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Sniping in war and videogames: Why it's hated, why it's loved, and why we do it

“The White Death” is a tough name to earn. Draped in white camouflage which obscured his small frame, Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä earned the hell out of the moniker by sniping a confirmed 505 Soviet invaders during the Winter War, a one-year conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union. Häyhä allegedly accomplished this in less than 100 days, often in below-freezing temperatures, and with iron sights – partially because they allowed him to remain less exposed, but primarily because he was just that badass.


Above: Häyhä in his White Death garb, being badass

If you’re like me, you’re addicted to choosing the biggest, loudest, and slowest-reloading gun in multiplayer shooters and picking off unsuspecting specks of heads until the sun comes up. You are awesome, and this brief history of sniping ought to reassure you of that. But if you’re a hater, then read on anyway  – you’ll probably still despise the way we play, but at least you’ll understand why we love making you run for cover.


Snipers work for the same reason they're despised

Häyhä was a hell of an annoyance to the Soviets, whose already low morale (Stalin wasn’t the best boss) was further ravaged by the ferocity of Finns’ resistance. Despite being heavily outnumbered (32 tanks versus the Soviets’ two-to-six thousand), the spirited Finns fought harder (and with better aim), and resisted the invasion. The Moscow Peace Treaty ended the war in 1940, and though Finland was forced to relinquish a chunk of territory and assets, it had already embarrassed the fur hats right off the Soviets’ heads.

An unknown Soviet general is reported to have commented, "We gained 22,000 square miles of territory. Just enough to bury our dead." That quote may or may not be fiction, but its sentiment is true. The Soviets lost 126,875 soldiers, while the Finns lost only 25,904.

Sadly, none of Häyhä’s targets respawned and spat profanities at him through a headset - they were dead. Real war is a lot more depressing than virtual war, but the principles are the same. Every time a sniper in CoD or Battlefield frustrates the profanities out of you, you’re falling victim to one of the primary goals of real-world sniping, and what helped the Finns hold off the Soviets: demoralization.

And if you despise the strategy in general, even when it’s working to your advantage, you’re not alone in the real-world either – despite their effectiveness, snipers weren’t always romanticized war heroes, they were damned unsportsmanlike. A telescope on a rifle? Pish posh!


Above: Damn camper!

Fun Fact! Military sharpshooters weren’t called “snipers” until the 1800s, when the term was used in reference to hunters of the well-camouflaged snipe, a species of wading bird. Snipe hunters in British India were called “snipers,” and their reputation for marksmanship caused the term to be carried over.


The origins of sniping in war and Quake II

Sniping has been around since projectiles could travel further than an arm’s throw. Perhaps 16th-century ninjas, who concealed themselves and struck with poisoned blow darts, were some of the first military snipers, but sniping in the modern sense didn’t appear until around the 1700s.

During the American Civil War, Sgt. Grace, a Confederate sharpshooter, allegedly picked off Major General John Sedgwick from 800 to 1000 yards at the Battle of Spotsylvania. The roughly half-mile shot with what was likely a British Whitworth sharpshooter rifle wasn’t unheard of in target practice, but it was nevertheless an impressive kill.

Urban legend has it that either Sgt. Grace was killed just after his famous shot while cockily refusing to take cover (“They couldn’t hit an elephant from thi-aauuughh!”), or that it was Sedgwick who had been chastising his troops for ducking. Either way, they both died.


Above: Engagements at Laurel Hill & NY River during The Battle of Spottsylvania. Notice that no one is hiding in the trees and firing into those silly, tightly-packed formations

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88 comments

  • fault3 - April 24, 2012 1:10 p.m.

    that massmurdering dude has NOTHING to do on a game site like this. young kids will go "wow cool,her killed alot of germans" but was he any better than them? no,he was a murdering pscyhopath. and has NOTHING to do on a game site like this. there was a guy in norway in europe who shot down 80 defenseless teenagers. will you write about him the next time you write about postal? im disgusted by this article.
  • RammJaeger - November 18, 2010 11:17 p.m.

    Tyler, If you are looking for a game that has a very advanced sniping system and very realistic sniping check out Red Orchestra 2. The original RO already had a very realistic 3d scope sniping system and in the new game it is even better. Actually the system in RO1 is widely regarded as one of the best sniping systems in a video game, so I'm surprised it didn't make your story. Anyway, check out the videos of the sniping in RO2: http://www.gametrailers.com/video/pax-10-red-orchestra/704271 http://www.gametrailers.com/video/mechanics-walkthrough-red-orchestra/703581
  • Obama69DoctorFunkenstein - October 13, 2010 11:28 p.m.

    great article
  • AnonymouZ - October 13, 2010 10:49 p.m.

    i almost didn't read the article cuz i hate being sniped. good read i almost miss tho. xD
  • GG Gabby - October 12, 2010 10:31 a.m.

