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

The genesis of modern sniping

Fifty years after Battle of Spotsylvania, World War I birthed the modern sniper – though he had a lot of growing up to do. The first British sharpshooter unit was established earlier, during the Second Boer War, but it wasn’t until WWI that British snipers were equipped with scopes. The Germans, however, were already privy to the art of telescopic marksmanship.

Above: A prone German shooter sometime between 1914 and 1918 (Library of Congress)

Trench life for the Allies was cruel on its own, but the accuracy of the German sniper made it crueler. Through their loopholes (a term which historically refers to a castle’s arrow slits), they terrorized Allied soldiers, expertly demoralizing their enemies. In his landmark 1920 manual, Sniping in France, Major H. Hesketh-Prichard (right) recounted:

"…it is not only by the casualties that one can judge the value of sniping. If your trench is dominated by enemy snipers, life in it is really a very hard thing, and moral must inevitably suffer. In many parts of the line all through France and Belgium the enemy, who were organized at a much earlier period than we, certainly did dominate us. Each regiment and most soldiers who have been to France will remember some particular spot where they will say the German sniping was more deadly than elsewhere, but the truth of the matter is that in the middle of 1915 we were undergoing almost everywhere a severe gruelling, to say the least of it."

Hesketh-Prichard was a sniping pioneer. When he received permission to begin officially training snipers in 1915, he pulled from his experience hunting big game to train Allied snipers who could rival the Germans, as opposed to foolishly shooting with misaligned scopes as they had been. During this time, Hesketh-Prichard laid out (but wasn’t necessarily the first to) many of the sniping strategies used today, including methods of concealment, reconnaissance, and the two-man shooter/spotter team.

World War II, Vassily Zaitsev, and Medal of Honor

24 years after Hesketh-Prichard created his sniping school, World War II began, but sniper training was still in its infancy, and had been largely dropped in the interim between wars – I told you, snipers weren’t popular. Inexperienced American sharpshooters were especially outmatched by the already-tested German snipers.

Above: A German sniper in 1943 (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Above: A 1942 American photograph illustrating the necessity for camouflage (Library of Congress)

But despite its head-start in World War I, Germany didn't have the best trained snipers – Russia did, and when Germany felt the wrath of the Soviet sniper during the Battle of Stalingrad, it stepped up its sniping program significantly.

Above: Russian soldiers shooting from the windows of a destroyed building (Georgii Anatolyevian Zelma)

WWII solidified the techniques and roles of the sniper, and in the process, galvanized the heroic sniper archetype, as with Finland’s White Death, and The Battle of Stalingrad’s Vassily Zaitsev, whose life was later fictionalized in the novel War of the Rats, and the subsequent film, Enemy at the Gates. But before Jude Law was dueling a German sniper (that may not have actually happened, by the way), the Soviets made Zaitsev famous with morale-boosting propaganda. Sniping works both ways – it demoralizes enemies and invigorates allies.

Above: Jude Law as Vassily Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates

The same is true, of course, in games. Nothing satisfies in quite the same way as a perfectly executed long-range execution – even if it’s a teammate’s shot I’ve witnessed. But very little frustrates as much as being dominated by an opposing sniper.

When WWII became the theater of choice for FPS franchises, games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Battlefield 1942 offered better-looking, full games (as opposed to mods like Day of Defeat) with which to play out my sniping fantasies.

Above: My favorite Medal of Honor: Allied Assault map! (Giant Bomb) 

I actually preferred MOHAA’s M1 Garand and Mosin–Nagant, since I most often encountered enemies at close range, and loved the thrill of a perfect sans-scope shot (and I always turned the crosshairs off, of course). Even if I didn’t win a match, a few well-placed long-distance shots was enough imaginary Zaitseving to make me happy. Why is that, anyway?

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  • 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:
  • 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.