Book Review: Out of Nowhere: A history of the military sniper, from the Sharpshooter to Afghanistan
Setting his sights on the legacy of the military sniper, Paul Robinson scopes out a detailed history from Osprey Publishing.
Author: Martin Pegler
Publisher: Osprey Publishing, 2011.
“He must harass the foe…..hammer relentlessly upon the nerves of the rank and file of the opposing forces, until his rifle ‘crack’ becomes a menace feared more than shrieking shells…..or explosive hail from mortars. His bullets must come from nowhere.” These words from George Van Orden (United States Marine Corps-USMC) are as great as a description as you will get for a military sniper. It is one of many excellent quotes found in Out of Nowhere by Martin Pegler.
This book was originally published in 2004 and has been produced in a number of formats. Here we have the hand held paperback version and it has been revised to bring the final chapter, “21st Century Sniping”, fully up-to-date. Basically, the book does exactly what it says on the tin and the quote on the cover from Master Sergeant Carey I Fabian (USMC, Anti-Terrorism Training Branch) summarizes it better than I: “Accurate and informative, a must read to understand the evolution of the modern sniper.”I could not agree more.
Our author is something of a firearms expert, who enjoys shooting historical firearms and shooting competitions. So he writes with practical experience of the subject matter. He has also interviewed many combat veterans and a small part of the fruit of those labours informs this work. This experience is especially important in this work as most snipers are notoriously reticent about their stock-in-trade. Perhaps because of their personality type—naturally quiet loners—and if captured they could, as a rule, expect no mercy. Snipers actively go out and seek to take the life of the enemy in a very personal way, so they are often shunned by their own side! Clearly, it has required a great deal of trust for those quoted in the book to open up and contribute their experiences.
Mr. Pegler has a number of other Osprey books to his name relevant to the subject of sniping and snipers. These are: Sniper: a History of the US Marksman; Sniper Rifles; The Lee Enfield Rifle (both from their newish Weapons series); and the Elite series title The Military Sniper since 1914.
In this book, over a series of thirteen chapters, Mr. Pegler covers the evolution of the sniper. Starting with early 16th century German and Dutch sharpshooting clubs and concluding with the modern day and its ultra sophisticated weaponry. Along the way we look at the emergence of the rifleman through the American Civil War and the Crimean War, and his metamorphosis in the First World War which led to the combat system we recognize today as the “sniper”. The author then explains the cycle of the loss of sniping skills and their subsequent painful re-learning through the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The book’s narrative is basically chronological and the chapters are organized by the experiences of different countries. So, for example, in the Second World War the book distinguishes the differences between Russian, Japanese, American, German and British/Commonwealth snipers—in terms of their rifles, training and operational methods (the Japanese, cliché as it now is, liked to snipe from tree tops). Within each chapter there is also a further parallel organization in terms of the development of the various components required to make up a successful sniper. The latter are basically the optics, the weapons, the ammunition and the training of the men and women (Russian snipers) who pull the trigger. Each chapter is liberally sprinkled with quotes from snipers and others who have contributed to the advancement of sniping; these provide some excellent anecdotes along the way. For example, the probable origin of the term “sniping”—I have to confess, I didn’t know this.
The various chapters blend the quotes, anecdotes and the general historical narrative with technical elements. This is mainly about riflescopes and how they have changed and become more sophisticated, also including discussions on ammunition types (snipers crave rounds of consistently high quality) and the evolution of long-arm technology. The real success of the author in this book was achieved with a balance between what a general military reader wants and enjoys in a book of this type, and what someone with a more detailed interest in sniping might require. He satisfies the former without overwhelming them with complex detail, the latter without leaving them unsatisfied with a lack of technical information—not an easy thing to do! The attempt could have rendered the book neither fish nor fowl, but the author makes it work very well.
Books of this nature are usually supported by a collection of photographs and this one is no exception. The reader is very well served by three sets of pictures, arranged in chronological order. All relate directly to the text showing either weapons, scopes, famous snipers (such as the Russian Vasily Zaitsev, whose exploits were featured, with some license, in the excellent film Enemy at the Gates), and other snipers and sharpshooters in their natural environment. The sets of photographs are more than just eye candy or added atmosphere; they add interest and assist with understanding. So, full marks there. There is also an excellent glossary at the back to explain those technical terms, such as graticules and windage drum, to the lay person.
For me, this book was a pleasure to read and review. It was very difficult to put down, and whilst the technical detail of riflescopes was really not “my cup of tea”, I did not mind being told all about them! I’d recommend this to anyone interested in sniping. Not necessarily definitive in itself, it packs a heck of a lot into its 303 pages. Wargamers too will find something in there for them, adding accuracy to any rule sets or scenarios that involve the deadly sniper! Finally, for the general reader of military history this is also a great read, full of interesting detail, notable quotes and some fascinating action sequences.
Review written by: Paul Robinson, Staff Writer
About Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson is a wargamer with over 30 years of experience in figure wargaming. He has interests in all things military from the Ancient Sumerians to the British Army in Afghanistan. He is an obsessive collector of books from Osprey Publishing and has contributed widely to the Field of Glorywargames rules franchise. A confirmed “Trekkie”, he also regards Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as great TV! He lives in Surrey, England with his wife, two children, one cat and a large collection of wargaming figures.
Forum username: SabreRattler