Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Sniper. Sharpshooter. Marksman. Words that bring to mind the image of a lone gunman highly trained in tracking, concealment, and observation, on the hunt for a human target.


The term sniper emerged in the late 18th century when British officers in India sent letters back home referring to a day of shooting as "going out sniping." 

The snipe is a small and fast game bird that dips, dives, and twists, creating an erratic flight path making it difficult to hit. Only the most highly skilled individuals, using flintlock guns, were able to to bring down a snipe.

The term snipe shooting soon gave way to sniping. Eventually the term sniper was bestowed on soldiers who demonstrated precision shooting. But, they were  called marksmen or sharpshooters, never snipers. The term, however, seemed to gather momentum in the press during the early months of World War I. 

Training for the role of a military sniper was demanding. In addition to pinpoint marksmanship, contemporary snipers had to develop proficiency in core skills as  tracking, concealment, and observation. The most important skill was  accuracy. Snipers today travel in two-man teams--a shooter and a spotter--although it's believed the Confederacy utilized some two-man units.

A novel I'm writing - The Deadly Gray Dawn - features a former Civil War sharpshooter as one of the antagonists. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Four:

        In the smoky-gray dawn of the following morning, a man sat atop a plateau, his back against a giant boulder. Elbows braced on his knees, he peered through a pair of field glasses trained on the entrance to a distant cave.  He watched and waited, his Sharps rifle within arm's length.
        A former member of the Union Army’s sharpshooter corps, the gunman’s quick-thinking and eagle-eyed vision ranked him among the most lethal assassins in the infantry. His missions involved long-range killing of high-visibility targets—mostly Confederate officers. Long hours on the shooting range perfecting his marksmanship and learning to calculate distances with pinpoint accuracy helped mold him into a weapon of tactical and psychological advantage.
        An icy breeze washed across the high ground and he tugged the collar of his coat tighter around his neck. In the distance, a sliver of sunlight stretched across the horizon. 
        It puzzled him how anyone managed to find access to the cave. He guessed the prospectors wandered off the main trail seeking refuge from the storm and discovered it by accident, or maybe desperation.
        He came across the prospectors’ camp a couple of days ago and found it abandoned, but hid in the underbrush awaiting their return. Judging from the paraphernalia scattered about, there were three of them. The sudden storm apparently delayed their return, He  decided to trail them, a game he often played to hone his tracking skills. The one thing he missed about war was the hunt. And, of course, the kill.
        Not many knew this area like he did. If it weren’t for what looked like a felt hat he spotted on the ledge a few feet from the entrance, he’d have no reason to believe they found the place. A stroke of luck, to be sure.  It’s doubtful they'd simply sit and wait for the weather to clear. Prospectors explore. If they explored deep enough, they’d no doubt make a tempting discovery.
        Moments later, he spotted movement. Adjusting the field glasses, he saw two men crawl outside, stand up, and scan the sky. No sign of the burlap bags that he was told held the gold. It would be too risky for them to haul them off under these conditions, anyway. Chances were they’d return after the spring thaw. Of course, there was an outside chance they hadn’t found anything. But he wasn’t being paid to make guesses. His livelihood depended on immediate and decisive action.
     Retrieving the Sharps, he stretched out on the cold, rocky mesa and poked the long barrel through an opening he created in a stack of large stones. He rested the barrel on a small bag of sand and braced the stock against his right shoulder. Squinting through the iron blade front sight, he estimated the distance at about a hundred yards. Far closer than the distances he usually shot from during the war.
     “Stay in the rifle,” he whispered to himself, a reminder to keep his head down and stay connected to the stock through the shots and the recoils. Slowing his breathing, he cleared his mind, visualizing only the impact of the bullets. He squeezed the trigger back to the rear once, and then again—two shots in less than ten seconds...

In the War Between the States, each side relied on these highly-skilled marksmen, but in different strategic ways. 

The Confederate Army fielded sharpshooters in a more flexible manner than the North. They often served as semi-permanent detachments at the regimental level, assigned to larger formations. Rather than the breech-loading Sharps rifle preferred by Union marksmen. Rebel shooters used the Enfield Rifled Musket, or British Whitworth Rifles.

The Whitworth, designed by British engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth, featured twisted hexagonal barrels instead of traditional round rifled barrels. The Whitworth was considered more accurate than that Pattern 1853 Enfield. 

In test firings, the Whitworth design outperformed the Enfield by hitting targets at a range of two-thousand yards compared to the Enfield's fourteen-hundred yards.

According to Author Fred L. Ray, in his book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, wrote that “Confederate sharpshooter battalions had a far greater effect on the outcome of the conflict."

One of the most feared and effective marksmen in the Civil War was a man named Jack Hinson.

