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


  • Phazon117 - October 7, 2010 10:26 p.m.

    I'm a big sniper fan. In games, any way. If I tried to fire a Barratt 50. cal in real life, the recoil would probably rip my arm off. :D
  • Imgema - October 7, 2010 10:28 p.m.

    Wasn't Goldeneye the first FPS game that had a sniper with a zoom function? I know there are older games that have a sniper but neither was a FPS. I remember after Goldeneye it became a standard.
  • Montag - October 7, 2010 10:28 p.m.

    Sniping good, camping bad As an occasional online player now, since Q3 heyday, it is bloody annoying to try and get a game and be raped todeath by campers who just know the map, it makes it difficult to ever get motivated. I always think camping spots should be weeded out. A good snipe is good tho
  • juicenpancakes - October 7, 2010 10:33 p.m.

    Snipers do often piss me off, but this article as damn amazing. Pictures! Facts! Information! Personal Tyler stories! -- Seriously Tyler, this is fantastic. I love war history and war games so much, so I got a raging .50 cal boner.
  • Montag - October 7, 2010 10:34 p.m.

    @Imgema MDK is often considered the first "proper' sniper, built into a helmet
  • juicenpancakes - October 7, 2010 10:34 p.m.

    is damn amazing* -- I misspell things when I get a boner.
  • Tygerclaws - October 7, 2010 10:37 p.m.

    Ahhh, sniping. How I love thee. Picking off moving targets without being seen, then summarily buggered by said now-angry targets, there's nothing better. Any random person can pick up an assault rifle and run-and-gun their way to glory. It takes skill to line up shots correctly, skill and practice. So, as far as I see it, let the snipers have their glory. I've never once gotten angry over getting sniped, unless there was something wrong with the game itself that let said bullet travel through three different walls and around a corner.
  • BearKiller - October 7, 2010 10:41 p.m.

    This article made me cry tears of joy.
  • Felixthecat - October 7, 2010 10:46 p.m.

    Great article. I despise sniping in games, but people do it anyway. Then again, so do I, but I suck at it. Quick scoping is a different story though. That is why I refuse to play MW2 ever again.
  • twishart - October 7, 2010 10:49 p.m.

    Great read. Strangely fascinating. I don't feel like such a douche with my Intervention anymore.
  • ThatGuyFromTV - October 7, 2010 10:50 p.m.

    I can't tell if those are closed or open iron sights in Hayha's picture. I can't stand open iron sights on real guns.
  • Sy87 - October 7, 2010 10:52 p.m.

    Sniping is very hated in real war. It is very unlikely that a sniper will be taken prisoner. As a sniper you leave a calling card. One shot one kill. The enemy know you killed there friend and there not about to let you live. But sniping in reality is not just about being a sharpshooter. Its about evasion. You shoot, kill, and relocate. That's a tactic that helps in games as well. I kill many opponents that come looking for me in a spot that they saw me get them. It also helps that you have teammates cover you as you do work. However, games will never be able to give the feel of real sniping, but it is fun and gets the heart pumping when you got a challenge of taking on other snipers.
  • elpurplemonkey - October 7, 2010 10:52 p.m.

    Interesting read. I only like to snipe when no one else is sniping, otherwise I put myself in danger of being sniped- something that I absolutely hate. You're spot on about the demoralization- if I'm facing a team with a good sniper, it definitely throws me off my game.
  • farsided - October 7, 2010 10:53 p.m.

    Here's a tidbit-Hayha scored a majority of his kills with a submachine gun.
  • GamesRadarTylerWilde - October 7, 2010 10:56 p.m.

    @farsided Häyhä did also achieve over 200 kills with a sub-machine gun, but the 500+ kills I referenced were with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.
  • oneshotfinch - October 7, 2010 11:02 p.m.

    Durr u used a skreeen frm MW2dat game sux so this suxs
  • JayBeat - October 7, 2010 11:07 p.m.

    Awesome and interesting article :)
  • enlargedhousecats - October 7, 2010 11:08 p.m.

    where there's a gun there's fun -Ross Scott Tyler's great writing and the fact it's about guns and shooting guns makes this history lesson oh so fun.
  • Evilsafetyboy - October 7, 2010 11:12 p.m.

    Although it had some flaws (such as enemies with near ESP), Sniper Elite for the PS2 (and Xbox) was the best sniping game. Gravity AND wind played a part in a sweet WW2 setting. Hoping they would make a sequel in Vietnam.
  • ThatGuyFromTV - October 7, 2010 11:18 p.m.

    @elpurplemonkey I know what you mean, sniping only swhen others aren't. Don't you think it's ironic how the easiest sniper targets are snipers themselves?

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