April 17, 2020
In the professional soldier’s mind, the question of how your rivals in foreign armies practice their craft soon emerges. Decades later, we finally have access to information that allows comparison and contrast of the Soviet and US Sniper cultures of the 20th Century. This subject deserves a dispassionate analysis with as accurate of an approach as possible, casting bias aside, in order for us to gain a realistic picture of both worlds.
For this project, I began with my personal perspective of being trained and employed as a Scout/Sniper in the US Army, decades of accumulated research and continual education, training with foreign armies that used Soviet-era sniper systems, and many years of interviews with Soviet veterans who were trained in this discipline. A systemic approach to comparing and contrasting our history, doctrine, selection, training and employment has helped me better understand how these factors have affected sniper development for both military powers.
The Soviet sniping community dates back to the post-Great War period, with an uninterrupted evolution of formal peacetime and wartime sniper training and employment. In 1932, they conducted a military exchange with Nazi Germany, and absorbed much of the Wehrmacht formal sniper training lessons, as well as technical assistance in procuring Zeiss-Jena rifle optics for M1891/30 7.62mm rifles. Bramit silencers and subsonic 7.62mm ammunition was adopted and first fielded in 1940.
Snipers in the Soviet system were an established duty position within combat units, where marksmanship skills and maturity would combine to repel enemy attacks in the defense, or support offensive operations. As such, they were given priority with massive supplies of rifles, optics, professional training from senior instructors, and hand-selected soldiers.
During the Second World War, they also experienced substantial casualty rates, since they were frequently targeted by mortar or artillery fire, and mass infantry assaults once their positions were fixed. The amount of casualties they inflicted on the Germans was still significant enough to be a major combat multiplier, where individual snipers would account for dozens, or even hundreds of enemy KIA, to include female snipers such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko, credited with 309 kills before 1942.
Additionally, the exploits and battlefield accomplishments of snipers acted as a psychological weapon against the enemy, while serving as a convenient propaganda tool to rally the home front. This general theme of Soviet Sniper mindset would remain a fundamental pillar throughout the 20th Century, to include their use in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989, as well as the 1st Chechen War of 1994-1995.
In the United States, an entirely different picture would emerge. The US in the early 20th Century was a rising power, but maintaining a standing Army was an on-again, off-again affair. Snipers were a critical combat multiplier in The Great War, particularly among the British, German and Canadian forces. However, the unparalleled industrial slaughter left such a horrid shadow with the survivors, that these nations seemed content to leave the war behind, including professional sniper skills.
When the US entered World War II, we mobilized again with a draft, with a limited professional framework for training soldiers in combat skills. While various training programs for infantrymen, combat engineers, medics, artillerymen and their officers were formed, no real system for sniper training existed in the US Army. The same ad hoc approach would be used in Korea and Vietnam, with Vietnam's longer duration allowing the 9th Infantry Division's Sniper school to gain traction, but not enough for a permanent Sniper School sanctioned by the Army after the war. For the USMC, they finally were able to institute a permanent training system in 1977, followed by Army Special Forces in 1979 (which would fade and re-materialize in 1985 as SOTIC), and eventually the US Army's School at Fort Benning in 1987. What never materialized for the Army in the 20th Century was an infantry officer or NCO training system that incorporated snipers as part of our combined arms mix.
Soviet Sniper doctrine was based on snipers acting in overall support of combat operations as part of the collective job skills within an Infantry unit. The 1939-1945 Soviet Sniper was a hand-selected soldier with top marksmanship skills. He was capable of delivering accurate fire on select targets at longer ranges from concealed positions, as an integral component of infantry combat power, with verified successes.
Soviet Snipers were credited with disproportionate kill ratios. They inflicted massive casualties during the initial stages of Wehrmacht Eastward offensives. They also inflicted heavy attrition on Axis forces during sieges of strategic hubs, solidifying their doctrine of prioritizing sniper employment in the combined arms mix. After the War, as they modernized their evolving sniper capabilities, many key lessons were woven into their new Motorized, Airborne and Spetsnaz fighting units, as well as doctrinal employment of snipers. Each Motorized Infantry Platoon would have one organic sniper, eventually adding a second in the late 1980s.
