Police history: How snipers became part of policing

As police SWAT teams evolved in the 1970s, they added skilled negotiators and long-distance precision shooters to enhance their life-saving capabilities


The roots of the long-distance sniper extend back to the days of the archers. These warriors were loved by their compatriots – but despised by their enemies – because they could inflict many casualties from great distances. 

When they were captured, they often had their middle finger amputated before they were exchanged so that they could not use the bow with such deadly efficiency ever again.

Because of this practice, when deployed on a battlefield, archers would often give the “archer’s salute” to their adversaries by raising the middle finger of the drawing hand to show that it was still intact. Then they would in unison let fly a deadly volley. This is a legend, not a proven fact, but an interesting legend nonetheless.

A police sniper sits atop a restaurant near a Wells Fargo Bank, Friday, July 7, 2017 in Marietta, Ga. A man who claimed to have a bomb that could "take out the room" barricaded himself inside a suburban Atlanta bank Friday, sparking an hours-long standoff that forced police to bust through a brick wall of the building and later ended with the suspect's death. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
A police sniper sits atop a restaurant near a Wells Fargo Bank, Friday, July 7, 2017 in Marietta, Ga. A man who claimed to have a bomb that could "take out the room" barricaded himself inside a suburban Atlanta bank Friday, sparking an hours-long standoff that forced police to bust through a brick wall of the building and later ended with the suspect's death. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Early History

The birth of the modern sniper occurred in our own Revolutionary War. Our forefathers possessed special equipment, tactics and skills, enhanced by today’s snipers. 

They carried the “Kentucky Long Rifle,” which was ironically made in Pennsylvania. Its “rifled” barrel allowed a bullet to spin long, straight and true. 

Timothy Murphy was a sniper who changed history. At the pivotal second Battle of Saratoga, American Colonel Daniel Morgan observed British General Fraser rallying troops. Morgan pointed out the troublesome General and called for Murphy to, “Do your duty.” 

Murphy climbed a tree and made his calculations for “Kentucky windage,” as well as the drop of the bullet. The distance was estimated by some to be 500 yards. Murphy fired and Fraser dropped from his horse. Fraser’s second in command immediately came forward and Murphy needed no further directives. He shot him from his horse also. These impossible shots deeply demoralized the enemy and helped lead to an American victory, which convinced the French to enter the war on the side of the Americans.

Hiram Berdan 

During the Civil War, Hiram Berdan recruited a regiment of sharpshooters who were selected for their extraordinary skills. These soldiers were issued Whitworth or Sharps rifles equipped with scopes. They dressed in green for camouflage. The “first U.S. sharpshooters” were so effective that often an entire battery of cannons would be directed to fire upon one well-placed Union sniper.

The World Wars

During both World Wars, men and even women with exceptional marksmanship skills were designated as snipers by all armies. They developed the ability to secretly move into tactical positions of advantage. These soldiers were able to hit targets with great precision from great distances.

The most deadly of these snipers was a Russian, Vasily Zaytsev, who helped turn the tide of the war in the Battle of Stalingrad. During the war, he was credited with killing 3,000 of his enemies. Zaytsev’s female counter-part, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, had 257 confirmed kills. She was particularly effective at stalking and is credited with killing 36 Nazi snipers.

In Vietnam 

In 1961, the United States Marine Corps officially directed Edward James Land to develop the Marine Scout Sniper Program. Land recruited and trained men like Chuck Mawhinney who had 103 confirmed kills, and another 216 probable kills.

Land’s most famous protégé was Carlos Norman Hathcock II

In Vietnam, Hathcock was known not only for his 93 confirmed kills, but his ability to apply sniper-craft to achieve success in the framework of missions. Hathcock was often sent in after high-value targets and succeeded in eliminating them time and time again while avoiding detection by the enemy. The North Vietnamese came to know him as “White Feather” and put a bounty on his head.

The attempt by the North Vietnamese to eliminate Carlos led to his making the most famous sniper shot in modern history. “The Cobra” was sent to kill Hathcock and, to draw him out, the Cobra shot and killed soldiers in the base Hathcock was at. Carlos went out after the Cobra and the deadly dance commenced.

As the maneuvering progressed, Carlos finally spotted the glint of glass in the sunshine. He aimed and fired, killing the Cobra instantly. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the Hathcock’s round had traveled through the enemy sniper’s scope, without touching the sides and into the eye of the Cobra.

Law Enforcement Snipers

In the 1960s – as a direct result of urban violence – SWAT was developed. It was the brainchild of Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department. SWAT was designed to be a hand-picked group of volunteers who were highly skilled, motivated, and trained to solve the most dangerous police problems. SWAT teams eventually were formed all over the country.

As teams evolved, they added skilled negotiators and long-distance precision shooters to enhance their life-saving capabilities. 

Police snipers were embraced by the teams because:

  • They placed themselves in a key hide to gather intelligence on what was occurring. The information they passed along to officers in charge and team leaders in real-time assisted in the planning and decision-making at critical incidents.
  • Snipers were able to notify teams of not only an impending sudden assault but also an impending sudden surrender.
  • Even though they rarely shot, when they did their shots were nearly always precise.
  • Their precision shooting did not inflict collateral damage.
  • They provided an effective protective over-watch to tactical operations.
  • Their actions often minimized casualties in situations where there was great potential for many casualties. For example, on July 18, 1984, James Huberty killed 21 and wounded 19 in a San Ysidro McDonalds. His deadly rampage was finally stopped by one shot from a sniper.
  • Snipers have proven themselves to be highly disciplined officers who train vigorously.
  • Even though police snipers are quietly utilized every day in the United States, most never fire their rifles except in training. 

This article, originally published 02/09/2015, has been updated. 

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