The Sniper Rifle: One Shot, One Kill


    1. Introduction

    What is a sniper rifle? You may be picturing a bolt action rifle with a wooden stock and scope. If you ask any qualified sniper, they’ll often remark that a sniper rifle is “any rifle that a sniper happens to be using.” By this definition, there is no such thing as a “sniper rifle” but rather a “sniper’s rifle”.

    There is serious truth to this sentiment. However, picking up a handgun doesn’t mean you know how to use it. While, in the same vein, even an experienced shooter will not automatically be capable of performing a sniper’s job by picking up a sniper rifle. A sniper rifle is a highly specialized tool designed to assist a sniper in completing its mission.

    Soldiers resting with cigarettes.
    Staff Sergeant Steven Grayson with his M2010 in Afghanistan.

    During my research, I talked with two snipers currently serving in the United States military. They provided valuable insight into what it means to be a sniper as well as their personal thoughts and experiences.

    2. What Makes a Good Sniper Rifle?

    “I know my answers are vague, but when you get into long-distance shooting it would take me hours to explain everything and I’d end up going down a rabbit hole with it.” – Anonymous

    Obviously, a good sniper rifle must be accurate. The goal of a sniper is to make precision hits at extended ranges, typically beyond 300m. A rifle’s accuracy is due to the combination of multiple factors.

    • Barrel
    • Action
    • Trigger
    • Cartridge

    2.1. Barrel

    Two factors in the accuracy of a barrel are its material and how it interfaces with the rest of the rifle.

    Precision rifles typically have barrels made of stainless steel. Typical M4 barrels are made of Chrome-Moly Vanadium steel alloy. A stainless-steel barrel provides for significantly greater accuracy at the cost of durability. The barrel’s rifling will degrade or “burn out” at lower round counts than an M4 barrel would. Firing full auto through a stainless-steel barrel will also ruin its accuracy potential.

    When a rifle is fired, it vibrates almost imperceptibly to the naked eye. These vibrations are known as the barrel’s harmonics. Anything that is in contact with the barrel at the moment it is fired will have an effect on accuracy. Older solutions for this problem included glass bedding the barrel and action. Essentially, the barrel and action would be in constant contact with the stock, dampening vibrations. The modern solution for this problem is to “free float” the barrel, meaning nothing contacts it. This allows for the barrel to vibrate unobstructed. However, it is difficult to truly free float semi-automatic systems due to their gas systems.

    Additionally, the barrel’s length and twist rate play a role in how accurate it is. The longer the barrel, the more velocity the bullet will have when it exits the barrel. Generally speaking, a longer barrel equates to a longer range. The twist rate is how many revolutions of rifling are in the barrel. The twist rate is largely dependent on the weight of the bullet. Its purpose is to impart a spin on the bullet, so it is stabilized as it leaves the muzzles.

    US soldiers training on the M110.
    SSG Grayson shooting the M110 on a tripod.

    2.2. Action

    The action of the rifle also plays a critical part in its potential for accuracy. Typically, precision rifles will use one of two actions.

    2.2.1. Gas-operated semi-automatic rotating bolt

    Semi-automatic sniper rifles used to be less common. They were harder to accurize because of the gas operating system’s effect on the barrel’s harmonics and the bolts lockup in the chamber. The gas system requires a hole to be drilled in the barrel and a gas block affixed over it. The gas tube/piston mechanism also adds additional weight to the barrel. As a result, you can’t truly free float a semi-auto’s barrel.

    Secondly, how the bolt locks up in the chamber influences accuracy at extended ranges. Tolerances in the machining process can lead to sloppiness in bolt lock-up. The tiniest difference in how the bolt locks between two shots can cause a significant difference in bullet impact at 1000m. 

    However, improvements in machining have allowed modern manufacturers to mitigate these problems. As a result, most modern militaries usually field at least one semi-automatic sniper rifle.

    US soldier takes aim at night.
    SSG Grayson training on the M2010 at night.

    2.2.2. Bolt action

    Bolt actions are inherently accurate due to their simplicity. They also don’t have a gas system so their barrels can be truly free-floated. Additionally, because the bolt is hand-operated, it is much simpler to manufacture. This allows for a much more repeatable lock-up of the bolt when chambering a round.

