THE SNIPER AND HIS RIFLE
By Bob Butcher
Trench warfare gave plenty of opportunity for sniping and it would seem that, initially, the enemy was probably better prepared for this as in most things. Then in 1916 the British decided that the best way to deal with snipers was to outsnipe them and the First Army established a snipers’ school to achieve this. The rest of the BEF followed suite.
There is more to training a sniper than getting him to shoot straight. He must be able to judge distances, appreciate the effects of the weather and climate, to select suitable target areas and fields of fire, to understand camouflage and a lot more. Snipers posts were usually incorporated in the parapet, care being taken that the sniper had a good field of fire but was himself concealed and protected. For example, it had to be remembered to obscure the entrance otherwise daylight would be seen through the firing aperture. Metal sniper’s plates were issued but to what extent they were used is a bit of unclear.
As part of the sniping campaign each battalion eventually included a snipers section, brigade sniping officers were appointed who combined this role with scouting and observation and each corps contained at least one or more Groups of Sharpshooters (Lovat’s Scouts), consisting of Highland gillies, expert stalkers and marksmen. They were therefore ideally suited for their military role of observation and sniping.
Snipers and scouts wore the special fleur-de-lis badge, They usually operated in pairs, the second man acting as observer and switching roles at intervals to prevent loss on concentration.
No matter how well trained the sniper was, he could not be better than his rifle and the simple fact is that the SMLE was not accurate enough as it was intended for use against an enemy advancing in the open when a ‘beaten zone of fire’ was called for rather than individual targets that would probably be moving. Its short barrel meant that the bullet had a high trajectory which did not make for accuracy. Its V rear sight was not good for real precision and the Lee bolt mechanism, though ideal for rapid fire, did not help and there were other technical problems. Even when equipped with a telescopic sight it did not find favour as the configuration of the SMLE meant that it had to be fixed off set. There are reports that hunters’ rifle obtained from private sources were used.
The answer to this problem was a rifle that had been designed before the war but not taken into use. The General Staff had wanted to replace the SMLE with a rifle firing a lighter but still lethal round of .276 calibre, which was more accurate than the SMLE and which could be mass produced which the SMLE could not. With the war clouds gathering it was no time to swop so the British Army went to war armed with the SMLE. When war broke out, however, there was soon an acute shortage of rifles as the result of battlefield wastage and the massive enlargement of the army. When Kitchener called for a hundred thousand men to form his First New Army he was, in effect, also calling for a hundred thousand more rifles—and he raised five New Armies.
The War Office turned to the USA with its huge manufacturing capacity and approached two rifle manufacturers, Remington and Winchester. They could not mass produce the SMLE which took forty hours work by skilled gunsmiths but agreed to mass produce the .276 rifle but in .303 calibre. Orders for several hundred thousand were placed in 1914 to be delivered in early 1916. In fact they did not arrive in the UK in any numbers until early 1917 by which time British industry had risen to the occasion and the last of the New Armies had left these shores armed with the SMLE.
This new rifle, known as the P14 (having been adopted in 1914) was only used at home but with its longer barrel aperture rear sight and Mauser bolt action, it was known to be a very accurate weapon. Fitted with a telescopic sight or a finely adjustable rear sight it became the standard British sniping rifle.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
After the war history repeated itself for the Army decided that the SMLE was not entirely suitable for modern warfare and began looking for a replacement. I think that it was considered that the SMLE was just too good and what they had in mind was a sort of austerity SMLE; it was in fact originally called the SMLE Mark IV. What emerged incorporated the Lee bolt mechanism and ten round magazine of the SMLE but little else. The barrel was rather longer and stronger, the wooden stock was also stronger and the ‘V’ rear sight was replaced by an aperture sight and repositioned nearer to the firer’s eye. The longer barrel resulted in a lower trajectory of the round and the stronger barrel and stock meant that the rifle could absorb the shock of firing better, both leading to greater accuracy. Moreover it had been designed with mass production in mind. The bayonet consisted of a six inch spike which somehow seemed rather undignified for a modern firearm.
Those who had some sort of love affair with the SMLE were appalled and as a result SMLE was dropped and it became rifle No 4, the SMLE being No1, a .22 target rifle was No2 and the P14 No 3.
Early in WW2 large orders for it to be mass produced were placed in the UK, Canada and the USA. The replacement of the SMLE with the No4 began at Home in 1942 and was later extended to overseas commands other than India. The new rifle was not happily accepted and officially there were ‘a number of problems with the earlier products’. I suspect that they may have been associated with the breach mechanism which having been mass produced was not made to such fine tolerances as the SMLE.
Whatever the real or imagined faults of Rifle No 4, it was a very accurate weapon and fitted with a wooden chin rest on the butt and a telescopic sight, it replaced the P14 as the standard sniping rifle in the British Army. I don’t know precisely when this took place but the No4 Sniper Rifle was certainly in use in North Western Europe after D-Day. It was put to an unusual use early in 1945 when the 9th Para Battalion of Sixth Airborne Division liberated a village in the Belgian Ardennes and found that the enemy had murdered all the menfolk and that the women and children were starving. Accordingly a battalion sniper was ordered to shoot a wild deer which provided the village with enough meat to stave off starvation.
I would like to thank Bob Butcher, our Honorary President, for this contribution.
Lance Corporal J.W.Sayer VC, 8th Queens, Royal West Surrey Regiment.
Ten VC’S were awarded on 21st March1918. Sayer, a 38 year old father of six children received his award for fierce resistance against overwhelming odds at Shepherd’s Wood, which delayed the German advance on Le Verguier. One by one the men around him were killed or wounded, but he fought on alone until captured. He died of his wounds on 18th April 1918 and is buried at Le Cateau Military Cemetery. His citation reads, “For most conspicuous bravery determination and ability (Sayer) showed the utmost contempt for danger and his conduct was an inspiration to all”. The full story of Sayer’s bravery was not known until his C.O. was released from a POW Camp in 1918 and his citation wasn’t published until 15 months after the event in a country weary of war. His bravery wasn’t even acknowledged in his own Units history until the 1920’s.
Further Reading: Stand To, March 2018 Page 24.