Trench warfare and machine guns characterized World War I and stagnant positional warfare allowed sniping to flourish. This allowed for the periscope rifle, a modernization of the American Civil War concept, to flourish.
Australian Ion Idriess fought in Gallipoli as well as in the Middle East and this gave him an opportunity to use a periscope rifle, which he describes:
The opposing trenches are so close that the loopholes are useless to either side. Any loophole opened in daylight means an instant stream of bullets. So Jacko [slang for Turk soldier] uses his periscope rifle and we reply with ours. A periscope is an invention of ingenious simplicity, painstakingly thought out by man so that he can shoot the otherwise invisible fellow while remaining safely invisible himself. Attached to the rifle-butt is a short framework in which two small looking-glasses are inserted, one glass at such a height that it is looking above the sandbags while your head, as you peer into the lower glass, is a foot below the sandbags. The top glass reflects to the lower glass a view of the enemy trenches out over the top of the parapet. It is a cunning idea, simple and deadly…
The German firm Leitz received an order for 10,000 periscope rifle rests from the Prussian War Ministry. These were detachable units that could be used with the ordinary service rifle. They had a separate stock that held the periscope and was clamped onto the rifle stock. The periscope stock also had a trigger that was attached to a cable that ran up and through the framework and hooked onto the rifle’s trigger. Like its British and American counterparts, this invention allowed the soldier to safely aim and fire his rifle without exposing himself. Seeking to similarly equip its army but with domestically manufactured products, the Bavarian War Ministry ordered 2,500 rests from Bogen-Lampen und Apparate-Fabrik GmbH in Nuremburg. Initially mirrors were employed by Bogen-Lampen but as they tended to fog up, sealed periscopes were used in later models. Delivery was slow and by October 1917 only 432 had been received. U-boat periscopes were a higher priority for the firm. What ended the periscope rifle were unfavorable evaluations as well as troops’ complaints about the weight and unwieldiness. No further orders were made.
Captain Herbert McBride disliked the periscope rifle and complained, “The use of various skeleton mounts for rifles, by which the firer aims through a periscope and manipulates the rifle through a system of levers, never appealed to me. True, I sometimes used them, but never had much confidence as to my ability to hit anything …”
Other nations, including the French, Dutch, British and Americans, had their own variations. All shared in common the characteristic of being top heavy and awkward to use. The final German innovation was detachable radioactive glow-in-the-dark night sights that function like modern night sights. The rear sight unit had two horizontal bars between a V-notched peephole and the front sight a large luminous globe. Either unit could be attached or detached by turning a knob.
With the failure of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and France’s Plan 17, the war on the Western Front degenerated into trench warfare. Appreciating the lessons of the Boer War and in response to good marksmanship exhibited by some British and French soldiers, the German Army wanted scoped rifles. It was assisted by the General German Hunting Association President, the Duke of Ratibor, who in January 1915 appealed for scoped rifles:
German hunters! You hunters in the homeland can and must help to defeat the enemy. The special conditions of trench warfare, which must be waged by our brave soldiers at short range on the western theatre, demand special weapons! A sure and quick effect against small, well covered individual targets must be heightened by particularly suitable weapons! These weapons, effective rifles with telescopic sights, are in your hands. On the request of the HIGH COMMAND and with consent of the WAR MINISTRY the FATHERLAND makes the following REQUEST: Increase your sacrifices! Give up your beloved weapons! Make your telescopic rifles available to our soldiers! Make the sacrifice that is not small for a true German hunter.
Over 20,000 hunting rifles were collected but after inspection many were unsuitable for the newer ethyl-alcohol-based propellant and spitzer bullet “S-Patrone” cartridge. The suitable rifles were marked with a “Z” on the butt and the unsuitable with a “M.” The “M” stood for the older ethyl-acetate propellant and roundnose bullet cartridge. Even the rifles that accepted the S-Patrone cartridge were not ideal since their shorter barrels recoiled more and had a larger muzzle blast that betrayed the shooter’s location. Until replacement rifles could be provided, they would have to do.
Starting in 1916 the hunting rifles were withdrawn from service and replaced with newly manufactured sniper rifles, the development of which began in 1914 under the Rifle Inspection Commission. With the exception of rifles made by Goerz, the Bavarian rifles generally had their scopes centerline with the bore whereas the Prussian-issued scopes were offset to the left to allow for loading via stripper clips. Bavarian scopes were 4×, had a vertical post and crosshair reticle and were adjustable from 200, 400 and 600 meters and the Prussian ones had a cross-hair reticle, 3× magnification with its wider field of view and adjustable in 100-meter increments from 100 to 1,000 meters. Each scope mounting system had its advantage and disadvantages. The rifles with offset scopes were difficult to aim through the small loophole of a shield. The centerline mounting system’s disadvantage was that the rifle could not be reloaded rapidly, the sniper had to dismount his scope in order to reload. As the war endured, the distinction diminished and the Prussians adopted the Bavarians centerline-bore-mounting system and the Bavarians for their part the Prussian cross-hair reticle.
Initially each company was issued three scoped rifles (four in the Bavarian Army). By February 1918 the Prussian War Ministry raised it to five per company. It was generally left to the company commander to determine who received them. Unfortunately, the rifles were issued to the soldiers with little training nor were there guidelines to the company officers who distributed them. Some soldiers had superior field craft because of their hunting background. Additionally the Bavarians had greater familiarity with scoped rifles, cared for them better and used them more effectively than the Prussians who lacked hunting experience. Captain Herbert McBride shared some insights into the German snipers’ skill:
And right here I want to say that, at the short ranges—up to three hundred, possibly four hundred, yards—those German snipers could shoot. I do not think they were much good at long range; in fact I doubt whether they often attempted any of what we would call long-range shooting. I know we showed ourselves, with impunity, at anything beyond six or seven hundred yards. Sometimes they would snipe at us with a 77 mm wiz bang, especially if there were more than two or three in the party, but, with the rifle, never. The greatest range at which I ever knew a German sniper to fire at any individual was about five hundred yards. This fellow did get Charlie Wendt; but, as he fired some fifteen or twenty shots at me while I was administering first aid to Charlie and trying to get him under cover, and never hit me …
The onset of static trench warfare was followed by German snipers asserting their dominance. Reported losses of “five killed per week per battalion” were initially greeted with disbelief and later frustration. Major Frederick Crum, now of the 8/60, described their plight:
My first visit to the trenches left a lasting impression on me. … We went all round the trenches, noting the hundred and one points requiring attention; but the thing which haunted me steadily after my visit was that the Bosche was undoubtedly “top dog” in the matter of rifle-shooting. … At one point we crawled to an isolated trench, sniped at as we went, wherever the communication trench was exposed to view. Arrived there, we found the sniping particularly active. Bullets were ringing on an iron loophole plate our men had inserted in the parapet, and the tops of the sandbags were constantly being ripped open. The Colonel put his periscope up. It was shot at once, and he got a knock in the face. Covered with mud, he turned to his men and said: “We mustn’t let them have it all their own way.” But neither he nor I had any idea how the thing was to be stopped.
Initially the British gathered scoped rifles and, like the Germans, distributed them among the men who received neither instructions on sniping nor the care and use of scoped rifles. Major Hesketh-Prichard met one “sniper” who asserted being a dead shot at 600 yards. At Hesketh-Prichard’s suggestion, he fired at a German loophole and his bullet was seen to strike six feet to the left of it. “I questioned the sniper as to how much he knew about his weapon. It is no exaggeration to say that his knowledge was limited.” He added, “The men have no idea of concealment, and many of them are easy targets to the Hun sniper.”
While the British officers were pondering their next move, the 4th Gordon Highlanders had Sergeant John Keith Forbes training its sniping section. As a child, Forbes carried a telescope during his long hikes in the Scottish hills. He became adept in its use and was a keen observer. Forbes earned his M.A. at Aberdeen University and after becoming a teacher, enrolled into divinity school. War interrupted his studies and Forbes enlisted as a private with the 4th Gordon Highlanders. Sent to France in February 1915, his battalion served four months before being pulled back for a rest. During the rest Forbes was authorized to raise a sniper section of sixteen men. Drawing from the battalion’s best shots and most active men, he trained them in marksmanship, use of the telescope¸ observation, recognizing and describing targets. Forbes also exercised them to develop their eye for the land and in camouflaging their posts. Range estimation and stalking over open ground in snakelike fashion were honed to perfection and when the battalion returned to the front, Forbes’ men first neutralized and then dominated their German counterparts.
Being only a sergeant, Forbes’ activity was limited to his immediate battalion. At the corps level, I Corps’ Colonel Langford Lloyd began instructing snipers and he was soon joined by Hesketh-Prichard. Crum and some colleagues spent a day with 4th Gordon Highlanders’ Sergeant Forbes and Crum wrote, “from that time onward I was sniping mad.” In May 1916, Crum started his sniping school in the French town Acq. For field craft instructions, Crum drew from Sir Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts Handbook and in the course of operating the school, published a manual, Scouting and Sniping in Trench Warfare. After a month, his school was closed (19 June) and one month later General Skinner invited Crum to Arras to be on his staff as officer in charge of the brigade’s snipers and Intelligence Section.
Not merely an instructor, Hesketh-Prichard was a practiced sniper:
There were no loopholes in our parapet, and a little watching showed that there was a Bosche sniper quite close. He had a little door he opened and shut, and the plate above was a decoy, and the only way to get him was over the parapet. So I gave him a cap and a stick, and he had a go at that and missed it, I think. I may be wrong, but I think they expected me to shoot over the parapet, but this I refused to do. Instead of having a false loophole put in, I pierced our parapet low down just at his angle of fire. Some day when his little door opens he will get a bullet through it. Patience, I must preach, and again patience. I am determined that no risks shall be taken that are avoidable; it is the only way. Then I found a goodish loophole further down, and, therefore, put [a shot] through a German shield without getting any reply. This was quite a safe shot.
Patience paid off and the next day Hesketh-Prichard bagged his man:
I killed that sniper at 11.25 today—very exciting. To continue from my last letter. They put in the loophole, and when I arrived the sniper Fritz had found it, and had blown it about. He had a telescopic sight, I am sure. He very nearly killed a sergeant who was looking through; another two inches would have done it. Well, it was impossible to shoot through the loophole, so I directed them to show a periscope near our loophole, while I went to the right, past the tree, and go up, and pressing my head against a sandbag, got a stick and shoved No.2 [plate] round till, with my head covered by No. 1 [plate], I got on to Fritz’s plate. The first shot hit it, and I fired two more. Then as it was raining, and for other reasons, I went to smoke a cigarette in a dugout. While doing this the sergeant reported that the Bosches were mounting the shield with a white sandbag. This was splendid. Meantime Fritz had shot twice more at the loophole, so I went to the same place as before, and when Fritz, who thought I thought he was behind the plate, shot, I shot also. The shot went right into his loophole, and after it no more reflection could be seen, nor did he shoot again.