The sniper has long fascinated us. A superb marksman, to be sure, he is also a stone-cold killer, delivering summary death sentences from incredibly long distances. Historically, snipers have been military specialists, spying on and assassinating the enemy. As police departments increasingly embrace special-weapons-and-tactics (SWAT) teams, however, snipers are also playing a growing role in law enforcement. Whatever the uniform, snipers are a select few, their skills honed by rigorous training after an equally rigorous selection process.
In eighteenth century India, British soldiers turned the name of a difficult-to-hunt wading bird into the verb "to snipe," meaning "shoot from a hidden place." In the American colonies, sharpshooters skilled enough to hit those elusive birds were called "snipers." They've been used by the U.S. military since the Civil War, earning headlines in the spring of 2009 when three Navy SEAL snipers fired simultaneously from one moving ship to kill three hostage-holding Somali pirates on a second.
How to Qualify
Each branch of the U.S. armed forces has similar qualifications for training as a sniper. With one exception noted below, candidates are all male, all volunteers. Physically, the men must be in excellent shape, well beyond their branch's minimum requirements, with eyesight correctable to 20/20 and no color blindness. They need to have at least a year left on their current hitch, a clean disciplinary record and no history of drug or alcohol abuse. They must, of course, qualify as an "expert" rifleman, score 110 or higher on their general technical (GT) test, be in pay grades E-3 through E-7 and eligible for a secret security clearance.
A Woman's Place
In the spring of 2001, Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson of the Illinois Air National Guard made history as the first woman to complete a U.S. military sniper school. She and the Air Force women who followed in her footsteps at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, pulled duty as "counter-snipers," providing air base perimeter defense. Those jobs are considered "security" rather than the ground "combat" positions closed by law to women. Other countries, friend and foe, see no problem with casting women sharpshooters in full-fledged sniper roles. Canada and North Korea do so, for example, and in World War II the Soviet Union's Lyudmila Pavlichenko set the record for female snipers with 309 confirmed kills.
The Army Sniper School is at Fort Benning, Georgia; the Marine Corps teaches its Scout/Sniper Basic Course at Camp Pendleton, California; Quantico, Virginia; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Air Force counter-snipers receive their training at an Army facility, Camp Robinson, while Navy SEALs go to one of the Marine schools.
In five weeks at the Army school and 8.5 in the Marine regimen, aspiring snipers acquire the surgical skills needed to hit a target 10 football fields away. They do far more, however, than sharpen their shooting. As future spies, they learn intelligence-gathering, distance estimation and detailed observation. They camouflage themselves in a ghillie suit to masquerade for hours, perhaps days, as part of the terrain. Course requirements are tough, daily dropouts not uncommon. Sixty percent or more of a class may wash out, the Marines frankly warn. Camp Pendleton is said to have cut every candidate from at least one class.
Unlike their military brethren, law enforcement snipers deploy for relatively brief periods as part of a police operation, often as a member of a SWAT team. Skilled shooters, they are usually policemen first and snipers only as needed, having volunteered for a SWAT slot after compiling solid street experience as patrolmen or detectives. Training is performed in-house or at a number of private schools, some of which open their doors only to law enforcement officers.
For whatever reason, some civilians feel the urge to train as snipers---an itch that any number of Web-advertised schools are eager to scratch. For a couple of hundred dollars a day, give or take, these academies of the crosshairs promise to turn Second Amendment enthusiasts into lethal "one-shot, one-kill" marksmen. Courses run one to three days to a week or more, stalking lessons included.
- Requirements for a Military Sniper
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