Return of the sniper: How ancient skills are experiencing a modern renaissance in Afghanistan

Their deadly art was neglected for decades. But the pressures of modern warfare mean their ancient skills are needed on the frontline once more
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All around, the thunderous chatter of machine-gun fire mingles with the smoke of the mortars and the acrid stench of gunpowder. Some soldiers are bellowing battle orders; others strain to hear above the noise. The scene is chaotic but one thing is clear to all: the danger is imminent, the enemy close at hand.

Seemingly oblivious to the cacophony, however, two Lance Corporals crouch calmly amid the mêlée. Quietly, they exchange wind-speed, temperature, elevation and distance calculations. One holds a ferocious-looking, long-barrelled rifle. Focusing on the red glow of the crosshairs, he breathes out slowly and carefully squeezes the trigger.

The ear-splitting boom of the gun drowns out everything else as a wave of pressure reverberates backwards. A single brass casing spins through the air and clatters to the ground, dwarfing piles of smaller spent bullets.

And more than half a kilometre away the target drops. One shot, one kill – the sniper's way.

Today, these soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles – who are training for Helmand on the ranges at Lydd in Kent – are only hitting two-dimensional targets. But within three months, their prey will be real – someone's father, someone's son, and a man as intent on killing them as they are on getting to him first. For in an era when pundits talk glibly of the impersonality of war, the bombs dropped by unmanned aircraft piloted by men in distant lands, and the computer-screen generation of combat, the ancient art of the sniper is experiencing a renaissance in Afghanistan. At a time when the defence budget is stretched to breaking point, the merits of a £3.75 sniper's bullet over a missile costing tens of thousands of pounds cannot have gone unnoticed either.

The first thing you learn is that it is a personal kill. The sniper, with his powerful scope, can literally see the whites of the enemy's eyes as he ends his life. Lance Corporal Jokini Sivoinauca remembers clearly the face of the third man he shot in Iraq. The 26-year-old soldier, a softly spoken, god-fearing Fijian, known as Sivo to his friends, would go on to be awarded the Military Cross for his bravery that day.

It was 15 February 2007 and, along with 24-year-old Lance Corporal Andrew Ball (snipers work in pairs: one spotter, who assigns the target, and one shooter), he had been tasked to help the Staffordshire Regiment, who were caught up in a battle that had raged for three hours in Basra's most lethal district. Outnumbered, the Brits were taking casualties. From their rooftop vantage point, the snipers spotted a team of three insurgents darting through the rabbit-warren of homes and alleys as they fired rocket-propelled grenades at British troops. Under intense fire, and injured himself, L/Cpl Sivoinauca picked them off one at a time, allowing other soldiers to reach safety. To this day, he remembers exactly what his targets were wearing and where the bullet struck them.

"When the second one went down I think the third assumed there was a sniper," he recalls. "I remember he turned around. I saw his face. He realised he was running towards us. He stopped and I hit him ..." He pauses, then adds: "People might say we get a kick out of it. No, we don't. I just had a sense of relief. I went to church afterwards. Some people disagree with what we do; we kill people. But what I take from my religious roots is that people have a right to defend themselves."

"As long as we are saving people on the ground we are doing what is right," adds L/Cpl Ball, the other half of his two-man team. After six years of living, fighting and partying together, they are so close they finish each other's sentences.

Equally, L/Cpl Sivoinauca insists they share the MC, the citation of which reads: "Sivoinauca led his colleagues with distinction and complete disregard for his own safety in spite of being wounded after he was shot in the chest, the round being stopped by his body armour. His conspicuous gallantry and leadership was beyond the call of duty."

But perhaps L/Cpl Sivoinauca's bravest act that day was to commit a sniper's cardinal sin and miss. As mortars began to land with increasing precision, he realised the lookout was a small boy of six or seven, relaying information on a mobile phone from another roof. "The two of us stared across at each other," he recalls. "He was scared, shaking. Every time he wanted to go back in through the curtain, they pushed him out. I turned the weapon on him, then to the side and fired two metres away. He just chucked the phone and ran. I have never regretted it. I have two little cousins the same age."

For years snipers were an underused luxury. But with the war in Iraq came an opportunity for them to come to the fore again. Commanders began to appreciate that they were a powerful set of eyes to collect intelligence on an enemy, or to eliminate him. More recently in Afghanistan, they have come into their own.

