Sniper Rifles of World War II
ABOVE: Two combatants sit at rest. The K98k Mauser is above the Springfield M1903A4. Their army’s helmets lie next to them.
One definition of a sniper rifle is “a precision rifle used to insure more accurate placement of bullets at longer ranges than other small arms.” The word “sniper” is derived from the snipe bird which was very hard to shoot as its flight path was highly erratic. The military sniper came into being back at the turn of the 18th century.
The first true sniper rifle is generally thought to be the British Whitworth rifle invented in 1854 by Sir Joseph Whitworth, under commission from the British War Department. It was a single-shot muzzle-loaded 45 caliber percussion-fired rifle with an accurate range out to 2,000 yards. Around 13,000 of them were built between 1857 and 1865. The Confederate States of America used some of them during the American Civil War.
What made the Whitworth stand out and have such excellent accuracy was the design of its rifling – which it didn’t really have. The bore of the barrel was hexagonal with a 1 in 20 inch twist. The bullets were long for the caliber and they were hexagonal instead of round. They fit very tightly in the bore and had much less friction than round bullets fired through standard rifling.
Sniper rifles advanced in design through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when the first bolt-action breech loading rifles became available. The French had the Chassepot 11mm bolt action rifle; the Prussians the Dreyse 15.4mm needle gun.
The first skirmish of the First World War took place August 3, 1914 at a small village named Joncherey in France. This was the initial battle on what was to become the Western Front. By the end of 1914, armies on both sides had stalled their advance. Trenches were dug with what came to be known as “No Man’s Land” between opposing forces. So began a war of attrition. During this period snipers were utilized by both sides to pick off any soldier who exposed any part of his body for a period of three seconds, or less. The War to End All Wars (named in error, as was proven a few years later), saw Germany and Great Britain make great strides in snipers and sniper rifles up to the end of the war in 1918.
Twenty Years Later – 1938
As the 1930s closed, it became obvious that the old animosities were leading up to another global conflict – this time much greater that the last one. Germany was re-arming at a rapid rate. Japan was in the process of creating its “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” which was announced June 29, 1940. Russia stated that by 1938 six million troops had qualified for the “Voroshiloff rifle badge, and that the soviet munitions factories had built over 53,000 Mosin-Nagant sniper rifles. Great Britain still had stocks of its P1914 Mk1 (T) sniper rifle left over from the first conflict. Japan had a number of different sniper rifles, including the 6.5 mm Type 97 and the 7.7 mm Type 99. The United States had dropped most of its sniper programs between the two wars. There was only a small training school at Camp Perry, Ohio. However, the Marine Corps had always prided itself on its marksmen and encouraged target practice on an individual basis. This changed when a sniper program was initiated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina at the end of 1942.
All the world’s major powers were ready to go to war, and they were bringing their snipers in a big way.
Service Dates: 1898 – 1945
Used by : 11 countries including Germany
Wars Since World War I: 1918 German Revolution, Finnish Civil War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War
Designed by: Peter Paul Mauser
Patented: Sept 9, 1895
Manufactured by: Mauser, Deutsch Wafer und Munitionsfabriken, Heal, Sauer & Sonn, Waffenwerke Oberspree, V. CHR. Schilling Co., Simson, Imperial Arsenals of Amber, Danzig, Efurt, Leipzig, and Spandau
Number Built: 16,000,000+ all types
Variants: K98a, K98b, K98k,
Weight: 9.0 lb
Length: 49.2 inch
Barrel Length: 29 inch
Cartridge: 7.92×57 mm Mauser
Muzzle Velocity: 2881 fps
Effective Range: 550 yards, 800+ yards with scope
Capacity: Internal 5-round magazine
Sights Sniper: 1.5x, 4x, 6x scopes
Germany in World War I had relied on the Mauser Gewehr 98 (G98) service rifles with scopes. This is the best known of all Mauser rifles. It’s chambered in 7.92 mm (8 mm Mauser), bolt action with a five round magazine. In the early months of 1915, the decision was made to produce 18,000 G98 Rifles with scope sights as sniper rifles. The rifle wasn’t designed to be used with a scope, so the bolt had to be turned down and a recess carved into the stock so that it could be cycled with the scope on the rifle. The mount had to be high enough for the soldier to be able to load the magazine, run the bolt back and forth and flip the safety catch.
