear of battlefield use. But snipers are trained to take good care of their rifles, scopes and the growing number of electronic gadgets they now use. The XS1 and similar systems continue to be evaluated and gradually the technology they use is being transferred to military weapons.
In 2014 the XS1 with the bipod, loaded and with the scope, weighed 9.25 kg (20.4 pounds). It is bolt action rifle with a five round magazine and fires the .338 Lapua Magnum (a longer range 8.6mm round already widely used by snipers). It has a folding stock and is 1.26 meters unfolded and 1.12 meters folded. The fire control system on the rifle collects much information (target imagery, atmospheric conditions, cant, inclination, Coriolis Effect) but the shooter still has to estimate wind velocity and direction. The scope incorporates a display that tells the shooter how to move the rifle to hit the distant target that has been selected and when to pull the trigger. The rifle actually fires only when it is properly lined up. By 2014 the manufacturer has sold nearly a thousand of these rifles so far, mainly to wealthy hunters who don’t like to miss.
Initial results of the U.S. Army testing found that soldiers who had gone through standard military rifle training would get hits on the first shot 90 percent of the time when using the XS1. In the hands of trained snipers, it’s closer to 100 percent of the time. Trained snipers are very effective, but the XS1 and its technology could provide snipers and regular troops the ability to get that all-important first shot on target over 90 percent of the times. Sometimes there are targets that require that because, as any sniper knows, if the target notices the first shot he will often duck fast enough to avoid the more accurate second shot following several seconds after the first.
Unfortunately, the XS1 rifle was ahead of its time. The XS1 and its “smart scope” system turned out to be very high maintenance. When it worked it worked very well and as advertised. But often the XS1 didn’t work at all and the rifle was useless. The reliability problem did not appear immediately but when it did the manufacturer was unable to come up with a long-term fix. The manufacturer had to suspend operations in 2015 to revise the design and manufacturing of their ”smart scope” rifles and were back in business within a year. The rifles are now reliable enough for affluent hunters but not yet rugged enough for combat operations. The manufacturer says it is only a matter of time and they are probably right because that is how tech has developed, especially over the last two centuries. For the moment the best snipers are those who are well trained and experienced, not the ones with the computerized aiming systems.
Other sniper innovations involve better training techniques to provide new snipers with the needed skills at handling stalking, firing in limited visibility situations and, in emergencies rapid fire engagements. Computer-based shooting ranges have proved very useful in this regard.
Since 2001 American soldiers and marines have greatly increased their use of snipers and the success of this move spread to other countries. The more aggressive use of snipers in that period is one of many changes in ground combat. In that time, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, infantry tactics have changed considerably. This has largely gone unnoticed back home unless you happen to know an old soldier or marine that remembers the old style of shooting. Put simply, the emphasis is on a lot fewer bullets fired and much more accurate shooting. Elite forces, like the Special Forces and SEALs, have always operated this way. But that's because they had the skill, and opportunity to train frequently, to make it work. The army and marines have found that their troops can fight the same way with the help of some new weapons, equipment, and tactics, plus lots of combat experience and specialized training. This includes the use of new shooting simulators, which allows troops to fire a lot of virtual bullets in a realistic setting, without all the hassle and expense of going to a firing range.
One thing that helped, and that was developing for two decades, was the greater use of snipers. Currently, about ten percent of American infantry are trained and equipped as snipers. Commanders have found that filling the battlefield with two-man (spotter and shooter) sniper teams not only provides more intelligence, but also a lot of precision firepower. Snipers are better at finding the enemy and killing them with a minimum of noise and fuss. New rifle sights (both day and night types) have made all infantry capable of accurate, single shot, fire. With the emphasis on keeping civilian casualties down, and the tendency of the enemy to use civilians as human shields, lots of snipers, or infantrymen who can take an accurate shot at typical battle ranges (under 100 meters), are the best way to win without killing a lot of civilians.
New sniper equipment has made a big difference. Since 2001 the U.S. Army has issued several new sniper rifles. These include both bolt action and semi-automatic rifles as well as a wider variety of calibers and special long-range rounds. Many snipers have had adopted more powerful rounds (like the .338 Lapua Magnum and the .300 Magnum) and ever more useful accessories. Several sniper rifle models were modified to handle the longer range rounds.
Previously, many snipers have had success using tuned up M-14s (from the 1960s) as sniper rifles. While semi-automatic and rugged, the M14 wasn't designed to be a sniper rifle. The AR-10 was a better model for a semi-automatic sniper rifle, since it is inherently more reliable and accurate. As far back as World War II it was known that there were many situations where a semi-automatic sniper rifle would come in handy. But it's taken over half a century to solve the reliability and accuracy problems. That effort continues with the new computerized scopes and other electronic shooting accessories.