Today on the blog, author Steve Houghton discusses the 100-year development of British sniping rifles for his upcoming title WPN 80: British Sniping Rifles since 1970




Having completed two titles of my own that serve as studies of British sniping rifles and the equipment directly associated with the role, it was an exciting opportunity to be offered an Osprey title – quite poignant, really, as I had come full circle. Over twenty years ago, and under the tutelage of the great Mike Chappell, whose illustration work and name many will recognize if familiar with Osprey’s Men-at-Arms series, I was – with the benefit of Mike’s regimental sergeant major’s eye for detail – honing my skills to join Osprey’s ranks as a military illustrator myself. Unfortunately, personal circumstances at the time got in the way and the military illustration game passed me by. So, the twist of fate that once more brought me back to Osprey’s door this time had better timing.

The historical picture behind the 100-year development period of British sniping rifles is a fascinating one, as is the evolution of the equipment that supported the relatively short list of weapons that emerged in this period. In terms of military history, that of British sniping is short, extending back to 1915 when the British Army’s hand was forced by the activities of German sharpshooters – hunters in civilian life – who plied their trade as snipers in World War I. They brought their hunting skills to bear in the opening months of the war and had a devastating effect on British troops on the Western Front. But sniping was not something the British high command was keen to adopt; guided by strong Victorian morals, there was a powerful resistance to any involvement until the daily German sniper kill tallies coupled with the pleas from individuals such as Major Hesketh-Prichard forced a change of mind. The year 1915 saw the War Office instruct the Ministry of Munitions to oversee the design of the first British service sniping rifle, which – in the form of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk lll and Mk lll* rifle, mated with a Periscopic Prism telescope – was granted conversion approval on 4 May 1915.

The ensuing months saw the establishment of British sniping schools, with one eventually being made available for each of the five British armies on the Western Front. The schools were detailed in their training, with specially selected men being taught to hunt in pairs; observation, concealment and camouflage were taught to a high standard. The result moved the balance of power back into the British Army’s favour, with highly skilled snipers being the spear point of the British effort to take ownership of No Man’s Land. World War I saw a total of five sniping rifle conversions, four of which were all built on the SMLE rifle by the PPCo, Whitehead Bros, Holland & Holland and J. Purdey & Sons companies. The fifth, which arrived too late to have any real impact, was built on the US-manufactured Pattern 1914 rifle, which was designated the Pattern 1914 Mk 1* W(T); the W denoted Winchester, the manufacturer, and T stood for ‘telescope’, in this case the Model 1918 manufactured by the Periscopic Prism Company. Unlike the previous four conversions of the SMLE, the Model 1918 scope was mounted over bore instead of being – to the annoyance of the sniper – offset to the left side of the rifle.

World War I had introduced a new and ruthless killer to British ranks, one who did not play by Victorian rules. In the years after 1918 the sniper’s role was more or less disbanded and much of the equipment was scrapped; certainly the SMLE conversion rifles were largely dismantled and the telescopes sold back to the gun makers of H&H and J. Purdey, who refurbished them and offered them for sale in the commercial sporting market. In the years between the World War I and World War II the much-improved 1914 Mk 1* W (T) rifles were sold or supplied to Commonwealth countries, leaving Britain with no real sniping capability; the weapons were gone and the skills had long perished.

After war broke out in Europe in 1939 the British Army was again punished by the deadly German sniper and the mad dash to catch up began, with a hastily arranged sniping rifle being produced by the Alexander Martin gun company of Glasgow. The rifle, designated Rifle No. 3 Mk 1* (T) A, was an emergency measure that was also built on the Pattern 1914 rifle and mated with an undetachable World War I Aldis telescope – hence the A in the designation. Just 421 of these stop-gap weapons were produced while RSAF Enfield worked feverishly on a sniper conversion of the new infantry service rifle, the SMLE replacement, Rifle No. 4. The year 1941 saw Enfield’s efforts realized in the embodiment of Rifle No. 4 Mk 1 (T), a rifle that repurposed a telescope designed for a completely different role. Nevertheless, a well-thought-out and deadly accurate sniping rifle was now in production with the gun company Holland & Holland. Furthermore, the training of snipers was back in full swing and again in World War II the British quickly picked up from where their forebears left off in World War I. The basic principles, which were the foundations of British sniping first established in the World War I sniping schools, would prove to be an unbeatable formula which to this day remains as a global blueprint for the role. The .303in-calibre No. 4 Mk 1 (T) sniping rifle – which during World War II had its No. 32 telescope upgraded from a Mk 1 to a Mk 3 – was arguably the finest sniping rifle fielded during World War II by any combatant. The weapon was very accurate, being capable of deadly fire out to 600yd, so it comes as no surprise that it remained in service until around 1973, firing its last round of ammunition in anger during the Northern Ireland troubles in the hands of the Royal Marines. By this time it was a veteran of over thirty years with both World War II and Korea under its belt along with numerous small skirmishes along the way.

It is at this point in history where my Osprey title, British Sniping Rifles Since 1970, picks up the story. There seems to be very little published that explains how the British Army arrived at the sniping capability it possesses today, and is in fact half of the historical picture of the British establishment’s love/hate relationship with the role. The last fifty years have seen incredible change, both to the sniping weapon and to the equipment used in connection with sniping. By the mid-1950s the role within the Army had yet again ceased to exist and was paused for almost twenty years with the powers that be believing that the firepower a mechanized army could bring to bear made sniping a redundant role which on a fast-moving battlefield had nothing to offer. This changed when the Soviet Army introduced its gas-operated self-loading Dragunov rifle in the early 1960s. The Soviets had introduced a weapon that, due to its semi-automatic action, was capable of a punishing rate of deadly fire out to 800m and harassing fire out to 1,200m; it was equipped with a state-of-the-art telescope with a ranging reticle that aided the operator.