"Until we went into Iraq, lip service was paid to the art of the sniper," explains Major Mike Lynch, officer commanding C Company, 3 Rifles. "The last time we had used them properly was the Falklands. But to a commander there is no doubt that they add a lot of value."

The lethal force of fast jets and attack helicopters has proved a battle winner in Helmand but these weapons carry intense risk in a world where civilian casualties have become an ever-increasing bone of contention between the Afghan government and NATO forces. Commanders know that if they are to win over hearts and minds, they must be at pains not to destroy the world of their owners. As Major Lynch puts it, "Snipers do not damage buildings or threaten the security of the indigenous population. They are a fantastic asset."

A few weeks ago, on 9 May, two snipers from the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, were called in to help troops pinned down by Taliban fire on three sides – with a known enemy sharpshooter on a rocky outcrop.

Private Kim Burden, age 25, and Private Stuart Warren, 22, saw a man moving towards them; he was clearly carrying an assault rifle but he was 724 metres away. The first shot landed right in front of him.

Pte Burden recalls: "I adjusted the sight and re-cocked the weapon. The insurgent had gone to ground. I waited for him to stand up again. I squeezed the trigger. Wozza said, 'That's a hit...'

"Thinking about it afterwards," he adds, "I don't feel much. It's a job in the end. It's either them, or one of us."

At his best – for in the British army, unlike in many others, only men are eligible – a sniper can devastate the morale of an enemy unit, an invisible force picking off senior figures slowly and steadily. But it is not a one-sided sport. The British have lost men to Iraqi sharpshooters and now have Taliban snipers to contend with, too.

In Basra, it was a mysterious "Albanian", whose modus operandi was so unique that the American army warned the British that he had moved south from Baghdad. "He would shoot out of a vehicle and drive away," recalls L/Cpl Ball. "He was so good that he hit people through the side of their Osprey [body armour]. He never hit anywhere else, only through the side. We heard there was someone in Bosnia with the same signature."

Today, the British face up to their enemy's weapon of choice – the Dragunov – with their most powerful rifle to date, the new L115 A3, part of an £11m Sniper System Improvement procurement contract. The "Long" or "A3" is, in army parlance, a "Gucci" piece of kit. Heavier and longer than its predecessor, the L96, its sights are 25 times more powerful than the human eye. Firing a larger 8.59mm bullet, it is less likely than the L96 to deflect at distance and has a confirmed "kill range" of 900m while providing "harassing fire" at 1,200m.

Each of these sensitive weapons is as unique as the man who fires it, zeroed to his requirements, its cheek piece adjusted for ultimate comfort. The slightest change, such as the added density of gloves, can throw out the weapon's settings. Soldiers are trained to breathe out before pulling the trigger. Some are even taught to shoot between heartbeats to minimise barrel motion.

Only the best shots in the army go through the intensive eight-week course. But these days most regiments take care to fill their full complement of 16-man platoons. Last year 180 soldiers went through the sniper wing of the Support Weapons School and there are now 608 snipers in the army, more than there have been for decades – though still less than 1 per cent of the force.

Lance Corporal John Cassell, ranked 59th in an army of 100,000 men, smiles: "When I was a kid, my mum said you are never having toy guns. It turned out a bit wrong."

To amuse themselves, snipers practise by aiming for the slim pole beneath a target or "drawing" smiley faces with bullets. Patently proud of their skills, they explain with a wry smile that the precision of their job makes them an easy target for other soldiers. Everybody can have a "bad day at work" but one shot missed and they are ribbed mercilessly.

Still, there is a palatable pride about these marksmen. Being picked for sniper training is a prize that takes some soldiers 15 years to achieve. Yet the very nature of the task requires a soldier who is neither trigger-happy nor arrogant but calm, blessed with boundless patience and maturity beyond his rank.

"We are the eyes and ears of the battle group," 29-year-old Corporal Lee McGinlay explains as he swigs coffee during operational training on a blustery day in Kent. "The CO [commanding officer] could be basing his plan – or bringing in indirect fire – around what a couple of [sniper] pairs may be saying."

"The CO could be talking to a Rifleman [Private] and smashing him with questions," chips in Sergeant Leon Henderson. "He has to understand the battle space. It could be a decision point that could turn a battle."

