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.”

Photo by Lucia FasanoThe .22 Shazzamo Magnum
Taran Butler, former Three-Gun Champion, fired a few shots at Shooter as well: “In the huge battle scene at the farm house the FBI agent who is helping Wahlberg did not have a bolt in his sniper rifle in the close-up shots when he was watching Wahlberg shred a bunch of Spec-Op a-holes. The end scene, in the snow, was pretty good. The movie actually did have some excellent sniper weapons and some good sniper sequences. Also when he made the 200-yard off-hand headshots from a little boat with a .22 rifle and the bullet impacts on the bad guys were the equivalent of a .308 impact splatter. An even better sniper sequence was in Michael’s Mann’s big budget Miami Vice when they shot those guys in the car with Barrett 50’s. That car was being shot with real ammo.”

Rocky Chandler has his own feelings about Shooter, considering that he is one of a few real life snipers interviewed for an “extra feature” about Carlos Hathcock included with the film’s DVD release: “First, they’ve got Wahlberg, a left-handed shooter firing his right-handed rifle. Like the sniper in Saving Private Ryan, reaching over the stock to cycle the gun creates too much movement. Not only does that affect accuracy, but also it defeats a sniper fundamental: keeping still so you can’t be seen. Then a helicopter drives them out of their cover, and they’re trapped. A real sniper chooses his hide with one–or maybe more—escape routes out of there. I won’t even get into them claiming that Chey-Tac rifle would hold a tenth of a Minute of Angle accuracy at 1,500 yards!”

Shooter did hit the target with the pros at Leupold’s Tactical division: “Shooter was like a Leupold Mark IV commercial, with Wahlberg going into a store and buying his scopes for the final showdown right off the Leupold display.” Marketing Supervisor Patrick Mundy says his company loves this expanded role for the sniper in today’s Silver Screen epics because, just like in real life, “Most of these cinematic marksmen are going in to these hot situations with Leupold Mark IV scopes on their guns—although super hit-woman Angelina Jolie managed to get the Leupold CQT she used in Mr. and Mrs. Smith mounted backwards…”

None Pass Muster
An active Army Ranger who wished to remain unidentified chimed in with his view of recent sniper films. Which failed the smell test? “Hell Yes! Every friggin’ one… All three Sniper movies were particularly bad for accuracy—you don’t go out with a spotter and fight the whole time… there’s a job to do… support the mission. Shooter was a bit better in that they got the banter down pretty good and the equipment was very sound—it was nice to see Wahlberg using leaves to spray paint camo his gun—but then it’s hard to buy someone making a 1,780-yard shot and when he looks through the scope—sees the word ‘Folgers’ on the label. Not from a mile!”

Hollywood bigwigs like actors Michael Rooker from Tombstone and Slither, Michael Gregory from Robocop, and Director John Red Dawn Milius have taken classes in Tactical Marksmanship. Others, like TV’s Hulk Lou Ferrigno, have become actual Los Angeles County reserve Deputy Sheriffs, and include sniper rifles in their training.

Keep your eyes peeled for Barrett M107s in the hands of Police in Superman Returns. TV’s anti-terrorist shows 24 and The Unit feature snipers on both sides of the law. Watch for a Blaser straight pull Tactical model in the new comedy Rush Hour 3. Hit the video store to see the rare .308 bullpup Walther WA-2000 rifle in Timothy Dalton’s hands in James Bond adventure The Living Daylights. Look for a “yikes!” as a shiny chrome-plated Barrett .50 sniper rifle in the movie Blackwater Transit! Talk about concealment!

From Leggo-Land Armory

Is that a .308 Remington 700 shoehorned into an Anschutz position stock for Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power? And don’t forget the self-loader! With a revitalized role for the M14 with Marines in Iraq, look for movie M14s equipped with Jay Allen Enterprises’ amazing JAE-100 stock system in upcoming seasons of TV’s 24 and at your local theater.

No doubt, Hollywood loves the tactical marksman; elevating him from supporting player to star, so expect to see high-tech sniper rifles and their operators continuing to show up in films, along with fanciful reticles and ballistic-stretching long distance targets!

Hollywood Screenland PhotoBad Hollywood
In the new Jet Li/Jason Statham action film War, Beretta Cougar carrying FBI Agent Statham tracks international Hit Man “Rogue” portrayed by Li by his use of “depleted Uranium bullets” in titanium cases. Since these bullets are key to the plot, you think they’d be something really special. They are. While Li’s assassin is clearly shown using a Walther P-99 semi-auto pistol, the shell casings left behind are BOTTLE NECK cartridges.

They’re seen several times, featured in close-ups shots of loaded magazines and even prayed to on Li’s personal Shrine. Adding to the confusion, late in the film one of the other characters, and INTERPOL agent played by Luis Guzman, is seen carrying an FN Five Seven Pistol, which fires such a cartridge, the bottle-necked SS190 5.7x28mm.

That means they had FN 5.7s on the set, but I guess someone thought the 5.7 ammo looked cool, but the P-99 was a cooler looking gun. I agree.

Hollywood Screenland PhotoGood Hollywood
A good example of Hollywood trying to make it real comes from this issue’s featured scene from Shooter. When Mark Wahlberg’s Tactical Marksman Bob Lee Swagger is framed by evil Black Ops Colonel Danny Glover, he finds himself on the run, wanted and cut off from his weapons.

Commandeering a sympathetic FBI Agent played by Michael Pena, Wahlberg buys two Remington 700 rifles, a couple of Leupold Mark IV scopes, and spray paint camos them using leaves as stencils. In most movies this is where we’d cut to the final battle, but Shooter goes one step beyond most Hollywood action films and has Wahlberg spend the time to take his new partner Pena to a forest and train him in the basics of sniping and spotting. While it’s unrealistic that one session would make Pena a qualified sniper or spotter, Shooter gets and “A” for effort.

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