American Sniper Rifles: A History

For the Top 5 Legendary Snipers in History, click here.

Video Games, Movies, and soldiers in fox holes all have a significant common interest: Snipers. Over history the tools of the sniper have been perfected, and so one might wonder if a sniper really could pull off a shot made in a movie (we're looking at you, The Patriot.) What follows is a list of snipers that were all manufactured and developed in the United States of America.

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How it all began

The Kentucky Rifle, or the Long Rifle, was indeed just that. The barrel itself could extend to four feet in length. It was used by frontiersmen in the early United States. Many think that its design was created by German immigrants to suit their needs in a foreign land. It took longer to reload than a regular musket; however, its range was unprecedented. At a rate of 2-4 shots a minute, a well-kept Kentucky Rifle shot by an experienced marksman was known to make kill shots at 300 yards. It had no problem killing whatever it hit. After all, it was a .50 caliber weapon. A less experienced user with little maintenance knowledge of the weapon could make 1-2 shots at 100 yards with the gun. It made sense that many of the settlers had superb marksmanship skills. There was a marksman in just about every family because the forest served to them as Wendy's serves to us, it is the source of dinner. On the frontier agriculture was very limited as well, andIndian attack was always a threat. It was the range and experience that allowed Revolutionary War and War of 1812 snipers to sit back at a distance and hit enemy commanders while striking fear into the rest of the troop.

Technological breakthroughs:

  • Long barrel- A long barrel added significant accuracy and allowed for a better sighting system. Why are modern sniper rifles not this long? A rifle that is as long as the Kentucky Rifle is nose heavy which is a detriment to accuracy. However, the terrain of the frontier permitted the length of this rifle: there was always a tree to rest the nose of the barrel on.
  • Smaller bullets- Many guns of that era were equipped with huge calibers by modern day standards. Heaver bullets obviously increased weight, reduced range, and took more powder to shoot.
  • Patched round ball- Instead of having a bullet that tightly fits the barrel, the KY rifle had a slightly smaller bullet covered in greasy cloth. This sped up the reloading process and also helped the longevity of the weapon.
  • Slender stock- Many butt stocks of the day were cumbersome. The KY rifle was known for being lighter than rifles of the earlier era partially due to the slender stock.

Ratings (out of 10): Kentucky Rifle

 
Weight in Overall Score
Rating for Time Period
Modern Rating
Accuracy
x .20
9.5
1.5
Range
x .20
9.5
1.1
Fire Rate
x .20
4.0
0.8
Reliability
x .15
9.0
2.1
Lethality
x .15
8.0
9.2
Weight/Maintenance
x .10
9.0
2.9
Overall
x 1.00
8.05
2.67

Note: You might notice that the lethality rating is lower for the past than for the present. This is because of two reasons. 1) Larger caliber bullets were used back then. 2) Bullets traveled slower in that time period. While a slower bullet sounds nice, this would have an effect where bullets would bounce off bones and stay within the body instead of going straight through. Also, bones would fragment and deform the slower traveling bullets which would cause more flesh tearing. If you get shot you generally want the bullet to have an exit wound.

Also, you may hear this rifle referred to as the Pennsylvania rifle. Which is correct? It's tough to tell. Interesting fact: a "shoot off" between the Kentucky and Pennsylvania historical societies in 1960s was supposed to determine the answer. The Kentucky Historical Society won by a large margin.

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~Skipping the Civil War~

Snipers were less than common during the Civil War. However, the effectiveness of the sniper continued to grow. Confederate snipers in particular were able to pick off Union officers at a distance of 800 yards (8 football fields!). WIth such a long range, it is miraculous snipers were not used more. Generally speaking, the school of thought during this time period was much different than it is now (as demonstrated by densely packed lines of men approaching a line of cannon facing them). I would love to write a section on an American-made sniper rifle used during the Civil War, but for the most part they never made it to production (correct me if I'm wrong in the comments section). The primary rifle used by Confederate snipers was the British-made Whitworth rifle.

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Springfield M1903 (A1-A4)

When United States troops were fighting the Spanish-American War, it became obvious how outdated their guns were. The Mexican troops were armed with a German Mauser, a clip fed bolt action rifle that proved very reliable. The American troops fought back with Krag rifle, a rifle that was much slower to reload and less reliable than the well-built Mausers. The Krag rifle soon became the shortest lived service rifle in the history of the United States Army, replaced by the Springfield A1. The Springfield M1903, by the time it saw service, fired a vicious .30-06 round that is very close to the same size as the NATO 7.62x51 mm used in various modern firearms. The .30-06 is still widely produced today for sport, capable of taking down just about any wild game. This new bolt action rifle, after many improvements, had a range upwards of 1,200 yards. This range is about 50-70% of modern day sniper rifles.

