Canada has a long and proud tradition of marksmen/sharpshooters/snipers through our brief history, starting with the imperial struggle between the British and French empires in North America.
Part 1: The Imperial War (the Seven Years’ War)
The clear superiority of European iron and firearms meant aboriginals had to use stealth and ambush attacks to gain any sort of tactical victory. Through trades and imperial warfare, aboriginals gained access to firearms. The aboriginals were the first to adapt European arms to fighting in the bush.
French-Canadians (hereafter referred to as the period “Canadians”) adapted quickly to bush warfare. Historian Henri-Raymond Casgrain described these troops as “the elite Canadians and Indians who glide from tree to tree, stump to stump from which they maintain an accurate and incessant fire.”
French troops from Europe recognized the distinct Canadian skills and tactics. The French colonial troops of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine adapted to the new environment. United, the aboriginals, Canadians and French imperial troops thwarted British officers who adapted poorly to fighting in the bush. The opposite styles came to a head when the British tried to march into the Ohio Valley and take it from the French.
Thomas Jefferson would later say during the revolutionary war that “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.” This famous statement was preceded by Major General Edward Braddock who said that he would “have breakfast at La Belle Riviere, dinner at Niagara and supper at Montreal.”
In 1755, during the Seven Years War, Braddock began his campaign into the west with his 2,100-strong force of primarily British soldiers with about a quarter native Virginians. His Virginian soldiers understood the power of marksmen in the thick North American woods and wanted to emulate the aboriginals and Canadians. In a move of typical British officer arrogance, Braddock whipped these Virginians back in formation to be fodder for lead and tomahawks.
Braddock’s highly professional European army collapsed against a significantly smaller foe. Fortunately for the troops, a 22-year old officer named George Washington (yes, that one!) managed to organize a retreat while some 500 British and American soldiers were slaughtered by a mere 300 Canadians and French with support from 600 aboriginal allies.
The engagement itself pitted 1,400 of Braddock’s troops against 300 Canadians, French and aboriginals in the deep dark woods. Like Thermopylae, these 300 used their terrain and tactics to beat a professional, highly-armed (with howitzers, cannons and mortars) regular force over four times in number to defend their heartland in the Ohio Valley. The stubborn British General who refused to adapt to the North American bush paid with his life for his arrogance. Washington would not forget the lesson when fighting the British in the revolutionary war.
As James Wolfe, who ended the Seven Years War four years later in 1759, noted:
You know how readily the infantry under the present method of training are put into disorder even on the battlefield of Europe. How much more then when they are led on to encounter a horde of savages ambush’d behind timber in an unknown trackless country! Some day we will learn the lesson; meanwhile we can only look on and marvel at the intense stupidity which tolerates this laxity in our affairs.
Wolfe knew first hand the effectiveness of marksmen in the bush and how the Canadians had adopted these irregular tactics from the aboriginals. He remarked that “Every man in Canada is a soldier.” At the seminal Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which effectively ended the Seven Years War, French-Canadian and aboriginal marksmen ambushed the British troops from the northern woods and then covered the imperial French retreated from the battlefield.
This contrast was especially stark when compared to Montcalm’s catastrophic charge against the entrenched British forces over the open field. Montcalm’s use of traditional tactics didn’t owe itself to contempt for Canadian tactics for he wrote that “The Canadians certainly surpass all the troops in the universe owing to their skill as marksmen.” He was in a desperate situation and by that point the war was already lost. The battle marked the end of the first era of marksmen in Canada, but the peace would not last long and marksmen would reappear in the next North American war.
North America’s First Civil War (American Revolutionary War 1775–1783 and the War of 1812)
Alexander Fraser: The Company Men
When we think of a Civil War, we usually think of the classic blue Union troops against the grey Confederates. When it comes to the Revolutionary War, Americans think of throwing off the yoke of the supposed oppressive taxation and lack of representation within the British Empire.
Nevermind that the taxes were to pay for the war to protect the American colonies from the French Empire, that the American colonies were booming under this hard-won peace and that the American government taxes at a far higher rate with an equal lack of representation today.
For a Canadian, this was both an imperial struggle and also a civil war between our Loyalist founders with the pro-Catholic Canadians in the north against the republicanism and Protestant supremacy of the south. And during this Civil War, the continent would once against see the rise of sharpshooters.
