The Difference Between a Sniper and a Sharpshooter

There have been many movies made in the last 20 years that portray “snipers,” especially movies based on books. In short, they define a sniper as someone who makes accurate shots with a scoped rifle.

Marine Corps sniper team, Khe Sanh Valley 1968
Marine Corps sniper team, Khe Sanh Valley 1968

Teaching anyone to shoot accurately isn’t hard. That’s why there are plenty of people who can shoot long distances from inside a building or on top of roof and hit a target standing in the open- they’re called designated marksman and sharpshooters. In reality, a true sniper is defined by his mastery of field craft.

What is field craft? Field craft is the application of patrolling fundamentals combined with the use of micro and macro terrain to gain an advantageous position on the enemy. It is one of the most basic aspects of operating in enemy terrain, but is mastered by few.

French Foreign Legion snipers using the Hecate II (front) and the FR-F2 (back) in Afghanistan
French Foreign Legion snipers using the Hecate II (front) and the FR-F2 (back) in Afghanistan

I would like to focus on a movie that portrays this field craft-“Sniper,” starring Tom Berenger. Yes, it has flaws like all movies. My platoon members liked to make fun of the movie because it portrayed lingo and techniques not taught in the Marine Corps Sniper course taught at the time. What they failed to appreciate was the field craft shown in the movie. I’ll give examples, but to place things in context, I’ll highlight a couple quotes from the movie first.

1)      “It’s an outcast profession. Their idea of combat is tearing up the countryside with heavy artillery and millions of rounds. We’ll wait days for one shot, one kill. Well, l guess it’s a different version of war. There’s a lot of them and just a few of us.”

To most staff NCO’s and officers, Marine snipers are considered “cowboys” who have long hair, don’t adhere to Marine Corps regulations, and break most of the rules imposed on regular grunts. They’re right. Because surviving inside enemy territory with only 2 men, a couple of rifles and pistols, and limited rations requires snipers to operate differently than regular grunts.

  • “Such gung-ho bulls&^*! Without the specifics, it’s a suicide mission! They all are! l wouldn’t be out here unless l was ready to die!”

Going into enemy territory with only 2 men, a couple of rifles and pistols, and limited rations while the enemy has fully automatic rifles, machine guns, RPG’s, superior numbers, and a deep understanding of the terrain, a sniper expects that each mission will be his last. He understands that the only thing that will keep him alive is a mastery of field craft.

An Australian sniper aims a periscope-equipped rifle at Gallipoli in 1915. The spotter beside him is helping to find targets with his own periscope. Photo by Ernest Brooks.
An Australian sniper aims a periscope-equipped rifle at Gallipoli in 1915. The spotter beside him is helping to find targets with his own periscope. Photo by Ernest Brooks.

Now to field craft. In the beginning scene, you see two snipers wearing ghillie suits. After taking the shot they crawl away, but it’s not the standard crawl. You see Master Gunnery Sergeant Beckett’s spotter using the skull drag? What’s the skull drag? The skull drag requires the sniper to lay his face on the ground and pull with his fingers or arms while letting his legs drag behind with the insides of his boots hugging the ground. Why is this important? Because a basic tenet of field craft is not being observed. In order to accomplish this while under the gaze of the enemy, the sniper has to become part of the ground and allow no part of his body to elevate itself above the existing foliage or terrain.

Next, retrieving the bullet casing after the round is fired. Whenever Beckett takes a single shot, he ejects his casing into his hand and holds on to it. Why? Because a bullet casing is a target indicator. A target indicator is anything a sniper does or fails to do that reveals his passage, presence, or position to the enemy. He uses this principle later in the movie to draw in the enemy sniper and take him out by purposely leaving behind a wrapper to let the enemy know where he will be.

In another scene, Beckett’s spotter falls down a hillside into the water. When he hits the water, he keeps his rifle extended above his head and out of the water. A sniper’s rifle is an extension of his own body. At all time’s he keeps it safe and functioning. Even when falling down he must always protect his rifle.

Throughout the movie, Beckett and his spotters use hand and arms signals to communicate. One of the most important aspects of field craft is being able to communicate without being heard. When in enemy territory, the sniper must always expect that the enemy is near, but not seen. In order to prevent detection, he must communicate with his spotter using hand and arm signals to avoid being heard. It requires extreme discipline and complete understanding on the part of all team members and is often taken for granted and underutilized.

US Marine telescopic sight picture during high-angle marksmanship training.
US Marine telescopic sight picture during high-angle marksmanship training.

In another scene, Beckett observes the enemy spotter maneuvering to intercept them. While moving, the enemy sniper utilizes the military crest of hill. The military crest is just below the top of the hill or ridge. When patrolling, using this technique is extremely important. In addition to not exposing the sniper’s silhouette against the skyline, it enables the sniper to blend in with the hillside while maintaining the high ground  and avoiding the most obvious path of travel.

One final example. Towards the end of the movie, Beckett tells his spotter to take his shot at the exact same time that he takes his shot. This is a technique emphasized during training, the importance and effectiveness of which was described to my sniper class by a former member Rhodesian SAS member who utilized it with great effect in Zimbabwe against rebels. Even if the sniper and his shot aren’t seen by the enemy, the sound of the round going off will tell the enemy the general direction and distance of the sniper. When multiple snipers fire at the same time from different locations, the two sounds will merge and prevent the enemy from being able to discern the directions and distances from which they came.IMG_5264

These were only a few examples of field craft, but they are effective in highlighting the difference between a sniper and a designated marksman or sharpshooter.

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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By Matt Victoriano

Matt served as a Marine Scout/Sniper Chief Scout and Team Leader from 2000-2004. During 2003, he participated in the invasion of Iraq and returned one year later to conduct operations in Al Anbar and Babylon provinces. Since leaving the Marines, Mr. Victoriano has stayed current on national security and foreign policy issues through training, research, and consulting with various organizations and businesses. Recently, he was recognized as a White House Champion of Change through his work on veterans issues. He currently owns Intrepid Life, a veterans-based business that teaches leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking through interactive escape & rescue games that integrate real life scenarios and specialized military skill sets.

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