    “If I was forced to choose between just one of the two [bolt action or semi-automatic], I would lean towards semi-automatic. Advancements in gas guns are closing the gap in accuracy, and the ability to lay down accurate, but also relatively fast, fires can sometimes be the determining factor in survivability.  -SSG Grayson

    2.3. Trigger

    The trigger of a sniper rifle is usually much lighter, smoother, and repeatable than its other military rifle counterparts. Triggers have a few millimetres of travel and require a small amount of force to pull. Less force required to pull the trigger allows for less movement throughout the rifle and minimizes any potential minute shift. A smoother trigger also decreases the subtle influences on the rifle of the shooter pulling the trigger. Lastly, the trigger’s repeatability ensures that the sniper is not surprised when the round is fired.

    2.4. Cartridge

    A sniper rifle’s cartridge can have a huge impact on its capabilities. For decades, the US military used 7.62x51mm as their cartridge of choice in their sniper rifles. However, this round is not optimized for accuracy. Recently the US Army adopted the 6.8X51mm cartridge as part of the Next Generation Squad Weapon program. The round was designed to fly further and flatter than 7.62x51mm.

    “Different occasions call for different ammo choices” – SSG Grayson

    As SSG Grayson said, there is no one perfect cartridge. Different calibres have different abilities and drawbacks. Different missions have different requirements. A sniper mission in an urban environment doesn’t have the same requirements as one on a mountainside. There is little reason to choose a rifle and cartridge that can make hits at 1000m when your longest sightline is only 400m.

    US Sniper wearing camo in the woods.
    SSG Grayson in his natural habitat.

    3. The Glass Of a Sniper Rifle

    Glass is a colloquialism for the scope of a precision rifle. In SSG Grayson’s opinion, it is one of the most critical aspects of a precision rifle.

    “In my experience, a scope can make or break a gun. If you put a bad optic on a custom precision rifle, it is still not going to track properly, and your adjustments won’t be accurate or predictable. Combine that with poor light transmission and glass clarity, and it can really ruin your shooting experience.” – SSG Grayson

    The scope provides the sniper the ability to track and positively identify targets. The scope’s reticle provides quick holds for when the turrets can’t be adjusted. Without the scope, it is much harder for the sniper to complete their mission but not impossible.

    View through a sniper's reticle.

    4. The Can of a Sniper Rifle

    The can is another colloquialism, and it refers to a suppressor but not exclusively one on a sniper rifle. Modern sniper rifles are almost always fielded with some sort of suppressor to reduce the sniper’s signature. This doesn’t mean it silences the gunshot. Although suppressors reduce the decibels from the weapon firing, the bullet still makes a sonic boom as it breaks the sound barrier. As a result, suppressors don’t make firearms particularly quiet. However, they do two very important things for a sniper:

    • Silencers make it incredibly difficult to discern the direction the shot came from if you’re on the receiving end. The sound can be deflected up to 90° from its origin.
    • Silencers hide the muzzle flash of the round as it’s fired. A flash of light at any time of day can immediately give away a sniper’s position.

    The reduction of sound and light signature makes the suppressor an invaluable part of the sniper’s kit. Suppressors can affect the accuracy of a rifle. American-designed precision rifle suppressors often are a reflex design, like on the M110. Meaning that they slide over the barrel and interface with a taper mount. This is done to minimize the point of aim/point of impact shift that suppressors tend to cause.

    5. Designated Marksmen’s Rifle vs Sniper Rifles

    Another common form of precision rifle is the designated marksmen’s rifle (DMR). Typically, DMRs are not purpose-built guns but rather existing guns repurposed for long-range engagements. Early in the Global War on Terror designated marksmen in the US Army would use M16s outfitted with a medium-range scope and a bipod. Later, the US military used old M14 rifles from war stock and retrofitted them with accurized chassis – commonly known as the M14 Enhanced Marksman’s Rifle (EMR).

    US Soldier firing M14 EMR through hole in wall.
    Designated marksman using an M14 EMR. (Source)

    A designated marksman is not trained to the same level as a sniper because they fill different roles. A designated marksman is integral to an infantry squad/platoon and fulfils the need for immediate medium to long-range fires.

