The hunting of man: Weapons, tactics and practitioners (Book Review)

Title: One Shot, One Kill – A History of the Sniper; Author: Andy Dougan; Publisher: William Collins/Harper Collins; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 599

Armed forces may now swear by automated, precision weapons that can even make soldiers redundant, but there is one warrior that cannot be dispensed with. And with wars now mostly insurgencies with no discernible battle lines or adversaries, it is the sniper who is the true smart weapon, and can be used to prevent collateral damage that comes from using even drones. But have they been given their due?

While wars are undoubtedly fought and won collectively, it is only the sniper who can change the course of a battle with one bullet. But it is not only the battlefield where they can influence the flow of history, as this book points out. Remember what happened to President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963?

Snipers have been in the thick of battle for nearly four centuries, with no other soldier having their capacity to demoralise and disorient the enemy even before the opposing armies come to grips. But somehow, as Andy Dougan brings out in this book, their worth has only been grudgingly recognised by their superiors, if at all, while even their own colleagues feel uncomfortable around them.

Dougan, whose others books include “Dynamo” on the renowned Soviet football team, and biographies of Robert De Niro, Martin Scorcese and Michael Douglas, ventures into vastly different territory with this book but more than enough holds his own. He not only provides a terse but engrossing story of snipers and their exploits but also of attitudes towards them, and changing mores and norms of warfare and weaponry.

He also brings out the undeniable fact that the sniper’s victims are more prominent, and their death “carries disproportionate influence” and is “a blow to organisation and morale” but the shooter “melts away into the mists of history and uncertainty, if he ever existed at all”. This is evident from the start where he introduces us to the first recorded, but nearly accidental, use of a sniper to affect battlefield equations during the English Civil War, and the differing theories related to the incident.

However, Dougan formally starts by tracing the development of weapons morphing from those which could only be used at close quarters or short distances, to those that could hit and kill at much longer (safer) distances for their users.

Dwelling on how the longbow and then the crossbow changed the class contours of warfare, he then takes up the early use of guns before coming to the evolution of snipers in the late 18th century, where the American Revolution was one of the earliest major conflicts where they played a major role. Next follows the role of snipers in the subsequent conflicts from the Napoleonic wars, where a French marine robbed the opposing British of their renowned commander right at the moment of a victory, to the Second Iraq War.

As Dougan brings out, there are many similar trends about snipers in all the conflicts, especially about who all make the best ones, what they achieve (including their defensive role), but also the inexplicable reluctance of Anglo-American armies to retain them after conflicts end (till the Second World War at least) and how the Germans and Russians proved smarter in this respect.

Along with notable snipers over three centuries of warfare, but also those visionary, and often eccentric, commanders who promoted their use – usually against heavy odds and higher officials’ disinclination, Dougan also lays to rest myths such as of the American Civil War general killed while laughing off the enemy’s capability to hit him at that range, and the duel in devastated Stalingrad shown in Jude Law-starrer “Enemy at the Gates”.

Before wrapping up with the sniper’s characteristics, and abiding relevance, especially in contemporary automated battlefields, he also demonstrates their capability to create panic off the war zone by including the shooting of Kennedy, at the University of Texas in August 1966, and on the outskirts of Washington DC in October 2001.

Interesting for all those interested in war and especially the guns and their use, Dougan’s work is also a testament to man’s inclination to invent better weapons and tactics to hunt other men. It is thus an essential but sobering read.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at