Marines zig-zagged across the valley, dodging bullets and explosions in a sea of utter chaos. Men lunged towards any cover they could find and crouched, frozen. Others lay motionless, dead, their lifeblood draining in that godforsaken hellhole. The sounds of exploding shells and cries of imminent death were deafening.
Marine sniper, Daniel W. Cass, and his spotter, Corporal Clarence Carter, along with their unit, were assigned to rescue marines pinned down in the Wana Gorge Valley by Japanese machine guns. Cass was a nineteen-year-old grunt then, Carter just two years older. It would be their first run as snipers.
As they peered over a ridge overlooking the valley, 1,200 yards separated Cass and Carter from enemy nests below a coral ledge. It would be a long shot, with wind, heat waves and fog distorting the scope’s visibility. No time to look for a better position. Marines below were being ripped to shreds.
Using his rifle scope, Cass surveyed the area, scanning for movement or smoke. Looking through his spotter scope, Carter suddenly said, “I found them.” Cass followed his spotter’s point and saw the distinct muzzle flame flickering through the fog. He dropped his scope elevation until his crosshairs were directly on a speck of gray uniform.
Deep breath. Let half out. Hold. Crosshair, crosshair, squeeze.
The bullet hit the enemy’s nest. “I fired and worked the bolt, fired and worked the bolt, pouring accurate fire into Japanese defenses.” At some point, the machine gun fire stopped. The Japanese retreated. Slowly, the marines rose cautiously to their feet and trudged forward. One turned and waved thanks. 
Such are the experiences of military snipers. Though the historic settings and missions have differed, the courage, sense of duty, the infallible bond with his comrades in arms remain the raison d’être for soldiers in the pits of hell. The psychology of combatants’ willingness to kill has filled volumes and is too complex to cover in brief, but Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his seminal work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, states, “A tremendous volume of research indicates that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do the things that no man wants to do in combat is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability to his comrades on the battlefield.” 
Armed with weapons designed for accuracy and long-range targets, snipers are highly trained in precision shooting. But marksmanship is only part of a sniper’s skill set. They are masters of camouflage, concealment, infiltration, reconnaissance, navigation, and survival, making the task of locating them a daunting and frustrating ordeal for the enemy. A sniper is capable of inflicting heavy losses on opposing forces, and in many cases, an entire unit can be brought to a halt by the presence of a single sniper.
While it is not unheard of for snipers to operate alone, they generally work in two- to four-man teams for greater efficiency: one man focuses solely on shooting, the other assists in observing the area and spotting other targets. The spotter is also tasked with maintaining communication with other units, observing the atmospheric conditions, providing security, and coordinating artillery and air support. Sniper teams typically operate independently but never far forward from their main units. 
“One man, one kill.”
Snipers are trained to observe. Concealed in their surroundings, they maintain visual contact with their targets to gather as much intelligence as possible while eluding the enemy’s detection. They may spend hours or even days, frozen in position, observing the area or stalking the enemy. Heat, vermin, snakes, nature’s call are challenges that often need to be ignored. A great deal of time is dedicated to reconnaissance before a sniper engages his target, and with the sensitive political nature of today’s urban conflicts, a sniper must always consider the potential of collateral damage.
All military branches train and utilize snipers, with service-specific training programs lasting five to twelve weeks. Sniper candidates volunteer for consideration and must be recommended by their unit commanders. They must meet criteria in the areas of marksmanship, physical condition including visual acuity, mental and emotional balance, ability to learn intelligence equipment and reports, and familiarity with the natural environment.
Origin of Term “Sniper”
The term “sniper” originated in British India in the 1770s, where British officers practiced their sharpshooting skills by targeting a highly elusive bird called a snipe. The earliest documented use of the word is found in a 1782 letter from George Selwyn to Lord Carlisle, in which he wrote, “Now people have been shot by platoons and in corps, the individual will be popped at or sniped, as they call it, from time to time…” 
In the United States, the art of sniping was first developed during the American Revolutionary War by Patriots fighting for independence from Great Britain. American colonists who displayed an aptitude for sharpshooting had typically spent years developing and honing their marksmanship skills through hunting in the rugged wilderness of the continent. Utilized as snipers, these men would first take out British field officers, thereby eliminating the enemy’s leadership. This tactic was extremely controversial because it went against the conventional doctrine of warfare at the time. The British considered it uncivilized and dishonorable, but it proved highly effective on the battlefield. While the weapons and tactics used since then have evolved, the concept behind a sniper’s mission remains the same. 
Riveting accounts of the longest shots and the deadliest ambushes have taken us to battlefields from the American Revolution to current combat zones. In the long history of the United States, there have been several warriors whose skills and notable feats have played a major role in the conflicts they fought. Click “Related Articles” below to learn of their incredible stories and how their actions made a major impact on the battlefields.
As always, the objective must be not to judge, but simply to understand. ~Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
- Charles W. Sasser, Craig Roberts, One Shot One Kill (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 66-77.
- Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1995), 184.
- United States Army, Sniper Training Field Manual 3-22.10, 19 October 2009. Ch. 1, sections 1-5.
- Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication, Ninth series, Vol. III (London: John C. Francis, 1899), 138
- Gregory Mast and Hans Halberstadt, To Be a Military Sniper (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2007), 17-23. Also: Martin Pegler, Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper from the Sharpshooter to Afghanistan (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011).
- Christopher Woody, “The Grimy and Grueling Training of Army Snipers,” Business Insider, Dec. 13, 2017.
- Peter J. Kiernan, “5 Things I Learned From The Marine Corps’ Scout Sniper School,”
- Major John L. Plaster, The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting (Colorado: Paladin Press, 2008). Definitive illustrated volume with a wealth of information and little-known details from a decorated military marksman and instructor. Pricey but worth it.
- Excellent videos on Marine Scout Sniper selection and training in three parts from Military.com
- Website: Sniper Central – everything from training and equipment to book reviews.
© Daniel Ramos 2019