What it isn’t, and what it is…
For some new snipers, there is the assumption that they have in their hands some kind of game-changing super weapon, able to score headshots from the other side of the site, with which they will pick of the entire enemy team single handedly wearing an invisibility suit, and have sponsors falling at their feet with gifts as soon as they upload their heroics to YouTube.
Isn’t video editing great? The reality however is quite different. First off, drop any illusions that you’re something special compared to anyone else; you’re probably a lot weaker, certainly to begin with. The airsoft sniper isn’t an elite unit compared to the other players on the field, certainly not until he has mastered the role. And that mastery will take time and effort. It’s a role where getting dirty and uncomfortable is all part of the fun, where you’re constantly outgunned, and rarely involved in any heroics. It’s not action packed in terms of laying down thousands of shots and wiping whole teams out, and requires a lot of patience and waiting out your opponent. And best of all, nobody will even know what you did, so nobody will see your accomplishments.
If you’re still reading, and still interested in pursuing the role, then that’s a good start if you’re new to this. If you’re reading as an experienced airsoft sniper, then hopefully you’ve just nodded in agreement – this is the reality of our role. What we have to do is learn to maximise what we do have, to compensate for what we don’t – firepower. If you decide to take a shot at a team of enemy players, and they see it, you can expect a barrage of plastic in your direction pretty quickly, which should result in you sticking your hand up. Game over. A lot of it is understanding you only have one shot in the barrel and using it wisely, because it’s very slow to get a second shot out. The sniper is a very fragile unit in that sense, although once you accept that then it becomes a much easier role to play. There’s a lot of work to do outside of game day too, from maintaining the rifle to modifying kit and camouflage, so it’s certainly a lot more involving.
So, once you’re kitted up, and you’ve made it to a site and ignored all the players making stupid bush jokes about your appearance, what next?
To start, you need to assess the game brief and work out how you can be most effective. It’s not a case of choosing a particular methodology and applying it to every situation. What you do on the field will be dictated by what your team needs to do to win, and how you then fit yourself into the overall game plan to achieve that victory.
Obviously you’ll be listening carefully to the game brief first, at the site you either know or you’ve checked out in advance. Although you’re not going to be securing the game objectives, you need to know where they are and as a result where the other players are going to be. It’s probably more important as a sniper because you’re not just interested in what one team is doing, you need to know what both teams are doing because you will likely be floating in the spaces between the two, and avoiding your own team is just as important. This is partly due to friendly fire threat from trigger happy players, especially if you suddenly surprise them, but also because your own team will often give you away by looking at you, talking to you, or shouting across for you to help them with what they’re doing, which also pulls you off task as well as the unwanted attention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to shoot my own teammates just to get them to shut up and let me get on with it. There are hundreds of different types of airsoft games and local variations on rules, and obviously every site and every game will throw up something different, and it won’t be possible to detail every possibility here, but hopefully this section gives you a reasonably good framework to build on.
Sometimes, either from arriving early, extended lunch breaks or technical failures ruling you out of a game, there is opportunity to walk around the site and have a better look at it than you normally would during games. Take your unloaded rifle with you to see if you can get a good position, but be careful about who may be watching. You can throw other players off by picking ineffective shooting positions and making a deliberate show by sitting there and aiming your rifle – this will be where they expect you to be later. What the other players then perceive is an expert sniper, busy lining up his shots and working the game out in advance, and you can control what they see and what they don’t. If time allows, away from prying eyes, you might find it useful to take a cutting tool and “modify” a couple of positions, by trimming branches or cutting gaps in bushes that are just enough to get a rifle through, without damaging the site of course. This can open up access to positions that weren’t there before and therefore that nobody will expect you to be in. Don’t tell your teammates about these – you’d be surprised how quickly word gets around an airsoft site.
On the subject of other players, do take the time during game briefs (while still listening of course) to study who is on which team and who you need to look for. A lot of sites will give out coloured armbands and these aren’t always visible in the woods, or you will have a few players who try to get clever by attaching the bands to their ankles or vests to try and help them hide better. IF there are a lot of players, pay particular attention to enemy snipers’ suits – each one is slightly different in composition and opposing snipers are as big a threat as you are. Focus as well on groups of players standing together during the brief, as they will often herd together on site and are easier to recognise than individuals. Game briefs are quite an intense few minutes of making mental notes but it is key to gather as much information as you can.
Once you’ve understood the rules of the game, you need to decide what kind of role you’re going to perform for your team. It’s important not to have a definite plan in your head, like “I’m going to go straight to my favourite position at X and wait for players to get into range”. Any airsoft game is very dynamic and your opponents unpredictable, so learn to constantly assess the situation around you, change your movements to suit, and never expect anything to go the way you planned. It also helps to not have a favourite position, because this makes you predictable.
There are, broadly speaking, two main roles a sniper will perform. Commonly we refer to these as the recon role (team sniper) and the lone wolf (solo sniper).
The Recon, or reconnaissance sniper, will be attached as part of a larger force, commonly as part of a pair or small fireteam. More commonly in larger events numbering hundreds of players per side, or milsim scenarios. The sniper here can act as a force multiplier by being able to scout ahead of the main force and provide constant information on enemy forces. The key here is a good communications setup, and possibly binoculars and a notepad and pencil. You’ll need a radio set that is compatible with the rest of your team, and ideally an earpiece to keep the transmissions quiet, without covering both ears which will inhibit your hearing. Ideally, you would want to avoid engagement performing the recon role in favour of being able to keep eyes on the wider battlefield, in order to give your team an advantage ahead of your own ambitions. Performed well, it can alter the course of the game.
At the 2019 England vs Scotland game, set in an urban environment, the first couple of hours on Englands left flank were a disaster. We’d been slow to advance from the first whistle, finding ourselves scattered, pinned down and unable to match our opponents, who seemed to be coming from everywhere. Thankfully, we had a very good sniper in our ranks who used his assault rifle to clear a building and took up a position at a window overlooking the whole of our side of town. From there, he got on the radio and started calling out Scottish positions, assisting by using his sniper rifle to keep their heads down, allowing the England players to regroup. Suddenly it became a lot easier; we knew how many enemy were approaching, and where from, which allowed us to start taking them out and moving forward. Without this information from our sniper, we wouldn’t have been able to recover and get the enemy team pushed back. If you were to ask any of the England players who were in the area that day, they’ll tell you how instrumental one sniper was in turning the entire course of the weekend (full game report here)
Recon done properly. It may be that you’re in a game where there are specific instructions for the sniper, possibly to locate certain objectives or monitor high value targets or VIP’s on behalf of the team. For these, the rifle becomes perhaps less important, although useful for its scope to be able to keep watch over an area. Clear and effective communication is a key skill. Don’t talk any more than you need to – keep the radio clear as much as possible, give short, precise information to make it easier for the receiver to understand. Speak to your team beforehand about how you want to navigate the site in order to give directions – knowing which way is north for example is a big help. Normally before big events, which will mean travelling and often to sites which are new to us, my team will study maps and Google Earth imagery of the site to try and get a feel for it (and print some off to keep in admin pouches). This is also very useful for the recon sniper – most airsoft sites will have social media you can study to see:
- The type of terrain you need to match your camouflage to
- The buildings and possible objectives
- Where players tend to gather on the site in photos (common routes, popular defensive positions etc)
These are also an asset to any sniper in any situation, you get out what you put in. Think of it as homework. It might sound like a dull way to spend the night before an event, but it makes things a lot easier the following day.
If your job is to help direct friendly forces onto an objective, once they arrive you will have the opportunity to start engaging targets in support. Be very clear about the strength of enemy forces in an area too, so that your team can allocate the correct resources. At this point, assuming there’s a firefight, most players will be distracted by noise and players near to them to be looking for you. If you’re in a static position watching over that area and within range, it’s a good idea to lay your spare mags down next to the rifle, so you can keep ammo going into the rifle. Every shot you take here helps your team; even if you miss, the sound of a heavy bb impacting nearby can keep enemy players in cover. and allow friendly forces to push forwards. It’s a bit like suppressing fire. Once the action is over, take the opportunity to refill all your mags and await further instructions.
It’s a more disciplined approach, requiring the sniper to understand and execute orders, although how you do it will be your part of the plan to work out. This goes back to your knowledge of the site, either from experience or research. Where are the enemy likely to be? What route will keep you hidden? Will you have a good vantage point over your objective? Did you modify a position for this in advance?
The Lone Wolf
The classic skirmish sniper role, although “lone” isn’t always true. I’d always suggest running as a pair when possible. Having a second pair of eyes, and twice the firepower, plus the ability to keep one teammate out there if one is spotted and hit out, is a huge advantage. And we like advantages. Usually operating apart from the team, without specific orders, the lone wolf is able to roam the field freely, using their ability to stay hidden and precision shooting to cause all sorts of problems for the enemy team.
In this role, the aim of the game for the sniper is to cause maximum disruption to the enemy team. For them, simply knowing there is a sniper out there can cause them to hesitate to move into certain areas (denial of area), or throw extra bodies into an area to clear the sniper threat, thereby weakening their team elsewhere. It’s a game of hide and…hide. Keeping yourself alive and the other team guessing is worth far more than trying to score kills (remember you’ve only got that one shot and a slow rate of fire). The best day I can recall having as a sniper was 18 kills – 0 deaths. There are players who scored more hits in only an hour of play, albeit with a lot of deaths too, but I was really pleased with the 0 deaths, because it meant I’d done the stealth side of things perfectly. That’s the sort of day you want to have as a sniper.
A few years ago I received this wisdom from a more experienced sniper:
“Don’t play the game, play the players”
What he meant was, don’t go for the objectives and don’t try and win the game, because you can’t. Playing the players is the fun part. The role changes very little throughout a lot of common game scenarios, such as;
- Capture the flag – Don’t attempt to go for a flag. It will be guarded by players who will have far superior firepower, usually in an open area and will force you to compromise your stealth to get it. Instead, help support your team, in order for someone else to get it.
- Detonate a bomb – As above
- Secure a hostage – As above
- Secure an item – As above
- Secure an area – With one shot? Not unless you find yourself last man standing on your team, in which case it is probably a lost cause.
- Protect a VIP – Give the VIP a bag of bb’s to throw at the enemy, they’d be more capable.
Being realistic, which we have to be because we’re going to assess our chances in order to maximise our effectiveness, there’s no way a sniper can or should be spearheading any attempts on game objectives. You are at your best harassing the enemy team, picking off players (see article on shot selection), flanking, denying space to operate in and just generally being a pain in the ass. But the key to it all is staying alive, and letting the enemy team worry about where you are. This psychological effect is a useful weapon in itself too – I once had people come up to me after a game saying how much of a problem I was to their team and they were really impressed because they couldn’t find me, when in reality I’d actually been in the safe zone tuning my rifle. Maybe it was the odd stray shot that they couldn’t attribute to anything other than a potential sniper nearby. I’ll admit I simply said “thank you” and shook their hands – I want them to keep thinking I’m there, whether I am or not.
I’ve heard of guys who pack their ghillie suits into bag so that people don’t know there’s a sniper on the opposite team, choosing instead to put it on in the game. I disagree – let them know you’re there, let them worry. They’ve probably already guessed because you’re holding a bolt action rifle anyway.
Running with a Buddy
In the real world, snipers work in pairs. In airsoft, it’s often a more individual role but there are a lot of benefits to having another sniper working with you. It means you have twice the firepower (which still isn’t very much), the ability to cover a much larger area, visually and tactically, and as a second opinion on what the next move is. It also means that if you get hit, while the enemy team might think that they have eliminated the sniper threat, it remains to take advantage of an opponent who has lowered their guard. Many will advise on one of the pair replacing their sniper rifle with an assault rifle, to provide close quarters capability and act as a spotter, like real snipers do, but I’d advise both to keep the bolt action rifles; if one partner is hit out (two snipers = double the chance of being spotted), you want the other to be able to fill the same role. Both should be equally equipped and capable. Move by bounding in turns, moving from cover to cover, meeting together every five or so bounds to plan the next move. This will avoid trying to communicate over a distance. The partner that bounds forward should check the area is safe first before waving the other partner to make their move. Be each others eyes and ears.
I’m not going to touch on roles such as “CQB sniper” or “active sniper” because I think neither are actually sniper roles at all, it’s just a normal player using a bolt action rifle as a weapon instead.
So, now that you have a game plan, how do you go about executing it?