This rifle carried into World War II in its sniper role. Germany then modified the G98 by changing the rear sight to a flat tangent, removed the stacking hook, cutting a slot in the butt stock for a sling, and bending the bolt handle down. This became the K98k.
They used the basic K98k platform in different varieties. By the end of World War II five such types had been employed.
1. First type – short rail system
2. Second Type – uses the ZF 41 and ZF41/1 scopes
3. Type Three is the turret mount system both high and low
4. Type Four is a long rail mount
5. Type Five is a claw mount
The various systems were used at different times and sometimes employed concurrently. Various optics companies supplied the scopes; Schneider & Co., Zeiss, Hensoldtwerk, Ajak, and others. Magnification ran from 1.5x to 6x. The 4x and 6x were the most used as the 1.5 didn’t have enough magnification for combat duties.
The short rail system was attached to the left side of the rifle’s receiver by three screws. This mount was used during the 1930s by German police. In 1941 the High Command ordered it into general combat. The most common scopes are 4x.
The Second type began using the Zielfernrohr 41 (ZF41/ZF41/1) low magnification scope in 1941. Originally intended for sharpshooters, this scope was unpopular with the snipers as its 1.5 power wasn’t adequate for the task at hand. Approximately 100,000 were manufactured by the end of the war in 1945.
The Low Turret/ High Turret Type Three used different scopes. The High Turret has a 6.35 mm greater recess depth in the front scope base cone than the Low Turret. Other than that, they’re the same rifle.
Type Four – Long Rail Mount – uses a longer mounting base for better rigidity. This required a larger receiver flat be milled to take the base. This base used three screws and three tapered pins to control flex or movement. This system came in use in 1944.
The Claw Mount only was in use from late 1943 to 1944. Less than 10,000 K98ks were fitted with them. The most common scope was the Hensoldt Metzler.
Other German rifles were converted to sniper duty with different amounts of success. Mauser built a semi-automatic 10-round rifle called the G 41. It wasn’t a good design and not many were built. Then Carl Walther modified the rifle and produced it in 1943, calling it the Model G 43. As all G 43 rifles were built with flat side receivers set up for mounting a scope. Making a sniper rifle consisted of adding a ZF 4 4x scope. No other brand of scope was used during World War II. German snipers still preferred the K98k over the G 43.
Walther G 43
Service dates: 1943-1945
Used by Nazi Germany, German Democratic Republic
Wars: World War II
Manufactured: by Walther
Number built: 400,000+ (all types)
Variants: G 43, K 43
Weight: 9.7 lb (w/o scope)
Length: 44.5 inch
Barrel length: 21.5 inch
Action: Gas-operated (can be bolt operated)
Muzzle velocity: 2,448 fps
Effective range: 875 yards (scope)
Capacity: 10-round detachable magazine
Sights: Zf 4 scope
Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE)
Service dates: 1907-present
Used by: Britain, Australia, Canada
Wars since WWII: Minimum 16
Designer: James P. Lee, Enfield Arsenal
Manufacture by: Enfield Arsenal- Great Britain, Long Branch- Canada, Savage- USA
Numbers built (all types): 17,000,000+
Variants (sniper): SMLE Sniper (telescopic sights), No.1 Mark III H.T. (Australian), Rifle No. 4 Mark I (T) and Mark I* (T)
Weight: 8.8 lb. (w/o scope)
Length: 44 inch
Barrel length: 25.2 inch
Cartridge: .303 Mk VII ball
Muzzle velocity: 2,441 fps
Effective range (optics): 750 yards
Capacity: 10-round magazine
Sights (sniper): Various scopes made by Periscope, Aldis, Winchester, R.E.I., Enfield No. 32
The “Smelley” rears its head. The Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), was first developed during World War I from the original Lee-Metford series. It was designed as a replacement for both the long barreled rifle and the carbine with its shorter barrel.
The first sniper rifle constructed was built on the Mark III and Mark III* rifles and designated SMLE Sniper (optical). They were fitted with front and rear optics that when looked through gave a 2-3 power magnification. Slightly more than 13,000 SMLEs were converted in 1915. These were occasionally seen during World War II, but very rarely.
