The main purpose of the Sniper Rifle is to destroy valuable targets at extended ranges with aimed fire, and with as little ammunition expended as possible. In most cases, “the target” means a human being (enemy soldier, armed criminal, terrorist etc). “As little ammunition as possible” often means “one shot”. The range for sniper fire may vary from a few hundred meters or even less in police/counter-terror scenarios, to up to one kilometer or more – in military or special operations scenarios.
Some sniper rifles, (mostly large caliber ones) can also be used as anti-material weapons, to destroy (or more often, render unusable or inoperable), targets such as radar cabins, jeeps, parked aircraft etc.
The history of sharp-shooting traces its ancestry well back into the 19th or even previously into the 18th century. An often noted example of early military sniping is the use of aimed fire during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), that came about because of the development of rifled muskets such as the Kentucky Rifle / Longrifle / Pennsylvania rile. In the history of modern warfare, sniper rifles have often been standard issue army rifles individually selected for accuracy, or privately purchased commercial target or hunting rifles. During WW1 and WW2 both sides used various general issue bolt action rifles (such as the Russian/Soviet Mosin M1991/30, US Springfield M1903A4, British SMLE No.4(t), German G98k etc.) fitted with some kind of telescopic sight. Some general issue semi-automatic rifles were also used in a sniper role, such as the Soviet SVT-40 and US M1 Garand. The origin of the term ‘Sniper’ refers to a custom during the British Raj period in India – the hunting of very small, fast moving birds called ‘Snipe’. It took a great shot to hit the wily creatures.. who would then be referred to as a ‘Sniper’.
The practice of developing military sniper rifles from standard issue firearms is still current in many countries. Usually, the manufacturer or special military unit will select some rifles for their better-than-average accuracy, then adopt these rifles for the sniper role (i.e. convert them from select-fire into semi-autos, add ajustable stocks, bipods, scope mounts etc). Many military sniper rifles, discontinued in service or currently in use, such as the US M21, German G3-ZF and G3-SG/1, were developed in that way.
Some sniper weapons were designed from scratch for marksmen to use, because the clients wanted some special characteristics that were unavailable in any service or commercial weapons. One such example is the Soviet SVD Dragunov rifle. It was designed at the request of the Soviet Army to extend the reach and effectiveness of infantry units; a lightweight, powerful and reliable semi-auto rifle, which has remained in service for almost 40 years.
However, the vast majority of sniper rifles have been based on existing commercially available hunting or sporting rifle designs. Some of the best examples of this are the US military sniper rifles: M24 and M40, along with various custom rifles for law enforcement, based on Remington 700 actions. These are also available for the general public in many hunting and target rifles. The famous SIG-Sauer range of sniper rifles (for example: the SSG 2000)are also based on their hunting rifles. Here are some other examples of sniper rifles, mostly police ones, based on the design of civilian target and/or sporting rifles: Blaser R93 Tactical (Germany), Sv-98 and MC-116 (Russia).
Generally, sniper rifles can be separated into three major categories: Miltary sniper rifles, Police/Law Enforcement sniper rifles, and Special Purpose sniper rifles.
Military sniper rifles. Along with the obvious needs of accuracy and sufficient effective range, military use demands some other requirements. Military sniper rifles must not be too heavy, because a sniper often has to carry it for long hours, along with ammunition and other equipment. Military sniper rifles must be extremely reliable in any weather and climatic conditions and must withstand hundreds of rounds fired without proper cleaning and maintenance or any significant loss of accuracy. Sniper rifles for military use must also be easy to fieldstrip and simple to repair in field conditions. They must also have backup iron sights, in case of the damage or loss of installed telescopic sights.
Military sniper rifles are also required to use standardised military ammunition, conforming to international war treaties and generally available to the troops. In most cases, the ammunition used for sniping is a variant of the standard caliber army cartridges (such as 7.62mm NATO or 7.62x54mm R), that have been specially developed for sniping. Average effective range for the standard-caliber sniper rifles against a single human-sized target may be estimated as 700-800 meters for first-shot kills. To extend effective range beyond 1000 meters, more powerful ammunition, such as .300 Winchester magnum (7.62x67mm) or .338 Lapua magnum (8.6x70mm), and the appropriate weapon to fire it, needs to be used.
Military sniper rifles may be further separated into two tactical categories: sniper rifles themselves, designed to achieve aimed hits at long distances, and Designated Marksman Rifles (DMR), designed to provide accurate fire support for line troops. While all “true” sniper rifles are considered bolt action ones in order to achieve maximum accuracy, the DMRs are usually semi-automatics, such as the Russian SVD, German G3ZF or HK MSG-90, to gain a higher rate of fire (and therefore fast target acquisition). But the differences between them lay more in the tactical application, than in the rifle design itself.
