question about snipers "back in the day"


February 26, 2009, 11:59 PM
The modern sniper or police sharpshooter has high-quality optics, laser rangefinders, and ballistics calculators to remove some of the guesswork inherent in taking long-range shots. However, these technologies were simply not around in the world wars. Yet, snipers would take 1,000-yard shots from the trenches in WW1 and proved exceptionally lethal in WW2 battles such as Dunkirk, Stalingrad, Normandy, etc.

How were they able to accurately place extreme-range shots without modern technology? Was it guesswork, and was the shot/kill ratio much poorer back then?

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February 27, 2009, 12:03 AM
I'm not an expert, but from what I've read on the subject, and from what the military still does, I'd fully expect they made "range cards" noting their adjustments for different landmarks.

Given the static nature of trench warfare, it'd be quite doable to shoot some practice rounds from one position at a few given targets, record your settings, and refer back to those later. Then if you were, say, in the bush below the old mill, and saw a German MG crew crawling past the well by the bend in the road, you'd refer to your drawing, say "okay, I go to my 800m setting for this shot" and open fire.

I don't have the book handy, but A Rifleman Went to War is a great book on WWI sniping, highly worth reading.

EDIT: Here's a modern range card for example:

February 27, 2009, 12:08 AM
thats pretty damn fascinating about the trench guys! whats the book?

February 27, 2009, 12:46 AM

a Top "U" Notch 2850 yards
b "U" Notch 1400 to 2750 yards
c Battle Sight Notch 400 to 530 yards
d Bottom Sight Notch 100 to 2450 yards
e Peep Sight 100 to 2350 yards
f Windage Scale Eleven per side (each marking equals 4 minute of angle at 100 yards)

Then, it is simply a matter of knowing what range you are firing at.

The sharp shooters simply were very good triggermen AND very good at estimating distance

Zak Smith
February 27, 2009, 01:09 AM
WWI and prior rifle battles were about volley fire. If you know the enemy is 1200 yards away, standing more or less in a row, you have your guys slide their rear sights up to 1200 and start firing.

I'd be very interested to hear about commonplace long-range shots from that era.

Remember that still today, NRA long-range shooters use iron sights to shoot at 1000 yards... yes, the target is like 6' in diameter, though.

You'd be surprised how little magnification and optical clarity one needs to make a shot-- more important is simply the ability to spec the holdover repeatably.

February 27, 2009, 01:13 AM
Possibly the best book on the subject has already been mentioned: "A Rifleman Went to War" by Herbert W. McBride. Used copies are easily found on the internet or

Another book worth reading is by a WW2 German sniper named Joseph "Sepp" Allerberger who won the Knight's Cross on the Eastern Front and is acknowledged as the second highest scoring German sniper. It's a relatively new book as Allerberger refused to discuss his service for many years. The book is "Sniper on the Eastern Front" and co-written by Albrecht Wacker.

One thing is clear from these accounts; the 1,000 yard shot is the exception and most snipers are as much field craftsmen as they are good shots. They don't take long shots unless there's no other way. They're also cautious and smart about their shots. Today's sniper may take longer shots but they are working with much improved equipment and training.

Keep in mind that not all countries use snipers in the same manner or for the same purpose all the time. Soviet/Russian doctrine uses the less accurate (than our bolt action rifles) semi-auto Dragunov more as a long range suppressing weapon than as a pin-point killer. At least that's my understanding of it.

Zak Smith
February 27, 2009, 01:17 AM
Also note that 50+ years ago, "ballistic calculators" were room-fulls of people with slide rules, working out the tables by hand, which were then collected and published.

February 27, 2009, 01:17 AM
What the Russians call a sniper is closer to what we call a "designated marksman". He'll be attached to a unit and meant to engage targets to around 800M.

February 27, 2009, 02:27 AM
Glad more folks have read McBride, really cool stuff.

Along the lines of ranging your targets, registering fires, etc., had one neat little anecdote from the book.

McBride explained that, in static trench warfare, most major landmarks were "registered" for artillery. That is, a given battery had worked up all the numbers to hit Point A pretty squarely on the first shot, in their copious free time stuck in one location for weeks on end.

That meant that firing from a landmark was pretty dumb, so McBride mentioned that snipers liked to fire from an unobtrusive point near a landmark. For example, find a tiny little divot in a field just outside the old farmhouse, crawl into it at night. The next morning, take a couple shots, kill a few Germans, and lie low as the artillery, assuming you to be firing from the old farmhouse, blows it to pieces. Wait until dark and crawl out again.

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