Sharpshooters

Maj. Reed Settle
3rd Regiment, Co. E, Engineers
CSA
January 2000

 

    Since the winter campaign reading seems to have focused on weapons and accuracy, I will add some interesting facts from a book I just finished on Snipers.

    In the Civil War they were referred to as ‘sharpshooters,’ not snipers. The term sniper came about after the American Civil War. While there were some very good sharpshooters in the Civil War, the combination of muzzle loader, percussion cap, black powder, and extremely heavy weighted rifles, did not allow the sharpshooters of that day to operate as our modern day snipers do.

    It is very unusual to see a correct rifle employed on a reenacting field. At most one sees someone’s misguided attempt at assembling a sharpshooters rifle. Usually this takes the form of a .58 cal Enfield or Springfield, combined with a crude attempt at a telescopic sight, positioned in the wrong location on the rifle. In fact the correct weapon choice would be a Kerr or Whitworth. “The Whitworth was a formidable piece of engineering. The iron sight was graduated up to a figure of 1200 yards, and in the knowledge that they would be used for long-range shooting, most were fitted with a 14 inch Davidson telescopic sight, offset-mounted on the left of the rifle.”

    The following are some excerpts from the book Sniper by Adrian Gilbert. A very interesting read.

    “Utilizing the same weight of bullet as the Enfield rifle (a heavy 530 grains), the Whitworth had a reduced bore size (.45 of an inch, as against the Enfield’s .577), which improved velocity and ballistic stability. This, and its superb barrel (complete with hexagonal rifling), ensured that it was exceptionally accurate. At eight hundred yards, in good conditions, the Whitworth had a mean radius of deviation of twelve inches, sufficient to ensure a reasonable chance of a successful body shot against a man standing in the open. At a range of eighteen hundred yards a Whitworth bullet still had the power to kill, and although a mean deviation of 11.62 feet made it ineffective for shooting at individuals, it was still useful as a weapon of harassment against larger targets such as gun batteries and formed-up columns of infantry and cavalry. There are several instances of hits being confirmed at ranges of fifteen hundred yards and more.”

    A soldier in General Patrick Cleburn’s Army of Tennessee described the sharpshooter’s training and their effectiveness on the battlefield:

    “The men were drilled in camp, on the march, and even on the field of battle in judging distances. They would be halted, for instance, and required to guess at the distance of a certain point ahead and then measure by steps on their way. When firing these men were never in haste; the distance of a line of men of a horse, an artillery ammunition chest, was carefully decided upon; the telescope adjusted along its arc to give the proper elevation; the gun rested against a tree, across a log, or in the fork of a rest-stick carried for the purpose. The terrible effect of such weapons, in the hands of men who had been selected, one only from each infantry brigade because of his special merit as a soldier and his skill as a marksman, can be imagined. They sent these bullets fatally 1200 yards.”

    As skilled infantrymen, sharpshooters were well versed in the tricks and stratagems of fieldcraft. When operating in wooded areas they would take appropriate measures: “[We] pin leaves all over our clothes to keep their colour from betraying us.” Sharpshooters were warned not to get within four hundred yards of the enemy, but to rely instead on their superior shooting skills and keep the enemy troops at a safe distance.

    The cost of a Whitworth was $500 vs $43 for a Sharps breech-loader, similar to a .50 Barret vs 30.06 today.

 

"The average rounds expended per kill with the M16 in Vietnam was 50,000.
Snipers averaged 1.3 rounds.
The cost difference was $2,300 vs .27 cents."

 

Sign at
"Marine Corps Scout Sniper School"
Quantico, Virginia

--Major  Reed W. Settle