WWI

The side that made the most use of snipers were the Germans, and to great effect. The typical German sniper would have been armed with a scoped Gewehr 98, a rifle very similar to the Springfield (not a coincidence; the Springfield for the most part copied rifles produced by Mauser). In typical trench warfare, snipers found a nice home. Sniper rifles became accurate enough to consistently reach out and touch the poor enemy soldiers that poked their head up above the trench line. This served as a psycological component of warfare as well because the fear of snipers became always present in the static conditions of the trenches. Somewhat comically (but not really), British forces assumed that the Germans had some really lucky shooters in the trenches because fatalities began to occur well outside the typical range of enemy lines. It was not until the discovery of scoped rifles that the British put two and two together.

By the time that America joined the war, sniper tactics were still in development. Camoflauge and other basic techniques were being perfected. The Springfield M1903 saw limited action as a sniper rifle despite its incredible range. Telescope optic mounts had yet to reach full scale production, a fact that changed in...

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WWII

By now nations had caught on to the usefulness of the sniper. The Springfield 1903A4 became the primary weapon for American snipers. The effectiveness and deployment of snipers still remained asymmetric however. American snipers were not educated in camoflauge and only had to hit a target at a maximum range of 400 m during training. German snipers, deployed in larger numbers, were often capable of shots 1000 m in length. Also, infantry training in the United States played into the hands of German snipers. Once a soldier fell victim to the sniper, the rest of his comrades would lay down. This allowed German snipers with good vantage points to pick off soldiers one after the other. Similarly in the Pacific, Japanese soldiers camoflauged in trees (with no thoughts of surrender) could only be located after a multitude of shots. A majority of the flaws in American sniper effectiveness lay in training, tactics, and deployment rather than the Springfield rifle.

Technological Breakthroughs:

  • .30-06 round- To get an idea of how advanced this bullet was that its predecessors, check out a picture of the .30-06 next to typical Civil War ammunition manufactured only 40 years earlier. Also, one could compare it to its modern equivalent, the 7.62x51mm NATO. Little has changed in the last 100 years, and the .30-06 is still in full production as a sporting round.
  • A reliable bolt action mechanism- While not semi-automatic like the M1 Garand, a reliable bolt action mechanism changed the face of battlefield tactics. A group of soldiers perhaps camouflaged or behind cover could, with bolt action rifles, inflict serious casualties quickly. This made troops marching in lines towards the enemy obsolete, and bayonet charges had to be used much more sparingly. Also, mechanized vehicles, invented around the same time, allowed transportation of ammunition at faster rates to supply the faster firing guns.
  • Telescopic sights- Finally optics had to catch up with the range of a rifle. Standard telescopic sights would change sniping forever.

Ratings (out of 10): Springfield M1903A4

 
Weight in Overall Score
Rating for Time Period
Modern Rating
Accuracy
x.20
8.6
5.2
Range
x.20
9.8
8.7
Fire Rate
x.20
8.5
5.3
Reliability
x.15
8.1
4.2
Lethality
x.15
8.8
8.5
Weight/Maintenance
x.10
9.4
9.0
Overall
x1.00
8.86
6.65

Comment: Over the 100 year span between the Long Rifle and the Springfield M1903 sniper rifles, American-made rifles improved in my rating system from a 2.67 modern rating to a 6.65 modern rating. The Springfield M1903 received its highest marks in lethality (still very lethal by today's standards), range, and weight/maintenence. Its weight is comparable to similar caliber modern sniper rifles, and is significantly less that larger caliber sniper rifles. The range of this rifle, when fitted with modern day scopes, is just as long as modern 7.62x51mm NATO rifles (like the popular M24). This is because range is very dependent on ammunition. Present day .50 cal BMGs, .408 Chey Tac, .338 Lapua Magnum, and .416 caliber rounds have much longer range.

