The Best Movie Snipers & a Few of the Worst

The Best Movie Snipers & a Few of the Worst

Fans of action and war movies would be forgiven for thinking that trained snipers carry their rifles disassembled in an attaché case, only to assemble the weapon mere seconds before making an important “kill shot.” Likewise, too many movies would have us believe that snipers would aim at the adversary’s riflescope or always attempt to make a “headshot.” But the best movie snipers and films convey much more.

Video games may reward snipers with extra points for such actions, but real-world snipers know to aim for body mass when possible—and few would actually assemble their rifle in the field as seen in the movies, as it wouldn’t be properly sighted. Yes, it is true that the U.S. Navy has prototyped such a takedown rifle that won’t need to be re-zeroed after assembly, but most snipers would still rely on a weapon that has been sighted ahead of time.

Mark Wahlberg’s Shooter (2007) and Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper (2014)—the latter directed by Clint Eastwood and based on Chris Kyle’s memoir—are considered the high marks for films about those who know how to make one shot equal one kill.

Best of the Best & the Rest

Here are a few facts about snipers and the movies that hit the bullseye and a few that completely miss the mark.

• Expert shots involving snipers, marksmen and sharpshooters are actually a relatively new concept in films largely because, in classic Hollywood, the hero was always an impressive shooter. Case in point, no one questioned that Clint Eastwood’s character, the Man With No Name (aka Blondie), could shoot a hangman’s noose around Eli Wallach’s neck in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

The Movie Sniper is Born

• The 11-minute short film Willful Ambrose (1915) features a story about a marksman who accidentally shoots a beer stein his wife had bought for him as a gift. It is now believed to be the first movie to feature what we would later call a “sniper.”

• Even before snipers were a staple of Hollywood films, studios actually hired real marksmen whose shooting talents were used as an early form of “special effects.” Essentially, these crack shots would fire close to actors at nearby set pieces and even shoot out actual windows! This practice continued until screen legend James Cagney, who had become a top star in the 1930s, put an end to it.

Marquee Marksman

Gary Cooper as Sergeant York.

• Another screen legend, Gary Cooper, likely has the distinction of being the first marquee star to be cast as a “marksman.” He played the real-life pacifist turned war hero in the 1941 docudrama Sergeant York. However, seven years earlier, Edna Best played a competitive sharpshooter who saves her daughter in the climax of the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (the film was later remade by Hitchcock 22 years later with James Stewart and Doris Day, but without the shooting competition. “Que Sera, Sera.”

• It was 30 years ago that Tom Berenger and Billy Zane first appeared in the B-movie Sniper, which managed to become a minor hit spawning eight sequels. The series, in which Berenger has appeared in all but three films, is as nonsensical as the Fast & Furious franchise, but it shows no signs of running out of ammunition anytime soon with a ninth film now in the works.

This article originally appeared in the August-September issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your print or digital copy or subscription at

The August September 2023 Ballistic and Skillset covers.

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