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A sniper rifle is a high-precision rifle designed for sniper missions. It serves to fulfil the tactical need for long range surveillance, effective anti-personnel and anti-materiel operations with high hit efficiency, and can be used by both military and law enforcement.
The Whitworth rifle was arguably the first long-range sniper rifle in the world. Designed by Sir Joseph Whitworth, a prominent British engineer, it used barrels with hexagonal polygonal rifling, which meant that the projectile did not have to bite into the rifling grooves as was done with conventional rifling. His rifle was far more accurate than the Pattern 1853 Enfield, which had shown some weaknesses during the recent Crimean War. At trials in 1857, which tested the accuracy and range of both weapons, Whitworth's design outperformed the Enfield at a rate of about three to one. Also, the Whitworth rifle was able to hit the target at a range of 2,000 yards, whereas the Enfield could only manage it at a distance of 1,400 yards. During the American Civil War, the Confederate sharpshooters equipped with Whitworth rifles were tasked to eliminate Union field artillery crews, and were responsible for killing Major General John Sedgwick — one of the highest-ranking officers killed during the Civil War — at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
During the Crimean War, the first optical sights were designed for fitting onto the rifles. Much of this pioneering work was the brainchild of Colonel D. Davidson, using optical sights produced by Chance Brothers of Birmingham. This allowed a marksman to more accurately observe and target objects at a greater distance than ever before. The telescopic sight, or scope, was originally fixed and could not be adjusted, which therefore limited its range. By the 1870s, the perfection of breech loading magazine rifles led to sniper rifles having "effective accurate" ranges of up to a mile away from its target.
During the Boer War, the latest breech-loading rifled guns with magazine and smokeless powder were used by both sides. The British were equipped with the Lee–Metford rifle, while the Boers had received the latest Mauser Model 1895 rifles from Germany. In the open terrain of South Africa, the marksman was a crucial component in battle. The Lovat Scouts was a British Army unit formed in 1899 that was renowned for the expert marksmanship and stalking skills of its personnel. The men wore ghillie suits for camouflage and were expertly skilled in observation. Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard said of them that "keener men never lived". After the Boer War, the Scouts became the first official sniper unit in the British Army.
It was not until World War I that sniper rifles began to be used more regularly in battle and certain soldiers given specialized training to use such a rifle. In Germany, these trained snipers were given rifles with telescopic sights, which illuminated at night in order to improve their accuracy. German gunsmiths fitted the scope above the barrel for optimal accuracy.
During the War, the accuracy of the sniper rifle was greatly improved. By the end of World War II snipers were reported to provide "reasonable accuracy" over 600 m (656 yd) with anything over this range being unpredictable. It was during World War I and II that the word ‘sniper’ began to be used commonly, whereas previously those who were armed with sniper rifles were referred to as sharpshooters, or marksmen.