Origins of the term, ‘sniper’


I think this is an actual photo of ‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle in action. I found it at a webpage dedicated to him, which you can see by clicking on the image. I hope it’s OK that I used it…


Since I’m a subscriber, I can’t tell whether y’all would be able to read this WSJ piece or not, but in case you can, I thought I’d share this link to a piece that was in the paper over the weekend headlined, “Hero or Killer? The Ambivalence of the Word ‘Sniper’.” It’s something I’d been wondering about, and I might not be the only one.

The hed is a bit misleading. The piece doesn’t really meaningfully get into the deeper moral implications of the word. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, in terms of that. There’s no doubt that there’s a great deal of moral ambiguity attaching to the sniper’s role. As I’ve written before, I don’t see how a sniper ever justifies his job to his own conscience, however many comrades’ lives he saves. As for the false dichotomy offered in the hed, well, I don’t see why a sniper (or any soldier) can’t be both hero and killer, whether deeply conflicted or cold-blooded about it.

Whether you can read the piece or not, here’s an excerpt:

The word has its roots in “snipe,” the name for a family of wading birds….

Game lovers found the bird notoriously hard to hunt, thanks to its erratic flight pattern….

In the 18th century, hunters with an accurate shot pursued “snipe-shooting.” Shortened to “sniping,” it took on a military meaning among British soldiers in colonial India.

In 1773, newspapers in England carried a “Letter From Bombay” about the previous year’s siege of Broach (now known as Bharuch) on India’s west coast. The letter-writer described how native combatants were skilled with a long musket that would allow “a man to hit an orange at the distance of 150 yards four times out of six.” The letter also told how soldiers, when erecting a battery, would draw fire from these sharpshooters by putting a ribboned hat on the end of a staff. “The soldiery,” the correspondent said, “humorously call it sniping.”…

Back in India, harassing shooters came to be known as “snipers.” An 1807 report by Major Jasper Nicolls, which was used in a court-martial trial, told of clearing out an area of soldiers, “though much annoyed at times by snipers.” For another century, press accounts of “snipers” in India and elsewhere invariably described such “annoyances” from enemy lines. That began to change with World War I, when the “sniper” became a military specialist trained on high-value targets….

7 thoughts on “Origins of the term, ‘sniper’

  1. M. Prince

    Snipers are just one morally ambiguous element in the morally ambiguous enterprise that is war. Even “just wars” contain their morally questionable aspects.

    What interests me more about “American Sniper” is its cultural meaning. What about it makes it such a draw? Why is it so successful? Is it simply that there’s nothing else most folks care to see right now? Do some folks feel like they’re making a statement by going to see it? Is there a hunger for a war movie? Any opinions?

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Why is it so successful?

      It’s not that there was “nothing else most folks care to see right now”. Most people don’t go see a movie just because nothing else is good. Going to the movies costs real money.

      I don’t think the movie’s success has anything to do with politics or the culture war. I think it’s pretty simple. Americans like to see movies about American heroes. People (in general) like to see movies about an ordinary person who did extraordinary things. People also like to see movies about amazing true stories that they didn’t know about. (See also, The King’s Speech)

      Having Bradley Cooper in the lead role was probably a factor, as well. You could have a movie with him as a math teacher, and lots of people would probably go see it. Same for Clint Eastwood directing it. Heck, when I heard that Eastwood was directing it, I kind of figured “Well, he’s made some really good movies in the past, I bet this one is probably good, too.”

      Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    I’m not sure how snipers are any more morally better/worse than a plethora of other aspects of war. I mean, those sneaky ol’ attack submarines aren’t very sporting, are they?

    The artillery guys are miles back from the front, and kill with pinpoint accuracy, but they’re hardly in any immediate danger.

    How about the super-sneaky stealth bombers that are essentially invisible to radar that drop laser guided bombs? Not really a fair fight between a B-2 and a fixed enemy position, is it?

    Landmines are really bad. They can’t even tell the difference between friend, foe, or civilian.

    War is not a sporting event. It’s not even a gentlemen’s duel over a point of honor. It is cruel and hellish.

    1. M. Prince

      “I’m not sure how snipers are any more morally better/worse than a plethora of other aspects of war. I mean, those sneaky ol’ attack submarines aren’t very sporting, are they?” / “War is not a sporting event. It’s not even a gentlemen’s duel over a point of honor. It is cruel and hellish.” / cigs is cigs

      Yeah, well I thought that’s exactly what I said.

      But if all wars are morally ambiguous, what does that imply for concepts like “hero” and “heroic”?
      And, more particularly, what makes a sniper heroic?

  3. M. Prince

    No, nothing so simple as that. My question had to do with the inherent contradiction of trying to find something unambiguously heroic in an activity as morally ambiguous as war. In any event, I would have reservations about equating heroism with merely scoring a great number of kills.

    My own definition of wartime heroics draws on an observation by a WW1 veteran, who wrote that heroism had nothing to do with extraordinary acts, like taking a machine gun nest, but was instead found in simply contending with the day-to-day threats posed by constant artillery bombardment, machine gun strafing and, yes, snipers.

    1. Norm Ivey

      When I think of war heroes, Desmond Doss (Conscientious objector Medal of Honor recipient) is one of the first that comes to my mind. There was nothing morally ambiguous about his serve and actions. His story is here.

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