Yes, that is a prosthetic leg
Yes, that is a prosthetic leg | Source

M40 (A1, A3, A5)

The Vietnam War called for an upgraded sniper rifle. More specifically, the United States Marine Corps whom were deployed March 8, 1965 to protect Air Force bases and begin the ground war soon found themselves in need of snipers. The natural thing to do was perfect a recently introduced commercial rifle, the Remington Model 700. This avoided research and development costs and time. Also, it proved to be more than satisfactory. This satisfaction is demonstrated by the fact that the Marine Corps did not start looking for a replacement until the 2000s. It was chambered for the 7.62x51mm NATO round, bolt-action, had a polymer stock that improved reliability, and was known for its accuracy.

Technological Breakthroughs:

Polymer/Fiberglass Stock- Wooden stocks can splinter, warp, and be susceptible to certain enviromental conditions. While this is not always the case, as demonstrated by the wooden stock but still reliable AK-47, there were numerous complaints on the front lines that wooden stock M40s would become warped. Polymer stocks are much more reliable and they can be very lightweight.

Better optics- While night vision and other advanced imaging devices are less common on the M40 class sniper rifles, the M40A1 and M40A3 were fitted with a daytime scopes that provided 10x magnification.

Remington 700 Short Action- Tried and true, the Remington 700 Short Action is a bolt action mechanism chambered for the 7.62x54mm NATO round.

M40A5 barrel- Later versions of the M40 were fitted with a muzzle break and sound suppressor.

Ratings (out of 10): M40

 
Weight in Overall Score
Rating for Time Period
Modern Rating
Accuracy
x.20
9.7
9.3
Range
x.20
7.9
7.2
Fire Rate
x.20
8.3
7.0
Reliability
x.15
9.4
8.5
Lethality
x.15
8.4
8.2
Weight/Maintenance
x.10
9.1
8.8
Overall
x1.00
8.76
8.01

Comment: Range (900 m) and Fire Rate (~20 rpm) are the primary factors that keep it from being a high performing present day rifle. Now that semi-automatic sniper rifles are common, bolt action is simply too slow. Also, its range is outperformed even by the WWII Springfield M1903A4 if fitted with the same optics.

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M24 (A2, A3, E1)

The Army has traditionally lagged behind the Marine Corps on sniper rifles. The standard issue Army sniper rifle comparable to the M40 is the M24, and it was not adopted until 1988. Although the M24 and M40 were adopted 22 years apart, they are very similar. The M24 is also bolt action, but uses a Remington 700 Long Action instead of the Remington 700 Short Action. This was done to chamber a .30-06 round, but can easily be fitted to use the 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Winchester) round that the M40 uses (this sacrifices significant range, but 7.62x51mm NATO rounds are more readily available). Other rounds such as the .338 Lapua magnum and .300 Winchester magnum can be chambered and significantly increase the range of the rifle. Another drawback is that sometimes the long action has trouble ejecting 7.62x51mm NATO casings.

Another key difference is that the M24 and its Picatinny rails can easily be fitted with advanced optical systems. It was not until the M40A5 version that the M40 could mount a night vision scope.

Ratings (out of 10): M24

 
Weight in Overall Score
Rating for Time Period
Modern Rating
Accuracy
x.20
9.5
9.3
Range
x.20
8.4
8.2
Fire Rate
x.20
8.3
7.0
Reliability
x.15
9.2
8.5
Lethality
x.15
8.8
8.5
Weight/Maintenence
x.10
9.0
8.9
Overall
x1.00
8.84
8.34

Comment: The M24 has a slight advantage over the M40 in the range category because it can fire larger rounds. Other than that, they are very similar.

Present day Army Sniper Rifle: M110

Iraq and Afghanistan taught the United States Army that it needed a semi-automatic sniper rifle. The Discovery Channel video to the right demonstrates just how much of a difference that this makes. Also, the M110's integrated suppressor quiets the gun and reduces the muzzle flash to a considerable degree of stealthiness that surpasses the old M24. The M110 placed 2nd in the 2007 Army rankings for best invention, and it will likely serve the Army for at least a couple of decades. So far, soldiers have been very enthusiastic about it as well. Perhaps the largest drawback is the range due to the smaller 7.62x51mm bullet, but in most combat scenarios 800m is sufficient.