Similar to the optical SMLE was the SMLE Sniper (Telescopic Sights). This rifle had conventional telescopic sights made by Periscope, Aldis, Winchester, and others. Around 9,700 of these rifles were converted during World War I and were used into World War II.
As an aside, Britain still used the World War I P1914 Mk I (T) sniper rifle up until 1942 when the Enfield No 4 Mk 1 (T) and No 4 Mk 1* (T) entered the conflict. The main difference between the MkI and the Mk I* is that the Mk I* was built in the United States mostly by Savage-Stevens. The bolt head catch was altered for ease of production.
Canada also had the SMLE sniper rifle known as the Long Branch. Some of the Canadian rifles mounted the Lyman Alaskan scope, although less than 100 were fitted. These Canadian Long Branch sniper rifles mainly used the scope built in Canada by R.E.I. It was very similar to the Enfield No. 32. R.E.I. also designed and built the No. 67 Scope, however less than 100 were mounted on the SMLE.
The No I Mk III H.T. (Australian) came into being towards the end of the war. It used rebuilt actions that dated between 1915 and 1918 with a heavy barrel installed. The scopes were Australian Pattern 1918 (Aus). Both high and low mounts were used. The iron sights remained and the rifle could be operated using iron sights without removing the scope.
Most of the scopes used during World War Two were built by Enfield and identified as the No. 32 (Mk 1-3). The scope had originally been designed to fit on a BREN machine gun, so robustness wasn’t a problem. It was capable of hits out to about 800 yards, but 600 yards was a more realistic number.
Arisaka Type 97 & Type 99
Arisaka Type 97 (38)
Service dates: 1937-1945
Used by: Japan
Wars since WWII: Chinese Civil War, Indonesian National Revolution, Korean War, First Indochina War, Vietnam
Manufactured by: Koishikawa Arsenal, Choker Arsenal, Nagoya Arsenal
Number built: 22,500 (Type 97), 14,000 (Type 99)
Variants: Type 97, Type 99
Weight: 8.7 lb (Type 97), 8.1 lb (Type (99)
Length: 50.4 inch (Type 97)
Barrel length: 31.5 inch (Type 97), 25.5 inch (Type 99)
Caliber: 6.5x50mm (Type 97), 7.7x58mm (Type 99)
Muzzle Velocity: 2,510 (Type 97), 2,394 (Type 99)
Capacity: Five round magazine (both)
Sights sniper: 2.5 power scope with serial number matched to the rifle. (Weight approximately 2.3 lb with mount)
The Arisaka Type 97 “Sniper’s Rifle” was based on the Type 38 rifle that was first introduced in 1905. The Type 97 first saw service in 1937. Caliber was 6.5x50mm. Recoil was very light and muzzle blast was low. These qualities made for a good sniper rifle platform, and counter-sniping against the Arisaka was difficult. Having a barrel 31 inches long also allowed all the powder inside the mild cartridge to be completely burned so there was little flash or smoke.
It had a 2.5 power scope mounted on the left side of the receiver and offset to the left to allow loading with stripper clips. It was factory mounted and stamped with the rifle’s serial number. The scopes were manufactured by Tokyo Dai-lch Rikugun Zoheisho factory and others. They weren’t adjustable. Each scope was zeroed to its rifle by adjustment at the mount.
The only other changes from the Type 38 was the use of a slightly lighter stock with a wire monopod that swiveled at the front sling mount.
With the advent of the 7.7x58mm Type 99 rifle in 1939, it was only a matter of time before it was adapted to sniping duties. The heavier 7.7 caliber bullet punched through the air with better ballistics than the Type 97’s 6.5 mm projectile. However, this came at the cost of higher recoil and visible smoke from the shorter 26 inch barrel.
Two different scopes were issued with the rifle. The first was the Type 97’s 2.5 power, and the second was a non-adjustable Type 99 4-power. Towards the end of the war some 2,000, give or take, were built with range adjustment. The scopes could easily be detached and carried in a pouch when the sniper
There was one variant of the Type 99 that had a bent bolt and the scope fitted above the receiver which effectively turned it into a single shot.