A horrific event in the Autumn of 1862 transformed this once quiet, 60-year old tobacco farmer into a feared Confederate avenger after a patrol of Union soldiers arrested his two sons, ages 17 and 22. 

Despite their denials, the young men were branded Confederate guerrillas, known as bushwhackers, lashed to a tree, executed by firing squad, and then beheaded.

The patrol made its way to the Hinson plantation, summoned the family outside and mounted the decapitated heads of the sons on the gate-posts to the home.

Hinson eventually put his mourning aside and made arrangements for the design and manufacture of a specially-crafted sniper rifle. The expert marksman and savvy woodsman began waging a withering, personal, one-man war of vengeance on Union troops.

Hinson held the upper hand because of his familiarity with the Tennessee terrain, the river channels, the hills, and the valleys. Much of his wrath focused on the Bluecoat cavalrymen of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry Regiment that executed his sons.

According to Tom McKenney, in his book, Jack Hinson’s One-Man War, A Civil War Sniper, Hinson likely killed more than a hundred Union soldiers, mariners, and officers mostly along the Tennessee River in Benton and Stewart counties. His actual rifle, however, bore 36 notches.

In response to the Confederate dominance of the skirmish line, the Federals began to organize their own sharpshooter units at division level under the guidance of Colonel Hiram Berdan. 

A New York City mechanical engineer, Berdan earned the reputation of the top rifle shot in the country for fifteen years in a row. The politically-connected self-made millionaire was credited with inventing a repeating rifle, a patented musket ball, a twin-screw submarine gunboat, and a torpedo boat.

Berdan's weapon-of-choice was the Sharps Rifle, designed by Christian Sharps. In 1848, he patented his design for a four-foot-long Sharps Breechloading Rifle. President Abraham Lincoln personally authorized twenty Sharpshooter companies. 

The term sharpshooter wasn't based on the name of the rifle. The term had been used in America for decades before the Sharps rifle was ever developed.  

When the war ended, the Sharps rifle maintained its popularity. 

In fact, because of its power and long-range accuracy, it became the preferred weapon of professional buffalo hunters, frontiersman, and US troops throughout the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest.

Berdan's Sharpshooters were often chosen for special battlefield assignments targeting high-value targets, such as Confederate officers. 

But they also supported combat units, conducted reconnaissance, and monitored retreats. 

Berdan's Sharpshooters usually wore distinctive green uniforms, a green forage cap with a black ostrich feather, and black leather brogan shoes which enabled them to blend into the foliage they used for camouflage. 

The special uniform proved an advantage and a disadvantage. The green color gave the sharpshooters the clear advantage of camouflage. But, the green color made it easier for Confederates to spot them. 

Qualifying to become a Berdan Sharpshooter required a high level of demonstrated skill. 

The challenge called for the candidate to place ten consecutive shots in a circle of ten inches in diameter from a distance of 100-yards, and an additional ten rounds from 200-yards away. 

Recruits who missed the targets or averaged more than five inches from the center, were disqualified.

The results determined whether the infantryman had the skill required to qualify for an elite unit of crack riflemen for the Union Army.

The South considered the Berdan Sharpshooters high-priority kills.

Being a Berdan Sharpshooter proved a risky venture. Because of their marksmanship capabilities, sharpshooters were usually positioned far in front of the main body of Union troops and, as a result, made the initial with the enemy. Berdan’s force reportedly, “inflicted more casualties upon the enemy than any other unit in the Civil War.” Their key targets included officers, guides, scouts, spies, and other sharpshooters.

But success came at a steep price. 

Even though they got credit for a higher percentage of kills than any other unit in the war, they also suffered the highest casualties. In 1863, for example, the Sharpshooters fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Mine Run Campaign, suffering significant casualties.

Of the original 33 commissioned officers and 981 enlisted men in the First Regiment, only 11 officers and 261 enlisted men survived at year’s end.

The Sharpshooters represented the forerunner of the now-familiar concept of special forces.

* * * 


  1. Very interesting anf informative. Makes one want to dig in and know even more. Thanks Doris

  2. Tom,

    Absolutely and categorically an outstanding piece of writing and a fantastic article!

    As always, your prolific writing skills make the day!


  3. Thanks so much, Charlie. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. Fascinating information, Tom - thanks for a great post!

    1. You're welcome. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Thanks for this info, Tom! I especially appreciate your confirmation of what I thought I knew about Yankees and Sharps. That tidbit plays a role in my WIP.

    Question: How come you didn't go into Southern sharpshooters in more detail? Texans didn't take kindly to Union sympathizers, you know. ;-)

    I'm looking forward to reading The Deadly Gray Dawn. Hurry up with it. :-)

    1. Kathleen- Far be it from me to shortchange Southern sharpshooters. Maybe I should have presented this a two-part series: one Blue and the other Gray.