In the US Army, a coherent doctrine never really materialized, even after the establishment of the school at Fort Benning and updating our Vietnam-era TC 23-14 Training Circular, to the FM 23-10 Field Manual. Despite some general statements about the Sniper's mission in FM 23-10, we never had an established table for where to place school-trained snipers in the Infantry Battalion, and no formal training for Infantry Officers or NCOs on Sniper Employment. In practice, most Light Infantry units in the Combat Divisions located their Snipers within the Recon Platoon at Battalion HQ in the HHC Company.
It was up to Commanders how to structure their billets, Sniper sections, or integration into the Recon Teams. Interestingly, our FM 7-92 Bn Recon Platoon field manual didn't specify any Sniper duty positions. Another component of the formation of US Sniper doctrine was the Marksmanship Training Units that supported sniper training before the school houses were sanctioned. This resulted in a heavy emphasis on Known Distance (KD) range rifle marksmanship, while loose ideas about tactics and fieldcraft emerged. The manuals were filled with good information, but actual specific examples of doctrinal approach to employment were lacking in clarity, task organization and how the Sniper would effectively support combat operations.
Another contributor to this ambiguous approach was the additional job of reconnaissance. Doctrinal support for using Snipers as Recon and Surveillance Teams dates back to the British and Canadian approach to Sniping in WWI. It was one of the few things that Recon Platoons and Sniper Team Leaders all knew and recognized in the various Recon Platoons I was in. It was also a focus in the formal schools.
In short, the US Sniper inherited a legacy of KD range target shooting from the Marksmanship Training Units (MTUs) and recon and surveillance from the UK doctrine. Plus there was no real education on employment for leaders. A Sniper Employment Officer duty position was established whose task it was to still try to “sell” our existence to unit Commanders. One anecdote that illustrates this was when our Sniper Section Leader in 1-24 Infantry went to brief our new BN Commander on our capabilities. He responded with, “What am I gon do wif Snappers in a light infantry battalion!?” We showed him against the line companies on the next exercise. Years later, Snipers from 1-24 Infantry would deploy to Iraq, serving with distinction while attached to certain Task Forces who tirelessly hunted insurgents with extreme prejudice.
Soviet Sniper Selection and Training
Soviet Russian marksmanship training was endemic to their culture. For example during the Brezhnev era, most high schools had a 25m range, target rifles, shooting club and military rifles for training. This was a state-sponsored effort, since being invaded by adventurous armies has been an endless saga for Russia. In that system, those who wanted to be part of the school shooting club had free access and instruction. They could pursue that skill set until their two year conscript military service began. Their service would consist of initial Quarantine, an extensive individual skills training cycle as cohorts. The culmination combined live fire exercises, then operational readiness or deployment for the rest of the 2 years. Within Quarantine, soldiers would be evaluated for individual skills, including marksmanship with the AK74, involving grouping exercises and practical engagement of silhouette targets from 250-300m using controlled automatic fire.
High scorers would be selected for evaluation with the SVD. If performance met the requirements, they would be selected for Sniper training immediately. Once married to the SVD/PSO-1 it would be their weapon system for the remainder of their service. The training cadre for Soviet Snipers would be headed by Senior Warrant Officers up to Majors, with a career of experience specific to the Sniper skill set.
Soviet Sniper training would include most of the same skills and tasks of professional Sniper schools in the West, to include marksmanship, observation, sector sketches, target detection, range estimation, quick mental math, camouflage and concealment, ballistics, movers, and night fire. From what they've told me, Soviet snipers were not trained as Forward Observers for artillery, mortars or CAS, as they had specific officers who were Fire Support and CAS liaisons within their operational units. Training in other Soviet Socialist Republics might amount to initial marksmanship evaluation and mediocre Fam fire with the SVD, depending on that republic's culture, many of whom did not share the same professionalism as Russia.
US Sniper Selection and Training
In the US system, a Sniper candidate usually had been in the Army for at least one enlistment (3-4 years), or had reenlisted to go to Sniper School per request. We had a volunteer soldier seeking out Sniper training for a variety of reasons, who was usually a Specialist/Corporal through Staff Sergeant. Average time in service for Sniper School attendees was 4-6 years, depending on the time period.
We normally had an experienced soldier who had already learned what it is to be an infantryman, especially with how Infantry work as support, assault, breech and security elements. He was almost always coming from the Battalion Reconnaissance Platoon. Soldiers from the line often did not fare well in Sniper School due to the academics, marksmanship and stalking.