"A man could be the best shot on the course but if we believe that he does not have the right mental strength to make that moral judgement call we will return him to unit and fail him," Major Benedict Toomey, of the Support Weapons School in Warminster, Wiltshire, explains later. "It is a specialist discipline and they are trained and treated as such. It is not easy to take a man's life, whoever he may be, and we get them to understand that they must have the moral courage to question [a decision] if they feel it needs to be questioned."

Like other specialist frontline units, snipers work in small teams far from headquarters and like to stand apart. Traditionally, those living in the field were unkempt, shunning soap, the stench of which could give their hideout away. Today, they still revel in the scruffy, bearded status that separates them from their smartly turned-out comrades-in-arms. They are, one admits with a glint in his eye, the scourge of the Sergeant Major.

"We use names rather than ranks," explains Rifleman John Dugdale, 24. "We get left alone. We screw the nut and work harder."

Fully trained snipers must be able to operate with stealth, stalk invisibly through the natural cover of stream beds or dead ground, carrying heavy loads including shorter-range rifles and pistols, and endure sleepless days and nights of waiting.

Theirs is not a shot fired in haste. With the help of cards they calculate the distance, the deflection of wind or spindrift, the effect of a heat mirage. The higher the temperature or altitude, the faster a bullet travels.

As they wait, they draw elaborate sketches of the landscape so that any change that might give away an enemy position is immediately obvious. For light relief, they play "eye spy".

They learn not to leave the slightest trace of their presence, every bit of rubbish – even bodily functions – must be collected and taken away. Flattened grass, broken twigs or gunpowder residue must all be dealt with. Three rounds and they move on.

"They say women make better snipers because they are more patient," explains Lance Corporal Michael Flanagan, age 22, adding that many Russian snipers in the Second World War were females, the most successful of whom was Lieutenant Lyudmila Pavlichenko with 309 confirmed kills to her name.

The historical perspective is useful, for while the weapons may be modern, the sniper's skills are centuries old: the title is said to refer to early hunters, patient and skilled enough to catch the elusive snipe bird.

The first army snipers were the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment of gamekeepers who saw service in the Second Boer War before gaining recognition for their sharpshooting skills in 1916. Major Frederick Russell Burnham, who commanded them, referred to them as "half wolf and half jackrabbit". To this day, snipers still wear the gamekeeper's Ghillie suit, now a mélange of camouflage netting, hessian and rope, entwined with the vegetation of the terrain. The final effect is that of a verdant Yeti, invisible the moment he lies in the undergrowth. The weapon itself is concealed with camouflage paint and local earth but nothing can hide the glint of the sights.

It is exactly for that reason that the legendary sniper, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, made his most outstanding kill. An Arkansas boy who had hunted from childhood to feed his poor family, he achieved mythical status during two tours of Vietnam for his skill and the white feather he wore in his hat to taunt the North Vietnamese army. His most famous accomplishment was to hit an enemy sniper through the eye after seeing the light glint off his scope. It was only later he pondered the fact that the two adversaries must have been zeroed precisely on each other for him to achieve such a shot. For 35 years, he also held the record for the longest combat kill (2,286 metres) until Canadian Corporal Rob Furlong achieved a shot of 2,430 metres in Afghanistan in 2002.

Another name mentioned with reverence is that of Russian Captain Vasily Zaytsev, a Navy clerk who volunteered to fight in the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad and who amassed 242 confirmed kills, as well as an equal number of unverified hits. He soon became a Russian propaganda tool and his painstaking stalking of a German sniper was finally immortalised in the largely fictional film Enemy at the Gates.

But the scenario in which snipers are left to their own devices, a team of two behind enemy lines, is no longer feasible in 21st-century Afghanistan where they now travel with reconnaissance teams. They have a list of high-value targets – enemy commanders, mortar teams, heavy machine guns and snipers – and they know that the Taliban have a wish list of their own. They cannot afford to be isolated and ambushed.

Nor can they afford to hesitate or to question their belief that to take a life can save a life. "There should be no regrets when you pull that trigger," explains Lance Corporal Flanagan. "You can definitely confirm that what you are shooting at is someone who should be shot at."

It's this belief that is central to the sniper's art, and which sustains them in a lonely, lethal and highly demanding business. As Corporal McGinlay puts it: "If you thought about it too much, you would pause and miss your shot. Your target is there, you shoot it and move to the next. If you kill them, it is one less fighter and somewhere down the line you are going to save one of your muckers' lives."