The historical piece that I’ve been working on recently takes place in the 1850s. As I was writing dialogue, I wanted use the term, “sniper.” But then it occurred to me that “sniper” might be a twentieth-century term and therefore would be incorrect to use in this instance. I decided to do some research on when the term was introduced into the English lexicon. What I discovered was a little surprising.
According to most sources, the origin of the term sniper was associated with one’s ability to shoot a “snipe.” What is a snipe you say? Glad you asked. According to Shorebirds by Arthur Morris :
Snipes are bulky shorebirds with relatively short legs, long bills, boldy striped heads, and rusty reddish tails. The upperparts are blackish-brown variously streaked and barred buff. Broad buff strips run above the scapulars. All three plumages are virtually identical.
So how did this seemingly innocuous bird come to represent one of the most highly trained soldiers in any army? According to Out of Nowhere by Martin Pegler, the term was popularized as a military term in the early twentieth century:
By the late 18th century the word ‘sniper’ was being used in letters sent home by English officers serving in India, some of whom took to referring to a day’s rough shooting as ‘going out sniping’. The snipe is a small, fast-flying game bird with mottled black and brown plumage and a particularly erratic, twisting flight that make it difficult to see and even more difficult to hit. It took a skilled sportsman with a flintlock gun to bring down a snipe in flight. Such an accomplished shot was regarded as above average and inevitably during the 18th century the term ‘snipe shooting’ was simplified to ‘sniping.’ However in a military context, soldiers who were particularly able shots were referred to as sharpshooters or marksmen, but never snipers, and its use appears to come from the press during the early months of the First World War.
Having discovered this evidence, I decided not to go with the term sniper for my historical project. I also debated using the term “skirmisher”, which was a popular term for military marksmen during the Civil War, but decided in the end to go with marksman.