The art of sniping developed from the sharpshooting practiced during earlier conflicts. During the 19th century, the steadily improving technology of the rifle led to the use of sharpshooters during the American Civil War and the Boer War. However, it was during World War I that sniping progressed from simply a good marksman picking choice targets to the systematic use of selected men, trained and equipped with highly accurate rifles, telescopic sights, and high-grade ammunition, who engage high-value targets with single shots, usually at long range.
As is so often the case, immediately after World War I ended most of the protagonists discarded the skills and wisdom they had so painstakingly acquired, considering them no more than adjuncts of a type of warfare in the trenches that they dearly wished to forget. The British in particular, having taken a long time to recognize the potential for organized sniping, had been among its best practitioners by 1918 but were nevertheless swift to forget all they had learned. During the interwar period, little development took place. Although there was ad hoc sniping on both sides during the Spanish Civil War, it was Soviet advisers to the Republican side who chose to consider it further when they returned to the Soviet Union and introduced programs to the Red Army to augment existing civilian rifle shooting schemes. When World War II began, a new style of warfare was introduced; it was capable of swift and extensive movement and created very different battlefield conditions in a variety of theaters worldwide. In these conditions, the art of the sniper could be adapted to produce an effective weapon.
The German Army retained sniping as a specialization between the wars but showed little enthusiasm for its pursuit. In the opening campaigns in Poland and the West, the Germans moved so rapidly that there was no real opportunity for snipers to demonstrate their value. It was not until later in the campaign against the Soviet Union, after Soviet snipers had demonstrated their worth, that the German Army caught up. The British Army had been totally remiss in its attention to the skills it had done so much to develop previously. In 1942, sniping instructor Lt. Col. N.A.D. Armstrong commented on the attitude prevailing between the wars: “There appeared to be a tendency amongst Army musketry men to scorn the sniper—they held that sniping was only a ‘phenomenon’ of trench warfare and would be unlikely to occur again.”
Although training manuals still covered sniping, little was done at battalion level to maintain and encourage it until the retraining programs that followed the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. However, British snipers were engaged in Norway and France during 1940.
Edgar Rabbets was a soldier in the 5th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, a Territorial Army unit. A country man from Boston in Lincolnshire, he was capable of catching a rabbit in his hands. When his unit was deployed to France he was appointed as a company sniper and given complete freedom of action to engage enemy snipers and high-value targets. By choice, he worked alone, although the common practice is for snipers to work in pairs.
During the retreat to Dunkirk, Rabbets was ordered forward to eliminate a German sniper operating in a Belgian village. According to Rabbets, “The sniper had got himself up in a roof and knocked a few slates away. He’d got a good field of fire if anyone walked into the square; he was roughly in the centre of one side of the square and his mate was in the corner. And they covered the whole square that way, the one effectively protecting the other.”
After the sniper had fired at a British officer entering the square, Rabbets found out “roughly where the flash had come from and went into a house opposite. The sniper was hanging out of the roof; I shot him from the bedroom window and he fell forward.” The observer fired blindly at Rabbets, thus revealing his own position. Rabbets was “firing deep from out of the bedroom window, and I wasn’t exposed to view. He assumed wrongly that I was a lot nearer to the bedroom window than I was. And he gave himself away, so that was his lot.”
Rabbets was an excellent marksman, capable of a first-round hit at 400 yards with the standard .303 Lee-Enfield rifle. But his outstanding fieldcraft, which may be generally defined as the use of camouflage and concealment, enabled him to close with the enemy and improve his chances of success. He also combined shooting with intelligence gathering, his freedom to roam giving him access to important information. He later wrote, “One day I went out and found a German military policeman standing at a crossroads; the only reason they stand at a crossroads is to direct a unit into a new position. I wanted to know what he was doing, so I crawled to within 150 yards range. He gave himself away by continually looking up the road to where he expected the unit to come from, and because there was only one direction to our lines, I knew roughly where they were going to. I shot him and then bundled him out of the way so that when the enemy got to the crossroads they wouldn’t know where they were going. Then I went back to my unit to give them this intelligence.”
Sniping began to take on greater significance after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Red Army had been practically the only army in the world to actively encourage sniping during the 1930s, and this had received added impetus from experience during the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish conflict. The Finns had seriously embarrassed the numerically superior Soviets, particularly showing great prowess with sniping. Many of them were hunters and naturally adept at the military application of their sport. Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter who went out to “hunt Russians.” He claimed more than 500 before being seriously wounded, and the hard lessons were not lost on the Soviets. They actively encouraged sniping and incorporated it into their infantry tactics. Their definition was broader than that of the West, tending to include general sharpshooting. They operated in pairs, and at low tactical levels, often being assigned to companies or even platoons, with junior officers experienced in handling them.
Russia’s Most Famous Sniper, Vasili Zaitsev, Claimed Over 100 Kills in Just 2 Months During the War
During the first two years of the war, the Soviets were largely on the defensive except for localized counterattacks. Snipers would be deployed forward of main defensive positions to engage reconnaissance patrols, artillery observation officers, and generally to delay enemy movement. Soviet snipers really came into their own during the battle for Stalingrad, where the ruins of the city provided excellent conditions for their operation. Snipers operated in front of their own lines, often for days at a time and completely isolated from their comrades despite being only a few hundred yards away from them. During daylight, they were often compelled to remain perfectly motionless. They suffered all the discomforts of the infantry soldier, often multiplied by the situations their specialized role required. Not only hungry and thirsty, they might be forced to urinate and defecate where they lay in order not to give away their positions.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, top Soviet snipers came to prominence. The most famous was Vasili Zaitsev, formerly a hunter in the Urals and a noted sniper before the battle, having claimed over 100 kills between August and October 1942. He founded a sniper school whose students received a two-day course before being sent into the ruined city to hunt Germans. Zaitsev became something of a celebrity, and his appearance in Soviet newspapers led the Germans to send for the chief instructor of the sniper school at Zossen near Berlin. A more personal contest could not occur in war. When some of the best Soviet snipers were killed by a rifle obviously fitted with a telescopic sight, Zaitsev knew he was up against a “Nazi super-sniper,” and set out to finish it one way or the other. He set off with his spotter, Nikolai Kulikov, and roamed the city for several days until he discovered a ruse that had obviously been set up to trap a Soviet sniper.
Zaitsev remembered, “Between the tank and the pillbox, on a stretch of level ground, lay a sheet of metal and a small pile of broken bricks. It had been lying there a long time and we had grown accustomed to it being there. I put myself in the enemy’s position and thought— where better for a sniper? One had only to make a firing slit in the sheet of metal and creep up to it during the night.”
Zaitsev was convinced, and when he carefully raised a false target, the German put a bullet clean through the middle. “Now came the question of luring even a part of his head into my sights … We worked by night and were in position by dawn. The sun rose. Kulikov took a blind shot; we had to rouse the sniper’s curiosity. We had decided to spend the morning waiting, as we might have been given away by the sun on our telescopic sights. After lunch, our rifles were in the shade and the sun was shining on the German’s position … Kulikov carefully—as only the most experienced can do— began to raise his helmet. The German fired. For a fraction of a second Kulikov rose and screamed. The German believed that he had finally gotten the Soviet sniper he had been hunting for four days and half raised his head from beneath the sheet of metal. That was what I had been banking on. I took careful aim. The German’s head fell back, and the telescopic sight of his rifle lay motionless, glittering in the sun….”