More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter” with Fred Ray

Fred Ray continues to explore the origins of the term, “sharpshooter,” and we’ll suggest one small bit of evidence to support his theory:

As part of the continuing quest to find the origins of the term “sharpshooter,” I directed a query to the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum) in Vienna, Austria. The Austrians, after all, were the first to employ rifle units and true light infantry in the 18th Century, and Central Europe (the Tirol, southern Germany, and Switzerland) was the birthplace of the rifle. Their reply is worth quoting at length.

We don’t know who painted this Union sharpshooter. If you do, please let us know so we can give credit.

While they were unable to definitely say when the term “Scharfschütze” came into to use, “your assumption regarding the origins in German language and the transfer to the United States via German mercenaries in the American War of Independence seems to be totally plausible. Furthermore I’m able to confirm that the term “Scharfschütze” was established in German language long before 1795 and that it had already been employed as part of the official designation for military units before that date.”

In the military of the Hapsburg empire the term “Scharfschütze” meant those soldiers who were armed with rifles in contrast to flints [i.e. smoothbore muskets]. The origins of the employment of so called “Scharfschützen” for military purposes lie in the improvised formation of companies of professional hunters (“Jäger”) or members of shooting associations (“Schützenvereine”) in times of war. Shooting associations were sometimes called (in their own right and not to be confused with the nowadays military connotations of this term) “Scharfschützenvereine”. ….

The usage of the term “Scharfschützen” as designation for whole units is documented at least for the beginning of the 18th century (as far as I know, while there might have been even older incidents).

1st Georgia Sharpshooters, CSA. There’s a website and a book about ’em.

Do Read The Whole Thing™, because the Austrians dug deep into their archives for Fred, and traced the term Scharfschützen as a formal unit name to at least 1702, for reserve and local defense units, and to 1769 for permanent establishments. There’s quite a bit of Austrian history (which gets complex in that period) in the museum’s reply.

And our small bit of evidence: the British Army, in a great example of Churchill’s “two nations separated by a common language”, never did use the term. They had Rangers, Rifles, Fusiliers, Fencibles, and more odd names for units than you could shake a shako at. But no Sharpshooters in the British Army.

Of course, while the British were not reluctant to hire entire units of Germans, their home nation did not feature German immigration and the introduction of German culture, including riflery and decent beer. America did, and so it seems probable that one of our smaller German imports of the 19th Century was this German military term.

Berdan’s Sharpshooters, presumably at Gettysburg. More than just a primer design! Again, we don’t know the source or the artist.

Fred frequently posts interesting stuff on the Civil War blog TOCWOC. His next post after this one dealt with a couple of letters about the cruel disposal of unlawful combatants at the time. And bringing together two Civil War arms historians in one post, Fred highlights a Joe Bilby article in a great post that ranges from sniping in the Civil War to sniping today.

13 thoughts on “More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter” with Fred Ray

  1. Jonathan Ferguson

    Ironically enough, ‘Sharpshooter’ IS now a British army term for a SDM (and his rifle).

    1. Hognose Post author

      Didn’t rub off on you from the Hessians, but you got reinfected with it by Americans, probably.

      Funny that Britain, where the once-world-leading gun industry is moribund, makes a very superior sniper rifle (Accuracy International). And yet they buy SDM rifles from an American firm. Not that the trade does either nation harm, we’ll buy more than their weight in Aston Martins, probably.

      1. Sommerbiwak

        Accuracy International only make bolt action target rifles basically. No semis anymore since Sabre went under. (I think sabre was the name of the UK AR-15 rifle maker). UK law makes semis for civilians forbidden fruits and from a few dozen rifles for the MoD nobody can live nowadays. IIRC the SDM rifles have been bought under some urgent need programme originally. And one must say that the Brits never had much of a problem with NIH in regards to small arms.

  2. Roscoe

    I’m not sure if the caption on the third picture (fellas by the stone wall) was intentional. It appears to have been done by Keith Rocco.
    Thanks for all of your work on this. I always come away a bit smarter and more curious.

  3. James F..

    First picture is by a guy named Randy Steele.

    I have a feeling it’s based on a photograph of a reenactor. There’s a fair number of green jacketed reenactors out there.

  4. Simon

    Just slightly off-topic, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. I took the neighbours’ kids a month or so ago and the display for WWI is very good. If you can find a museum that 13 and 15 year olds enjoy, then you know it is a good one. Better to go in summer though, the armoured vehicles are all parked outside and that part is closed in Winter. They even have things from WWII now, although that is a slightly difficult topic here

    1. Sommerbiwak

      Yes. So much so. The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum is really great. They have nearly everything there from the turkey wars, WW1 and 2 and what have you. Much better war museum than you find in Germany.

      My austrian relatives and many austrians in general seem to have a adopted a stance to blame everything to do with the “thousand year empire” on germany and often cast themselves as victims. Also a very neurotic relationship towards germany has developed with e.g. watching the german national football to see them lose. OTOH happily accomodating german tourists. Oh well.

  5. Simon

    Herr Nachbar,
    and that is really the Problem, neighbours always argue. It is perhaps especially difficult when one is much larger than the other. After all, which barking dog annoys you, the one belonging to your neighbour, or the one belonging to the baker three villages away?
    Anyway, it is always simpler to find somebody else to blame and it goes well with our usual avoidance of problems.
    Let me know if you will be in the Vienna area. I live quite near.
    Incidentally, there is quite a lot of complaining done about German tourists. We just don’t tell you about it.

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