Ratings (out of 10): M110

 
Weight in Overall Score
Modern Rating
Accuracy
x.20
9.3
Range
x.20
7.1
Fire Rate
x.20
9.6
Reliability
x.15
8.4
Lethality
x.15
8.5
Weight/Maintenance
x.10
9.2
Bonus for integrated suppressor
 
.5
Overall
x1.00
9.16
Not necessarily 1 better than the M24
Not necessarily 1 better than the M24 | Source
Created by a Stoner
Created by a Stoner | Source
A marine's counter to the M110
A marine's counter to the M110 | Source
5.56 used by the Navy
5.56 used by the Navy | Source
From left: .50 BMG, 300 Win Mag, 7.62x51mm NATO, 7.62×39mm, 5.56×45mm NATO, .22LR
From left: .50 BMG, 300 Win Mag, 7.62x51mm NATO, 7.62×39mm, 5.56×45mm NATO, .22LR | Source
CheyTac Intervention
CheyTac Intervention | Source

Modern Day Non-service Rifles

.50 Cal's

.50 caliber sniper rifles hold a few key advantages over their smaller caliber cousins. One, they can stop most small vehicles with one or two well placed shots (although it is important to note that it would not stop a moving vehicle immediately). Second, the larger bullet travels much farther (on the order of 2,000m). Third, when an individual is struck with a .50 cal, that individual does not get up.

.50 cal rounds can come in armor piercing, incendiary, and explosive variants to add to their devastating power.

Some common .50 cal snipers are:

Long Range Ammunition

Currently NATO's long range cartridge is the very lethal .338 Lapua Magnum, originating out of Finland. It is responsible for the current longest confirmed sniper shot in combat, a 2,475m shot by Craig Harrison.

To my knowledge, probably the most accurate long range sniper rifle in existence today is the .408 CheyTac Intervention. It can easily make shots at distances of around 2,200 meters. That's almost three times that of the 7.62x52mm M110! Also, it may come equipped with on board sensors and a computer that do weather calculations for the shooter. Oh yeah, and it is suppressed.

Similarly, Barret manufactures a .416 MSG that is ultra-low drag (it can travel ranges similar to the .408 CheyTac).

Future Possibilities:

The Barrett X109 is a semi-auto sniper rifle chambered for a 25mm grenade. It has a ballistics computer, suppressor or muzzle brake, and a range of 1.2 miles.

Soon the military might have a whole new class of weapons.

More cool stuff

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Comments 7 comments

AUG351 3 years ago

There were many sharpshooter units during the Civil War, like the Berdan sharpshooters, organized by Hiram C. Berdan from New York who gathered companies of men who could shoot 10 shots in a 10-inch circle at 200 yards, firing any rifle they chose from any position they preferred. The Berdan sharpshooters were issued the breech loading Sharps rifle. Most Confederate sharpshooters did use Whitworths or Kerr rifles, both had rectangular groves in the barrel with a rectanglular shaped bullet to fit the groves perfecly. Gen. John Breckinridge formed a small unit made up of 11 best shots and armed them all with Kerr rifles. They fought throughout the Atlanta Campaign picking off Federal batteries and officers behind enemy lines.


cydro profile image

cydro 3 years ago from Kentucky Author

I'll have to look into that more. Thanks I honestly didn't know much about Civil War snipers, and that's why I chose to skip it.


newusedcarssacram profile image

newusedcarssacram 3 years ago from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A

Thanks for all the amazing details. have see the modern sniper rifles before in the movies, but didn't know much about them or their history.


jrueff profile image

jrueff 3 years ago from Kansas City

Outstanding article - a sniper rifle I'd have liked to have seen here is the Dragunov, but I know a lot of people don't even consider it worthy of mention. Shocks me really. Great hub though.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

cydro enjoyed this Hub! I have no experience with guns or military weapons. Written in a clear, understandable manner! Thanks!


eliot gregory 2 years ago

I'm writing a story that involves sniper technology from 1961-62. I can't find the info I'm looking for. I only want minor details that might make the story more credible. I am looking for things like scope power, bullets and grain loads. I don't know much about any of this, but my character is a retired sniper from 1962, so he needs to sound as if he knows what he's talking about. e-mail @ tijfis@Hotmail.com


jimmar profile image

jimmar 20 months ago from Michigan

Nice article. You should consider, if you edit or write another, mentioning Carlos Hathcock the famous Viet Nam era sniper that re-introduced the tactic into the tool set of the modern warrior. The book "Marine Sniper" talks about how he first mounted a scope on this Ma Deuce (M2) and learned to work the butter fly trigger paddles to get a single shot. I believe he eventually picked up a Winchester model 70 in 30-06. Good book.

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