I have been enjoying an early copy of our lead summer title Sniper, in bookstores this month. It chronicles the evolution of the US marksman and his weaponry from colonial times to the present. There is evidence that sniping and counter-sniping took their place on the battlefield at least as early as King's Mountain in 1778. It is well-documented that a skilled shooter, usually a trapper, woodsman or mountainman, could achieve astonishing accuracy with a long musket over ranges that far exceeded the average reach of military-pattern muskets, especially when in average military-pattern hands. At a time when the latter, with luck, "could strike the figure of a man at 80 yards" the former could be confident of a headshot at 200 yards and the "Kentucky" rifle has been proved to be highly effective even at 600 yards, confirming fascinating contemporary accounts that are quoted in the book.

These include a backwoods shooting match (with the "Tennessee" rifle) in which the target, at a closer range of 30 paces, was the muzzle of another rifle and most contestants shooting off-hand (standing upright with nothing to rest the gun on) and, of course, with "iron" sights, achieved between two and four hits out of five.

At about the same time as I read this chapter, I came across a story in USA Today about the evoultion of tennis racquet technology since the wooden frame peaked in the 1970s. Modern pros (some not even born in the 70s) tried out old-style models, commented on their limitations compared to today's but marvelled at the skill it must have taken past stars to produce the tennis they did. What could they have achieved in their prime with a modern racquet? The same question can be asked of the Tennessee or the Kentucky and the sharpshooters of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Barrett and its 21st century engineering, optics and electronics. But, as with tennis stars, the qualities that make an ace sniper have not changed over time, however far the tools of the trade have evolved. I'd say these are fieldcraft, wiliness, patience, keen senses and dexterity of the expert hunter, generally coupled with a cool pragmatism. The sharpshooter observed by a British officer, uncomfortably in range at the Battle of New Orleans, "a tall man... dressed in linsey-wolsey with buckskin leggings and a broad-brimmed felt hat", would find plenty in common with today's kevlar-helmeted specialist, but likely they'd both be men of few words!