Take The Shot

For decades, “snipers” in movies and in TV shows were…

For decades, “snipers” in movies and in TV shows were faceless operators in blue jumpsuits with scoped hunting rifles perched on rooftops over the crime scene, alone, waiting for Clint Eastwood to make the hand signal and stroke that go button to take out the hostage-holding bad guy with a 100-yard shot. Gun savvy audiences cringed as they cranked on elevation knobs and reticle POVs, that were more cluttered with stadia lines than German WWII U-boat periscopes, as they were shown zooming in, or coming into focus. Long-distance military and police marksmanship wasn’t taken, or portrayed, very seriously.

Something happened to movies and the shooting world, however, when the Clinton “assault rifle” ban went into effect in the early 1990s—shooters who wanted a more military-feeling rifle suddenly discovered these super-accurate bolt guns with their black fiberglass stocks and 30mm tube scopes, and the world of “tactical rifles” exploded. Now almost every rifle manufacturer is offering at least one tactical rifle in their product line.

While evil “snipers” can be seen at work in theater and TV films like D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, Phone Booth, Dirty Harry, and Day of the Jackal, a new breed of cinematic sniper heroes has been born: Tom Berenger in Sniper, Dennis Quaid in the excellent Bosnian war film Savior, Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates, Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan, and most recently Mark Wahlberg in the motion picture Shooter.

Shooter is the most recent Hollywood film to feature a sniper in a leading role, and for the most part, the people behind this big screen adaptation of Stephen Hunter’s book Point of Impact did a good job presenting the elements that go into an accurate long distance shot, showing training with a spotter, wind reading, and even mentioning the effect of firing angle on the trajectory. But while to most of the audience Shooter’s Hollywood-enhanced sniper action seemed true to real-world operations, I went to the horse’s mouth for some professional evaluation of these new Silver Screen tactical marksmen. As usual, the men who work behind the crosshairs were not shy about giving their opinions.

“Bullshit From Beginning To End.”

My first call was to one of the deans of combat marksmanship, Retired Army Master Sergeant Roy “Rocky” Chandler. Co-founder of the custom rifle shop Iron Brigade Armory, Rocky and his brother Norm wrote many books on sniper training and tactics. The quote above is Rocky’s opinion of the “first” of this wave of sniper films, Berenger’s 1993 film Sniper. Like most of the men I talked to, Rocky saw Sniper as the typical Hollywood misrepresentation of the role a sniper plays in combat.

“The tragedy is, the producers of the Berenger film were taken out to (Marine Corps base) Pendleton and Moose Ferren, a veteran sniper with 41 confirmed kills, showed them everything he knew about tactical marksmanship. Then, when they made the movie, they didn’t take him to the set, but another technical advisor (T/A) who, while he had military service, wasn’t a combat sniper.”

How many times we’ve watched movies with military firearms related scenes and thought, “How come there wasn’t a military advisor or T/A on the set?” When the painful truth is, yes, there usually was, but as Rocky puts it, “Snipers know one thing. How to be snipers. They would never let Berenger’s character get away with filing ‘burrs’ off his bullets, or taking up a firing position somewhere prominent, like high in a huge barn.”

Sniper may have the record for most boners in a sniper movie. Billy Zane is the “hotshot young sniper” who is supposed to replace Berenger’s crusty, M40A1-toting marksman. Only the Zane character is an idiot. He flies into a hot LZ with his PSG look-alike H&K SR-9TC in its case in pieces, so he has to assemble the gun while the chopper takes enemy fire. Can’t you see the director spinning this scene to the producers? “Then he’s got to put the gun together! While bullets are whizzing around!”

Like Looking Through a Hair Net

Many of my operator friends also like to point out Zane’s high-tech “scope.” Bill said, “The scope reticle from hell. Billy Zane’s character had LED’s inside his scope. That’s a crock and will most definitely defeat one’s night-vision acuity.”

Michael A. Hall, who reps for, among other companies Point Blank Body Armor, went one further than that: “First of all, I’ve never seen a scope reticle that looked real in a movie. They all look like something from Star Wars. It looked pretty silly.”

What about when Berenger takes out an enemy sniper by shooting him through his scope, a la Carlos Hathcock’s confirmed kill of a Russian Super Sniper in Viet Nam? That scene has been reproduced in almost every one of the recent sniper films, but could it be done? TV’s Mythbusters show tried to duplicate the feat and failed. But I also saw them fail to duplicate an archer splitting a previous arrow, which I have seen done by Olympic shooters. Instead, I think I’d trust the sniping world’s expert again.

Chandler, who knew the late Hathcock, told me, “Carlos made that shot, but he told me he broke all the rules of sniping when he did it. You never take a snap shot at a reflection like that–it could be a set up by the other man to have you fire and reveal your position. But Carlos took the shot and I know men who saw the enemy sniper’s gun–shot right through the scope.”

Have things gotten better with the release of Shooter, a film that set out to finally portray an accurate and dramatic portrait of a combat sniper?
Another Tactical Weapons contributor and cold-case murder squad Sgt. Dan Goodwin, who is also his department’s deputy range master, doesn’t think so. Dan had one of the same problems with Shooter that I did, right off the bat, “Shooter was absolutely ruined for me in the first scene when I saw Wahlberg hand-cycling a very old Barrett M82A1. Perhaps it was a matter of that old prop rifle being in need of some depot-level maintenance, but it could also be a matter of the director thinking it looks bad; and it does in an unintended way.” “I’m positive (the book’s author) Hunter, who is the most firearms savvy popular author out there, was appalled by that scene, too.”

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  • JBone

    Hathcock will always be the man. No offense to those snipers you mentioned but they did what they did with state of the art rifles and technology that is 20+ years advanced of what Hathcock had!!! They also did it in wide open arenas with clear field of view. Hathcock did it a rudimentary hunting rifle and scope in a cluttered enviroment! Carlos Hathcock wipes his ass with a maple leaf!

  • not a single mention of “the way of the gun”?

  • Mr.Pimms

    I agree, Billy Zane is an idiot, right down to his “GUCCI-flage” What a terrible actor. As for the rest…You should talk to a real sniper like Master Corporal Arron Perry killed an enemy combatant from 2,310 meters or Rob Furlong who killed an enemy combatant from 2,430 meters. Both Canadian! Take a back seat Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock.

  • steve h

    All due credit to you proffesionals,hollywood is hollywood.People want to be entertained by movies.proffesionals are such a small part of the viewing audience that the real technical aspects of the subject just don’t matter that much,too bad though.Although where a little knowledcge can be a dangerous thing they do give enough to be dangerous.Mcguiver would whip up some c-4 or something but they allways left something out of the recipe,HMM.Although a backwards scope is kind of funny, and I’ll have to look at that again,it’s true impact on the scene is irrelavent to the picture,Hollywood,entertainment,not tutorial.The far fetched stuff,yeah it can be annoying,like jumping a bus 100 ft. using a dirt mound as a ramp,but in the scope(pun intended)of the movie that did’nt seem to hurt anything.You may and probably would disagree but thank God above that we are free Americans and have the right to speak our minds.Thank you to all who have,all who do,and all who will serve this country.God bless America.