The marksman tradition was maintained in the interwar period by the need to hunt wild game for sustenance by Canadian and American colonists. The art of marksmanship however was reinvigorated with the Captain Alexander Fraser of the 34th Regiment who formed the Company of Select Marksmen (1776 – 1777) by taking the two best shots from each company in each regiment in Canada as ordered by Governor Guy Carleton. This light infantry unit would counteract the Americans who maintained the bushcraft lifestyle (especially the famous Morgan Riflemen, which the Company bested at Freeman’s Farm).
Brigadier-General Simon Fraser (Captain Fraser’s uncle) sent the following memo to Major-General Carleton on August 30th, 1776 regarding the Company of Select Marksman:
A man from each company of the British regiments to from a corps of marksmen consisting of 100 men. They should be chosen for their strength, activity and being expert at firing ball: each man to be furnished with an excellent firelock, the lock in good order and the hammer well steeled. The soldier should by his frequent experience find out the quantity of powder with which his firelock fires the justest at the greatest distance and his cartridges should be made by that measure. Officers of experience should be appointed to this company and I should propose Captain Fraser, Lieuts. Satt (Scott) and Wright of the Light Infantry Battalion.
Monin’s (Canadian) Volunteers to be augmented to 70 or 80 and provided with clothing, arms, accoutrements. These two corps may act on the flanks of the advanced Brigade and reinforced by what number of Indians the General may think fit to employ. They may be turned to great use when we cross the Lake, as the nature of the country can admit of their turning large corps of the enemy, surprising convoys and making them uneasy in their rear: a corps of this kind well commanded would fatique the enemy exceedingly by constant alarms.
Captain Fraser had seen action in the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763). After the war, he remained in North America on diplomatic missions as a mild-mannered, aboriginal-linguist in the interior of the continent. His experience working with aboriginal tribes lead to his promotion to “Superintendent of Indians” for British North America. He returned to Europe in 1776 just as revolution was breaking out. He was then called back to arms with the outbreak of war.
His rangers had a mishmash of American, French and German rifles along with the usual British muskets. The new rifling technology was a leap forward in accuracy, but the Brits were a bit behind so the Company used mostly muskets. They would combine the aboriginal bush techniques of surprise and ambush while incorporating the European discipline of volley fire. The Company would either support traditional regiments in larger battles or raid, lure and skirmish rebel troops with help from aboriginal allies. This close relationship with the aboriginals led many of the rangers to stay in Canada after the war to pursue a life of trapping and fur trading.
The Company faced organisational changes, victories and defeats, but throughout the conflict and General John Burgoyne’s drive south down the Hudson River Valley, the Company, along with its aboriginal allies, were instrumental in countering American skirmishers harassing the main British columns. Unfortunately, their efforts were not enough to tip the balance and the Company was dissolved with the surrender of Burgoyne after the disastrous Battles of Saratoga.
Tragically, Captain Fraser’s uncle, General Fraser, was mortally wounded during the battle, allegedly by one of Morgan’s marksmen. Captain Fraser himself was fortunate enough to be sent north to explain the strategic situation and secure Burgoyne’s documents and didn’t have to see his outstanding Company dissolved and his men taken captive at the battle that would mark the end of any realistic hope of splitting New England from the South. His men joined the 34th Light Company and continued the fight in their specialised role. They took so well to the North American country that many stayed to forge a new life in colonies.
Patrick Ferguson: The Innovator
Another Scottish markman by the name of Patrick Ferguson commanded a 100-strong marksmen company using his patented rifle that was vastly superior to the regular British army’s Brown Bess musket. He recruited the top marksmen of the British army and trained them diligently. He had the opportunity to shoot George Washington (who makes a cameo appearance above during Braddock’s defeat!) but found it unchivalrous to shoot an officer in the back.
Ferguson was shot, bayoneted and generally wounded over the course of the Revolutionary War. He battled through his injuries to lead victories in the north and then to command rangers composed of American Tories in the south. He was finally ambushed and killed in turn by a revolutionary marksman of the mountain men who hated his guts for bringing the war to their backwoods states.
War of 1812
The War of 1812 saw British Major General Robert Ross (another wily Scot, but this time a Scotch-Irish!), who burned down the White House in retaliation for the burning of York, killed by two sharpshooters at nearby Baltimore. These eastern and southern campaigns involved proper battles, but the west was skirmish and ambush country.