Service dates: 1931-1945
Used by: Just about everybody
Designer: Sergi Mosin & Leon Nagant
Manufactured by: Izhevsk Arsenal, Tula Arsenal
Number built: 54,000+
Variants: PE or PEM, PU
Weight: 8.8 lb w/o scope
Length: 48.5 inch
Barrel length: 29 inch
Muzzle velocity: 2838 fps
Capacity: 5 rounds
Effective range: 730 yards (scope)
Sights: PE & PEM scope, PU scope
Mosin-Nagant 91/30 sniper rifle production began in 1942 and continued through 1944. Two Arsenals did the conversion on accurate infantry 91/30 rifles – Tula and Izhevsk. The Izhevsk Arsenal produced 53,195 sniper rifles in 1942. A total of 275,250 were completed when manufacturing ended in 1958. Numbers for the Tula Arsenal, which only built sniper rifles in 1943 and 1944, are not available, but certainly were much smaller than Izhevsk. The Tula rifles are identified by a five-point star with an arrow stamped onto the top of the chamber. The Izhevsk symbol was a hammer and sickle within a wreath in the same place.
There were two variants of the rifle – PE or PEM, and the PU, determined by which type of scope was mounted. (“PE” = unified model. “PEM” = unified model modern) Early PE scopes could be focused, later PEM could not. The first snipers were fitted with a 4 power PE or PEM scope that Russia reversed engineered from a Zeiss Zf-4. Later, a simpler 3.5 power scope, PU, was fitted. This scope has no means of focusing, so the sniper had to have perfect, or slightly better, eyesight. Its lower magnification made operation a bit easier, but what you saw is what you got.
To fit the scope, the bolt handle had to be turned down and lengthened. The scope mount attached to the left side of the receiver by a rail. The PE scope was used from 1931 to around 1939 (some sources say longer). The PEM was manufactured from 1937 to 1942. The lower power PU was built from 1942 to 1944.
Tokarev M1940 SVT
Service dates: 1940-1950
Used by: Russia
Designer: Fyedo Tokarev
Number built: 51,710
Variants: SVT-38, AVT-40
Weight: 8.5 lb unloaded
Length: 48.3 inch
Barrel length: 24.6 inch
Action: Gas-operated semi-automatic
Muzzle velocity: 2720 fps
Effective range: 1,100 yards (scope)
Capacity: 10-round detachable magazine
Sights: Iron, 3.5 power PU scope
Feed Vasilievich Tokarev was a Russian weapons designer and deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Among his many accomplishments was the M1940 SVT (Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokareva, Obrazets 1940 Goad – Tokarev Self-loading Rifle, Model of 1940.), built from 1940 through the end of the war.
Before the M1940, he designed the M1938 SVT. This rifle was the precursor to the M1940, but had a fair amount of problems. It was not able to stand up to combat as was learned in the Winter War of 1939 when Russia and Finland opened hostilities. However, more than 150,000 of the M1938 rifles were manufactured from 1938 to 1940.
The M1940 was the second most prolific semi-auto next to the M1 Garand of World War II. It was gas operated and the untrained Soviet conscript didn’t have the knowledge or ability to service he rifle. It had a complicated gas-operated short-stroke piston operating a tilting bolt that required special tools and depot-level training to service.
All M1940s had two grooves on top of the rear of the receiver, parallel to the bore where a scope mount could be clamped. The infamous PU scope was used. This, along with a precision bore, was all that set the sniper rifle apart from the service rifle. Due to the poor quality of Soviet wartime ammunition, and a very large muzzle blast from the 24.6 inch barrel, 4.4 inches shorter than the Mosin-Nagant’s barrel, the Mosin was preferred, and was the most prolific bolt action sniper rifle used in World War II.