Police / Law Enforcement (LE) sniper rifles. These are required to be a somewhat different set of tools. It might be said that in most military/war scenarios a wounded enemy is equivalent to, or preferred to a killed enemy. In LE and counter-terror (CT) scenarios a wounded criminal or terrorist is not neutralised and may lead to the death of many innocent victims. Sometimes, the LE or CT sniper must not simply kill the terrorist, but hit a particular part of the body – head, or hand holding the gun, etc. So in general, LE and CT sniper rifles require greater accuracy, but are used at shorter distances. The majority of LE or CT scenarios require precision shooting at distances less than 300, or even 100 meters. These scenarios also require an absolute minimum of shots – sometimes only one. This also places demands of extreme accuracy and consistency of results in any weather conditions on the operator and their weapons. LE and CT snipers don’t necessarily have any limitations on selection of ammunition caliber though, as long as they fit the budget.
LE/CT sniper rifles often sport completely ajustable stocks to suit snipers of different stature, or for convenience and mobility in urban scenarios, where there are many potential obstacles and tight spaces. Sometimes these stocks are adjustable with a half-dozen ajustable screws. This is unsuitable for military sniper rifles, but acceptable for LE sniper rifles, which are usually carried to the point of action in special cases.
Many American made LE sniper rifles are based on the hunting “varmint” rifles. Varmint rifles are small or medium caliber hunting rifles, designed to kill small pests, such as squirrels, rabbits etc. Some LE sniper rifles, such as Remington 700 Police, are simply Remington 700VS varmint hunting rifle barrelled actions, bedded into sniper-styled stocks.
In Europe, some rifles in use by law enforcement are specifically designed sniper rifles (such as the Mauser 66, SIG-Sauer SSG2000 and Blaser R93 Tactical), and some are based on hunting rifles (such as the Steyr Scout Tactical). LE/CT snipers may use many kinds of ammunition, from .22LR for training and short-range sniping, to .308 Win, 6.5x55mm, .300 Win magnum etc.
Special Purpose sniper rifles. These may in turn be split into 2 sub-categories: Large-caliber rifles for ulra-long range sniping and ani-material use, and Silenced rifles for covert operations.
Large caliber sniper rifles are designed to use heavy machinegun ammunition, such as US and NATO .50BMG (12.7x99mm) or Russian 12.7x108mm. The effective range of rifles such as these is up to 1500 meters and over, depending on the size of the target and the quality of the ammunition. At the current time (September 2018) the longest recorded confirmed sniper kill is 3,540 meters. General purpose machinegun ammo often produces less than ideal accuracy (especially a lack of consistency), but recently some specialised “sniper” rounds have been developed in .50BMG caliber.
Silenced sniper rifles must be used with special sub-sonic ammunition and removable or integral silencers (suppressors) to produce a lower sound report. No sound suppressor will stop a round breaking the sound barrier and producing a loudly audible ‘crack’ once fired. Therefore sub-sonic ammunition fires a bullet with less energy, remaining below the speed of sound and also decreasing the effective range down to 300-400 meters at most. With the correct ammunition and sound suppressor, the sound of the gunshot might be missed completely at distances of 100-200 meters at night, or even at 30-50 meters – mixed in with daily urban noise.
Sniper rifle Accuracy
The most common way of describing the accuracy of a sniper rifle is to measure the average diameter of the circle that may be drawn around the group of bullet holes in a target. Usually, the rifle is fired from a secured position with groups of 5 (or 3) rounds, and then every group is measured. Average group diameter is the most common criteria of rifle accuracy.
Today, the thin line between “good” and “poor” accuracy is usually laid in 1MOA groups. 1 MOA (Minute Of Angle) is a measure of the angle that is formed by a triangle with the muzzle of the rifle as the top of the triangle and the group of bullet holes as the base. 1 MOA is roughly equivalent to 1 inch group diameter at 100 yards (91 meters), or to 2 inches at 200 yards etc. So, if you read that rifle XXXX shoots 1MOA groups, it means that at 300 yards this rifle could place 5 or so bullets in circle of no more than 3 inches in diameter. Many modern sniper rifles, when loaded with the right ammunition, could shoot 0.5MOA, or even 0.3MOA, which means 1 inch groups at 300 yards, or 2 inch (50 millimeters!) groups at 600 yards (550 meters).
With the further development of sniper rifle and ammunition design the future of sniping is always changing. Developments such as the Railgun, using an electromagnetic propulsion system threaten to become game-changers in the field of accurate long distance fire.
(c) Max Popenker, 2001