Throughout history, the sharpshooter – also commonly known as a sniper, has served a crucial role in securing battlefields, neutralizing enemy threats, and providing medium range cover for advancing troops. Hollywood will have you think that the singular role of the military sniper is to “pick off” enemy combatants indiscriminately, with images of snipers tracking their kills like bar patrons tallying a dart game. In reality, though, snipers must embody the collective skills of ballisticians, craftsmen, tacticians, engineers, and physical trainers to perform a variety of critical duties – some in a split second, often times while taking heavy enemy fire. Snipers perform an important mission – to protect the troops under their watch from enemy fire, and to provide advanced tactical intelligence that can help the soldiers on the ground operate in a safer manner. The following is a list of famous American snipers that have saved countless lives – often while putting themselves in harm’s way:
(1824 – 1893)
Before he began his active duty service with the Union Army during the Civil War, Berdan was a world renowned inventor, entrepreneur, and most importantly – a sharpshooter. He was considered the most accurate shooter in the country from the years 1846 – 1861, and lent his expertise to the US Military by forming and leading the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters. Berdan fought alongside these specialized units during several Civil War campaigns, then went on to continue his streak as an inventor – creating a twin screw submarine gunboat, long distance rangefinders, a torpedo boat, and a distance fuse for shrapnel.
ALVIN C. YORK
(1824 – 1893)
When modern day marksmanship and feats of shooting are discussed, parallels are often drawn to Carlos Hathcock. Nicknamed “White Feather” for the feather that he kept in the band of his USMC issued helmet, Hathcock has over 90 confirmed kills in the field of battle. Because of the way kills had to be verified during the Vietnam War, most historians (and Hathcock himself) agree that the actual enemy kill tally is closer to 300 – 400. His most famous kill was against an enemy who was nicknamed “Cobra.” Hathcock shot the enemy sniper through the combatant’s own rifle scope, a shot that lives in infamy within the gun enthusiast community. According to Hathcock, the only way a shot like that could have been made is if the enemy was simultaneously sighting him at the exact moment Hathcock pulled the trigger.
GARY GORDON AND RANDY SHUGHART
(1960 – 1993) & (1958 – 1993)
During the ill fated Battle of Mogadishu, a downed US Blackhawk helicopter was quickly surrounded by Somali militia members. The wounded but alive crew members were in immediate peril and were quickly running out of rounds. Gordon and Shughart were circling in the air in a chopper and asked repeatedly to be inserted to the battle to help their fellow soldiers. Finally, they were allowed to enter and they facilitated the extraction of the wounded men – but the Somali militia simply overpowered the two brave soldiers. Gordon and Shughart were both killed in action, but not before eliminating at least twenty five enemy combatants. These snipers put themselves in harm’s way and completed a daring rescue.
As one of the most prolific snipers of the Vietnam War, Mawhinney recorded approximately 109 confirmed kills and a “probable” 216 additional kills. His most famous exploit while in the Vietnam War centered on a time when he was faced with sixteen enemy soldiers who were slowly closing in on his position. He knew that the second he started shooting he would give away his position. In a matter of seconds, Mawhinney used his USMC issue M40 A1 rifle and eliminated all sixteen enemy combatants. Not with a semi automatic rifle – but with a bolt action sniper rifle that resembled the gun he used as a kid during deer season. Mawhinney continues to speak to classes of snipers about marksmanship and training.
ADELBERT F. WALDRON III
(1933 – 1995)
A true hero of the Vietnam War, Waldron received the Distinguished Service Cross – twice, for heroic actions in 1969 era Vietnam. With nearly 110 confirmed kills while serving with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Waldron rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant with the US Army and retired in 1970. Until 2011, Waldron held the record for most confirmed kills by any American sniper. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery in Riverside, California.
US Military snipers are quick to point out that the important figure isn’t the number of enemy soldiers killed. Rather, the number of US or allied soldiers that were kept out of harm’s way is the important metric. Snipers have provided close and medium range support for our soldiers for hundreds of years, and the old saying ring true today – just as it has for decades: with snipers, there are two lines you shouldn’t cross – vertical and horizontal.