Recon soldiers had more experience in land navigation, target detection, range estimation, sector sketches, observation, camouflage and concealment, memory games and working as Recon for Battalion. He was trained as an RTO and Forward Observer for mortars, Artillery and Close Air Support. Sniper School and Sniper Sustainment training reinforced these skills with long range rifle marksmanship, snaps and movers, night fire, spotting, wind reading, ballistics, Ghillie suit construction and stalking exercises. Emphasis was on engaging targets as a 2-man team with one rifle, like a crew-served weapon. This was a cultural inheritance from the British and the US MTUs.
Common Sniper Instructor cadre structure in the US included several Staff Sergeants, a Sergeant First Class, a First Sergeant over the School with a Captain as the Commander (usually with no Sniping experience to speak of). The only officers in the US system I encountered that knew the Sniper skill set well were prior-enlisted snipers or competitive shooters who led Sniper Committees in the Special Forces Groups. This was a systemic failure of the leadership training for the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Advanced Course, NCO Education System and even the formal patrolling schools. Every time we recommended that Snipers be integrated into our leadership and formal patrolling schools, we were told these ideas were “too high speed”. After finally being formally recognized and sanctioned with an ASI and TRADOC school, we still had no institutional framework for Infantry leaders on how to employ Snipers.
After the painful lessons-learned in The Great Patriotic War (World War II), the Soviets seem to have pulled the leash in on their snipers by keeping them under the authority of their Platoon Commanders. They would usually organize them with the support group in the offense alongside PKM and RPG gunners. They would locate them in over-watch in the defense using terrain to their advantage.
In the Soviet-Afghan War, Sniper employment was ubiquitous with the Motorized, Airborne, Airmobile and Spetsnaz units throughout combat operations there. While some might envision Snipers wandering off on their own, especially within the GRU Spetsnaz units such was not the case. They stayed integral to their patrol, providing accurate fire in support of the patrol's mission, which was usually interdicting caravans of logistics coming from Pakistan along the historic trade and smuggling routes in the Hindu-Kush Mountains of the Pashtun. This meant being tasked with the support group in an ambush, or sealing off kill zones from advantageous positions with good fields of fire.
In Vietnam, units learned to employ Snipers mostly in support of their line companies in the offense. The worked with machineguns in support, and over-watching in the defense of FOBs in order to counter harassing fires. The mythical stories of a lone sniper crawling through the jungle to assassinate enemy Generals behind the lines are just not an accurate representation of Sniper operations in Vietnam. While entertaining, they did a lot of harm to the image of sniping in the US military for officers and enlisted who had read those types of accounts.
In Grenada, Panama and Somalia, Snipers again performed as supporting assets to small unit leaders, working closely with the Infantry Companies. In several incidents, they did provide the advanced recon and static surveillance mission. They relayed critical battlefield intelligence to BN S-2 sections and higher, as well as conducting urban sniping in Lebanon, Panama and Somalia. In the units I was in where we had a competent Battalion Commander, we had full support. We worked with the line Companies with 2-man Teams attached to the support-by-fire elements for deliberate attacks. We also conducted recon and surveillance to facilitate Battalion-level planning and execution of attacks by the Rifle Companies.
Despite not having good formal training for leaders, actual Sniper employment in the US manifests itself effectively. Units that did not understand how to use Snipers often tasked them with OPFOR duties. This would highlight their value in wreaking havoc on a unit's integrity by attrition of key leaders, crew-served weapons, RTOs, drivers and targets of opportunity. This background would set the tone for Sniper operations as we entered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sniper Rifles, Optics, and Systems
There's a reason why I discuss hardware last, because hardware comes and goes. The skill set on the other hand has pretty much stayed the same from the 1930s through the 1990s. Early 20th Century German archival footage of Sniper Training and what we did even in the 2000s are almost indistinguishable.
The Soviets began by taking factory-select M1891/30 rifles, and mating them with German military grade optics in 1932. These pre-war M1891/30 PE and PEM rifles featured bent bolt handles to clear the optic and different methods for mounting the optics. In the mid-1930s work began on the development of semi-automatic sniper rifles culminating in the adoption of the SVT-40 Sniper rifle in 1940. This featured a compact fixed 3.5x optic on a unique mount that attached to the rear of the receiver. In late 1942, they mass-produced the M1891/30 PU on a staggering scale.