Of course the British had to respond and show the Soviets that we too could field snipers if need be. The No. 4 (T), which had served so reliably, seemed like a good place to start when it came to reintroducing the role into the ranks of the Army, but a lot had changed since the No. 4 (T) rifle ruled on World War II battlefields. The UK was by this time committed to NATO’s logistical dream of a single shared calibre, the US 7.62×51mm rimless cartridge; if the UK was to embark on a sniper programme of its own, the new weapon was ideally going to use the new rimless ammunition. What on paper seemed quite straightforward would prove to be a knotty problem that Enfield would struggle to solve. The mid-1960s saw the failure of RSAF Enfield’s effort to convert the .303in-calibre No. 4 rifle to 7.62mm; after the programme was abandoned the pursuit of a new sniping rifle was put on hold. As had been the case since 1915, civilian hunters and target shooters had played an influential part in the Army’s sniping endeavours and the British Army’s paused sniping programme would have new life breathed into it by the NRA when it was noticed their competitive shooters were enjoying huge success while using the same World War II-vintage No. 4 action in their competition rifle builds.

The late 1960s saw considerable cooperation between the Army and the NRA. The NRA provided the knowhow, RSAF Enfield carried out the engineering and the Army’s Infantry Trials Development Unit did all of the testing. The L42A1 sniping rifle was to emerge, which looked like nothing the Army had used to date. The rifle had a civilian competition appearance about it, with a heavy free-floating barrel in a cut-down forend unlike any service rifle that had preceded it. The new 7.62mm-calibre L42 sniping rifle was converted directly from .303-calibre No. 4 (T) rifles, each of which still bore the World War II dates and Holland & Holland selection, conversion and completion stamps that told of the rifle’s previous life. The telescope remained the No. 32 Mk 3, but it was recalibrated for the new 7.62mm bullet’s flight trajectory and redesignated the L1A1. The L42A1 rifle received approval for service in August 1970. The rifle was first used by the Royal Marines who – unlike the Army – had never ceased to train and employ snipers and were quick to deploy the rifle to Northern Ireland where it was used initially in a counter-sniper campaign against the IRA.

It would be 1973 before the Army would be fully engaged with sniping again and the Royal Marines were instrumental in helping the Army get back what had been abandoned some twenty years earlier. The Army was now in possession of a sniping rifle and implemented a training programme that was governed by Sniper Wing, established at Warminster, Wiltshire on the edge of the Salisbury Plain training area. The L42 was largely a show of force to the Soviets; its creation was more about the message than the desire to re-engage with the role. In soldier speak it was a “lash up” and was produced on a tight budget, keeping as much of the old No. 4 (T) as possible, including the wood furniture. The barrel, though, was superb and was the weapon’s saving grace. Unfortunately, the heavy 7.62mm-calibre recoil wore forends out and shook the telescope mounting pads on the receiver wall loose. Over the fifteen years the rifle was in service it was dogged with woodwork issues and scope failures. These would come to a head in the rifle’s last hurrah, which would be the Falklands War in 1982. The conflict exposed the weapon’s shortcomings. Moreover, the way the whole fleet of L42 rifles was managed was time-consuming and expensive; it was time to search for something new.

At this time a new civilian company called Accuracy International was emerging. It was owned and run by three competitive shooters, namely Malcolm Cooper, Dave Walls and Dave Caig. The two Daves were precision engineers by trade and Malcolm took his shooting to the Olympic stage, where he won numerous medals and titles. Prior to the three forming a company, Dave Walls had produced a new rifle action body that would become the foundation on which Accuracy International would build a revolutionary new rifle platform. With the help of UK Special Forces it would be perfected and crafted to be the world’s first purpose-built bolt-action sniping rifle, capable of astonishing accuracy. The years of Special Air Service trialling that started with a precision-built action body helped AI take the biggest leap the world had witnessed in over a century in bolt-action rifle design and manufacture. They had developed a new way of building a rifle that was modular, with all parts bolting onto a lightweight alloy chassis. Christened the PM Rifle, it was at this point still a concept rifle that had been a project between Accuracy International and the Special Air Service Regiment, the objective of which was to create the perfect sniping weapon for Special Forces use. Malcolm learned of the Army’s search for the L42A1 rifle’s replacement, which would be selected through a tough field-selection process. The trio entered the PM Rifle but not to win; they never thought the rifle would be selected, but were more interested in the technical issues that the selection process would reveal, which they could correct and further improve the weapon. The 1985 infantry trial’s outcome took everyone by surprise and none more than Cooper, Walls and Caig when the Land Warfare Centre at Warminster selected the PM Rifle as the British Army’s new sniping rifle, designating it the L96A1.

The rifle’s adoption would at first be rocky, with function issues, skulduggery and a near-complete withdrawal from service, but it clung on and emerged as the game changer its creators had envisaged. Decades after the British Army’s first involvement with sniping, which over the years had largely been led by civilian expertise, the L96 sniping rifle was also of civilian lineage and was set to revolutionize British military sniping in several ways. For the first time it gave British snipers a weapon that was purpose-built for the job. Its modular design revolutionized the logistical management of the Army’s fleet of rifles, but more importantly it put sniping on a completely new trajectory. The L96 rifle’s chassis is still at the heart of the British Army’s current sniping rifle, which now delivers deadly fire out to distances which thirty years ago were unimaginable. The British sniping story is a century old and the last fifty years hold some of the most exciting developments that have made this, possibly the infantry’s most clandestine role a crucial consideration for battle planners within the modern battle space.

Order your copy here: