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.
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).
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.
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.