Springfield M1903 A4
Service dates: Army – 1943-end of war, US Marine Corps – entire war
Used by: US Army, US Marine Corps (M1941 Sniper Rifle)
Designer: Springfield Armory
Wars: World War I & II, Korean War, Vietnam War
Weight: 9.38 lb
Length: 43.21 inch
Barrel length: 24inch
Cartridge: 30-06 Springfield
Action: Bolt, 5-round magazine
Muzzle velocity: 2,800 fps
Effective range: 600 yards
Sights-Army: Weaver M73B1 2.2X power
Sights-USMC: Lyman 5A 5X power, Unertl 8X power
The M 1903 rifle was originally designed by the Springfield Armory in 1901. That version wasn’t accepted by the US Army. It was re-designed and the 1903 version was accepted. Selected rifles were fitted with telescopic sights from 1907 to after the First World War. Prior to the Second World War US Army interest in sniping was almost non-existent. When fighting in the Pacific Theater, the need for a long distance sniping rifle became evident. On January 18, 1943 Remington Arms received a contract to take 20,000 M1903A3 Springfield rifles from the production line and convert them to the M1903A4. The first was delivered February 1943.
The M1903A3 was modified by turning down the bolt handle for scope clearance, removing all iron sights, fitting permanent scope blocks, and installing a 2.2x power Weaver scope designated M73B1. As the war progressed, improved models of Weaver 2x scopes, the M81, M82, and M84, were implemented as they became available. The scope fit directly over the magazine negating the use of stripper clips when reloading. Rounds had to be inserted one at a time. With the scope mounted directly over the barrel, the “Model 03-A3” markings could not be read, so they were moved to the left side. These markings added some confusion when seen on an M1903A4, as no rifles were marked A4. Two types of stocks can be found on the M1903A4, A1 straight stocks and C stocks with a pistol grip.
The Marine Corps had their own sniper rifle based on the 1903 Springfield. They designated their 03A4 sniper rifle as “M1941 Sniper Rifle”. They used 03A1 National Match actions and star gauged or very accurate stock barrels. Stock was a Type C pistol grip and the upper handguard was modified to allow the front scope mount to attach to the barrel. The Marines had used similar rifles between the wars, but this new model didn’t see action until November 1943.
The telescopic sight was quite different from the Army’s Weaver scopes. Based on the military version of Unertl’s 8 power target scope, it was much more accurate. Hits could be made out to 1,000 yards when the rifle was in the proper hands of a well-trained Marine.
Springfield M1C Garand
Service dates: July 1944 -end of war
Used by: US service rifle
Wars: World War II
Designer: John C. Garand
Manufactured by: Springfield Armory
Effective range: 500 yards
Numbers built: 7,900 approx.
Length: 43.5 inch
Barrel length: 24 inch
Cartridge: 30-06 Springfield
Sights: Lyman Alaskan – M73, M81, M82, 2.2 power
When the US Army entered into World War II in 1941, it did not have a dedicated sniper rifle. The Springfield M1903A4 was pressed into service while the Army Ordnance department evaluated different designs to convert a M1 Garand into an accurate semi-automatic sniper rifle. One of the major problems in the conversion was just how to mount the scope. As the magazine had to be fed from eight-round en-bloc clip from the top, mounting a scope on the rifle’s centerline was out of the question. Many different solutions were tried, and finally a mount that attached to the left side of the receiver and mounted an offset scope was ordered from Griffin and Howe. Five holes had to be drilled in the receiver to secure the mount. Two were used for tapered pins to align and steady the mount. Three were threaded for screws. To be able to see through the scope, a leather cheek pad had to be attached to the buttstock to position the solder’s eye properly.
A concern about muzzle flash led to a cone-shaped flash hider being adopted in January 1945. This proved to be of little use and could affect accuracy, so a lot of them were removed. The Lyman M73 2.2 power scope was originally fitted to the M1C, but as the war progressed the M81, and then the M82 became standard.
Problems with the scope and its mounts, and accuracy delayed M1C production woefully. It was not until the final months of the war in the Pacific in 1945 that the M1C entered combat. Less than 8,000 saw war service.
The M1D Garand differed from the M1C in scope and mount only. The scope base was permanently attached to the rear of the barrel and drilled and tapped to take a scope mount. A knurled screw allowed the mount with the scope to be easily removed. The scope was designated M84. The cone-shaped flash hider on the M1C was replaced by a slender barrel extension. Almost no M1Ds were manufactured or distributed to combat zones during World War II. In the early 1950s, they were converted from existing service rifles for use
in the Korean War.