After the war, it's quite clear that the Soviets took decades of lessons-learned, wiped the drawing board clean, and designed a complete sniper system. This consisted of an entirely new rifle, optic and dedicated sniper cartridge. Because of attrition encountered in infantry assaults on Snipers, and the close combat demands when working as part of a Platoon, they knew that they wanted a Semi-Automatic Sniper System that was first and foremost a combat rifle. They also recognized the need for a modern purpose-built military optic. Plus they recognized the importance of a cartridge which provided a high degree of accuracy and improved terminal performance.
The Snayperskaya Vintovka sistem'y Dragunova obraz’tsa 1963 goda (Sniper Rifle, System of Dragunov, model of 1963 or simply SVD) was the result. It was the world’s first rifle build from the ground up expressly for sniping. The optic was the 4x24mm PSO-1, integrating ruggedness, simplicity and intuitive use of an illuminated reticle for range-finding and ballistic compensation. Illumination allowed use at dawn and dusk and an IR signature detection capability allowed active IR light sources to be engaged. The 151-grain 7N1 7.62x54mmR sniper cartridge provided near match grade accuracy and a very early yaw cycle for enhanced terminal performance. From the end-user perspective, I like the light weight and balance of the SVD, as well as the intuitive nature of the PSO-1. It's not a laser-accurate rifle, but they sacrificed accuracy for weight reduction (mobility), focusing on a combat rifle over a target rifle for many valid reasons.
In the US Army, when the need for a sniper system was again recognized rather late in Vietnam, they selected the 7.62mm National Match M14 competition rifle. These were equipped with a Leatherwood designed 3-9x40mm ART scope with ballistic cam mounts and designated the XM21 in 1969. Snipers were issued 173-grain FMJ M118 National Match ammunition developed for use in competition. They were later type-classified as the M21 with fiberglass furniture. This system was used in the 9th Infantry Division Sniper School in Vietnam, and quickly spread throughout the Army. The M21 was basically an accurized service rifle adapted into a sniper system, with the ART scope and ballistic cam mount intended to simplify soldier workload for range determination.
By the time the Army formalized the Sniper School at Fort Benning in 1987, the M21 and ART scope combination was showing it shortcomings. It had been kept alive by various Division-level schools, MTUs and Army Special Forces. By the late 1980s, the M21/ART system had become a logistics albatross.
In the US sniping communities, we had a bolt gun versus semi-auto mentality. The main arguments behind the bolt guns were consistency and accuracy. Plus they required minimal maintenance compared to the M21. The M21 was becoming a nightmare to keep enough guns running for a course where you have 20 students in attendance shooting all day, for several weeks. The argument for the semi auto was it was still a combat service rifle, able to fight with when in contact, with 20 round detachable box magazines.
By 1988, the bolt gun fans won the argument, and the Army adopted the M24 Sniper Weapon System with 10x Leupold M3A optic. These were distributed throughout the Infantry Combat Divisions to the Recon Platoons. They eliminated the combat rifle capability, while enhancing the training longevity of the Sniper Rifles strictly for long range shooting and marksmanship training. As soon as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan highlighted the need for semi-automatic Sniper and Designated Marksmen rifles, many M14s and M21 base rifles were pulled from old inventory and put into use. They provided a semi-auto capability, while resurfacing the major logistics and optics mounting problems with that system. As a result, the Army and Marines began looking for a viable Semi-Automatic Sniper System, which Army and Naval Special Warfare units had already been using since the early 1990s in the form of the SR25.
In summary, we see that the Soviets had an uninterrupted professional Sniper Training Program dating back to just after World War I. There was never a question if they needed this capability, but how they would optimize it as a critical skill set and duty position in Infantry units. Their SVD/PSO-1/7N1 Sniper System was a product of decades of lessons-learned, and embodies their thinking behind the Sniper skill set as a combat multiplier for the Infantry Platoon. In a phrase, their motto would be, Two Snipers, many kills.
In contrast, the US underwent an on-again, off-again approach until the 1980s before formalizing our Sniper Schools. They still struggle to train the key leaders on their doctrine and employment. The men in the trenches have found ways to be successful despite the lack of coherent support. The sniper systems have clearly received more focus and organizational attention, but no gadget can replace a well-trained officer and NCO corps who clearly understands the capabilities and limitations of their trained soldiers.