A sharpshooter is one who is highly proficient at firing firearms or other projectile weapons accurately. Military units composed of sharpshooters were important factors in 19th century combat. Along with "marksman" and "expert", "sharpshooter" is one of the three marksmanship badges awarded by the U.S. Army.
Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)
Another use of units of marksmen was during the Napoleonic Wars in the British Army. While most troops at that time used inaccurate smoothbore muskets, the British "Green Jackets" (named for their distinctive green uniforms) used the famous Baker rifle. Through the combination of a leather wad and tight grooves on the inside of the barrel (rifling), this weapon was far more accurate, though slower to load. These Riflemen were the elite of the British Army, and served at the forefront of any engagement, most often in skirmish formation, scouting out and delaying the enemy. Another term; "sharp shooter", was in use in British newspapers as early as 1801. In the Edinburgh Advertiser, 23 June 1801, can be found the following quote in a piece about the North British Militia; "This Regiment has several Field Pieces, and two companies of Sharp Shooters, which are very necessary in the modern "Stile of War". The term appears even earlier, around 1781, in Continental Europe, translated from the German Scharfschütze.
U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)
During the American Civil War, sharpshooters saw limited action, as tacticians sought to avoid the heavy casualties inflicted through normal tactics, which involved close ranks of men at close ranges. The sharpshooters used by both sides in the Civil War were less used as snipers, and more as skirmishers and scouts. These elite troops were well equipped and trained, and placed at the front of any column to first engage the enemy.
Notable sharpshooter units of the Civil War included the 1st and 2nd United States Volunteer Sharpshooter Regiment (USVSR), composed of companies provided by numerous (primarily eastern) Union states. The U.S.V.S.R. were organized by Colonel Hiram Berdan, a self-made millionaire who was reputed to be the best rifle marksman in the nation at that time.
There was also an all-Native American company of sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac. These men, primarily Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawotami from northern Michigan, comprised the members of Company K of the 1st Regiment Michigan Volunteer Sharpshooters.
In the Western Theater were the well known 66th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Western Sharpshooters), originally known as "Birge's Western Sharpshooters" and later the "Western Sharpshooters-14th Missouri Volunteers". The regiment was raised by MG John C. Fremont at St. Louis' Benton Barracks as the Western Theater counterpart to Berdan's sharpshooters. Members were recruited from most of the Western states, predominantly Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri. Competitive induction required candidates to place ten shots in a three-inch circle at 200 yards. They were initially armed with half-stock Plains Rifles built and procured by St. Louis custom gunmaker Horace (H.E.) Dimick.
These "Dimick Rifles" (as they were known in the unit) were modified for military use by the installation of the Lawrence Patent Sight, and fired a special "swiss-chasseur" minie ball selected by Horice Dimick for its ballistic accuracy. They were the only Federal unit completely armed with "sporting rifles". Beginning in the autumn of 1863 soldiers of the regiment began to reequip themselves with the new 16 shot, lever action Henry Repeating Rifle giving them a significant advantage in firepower over their opponents. Over 250 of the Western Sharpshooters purchased Henrys out of their own pocket, at an average price of forty dollars (over three months pay for a Private). Illinois Governor Richard Yates provided Henrys for some members of the 64th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment or Yates Sharpshooters and other soldiers of the unit appear to have similarly equipped themselves with Henry Rifles in 1864.
On the Confederate side, sharpshooter units functioned as light infantry. Their duties included skirmishing and reconnaissance. Robert E. Rodes, a colonel and later major general of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment, was a leader in the development of sharpshooter units. The Confederate Army made more widespread use of sharpshooters than Federal forces, often having semi-permanent detachments at the regimental level and battalions of various size attached to larger formations. Dedicated sharpshooter units included: (Pindall's) 9th Battalion Missouri Sharpshooters; the 1st & 2nd Battalions Georgia Sharpshooters; and the sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Confederate sharpshooters were often less well equipped than Federal counterparts, often using the Enfield Rifled Musket or (the more uncommon) hexagonal bore British Whitworth rifles, rather than breech loading Berdan Sharps rifles. In his memoirs, Louis Leon detailed his service as a sharpshooter in the Fifty-Third North Carolina Regiment during the Civil War. As a sharpshooter, he volunteered as a skirmisher, served on picket duty, and engaged in considerable shooting practice. Of his company's original twelve sharpshooters, only he and one other were still alive after Gettysburg. As related by the regiment's commanding officer, Col. James Morehead, in a rare one-on-one encounter Pvt. Leon killed a Union sharpshooter, whom the Confederates identified as a Native American from Canada.
- "History of Hiram Berdan". Berdansharpshooters.org. Retrieved 2013-05-31.
- Ray, Fred L. Shock Troops of the Confederacy: the sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia 2006 ISBN 978-0-9649585-5-5
- The Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier, 1913, Stone Publishing Company, Charlotte, NC, page 72