The US militias were ill-equipped and ill-trained compared to their British counterparts and made no gains in the first year of war. Canadian Loyalists were still proudly loyal to the crown despite losing the revolutionary war. Meanwhile, French Canadians were concerned about American republicanism and Protestantism overwhelming the semi-feudal rule of the Catholic Church and French elite.
These Loyalist and Canadian militias would prove their worth as sharpshooters accustomed to hunting in the Canadian bush. The Voltigeurs canadiens, a French-Canadian light militia unit, along with aboriginal allies, fought off larger American units with consistent accuracy at the Battles of the Chateauguay and Crysler’s Farm. Regardless of what the Americans say, Canada clearly won this war of conquest and it was thanks to sharpshooters honed in the deep dark woods of Canada with a passion for independence.
The Modern Canadian Sniper
So far we have seen marksmen using muskets and the very first rifles to snipe from the North American bush. We’re now going to see much more accurate rifles being used in far flung foreign battlefields.
The First World War
Aboriginals were key skirmishers during the colonial wars but they really became a legendary force during the First World War. Aboriginals made up the deadliest of Canada’s snipers in the First World War thanks in part to their traditional lifestyle of sustenance hunting. On top of their skills, the aboriginals enlisted in high numbers. A third of eligible aboriginals enlisted (Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report, 1918-1919, p. 13.) during the First World War despite being exempt from the draft and many not speaking English or French. Canadians essentially swept the “Greatest Snipers of any Force” category in the First World War. The aboriginal contribution in men and treasure is an unappreciated part of our war commemorations.
Canadians in general were better suited than their urban British counterparts. A hunting tradition among the common folk was important to the Commonwealth forces because the British didn’t have specialised snipers like the Germans. Naturally, instead of attempting to match the Hun’s new tactics, the British officer core dismissed German snipers as rude and unsporting.
Eventually, the apparent became obvious and the Brits decided they needed snipers ASAP. In England, the hunting lands had forever been the privilege of the aristocracy. Robin Hood wasn’t stealing money from the rich but rather asserting his natural right to hunt. North America had a different system whereby anyone could hunt the land and so the average farmer, fisherman, trapper or lumberjack was well prepared not only for shooting but also for stalking and remaining unseen.
Sniping required a huge amount of patience and strategic camouflage, scouting enemy troop movements and positions, going behind enemy lines and trenches, waiting in craters with artillery raining down and climbing to elevated positions to snipe down below. Snipers would work with a spotter on many missions to find enemy snipers or prime targets. They could then report back what they saw to HQ for planned assaults by regular infantry.
Canada’s most infamous sniper of the First World War was Francis Pegahmagabow of the Ojibway, the most decorated aboriginal soldier in our history. The fact that his name is not known throughout the land should be cause for deep shame and action to highlight his part in Canada’s history, freedom and honour. He managed to join the army, despite the exclusion and hostility of the government towards aboriginal soldiers, and become one of the most decorated Canadian soldiers of the First World War. He is credited with 378 kills as a sniper, a number sadly hard to back up since the army gave so little credence to aboriginals.
His battle record reads like a history of the Canadian fight on the Western front. He earned the Military Medal (at Ypres) with two bars, the first at Passcheandale and the second at Amiens. He also fought at the Somme and Mount Sorel.
The indifference and contempt for his record was worst back in Canada and impacted his pension and well-earned reputation. As with many heroes, he was wounded on several occasions, being shot in the leg, and far worst were the German chemical attacks that permanently scarred his lungs and forced him to sleep sitting up for the rest of his life to prevent fluid build-up in his lungs. Only in 2006 were his great sniping accomplishments recognized with a monument and building.
Johnson Paudash was another Ogibway who also fought as a sniper at key battles like Ypres and the Somme. His lineage stretched back through all the great conflicts previously mentioned back to the Seven Years War. He was an exceptional scout, sniper and was by all accounts a quiet, humble Canadian.
Louis Riel’s nephew, Private Louis Philippe Riel, killed 30 Germans as a sniper in less than a year before a cannon shell killed him. His specialisation was taking out German snipers who were killing Canadian soldiers along the battle line. He killed two enemy snipers in the same tree at 700 yards within five minutes.
John Shiwak was an Inuit who honed his skills “swatching” (shooting) seals as they briefly surfaced above the protection of the ice. He was quickly promoted to Lance Corporal. Unfortunately, he was killed by artillery fire along with six other soldier. A sergeant who witnessed his death described the scene. Shiwak “swayed, then sank slowly. But even as he lay they saw his hand point ahead. And then he lay still. And they passed him on the bridge, lying straight and peaceful, gone to a better hunting ground than he had ever known.”