    I love being a sniper sometimes, I feel like the hand of the Gods sniping N00BS from afar. :))) Pissing them off is the best part about sniping. Demoralization. XD
  • TruckThunders - October 11, 2010 12:33 p.m.

    Very well put together article, Mr. Wilde. While I don't care for sniping in games, I do understand its usefulness and that it can be enjoyable for the right person. I'm just not that person. Everyone has their own playing style, but I'll admit after getting shot in the head 5 times by the same person sitting the in the same spot, I'll yell "Damn camper!" just like the rest of us.
  • Smeggs - October 10, 2010 11:59 p.m.

    The thought that you hold someone's (virtual) life at the edge of a fingertip and all you have to do is pull the trigger. The thought that they feel like it is business as usual and yet in a mere blink of an eye you could end them with one shot. The fact that they will most likely never see you until they are falling to the ground and the kill-cam plays, and even if they do you can pick them off as they look right at you. That is why I enjoy sniping.
  • electricsheep - October 10, 2010 11:58 p.m.

    Real snipers use flaming arrows shot from a bow.
  • hardcore_gamer1990 - October 10, 2010 11:31 p.m.

    I love sniping in FPS. Seems so much more logical than run/gun/get-sniped-by-some-twat-with-ridiculous-aim gameplay
  • AlpineGuy - October 10, 2010 7:25 p.m.

    I showed this article to my dad, who has a Fall-pattern .50 cal in Modern Warfare 2. He really liked it, and agreed with you at the end on including more 'realistic' physics in sniping. Anyway, awesome article, Tyler! Very cool stuff.
  • Silentboy - October 10, 2010 2:42 p.m.

    Great Article. Also I loved the sniping in Bad Company 2. Adjusting for gravity was a nice touch. During a game this kid was freaking out because his bullets wouldn't hit the target. We told him to aim up to adjust for gravity but he thought we were mocking him so he left for MW2.
  • lovinmyps3 - October 10, 2010 12:44 a.m.

    Great article Tyler. Really interesting! I love sniping. It makes me feel like a badass. All of my highest killing sprees have been with snipers, in CoD, Battlefield, and any other FPS. I HATE quick-scopers though, cheap bastards.
  • EmoMuffin - October 9, 2010 10:34 p.m.

    No love for Carlos Hathcock or the Scout Snipers? Must not be any Marines working for GR. The thing with snipers in games, as in real combat, is that they can't take or hold ground. A big bolt-action rifle with a high-power scope is useful for hitting targets at several football fields away, but is useless for close-quarters fights or attacks. Plus, once the element of surprise is lost snipers who stay in a single position are easy prey for their target's comrades.
  • FinnishTurska87 - October 9, 2010 1:05 a.m.

    nice article .... and I'm such a bad sniper in games so I usually just go with assault rifle etc :D...Häyhä for the win :D
  • camelfro - October 9, 2010 12:31 a.m.

    interesting article, i enjoyed reading it thank tyler!
  • soren7550 - October 8, 2010 11:06 p.m.

    @devinejoh - I thought the longest confirmed sniper kill (mile & a half or so) was done by a Canadian in Afghanistan?
  • soren7550 - October 8, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    Interesting read, although I'm surprised that 'All Ghillied Up' and 'One Shot, One Kill' weren't mentioned.
  • zer0hvk - October 8, 2010 10:53 p.m.

    I don't know why this article doesn't have more Diggs, it's so fucking good. Lots of love to you mr. Wilde, keep up the great work.
  • devinejoh - October 8, 2010 10:43 p.m.

    you forgot the longest recorded kill was by one Rob Furlong, of Newfoundland
  • Oxfordcomma4 - October 8, 2010 8:36 p.m.

    @Phazon117: Been there, done that. It's actually not horrible if you are comfortable with firearms at all. I'd call it equivalent to a medium-gauge shotgun. I'm a piss-poor in-game sniper, but a crack shot in reality. The guy you hear muttering "stupid game that would never happen in reality" over your headset, thats me, being angry at a gun for being shit at distance.

Showing 1-20 of 88 comments

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