    6. Notable Snipers

    • The current world record for the longest sniper kill is held by an unnamed Canadian sniper from the country’s elusive Joint Task Force 2. The anonymous sniper made the shot in 2017 from 3,540m during the Iraqi civil war.
    • Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock was a USMC sniper during the Vietnam war. He held the record for the longest confirmed kill for almost 40 years. Further, he pulled off the 2,286m shot with a modified Browning M2 heavy machine gun. Sergeant Hathcock would eventually help establish the Marine Corps’ scout sniper school.
    • Simo Häyhä served as a sniper in the Finnish army during WWII. Nicknamed the “White Death”, by his own account he killed close to 500 enemy soldiers. He is notable for using a stock M/28-30, a Finnish variant of the Russian Mosin Nagant rifle. Häyhä almost exclusively used iron sights when sniping rather than a scope.
    • Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko also known as “Lady Death” was the most deadly female sniper in history. Born on the 12th of July 1916 in Kyiv, Soviet Union. The so called Lady Death was able to kill 187 enemies (of which 36 enemy snipers) in the first 75 days of combat. She was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest honour the Hero of the Soviet Union and a number of others medals.

    7. Sniper Rifles in Current Use

    It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list of all sniper rifles in current use. The max effective range is for point targets and does not necessarily reflect the furthest it can be effectively shot. Additionally, individual snipers may choose to use different scopes than the ones that come standard on the rifles.

    7.1. United States

    M110 SASS on bipod.
    M110 SASS (Source)

    Model: M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS)

    Manufacturer: Knight’s Armament Company

    Action: Gas-operated semi-automatic rotating bolt

    Barrel Length: 508mm (20 in)

    Overall Length: 1,181mm (46.5 in) (with suppressor)

    Weight: 6.27kg (13.84 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 20 rounds

    Calibre(s): 7.62×51mm NATO

    Max effective range: 800 meters

    Optic: Leupold Mark 5 3.5–10× variable power scope

    Additional Equipment: The M110 comes standard with backup iron sights and a bipod. It is common to see it outfitted with a laser aiming module and clip-on night vision optics.

    Note: The M110’s stock’s length is adjustable to the user.

    “I personally love the M110. With 20-round magazines, and the ability to blend in relatively well with a regular infantry squad, it makes for a very valuable asset on the battlefield. I love the M2010, but the 5-round magazines and the added operational requirement to carry an M4 as a secondary weapon to increase survivability, makes it difficult to manage at times.” – SSG Grayson

    Black M2010 with tan suppressor.
    M2010 (Source)

    Model: M2010

    Manufacturer: Remington Defense

    Action: Bolt action

    Barrel Length: 610mm (24 in)

    Overall Length: 1,325mm (52.2 in) (with suppressor)

    Weight: 5.5kg (12.1 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds

    Calibre(s): .300 Winchester Magnum

    Max effective range: 1200 meters

    Optic: Leupold Mark 4 6.5–20× variable power scope

    Additional Equipment: The M2010 comes standard with a bipod. It is common to see it outfitted with a laser aiming module and clip-on night vision optics.

    Note: The M2010 also includes a folding stock and highly adjustable stock.

    US soldier firing a CSASS.
    US Army soldier firing an M110A1 CSASS. (Source)

    Model: M110A1 Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS)

    Manufacturer: Heckler and Kock

    Action: Gas-operated semi-automatic rotating bolt

    Barrel Length: 414mm (16.3 in)

    Overall Length: 1,009mm (39.7 in) (with suppressor)

    Weight: 6.94kg (15.3 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 20 rounds

    Calibre(s): 7.62×51mm NATO

    Max effective range: 800 meters

    Optic: Schmidt & Bender PM II 3–20x variable power scope/ Sig Sauer TANGO6 1–6x low power variable scope

    Note: As the name implies the M110A1 CSASS is the compact iteration of t the M110. What’s interesting is that it is a completely new rifle, with a different gas system, and a new manufacturer. As opposed to iterative development of the existing M110. The M110A1’s stock is collapsible but offers fewer adjustments.

