US Army snipers training & tactics: “Skill makes the difference, the rifle is only a tool.”

A revealing interview with Staff Sergeant Wayne Worrell and Sergeant Major Lewis Worrell from the Army Sniper Association. The two men discuss their profession and their life as professional military marksmen.

When did the sniper profession begin?

Wayne Worrell: Ever since there has been a projectile launched weapon, there has been someone that has tried to use it in a way to change the course of a battle or war. A sniper is nothing more than a professional marksmen that uses trade craft to put themselves in a place on the battle field that can make a major impact.

Lewis Worrell:: Around the time of the American Revolution, the colonists were outnumbered and out gunned but one advantage they had was a knowledge of the woods, hunting, and marksmanship. In those days the term used was sharpshooter, the name sniper only originated in the early 1800s.

What is the role of a sniper in the military?

WW: They have many jobs from Intel gatherers to target eradicators and are the eyes and ears of the battle. They bring fear into the hearts of the enemy for he never knows if a sniper is watching.

LW: Sniper roles vary depending on the type of unit they are assigned. Most often the sniper will be found supporting ground combat soldiers, by over watching the unit from a sniper hide that provides a clear field of view and some cover and concealment for the sniper and spotter.

What is the best sniper rifle in the world?

WW: The one that is in a snipers’ arms at the time he needs it. With modern technology there are so many great rifles out there but they are just tools until they are put into the hands of a sniper then they become a weapon. Personally I like semi-automatic rifles for faster follow up shots and multiple target engagements. You never know when you might get into a firefight yourself and a bolt gun isn’t going to cut it and these days semi autos are just as accurate.

LW: The one you have in your hand. The world is full of precision rifles, it is the skill of the sniper that makes the difference, the rifle is only a tool.

Wayne Worrell with M4 and a 2.5 10 power optical rifle scope inside a hide site

Is there a particular operation/campaign/war where the sniper was particularly effective?

WW: There are many times in history where snipers have affected the battlefield by killing a general or senior leader. Take SGT York in World War One. Many would say he isn’t a sniper because he never went to a sniper school or formal instruction but one man with his rifle crawled around the German trenches and with his superior marksmanship skills, killed so many Germans that an entire battalion surrendered to him.

LW: Snipers are most effective when used to engage select targets that will bring the most harm to the enemy: officers, NCOs, radio operators, medics, dogs and their handlers, and other special troops with critical skills.

What characteristics do you need to be a good sniper?

WW: There are many but patience to wait for days, sometimes for nothing. Discipline to always hone your skills and do the hard things like crawl through the nastiest stuff rather than go around to get to the best spot. Mental fortitude with hardly anyone to help or give guidance to you that mentally drains you so you need to have a strong mind. You also must have your wits you have to do a lot of outside the box thinking and sometimes be smarter than your enemy you are trying to kill.

LW: Patience and common sense are essential to being a good sniper.

How do you train to be so accurate and calm under pressure?

WW: It is about practice and repetition many hours upon hours on the range to learn everything your rifle does and will do in every weather condition and distance to the target. Some of the best snipers were hunters before they joined the thrill of the hunt and adrenaline pumping in your body before a shot has to be suppressed and controlled and that takes constant training and experience.

LW: Training methods vary but you can never have too much range time, and that has to include training under periods of artificially induced stress.

SGM L.W. Worrell Afghanistan 2008 M14 rifle
Lewis Worrell in Afghanistan, 2008

Is a good shot more about a steady hand or steady breathing?

WW: It’s about your body working together as a single working unit. The position of your body, the placement of the rifle, the rhythm of your breathing, and the squeeze of the trigger along with good sight picture all have a part in a great shot on target.

LW: Both are necessary and the ability master them is a requirement for superior marksmanship. The science of bullet ballistics is also important.

Why did you become a sniper?

WW: It is something I have always been fascinated with my whole life. My father was a sniper and knows more about sniping then anyone I know. I watched him as I grew up so I always wanted it. I started out as a regular Infantry soldier but after being blown up two dozen times by roadside bombs and shot up in house to house fights I knew it was time to try something new. My units scout PLT was having tryouts so I did and made it.

LW: I became a sniper to improve my skills as a soldier. Sniper school was the one military school that I actually enjoyed attending and learned the widest amount of skills related to ground combat.

What is your most memorable moment as a sniper?

WW: I remember all the times that we provided over watch on friendly forces most never even knowing we were even there. We would take out targets setting in IEDs or find IEDs on routes they would travel so essentially saving lives I remember that the most because at one time I was those poor guy on those roads.

LW: I get the most enjoyment out of training others to be snipers. It is extremely rewarding to see young soldiers develop, and master the skills required of a sniper.

Baghdad 2007 SSG Worrell in hide site reporting enemy troop locations.
Wayne Worrell in hide site reporting enemy troop locations. Baghdad, 2007

Do you have one interesting story from your days as a sniper?

WW: I have many, some funny like why I hate the colour black or water. Then some that are sad or make me angry. But there was this one time we were trying to get some South African PMC’s (private military contractors) to let us set up a hide site at a power plant in Iraq. All they wanted was a few weapons that they couldn’t get like MG’s and sniper rifles so my Platoon Leader tried to get a deal worked out to get them these weapons but just couldn’t. I asked why and was told that M-249’s, M-240’s, and M-24’s wouldn’t be possible to give them. I said hell they don’t want that fancy stuff they just want weapons that can make do. they are South African, they aren’t spoiled like us. So after a few missions we found some “gently used” MG’s and a Dragunov and gave it to them and we were able to set up our hide site and got many targets from the top of the power plant.

How has the sniper profession changed since you began?

WW: It would seem this new generation is using more and more equipment to do the job like ballistic computers, GPS linked Binos, hand held weather data collectors, a lot of gadgets in all. My hope is that we as a community aren’t getting to far away from the tried and true trade craft of the past. Just because its old doesn’t mean it doesn’t work a lot of snipers forget that I think. We also have gotten away from small teams going out alone and unafraid they go out in teams of 6 or more that in my opinion is making a larger footprint or signature then we have in the past.

LW: I became a sniper during peacetime when the sniper was not nearly as important as today. Before 9/11 the sniper was only armed with a rifle and spotting scope. The equipment and training have expanded to find the best way to engage the enemy while providing the least amount of collateral damage to the civilian population. The modern sniper has thermal sights, ballistic computers, wireless digital scopes that can record video, laser range finders, suppressed weapons and stabilised optics, but the basic skills of the sniper cannot be replicated, the ability to move into position setup a stable shooting position, eliminate the target and return safely to friendly line without being detected is what separates a sniper from a good rifleman.

Iraq 2006 SGT Worrell and SGM Worrell Camp Falcon
The Worrells in Camp Falcon, Iraq, 2006

The Army Sniper Association
This organisation is dedicated to a unique group of men who come from all walks of life, faithfully serve our great nation and ask for very little in return. The association works to bring snipers together for the sharing of ideas and the advancement of sniper training and equipment through the international Sniper completion conducted annually with our close partners at the US Army Sniper School.

For the full history of snipers, check out our Frontline section in the latest issue of History of War or subscribe and get 30% off!