They lie in wait, bellies to the ground, eyes glued to telescopes, for hours, even days.They work in pairs, one as spotter, the other as shooter, although both are adept at firing precision rifles so they can spell each other off. "The ideal is 72 hours, because you can go three days without sleep," said a Canadian master sniper who asked to remain anonymous. "If you needed to, you could." He endures bug bites and crawling ants without complaint, since the smell of insect repellent could be picked up by sniffer dogs used to ferret out snipers.
Like the rest of Canada's sharpshooters, and there are only a few dozen, he uses a bolt-action rifle (a C3A1 Parker-Hale) because, after he fires a shot, he can collect the shell casing. An automatic rifle ejects the spent cartridge on to the ground.
"If you're hiding and a two-inch piece of shiny brass goes flying through the air, that would have compromised your position . . ." said the sniper, a warrant officer with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, near Ottawa.
He is also an expert in camouflage and concealment, and can pick off human prey from as far away as 900 metres, or the length of nine football fields. Although his battalion hasn't seen any action in Afghanistan, two teams of snipers with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry have been fighting al-Qaeda forces this week alongside members of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.
It's a job that takes guts, smarts, and an extraordinary amount of patience, said retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, who ran the Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, home to the Canadian army's sniper school, in the late 1980s.
He was also chief of staff of the United Nations' protection force in Yugoslavia when the UN decided the word "sniper" had a bad connotation and should only be used to describe Serb or Muslim shooters, a policy he disagreed with.
"I must admit that political correctness does not fit within a military structure. So they're snipers, they're good at it, and their job is to kill people. It's about that simple."
Snipers are part of a battalion's reconnaissance platoon. They can read a map, operate a radio and figure out how to get as close to the enemy as possible.
"The people who become snipers are normally pretty independent types," said Gen. MacKenzie, who spent three days, motionless, hiding under a net and some vegetation during a military exercise in Alberta in 1985.
"The one quality they must have, surprisingly enough, is patience. There's always a tendency to shoot too soon, to move too soon."
And snipers are secretive sorts who don't want the enemy to know they are being stalked until they've killed their target, usually the commanding officer.
"That's your No. 1 priority," explained retired army Captain Keith Cunningham, a former sniper who now trains police snipers at his MilCun Marksmanship Complex between Minden and Fenelon Falls, Ont., with his business partner, Linda Miller. They are also the reigning Canadian precision rifle team champions.
"If you can create that element of disorganization because you've taken out the commander, then it's better to do that than to take out one of the private soldiers."
The word sniper originated in colonial India, Capt. Cunningham said, when British gentlemen who were able to shoot the swift-flying snipe bird became known as snipers, or good shots.
Snipers really came into their own during the First World War, when soldiers were stuck in trenches and the sharpshooters would pick off those who were unwise enough to raise their head above the berms, said Tim Cook, a First World War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
"In the Second World War there have been instances where one or two snipers have held up the advance of 15,000 German troops," Gen. MacKenzie said.