    Mk 22 special operations sniper rifle.
    Barret MRAD – base design of the Mk 22 (Source)

    Model: Mk 22

    Manufacturer: Barrett Firearms Company

    Action: Bolt action

    Barrel Length: 508mm – 685.8mm (20 in – 27 in)

    Overall Length: 1080mm – 1250mm (42.4 in – 49.4 in) (depending on barrel)

    Weight: 6.3kg – 6.9kg (13.9 lb – 15.3 lb) (depending on barrel)

    Magazine Capacity: 10 rounds

    Calibre(s): 7.62x51mm NATO/.300 Norma Magnum/.338 Norma Magnum

    Max effective range: 1500 meters (depends on calibre)

    Note: The Mk 22 includes a folding stock and highly adjustable stock. The rifle is designed so that the calibre can be easily changed via a quick and easy barrel swap. Currently, only special operations units are using the Mk 22.

    7.2. United Kingdom

    British L115A3.
    L115A3 sniper rifle. (Source)

    Model: L115A3

    Manufacturer: Accuracy International

    Action: Bolt action

    Barrel Length: 686mm (27 in)

    Overall Length: 1,300mm (51 in)

    Weight: 6.8kg (15 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds

    Calibre(s): .338 Lapua Magnum

    Max effective range: 1500 – 1700 meters

    Optic: Schmidt & Bender PM II 5-25x variable power scope

    Note: The L115A3 includes a folding and highly adjustable stock.

    7.3. Russia

    Russian sniper rifle.
    SV-98 with 1P69 scope, carry handle, and suppressor. (Source)

    Model: SV-98M

    Manufacturer: Kalashnikov Concern

    Action: Bolt action

    Barrel Length: 650mm (25.5 in)

    Overall Length: 1,375mm (54 in) (with suppressor)

    Weight: 7.8kg (17 lb) (with optic and suppressor)

    Magazine Capacity: 10 rounds

    Calibre(s): 7.62x54mmR

    Max effective range: 1000 meters

    Optic: 1P69 3–10× variable power scope

    Note: The SV-98M includes iron sights built into the rifle as well as a highly adjustable stock.

    SVD modernized on white shelf.
    SVDM with 1P88-4 scope and bipod. (Source)

    Model: SVDM

    Manufacturer: Kalashnikov Concern

    Action: Gas-operated semi-automatic rotating bolt

    Barrel Length: 550mm (21.7 in)

    Overall Length: 1,135mm (44.7 in)

    Weight: 5.3kg (12 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 10 rounds

    Calibre(s): 7.62x54mmR

    Max effective range: 800 meters

    Optic: 1P88-4 variable power scope

    Note: The SDVM is the modernized version of the SVD-63. It features a folding stock, detachable bipod, and a detachable suppressor. The SVD is used in both DMR and sniper roles.

    7.4. China

    Chinese rifle on table with other weapons.
    CS/LR4 – note the barrel has no flash hider nor provision to mount a suppressor. (Source)
    Model: CS/LR4A

    Manufacturer: Norinco

    Action: Bolt action

    Barrel Length: 680mm (26.8 in)

    Overall Length: 1,150mm (45.3 in)

    Weight: 6.4kg (14 lb)

    Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds

    Calibre(s): 8.6x70mm/7.62x51mm (not NATO spec)

    Max effective range: 1200 meters

    Optic: CS/OS15 8-32x variable power scope

    8. Summary

    The sniper rifle is a critical element of the sniper’s tool kit. However, it is important to remember that it is only a part of it. It is easy to glorify the tools of the trade rather than the craft itself. The rifle, scope, and suppressor only act to make the sniper’s job easier. Precision shooting in a military context has existed for hundreds of years. A sniper’s critical thinking abilities can be the difference between a successful mission and death. When it comes to sniper rifles, the tool doesn’t make the man, the man makes the tool.

    9. Acknowledgements

    A special thank you to Staff Sergeant Steven Grayson, US Army, your insight, and photos have been an invaluable contribution.

    Instagram: @graysonsteven

    SSG Grayson joined a Sniper Section in the 82nd Airborne in 2017 and after spending approximately a year on a team, he went to the United States Army Sniper Course in Fort Benning Georgia. While in 2019, he deployed as a Spotter/Sniper Team Leader to Afghanistan. After returning Stateside, he was chosen to select and train a new Sniper Section, which he led until he transitioned to the North Carolina National Guard in October 2020. Since transitioning to the guard component, he has served the last year and a half as a Sniper Section Leader in the 30th Armored Brigade.

    Another special thanks to the anonymous sniper currently serving in US Army special operations, you know who you are.

    Jordan Smith
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is majoring in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies and a minor in Russian language.

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