Reviewed by Donald Lawie
The term “sniper” is usually misapplied in the popular press by using it to describe any person who fires at his victim from concealment. Modern Snipers by Leigh Neville sets the record straight with his detailed account of snipers in today’s world. Neville describes a modern sniper’s training, weapons and methods, the different roles of a sniper and the history of modern sniping. Remarkable stories of precision shooting are interspersed with tableaus of the lonely battlefield of snipers in Afghanistan and Iraq. A central section of Modern Snipers has 32 pages of clear colour photographs of snipers in action, perfectly illustrating the written text.
Soldiers have killed, or attempted to kill their enemies by means of firearms for hundreds of years but it was the invention of a rifled barrel in the late eighteenth century that gave longarms a measure of accuracy. Muskets of the period were inaccurate beyond a hundred metres whereas the rifle, although slower to load, could ensure a hit at ranges well beyond a smoothbore musket’s capacity.
Soldiers with a physical ability to shoot a rifle accurately became known as “sharpshooters” or “marksmen” and Neville cites instances of sharpshooting feats. A sharpshooter killed a British General at 300 yards during the American War of Independence, and a marksman ensconced in the upper yards of a French warship fired the shot that killed British Admiral Horatio Nelson (18). Telescopic sights were invented and proved their effectiveness when a ‘scope sighted rifle was used to kill, at a range of 900 metres, Union General John Sedgwick during the American Civil War (18).
Wars of the twentieth century spurred improvements in the development of rifled weapons, and such improvements have rolled into the current era. Sniper tools of today incorporate superb optical equipment for observation and aiming, and when applied to a suitable weapon, they ensure routine “hits” at over 1,000 metres. Buck Rogers-type tools, such as guided bullets and infrared sights allied to an I.R. equipped overhead drone, mean that there is nowhere to hide, day or night, from a modern sniper.
Snipers are trained at special sniper schools in every developed country and there is a deal of co-operation among members of the Western Alliance. Trainee snipers in Holland, where there are no mountains, go to California to perfect their uphill and downhill shooting (67) and there are several annual sniping contests at which snipers from many countries compete. Danish snipers play a game of “sniper golf” with a golf ball suspended from a cord in the breeze and score hits at up to 250 metres (75).
Sniper schools are rigorous; to pass the final test the trainee sniper has to not only fire accurately, but from a distance. The skills of a bushman are necessary for a sniper to move into his position and, once in place, he has to “take the shot” unobtrusively and make a hit with a single shot. Sound and muzzle blast suppressors distort and reduce these tell-tale traits of a rifle; a firm weapon rest and a knowledge of wind and weather coupled with accurate range estimation are all essential for accuracy. Even the Coriolis Effect of the planet’s rotation are taken into account in extreme long range shooting.
The Australian sniping school at Singleton rates well in Modern Snipers, as does the performance of Australian snipers in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a deserved reputation of being up there with the best. Former Australian Army Sniper Master Nathan Vinson, with 24 years of sniping experience, is cited as a worldwide authority (57). “Australian snipers were an essential part of the war against terror” (115).
Preferred sniper weapons are divided into bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles, and Neville allows the proponents of each type to put their arguments. The consensus is that different scenarios require different weapon platforms and most snipers use their favoured weapon as required. Calibres vary from 5.56 mm, 7.62 mm, .338 inch, and for extreme ranges a modern version of an 0.5 inch Browning Machine Gun (BMG).
The BMG first appeared in the latter part of World War One and was adapted to a wide range of uses including multiple systems in World War Two fighter planes. It is still in wide use by both insurgents and regular forces. Neville cites an instance of a BMG being used by Libyan terrorists after receiving it in the mail piece by piece (30).
Another venerable weapon is the .303 Short Magazine, Lee Enfield rifle. The standard British Empire infantry weapon of both world wars, a Mark III model was recovered from an Afghan sniper and used by a U.S. sniper with deadly effect: “When that .303 bullet hit them they stayed down for good” (187).
The periscopes cobbled together by the Anzacs at Gallipoli were effective but clumsy and obvious. Today’s periscopes have magnifying optics, are small and inconspicuous, collapsible and light to carry. They facilitate covert observation of a potential target, particularly when a long wait is involved such as overviewing a potential IED site. Such sites may be used and re-used by insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan and so can become a trap for themselves. Similar situations arise with suitable mortar positions. Insurgents leave a heavy mortar baseplate in position, even to the extent of cementing it in. It then takes only seconds to assemble the rest of the mortar, fire some harassing shots, then decamp, but if a sniper has the site under observation he can effectively destroy the attackers.
Snipers operate as a team of two, sometimes protected by a screen of infantry. The technique was perfected by Russian snipers in Stalingrad in 1943 when an observer guided the shooter to the target in the heavily urbanised conflict. After firing, the shooter could hold his aim while the observer watched the result and gave corrections if necessary. Today’s snipers have the most experienced as the observer and the pair usually are emplaced for an extended period. If they are detected by insurgents the usual response is for the insurgents to “swarm” the snipers, hoping to subdue them by strength of numbers. Snipers’ final defence to swarming is to carry one red flare and one fragmentation grenade: the red flare calls down an artillery barrage on his position and the grenade is for himself and to take as many attackers as possible with him. Surrender is not an option.
Sniping is a lonely profession; active service usually involves a number of soldiers working and fighting together with comrades always within sight. Fighting alone, or with just one companion is extremely stressful and snipers have a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder which affects the soldier for many years. “Killing is a squalid business”(77).
Modern Snipers debunks several popular misconceptions: in spite of what is depicted in films, it is almost impossible to shoot a weapon out of a terrorist’s hand, or to shoot them in the foot, even for a marksman. Another widespread belief is that Afghans are instinctively perfect shots, as related in tales of 19th century resistance to the British Raj. Fact: today’s Afghan insurgents are poorly fed, in poor health, and frequently suffer from impaired vision and so have to rely on fire volume rather than accuracy (104). Interdiction of supplies to the insurgents also means that they have unreliable sources of ammunition which is sometimes old and unreliable.
Reading Modern Snipers has been like opening a clear window on a facet of the wars fought by our soldiers in the 21st century. There is no defined front line, the civilians exhibit “no great allegiance to any side” (135) and any male of “fighting age” could be a bomber. Snipers operate under strict Rules of Engagement and can be charged with murder if they break those rules. They practice a craft that requires skill, patience and courage. Modern Snipers, by giving an insight into just what snipers do, will make these soldiers understood by their countrymen and, I hope, ease their eventual re-integration into civilian society.
by Leigh Neville
Osprey Publishing Great Britain
ISBN 978 1 4728 1534 7