Pte. Howard Morry of Ferryland said of Shiwak that he was “shy and lonely, but I got to be quite friendly with him by talking of seal and duck hunting, etc. We’d talk for hours and often he’d say ‘will it ever be over?’ He was a great shot and had a lot of notches on his rifle stock. He said sniping was like watching for seals.”
Major-General George Brock Chisholm of Oakville with a family history of military service during the War of 1812 joined as a teenage soldier at the outbreak of war. He became a decorated sniper being rewarded the Military Cross and the Bar. He was injured, returned to Canada and developed an intense fascination and dedication to medicine. He studied medicine and became a psychiatrist, taking on the top of the medical hierarchy as Director General of the Medical Services in the Canadian Army. Post-war, he became the Director-General of the newly created World Health Organization. His unorthodox Marxist/world government view certainly raised a lot of eye brows around the country and the world.
Grey Owl, an Englishman who adopted an aboriginal identity upon moving to Canada and became a famous conservationist, served in the Canadian army as a sniper and was wounded twice, forcing his exit from the war. He tragically died of alcoholism, which developed after his service. A sensitive soul who cared deeply about the Canadian wild died too young.
Henry Louis Norwest was a great example of a Canadian Métis Cree sniper in the First World War who risked his life many times in the No Man’s Land between the trenches to rack up 115 kills. Back home in Alberta, he was a Royal Northwest Mounted Police officer and farmhand who also sidelined as a rodeo performer. He earned the Military Medal for “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire” at the iconic Canadian Battle of Vimy Ridge and then a bar at Amiens for destroying enemy machineguns. He was unfortunately killed by an enemy sniper while on an anti-sniper mission at the tail end of the war.
Norwest and the others used the much maligned Ross Rifle because despite its terrible reputation for jamming in trench warfare, the rifle was more accurate at a further distance than the Lee Enfield. The Brits thought sniping detracted from a soldier’s rate of fire, so they delayed in setting up sniper training and put no real thought into the tools of the trade by putting the Lee Enfield scope on the side of the rifle.
The Second World War
Harold A. Marshall was Canada’s Second World War sharpshooter in the Calgary Highlanders’ Scout and Sniper Platoon. Sergeant Marshall is best know for his iconic photo with his No. 4 Mk 1 (T) Lee-Enfield with scope. He is dressed in paratrooper camo with a mesh camouflage for his head. One great tale of the snipers was when two camo-covered snipers confronted eleven heavily armed German infantry who surrendered thinking they had marched behind enemy lines.
Corporal Joseph Arthur Gregory was a Blackfoot from Saskatchewan who lied about his age to join the First World War as a sniper. He was wounded twice in the field but still joined at the outbreak of the Second World War to fight at Dieppe (where he lost an eye) and defend the beachhead HQ as well as act as a counter-sniper by perilously entering sniper-infested territory four times. Another great aboriginal sniper hero.
The world record sniper shot of 2,500 yards by US Marine sniper Carlos “White Feather” Hathcock (93 confirmed kills) in the Vietnam War stood for 35 years until Master Corporal Arron Perry of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry bested that distance with a 2,526 yard kill in early 2002. Days later, a fellow sniper team member, Corporal Rob Furlong, did slightly better with a 2,657 yard kill after three shots on a target carrying a machinegun.
These were the turkey shoot haydays of the invasion of Taliban-run Afghanistan. Shots at this distance take several seconds to hit the target. Canada managed to hold the top spot for seven years until a Brit and current world record holder, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison, took out two machine gunners and the machine gun at a distance 1,000 yards beyond the recommended rifle range. Truly spectacular. If we have to lose to anyone, this was a noble defeat.
The Canadian sniper team was commanded by Master Corporal Graham Ragsdale who showed exceptional leadership and bravery in carrying out these dangerous missions. His efforts lead to the aforementioned long-distance records and also the killing of over 20 priority targets. You can find his sniper rifle at the Canadian War Museum.
I’ve always been amazed by the skill and discipline of snipers. I find it interesting how snipers have gone from the supposed cowards of the battlefield, which I’ve always a dubious label considering they had to ambush and go behind enemy lines, to our cherished heroes. Canadian snipers have truly left a mark on history and punched way above their weight in the world’s conflicts. Here’s to another era of Canadian sharpshooting prowess.