Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
By James M. Perry
The central figure in Clint Eastwood's film, "American Sniper," based on the life of the late Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history, is a "psychopathic patriot," says Bill Maher.
It's a "propaganda film," says New York Magazine.
It's also a huge success.
Snipers have been active in combat ever since the long-range rifle became available. From the beginning, soldiers and sailors have been uneasy about who they are and what they do. Soldiers and sailors normally fight alongside their mates. Snipers are lonely figures (though, these days, they often are two-man teams). They hide in trees or behind rocks. They pick off the enemy one by one. Chief Petty Officer Kyle, a Navy SEAL, killed as many as 255 during his four tours in Iraq. The official count is 160.
The first American sniper almost certainly was Sgt. Timothy Murphy, one of 500 handpicked sharpshooters serving with Daniel Morgan's rifle regiment at the battle of Saratoga in upstate New York in 1777 during the American Revolution. Most soldiers in late 18th Century armies carried muskets, smooth-bored weapons that were limited in range and wildly inaccurate. Mr. Morgan's men carried hand-made rifles with grooved barrels that were accurate up to 250 yards or more.
At one point in the battle, Benedict Arnold rode up to Brig. Gen. Morgan and said that the British general, Simon Fraser, was rallying his men and should be killed. "I admire him," Gen. Arnold (later to betray his country), said. "but it is necessary that he should die. Do your duty."
Sgt. Murphy, picked by Brig. Gen. Morgan for the job, climbed into a tree, and opened fire at a range of about 300 yards. The first two shots missed. The third shot tumbled Gen. Fraser from his horse. He died that night.
The British had their own sniper expert in the Revolution. Maj. Patrick Ferguson invented a breech-loading rifle and was carrying one of them at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. His attention was drawn to a high-ranking American officer who seemed to be in range. He refused to shoot him (British officers tended to think sniping was unfair), because his back was turned. The American might have been George Washington himself. Maj. Ferguson was killed at King's Mountain in 1780.
Britain's greatest naval hero, Adm. Horatio Nelson, was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 by a sniper high in the rigging of the French ship of the line, Redoubtable. The range was very short, though, and his weapon was a musket.
The first rifle designed for snipers was put together by Great Britain's Sir Joseph Wentworth in 1853. A number of Wentworths were used by Confederate snipers in the American Civil War. Confederate snipers with Wentworths were hiding in a line of trees at the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864. Members of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's staff warned the general about sniper fire from those trees. "What?" he asked. "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance," Moments later, he fell to the ground, mortally wounded by a rifle shot. It is said he "died quickly, a smile still on his face." The range was 500 yards.
Probably the deadliest sniper in history was a Finn, Simo Hayha, who killed 505 Russians in Finland's 100-day Winter War (1939-1940). That's more than five Russians a day. Mr. Hayha didn't like telescopic sights, widely used by snipers, because they created a glare and required the sniper to raise his head a little higher to take aim. Like most Finnish troops, he wore a white camouflage suit and sometimes put snow in his mouth to prevent his breath from steaming. Terrified Russians called him "white death" and, finally, on March 6, 1940, one of their snipers shot him in the jaw. He survived and lived to a ripe old age (97), a Finnish national hero.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.